Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Bundle of Holding: Pendragon Review

I read the introduction, and was enthused.  My take-away from the front matter was "Oh, this is going to be like Legend of the Five Rings, but with names I can pronounce, no weird animu wizards, and dynastic character replacement!  And nobody's going to expect me to fall on my sword if (when) I fuck up.  Awesome!"

As I work my way through the rest of the book, my enthusiasm is waning a little (at this point I'm about halfway through).  There are definitely some things going on that I'm not the biggest fan of.  First off, the organization is pretty bad.  Like, Stargrunt bad, at least.  They don't actually explain the core action-resolution mechanic until 90 pages into the 240-page book.  The entire skills section comes before it, and references various degrees of success repeatedly, as well as providing modifiers.  Reading the skills, I was almost entirely lost.  Just how bad is a -6 penalty?  Your guess is as good as mine. There have definitely been other counter-intuitive forward-references, like using Evasion to disengage in chapter five, while Evasion is only defined near the end of chapter six.  I wasn't sure if Evasion was a skill whose description I skipped, or something else entirely.  I'm sure I'll find more things like this as I go along.

The editing is also pretty bad, which I find amusing for such a literary-styled game.  I think my favorite errors so far have been in the title descriptions:
"A king must support himself and his family, and must
provide for the wellbeing of his vassals and maintain the
health and prosperity of his kingdom. The king himself
must live as a Superlative knight.
A king has no lord, and thus owes duty to no one, or
else owes fealty to Arthur Pendragon.
Player Responsibilities: As the player of a baron, but the
king’s player must take on the role of Gamemaster for a hunt,
a feast, and a session of court when asked, and must hold a
Regional or Regal Tournament at least once annually.
Come again?  There's a lot wrong with that sentence, if you can call it that.  There are other, more minor issues too.  "Born" vs "borne" bugged me.  I haven't been tracking these diligently.  It's not as bad as a late-era Mongoose Traveller splatbook, but it is annoying.

Moving on to gameplay concerns.  The personality trait and passion system is an interesting idea.  I think it could work very well for the right group of players, but man, I could see having a PC be forced to act in a particular way based on bad luck going over poorly, especially when the bar for "having to check a Passion frequently" is at 16.  Most player knights start with like four passions at 15 (Hospitality, Loyalty to Lord, Family, and Honor).  If any of those hit 16, you're in danger of having to make frequent rolls against it.  Frequent passion rolls are liable to drive you mad (although you can get some sweet lunatic-strength out of 'em first through inspiration, hopefully).  Hazardous!

The authors do not understand conditional probability, as evidenced by the sidebar on page 121.  Rolling exactly equal to your skill is always a critical success, while rolling under your skill is just a normal success.  As a result, a guy with skill 1 always scores critical successes when he succeeds.  Which is...  weird.  As they note, a critical success only happens 5% of the time, and it happens at that rate for anyone (well, anyone with a skill under 20).  But what they fail to perceive is that the conditional probability of critical success given success is all screwed up; a guy with skill 3 is five times as likely to score a crit, given that he scored a success, than a guy with skill 15.  It's just statitistically sort of unreasonable, you know?

Fumbles operate much the same way.  sigh.  What more can be said of fumbles, in any system?

Glory allocation looks pretty arbitrary.  It's a very fuzzy-wuzzy "when the GM feels like it" sort of business, which is troubling since it scales on orders of magnitude (ie, an Ordinary glory award is 10 glory, while a Heroic one is 100 and an Extraordinary one is 1000) and also basically operates as XP (in that your progression in abilities is derived from it).

Things seem very focused on recreating and playing through the Arthurian myths, rather than on borrowing the milieu and assumptions of Arthurian legend without actually going and statting up Merlin (Merlin and Uther's stats on pages 11-12 were when I started to get sad).  Basically always a faux pas, to stat up mythological figures that probably aren't for killing.

I just realized that they reused art between chapters one and six.  I don't think I mind this that much, though - it's a nice piece.

With all that out of the way - on to the good!

First off - everyone is fighters.  Guess which class my players like to play?  Yeah.  Fighters.  And the whole psychological modelling thing makes more sense in this light - everybody's going to be fairly similar in terms of skills and talents, so you do need an extra dimension to mix characters up.

