Roleplayer #24, June 1991

The Once and Future Legend

Writing GURPS Camelot

by Peggy and Bob Schroeck

So, we're gluttons for punishment. Bob hadn't even gotten GURPS IST out the door when we decided to take up the gauntlet of challenge thrown down by SJ Games. He, head still swimming from IST; she, never having written a book before and wondering what the big deal was all about.

We both found out.

Both of us had a good "pop culture" grounding in the Arthurian legends, and a little more. As a side effect of being in the SCA, we had stumbled across the noted Arthurian scholar Geoffrey Ashe, along with his theories about Riothamus. We had, of course, seen Excalibur, Camelot and The Sword in the Stone; we had read (or at least skimmed) many adaptations of the original stories – what more did we need to know? What more could there possibly be to discover?


We had decided that the only way to do King Arthur any justice at all in GURPS was to not provide a "standard" Arthur and a "standard" Britain, but to break it down into the three milieux that seemed obvious to us: the original tales of Sir Thomas Malory (what we called the "mythic" or "medieval" Arthur), the pop culture Arthur (which we deemed "cinematic"), and – most daringly – an attempt at a "historical" setting following Ashe's theories. It seemed fairly clear-cut at first.

Then we started the research.

There are advantages to having bibliomaniac friends. Nearly half our research materials were borrowed from their shelves. The rest came from raiding Waldenbooks and from diving into the stacks of Rutgers and Princeton Universities' libraries. To our immense surprise, Arthur was everywhere. (Our budget is still recovering . . .)

In the course of our research, we encountered an entire body of tradition virtually unknown to the average reader: the tales known collectively as The French Vulgate. These were the so-called "French Book" that Malory referred to frequently in Le Morte D'Arthur. Other non-English sources included the works of the anonymous Gawaine-Poet, who wrote an entire cycle around that esteemed knight (including the well-known "Sir Gawaine and the Green Knight"), and the Celtic Mabinogion.

Finally, if not most importantly, we also drew upon that unreliable 12th-century historian, Geoffrey of Monmouth, and his History of the Kings of Britain. Geoffrey was significant because he was the first to attribute an entire career to what had previously been a shadowy figure in British folklore. Although much of Geoffrey's History was made up out of whole cloth, it did point the way to both the truth behind Arthur and to the legend that was to grow around him.

The French tales and poems in particular became very important sources for us. Despite the difficulty (almost near impossibility in some places) in reconciling them with Morte, they very often provided the exact detail that Malory neglected. The best example of this is the story of just why Morgan le Fay hates Guinevere. Some supporting characters from these sources seemed important enough to us to import them whole – Elyzabel and Ragnell, for example – into the setting we were constructing.

It soon became clear that the division between "mythic" and "cinematic" was often arbitrary and fuzzy; most of the differences that we expected to find just weren't there. The only real variances were in approach to the stories and surface details. As a result, we abandoned our original plans for separate character listings for both myth and cinema; the changes between the two versions of a character could often be summed up in a paragraph or two. The entire cinematic chapter itself shrunk as more and more material became subsumed by the mythic section.

The historic chapter, however, grew readily from the scanty remains of a mysterious British warlord. Using Geoffrey Ashe and Geoffrey of Monmouth, as well as the scanty facts known about Dark Age Britain, we attempted to construct a brief but accurate picture of the land and people as they were. We easily could have gone on for another 20 pages – but space constraints forced us to be concise almost to the point of terseness.

When Bob began the basic composition of much of the book, Peggy embarked on a much more grueling task: a person-by-person glossary of every character to appear in Malory or the Vulgate (or a major poem in some cases). Sadly, much of the material had to be edited down in order to fit. As a result, though, she possessed a more complete vision of the entire cycle; when Bob finished his initial drafts, Peg corrected his factual errors and provided unifying themes that had escaped him. Her researches and in-sights resulted in many of the more interesting "optional" sidebars, including The Imaginary Merlin, as well as more accurate and in-depth portrayals of the relationships between the characters.

In the end, we both feel that we have created a portrayal of Arthur and his world(s) that is, if not unique, vibrant and strong enough to stand on its own merits. Arthurian legend is immensely complex and contradictory, but we feel that we have managed to do justice not only to it, but its ideals and glories.

Arthur truly is the Once and Future King – he lives on through all of us!

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