The Pendragon Chronicles – Vol. 10 – The Arthurian Legend

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As we are getting near the release date of the game, we are now going to present some of the Event Cards that you will play with in Pendragon – The Fall of Roman Britain. For our first installment of this second series of Chronicles, we are going to focus on a very visible, and sometimes controversial, aspect of the game: the elements it borrows from the Arthurian Legend.

As I mentioned above, there has been some discussion in social media about the inclusion of people and locations associated with the Arthurian legend in the game. Be reassured that there are no knights in anachronistic shining plate armor, no Quest for the Holy Grail nor magical powers, though the strength of the beliefs in the powers of Christian or Pagan priests was important historically at times, and some of that is captured in the game events.

My personal view, as the designer of the game, is that it would be misleading, and ultimately futile, to try to entirely separate “historical” and “legendary” material regarding this period. The dirty truth is that we know very little as far as hard facts, dates, people and events during this period of history, and what came down to us as legends is probably as good as any, and certainly better than most, other elements. After all, if stories about Arthur, Vortigern, Merlin or Cerdic came down through centuries, especially attached to a culture that came on the losing end of history, then it’s a pretty safe bet there has been some important deeds achieved by people of that name (or very close to it). Without a doubt, much distortion and rewriting took place in the meantime, but, as the saying goes, “where there is smoke, there is fire.”

Consequently, I have on several occasions drawn on legendary or semi-historical information to create Events, but Events that are plausible in what we know of the historical framework, and have been the subject of much elevated debate among historians. This is where the dual Events system of the COIN engine shines particularly bright, providing two rival explanations, or possible outcomes, for every such occurrence.

So, let’s start with Event Card #1, which features no less than Arthur himself…

Event Card #1 – Arthur

Background. The search for a possible historical Arthur has been as widespread as it has been elusive… Nonetheless, from the fragmentary sources and other hints such as the sudden occurrence of people named Arthur and literary references, I believe there is little doubt that at some point there lived a very successful military leader going by that name (whether it was a given name or a war name) who knew some significant success against the barbarian invaders, but eventually suffered a catastrophic failure due to internal struggles. It appears that he was not a king but a “leader of battles” (Dux Bellorum), and so probably more a champion of the post-Roman military than of the civilian authorities, which probably explains why he eventually generated such internal opposition.

Event Card #6 – Uther

Background. Apart from a few minor references in Old Welsh poems, there is not much historical material about Uther Pendragon (Welsh: Uthyr), who really owes his modern significance to Geoffrey of Monmouth and his Historia Regum Britanniae, on which most later mentions are based. Uther is typically viewed as a strong but brutal king who has no qualms resorting to tricks and violence to achieve his goals. Uther’s family connection with Arthur in the later romance has probably more to do with the medieval writers confusing “Pendragon” for a family name rather than the military title it was. Nonetheless, there is no doubt whatsoever that the convulsions which marked the end of Roman Britain saw an abundance of Briton against Briton struggles, where the heirs of the Roman military would initially have the opportunity to abuse their strength, to the point of causing rebellions against their harsh rule.

Event Card #16 – Dux Bellorum

Background. Dux Bellorum (literally “Leader of Battles” in Latin) is a military title often associated with Arthur or other Romano-British leaders of the period. It is believed to be inspired from late Roman military titles and to reflect a context where Romano-British armies included diverse contingents from various tribes, cities and petty kings, in effect coalitions which had to be led by a leader chosen for his prestige, his recognized competence or simply the size of his own contingent. Such situations were prone to foster jealousies and internal rivalries, which could prove debilitating in face of a more coherent enemy.

Event Card #21 – Camelot

Background. Post-Roman Britain saw a massive trend to reoccupy and refortify Iron Age hillforts that again became strongpoints and seats of power for the emerging rulers. A number of them saw extensive new fortification work take place, drawing from modern Roman engineering techniques to upgrade the earlier ditches, banks and palisades. Probably the most emblematic of these refortified sites is South Cadbury (also known as Cadbury Castle or Camalet) in Somerset, which acquired strong walls and gates as well as a number of high-rank buildings including a massive Great Hall during the period. South Cadbury was undoubtedly the seat of a major Brittonic ruler during the 5th and 6th centuries, as demonstrated by the numerous shards of high value pottery from the Eastern Mediterranean. Many have postulated that this leader was none other than Arthur, associating South Cadbury and the legendary Camelot, drawing notably on medieval traditions. 

Event Card #32 – Tintagel

Background. Tintagel (Cornish Dintagel, “the fortress of the constriction”) is known worldwide as the legendary birthplace of King Arthur in the Romance, and its promontory site with its 13th century medieval castle ruins are still a very spectacular tourist attraction. Such a site is very typical of sea promontory forts found throughout the Celtic world from Brittany to Scotland and Ireland. Archaeology has found evidence of high-status Romano-British occupation from at least the 3rd century AD, including imported Mediterranean pottery and remains of what is believed to have been a royal residence of the post-Roman kings of Dumnonia.

