Pendragon is a fantastic game, and its one that I love. At university, it and Amber were go-to games for my players. We even had a campaign of Pendragon so good we swore off the game for months, so as not to tarnish the awesomeness of what we’d done. I used to raise hell and pick arguments on the Pendragon list, back when I was young and irritable, and I wrote an awful lot of web material for it. I also had my first research credit and playtesting credit in Pendragon books.
And so, the first principle of my writing for Lords of Men was: “Don’t write Pendragon“.
This was actually easier than it appears, because Pendragon is about knights, and is based heavily on a set of romances. You’d think Lords of Men was about knights…and it is, but mostly, it’s about nobles and peasants, and how they interact. It has new combat rules, which are great if you are a knight, but they weren’t part of my job, so for me, it was a matter of historical source material, and using it to build a Mythic Europe that’s different from Pendragon, Dungeons and Dragons, and most of the medieval fantasy games we’ve all read.
As a first principle, although you can play it this way of you want, Ars Magica’s peasants to not live in a generic fantasy landscape. They are not like the people in Hammer Horror films who are Victorian Englishmen with German names. They are not happy children of the soil, toiling cheerfully for their lords and tugging their forelocks. This isn’t just a preference on my part: it’s fundamental to character design.
Why does everyone think he gets the crown?
In earlier versions of Ars, it was assumed that when not playing magi (who have happy peasants), you might want to play noblemen (who has happy peasants). The assumption is that feudalism is fun, because you are the guy on the horse. Actually though, if you look at the characters people design for play, they are very rarely the guy on the horse. Most PCs are peasants. Most people, when not playing their magi, do not play nobles: they play the people who serve nobles. Or at least, people who used to serve nobles.
In previous editions, being a peasant was a happy thing, and so for your character to flee serfdom and enter the service of magicians implied their life had suffered some great shock. Grogs were often criminals, people from the social margins or refugees. To be a grog, you needed to explain why you character would want to serve magi. What Flaws did your character have to explain your character’s bizarre actions?
The thing is, though, most players don’t play magi as baby-eating scumbags. Even when they are trying to be tyrannical, most players pull up well short of what nobles really did to their peasants. Most magi are really great overlords by medieval standards. Particularly Tremeres, by the way… House Tremere: doing the right things for the wrong reasons since 878!
Now, if you have historical lords, your character doesn’t have to be a murderer on the run, a secret heretic, or a penitent pickpocket to want to join most covenants. You just have to be an average person who notices that the players are trickling modern ideas into their rule of the covenant, simply because they want to play the good guys. This means that you, as the player, can design a wider range of grog and companion player characters that make sense within the setting.
Some people have mentioned to me that you can’t win as a noble. If you treat your peasants badly, you’re evil and they hate you. If you let them get rich, then they’ll use their spare money to agitate politically to get rid of you. Historically, this is exactly what occurred. Peasantry really is based on a labor force of close to subsistence farmers. If you muck about with it, it falls to pieces really quickly. Indeed, later on in the C13th, the nobles destroy the system themselves, deliberately, when they find that running sheep on land brings in more money than having people rent for farming.
The Church Really Were Unpleasant About The Whole Thing
It really was consistently worse to be a serf on Church lands than on noble lands. People can argue I’m being anti-Church here, but if you look at the record, that’s how it really was. Churchmen aren’t lax about collecting taxes, but the taxes aren’t theirs personally, so they can’t show leniency except in the most abject cases, can’t free serfs, and can’t make agreements with serfs to lighten their lot. In the C12th, much of the Church is still in favor of slavery, provided you are only enslaving non-Christians. Thomas Aquinas mellows the Church out to an incredible degree, and most groups play with a post-Aquinas Church, but that’s not really how things were in 1220. Indeed, Aquinas is excommunicated as a heretic for his, relatively, progressive views.
A few key books
The Medieval Village by G. G. Coulton: This book is great for history from below, for medieval court practices, and for the cycle of the year. Be aware that Coulton is deeply anti-religious, or possibly deeply anti-Catholic.
