The Fail Cycle

Write Your Own Pendragon Review

This column is a reprint from Unwinnable Monthly #132. If you like what you see, grab the magazine for less than ten dollars, or subscribe and get all future magazines for half price.

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A videogame deep soak.

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Warning: contains small spoilers for Pendragon.

1.

You step off the ferry onto the banks of the river Avelion, your boots splashing into the mud of Britain for the first time since the Round Table was split apart. Behind you, the river gurgles. It is not the babbling of a brook in springtime. More the bubbling up of saliva in the throat of a hanging man.

a) The gurgle is the perfect way to foreshadow the travails that lie ahead of me. Go to 2.

b) This is altogether too melodramatic. Go to 3.

2.

The warnings of the river are well taken. You heft your spear in your hand and step away from its banks. As you walk, you feel the weight of tradition on you, the weight of over a thousand years of stories, of King Arthur and of others, mutating with every telling.

Like that of your weapon, tradition is a burden that you will relish bearing on your journey northwards, towards Arthur, his traitorous son Mordred and the battle that will decide the future of this broken land.

Go to 4.

3.

Though the descriptions of fallen Britain are not always so extravagant indeed, the text that appears around you, chronicling your travels, is usually little more than scene setting you step warily away from the river. Better to walk carefully than to blunder into an especially hammy bit of prose and choke before you can reach Arthur.

You have wronged Arthur, and yet he needs you now more than ever before, as he prepares to battle his son Mordred somewhere in the North.

Go to 4.

4.

Passing by a farm a series of run-down sheds that barely deserve the title you reflect on the devastation done to Britain. How could this have happened? And yet your own tumble from your high seat has been no less striking.

a) I was a queen! Go to 5.

b) I was Arthur’s most loyal companion and the greatest of his knights! Go to 6.

c) Who was I again? Go to 7.

5.

You are Queen Guinevere! Others have recited your own story to you many times, but you have never felt so much agency over it as you do today.

Go to 8.

6.

You are Sir Lancelot! Your tragedies are predictable but they could still pierce a rock-hard heart. Nonetheless, your biography might have been more fun if you’d been hiding away as a nun all these years.

Go to 8.

7.

You are a mysterious stranger! Even you do not know who you are yet, though your identity will be unlocked as you make this journey again and again, meeting new friends and foes. Many of the mechanics of how you fight will be familiar by then, though there’s a chance you will have some unusual trick to share and an even greater possibility that the story of your personal connection with Arthur will be fresh and engaging.

Go to 8.

8.

The sun is setting. Night creeps from over the mountain, invading the fields and forests. You stumble onwards in the dying light and find yourself in a place that you swear was not here the last time you last walked this countryside. Britain has changed.

a) It is a thick wood, almost impassable. Go to 9.

b) It is a barrow, home now only to vermin and ghosts. Go to 9.

c) It is another farm, though there is no more livestock in its fields than there was at the last estate you passed. Go to 9.

9.

You plod through the unfamiliar space, moving from square to square for that is how the land of Britain is laid out these days. People travel along chessboard-like areas a tile at time, having to wait for others to take their turns before they can move again.

You wonder if this foul place might be safe enough to rest for the night.

In the darkness, you hear a crash. Something has broken through the undergrowth. You move forwards another step. The thing changes its stance in the darkness, readying itself to fight. You move forwards again. Again it changes stance, to one better suited for movement. You move forwards another step.

Its a wolf! And another joins it out of the darkness!

a) I will surely destroy these beasts! Go to 10.

b) I choose to run away! Go to 11.

c) Haven’t I beaten enough wolves and rats and snakes already? No matter a few more will not make much difference. Go to 12.

10.

A brave choice. Any enemy might be your death, be they another wild animal, a bandit or one of Mordred’s many roaming knights.

a) I will move around and around in circles, waiting for an opening, before I dance forwards and kill the creature. Go to 13.

b) I will move around too much and be forced to flee when my morale falls too low. Go to 11.

c) I will make a silly mistake and die here. Go to 14.

11.

You flee blindly through the darkness. Still it is better to run away alive than fight to a pointless death, no matter what ignominy it brings on your name.

Go to 15.

12.

This fight proceeds much like many others you have fought. All the same, you still find yourself deriving pleasure from the strategy of it.

This time you use your special attack to take the wolves out, stabbing them when they’re at an angle to you. It is a rare skill you possess in this early medieval world, jabbing someone with your spear even though they are not directly facing you. It will be several hundred years before most people learn to use a full 360-degree range of motion and even longer before people themselves stop being two-dimensional forms and become as three-dimensional as the landscape they walk on.

Go to 15.

13.

Around and around you go. You step forwards. The first wolf steps forwards. You step back. It steps sideways. You step diagonally. It steps diagonally. You hold position. It changes stance and would charge at you if you didn’t step away. It steps back. You step forwards. It steps forwards too.

Wrooow, the wolf cries out. Quite frankly you had been getting tired of all the moving around by the time the terrible creature blundered too close and you could kill it.

The second one proves easier to dispatch without its colleague. A jump across some bushes, a stroke and it is gone too.

Go to 15.

14.

You dash forwards, confident. You have felt the thrill of your spear driving into the meaty flanks of a wolf many times before. Today, you see no reason why it should be any different.

