Saturday, 25 July 2015

Arthurian problems

I have been reading Malory's 'Le Morte D'Arthur' and thinking about 'Arthurian' style D&D.

I think a lot of things about this. It goes around inside my head. I think it would be really hard. The reasons I think it would be hard are kind-of-conservative reasons that possibly no one else reading this blog would care about.

They are about the power of the story being driven by particular kinds of concepts and structures and how deeply those structures conflict with the things that drive and allow a modern D&D-like to work.


Strangely, this isn't the biggest problem, Malory's knights are always swearing by god and to god but in most cases you could swap out the gods and it wouldn’t make much difference.

There need to be hermits, these guys pop up everywhere, nunneries, monasteries, old churches, etc dotted around the countryside, but the actual nature of the religion they follow doesn't seem to matter much except perhaps as it relates to 'gentleness' as a virtue knights should have.

And the whole thing starts of in a kind-of not-that-Christian space. Merlin is possibly a cambion of some kind, many of the origin myths have Celtic roots in part, religion isn't central at the beginning

When it really kicks in is in the Grail Quest. The Grail Quest is all about the soul and specifically the soul as seen by Christianity. Pretty much every fucking thing that happens to every knight is an often-interesting but eventually frustrating metaphor for something or other. Some of these encounters happen in dreams and some in real life but the quality and nature of the encounters interpenetrate so that dreams and life interweave, which is quite interesting in itself.

(I really don't like this bit as the main hero Galahad is basically a personality-free vessel for divine sanction and god seems to play the role of dick G.M.

"Ah, in your dream you saw seven white crows and three black crows and the seven crows fed upon the poppy fields and grew fat and the three white starved and the seven were the seven sins and the poppies were the souls of the faithful and the three black was the holy trinity and so you see that your soul is hard with sin and you shall never find the grail."

"Wait, I was meant to *help* the black crows?  But, in the last vision, black was bad, because you said the herd of black cattle were the pagan sinners of the east, and white was good, because you said the twelve goats were the apostles, and there was shit all I could do there either, I just had to watch the cows kill the goats. So how the fuck am I supposed to make sense of this shit?"

"Put on this hair shirt.")

So the good things about the Grail Quest are the strangeness and beauty of the individual visions and adventures and also the interpenetration of dream and reality. And also the Devil turns up and he’s a hot chick and that is always good.

But if you are not questing for the actual holy grail, the real one from Christian myth, if it’s the holy cup of Pelor or something, it gets a bit more dull.

And if you take out the Grail Quest in total then it gets a bit ore dull again, because that part of the story essentially ends the fellowship of the round table in full, exposes the spiritual weakness of the world Arthur has built and ushers things towards their tragic conclusion.


Another surprisingly not-that-bad difference.

There are a handful of possibly-not-white knights in the Morte. Sir Palomydes is right there, along with his brothers. There are maybe one or two in the source legends.

We have no fucking idea how medieval people thought about race and that might be because they didn't much. My best guess is that the number of different coloured people in that world was low enough that you are either going on pilgrimage, in which case you meet a very large number of non-white people and are essentially moving through their culture, or you meet maybe one or two individuals over your life, in which case, every other thing about feudal society is more important than what colour they are. Are they a priest? Are they Christian? Do they have soft hands? Can they write? Are they on a horse with a sword?

If the bishop is black and he's the only black guy you've ever seen, what matters is that he is the bishop rather than that he is black.


The exact racial makeup of medieval Europe is a culture war issue now. To boil it down we have the 'Why' side and the 'Why Not' side.

Why should we jam more black people in our history when there is really not much clear evidence that they were there?

Why shouldn't there be more brown people in European history? Since we know there were *some*, there *could be* and probably were more?

I will leave you to argue that one out amongst yourselves. Have fun. Endless fun.


But if you want to introduce non-white people to Arthurian myth you have them there already in the form of Saracen knights. You have, in the Morte, Arthur taking over the Roman Empire at the beginning and vague mentions of people from all over the eastern Mediterranean. You have the likely, or possible historical existence of Ethiopian Chivalric groups and you only need to bend things a bit to get them in.

