• Pendragon: On Comments, Character Gen, and Defying Expectations

    by  • March 31, 2014 • Essays • 4 Comments

    (This is the second article in a series of posts about my experiences playing King Arthur Pendragon. The first is here.)

    The feedback that I got from my first article in this series was one-hundred percent positive, and I was happy to see it. Many people responded with words of praise and support, and I am truly grateful for that. However, there were a few themes in the comments I received that interested me and are worthy of mention here.

    Several people made comments about their experience playing female knights in Pendragon. Interestingly enough, these players were all men. (A few men mentioned that they played in games with female players, who played both male and female knights, but I didn’t see any comments by women in my circles.) The men talked about their experiences in the game, which typically involved a scenario where a female knight (sometimes in disguise) performs in her role with such distinction that she wins acceptance for female knights all over England.

    This is, of course, the standard role for a good female knight. She is female before she is anything else, and she must do her utmost to adhere to the knightly code, as she has an inkling that any failings will be blamed upon her gender. (In fictional, she is as tough and smart as the men — but no tougher, and is typically not the main character.) In the Pendragon games, ultimately, the Lady Knight succeeds. Sexism is over in some small way, and everyone gets to feel good. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with this story, of course — it’s just not one that I find particularly exciting, because it is more or less the only story that ends up getting told about women warriors. I imagine that men must find it more interesting, as they have many other narratives to choose from and thus don’t find it as stale as I do.

    Another interesting phenomenon regarding comments on my first article occurred on Google Plus. A male friend of mine linked my article, and then reflected upon how he hadn’t really noticed some of the sexist language in the game until I pointed it out. He immediately got several comments praising him on his insight and sensitivity for noticing the erasure of women in men’s spaces.

    The irony was not lost on me.1

    At any rate, let’s move on to character gen!

    Unfortunately, the night of the character gen session that I had promised to write to you all about, I managed to get a blistering migraine. (A propensity to migraines is an unfortunate malady for someone like me, whose work and hobbies generally involve staring at glowing screens for several hours straight.) Missing that session was a bit disappointing for me. Character gen is a great time to build group cohesion and establish character relationships. I caught up with the GM over the weekend, and created my character in a one-on-one session.

    I decided to name my knight Olwen. The GM asked how Olwen came to be a knight, so I came up with a fairly bare-bones backstory: Sir Olwen was the eldest daughter of a knight who had no male heirs. Out of a sense of egotism, he didn’t want his family’s land to be taken over by whoever married his daughters, and so made a deal with his lord that his daughter would become a knight and thus assume all the rights and privileges thereof. So, little Olwen, at the age of 12 or so, was whisked off to become a squire, and then eventually a knight.

    With that question settled, I filled out the rest of the numbers on the character sheet. I will not bore you the details, save to say that Olwen is very good at Singing and also murdering people with a spear. I struggled the most with assigning her Virtues and Vices. It was there that I found myself worrying about stereotypes. I wanted to make her Merciful, because I get the feeling that as an outsider, she has a soft spot for people who are also on the outside, but I was also worried about Olwen being accused of being a soft-hearted woman. But maybe I should let her be Merciful even despite the fact that it’s a stereotypically female trait just so I can thumb my nose at the haters by being unapologetically, stereotypically feminine!

    So I went for making Olwen Merciful, and then, upon later reflection, realized that I made my decision on what Olwen’s personality would be like by primarily (and lazily) referencing her gender, rather than thinking about her as a human being. Goddamnit.

    We puzzled out the rest of character gen, and then I asked my GM about some of the hard questions about being a lady knight. (Though the book says that you can play a lady knight, it doesn’t give any guidelines for doing so, which is difficult considering the starkly gendered mechanics of the game.) First on my mind was childbirth, which I’d mentioned in my first post on this subject. My GM suggested that we simply ignore any mechanics that involved dying in childbirth. I was extremely relieved to hear that, and felt quite a bit better about the game after that. His overall approach seems to be that I should take the lead in deciding how a female knight should work in his game world, and it’s something that I’m very grateful for. I want to be able to decide for myself what it means to be a lady knight, and my GM is fully supportive of this. Now I just have to do the hard work of imagining Olwen — without relying on stereotypes and tired tropes.

