It occurred to me the other day that I never finished my Pendragon article series. Because the game is being offered in the current Bundle of Holding, I’m seeing more discussion of the game in my circles, and its got me thinking about the game again.
One of the reasons why I stopped posting about the game because it fell apart early this year for organizational reasons. It’s a common thing for many long-term games. We’re all adults, and we all have responsibilities, etc. etc. For my own part, I was staying with an dying family member who was in hospice and needed a live-in caregiver for a few months. Gaming (and just about everything else in my life) became a secondary priority for several months.
I was not the only person who was there taking care of this man. Several female relatives of his put their lives on hold for weeks at a time to contribute to his care. There was a lot of work that needed to be done: besides his round-the-clock medical care, someone needed to tend to the family farm in his wife’s stead. It was a lot of work, and I didn’t have time for anything else.
Effectively, I was unable to be a knight because I was too busy being a nurse. It shouldn’t be too surprising, I suppose. Chirurgery is a skill for ladies, not knights, you know.
We did end up playing through two games of The Great Pendragon Campaign. Sir Olwen acquitted herself well. She proved herself an able rider and a strong combatant. It’s been too long for me to remember much of the specifics of the game, but I do remember that everyone involved seemed to feel awkward. Nobody knew how to feel about Olwen. Then again, it was so early in the game that nobody knew how to feel about anyone else, for that matter. I imagine that my male friends were desperately trying to not be sexist towards Olwen, while still trying to have an authentic relationship with. I wonder, though, if that wasn’t just projecting my own feelings onto them. I spent a good deal of time trying to get a grip on how to play her without falling into gender stereotypes or tiresome lady knight tropes. She was a character that I needed to play more to understand and imagine fully. Unfortunately, I never really got the chance.
One of the things that did come up during the game was the mechanics of marriage and manor stewardship. It’s a part of the game that strongly enforces the gender roles of the game world. To recap what I’ve said in earlier posts, the stance of the book on lady knights is something like this: “Yes, you can play female knights if you really must (sigh!), but let’s not forget: this game is about knights and all knights are men, period.”
As you might expect, here is no mechanical support for female knights in the game. This is a bigger problem than it sounds.
If this were another game, you might think, “Big deal. D&D doesn’t have any mechanics for female fighters, and that doesn’t matter.” But the gender roles in the world of Pendragon are stark and rigid. It becomes a real problem if you have a female knight who wants to get married — and to be clear, marriage is a virtual neccessity for long-term play.
In the game as written, a knight chooses his bride from a list of eligible ladies. Courtship may be roleplayed or simply abstracted with dice rolls The stats for knights and “ladies” are completely different. Ladies are good at things like managing your manors and healing injured people. It’s very important for a PC to have access to these skills. Good home stewardship, recovering from injury, and making a family is essential to the game.
(As an aside: even though wives are important, it’s entirely possible that they may never even show up in-character during the game. They may simply be a resource for your character to access during downtime.)
So what’s a female knight to do?
Good question. The book has no answers.
She needs someone to run her manor. She needs someone who can heal her when she’s wounded. A player could try to convince the GM to create a character for her to marry — like a man who has the same stats as a woman for some reason (including being great at sewing and rolling on the “Women’s Gifts” table, I suppose), and will give dominion of his lands to his wife for some reason. You could play a lesbian knight, or a knight refuses to marry and takes in another like-minded woman in a quasi marriage-like arrangement.
There are no real good answers here. The bottom line is that you pretty much have to make it all up as you go along and hope that your GM isn’t going to be an ass about it, and ultimately you may end up getting screwed by the game’s design anyway.
Reflecting on all of this, I’m struck by the notion of playing Pendragon as a metaphor for being a woman.
You can live as one of the ready-made roles for you and even get some measure of cultural capital by conforming to them. You can be Lady. Be a Good Mother. Be a Sexy Lady. Be an Innocent Girl. Be a Career Woman. You won’t get the respect or power of masculinity, but you’ll get something. You can even be a Distaff Man, and you’ll never be quite their equal in the eyes of the wider culture — or you’ll be used as a bludgeon against other women.
Or you can reject these roles and imagine yourself as something entirely different.
It’s harder than any of the above options.
It’s hard because you have no tradition to pull from, and limited role models. Your history has been actively destroyed by people who hated you.Your literature was dismissed, forgotten, and abandoned — and what survives is circumscribed by the weight of thousands of years of historical oppression. You have no story to emulate, so you just have to make it up as you go along.
The rules won’t let you do it, of course. People will tell you that you’re doing it wrong. You might even think that you’re doing it wrong, sometimes. It’s hard to do. It’s hard as hell, and it hurts me every day.
But it’s the only way I want to live.