If you want anyone from further afield then you might run into problems of 'feel' and justification. And if you have the 'Drizzit' group where EVERYONE wants to play the Saracen Knight then you run again into the conflict between freedom of choice and the feel of the story.

The argument over the feel of stories and their racial makeup is a deep and complex one, especially with stories meant to carry the feel of the ancient past. It's one I won't get into here too deeply as my own thoughts are unformed and un-honed. It’s the ‘why no black hobbits’ question which I kind of briefly made fun of in a previous post but is actually kind of complex and fraught.


Gender, to me, is the most powerful element stopping Arthurian myth from being easily gameable.

Highly ritualised and extremely specific gender roles are written so deeply into the structure of the world that to abandon or change them would alter the motive power beneath peoples actions so much that they wouldn’t make anything like sense in the same way.


Then Sir Trystram remembered himself that Sir Palomydes was unarmed, and of so noble a name that Sir Palomydes had, and also the noble name that himself had. Then he made a restraint of his anger; and so he went unto Sir Palomydes a soft pace and said;

"Sir Palomydes I have heard your complaint, and of your treason that you have owed me long, and wit you well, therefore you shall die. And if it were not for shame of knighthood, you should not escape my hands, for now I know well you have awaited me with treason - and therefore" said Trystram, "tell me how you will aquit you."

"Sir I shall aquit me this: as for Queen Beal Isode, you shall know that I love her above all other ladies in this world; and well I know it shall befall by me as for her love as befel on the noble kniigh Sir Kayhydyus, that died for the love of La Beal Isode. And now Sir Trystram, I will that you know that I have loved La Beal Isode many a long day and she has been the cause of my honour - or else I had been the most simplest knight in the world, for by her and becasue of her, I have won the honour that I have. For when I remembered me of my Queen Isode, I won the honour wherever I came, for the most part; and yet I had never reward nor bounty from her days of my life - and yet I have been her knight long regardless. And therefore Sir Trystram, as for any death I dread not, for I had as rather die as live and if I were armed as you are, I should lightly do battle with you."

"Sir, well have you uttered your treason," said Sir Trystram.

"Sir, I have done you no treason," said Sir Palomydes, "for love is free for all men; and though I have loved your lady, she is my lady as well as yours. How, be it that I have wrong - if any wrong be, for you rejoice her and have your desire of her, and so had I never, nor never am likely to have - and yet shall I love her to the utterost days of my life as well as you."


There are things knights do and there are things ladies do. Everyone in Malory spends a lot of time worrying about their gender norms. Maintaining the correct image of yourself, not in the minds of others, but most centrally, in your own mind, is of overpowering importance. If the structure and the image cracks, you do too. When confronted with irresolvable conflicts in their own iron rules, knights go mad and women are decapitated and burnt.

Sometimes in Malory it seems that the genders appear to each other as strange spirits, not quite real, projecting from some other realm. The Lady in the Lake is this feeling personified, but the effect that women like Guenivere and La Beal Isode, and in a different direction, Morgan La Fay, have on men is either directly magical or so emotionally overpowering that it is virtually magical.

We don't get to see things from the women’s perspective in Malory, (somewhere there is, or will be, a Malory Ortberg Toast article called ‘Terrible Things Happening To Women In Arthurian Fiction’), but if we could, men would appear as strange spirits too. Violent, dangerous, clad in iron, appearing out of the mists, dealing out death and strange troubles, focuses of obsession and desire for power, greatly wanted, greatly feared.

We are each others monsters in this story. It works really well.

And this is insanely unfair and the opposite of anything you would want to put into a game. It keeps women locked in place and stops them interacting with things. It means they can't do violence. And like every game with actual sexism and actual racism, the players have to suffer it and the DM has to create it. And that's not fun. Especially over a long period of time.

There are ways around it, but they only work in part.

Damsels go on quests sometimes, and help knights. Damsels are often vectors of quests. They still never use violence and are rarely the subjects of deliberate lethal violence.

There is also the story-pattern of the woman disguised as a knight.

