Anarchy in the (Not) UK – The Great Pendragon Campaign’s Anarchy Period

It’s been a while since I touched upon Pendragon, so I’ll give a little background about it and the campaign  If you’re a Pendragon veteran, feel free to skip the next paragraph.

In Pendragon, you play knights in King Arthur’s Britain. Actually, you begin as playing knights in the Britain of Uther, Arthur’s father. The Great Pendragon Campaign, a massive supplement for the game, provides a campaign covering decades of game time and will typically take a group at least a year to play through, often significantly more. You will lose at least one character, probably more. Most likely to violence, but otherwise due to age. One of your knight’s significant goals is to marry and have an heir who will eventually become your next character. Our game diverged a bit from the literary canon, with women and LGBTQ+ knights. As the core rules state, one of the things that have made King Arthur’s legend so enduring is its adaptability. The Arthurs of Bradley and Malory are quite different yet stem from the same tree.

The first phase of The Great Pendragon Campaign ends with Uther, High King, dying without a known heir. His recognized bastard died in battle, and his infant son was concealed by Merlin – aided by the player knights as it turns out. Not only is Uther dead, but so are many of the British lords, including the player’s liege lord, Earl Roderick. This left Salisbury to be ruled by his wife Ellen, acting a regent until Earl Roderick’s son, Robert, came of age.

At its worst, I found the Uther phase could be a bit of a blood-soaked grind. But, at its best, an opportunity for characters to feel they’re making a major impact on future events – helping Merlin retrieve Excalibur, helping secret Arthur away, etc.

The Anarchy Period had its own set of challenges and advantages. The player knights are much more in control of their destinies. Sometimes this was a huge advantage. But it also made prepping a bit of a bear. Will they fight in Cornwall? Will they engage the faerie? I found a willingness to go off-script essential. But it did sometimes mean I’d need the occasional GM pause to figure out things on the fly.

Story-wise, it is a dark time for Britain. With no clear ruler, the Saxons are running amok throughout Britain. The knights must often decide whether to pay tribute or risk war – and handling competing demands of tribute. After year upon year of enduring ascendent Saxons, I can see how popular a King Arthur might prove to be, as he reclaims his father’s kingdom – and more. There will be a lot of scores to settle.

In our game, the player knights were among the first to back Countess Ellen, placing them as her most trusted advisors. By the end of the period, the first generation of knights was no more, all of the original knights either dying or retiring – but their heirs quickly found themselves in Ellen’s councils due to their parents’ loyalty.

For the most part, the knights kept Salisbury safe from the worst of the Saxon degradations. They would often manage to pit one Saxon lord against another. But there were times they had to pay tribute and times their foes were victorious in battle. One memorable moment was the knights pursuing a scorched Earth policy as London fell to the Saxons. They put the city to the torch, letting the Saxons dine on ashes (or quoting one of the knights, “roast marshmallows,” which led to a brief internet search to determine, yes, marshmallows were a thing back then).

Beyond the frequent battles against – and occasionally allied with – Saxons, the realm became more magical. One knight’s son was kidnapped by the fey and replaced by a changeling, requiring a quest into the Faerie lands to get him back. The knights had a multi-year campaign where they expanded their holdings and helped found Oxford University. The knights also developed a healthy fear of towers, with two knights meeting their ends during quests in two unrelated towers.

Beyond Saxon foes, the knights found they had made an enemy of Ygraine, Uther’s widow. They had to deal with opponents either sent by or enabled by her actions in at least two adventures.

If I were to do it again, one thing I’d do differently would be to keep better track of the relations with various Saxon lords – there was a little sheet in the campaign book, and I thought to myself, “I don’t need that.” After several years of shifting alliances, I began to track those relations much better.

One thing which I think worked rather well for us was providing the players with a list of likely adventures to go on in different years. I took advantage of lots of scenarios written for earlier editions of the game to make sure I had many possible adventures. I think such use of scenarios will be easier to do in later periods, as most of the pre-5th edition Pendragon materials assumed games started in the time of Arthur, not Uther.

It was bittersweet seeing the end of the first generation of knights. But it was very satisfying to see their heirs taking up their weapons. In the session following one of the original knights’ death, the sole remaining original knight knighted her daughter. If you’re interested in how our Anarchy and Uther periods went, I’ve been posting recaps on github. As I completed this post, one thought occurred: I could easily see running another game in the Anarchy period, which would feel very different from the one we just played.

~ Daniel Stack

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