Once There Was a Camelot: Reflections on The Great Pendragon Campaign

The Great Pendragon Campaign

Author: Greg Stafford
Publisher: Chaosium
Page Count: 434
Available Formats: PDF & Print
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Print (DTRPG) – $37.50
Print+PDF (DTRPG) – $44.50

‘Comfort thyself,’ said the king, ‘and do as well as thou mayest, for in me is no trust for to trust in; for I will into the vale of Avilion to heal me of my grievous wound: and if thou hear never more of me, pray for my soul.’

I’m not even the biggest fan of the legend of King Arthur. So imagine my surprise as I reflect on our group completing The Great Pendragon Campaign. This isn’t a review of that enormous tome (though if there is interest, one is certainly possible), but more a reflection on our experiences with that campaign. But a brief introduction is certainly in order. The Great Pendragon Campaign is a companion to Chaosium’s King Arthur Pendragon RPG. It is a campaign spanning from 485 to 565 AD, with an optional supplement moving the start date back to 480. It covers the reign of King Uther, the anarchy after his death, and the rise and fall of his son, King Arthur. It covers this period yearly, covering what is happening in that year, the gossip at court, the sorts of adventures characters might get involved in, etc. The campaign is broken into several eras, most of which also have scenarios that can be dropped in at any year in that period. The eras are:

  1. The Uther Period: The reign of King Uther Pendragon
  2. The Anarchy Period: Uther dies without an heir, Saxons dominate the landscape.
  3. The Boy King Period: King Arthur emerges.
  4. The Conquest Period: Wars for Arthur to consolidate his claim as Pendragon.
  5. The Romance Period: A time of courtly love and adventure.
  6. The Tournament Period: With Pax Arthur, major wars are a thing of the past. Tournaments have become a big thing. Though cracks of disunity are beginning to appear.
  7. The Grail Quest: A brief period searching for the Holy Grail.
  8. The Twilight Period: Arthur’s kingdom begins breaking into factions, the magic that dominated the land has receded, and Mordred brings about Camelot’s doom.

It’s been a very, very long time since I’ve had a campaign span several years. What are some of the concrete lessons I take away from this experience? There are a few “bullet points” that I’ll elaborate on in the body of this article.

  1. There is a reason the legend of King Arthur has spoken to the English, Welsh, and French-speaking world for centuries.
  2. Don’t focus on the entire campaign at once. For us, it was a matter of committing to the first period, that of King Uther.
  3. Your Camelot Will Vary.

Perhaps the most obvious thing I learned was there’s a reason the legend of King Arthur persists. It is a tale of loss, hope, magic, love, hate, loyalty, and betrayal. It is in facing defeat and finding one’s own definition of victory. And as author Greg Stafford noted in the main rulebook, it is a very adaptable concept, viewable through different lenses. The 20th and 21st centuries have seen takes ranging from feminist to science fiction to pagan to historical, allowing the legend to adapt to changing societies and speak to different audiences with different voices.

The idea of a campaign spanning at least 80 sessions is overwhelming. We initially played biweekly, and I had to stop myself from thinking, “even if we never miss a session, this is over three years of gaming.”

As GM, I promised myself we’d complete the Uther period—the introductory period of the campaign. This was an important decision for me personally. I found the early part of the game a bit tedious, and were it not for that promise to myself, I’d probably have pulled the plug early. But as the campaign progressed, it began taking on a life of its own. The characters started gaining dimensions. They became vital parts of Uther’s reign and began driving the narrative. By the time Uther died, there was no question—we were continuing.

We made this our campaign. Greg Stafford wrote that one of the things that make the legend of King Arthur endure is its adaptability. Pendragon presents a “default” Arthurian setting; we chose to embrace that adaptability. We had LGBTQ+ knights. We had women as knights. A purist would roll their eyes at our campaign. But it was our campaign, and it worked great for us. Even beyond such big decisions, we also found ourselves emphasizing things that might be less important in other games. For example, by our Romance and Tournament periods, interactions with the Faerie realm became—well, not exactly common—but an important part of the campaign. One player, receiving prophecies of Camelot’s doom, saw to it as the portals to the faerie closed, one last portal remained open so she could move her peasants away (ironically, this doom prepper was the last surviving knight of Camelot, surviving the final battle and returning Excalibur to the Lady in the Lake).

I did find myself needing to adapt a lot. I’d go over what was going on for a given year and find the characters going off in a direction I’d not expected, and I’d be winging the night’s game on the spur of the moment. Some of those were kinda duds, and some made for memorable evenings.

There was certainly an opportunity for a variety of adventures. We had the occasional somewhat goofy episode, like where the knights battled a deadly killer rabbit. We also had epic moments, like towards the end of the Anarchy Period, where the knights had a final battle with their Saxon enemy.

I’m eager to see what the next incarnation of Pendragon is like—and if it will have its equivalent Great Pendragon Campaign. Overall, it’s probably the greatest long-term campaign experience I’ve had. It’s a flexible framework with a lot of source material. Lots of sample adventures for any given year and lots of older Pendragon products waiting to be mined.

I’m glad we went through this experience, and I’m super grateful to the players who showed up week after week, making the campaign so enjoyable. I’m sad it’s over, but I’m glad that once there was a Camelot for us to experience.

Don’t let it be forgot
That once there was a spot
For one brief shining moment that was known
As Camelot.

~ Daniel Stack

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One Comment Add yours

  1. Sam (Bifford) says:

    Great write-up! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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