There is also the Brienne of Tarth 'I am one of a tiny handful of women warriors' thing.

So far as I can see, the evidence for women fighting in medieval Europe is pretty similar in scope to that regarding race. There is just enough for us to question the prevailing attitude that it could never happen but not enough for us to strongly replace it with a different well-proven paradigm. The culture-war sides break down pretty much as they do with race. 'Why' and 'Why not'.

So again there are ways out of the gender trap, if you consider it a trap at all, but the more you use them the more the strange, bonkers, psychologically fraught energy of Arthurian myth leaks out.

Religion and Women and spiritual weirdness come together in this very cool part of the Grail Quest.


Then he went up into the rock and foud the lion which always bore him fellowship, and he stroked him upon the back and had great joy of him. By that Sir Percivale has bide there till midday, he saw a ship come sailing in the sea as all the wind of the world had driven it; and so it landed under that rock. And when Sir Percivale saw this, he hyghed him thither and found the ship covered with silk more blacker than any berry; and therein was a gentlewoman of great beauty, and she was clothes richly - there might be none better.


"Sir," said she, "I dwelled with the greatest man of the world, and he made me so fair and so clear that there was none like me. And of that great beauty I had little pride, more than I ought to have had; also I said a word that pleased him not. And then he would suffer me to be no longer in his company, and so he drove me from my heritage and disinherited me for ever - and he had never pity of me, nor of my council, nor of my court. And since then, sir knight, it has befallen me to be so overthrown, and all mine; yet I have deprived him of some of his men and made them to become my men, for they ask never nothing of me but I give them that and much more. Thus I and my servants war against him night and day; therefore I know no good knight nor good man but I get him on my side, and I may. And for that I know that you are a good knight, I beseech you to help me - and for you be a fellow of the Round table, therefore you ought not to fail no gentlewoman that is disinherited if they sought of you help."


Having the devil wander around as a random encounter with a sexy woman in a black ship is almost irresistible. Its exactly what I would want to put into a game. But you can only have it if you have weird christian religion and weird gender norms and ships being supernatural all in the same background. If you shift the emphasis of any of those things it wouldn't work as well.


As a kind of side-order to freaky gender-norms there is in Malory the enormous power of desire, but more, of romantic love.

Both of the Super-Powered ultra-knights in the story, Trystram and Lancelot, are powered by overwhelming and consuming love for other mens wives. This is considered to be generally a good thing about them. It make them better, the emotional power of love is almost translated into physical power.

We saw above with Sir Palomydes that even second-tier knights can end up transformed by love into something more. He thinks his love is responsible for his martial success and the text generally agrees with him.

The whole story of Arthur begins and ends with sex and desire. Uther for Igrane, Arthurs bastard son, Lancelot and Guinevere’s love that breaks the court in two. It creates and it destroys.

Love is hard to do in games, especially in OSR games that try to maximise player-freedom. Love limits freedom, chivalric love is essentially a one or two-person religion, once you are in you are IN. That's it. No more freedom for you. No more setting your own aims and goals.

In D&D terms it’s like changing class. You go from whatever you were before, Knight, Queen, Enchantress or whatever, to the class of Lover. It’s massively overpowered with some game-breaking abilities but you can never change again and you only level up by doing stuff for or with your opposing number.


It’s a story with a beginning, middle and end. And it ends in death. If you keep the story you lose freedom, if you maximise freedom you lose invisible story-energy. Other people have written at length about jamming RPGs and fixed narrative together. They have probably done so better than I can here.


The rules that knights live by, exactly when and why you joust, what it means to knock someone off their horse, when you do or don't fight on foot, how honour works, how tournaments work e.t.c, are actually all really gameable. They are literally rules that you can literally write down and make explicit so they fit very neatly into the structure of a game.

In fact it’s kind of creepy how neatly the rules of chivalry fit into the rule structure of RPG's, almost as if they were devised by the same kind of mind.

