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Genre and Generic
Why There are No Magicians in Pendragon
by Greg Stafford
This essay originally appeared at http://www.rpg.net/columns/oneshot/oneshot5.phtml
I have seen a number of comments concerning the King Arthur Pendragon roleplaying game (as well as others, especially Ars Magica) where people have complained about the narrowness of the game, and that it ought to allow for squires, thieves or other non-noble professions. Arguments sometimes get insistent, hence this explanation.
What we are looking at here are two different game design styles (and play) which most people do not seem to be aware of: genre and generic.
A genre game player wishes to imaginatively experience a limited and specific setting, within its own context and rules. Basic Pendragon is this kind of setting. It is about knights in a pseudo-medieval setting that includes the fantasy and legend that is (more or less) appropriate to that setting.
A generic game may use a specific genre as a basis, but the players want to expand it with the modern experience of open, freewheeling experimentation. Not just knights, but druids and wizards and thieves and ninjas in a King Arthur-like setting. Not just traditional knights, but women knights, Beowulf-era warriors, and Sigurd and Theoderic and El Cid too. Not just native British folklore, but kobolds and nagas and deep ones too.
The generic game is about expansion; the genre game is about limitations. Both have their place. So why the argument?
It appears to me that many people have entered into roleplaying (indeed, into fantasy in general) through D&D, and simply do not know that the fantasy established by that fine game (and imitated by many others as well) is actually an indiscriminate mishmash, hodgepodge, scrambled-together collection of bits and pieces from everywhere and every time. This is, in a way, a particularly modern and American perspective, much like us Americans who are a mishmash, hodgepodge, scrambled-together collection of people. It is a place where imagination reigns, where speculation rages wildly and where surprises are the norm. It is free and unlimited, boundless and crazy and inclusive.
I mean, whatís not to love about a ninja hobbit and Apache astronaut armed with Stormbringer fighting against Darth Vader and his minions of dragonewt shamans who are living in a castle thatís a gigantic shaped gelatinous cube? Who among us has not spent time debating who was tougher, Thor or Superman? This is great stuff, both challenging and funny.
Yet, some people donít like that. To some this open-ended gaming lacks the intense focus of a limited genre. It equalizes things that are actually different. It is a forced clash of types and genres, which diminishes the uniqueness of the limited genres from which it springs.
The genre type involves getting into the mindset of the period, to experience something that is NOT familiar. It challenges us because it IS limited, and perhaps most important--it gives us an insight into something other than the world where anything goes. It offers an experience where people must meet their expectations with the disappointments and problems of limitations.
Core Pendragon is much closer to genre than generic. Of course, it does stretch the genre, providing pagan knights (never happened), women knights (rare, if ever) and a legendary environment where adventure is an acceptable way of life (rare, once again).
And I want to point out that the expansions from the core rules bend the genre into generic. Supplements for magicians, Scandinavian characters, even native Irish and Pictish knights expand the genre to include people's desires and expectations. And I have no objection to that. But whereas it may be a type of broad medieval gaming, it is not really Arthurian roleplaying.
As a game designer I have to start with some standard, something that is going to be the target for my writing. I chose the genre to start, and in the WW Pendragon 5th, this genre roleplaying was re-emphasized. The publisher felt the game was stronger, in its core presentation, in its original genre.
So that is what I wrote. Thatís why the magicians are not in the new edition. Thatís why we donít have player characters who can be magicians, priests, troubadours, howling Pictish warriors, doughty Saxons or Pious Jews.
Nonetheless, we can reasonably expect this game to eventually expand to include the generic expectations of the fans, as did previous editions.
Since authoring the above, the Complete Character Generation system, called Pendragon Book of Knights & Ladies has been released in a sepcial editon, concerning which see here.