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THE KNIGHTS OF THE (OD&D) TABLE: Application to Arthurian Myth

The Death of Arthur

I was recently reading Peter Ackroyd’s Sir Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur (written 1470) and was struck how its collective tales when taken together matched OD&D’s wilderness setup when it comes to castles, NPC rulers therein, and jousting. Also, it helped provide a rationale in my head as to why the cavalier is a subclass in AD&D given so much of early D&D is oriented in dungeoneering- why bring a horse? The Arthurian tales seem more likely an inspiration for this section of OD&D than many of the books in the Appendix N such as Three Hearts, Three Lions which feature a knight, but still are more a LoTR-style adventuring party.

This blog post is less concerned about the origin of these rules in OD&D and whether they can be used to help a DM create a campaign that gives the same feel. Now, yes, perhaps Mythic Bastionland or Pendragon would be systems better designed to support this particular genre. But if you just want to attach this component to an existing campaign or maybe just pull off 3-5 sessions, why invest time, energy, and money into a completely new system? Heck, even if you wanted to start a fresh new campaign, why switch to a new system when your table’s familiarity with D&D could help? On a more contemporary note, If you’ve gotten the Dolmenwood pdfs, like I did, then you know the knight class and house outlines provide a ready-made setting outside of Mythic Bastionland or Pendragon. 

Let’s look at a very good tool already provided by OD&D- the stronghold rules.

Here are what I think are a few interesting points in this block of text that will serve our purpose:

  • The ponds on the Outdoor Survival Game map are now castles 
  • Those castle encounters will be 50% hostile or 50% “neutral” which means PCs will have to explain themselves a lot. So courtesy is front and center in our campaign in keeping with the Arthurian tales.
  • Castle owners who are fighting men will demand a jousting match which is in line with the Arthurian stories about gaining renown through the testing of arms. Magic users, including, clerics might send PC on quests via geas spells. Certainly in line with the machinations of Merlin and Morgaine.
  • It is also noted that Patriarch’s are always lawful while Evil High Priest are always chaotic.
  • And while not prolific, intermixed among human opposition, is a fair bit of superhuman/supernatural occurrences. Again Morgaine and Merlin are natural examples of wizards/necromancers. The Lady of the Lake (and her predecessors) I would consider patriarchs. 
  • While evil priests are never directly referenced, there are one or two stories involving some knights that seem to rise from the dead or other unearthly enchantments. In fact Lancelot du Lake and Galahad have a whole “side quest” involving their adventure to far off lands but “because these stories do not involve their quest for the Grail, they are not recorded in the old books.”
  • And as the inhabitants of the castles? Well, 3d10 x10 inhabitants will man the walls split between ranged units and heavy foot. And a mix of magical creatures which while not a central component of Arthurian myths they are there in the periphery. The Questing Beast is a well known example, but also Galahad’s sword, hilt, and scabbard are made of various parts of fantastical snakes, fish, and wyrms.

The Structure of the Stories

Generally, the setup is 1 or 2 named knights questions across a densely castled countryside and/or cutting through a mysterious forest in search of renown or to right a wrong or by request or for revenge. Knights are often waylaid by battles, other knights, magic, duplicity, and, occasionally, God. Eventually each knight to able to over come those obstacles through feats of arms and maintaining a strong adherence to Christian virtues and chivalric code. Mostly. Because while these stories are rather “simple”, the characters often display more complexity than pop cultural interpretations of them would let on.

Here Is How I Would Run Dungeons & (Pen)Dragons

A Campaign for 1 or 2 Players and a DM: I always think its interesting that a lot of these stories actually involve 1 or 2 of Aurther’s knights and 2-5 other characters a long the way. So let’s go with that format which helps explain the setup.

Knighted PCs: The knights in the Arthurian story are already individuals of some note, so I think a good way to kick-off the campaign would be to start them at third level. Yes, heresy by “ye olde scool” standards, but we are leaning a little more into genre “setup”. This would place PC right below “hero” level (Level 4) and so makes sense that not matter what is going on, the PCs are at least questing for renown.

And as we have established we are using only 1 or 2 players so this will help a little bit with survivability. If back-up characters are needed, perhaps the DM can roll up a “round table” of alternatives.

By OD&D standards this would also allow PC to have a multi-attack ability against normal man-types which again is a common occurrence than the main characters of Arthurian myths can take on multiple normal knights/horsemen/footmen.