The dumb rules the story needs to work, knights never recognise each other, there is always a friendly hermit or monastery nearby, ships mean spiritual stuff is going down, damsels arriving with missions, dwarfs in the background, the quantum squires whore a clearly sometimes there to help with all the complex jousting stuff but also clearly gone some of the time, all of that crap fits neatly into the structure of a game.


Let’s look at a nightmare vision of what could happen to an Arthurian RPG game if you were totally fair to everyone.

Firstly, it isn't really a nightmare, it’s just very different. Secondly, this would never happen since almost no group would ever do all of these things, but by mashing them together I can make a crude, William-Buckley-esque sort of point. Thirdly, it’s composed of nothing but good feelings, honest intentions, respect for everyone involved and a genuine desire for them all to have fun

So, first everyone wants to be a cool outsider so they all play a Saracen Knight, one guy is Ethiopian, another wanted to play a T'ang Dynasty poet-knight because its sort of about the same period and maybe could almost have happened, maybe there was a shipwreck or something. There is one guy who wants to play a white guy but he's actually Muslim in real life and you freak out a bit about having his character do explicitly Christian stuff so you remove most of the more explicitly Christian elements.

Half your gaming group are girls, half the girls want to play their gender and half the boys want to play the opposite gender. Your only transsexual friend wants to play Lancelot.

So you have a group of Middle-Eastern, African and Asian characters wandering around pseudo-medieval england, half the knights are women disguised as men, there are three warrior women in a world where there might have been none ever, some of the Enchantresses sometimes try to clout a bad guy on the back of the head and one has taken to wielding a glaive. No-one is sure what religion they are but they keep having visions of vaguely religious things and deciding they are important before forgetting them. They are after the grail of something-or-other. All of the NPC's are programmed for standard Arthurian society but get used to your group of weirdoes surprisingly quickly because it gets tiring having a hermit go "but thou are a Womaaann." They get bored easily and half of them forget their feudal oaths, the other half forget their eternal loves, but it seems like they are having fun, they turn up every week.

It’s actually a pretty fun D&D game, or possibly a good night on the town. It's just not a very good Arthurian game.

If you want to start making it 'Arthurian', you need to start taking freedom away from players. And those freedoms are racial, sexual, religious and personal. They are exactly the freedoms that modern gaming is, if not built *on*, then at least built *around*.


In a less blathery way, Malory and modern D&D are driven by different dreams. They are both dreams of harmonious order.

Malory was an imprisoned low-level knight living in a time of  political and physical chaos, his dream is a deep dream centred in an imagined past. It’s a dream of peace and tragic loss where knights are what they should be, not what they are, and where love is a super-power.

The modern west is, for most people, quite physically peaceful. Socially it’s in tumult. Gender norms and sexual norms are changing as fast as they ever have. It’s more racially and religiously mixed than it has ever been. Everyone is either upset about Islam, upset about people being upset about Islam, upset about the whole situation or all three at once.

The modern D&D-alike often feels more as if it’s in a kind of post-everything future rather than the past. Instead of there being once central feudal authority, there is usually a kind of pleasurable chaos that lets everyone do what they want without much consequence. Instead of almost everyone being the same colour and religion, everyone is different, everyone is a unique race/species/gender combination and everyone is utterly equal and generally regarded so in the imagined society, with about as much race or species hated as an episode of US TV, enough to overcome in about 42 minutes plus ads. Instead of all the violent people being men and all the women being trapped in castles, physical power and the assumption of physical force is shared equally between the genders. Instead of everyone being the same religion, except for one guy who eventually converts, it’s vaguely pantheistic most of the time.

This is also a kind of dream of order. It’s the harmonious order of the concert rather than the order of the hammer. It is society, in some sense, as many of us would wish it to be.

They are two dreams that don’t mix well.

But, since I have looked at the problems, I should try to look as possible solutions and see what could be done to translate Arthur or move his mood and feeling into D&D without losing so much that it becomes pointless. I suspect that the best possibility might be a total transformation. But I have been at this essay for a while and that will need some extra thinking so I will have to leave it to a later post.