The Life of William Marshall: William Marshall is a fantastic figure. He’s also a great contrast to the way roleplaying games are usually played. He avoids land battles to an extraordinary degree, because he’s a professional soldier, not a guy in a novel. He goes to a battle once forgetting to put his helmet on, showing how rare it was for guys to suit up and smite people. He’s also the guy who marries the richest widow there is in England at the time, so he’s an interesting study in how far a man can rise with the right friends.
The Magnificent Century: This book is roleplaying awesome dipped in chocolate. It was vital for this book, and for Tales of Mythic Europe, too. It’s the history of the English crown, as told by a gossipy and easily scandalised author.
Notes from my files:
There are only a tiny few snippets I wrote during this book that did not eventually find their way into the draft, but here they are:
[A Note on the Title of] Regent
The title of regent was created in England in 1214: previously the duties of the regent were performed by the justiciar. A new title was needed because there was already a justiciar, and the assembled nobles wanted to make their great general [William Marshall] senior to him. They simply made up a new title, rector noster et regni nostri, “our keeper and the keeper of our kingdom”. This demonstrates the fluidity of titles and offices in Mythic Europe. Player characters who regularly cause trouble may find an office designed specifically in response to their activities.
Story Seed: The Sevenday Magus
Ever sin has a specific sort of demon assigned to it. The labors of magi, in their laboratories, rarely pause to observe the Sabbath and the Holy Days of the Church. This has sometimes attracted a potent demon, the Sevenday Magus. The Sevenday Magus is a symbol of Hermetic greed and arrogance, who takes the form of Bonisagus out of mockery for the Order.
His greatest and most feared power is that he cannot be harmed by anything contaminated by the vice he embodies. That is, he cannot be harmed by any magic item that was crafted on a holy day, or by any spell that was studied on a Sunday. Treat this as a level 50 warding spell, with a Penetration bonus of +50. The Order knows of this creature, and a few magi have prepared magic items to the strictest standards of pious work, but these items are few and scattered across Europe. The Order also has other weapons of such great power that they can harm the demon regardless, but they are not usually used on something as simple as a single dangerous demon.
When the Sevenday Magus comes to taunt the characters, in the service of some other, more powerful, creature, how will the characters imprison or destroy him?
Story Ideas: The Half-Share Knight as a Covenant Ally
In England, where the king now accepts money in lieu of serving knights for many of his campaigns, it has been possible to divide fiefs further, into half-knight shares. No real knight ever lives solely on a half-share. Possession of half a fief cannot support a knight’s needs for equipment. A character with a half-share, or whose manor has suffered and provides diminished income, faces difficulty if called to field his portion of a knight.
The simplest way around this problem is to always have enough wealth as money that if the liege calls for his knights to muster, the character may instead negotiate a fine, called scuttage, for non-attendance. Having this much money in coin is wasteful in times of peace, and so a character may need to arrange a loan to have money available to meet scuttage. Magi can provide loans to these sorts of knights, in exchange for money and favours.
If the character is too cash-poor to arrange this sum of money, it is possible for a knight to negotiate with the owner of another half-share to act, for a fee, as their combined knight. A small loan for equipment later, the knight may take the field. Provided the war is successful, the character can then repay the loan from plunder or the rewards of a grateful liege. If the battle is unsuccessful, the character desperately requires money, and again this allows magi to come to his surreptitious aid,
A third option is for the person with a half-share to find a job that supplements their income. These are effectively limited to mercenary work, holding offices from the liege to acquire extras rights, and banditry. A knight in this situation, who is not desperate for coin, is the easiest for the Order to assist, because pay in kind is far less likely to attract the attention of the nobility than money. A poor knight who aids a covenant secretly, and is paid with repaired armour and weapons, a year’s worth of oats and shoes for his horse, a new saddle, a suit of fine clothes and a cellar of filled wine barrels is a particularly convenient ally.