I, Mordred (2002)
F.S Kessler & John. R. Phythyon, Jr. (Avalanche Press LTD)
In this coming time of change, fire and blood, when mettle will be tested and where the blueprints of the coming decades are laid out, it is comforting to know that there are still things that can pleasantly surprise a man. Case in point: I, Morded by Avalanche games is the first 64 page campaign setting that I can comfortably recommend without a huge disclaimer and several asterisks.
It all starts with a good premise. It is the mythical era of Camelot. King Arthur has gone from One True King to cruel, alcoholic despot and his son Mordred, aided by his sorcerous mother Morgana Le Fay and her Fair folk allies, is plotting to liberate England from his mad and self-destructive reign. Bam!
The book starts out with a 2-page overview of the Arthurian cycle as it has been portrayed throughout history, starting with the Vulgate Cycle and ending with modern portrayals like the Mists of Avalon (I recall it being boring but I was 11 when I read it so who cares) and its various influences on other works of fiction. After this we are off to Grimdark Camelot proper.
The book intelligently assumes that the myth of King Arthur is so ingrained in contemporary western society that you are sure to have heard of it somehow through cultural osmosis and therefore gives you only a brief overview of the myth-cycle before it diverges from the books. Morgan manipulates Sir Tristram into becoming her loyal puppet, Lancelot leaves Camelot in disgrace, Guineviere is exiled after their forbidden love affair and Arthur turns into an alcoholic medieval version of Pol Pot. To make matters worse for everyone, the remaining Knights of the Round are sent away on a fruitless quest to find the Grail whilst Arthur taxes England into oblivion. Merlin has been vanquished by Morgan Le Fay and imprisoned within the tower of Melegeant for a 100 years. Enter Mordred Rising!
The campaign setting rightly avoids the pitfalls of a simple good vs evil parable in lieu of something more nuanced without falling into the equally dangerous trap of depressing and nihilistic grimdarkness. Arthur’s reign has impoverished the lands and the sight of his Taxmen brings fear and loathing to the people, but Mordred’s resistance has only increased the death toll thus far. Mordred is a good guy but his camp is divided. Morgan le Fay is an evil bitch with ambitions of making England suffer for the crimes of Uther Pendragon, and Mordred’s attempts to recruit knights to his aid will make him less dependent upon her and her Fey allies, thus setting the stage for internal conflict. Merlin has figured out a way to influence shit in spirit form but despite his Good alignment he will support Arthur above all else. The multiple conflicting agendas and ambitions open up myriad campaign possibilities.
The first crunch shows up at page 12. The Noble knight class is essentially a Paladin without magical abilities (Divine grace, Fearlessness and a Pure of Heart ability making them resistant to charms and enchantments) and with some bonus feats to compensate. Nice and simple, and a side-bar discussing appropriate equipment for an Arthurian campaign (The game chooses mythical emulation over historical accuracy, for which I will praise Jesus. Knights need full plate goddammit.). No bullshit page of feats this time, because I, Mordred has shit to do and cannot afford to waste time on padding. If I were to run this I would take the free Weapon Focus (Lance) feat Knights receive at level 2 as licence to introduce as much mounted combat as I can, since mounted combat is underutilized in medieval games.
Immediately we dive back in to an overview of the Fey. The Fey are…interesting. They are not the whimsical and oftentimes cruel Fair Folk of folklore, but neither are they humans with pointy ears. The Fey are divided by a caste system (with its associated intra-group tensions and pitfalls) and live deep in the Forest of Bürr. Though they aid Mordred, they are for the most part unconcerned with the affairs of humankind and their worship of the savage heathen deity Silvanus (and his Avatar, the Green Knight) makes them allies of dubious merit. The Green Knight, their King, is appropriately distant and uncaring and all of human history is for him but the blink of an eye. Phelot, a renowned member of the warrior caste, is tireless in attempting to convince the warrior caste to overthrow the repressive caste-system and taking power for themselves.