  1. The nightmare version just sounds like all the good parts of revolutionary girl utena. Vague and surreal and everyone's dueling and there lots of roses and gender-as-class; but you can multiclass and fuse with other characters and everything is brushed under the carpet because its DREAMY

  2. AH!
    Just randomly today opened up the blogroll, haven't done so in a long time, and tripped over this article. This is a subject dear to my heart as I have been into the Arthurian stuff for years, and never succeeded in translating it to the gaming table properly. I think you're making some really good points here, but is there something wrong with limiting PC's choices for their characters to keep the feel of the setting? I mean, it's one thing to say "OKay, this is D&D. But you can only play white dudes. And only fighters. Maybe one of you can be a wizard, that's it."
    But if you say "We're playing King Arthur's knights," and everyone's stoked on it, why not restrict their choices?
    However, the problems of dreams, narrative, and love are tougher ones. I don't have any ideas for that stuff.

    What I do really like about the Arthurian stories (especially Malory, I think specifically because he's cribbing from everybody) is how it's supposed to be a History, but it feels like it takes place in some alien time and geography. Especially during the grail quest, the knights wander for years and years without running into each other, tripping over unheard-of castles crammed with knights & maidens that nobody has ever met before, theoretically inside their own territory. I always thought that element was the best part and maybe the most gameable.

  3. Also, idea how to hand limited-freedom of the Chivalric age under OSR.
    Each player plays 2 PCs, in one of 2 groups.
    One is women (accompanied with 1 or 2 men who'd spend a lot of time with a group of women, like maybe a cleric) dealing with Mists of Avalon shit, the other is knights (mostly men, with maybe a single disguised woman or Brean of Tarth).
    Fun rules for when you scene shift and xp for working together with your other selves.
    The social divisions might crumble, mid-game but you're still aware of them as a world/game feature while not being bound by them and (like an author) thinking about how they can make the story interesting.
    If there's social divisions, make the game about social divisions.

    1. (ps yes i know Marion Zimmer Bradley was creepy)

  4. I haven't read Malory since like 7th grade - like fifteen years but two things strike me. 1) There doesn't seem to have been any concept of 'queerness' in Malory (other then the allegorical lion joy having - but that's just freaky, not queer). 2) The gender roles are very distinct, blindingly so.

    Knight/Damsel are almost classes and while gender is implied it seems that the role is more important then the gender. I'd say a knight has certain rules to live by (or suffer mechanical penalties) and so does a damsel. In standard D&D terms these are classes - knight=fighter, damsel = caster/controller (a good damsel always has a least one knight in total thrall). Yes the archetype is gendered but the PC need not be biologically of the traditional sex. A winsome young dandy can enchant knights just as well as a fair maiden and a hard women devoted to god and violence can be a knight - even if she looks feminine (and really she's likely just as scarred up and mean as Sir Gawain) the other knights and such just think she's Galahadish - all inexplicably boyish, but the armor is all they can really see.

    The rules of conduct are not up for negotiation. Sex has no mechanical effect, but gender and playing ones class/gender role does. A damsel that stabs someone must swoon, a knight that is untrue or submits is shamed - both result in stat loss. The devil tempts knights regardless of sex. The hermits disdain damsels regardless of sex. It's only role that counts. A damsel that wears armor becomes a nebbish night, and a knight that tries to use wiles not honor becomes a nebbish damsel (and must take off his/her armor). Merlin is a damsel.

    There are also dwarfs - every damn knight seems to have a dwarf (or a varlet or something), these guys/gala stir up shit and generally take care of business. I assume they are specialists.

    As to religion that's tricky the old gaygaxian law vs. chaos might work - after all those pagan (wasn't Tristan a pagan knight originally?) and Muslim knight that convert are able to do so effectively/seamlessly because they are true knights living within the code of chivalry. The dove god is happy to glow and appear for anyone that follows its crazy set of vows (take a vow each knightly level - break a vow lose a level).

    1. I think I made the best defence I could of linking gender to role in the G+ comments when i was talking to Paolo, so I won't reprint them here.

