Pendragon: The Great Campaign 4

From December of ’06 to May of ’10 (was it really that long?), a certain famous game designer ran a Pendragon campaign. There were one or two spans of hiatus in the campaign’s run, but on the whole it ran more consistently than most games. I wish I had a count of how many sessions we played; I strongly suspect that I played more sessions of this campaign than any other single campaign.

The campaign started with seven players, which diminished immediately to six when two of them broke up. Over the next three and a half years, we changed almost the entire player roster, such that the last session had only two of the original players. The character roster changed even more often, though that’s part and parcel to Pendragon; our second characters were the descendants or adopted heirs of our first characters.

I’ll be commenting extensively on Pendragon’s rules here. I want to preface that, though, by saying that the campaign was hugely enjoyable and I wish it had not been cut short, as it was. (Even so, the GM managed an unbelievably cool final session.)

Pendragon’s combat mechanics are very strange to me, a long-time D&D player. It’s a d20 roll-under system, where you want to get as close as possible to your actual score in that skill. If your skill score is less than 20, a roll of a 20 is a critical failure; once you have a skill of 20, you can no longer critically fail, and unless there are penalties or it is a combat roll, you can no longer fail. You’re now only curious to see whether it is a critical success or a regular success.

Skills can range far above 20, creating ranges of critical success. If you have a 21 in Sword, for example, you now crit on 19-20, where previously you only scored a critical success if you rolled the number of your skill. This is fine for scores that are just barely over 20, but it becomes ridiculous when your base score is 25, you have a +5 from being mounted, and a +25 from a critical success in inflaming a Passion. You’re now rolling against a 55. Once you would score a critical success on a 1 or higher, the system has absolutely no idea what to do with itself, and (here I don’t know if this is rules-as-written or rules-as-interpreted) you start counting upward again for a “double-crit.” This double-crit has no additional effect except to allow your double-crit attack to defeat a crit defense, or the other way around.

If that made sense to you, then you’ve either played the game, or you don’t understand what’s going on.

Combat rolls have an additional oddity. Where other games give each party in a fight a separate chance to attack, Pendragon resolves your exchange of blows with your opponent simultaneously. If you hit, your opponent necessarily does not, because he lost the roll. In an unusually literal way, the best defense is a good offense, unless you’re berserking, in which case everything I just said goes out the window.

Until things went asymptotic and the GM changed the rules, a critical success in combat allowed you to roll twice as many damage dice, though your flat adds do not double (flat adds are rare). Since armor is a fixed value, you’re either nicking your opponent (or doing nothing at all, on a poor damage roll) or utterly devastating him. This is fine and reasonably entertaining (in a “track damage on the leaderboards” kind of way) when it’s the PCs killing the NPCs. It’s a little worse when it’s the NPCs annihilating the PCs, or (much worse) one PC accidentally murdering another PC in what was theoretically a friendly joust.

(When mentioning “accidentally killing someone in a joust,” someone always wants to bring up the argument of simulationism – “that sounds realistic.” I would accept this, except that you have less control over those kinds of “accidents” as you become more skilled. We had one friendly joust in which one player’s rolls instantly killed every opponent her character faced. Admittedly, that player was fine with this; the rest of us felt a little more squeamish about the deeds of good Sir Abattoir.)

Somewhere around the campaign’s midpoint, when we switched to the second generation of characters, the GM changed the rules on how critical hit damage would work. We had been seeing the Saxon in the party utterly dominate combat, such that anything that challenged him would wipe the floor with the rest of us. The GM, I want to say, made this change only after extensive deliberation and discussion with the players. He changed things so that your extra damage dice from critically hitting were extra rolls, but you couldn’t keep more dice than your base damage or six dice, whichever was lower. This worked pretty well for a long time, until the progress of the campaign improved our armor to such a degree that 36 points of damage was not a meaningful threat. While a few such hits would be a problem, we had 12 or more points of armor, 6 points of shield defense, and 3 points of chivalry defense; with a Constitution of 16 or better as several of us had, there was no longer any possibility of Major Wounds.

To boil this down a bit: character health, damage output, and mitigation increase over the course of the campaign, but they increase unevenly. At all stages of the game (under core rules), a big guy with a two-handed axe can expect to thrive and outperform the sword-and-shield knights who are in theory the central figures of the genre. Our efforts to improve this situation showed that Pendragon does not like meddling game designers, and Odd Things will result.

In my next post on Pendragon, I expect to talk about character niches; Pendragon’s range of character concepts is much narrower than most games, and that has some interesting effects on how the players interact.

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4 thoughts on “Pendragon: The Great Campaign

  • Kainenchen

    Do not meddle in the affairs of clunky game systems, for you are squishy and decent armor is expensive.

    But seriously, I was sad to miss out on this game. The stories from it are terrific. Even if the mechanics are terrifying.

  • Shieldhaven

    I am deeply grateful to the GM and the other players for this campaign. Not only did it give birth to some great war stories, it is also instructive in a lot of different areas, as I will continue to expound upon in future posts.

  • samhaine

    The double-crit rule started out as a joke, IIRC, and then we stuck with it because it /was/ sometimes useful towards the end with the ludicrously high scores. I don't think it's in any way canon, though.

    The only other system I've seen that behaves similarly is Fading Suns (notably designed by people that were aware of and probably fans of Pendragon). The interesting differences in FS:

    * You still want to roll as high as possible without going over, but that's because your result (usually divided by 3) becomes successes ("victory points"). Crits work the same as in Pendragon save that they double your success points (e.g., rolling a 15 on skill 15 check gives you 10 VP instead of 5).
    * You don't roll directly against another character, but may compare successes like in any other game.
    * If your score goes over 20 (which is harder than in Pendragon), each +1 past 20 becomes a bonus success (a 19 still auto fails and a 20 still crit fails, so getting a score to 19 or 20 is useless). So if you have a 25, a roll of 17 would be 11 VPs (6 + 5) and a roll of 18 would crit and be 17 (12 + 5).

    In most cases it's a superior refinement of Pendragon's system, though I'm still not a fan of your successes being essentially random on any given roll (to a max of your highest possible result) due to the swinginess of the d20. Over time it averages out, but on individual rolls it feels like you have little role in your character's fate.

    Pendragon, like FS, would, I think, be improved by making it harder to get scores in the teens but rolling 2d20 keep best.

  • Shieldhaven

    A lot of those things do sound like improvements to the oddities of Pendragon's system.

    I'll also note that while I do not understand RuneQuest well, I am given to believe that its conflict resolution mechanic is fundamentally similar to Pendragon's, but with a more codified concept of what happens when your score is greater than the die range. They have levels of mastery that you compare to your opponent's levels of relevant mastery, and which negate each other. A tier-1 mastery negates a tier-1 mastery to put you back on even footing, while… something else… happens if you have two degrees of mastery and they have only one.