Stats are provided for all four castes (laborers, spies, warriors, leaders) so in theory it might be possible to make them playable characters, though I suspect the game works much better if your PCs are all human. This is followed up by a list of Monster/NPC stats, short but sweet. The mercurial Hautedesert or Green Knight, King of all Fey. The Lady of the Lake. The Questing Beast! And of course Merlin in bizarre Astral Dragon form. All are given about 2 paragraphs of description that gives us a good idea what they are about. The stats proper are there to serve the setting, not vice versa. Crucially, ridiculous stat bloat is avoided so that even the Green Knight is only CR 18 and can be hurt with normal weapons (though anyone attempting to do so is in for a rough fight, given his ability to animate up to 10 trees at once).
What is next? A map of Camelot! A great map! It has guard schedules, notes on NPCs, atmospheric descriptors (every day Arthur has his feast halls set for the return of the Grail Knights and the feast thrown out when they inevitably do not show up, prompting beggars to fight over the remains), A good way to infiltrate the place (once a year the Contests of Truth are held, a grand festival involving numerous battles between knights, made sour by the inevitably cruel punishments Arthur inflicts on the loser) and places that could be sabotaged or robbed to aid Mordred’s War Effort. The village around Camelot is nicely described, filled with charlatans, harlots, thieves and poor men. Each Npc is described in terms of appearance, goals and personality, not in stats, for which I applaud it. Rules for Std’s for sleeping with prostitutes are provided. A picture is painted of a once great place long since fallen into decay and decadence.
I could rant more about Camelot. The Dungeons with Arthur’s executioner, Sarcien the Moor. A hidden Orb crafted by Morgan that sends Arthur Nightmares and makes his spirit heavy. Anyone putting their horse in the Livery Stables has a 10% chance of having it stolen by the owner. The Royal staircase is stained with blood, wine, soot and anyone attempting to ascend it must make a DC 7 dex check or fall off. The gruesome sick house where Arthur’s collection of quacks and blood-letters attempt their cures of dubious merits. Secret passageways. The War room where Arthur goes to have conversations with imagined and long lost friends and reminisces about the glory days. Merlin sends messages to Arthur in dreams, though it is not clear if Arthur even knows he is still alive. This is a place that can be used as a setting for ADVENTURE and it is dripping with atmosphere.
The other location being detailed is the essential forest of Bürr. It is portrayed as a place of danger, and nicely so. The game is even so generous as to provide us with a random encounter table, stocked from the Monsterous Manual but appropriately so (Bears, Giant Snakes, Cockatrices and other medieval-myth inspired creatures). Morded’s camp is not quite so brimming with adventure potential as Camelot but that makes sense and the detail provided helps set the mood as well as emphasize the division between the Fey and his mortal retainers. The Fey are portrayed as weird and insular creatures that are always dangerous to deal with for mortal men. Mordred is a good man but appears cold and does not trust many of his allies (and who can blame him).
What else? The Tower of Bürr! I like the description. A crumbling, ivy-wreathed soapstone tower erected in roman times. So too the content. I, Mordred tends more towards the simulation-end of rpg-design I think, and as such the Tower of Bürr is not stocked to the brim with monsters and treasure that have to be overcome before one can reach Merlin’s quarters. Instead it has but few perils, each of them terrifying. A powerful Antipathy spell laid about the place by Morgana. The Sword bridge, 10 feet tall by 1 foot wide, which will cut any man that attempts to cross it (adventures need more obstacles like this). And finally, WIGHT UTHER PENDRAGON. WAS THAT SO HARD TO ASK DND? The reward? The knowledge that Merlin’s body has long perished (he has taken Astral Dragon form) and his kickass loot!
Other locations that might be of use such as the Lake of the Lady of the lake are given short, evocative descriptions so the GM may do something with that. Nice.
