Ten years ago I played Pendragon (4th Edition 1993) with my friends Josh (GM), Adrian, Dan, Chris, and a few guests. The campaign lasted over twenty sessions, and sadly while I remember many stories I don’t recall many specific moments of play. So I asked the discord for some topics to narrow focus, and people suggested Personality Traits and Passions.
This is a long post; I’ve tried to organize it by header so you can skip past stuff. At the very bottom are attachments for my guy, Sir Carabad, at age 42 and 24 (for comparison); a sorcerous lady character Madule; and an example of the family tree.
A RECAP FOR THOSE WHO DON’T KNOW
A Pendragon character sheet lists many familiar RPG items: how good you are with a sword, how perceptive you might be, how much money you have.
But it also numerically rates several paired personality traits on a spectrum from 1-20: so, honest 11/dishonest 9, religious 6/worldly 14, just 16/arbitrary 4. At 15 or below, a rating is basically a roleplaying suggestion, but at 16+ a personality trait becomes very hard to resist: a player whose knight has Honest 16 would have to roll 17 or more in order to tell a lie. Exceptional behavior in accordance with either end of a trait-pair allow you adjust that balance by 1 point, so after many sessions the knight’s personality traits tend to accurately reflect your style of play. Sir Carabad, for example, suffered many misfortunes and I was happy to wallow in them when speaking to my betters, so my Modesty goes up 4 points in 18 years.
Pendragon also features Passions. You might have, for example, the passion Hate (Saxons) 14. If the circumstances warrant, you can invoke a passion, roll a d20, and if you roll 14 or below, your knight becomes phenomenally effective… but if you roll 15 or higher, your knight sinks into melancholy—or may even go temporarily mad, vanishing from play for a while. Most of the time, invoking a passion is simply one option among many, but as with personality traits, a score of 16+ means you must invoke the passion, and run the risk, if prompted. Over the long haul, a knight could well end up with a passion of 20 in one or two areas which are safe bets, and maybe five or six other, mediocre passions you’d be a fool to gamble upon.
Exceptionally high personality traits and passions, though dangerous, earn you a fair amount of glory each year.
In our play group, personality traits and passions came up a lot.
INVOLUNTARY PERSONALITY TESTS: A CHILD’S NEEDLESS DEATH
Sir Pellandres, played by Adrian, was known for his exceptional pride, easily 16 or higher from early on and higher ever since. Year after year, he would never miss an opportunity to strut through court or to indulgently sigh at his lessers. Pellandres never made it to the Round Table, but he was fairly successful in most worldly matters—he never had money trouble, and was the first to sire an heir.
During what was supposed to be a down-time session, Pellandres went boar hunting with his 12 year old son (an NPC). When the boy kept screwing up due to inexperience, Pellandres felt more and more vexed until he gave the kid a furious dressing-down (succumbed to Pride). Ashamed and seeking to please his father, the boy didn’t shout for help when he encountered the giant boar alone… and was trampled to death.
We all just sat there for a minute.
For fifteen sessions of play, Pellandres had been a fairly lovable mixture of sky-high ambition, questionable competence, raw vulnerability, and hasty rationalizations. If not exactly a buffoon, he was definitely buffoon-adjacent. And then, in the blink of an eye, he had committed child abuse and indirectly killed his own son.
I’ll stress that none of this was Josh playing “gotcha,” it felt totally organic. First, grievous injury is commonplace in Pendragon, and maybe to be expected when boar-hunting. Second, though Pellandres’s behavior was jaw-droppingly dark, it wasn’t too far out of character. We absolutely believed that the worst day of Pellandres’s life would unfold exactly this way.
PERSONALITY TESTS: CARABAD OVERSLEEPS HIS OWN KNIGHTING
The Great Pendragon Campaign and some of the published adventures use personality tests frequently. Josh didn’t seem to do this often, but I do remember one of the earliest scenes of the campaign:
Our characters were young men who had just been knighted, and according to custom had to sit vigil that night in the chapel, hoping for a vision from God. Staying up all night involved testing the Energetic trait—and most of us blew it. Poor Sir Carabad snored his way through his vigil and missed some nonsensical message from St. Michael.