  5. You're creating problems out of nothing. The example you give of the way the game would fail are things that maybe a publisher would have to worry about, but on the level of individual DMs they're completely obviated. Either your group is enthusiastic about playing "the authentic Malory experience" - in which case they won't care if their character's genitals match theirs or that they have to pretend to be Christians - or they're not, in which case your high-concept game is doomed anyway and the pseudo-Arthurian game you describe is actually the better option.

  6. In your opening remarks on religion you talk about swapping out the God of Malory for the gods of modern D&D's vague polytheistic mishmash. Down the line you note that the Chalice of Pelor lacks the resonance of the Holy Grail (you're absolutely right about that) and that's largely because the one is a knockoff of the other. What's more important: the style and ethos and impact of the Arthurian legends in your Arthurian game, or having multiple gods because Dungeons and Dragons has them?

    Galahad is the definitive Paladin and the walking proof that CHA 17 doesn't mean you're likeable. I imagine him as slightly inhuman - standoffish and ethereal in the manner of T. H. White's portrayal. People fall into line with him and follow him without entirely understanding why they're doing it.

    While I can see why, if you came in with Malory, you'd see it as a teleological tale building toward the Grail Quest and thence the Death of Arthur, I think you can do Arthurian Romance as a genre without being tangled up in that. Go back to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, or to 'satellite' stories like the Questing Beast, as touchstones. Also possibly worth considering different iterations of the legend: mine was somewhat more political, drawing more on Geoffrey of Monmouth.

    You're pretty spot on about race, I think. On the topic of gender I disagree profoundly: playing with or against those archetypes, negotiating with them, sounds profoundly gameable to me. I would be more concerned about female players' characters getting to do things that the players enjoy doing than about anything else. If that means someone wants to be the genderfluid knight then surely that's fine provided everyone wants to engage with the problems of that to the same degree? (I can see there being a practical problem if one of the actual humans involved wants to explore the social implications in great detail and another simply wants to hit things with swords, but this distinction in playstyle and goals within a group of players is nothing new and scads of advice exist on how to resolve it.)

    Love as an aspect of alignment (in an alignment system more complex than L-N-C or the 3x3 grid) works better than mandatory class changes. You're still a knight even if you have a paramour. I did some tinkering with an Arthurian alignment system a while back: something that would cover allegiance to a particular cause, indicate the loyalty to the cause, and cover the traditional OD&D function of governing who can be turned and by what. I'd link but Wordpress is being a sod today.

    The game where everyone is playing some sort of special snowflake and forgetting their feudal vows: such is roleplaying. Any attempt to force through a particular style of play will only succeed as long as the most casual player in the group is buying into it. (It's a particular nuisance with Arthuriana because someone, sooner or later, will bring up Monty Python. I have never encountered a gaming group where this is avoidable.) Trying to stay ultra-Arthurian and control the mood at the table... is this not the sin of the Story-Gamer and the Frustrated Novelist?

    Final thought: John is right. Giving up personal freedom for the sake of verisimilitude is an exercise of agency on the part of players. They are choosing to buy in to a more or less 'authentic' Arthurian legend. You are not taking something away from them, you are offering them the opportunity to give something up in order to emphasise something else. They'll take it up for as long as they want to. Maybe it's a module rather than a campaign: something which will work in short form and not long.


      Scroll down, it's in there, about halfway.

  7. "Sometimes in Malory it seems that the genders appear to each other as strange spirits, not quite real, projecting from some other realm."

    Oh, this finally gets me some great ideas for fey in my campaign.

  8. It's kind of amusing that people have no problem playing nonhumans, but it's a huge problem for them to play Christians.

  9. Maybe take a look at Gregor Vuga's Sagas of the Icelanders? That's an rpg that gamifies literature with very rigid gender roles and does so without shying away from them.

  10. I came across your article and found it interesting, if a little ironic. All your points about the challenges of reflecting Arthurian legends in rpgs are valid, however, they are all addressed in the game you show the 1st edition cover of - King Arthur Pendragon. This game, now in it's 5th edition, is well worth a deeper look in how it discusses and addresses all these and other challenges.

    1. Yes, it makes one wonder why anyone would use D&D when Pendragon does this so much better.