Yet today is like no other. Today, you briefly forget how the mechanics of battle and claiming territory work and allow yourself to be backed into a corner. You have no prospect of escape. One of the wolves jumps forward and its fearful maw is the last thing you ever see.

Your journey is over. Arthur must fight Mordred alone. He will probably die, and its basically your fault, even if the text that pops up in the world around you never lets him forget the role his own pride played in his doom.

Go to 1 and begin another adventure.

15.

You leave the wolves home behind and advance on the North.

You had choices before, but now there is only one path you can take to reach Arthur. It runs through the marshes of Rhos Listenaise.

The smell of the earth beneath your boots is musty but cutting through it are the acrid taints of smoke and of recently spilled blood.

This morass has seen battle. Mordred’s forces wait not far from here.

You are almost on the other side of the marshes when, in the dawns dim light, you spot someone coming in your direction.

a) Not one person two! Go to 16.

b) It is a figure from my past. Go to 17.

c) I see a fleeing soldier. Go to 18.

16.

As you get closer, you can see that the two are in a heated argument. Both have their knives out, weapons raised. One jumps into the square of the other, ending both the argument and their associates life.

Knife still out and out of breath, the survivor approaches you.

My friend wanted to steal from you, but I couldn’t do it, they say. I recognize you from the stories of my childhood of the glory days of Camelot. I remember what you meant for this country.

a) I convince the bandit to come north with me. Go to 19.

b) I tell the bandit to return to their home and beg forgiveness for their crimes. Go to 20.

17.

You recognize Lady Rhiannon, former knight of the Round Table. Her fall from her place of honor was not quite so dramatic or great as yours. She wields a mighty sword, its edge gleaming even in the low light of the dawn.

She greets you with just a nod.

“On your way to fight Mordred?” you ask.

“On my way to fight someone,” she replies.

a) I convince her to come north with me. Go to 19.

b) I tell her to travel on. There are other battles and, in the end, does Arthur merit saving more than any other person? Go to 20.

18.

The soldier is close to tears, though he wears the mark of Camelot on his breast.

It is too much. He begins to sob, the sight of a face from the glorious past too much for him to bear. You remember that face now. Sir John is his name. They are too many, even for Arthur. I could not stand to witness it.

a) I convince the once-brave knight that there is still a chance to save Arthur if he comes with me. Go to 19.

b) I tell him to travel on and be safe. He may be right. If so, his family needs him alive, not dying on a doomed errand. Go to 20.

19.

Awanderer on the road has become a new companion. You can travel on together and reach the battlefield today, or you can rest and better prepare for the test ahead.

a) We must get there before it is too late! Go to 21.

b) Well recuperate here and share a story around the fire. Go to 22.

20.

You watch as your potential lieutenant disappears over the horizon to the south. You hope they find a peace they have not had for some time though there will be no peace for anyone if Arthur’s son, the Black Dragon, is not stopped.

Go to 21.

21.

The sounds of fighting are close enough you can hear them, metal clashing against metal, the screams of the dying and the roaring of those who do not want to join them.

Though the lids on your eyes are heavy, you press on towards the tumult. Its time to meet Mordred and bring about a reckoning. You hope it is his and not your own or Arthur’s.

Onwards! Go to 25.

22.

Your comrade stretches out on the ground, making themselves as comfortable as they can on the rocks. Its the only space dry enough to set yourself down and make a fire.

They begin to tell a story from their childhood.

Its a well-told narrative, one which lights up the gloomy marshlands with vivid characters. It keeps you guessing at its moral. It has tragedy. It develops your understanding of one of the lesser characters in your own tale.

a) I savor the extra texture the yarn brings to the world I inhabit. Go to 23.

b) The story is too much of a tangent from my own. In future, I’ll avoid participating in such gatherings around a fire. Go to 23.

23.

Your own responses to the story make no material difference to its plot, though they imply a great deal about you as a character and as a player.

a) I enjoy it for what it is, another instrument for self-definition in an existence that is given meaning as much by how we live as where we end up. Go to 24.

b) And that’s why it feels a little meaningless, like many of my other choices in this life. Go to 24.

24.

You drift off with the final words of the story, lost to sleep beneath the nights sky. When you wake, it is early but not so early that it should still be this dark. The morning is overcast and smoky, the sun too weak and fearful to penetrate the fog above you.

You gather yourself and your possessions. Already you can smell the stench of fear on the wind, the tell-tale scent of soldiers about to die or already dead. You can’t be far.

Its time to meet Mordred and bring about a reckoning. You hope it is his and not your own or Arthur’s.

Onwards! Go to 25.

25.

You halt at the edge of the battle and assess the field. Arthur is somewhere in its middle, fighting alone against Mordred’s men.

Your story ends here. Your story often ends on this spot or near to it, and, although the tale of Pendragon is supposed to change with every telling, many of its chapters will be familiar, in shape at least, if you have heard the tale before. Whether the changes are enough for you will depend on you as much as the story itself.

You take another step forwards, onto the board of this final battleground, to offer your spear to the man who was once your king and to conclude this story once more.

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Declan Taggart is a doctor of Viking gods. He lives in a faraway land, but you can probably find him on Twitter @DCTaggart.

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