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Not the Great Pendragon Campaign: OK, this is the one that will get me stoned as a heretic…


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The Anarchy.  It’s one of the most iconic things about King Arthur Pendragon, the game.  It’s the time when the training wheels go off the knights, and they have real agency for the first time — and in a way that they’re not going to have again after this phase is over.  Everyone loves it.

And it is almost entirely Mr. Stafford’s invention.  Here’s the Anarchy in Malory:

”Then stood the realm in great jeopardy long while, for every lord that was mighty of men made him strong, and many weened to have been king.”

That’s it.  The Anarchy corresponds to one sentence in Malory.  Now, Malory does, if you add up the numbers of years, assume that this period lasted about as long as it does in the GPC.  But it’s also evident that Malory has very little interest in that period.    It has no narrative weight whatsoever.

The Anarchy as a thing that has real presence in the narrative, in which events happen, that one experiences — I think it’s fair to say that’s Mr. Stafford’s own contribution to the story, one that’s been there since 1e.   It’s as if he took a cut between scenes and stuck an entire film in there. 

What’s more, even Malory’s gesture in the direction of what became the Anarchy in the GPC appears to be Malory’s invention.   The period corresponding to the Anarchy in the Vulgate lasts about a month and a half.

This doesn’t mean that the GPC Anarchy is put to together out of whole cloth, of course.  But it’s telling that the most important source is an entirely non-Arthurian one, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle — whose version of early English history is one that Geoffrey of Monmouth appears to have been consciously rejecting.(1)  

What’s more, there’s also a lot here that’s essentially original.  The biggest thing is probably the Infamous Feast, the event that kicks everything off and does so much to shape the form that the Anarchy takes and the default Salisbury PKs’ role in it.    Almost entirely Mr. Stafford’s original contribution, riffing on the basic idea of the Saxons poisoning Uther that’s in Geoffrey and elsewhere (but with very different details).

I might add some vague thoughts to that in another post exploring the possibility of variant Anarchies.  But this post is for raising the possibility of making the big change — what if one were to go back to the overwhelmingly dominant view in the medieval source material, which is that there is no significant gap in time between Uther’s death and Arthur’s accession?

OK, to recap: the idea in these Not the Great Pendragon Campaign posts is to explore possible alternatives for groups that have already played through the GPC, by drawing on things in the source material that the GPC rejects.  Also to excavate a little what might be the consequences and, to an extent, significance of the choices that the GPC makes in adopting this element from this source, and ignoring that element from that source.  I.e., none of this is meant to suggest that the Anarchy is not justly regarded as one of the GPC’s triumphs.

But, exploring the alternatives for people who already know the GPC and are expecting the Anarchy…  There are basically two ways this can go.

1) The first is the Vulgate version, in which Arthur is raised by Ector (well, Antor).   You have a continued reign of Uther while Arthur is growing up.  Then Uther dies, and Arthur is revealed.   

This option strikes me as by far the less interesting of the two.  It’s easy to see how one would do it: move the key events (first defeat of Octa and Eosa; war with Gorlois) to as early as possible in the reign of Uther, so that one would have material from early in the GPC’s Uther period to draw on to help cover the long stretch of years while Arthur is growing up in secret.  You would probably want to play up the Italian idea of the “Old” Round Table under Uther, or at least draw on some of that to flesh things out, building on the Book of Uther (although good luck accessing that if you don’t read Italian well, aren’t fabulously wealthy, or have a good library nearby).

This option doesn’t do very much.  One can see why Malory improved things here by moving the part where the narrative glosses over several years to the period after Uther dies.  It maybe does one thing, though — the civil war *after* Arthur accedes would feel very different, as being the first period of chaos in the campaign.

2) So I think the more radical option, as usual, would be more interesting.  In Geoffrey, and across most of the tradition, Arthur grows up at Uther’s court as one would expect.  The PKs get to meet him, interact him, see him develop into the person he’s going to be.  Maybe even influence him.  