Chargen is point-buy, but family generation is more Traveller-style.  Kinda neat.  Also ready source of replacement characters.

And you may well need replacement characters.  Combat looks pretty straightforward and also reasonably deadly.  Once you actually manage to read all the relevant rules, spread out over several sections, it turns out almost everything is d20, roll under your skill.  Modifiers aren't little +1s and +2s, they're big fat +5s and -10s and such, which is nice!  Circumstance modifiers dominate luck.  Natural healing is slow, it's possible to die of infection, and you can also further injure yourself if you're badly wounded and insist on continuing to fight.  Or ride a horse, or dance, or "romance", for that matter (yes, romance is a thing, because that family has to come from somewhere.  Turns out you also get a bunch of glory points for getting married, too).

I love that Pagan knights are an option.  I can have "Generous, Energetic, Honest, Lustful, and Proud" as my religious virtues?  Sign me up!  None of this Chastity and Modesty and Forgiveness crap...  These are virtues I can work with!  "Tell me, Sir Conan (actually a Breton-ish name - Conan II de Rennes was a duke of Brittany, and a rival of William the Conqueror), what is best in life?"  "To crush your enemies without delay or trickery, to provide well for their widows and make love to their daughters, and to have your victories immortalized in ballad and song!"  Devout pagan knights also get a +2 bonus to healing rate, which is excellent (Devout British Christian knights get +2 damage and +3 HP, Roman Catholic knights get +6 HP.  But a typical starter knight has 27 HP and does 4d6 damage, and only has a healing rate of 3 HP/week!  So +2 healing per week is pretty serious - when detioriation due to unsanitary conditions is a d6 of damage per week, 3 healing is a death sentence while 5 is a probable recovery).

Related: what I have seen so far suggests that religion is a moderately-serious topic, but it's handled more through actions than words.  You get the "religious knight" bonuses not for having a high Piety trait (which is a thing), but for having high scores in your religion's favored virtues (necessarily acquired through behaving in accordance with those virtues throughout play), of which Piety is not one!  It's about living the creed while getting out there and stabbing some Saxons and Picts in the face - religion for the vital warrior-nobility.  And certainly not flame strikes and cure light wounds...

This game is extremely well-structured for episodic play (in keeping with its sources!).  Knights spend most of their time patrolling their lord's lands and administering uninteresting justice.  You only have free time to go on about one real group adventure a year, plus maybe one solo adventure, and then you handle XP, aging, domain income, courtly intrigue, wooing unmarried noblewomen, wooing married noblewomen, and such over the winter.  The scope is sufficient that you could conceivably play the whole reign of Arthur and three generations of PC knights in a year or so of weekly sessions, if I have things figured right.  And if somebody misses a session, it's not a huge deal - you just make it up as a solo adventure at some point, or let them have an uneventful year managing their fief.  They can still earn glory from their incomes and sire children to further the line, and yeah they might age a little, but they also didn't run the risk of dying or being driven insane.  They didn't miss out on the magic sword or the wish-gold (probably), and everyone else is aging out too so it's not like in D&D where if you fall behind a level you're screwed (skill progression being much more organic - a point here, a point there).  I think this would work itself out, up to a point (especially since as knights die, you're stuck playing the unlanded nephews and illegitimate sons until your heir proper comes of age.  Young characters lack skill, old characters suffer aging.  A perpetually "mixed-level" party seems likely after the initial group of young starter knights ablates a bit).

Finally, I could not help but think that this would make a very reasonable system for a Game of Thrones-ier game, with characters who are actually a little bit crazy.  Also, fighters.  I do not think most of my players would go straight for Maester in such a situation.  No, it's all about the fighters.  (Also, a courtier-style knight with high Deceitfulness, Appearance, and Courtesy would be highly entertaining).

Aaaaaah god damn you bundle of holding an Eclipse Phase bundle?  I haven't even gotten through the core rulebook of the last bundle!  And it's going to EFF?  Welp, guess I better support a cause I care about while also getting a thing I already wanted for less than I wanted to pay for it...

This, ladies and gentlemen, is post-scarcity economics in action.

1 comment:

Timothy Vaughan said...

Sounds interesting, kind of reminds me of that Crusader Kings game.