Obsidian Portal Campaign of the Month April 2021 – Knights of the Realm

History will always remember the names of kings and queens. It remembers the names of important locations and significant battles. It may even remember the names of prestigious houses. But rarely does it ever seem to remember the little people. The ones who fought and died in the wars their kings waged; who manned the walls of those famous castles. For these countless souls, history has but one name for the lot… the Knights of the Realm – April’s Campaign of the Month! So join us as we take a deeper look at this exciting Pendragon campaign, helmed by DerkG!

Hail, DerkG! Knights of the Realm is a big, beautiful campaign absolutely packed with visual interest, history, and adventure. For the readers who have not yet explored your many years of adventure logs, can you give a quick overview of the campaign and what it’s about?

We are playing the King Arthur Pendragon RPG, which focuses on the knights in the time of the mythical Arthur. The archetypical ‘Great Pendragon Campaign’ starts where the roman empire ends, and spans the reign of Uther, the chaos that follows when Uther dies, and then the reign of Arthur. In real life historical terms, 5th through 15th century, but compressed into a few generations. As the campaign spans generations the knight’s families are a key aspect of the game; one could argue that the family is the main character rather than the individual knight.

This also means that every 2-3 sessions span an entire year, and it is obviously impossible to roleplay every hour or every day of that time period. As you will see in the campaign journal we jump through the year in vignettes and highlights. Which can be everything from courtly scenes to epic battles to the goings on in the individual knights’ families. We joke that sometimes it feels like a soap opera set in medieval times.

So far the knights have gained much renown in assisting Merlin with the search for Excalibur, slaying most terrible monsters in the process. They have made names for themselves on the field of battle, they have made friends and enemies at court and in one case they undertook a mystical quest to determine the best location for a pagan circle on their estate. Also, they have managed to start a family of their own in order to secure the future of their name.

The campaign uses the Pendragon system, which is centered around the age of the Arthurian legend. What do you love best about the system and setting?

I enjoy how the setting and system put a focus on things such as honour and service, without the typical ‘slay stuff and find loot for experience’ drive. The one thing all knights seek to amass is glory for themselves and their family. While the easiest way to amass glory is to do well on the field of battle, one can also impress their peers with courtly deeds. Reciting a powerful poem, especially in the presence of the King, would be such an example.

Another aspect of the system I particularly like is the mechanic for passions and traits which at times has the knights rising above what seems humanly possible, while at others it may result in the knights acting on emotion rather than rational thought – and thus not always in their own best interest. This often leads to interesting situations that otherwise would probably never have happened.

As for the setting, it puts the players in a position to be part of the Arthurian Legends we all grew up with – as a living, breathing, world to interact with rather than just a story to read. I grew up reading ‘The Once and Future King’, ‘Le Morte D’Arthur’ and ‘The Mists of Avalon’ so roleplaying in that setting almost feels like coming home.

You’ve detailed a few rules adjustments in your wiki. What homebrew rules have worked best for your group, in this campaign or in any other?

The homebrew rules I added are more of a clarification than an intent to actually change the rules. Unfortunately there is some conflicting information between the main rule book and several of the source books such as the Book of the Manor and the Book of the Estate. In order to get things straight in my own head and to be able to share the information with the players I wrote a few wiki pages how we would be handling the annual ‘winter phase’ which covers the economic situation at the knight’s manor as well as the familial developments (deaths, births, scandals and so on). Similarly I streamlined the battle system to keep it interesting but not too overly complex.

Can you tell us a little bit about yourself, your players, and your lives outside of game?

We are a group of gamers from the Netherlands, ranging from 30’s to upper 40’s in age. We’ve all known each other for a long time, through both gaming and historical re-enactment. One member of our group moved to Sweden, but through the wonders of online gaming (Roll20) we can still play games together and keep in touch.

Outside the game I work as a project manager, and in my free time have far too many hobbies. Since the late 90’s I have been involved with historical re-enactment; initially the romano-british period before moving my focus to 15th century re-enactment and jousting – coincidentally bookending the span of King Arthur Pendragon. Over 10 years ago I made the switch to Napoleonic cavalry re-enactment. The past year or two my focus has been more on my other hobbies such as role playing, miniature wargaming, photography etc. 

How did you get into gaming? How did your gaming group find each other?

I fell prey to the siren call of Dungeons and Dragons in 1986 and have been a gamer for many years since. In the mid 90’s I lost interest in what the mainstream RPG hobby had to offer at the time; so much of it seemed to be about killing monsters, hoarding gold and magic items, rinse and repeat. So for about a decade my attention shifted fully to miniature wargaming on the one hand and historical re-enactment on the other. In the mid-naughts two things happen that got me back into roleplaying – on the one hand I learned that several of my re-enactment friends were engaged in a monthly Warhammer RPG campaign which I joined, and I discovered what the gaming industry and in particular the indy gaming scene had been up to in the past years.