The game proceeds to discuss possible campaign formats, from guerrilla warfare to intrigue to the one with the most potential THE GRAIL QUEST. It even offers the possibility of the PCs being on the side of king Arthur and desperately searching for a means of curing their fallen liege (SEE ALSO, THE GRAIL QUEST). The game spends a page or two outlining what the Grail knights have been up while also giving you a table of rumors for GRAIL QUESTING as well as the results should it actually be found (though the game notes that the quest being fruitless is definitely in keeping with the Source material). There is something about a Grail Quest set in Grim-dark Camelot turned upside down that just sets fire to my imagination. I love it. The best possibility is discussed and it is of course, redeeming King Arthur by having him sup from the Grail. What better way to end such a campaign?
The game gives you a sample adventure for characters 7-10 that is…weird. Not as mythical as the source material, but not bog standard DnD either. It feels a bit like a filler episode of an ongoing tv series. No sign of a gridmap since this is manly simulationist 3e and not degenerate gridwork character-optimization wankathon 3e. A cunning plot by Merlin is concocted as the PCs raid yet another of Arthur’s caravans. A rumor of a new possible secret weapon leads the PCs to the edge of the North Sea, where they must trick an insane Scottish Wizard, his shrewish wife and his vainglorious apprentice into parting with an odd magical device. Its the vivid descriptions that make these NPCs seem alive. Its uncanny. The device is actually a trap and will trigger as soon as Mordred gets a hold of it. Everyone within 500 feet is trapped in a pocket dimension. The PCs are blamed and must fight in a Contest of Truth to prove their innocence. After this, they are free to find some way out (the Scottish wizard made a loophole so that only those Pure of Heart may exit the trap, what a dummy). Now the Wizard needs to be found and coerced into giving a means of undoing the trap. Cue vicious ambush sent by Merlin as the PCs return. Uh. Pretty great. Railroadery at times. But pretty fucking solid. And it takes up about 8 pages, and that includes stat-blocks.
The supplement ends with something that is also crucial to its successful running. Stats for Merlin, Arthur, Morgana Le Fay, Mordred and a few of the Grail Knights, along with notes on their behavior and appearance. Arthur is so corrupted that Excalibur will no longer provide him with its magical powers, and only Merlin’s spirit keeps him from losing control of the Kingdom. Merlin is practically invincible but can only talk to Arthur through dreams, though he can manifest in dragon form for 7 hours per week which he will presumably do if Arthur is directly threatened (which explains why Morgan doesn’t simply blow him up with sorcery). Mordred is taciturn and cold and though his cause is just he is in many ways completely unfit to rule, being uncomfortable around people unless it is to plan war and tactics. Morgan le Fay is a spiteful and bitter witch that wants to see all of England suffer for the crimes of Uther Pendragon. The Grail knights are diverse, each with their own motivation, some capable of being swayed to join Mordred’s Cause (Galahad) some loyal to Arthur to the death (Parsifal). Sir Gareth is a hateful brute, a fallen Grail Knight, now infected with Pox and not long for this world.
Pros: Successful evocation of Arthurian myth, with a delightful twist to keep it fresh. Short but sweet. Does not get bogged down in endless stat fagging or bonus feats. Good with every delicious, chocolate-filled, nougaty bite. Focus on intrigue and motivation instead of stats is sure to provide entertainment for those of us who like our DnD to have a bit less crunch and a bit less fluff.
Cons: I cannot think of any.
Bottom Line: I, Mordred does something I’ve always known was possible but had not previously seen. It presents you with a good idea for a campaign and gives you all the essential tools to run it properly. No page is wasted and no detail is superfluous. The use of the d20 system for what will most likely be a very intrigue and story heavy game is lamentable but by no means a deal breaker. Tightly focused yet brimming with possibility. The first Avalanche supplement I can heartily recommend. Hail to the king baby!
I recommend I, Morded to anyone who is into the more mythical aspects of Dnd. While it is not a brilliant work, it is a very solid work that gives you exactly what you need, in but 63 delicious pages. 8.5 out of 10.