The Superversive in Tabletop RPGs: King Arthur’s Pendragon

While we talk often of finding the Superversive in books, comics, film, and television it’s no less important to find it in gaming. One of the first tabletop RPGs that explicitly explored the Superversive perspective is Pendragon, where the point of the game is to play out King Arthur’s England from the beginning of the myth to its tragic end.

The reason I mark this out as Superversive is that everything about the game emphasizes the fundamental elements upon which Western Civilization rest, especially if you choose to do the default and play a Christian Knight. The game, as a primary mark of distinction, has mechanics by which your character (assumed to be a Knight, and few other options are ever offered, depending upon edition) will act upon the personality traits that mark him as a faithful Christian, a heroic Knight, and so on (or not). Adherence to the norms of the era are rewarded, and the modernist approach will just end badly.

This is why I’m bringing the game to your attention: tabletop RPGs are very good at getting players to see things from a perspective other than one’s own, provided that the Game Master (if not the game) requires them to do so- and this game does. You have to live with the consequences There is no easy healing here, and injuries matter accordingly, so courage has real weight when pressed by the villain of an adventure. How your Knight lives carries forth even after his death, as you then move to play his Squire or his son, with inheritances adjusted accordingly; the sins of the father do weigh upon the son. This reliably affects a player’s attitude towards the game.

As this game builds upon the great mound of myth and literature regarding the Matter of Britain, it is not wise to mistake this as just a Dungeons & Dragons derivative. Its design explicitly encourages players to engage with the Superversive position, either in support or not, and therefore makes it easier to comprehend the idea thereafter if you make use of that opportunity (and there are plenty of them to be had).

While never as popular as the aforementioned king of tabletop RPGs, it’s enjoyed a loyal following all this time much like another literature-derived game: Call of Cthulhu, and if you are all interested in satisfying the demand for the Superversive in gaming then studying this classic will serve you well. (It’s also a fun time in its own right, because who doesn’t want to be a literal Knight in Shining Armor?)

  • John Boyle

    I started playing Pendragon when it first came out in 1985, and it is one of my favorite games to this day. It is, as you say, one of the first games to explicitly address the Superversive perspective, and does so quite effectively. Actions have consequences and your decisions have weight; both can effect your family for generations. I think the Trait system does a very good job of defining what Christian (and what the game refers to as Pagan) virtues were seen to be and how they might affect play.
    While dungeon crawling is minimal, the hunts, tourneys, duels and military campaigns provide plenty of action, for both the traditional Christian knight and noble pagans as well. And the experience of actually getting your character to earn a place among the Knights of the Round Table is something every Pendragon player should have at least once.
    Pendragon is both Superversive and a heck of a lot of fun! (don’t listen to those tattooed cretins over at Jeffro’s Google site)
    Thank you for the post, Mr. Walker.

    • Bradford C. Walker

      You’re welcome.

  • Lorenzo Fossi

    I never had the chance to play Pendragon but I’d love to: somewhere under the stratas of GURPS geekery (one system to rule them all etc) there’s a part of me that admires the concept of a game so married to It’s fluff to be one with It; particulary when the fluff is so unabashedly superversive.

    • Bradford C. Walker

      (a) Seek out GURPS Camelot. Long out of print, but likely to suit your desires for GURPS Pendragon.
      (b) I’ve got a GURPS post coming up soon, talking about Lensman and its opportunity for Superversive gaming.

      • Lorenzo Fossi

        You misunderstand me: I’d play Pendragon with It’s own system, GURPS is just my “default” (that is when I have an idea for a campaign but I don’t know what system to use, I default to GURPS: I think It’s the way it’s supposed to be used). I just can’t play at the moment due to time restrictions and I regret not having played Pendragon when I had the chance.
        GURPS Lensmen sounds neato.