Particularly good if you have a “player squires” period.  One thing that’s a bit tricky about the GPC Anarchy is that it’s not impossible that the most logical player characters will be squires who are the children of dead first-generation player knights, but it’s not a time in which playing squires is suited to exploit the available possibilities.  You need the players to be playing local movers-and-shakers to get the full value of it.    (That, indeed, is the most obvious reason to have the mass wipe-out of the Infamous Feast, to make the PKs the decision-makers in Salisbury.)

But with a certain amount of unlikely but narratively appropriate serendipity, young squires can run into a curious and headstrong young heir to the throne and get into trouble, at least once.  And once they have Arthur’s favor, well, that’s the excuse to keep them interacting.

You’d probably want to give Arthur his younger sister Anna.  There’s a specific point of contact here with an earlier Not the GPC post, the one on Gawain, because this version lends itself to having the young Lot be friends with Arthur and, in due course, marry Anna — that being Gawain’s origin in Geoffrey and in a lot of other places.  This version makes Gawain straightforwardly Arthur’s heir.  That lends itself obviously to the “positive Gawain” alternative, and indeed the switch to making Gawain Arthur’s maternal half-sister’s child is part of downgrading him.  But one could have some fun with a Gawain who was the villainous dishonorable Gawain *and* Arthur’s indisputable heir…

More generally, though, what an Arthur growing up at Uther’s court, with a younger sister who represents a possible alternative line of descent, offers, is a lot of intrigue while the heir is a child.  The PKs can foil assassination and kidnapping attempts, get involved in the maneuverings when Arthur falls ill and everyone suddenly focuses on Anna, and so on.

You can also throw in some Tavola Vecchia stuff here.  Maybe really play up Arthur’s rejection of the tough violent ways of the star knights of his father’s era.

 

(1) See Rebecca Thomas, “Geoffrey of Monmouth and the English Past,” in Henley & Smith (eds.), A Companion to Geoffrey of Monmouth, Brill: Leiden & Boston, 2020.  (This book is open-access, and has lots of interesting contributions.  Well worth a look.)

Edited by Voord 99
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I've wondered whether the notion of a long gap between Uther's death and Arthur becoming King comes from Malory's statement that Uther fell ill "within two years" of Arthur's birth, with the assumption that his last battle and death followed quickly afterwards (though Malory does not say how much time intervened between the start of Uther's illness and his final battle).  If Uther's succumbing to his illness did indeed take place not long after its onset, that would mean thirteen years (if we follow Geoffrey's making Arthur fifteen at the time of his crowning) of anarchy (only slightly shorter than the Anarchy Period in the Great Pendragon Campaign).

Shortening the gap does make the survival of Britain easier to explain; if the kingdom had been indeed without a High King for fifteen years, it would have most likely fragmented beyond repair (unless they'd found a different way of installing a new High King, like sending abroad to Brittany again to ask for another spare member of its royal family - the way that Uther's father Constantine became High King, according to Geoffrey).

The obvious challenge to leaving out the secret upbringing is that it means having to drop the Sword in the Stone (one of the most familiar moments of the Arthurian legend), and probably also making it harder to explain the Incest if Arthur grows up knowing that Morgause is his half-sister.  (Arthur's fostering with Sir Ector does seem a plot device to arrange both of these elements.)

Edited by merlyn
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10 hours ago, merlyn said:

I've wondered whether the notion of a long gap between Uther's death and Arthur becoming King comes from Malory's statement that Uther fell ill "within two years" of Arthur's birth, with the assumption that his last battle and death followed quickly afterwards (though Malory does not say how much time intervened between the start of Uther's illness and his final battle).  If Uther's succumbing to his illness did indeed take place not long after its onset, that would mean thirteen years (if we follow Geoffrey's making Arthur fifteen at the time of his crowning) of anarchy (only slightly shorter than the Anarchy Period in the Great Pendragon Campaign).