Event Card #49 – Vortigern

Background. Vortigern (Old Welsh: Guorthegern) is one of the best known names of the period, and one that has attracted more than a usual share of opprobrium. He is typically considered guilty of having been a tyrant whose policy of bringing Saxon mercenaries backfired disastrously for himself and all of Celtic Britain. In support of this view, Gildas may be referring to him when he denounces the “proud tyrant” who invited the Saxon wolves (there is some disagreement over versions), and Nennius levies a number of scathing charges against him in the Historia Brittonum, including an episode in which his Saxon friends betray him and a large number of Briton leaders at a banquet, slaughtering all but him. At the same time, the kings of Powys, one of the most powerful Welsh medieval kingdoms, claimed descent from him. There is some doubt about his historicity (as with pretty much anyone in this period), or at least what his real name was, as some scholars believe his name, which means “Great King” or “Overlord”, may actually have been a title; this is why some have even associated him with the elusive Arthur. Interestingly, Gildas’s charge that he was a “tyrant” may stem from an error in translation, as Gildas uses the Latin “tyrannus”, which means more properly a usurper, someone who rules by force and/or populism instead of by the rule of law. In any case, whether Vortigern was a military strongman ordering the tribal nobility around or a regional king, in retrospect his behaviour appears to be completely in accordance with late Roman policy, bringing foederati auxiliaries to defend his domains; that his actions appear to have indeed dramatically backfired is easy to judge in hindsight, but someone in his stead would have had little reason to see this course of action as risky based on the track record of such policies at the time.

Event Card #51 – Isle of Avalon

Background. The Isle of Avalon (Ynys Afallon or Afallach, literally “The isle of apple trees”) is most famous for its numerous connections with the Arthurian legend, especially as the location where he is carried to recover from his wounds after the battle of Camlann, and where the “Once and Future King” is supposed to be waiting to return to lead once more the Britons against their enemies. It should be noted that the story ties with various Celtic legends of mystical islands lying on the threshold between this world and the Otherworld, including the association with apple trees. Avalon is often associated with Glastonbury Tor, a high conical hill that used to jut from the Somerset Levels fens (now drained), next to Glastonbury Abbey, where a purported burial of King Arthur was “found” in the 12th century, a claim that had certainly more to do with a publicity stunt by the abbey and with then current concern over Welsh irredentism against conquest by the Anglo-Norman kings. All the above attests to the critical importance of legends and propaganda, shaping popular perceptions to either whip up support for belligerency or discourage further resistance. 

Event Card #57 – Myrddin

Background. Myrddin Wyllt (“Myrddin the Wild”) is a prophet, chief bard and madman found in several Welsh legends, variously called “Myrddin Emrys” (“Ambrosius”), “Merlinus Caledonensis” (“of Caledonia”) or “Merlin Sylvestris” (‘of the woods”). He is said to have been the bard of one lord Gwendolleu, who was slaughtered with his forces by Riderch Hael, king of Alt Clut (Strathclyde) at the battle of Arfderydd in southern Caledonia. After the massacre, Myrddin is said to have fled to and wandered in the company of beasts in the Caledonian forest for many years. Later legends, especially popularized by Geoffrey of Monmouth, made “Merlin” a central character of the Arthurian legend, probably decades before the events around the battle of Arfderydd, including numerous prophecies typically linked to the fate of the struggle between Celt and Saxon, and ultimately promising the ejection of the invaders from Britain, such as the story of Vortigern and the struggling red and white dragons undermining the foundations of his new stronghold at Dinas Emrys. Notwithstanding who Merlin was and how influential he may have been, we should not forget how important mystics and prophets were in these deeply superstitious times, when commoners and lords alike were all too eager to try to get an insight into the plans of god(s).

(Epoch) Event Card #83 – Pendragon

As we began with Arthur, we (and the game deck) end with Pendragon, which is an Epoch Event, Pendragon’s equivalent to Propaganda, Coup! or Winter cards of earlier entries in the series. While they serve the same mechanical purposes of ushering some episodic game keeping and victory checks, they also include a specific high impact Epoch Event that the indicated faction(s) may exercise…

Background. Throughout the history of the Empire, punitive expeditions into enemy territory to humble and cow adversaries have been a staple of Roman foreign policy. In Britain, during the period covered by the game, such operations, especially against the Picts of northern Britain, are mentioned as part of every major leader’s operations, from Count Theodosius the Elder quashing the Great Barbarian Conspiracy, to Magnus Maximus (before his usurpation) and Stilicho.

Various period sources, including a letter from Saint Patrick to a British leader named Coroticus, allude to Britons raiding into Ireland. Edwin Pace suggests that these actions were part of a coordinated policy led by a strong post-Roman British military authority (who he considers could have been the elusive Arthur) emulating traditional Roman punitive expeditions against the bases and homelands of barbarians threatening the island. Pace reasons that such an ambitious policy would have required a capable naval component, meaning Saxon foederati ships and sailors, presumably the same forces providing the sea defenses of Britain’s west coast that he identified (Event #67 Dogs and Wolves).

Naturally, it would take a very powerful military commander, one able to command the support of strong forces, to launch such an expedition. Conversely, the very act of mounting such a daring action against Britain’s enemies would in itself be a powerful claim to military pre-eminence among the Britons, i.e. to the position of Pendragon (or Pen Draig, Welsh “Head Dragon”), named after the dracones, the battle standards of the late Roman army, which remained in use for several centuries in Britain. This title, used as late as the 12th century by King Rhodri ab Owain of Gwynedd, was mistaken by later medieval writers as a family name, in turn making Ambrosius Aurelianus, Uther and Arthur all related by blood — as they all bore that title. Military title or family name, “Pendragon” howls proudly in the wind like the battle standards of the last Romans, striking terror into the hearts of enemies!

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5 thoughts on “The Pendragon Chronicles – Vol. 10 – The Arthurian Legend

    • Thank you. For full disclosure, the “Background” bits for each card are extracted from the Playbook, where you will find similar details on each and every card. More to come ahead of time on InsideGMT though 🙂

  1. As one with a keen interest in the Arthurian period/Dark Age Britain for a long time, I really like this weaving of likely history with possible legend using these cards. Very much looking forward to the game!

  2. Loving the back story on the cards. I jumped in the P500 for this as I’ve always been fascinated by the Arthurian stories, and now more the historical links. This game looks to scratch numerous itches.