Although the Warhammer campaign has since ended, we have for the most part stuck together as a group and since played longer and shorter campaigns in other systems.  

There’s a huge amount of work invested in Knights of the Realm, so you may not have much time for other games — but if you do, what other types of games do you and your group enjoy best?

One of our players also GMs a mean Pathfinder game, which allows me to lean back and just play without the GM burden. Other systems I have run with our group include Apocalypse World and Burning Wheel – both of which I have learned a lot from which I hope shows in my game mastering style, and I think we all enjoyed them. 

Knights of the Realm is overflowing with all the classic elements of the chivalric age. What are your favorite parts of these kinds of stories? Politics? War? Honor? Romance? Gritty realism? Knightly codes?

Ooh, a tough question. I would say ‘all of the above and none of them’. All of them because they are each powerful elements in the stories that we tell. And none of them, for in the end what really matters to me is how the players engage with these elements, rather than the elements themselves. So far politics have been more of a spectator sport, with our knights being too small fish to be real involved parties. This will however start to change soon. War to me is a backdrop where we see the characters make choices between their knightly values of loyalty and valour on the one hand and discretion on the other. Curiously our most reckless knight seems to walk away without a scratch almost all the time.  

Did this campaign have any particular challenges for you as a GM? If so, what solutions did you find most effective?

The biggest challenge for me has been balancing between on the one hand the grand story of the campaign – which can be railroady at times and could make the PC’s seem like only small cogs in a large machine – and on the other my desire to put the spotlight squarely on the player characters and find out what they are all about. 

The solution for me has been to consider the grand campaign as more of a backstory than anything, and to let the roleplay develop as it will. ‘Play to find out’, so to say. For instance in the last sessions I knew there was going to be a major, dangerous, battle that could involve several of the characters getting wounded or worse. What I could not anticipate was that this would lead to a confrontation between sir Dalan and the King’s Physician about the seemingly poor medical care given to the gravely wounded sir Tristan (A case of very poor die rolls made for the healing attempts by the physician). The small quest that followed where Dalan sought and found a pagan healer was entirely unexpected but very rewarding. And who could have foreseen the resulting falling out between the Dalan and his liege, earl Roderick? None of those scenes originate from the campaign book. But events such as these are what truly makes the campaign for me.

Knights of the Realm contains plenty of fantasy, but seems to be rooted in the history of 5th century England. Do you enjoy the fantastic or the realistic better? Or is your ideal game a balanced blend of the two?

Generally, I enjoy low fantasy much more than high fantasy – where magic quickly becomes the solution to everything. In Pendragon, there are no spellcasters amongst the players, and if unnatural things happen that is something truly extraordinary and the stuff of legends. The Fey will play a more prominent role later on in the campaign, but where we are right now they are more the matter of folk tales than something people will have seen with their own eyes. Even Merlin – a great druid – intervenes very rarely, and even then mostly indirectly and unseen. I think this adds a whole layer of mystique that gets lost when magic becomes commonplace and every group has a spell caster or two.

What highlights of the campaign have your players enjoyed, so far?

Three events came up when I asked my players. The first being the players lending assistance – unknowingly at first – to Merlin in his effort to recover Excalibur. They faced great peril in the form of a giant on the one hand, and a Nukelavee (a creature combining the shape of horse and rider). Both these encounters were dangerous in the extreme, with the death of one or more knights a very likely outcome. However stupendous good luck saw them through without receiving as much of a scratch.

Another highlight had to be the search for squire Andreas. Passed over when other squires were knighted, Andreas had assigned himself a noble quest, the recovery of sir Tristan’s sister from Saxon lands. When he was found missing, the player knights set off on a quest to find him, taking them through more and less hospitable lands and finally bringing them to a Saxon village after hearing a tale of a naked madman who had bit off the nose of a Saxon warrior. There they indeed found the squire – naked and kept in a pig’s wallow. In the fight that ensued they faced off against the warriors of the village, with the headman and the smith seemingly the most formidable foes. Things looked particularly grim when in turn, the smith and the headman both called upon their Wotanic passions to spur them on in the fight. However both fumbled their rolls and rather than facing their opponents they turned and ran, foaming at the mouth in utter madness.

Throughout the campaign the romantic pursuits of the knights are recalled fondly. At times unwittingly competing for the same hand and then hilariously making an utter mess of things when the dice would not work for them. Or in the case of sir Tristan who has fallen to his Lustful trait a few times too often, leaving a trail of bastards across Logres to haunt him. I should note that we have a mix of genders in our player group, but I think anyone trying to guess from the pursuits of the knights would guess wrong once or twice. 

What part are you most proud of? Or, what was the most enjoyable moment for you as the GM?