That’s an interesting thought, that one could extend Uther’s illness.  I tend to think that most readers would assume that the sequence of events is fairly short: Uther is ill, his enemies do a single great battle upon his men, Merlin tells him to get moving.  The reader would probably assume that the enemies are responding to Uther’s illness, and especially that Merlin is responding to the battle.  But these causal links are certainly not explicitly stated. 

I don’t know that Malory is really worried about thinking of the decade-plus time when Arthur is growing up as “real” — I’m not sure that narrative time in Malory is really all that closely moored to a precise intradiegetic chronology.  This is a place where it’s interesting how much difference reading this in a text without Caxton’s chapter breaks makes, at least for me.  The break and chapter heading right before this sentence inserts a marked pause, and without it, this seems to follow much more immediately from the preceding account of Uther’s death, including his statement that Arthur is to be king.  Note the repeated “And thenne…Thenne…Thenne…” (if one follows the punctuation in the Norton Critical Edition) with this sentence as the middle of the three, not, as Caxton makes it seem, the introduction to something new.

10 hours ago, merlyn said:

Shortening the gap does make the survival of Britain easier to explain; if the kingdom had been indeed without a High King for fifteen years, it would have most likely fragmented beyond repair (unless they'd found a different way of installing a new High King, like sending abroad to Brittany again to ask for another spare member of its royal family - the way that Uther's father Constantine became High King, according to Geoffrey).

It doesn’t actually have to be Brittany even in Geoffrey. (Nitpick: I don’t think we should impose what appears to be the essentially modern concept of a “High King of Britain” on Geoffrey — speaking as someone from Ireland, I resent very strongly this act of cultural appropriation. 🙂.)  

In Pendragon, I think you can make a case that the king of Vannetais should be raised as a possibility, as Aldroenus’ heir and, at least in the BoS, the last known living descendant of Macsen Wledig (a change from Geoffrey). 

In my game, which is much less “historical” Arthur than canon KAP and is a world in which one has to deal with the question, “OK, who is Uther’s legitimate heir if we follow the normal law of succession?” I’m going with the story of the evil king Rivoldus and St. Melor.  Melor should be the rightful king (if Arthur weren’t there), but Rivoldus has cut off his hand and foot, and the Britons refuse to accept Rivoldus, because, well, he’s the sort of person who cuts off his nephew’s hand and foot.  (The BoS implies that King Meliau is a tyrant, which is a bit unfair to a figure whose only defining trait is that he’s really saintly and nice :))

10 hours ago, merlyn said:

The obvious challenge to leaving out the secret upbringing is that it means having to drop the Sword in the Stone (one of the most familiar moments of the Arthurian legend), and probably also making it harder to explain the Incest if Arthur grows up knowing that Morgause is his half-sister.  (Arthur's fostering with Sir Ector does seem a plot device to arrange both of these elements.)

Oh, no question.  The idea here is that the players have already played through a campaign with the standard elements.  In some ways, I think it would be most fun precisely to gun for those things, like the incest and Lancelot’s adultery, that are most pervasive in modern versions — especially in “historical” Arthur fiction that purports to depict a possible post-Roman Arthur, despite us knowing for an absolute fact that they are later additions.  Put together a Pendragon history that’s reflects genuine medieval conceptions of Arthur, just not the ones that are current as modern myth.  Let’s have a Mordred who’s Arthur’s nephew.  There would probably be no Morgause, since she exists essentially to replace Anna.

The incest  is arguably difficult in Pendragon as it is, or rather the May Babies, an incident that doesn’t really suit the way that Pendragon’s Arthur is the Arthur that, as you have pointed out, is essentially modern and not even Malory: the central character of the story who is the ideal king.  Players can have difficulty with it, too.  I remember in 1e when I first played KAP that one of my players (actually, he is now again one of my players, with both of us being much older) was reading ahead in Malory and got to that bit, and, rather worried, said that he couldn’t see how his (religious-knight) character would be able to be loyal to a King Herod.