The Code of Chivalry: I found the Dolmanwood Chivalric code a little too brief. So poking around on the internet to see if someone has previously enumerated the various rules of the Code I found one text looking at the code from the Song of Roland which is also a great list to help create conflict by simple having the antagonists do the opposite of:

  1. To fear God and maintain His Church 

  2. To serve the liege lord in valour and faith 

  3. To protect the weak and defenceless 

  4. To give succour to widows and orphans 

  5. To refrain from the wanton giving of offence 

  6. To live by honour and for glory 

  7. To despise pecuniary reward 

  8. To fight for the welfare of all 

  9. To obey those placed in authority 

  10. To guard the honour of fellow knights 

  11. To eschew unfairness, meanness and deceit 

  12. To keep faith 

  13. At all times to speak the truth 

  14. To persevere to the end in any enterprise begun 

  15. To respect the honour of women 

  16. Never to refuse a challenge from an equal 

  17. Never to turn the back upon a foe

Save vs Change: I might change the 5 saves to more the 7 deadly sins or remove “sloth” and “gluttony” as those don’t quite fit as much as the other sins.

The Relm:  Below I have a 6 x 6 hex map (with 6-miles hexes) made with the ever-useful HEX KIT and just dropped as many castles as I could with about 20 miles apart (which is the amount of land able to be held by these building one). Another interesting thing is that Arthur’s England is far from depopulated in contrast to the old-school mindset. Most of the stories involve knights running into many different castles and having some sorta of conflict occur there. Finally, I drop 2-3 other features on there for fun especially woodlands which were ever present in the tales and a hotbed of questing/adventuring. Start small and build out from there. Don’t try to do too much at the start. If you have Dolmenwood, just carve out a 6x6 chunk from there and add in the already present factions and standards.

Quest Goal: An object of importance like a grail, a philosopher’s stone, a sword, a book, or a famed necromancer’s hand & eye could be the ultimate goal, but again in several of the stories simple adventuring for renown was good enough. So let’s also create a table for the reason for a lowercase “q” quest:

Roll 1d20 to determine why you are questing:

  1. To avenge another fallen knight, 

  2. evict unlawful owners, 

  3. avenge a maiden, 

  4. avenge a king, 

  5. rescue a maiden, 

  6. rescue another knight, 

  7. appear as another knight/unknown knight to perform X

  8. participate in a tournament, 

  9. lay siege, 

  10. break a siege, 

  11. A case of mistaken identity, 

  12. To settle an argument, 

  13. Because you were kidnapped or beguiled to a quest

  14. joust over who’s maiden is hottest/virtuous

  15. To atone for a previously committed offense

  16. Prove you are the toughest

  17. Remove bandits at X

  18. To capture/hunt a famous beast

  19. Just to see what happens to you

  20. Because GOD said to (Roll 1d20 again)

A “quest” whose objective is defined above might be worth something like 1000 XP. Now it might be that more or less XP could be earned by depending on how close to the Chivalric code a PC remains in the completions of this quest. XP still could be awarded for the value of objects recovered/given too, but in response to the code money cannot be a focus.

No Gold: Yup. A key here would be that PC should turn down monetary rewards for gifts or other forms of aid. Perhaps if they need to buy something it has to be bartered, a favor extended, or maybe roll a d8 vs their current level- if at or below, then the NPC has heard of their great deads and aggress to help them.

Your Princess [Brother, Cousin, Sister, Aunt, Uncle, Niece, Nephew, or In-Law] is in Another Castle: I would also make sure that a few of the other castles contain relatives of the PCs. Even in Arthurian stories, blood relations were always causing trouble for our “heroes”. This is a very nice gameable element and one that also might put a damper on always reaching for the sword.

Conflict Resolution the Arthurian Way: And how is conflict mostly resolved? A test of arms! Yes, there is a lot of jousting (mainly with a spear interesting) and often if a knight was unhorsed it was time to draw swords. Often the knight could be wounded severely enough they have to be dragged to the nearest hermitage on a litter. Enter OD&D jousting rules. But really you could use the more well-known combat rules as well. I might throw in a little something like “if an attack roll beats the opponent’s AC by 5+, the opponent makes a save vs. Paralysis or is knocked down.”

God: The almighty above always knows what is in the heart of a knight. So if the PCs have been bad or broken chivalric code they are going to be in trouble when the powers above (or below) start calling.

Final Word (?): Send me your blog links!

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