There are so many moments to choose from. But the one that stands out the most has to be when sir Dalan wanted to create a pagan holy site on his lands and went on a quest to find a druid for spiritual guidance. The first part of the quest was fairly traditional – as the knight and his squire sought their way through wild lands, establishing a pattern of falling asleep on their watches before finding the druid. However, rather than providing any useful answers, the druid offers to help the knight reach out to the goddess Epona himself – by providing a foul mixture of mushrooms and other hallucinogens for the knight to ingest.  What followed was two hours of pure improvisation based upon the trait rolls made by the player – basically ‘what was on the knight’s mind the most’. I love it when such off-the-cuff improvisation works and the player runs with it, taking the story in completely new directions.

More in general, I believe I have been successful in making this a story of the player knights – avoiding the pitfall of this becoming little more than a retelling of the Grand Pendragon Campaign sourcebook.

You have lots of great features throughout the campaign — layout guides so your players can match the visual style when they contribute something, important quotations made during games, records of the spoils of war, and reminders about earned Glory. What elements have been the most useful for your gaming group and which ones are the most fun to create?

The most used by far are the session journals. These are something of a combined work between one of the players (Agerualon) and me – with Agerualon doing the heavy lifting of writing the journal from the players’ perspective. I then help with the layout and add the illustrations. The journals provide a very helpful reference for both the players and myself on what happened in the past as well as just being plain fun to read back. The wiki pages with the winter phase come in next, as we use them every winter phase. Unfortunately the other wiki pages with history and background do not get used nearly as much, so I have recently not put as much effort into them. However as a GM I do use the history wiki pages a lot. I have preloaded them with the backstory events for the upcoming years on GM-only pages, collecting all this information in one place for easy reference.

For me one of the most enjoyable aspects has been seeking illustrations for the journals. While it is often hard or impossible to find complete images that exactly match the scenes in question, often a mere snippet such as a fire in a hearth or the eyes of an old man will do the trick. This has me looking at images in a completely new way – not ‘how can I use this’, but ‘is there a cut-out I could make that works’. I then run the images through a series of filters in photoshop to try and get something of a consistent style and Bob’s your uncle.

Some of the hardest work – and at times most frustrating – has been in the css styling of the pages. I have learned, begged, borrowed and stolen a lot from other creators on Obsidian Portal and feel I should at the very least mention Ikabodo and Bortas for their input. In particular Ikabodo’s ‘Murder of Crows’ campaign provided me with a very solid starting point, which I stole with his permission. Other additions are however my own, such as the illuminated borders for portraits which get rendered on the fly in css and not in the picture file itself. 

Can you give us any hints about the future of the campaign without giving too much away? Or, do you have other, upcoming projects?

A bit of a spoiler, but the reign of Uther will soon be coming to an end, throwing Britain into disarray and giving the player knights more opportunity to take their own decisions and make a name for themselves. We will be skipping a few years to get to this point, as they are less consequential to the overall story and I think it is time for a change of pace and perspective. Also, I really should get around to completing the layout and illustrations for the last two session logs!

My other active campaign on Obsidian Portal is “The Price of Immortality”, a Pathfinder campaign GMed by kagbb where I play a half-elf rogue/sorcerer, Preen. My other current projects do not feature on Obsidian Portal – mainly because they do not lend themselves as much for them. I currently run a Band of Blades campaign and play in a Forbidden Lands and a Tales From the Loop campaign.

Lastly, Obsidian Portal always loves to ask if you have any advice or clever tricks to share, as a GM, a site-designer, or as a gamer in general.

As a GM I can only recommend to cast the net wide, game system wise. Try out many systems, learn from them and take with you what you like. I have learned a lot from various PbtA (Powered by the Apocalypse) games when it comes to scene framing and putting leading questions to the players to create fiction on the fly. From Burning Wheel I take the goal of keeping the spotlight (harshly) on the player characters and what drives them. And perhaps the most important from both: ‘Play to find out!’ – enter into a campaign, adventure or scene with an open mind and do not make your mind up beforehand on what the outcome would/should be. This also means rolling with whatever results the dice provide and not fudging them in service of a story you might have in mind.

For anyone working to design their own campaign site on Obsidian Portal, I can only recommend to look at how other people have solved problems. Ask on the forums and have a look at campaign sites with the code explorer open in Chrome. There will be a point where things suddenly start falling into place 😉

I’d like to end with a massive thanks to my players. Without them this campaign would not exist, and it is the creativity that they bring to the table that feeds mine and makes for such fun stories. Thank you!

And with that, my lords and ladies, our time in the realms of the Pendragon have come to an end. We thank you for being with us, and hope you have enjoyed the journey. Please keep those nominations coming, and we’ll be back soon with another fantastic campaign feature!

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