If you want the incest, though, the way to keep it would be magic, I think.

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1 hour ago, Voord 99 said:

 

The incest  is arguably difficult in Pendragon as it is, or rather the May Babies, an incident that doesn’t really suit the way that Pendragon’s Arthur is the Arthur that, as you have pointed out, is essentially modern and not even Malory: the central character of the story who is the ideal king.  Players can have difficulty with it, too.  I remember in 1e when I first played KAP that one of my players (actually, he is now again one of my players, with both of us being much older) was reading ahead in Malory and got to that bit, and, rather worried, said that he couldn’t see how his (religious-knight) character would be able to be loyal to a King Herod.

 

Malory puts in a quick piece about Merlin getting the blame for it, and never mentions the incident again; in the story of Sir Balin that follows, neither Balin nor any of the other knights display any qualms at siding with Arthur against his enemies after the May Day Deree.  Neither does King Leodegrance display similar unease at marrying his daughter off to someone who's committed a Herodian massacre.  (I've read that in the "Suite de Merlin", Malory's source, the shipwreck where all the babies except Mordred drown is a ship that's bringing the babies *to* Arthur's court.  We'll never know whether Malory deliberately changed his source material or just summed it up in a potentially confusing way.)

Perhaps part of the issue comes from this being an adaptation of a recurring legendary motif where a king tries to get rid of the child who's destined to overthrow him but fails, with the approach in most of these stories that his sin was not attempted infanticide but trying to defy Fate.  (Note that whatever force of destiny ensures Mordred's survival doesn't bother saving the lives of all the other babies.)

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2 hours ago, Voord 99 said:

Let’s have a Mordred who’s Arthur’s nephew.  There would probably be no Morgause, since she exists essentially to replace Anna.

Might Cornwell's Winter King series be a good inspiration if we went in this general direction, especially as they have a more historical flavor?

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  • 4 weeks later...
On 9/12/2021 at 4:14 PM, Voord 99 said:

The Anarchy.  It’s one of the most iconic things about King Arthur Pendragon, the game.  It’s the time when the training wheels go off the knights, and they have real agency for the first time — and in a way that they’re not going to have again after this phase is over.  Everyone loves it.

And it is almost entirely Mr. Stafford’s invention.

The Anarchy is probably the best choice of the GPC. It's the best way to show Arthur as a savior when he finally comes. The land needs a king.

Your alternatives are good, if you want to surprise your players who already know the GPC. For a rerun for example.

On 9/13/2021 at 1:13 PM, Voord 99 said:

I don’t think we should impose what appears to be the essentially modern concept of a “High King of Britain” on Geoffrey — speaking as someone from Ireland, I resent very strongly this act of cultural appropriation

From my french eyes, Ireland is not a part of Britain. Where is exactly the cultural appropriation, from your irish perspective? Honest question. I just want to understand.

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22 minutes ago, Tizun Thane said:

From my french eyes, Ireland is not a part of Britain. Where is exactly the cultural appropriation, from your irish perspective? Honest question. I just want to understand.

Presumably, because Ireland had a High King for many centuries before Britain did.

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Simon Phipp - Caldmore Chameleon - Wallowing in my elitism since 1982. Many Systems, One Family. Just a fanboy. 

www.soltakss.com/index.html

Jonstown Compendium author. Find my contributions here

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Posted (edited)

Well, important point number 1: I don’t actually feel strongly about it at all.   That was a joke.   It would be as if you cared deeply if someone called the son of some king somewhere “the Dauphin” — I don’t imagine that would bother you at all, it having been some time since there was a Dauphin running around the place in France.

But the historical point goes further than soltakks says, in fact.  “Britain” never, ever, at any point had a “High King.”  (Scotland, yes.  See below.)  