    I’ll let you know how the first session goes…

    1. To his credit, the irony was not lost on him, either, and he told his commenters that he was not the person that they should be praising.
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    4 Responses to Pendragon: On Comments, Character Gen, and Defying Expectations

    1. avatar
      Dymphna
      March 31, 2014 at 16:36

      Pendragon doesn’t lend itself to complicated backstories. Most of your character’s backstory is provided for you, starting with your grandfather. (I probably don’t have to tell you that your grandmother doesn’t get any mention whatsoever.) This makes it even easier to fall into the old habits and stereotypes when making a female knight; you’ve already necessarily had to put a lot of thought into the “female” part in order to make the character work in the context of both the mechanics of the game and the game’s story. It’s very easier to think of your character as female before anything else.

    2. avatar
      CrucibleofWords
      March 31, 2014 at 23:51

      Did you discuss the social context of this version of the Pendragon world, or is it the out-of-the-book setting with exceptions written in for your character?

      It just feels that despite the GM being thoroughly ok with female knights, but it still feels like your character is being written as the big exception to the rule (please correct me if I’m wrong), and one of her big character traits and attitudes is written as a response to typical societal fears about women. Particularly if the GM isn’t doing any spadework to create other female knights and their place in society, so to speak. Am I getting the wrong end of the stick, or are we still getting a dose of female exceptionalism here?

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      • avatar
        Dymphna
        April 7, 2014 at 02:31

        It’s a bit of both, Cru. The book as written says that there _can_ be female knights, and makes a few vague suggestions about them, but ultimately does very little to suggest any way to accommodate some of the more gendered game mechanics.

        There are no female knights in this game — that is the decree of the book, and the GM wants to run the game mostly by the book — but Olwen isn’t getting singled out for being female. The GM’s choice to let me do the heavy lifting in regard to imagining how Olwen should be viewed by her contemporaries is a bit daunting and occasionally onerous (as it means that I constantly have to think about how her gender impacts things at a metagame level even if she is not facing any in-game misogyny), but I do prefer it when women (like me!) are allowed to decide how women’s narratives should go.

        Does that answer your question?

    3. avatar
      James_Nostack
      April 1, 2014 at 17:57

      I think that’s really awesome.

      If you haven’t played Pendragon before, some pointers on what to expect. Your designer’s eye may have noticed this already, but it’s worth pointing out all the same:

      * All young knights are going to stink at a lot of stuff, outside of maybe 1-2 specialties. This will lead to farcical situations. Just gotta roll with it.

      * If you’re like me, and want to be awesome instead of a farcical goofus, you’ll be tempted to super-charge your skills by invoking your Passions, which is like the spinach to a knight’s Popeye. Be super careful about this! There are all kinds of horrible things that can go wrong if you’re unlucky. (My character would routinely get a critical fail on this roll and go mad for years at a time.) What you really want is to bulk up a Passion stat to like 18-20, and then suddenly you’re superhuman. (Mechanically, best way to do that is to fall in love with someone who’s rich, which is hilariously appropriate to these types of stories, but may not work from a knightly woman’s perspective.)

      * Pendragon’s combat & damage system is weird. Generally, knights have superior armor and are usually mounted which gives them an advantage. So you’re nearly always fine – until someone whomps you with a critical hit and suddenly you’re half-dead. Against serious opposition, consider using the “fighting defensively” tactic at least occasionally. And have a semi-detailed back-up character or squire ready in case your main knight suffers a grievous injury.

      * Certain knights can qualify for a Chivalry or Religion bonus depending on personality traits. These (a) give you some nifty mechanical benefits, and (b) earn you considerable glory over the long term which later translates to better stats. If it fits your character concept, drive Olwen in that direction–you won’t regret it. There’s a trade-off between improving your skills versus improving your personality traits / passions, which may prolong that farcical learning period, but I found playing an exceedingly well-meaning idiot very endearing.

      PS. I’m envious of your ability to define female knighthood. Think about who you were a squire to! What kind of squire would your knight take? What do the courtly ladies think about you? Part of this depends on what edition of Pendragon you’re playing. They’re all pretty much compatible, but Fourth Edition does have some info about playing a lady knight if you’re looking for inspiration. (It’s still all qualified with, “This isn’t really reflected in the stories,” but hell.) I’d be happy to send you a drop-box link if you want to check it out.

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