It’s not fair. I mean, what game has a chance against Nocturnal Media’s King Arthur Pendragon RPG?
Am I giving away the ending? Oops. Please carry on.
I’m going to approach this review as if you know nothing about previous versions. That said, King Arthur Pendragon 5.2 is a mainly cosmetic update from KAP 5.1. I own both in PDF and 5.1 print-on-demand hardbound, and they contain mostly the same content. A few errata have been merged in, but otherwise, the two versions can be used interchangeably. Primarily, the changes relate to layout and art.
But, oh wow. The new art is impressive.
1.) Size and Production Quality
The Pendragon book isn’t the most massive RPG book I own, but it’s nowhere near the smallest either. Most of my previous reviews have been of minimalist RPGs who’s rules could be distilled into a few pages if you wanted them to be incredibly dense. KAP runs 272 pages if you include the newly redesigned character sheets in the back.
The layout is improved from 5.1 as well. I can’t speak for the book quality since I’m still waiting on a hardbound copy from one of Nocturnal Media’s Kickstarters I backed last year. I’ll update this post when I have my copy.
At any rate, for $19.99 you can get the PDF on DriveThruRPG. It’s a decent price for a book this size. Once Nocturnal’s offset print run is available, you’ll be able to pick up hardcover copies as well.
The art in Pendragon 5.2 is masterful. It was pulled from the Spanish version of the game, where they also have additional updated products. I was lucky enough to flip through the pages of the Spanish versions of King Arthur Pendragon and The Great Pendragon Campaign on a recent trip to Spain, plus a fantastic GM screen that I bought tucked in my carry-on for the trip back to the US (pictured below), and they are all glorious. Full-color art and plenty of it, and that cover. Drool. I can’t wait to have it on my shelf.
P.S. That store in Barcelona had fiction and non-fiction books, RPGs, board games, Magic, and plenty of fun toys. They had a clean and pleasant atmosphere, friendly staff, and space to play (3 RPG sessions going on while I was in the store). The kicker? They had the absolute largest RPG section of any store I’ve ever visited in any country. Someone want to build one of those right down the street from my house? I promise to be a faithful patron– please?
3.) Content and Rules
Nothing new here if you are already familiar with perhaps the most excellent RPG ever created. I’ll summarize for those who may be unfamiliar.
KAP is, surprise, about ancient England and being a knight (male or female) and chivalry and romanticism and magic and a brilliant system for role-playing.
So aside from the fact you get to play a knight with the opportunity to make history, build a family and a legacy (all part of the rules), and potentially even join Arthur at the Round Table, there is also a deep and strange connection to Merlin and the magic of faeries.
However, for me, the system is the other standout element. It’s no wonder there are multiple games in production built from the KAP ruleset, including Paladin: The Warriors of Charlemagne and a forthcoming game set in feudal Japan. One of the things I love the most about the system is the Traits. I’ve never seen a game take a similar approach. Each trait is a matched pair like Prudent/Reckless or Valorous/Cowardly.
The total score of the pairs must always add up to 20 (e.g., if my knight has a 6 in Merciful, she has to have a 14 in Cruel). When a player decides to have their character act against their traits, the GM may ask them to roll. For example, if I want my knight Phillipa to spare the life of a peasant who caused her to be unhorsed and publically humiliated, I would have to roll under her Merciful score on a d20. If I fail, I will roll to see if I score under my Cruel score, if I do, I must behave cruelly. If I do not, I can choose for myself.
There are several reasons I like this approach as a player and a GM. First, it’s effortless to get into character when you know you’ll be rolling and facing the consequences of failure to follow your character’s natural path anyway.
There are also passions, skills, and attributes. All of them contribute to the effectiveness and demeanor of your character. Any of these stats may be raised over time, and as you gain glory (Pendragon’s experience… sort-of), you’ll have more opportunities to do so.
4.) Game Master Section
Considerable effort has gone into providing everything needed for a GM to run a game of chivalry, virtue, and bravery. The flavor of the game should be entirely apparent for players if you are following the guidance given here.
5.) Pre-made Adventure
Ever want to fight a bear and become a knight and make “the leap”? I ran this adventure as a one-off RPG session for the first time a week ago for a group who’s go-to game is D&D. They loved it, with the exception that a couple folks rolled a few too many 20s. I’ve played this adventure as well, and I’d say its very well balanced and encourages the use of many of the Pendragon’s mechanics naturally and organically. It’s a good three hours at least if you run with the pregenerated knights from the back of the book.
Total Score: 44/50
I own almost the entire Pendragon library. Some books, more than one copy. It’s very high on my list of RPGs. The score feels good to me.
This is the first non-TinyD6 game I’ve reviewed. It held up well! Look for future Pendragon book reviews, and perhaps something Trek and/or Hobbit-inspired soon as well.