“High King” isn’t a generic term.  It’s a specifically Irish term, a literal translation of Ard Rí, for a specifically Irish type of kingship that was exported to Scotland (for the obvious reason).   It’s confined to Ireland and Scotland.  The idea that Arthur was “High King of the Britons” is, as I am fairly certain at this point, a Victorian invention.  It should absolutely 100% not be imposed on Geoffrey of Monmouth as a historical understanding of Geoffrey of Monmouth — he never calls Arthur that, nor is he using Irish and Scottish political concepts to inform his version of a imagined British past.

Of course, lots of things that are essentially Victorian end up in KAP.  Camelot, for instance, is not in medieval sources fetishized as the Greatest Place Ever as it is in the game.  So there’s no particular problem with it if one likes it.

That being said, a KAP game that substituted “Emperor” (what the Welsh sources often call Arthur) for “High King” would be fun.
 

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I understood it was a joke, but I did not get it. Your explanation is very clear. Thank you.

1 hour ago, Voord 99 said:

t should absolutely 100% not be imposed on Geoffrey of Monmouth as a historical understanding of Geoffrey of Monmouth — he never calls Arthur that

It is true, but Arthur was a king who had kings as vassals. So, I understand how the concept of "high king" was applied to Arthur.

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As it happens, that’s not in itself what defines a High King.  Irish kings came in different levels, and there were overkings who had the allegiance of lesser kings but were not themselves High King.  In fact, there were overkings who themselves had overkings who were still not High King.  (Early on, any noble ruler was a king, there being no other term, although by the time just before the English conquest, many of the very minor kings at the bottom had been reduced to something very like mere vassals of the “real” kings and were as result were no longer called “kings.”)  

What defines the High King is that he is king of all Ireland (or Scotland), or claims to be, anyway, with no possibility of there being a king over him.  So one can imagine a High King of Britain, certainly, and if it helps keep “King of Logres” and “King of Britain” tidy, why not?

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On 9/13/2021 at 2:45 PM, merlyn said:

I've read that in the "Suite de Merlin", Malory's source, the shipwreck where all the babies except Mordred drown is a ship that's bringing the babies *to* Arthur's court.  We'll never know whether Malory deliberately changed his source material or just summed it up in a potentially confusing way.)

I never played the May babies slaughter in my campaign, for the reasons you mentionned. Arthur looks like some tyrant. But I never had the chance to read the "Suite Merlin". If it is some some kind of shipwreck... very interesting indeed.

 

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27 minutes ago, Tizun Thane said:

I never played the May babies slaughter in my campaign, for the reasons you mentionned. Arthur looks like some tyrant. But I never had the chance to read the "Suite Merlin". If it is some some kind of shipwreck... very interesting indeed.

In our campaign, Arthur had pretty much concluded a truce if not peace with Margawse (whose visit was pushed to 512), and it seemed that perhaps in 513, he could turn his attention to the Saxons. Alas, Merlin pulled a Herod, snatching up the babies, and naturally Lot blamed Arthur, which then resulted in the war heating up again and the Battle of Terrabil. In our campaign, Arthur knew nothing of it until after the fact. But if you want Arthur more involved, it would be very easy to portray the babies as potential hostages for the peace, and the shipwreck being a real accident (as far as anyone would know, at least), although Arthur would naturally bear the blame for it in the Northern lords' eyes.

 

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The May Babies is kind of weird in that, according to my sources, it's something of a political cartoon. The short explanation is that Emperor Frederick II regained Christian control over Jerusalem while excommunicated, then had himself crowned King of Jerusalem while still excommunicated, and thus technically profaned the holiest city, so the Cistercian monks who wrote the Vulgate created the scenario of the May Babies to critisize this - the paramount monarch (Arthur/Frederick) committing a profane act (infanticide/crusading while excommunicate) at what should be the height of his achievements (Being crowned King of Logres/Jerusalem).

 

It is, of course, something that loses a lot of meaning in the modern world.

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