If you looked up the Infogalactic entry for King Arthur Pendragon, you’d not be wrong to say that it’s quite sufficient for getting the jist of the game’s origin and history, so I won’t belabor the big reasons for its cult classic status. That it’s directly inspired by Arthurian legends, uses a variation of Chaosium’s ruleset, and has a distinct emphasis on the play of knights over the generations of the Matter of Britain vs. the sword-and-sorcery emphasis of Dungeons & Dragons will be enough. The designer, Greg Stafford, maintains a page that goes into details often omitted or glossed over in the game.
Why should you give this game a chance? Like Chaosium’s Call of Cthulhu and GDW’s Traveller, King Arthur Pendragon was a conscious and deliberate creation meant to bring a different virtual life experience to the medium of tabletop role-playing games- one not rooted in tabletop wargaming. This was one of the first purposely-focused game designs in the medium, where you played a knight in Arthur’s Britain. You can see Stafford’s desire to bring to life the history and mythology of Arthur’s Britain on every page.
You played a knight, with all of the duties and obligations that come with an Oath of Fealty, and your adventures stemmed from everything that knights were expected to do with that status: fight in wars, compete in tournaments, marry well, produce heirs (sons), and mentor squires into knights. You did that from the medieval perspective that your knight possessed, reflected in a set of contrasting emotional traits called “Passions”, which included your knight’s culture and his religion; possessing Passions of a given high value for his faith granted him bonuses.
Your knight’s adventures took him all over Arthurian Britain, and sometimes into France or even further into Continental Europe. Each one lasted a year, ending in Autumn; during the Winter your knight went into a downtime phase wherein you managed your knight’s estate and his household. If he died during the adventure or grew too old to adventure, that knight is done; you immediately pick up with his oldest son, squire, etc. as your new knight character.
While this sort of thing wasn’t new, it was something that individual game masters decided on and not the designer; it was a thing for house and table rules, not hard-coding into mechanics. It was one of the factors that cemented the game as a long-running cult classic, simultaneously alienating the majority who didn’t like its lack of D&D-style tropes (especially the lack of player-usable magic) while earning the die-hard loyalty of its core of players and fans who did want this sort of thing (and got it good and hard).
Compare this to Call of Cthulhu, which was also based on something other than tabletop wargames and also intended to create a specific gameplay experience in its players. The means are the same; only the execution differs, and the result is much the same- a core cult of players and fans, enough to keep it going for decades, but the majority not liking the full product in favor of taking bits to use in their (by comparison) mainstream gaming pursuits.
Yet I insist that every gamer who has any interest in how to adapt a literary corpus into something acceptable as a proper tabletop RPG take the time to get familiar with King Arthur Pendragon. Why? Because this game shows you how to work with one of the most strict fictional canons in all the world’s literature, with one of the strictest timelines, and yet it still find sufficient liminal space for players to have their own Arthurian adventures with their own Arthurian characters that do their own deeds without being overshadowed by (or without overshadowing) the canonical cast and their known (mis)deeds. Stafford’s rightly praised for his design skill in making this work as simply and elegantly as it does.
This is a game about honor, valor, loyalty, fortitude in adversity, and accepting one’s role in a scheme far greater than oneself; the degree to which one becomes a villain in Pendragon is the degree to which one disdains such virtues. If not for the late Stewert Wieck, the current 5th edition would never have happened. Whatever else you may think of the man, be grateful for this decision, because the current edition is a fantastic work and a fantastic edition of the game.
It hasn’t be “reimagined”. It hasn’t been “diversified”. There is no poz to the game. The source material tells us truths beyond mere facts, as any proper mythology does, and to Stafford’s credit he doesn’t dare do what Hollywood has done multiple times now and introduce pleasing lies to appease a phantom audience that wouldn’t buy or play the game anyway. You owe it to yourself to give this game a fair shake. Even if you never complete the Great Pendragon Campaign, just a few adventures as a knight in Arthur’s Britain is something not to be missed.