This is a fairly typical use of that mechanic, though fairly low-stakes: some of the established scenarios make a bigger deal out of such rolls. We must have had several of those, but we did a pretty good job of manufacturing hijinks out of failure (or success) so they don’t stick in my mind.
Playing Sir Carabad, I often rolled the dice to see which way his personality inclined in any moment, to the point that a drop-in player once teased me about doing this too much. I kinda liked it as a change of pace—it felt like getting a sense of how a new car drives—but the others didn’t do it much.
FAILED PASSIONS: THE MELANCHOLY MATCHMAKER
Early on, young Sir Carabad was eager to impress his boss, Lord Robert. Naturally the best way to do this was to help his lord court a lady for marriage. One thing led to another, and Carabad found himself fighting three bandits, which is poor odds for a young knight.
I decided to invoke Carabad’s loyalty passion—thinking of what a great guy Lord Robert was would spur Carabad to heroic feats on his behalf. Instead I blew the roll, and in the middle of the fight Carabad was plagued with memories of all of the times Lord Robert mocked him, or spoke about him behind his back, or simply ignored him.
Too dejected to fight, Carabad was helplessly battered with clubs and staves, and finally dragged his sorry ass home.
FAILED PASSIONS: MADNESS IN ROME
Much later, Carabad got involved in Arthur’s war against Rome, and was part of the diplomatic meeting where his comrade-in-arms the famous Sir Gawain beheaded the Roman emperor under a flag of truce.
This offended several of Carabad’s exceptional personality traits, so he ended up disputing with Gawain—and refused to let it go. This wasn’t a small thing: Gawain is superhuman in this game (and in legend), and I knew that Carabad was almost certainly going to die if it came down to a fight. But: Carabad had a longstanding grudge against Gawain’s family, Gawain’s behavior was a complete repudiation of Carabad’s values, etc. So… come then, caitiff knight, and draw steel so that Christ may choose a victor.
Fully expecting Carabad to die, I decided to roll his passion for hospitality. If I fought impassioned, I had decent but not great odds of defending myself for a few rounds until cooler heads could intercede.
…And I fumbled. Meaning, in the middle of the duel Carabad went mad.
I don’t remember whose idea it was, but it ended up that Gawain utterly demolished Carabad, and was about to kill him. But the approach of death on the steps of the Vatican threw Carabad into a religious fit, and Gawain felt it would be ill luck to kill a man experiencing a vision of God. In hindsight, that’s probably the only way I could have survived!
Carabad spent the next year polishing silverware for the pope, and I played Carabad’s sorcerous wife, the long-suffering Lady Madule of the Raven Locks, for a session or two.
PASSION VS. PASSION: CARABAD’S DILEMMA
Carabad’s courtship of Lady Madule was huge ongoing subplot of the campaign. None of the other characters had anything like it. Lady Madule went from an extra, to a recurring NPC, to a romantic foil, to an alternate-PC. The pursuit included trials of courtly love, eventual marriage, and several marital setbacks: witchcraft accusations, embezzlement of estate funds to aid her friend Morgan LeFay, and worst of all—many years of barrenness.
Pendragon purportedly follows 2-3 generations of knights. My strategy of wooing Madule was fun in the moment, but by taking the long way ‘round to siring an heir, I was risking the end of my family line.
Every year one rolls a d20 to see if pregnancy occurs. After five years, finally we’re pregnant—except I fumble the roll so that both Madule and the child die in childbirth.
Luckily from the very start of the campaign Carabad had inherited one (1) healing potion, which I’d been saving through twenty sessions “just in case.” But there was only one dose… and Carabad super-high passions for Love (Lady Madule) and Love (family line).
Dice were rolled, with my character choosing to save the life of his child. Lady Madule, this sly sarcastic eye-rolling bitch we’d come to love, resent, and commiserate with in equal measure for something like 12 sessions, was gone.
And the child was a girl.
Really powerful, sobering moment in play, and an outcome utterly alien to me personally.
SUCCESSFUL PASSION – THE DEATH OF SIR CARABAD
The campaign ended before Carabad could raise the daughter into becoming an unconventional squire.
A year or two later, Carabad and Pellandres, both broken men, were at a tournament. At this point in the Arthurian saga, King Arthur’s son Mordred learns that he is the product of incest. In game-mechanical terms, at least as I remember it, Mordred fights at the tournament as if he had a critical success on his passion roll for Hate (Arthur).
During the melee portion of the tournament, Mordred goes berserk and nearly kills Pellandres. Carabad rushes over to save his friend, and Mordred literally cleaves Carabad in half with his sword—Mordred’s passion lets him get a critical success very easily, inflicting something like maximum damage.
While Carabad’s death felt like losing a friend, getting spectacularly murdered during the origin story for Camelot’s arch-villain is a pretty epic way to die.
Looking over these notes, things aren’t exactly how I remember them, but that’s probably to be expected.
Overall it was the best long-form role-playing experience I ever had, and am probably ever likely to have. Right after that, Adrian and Chris moved away, and my personal life went to hell. We had an extremely good time for a long while, though, and that’s maybe the most anyone can ask.
4 responses to “The Tragic Passions of Sir Carabad”
James, this is a joy to read.
James, this is a joy to read. This is so Pendragon, through and through. My experience with the game has been more than 20 years ago, and I never played through an extended campaign. But I still go back occasionally to my old supplements just to read bits and pieces due to how beautiful and evocative this game is. I still dream that one day I may play through at least a couple of PC generations, or maybe through the entire Great Pendragon Campaign.
Thanks for sharing this.
You’re welcome, Pedro–thank
You're welcome, Pedro–thank you for helping me focus in.
The secret sauce for Pendragon, I think, is the TONE of the game, which switches in an instant between farce, to high adventure, to tragedy, and all the way around again. It's an effect which is sometimes absurd, sometimes terrifying, but always moving to witness. There's a few things I could say about that, but I'll reserve it for a different comment or maybe a separate thread.
Adventure – Downtime
Enjoyed the write-up. Could you talk a bit your experience with the cycle of play from "adventure" or quest and what have you to the downtime and back again. And a bit about the processes that go on with aging and such. How did your group react to those? Did you make any system changes, ignore some aspects and really go after others? Pendragon is not your typical fantasy rpg in that regard and I'd love to hear how that worked for you folks.
Sean, that’s a great question
Sean, that's a great question about the inter-session process. To my recollection we did that whole process 100% by-the-book.
(For anyone who doesn’t know, Pendragon has an official, formulaic in-between-adventures process called Winter Phase. Winter Phase is partially character sheet housekeeping, such as noting which skills have improved and calculating your yearly Glory, but also literal housekeeping: what happens to your health, your family, your manor, and your finances, all of which are resolved with some dice rolls.)
The yearly dice rolls for Carabad’s family can be seen on the family tree attachment. These types of events—“Oh no, my cousin was accused of necromancy!”—could easily spur new adventuring situations if the player feels like it, but our table didn’t do that very often. The notable exception was when Dan’s sister went missing: Dan wanted to get her back, so we had an adventure where we matched wits against Sir Bruce sans Pitie (and his hell-horse).
Though our Winter Phase rolls seldom provided us with adventuring ideas (mainly by player preference), those rolls had an immeasurable effect at the table. At the opening of every new adventure, the recent Winter Phase oriented each knight toward the central problem of Pendragon: professional career management among the upper middle class. So when Carabad invoked his Passions or made decisions in play, it was against the backdrop of imminent poverty, or childlessness, or somehow doing pretty good for himself several years in a row.
I wouldn’t say that the game is “about” Winter Phase, but it contextualizes all the fantasy & violence into an identifiable and instantly recognizable set of human concerns. Pendragon would still be a good game without Winter Phase, but it would lose so much of its emotional impact.