Imitating the look and feel of a classic Dungeons & Dragons boxed campaign, The Green Knight: A Fantasy Roleplaying Game forces players to contend with every one of their decisions. The RPG, created with the help of professional game master Timm Woods and in collaboration with film director David Lowery, culminates in a scene of judgement where their actions are weighed against the game’s intrinsic, and sometimes unwritten, rules of honour.
This story starts like many stories: in a tavern, as an unlikely group of people come together to share their tale. It’s common, but it’s a tried and true opening; they agree to venture as a group into the great forest where lies the Green Chapel, the Green Knight and, hopefully, a way to earn back their honour.
In the dawn light of the Green Chapel, a knight kneels. He is old and weathered, but his frame is steady as he stays bowed at the feet of a massive man, half-made of branches and loam. The standing creature - too much of a man to be less than a beast - is still. Behind the knight, another adventurer, burdened by honour, steps forward and kneels next to him.
Out of the five roles available, we followed three characters: a knight, a hunter and a sorcerer (the bard and the noble decided to stay home). The game uses barebones playbooks to streamline play, giving distinct Arthurian archetypes for players to embody. There’s some player discretion with boosting different skills, and gaining additional bonus moves, but there’s not a lot of wiggle room. The RPG doesn’t try to get fancy - it’s a piece of branded content, after all - and its focus is on giving people roles they’re comfortable with, the kind of characters they know. In this it succeeds. The playbooks get a bit of distinctive flair with their special moves but are otherwise extremely simple.
The RPG's focus is on giving people roles they’re comfortable with, the kind of characters they know.
The character setup makes The Green Knight easy to pick up and play, as the playbooks still use skill checks, putting the burden of roll determination on the game master. Each roll can either be classified as Honorable or Dishonorable, at the GM’s discretion.
Honour is an obsessive weight around the necks of the adventurers. Tracked on a sliding scale from one to 20, all skill checks are measured against your current level of Dishonor. If you want to succeed a roll on an Honorable action you need to roll higher than your Dishonor, and if you want to commit a Dishonorable action, you must roll lower. Any bonuses that you would receive to boost a roll would automatically become negatives, improving your Dishonor roll.
This is really a very clever way to create an impetus in the game to follow the module-as-written. To escape the bounds of your contract with the titular Green Knight would be dishonourable, and would automatically end your game. However, the game automatically dishes out Dishonor, and the opportunities to shift your scale up (towards Dishonor) are far more common than the opportunities to do the honourable thing. This makes it so even the characters who are desperate to uphold the codes of chivalry often fail, or are faced with choices that require them to give up on their personal codes in order to progress the story.
The NPCs the characters meet are not bound by the same rules of honour that surround the players.
“I delivered my own blow,” Imai says, adjusting their robe. The intricate natural embroidery along their shoulders, made of snail shells, cicada casings and hollow bird bones, rattles slightly. “Am I not worthy to kneel here?”
The world of The Green Knight is tenebrous; it’s foggy, draped in shadows and mired in shades of gray. The NPCs the characters meet are not bound by the same rules of honour that surround the players. Even in the murky shades of gray within the game world, the characters must be honourable. They must be able to determine right from wrong, regardless of circumstance. That’s the problem with honour; it’s much more like a code of truth, rather than righteousness.
Another part of the RPG that makes it unique, and might possibly weaken gameplay, is the lack of rules surrounding both combat and magic. It’s all kind of glossed over, and there’s no harm track or point counter anywhere. While this allows the GM to skip over fighting, asking for general rolls rather than rolls in specific, it also means that players who like having more structure or limits (or are used to having them) might be lost in the narrative possibilities. With each encounter in the game having some kind of combat option, the lack of rules around how to resolve fights feels inconsistent rather than intentional. With the pass/fail system, the characters only need one good roll to thrash a band of thieves or a ghostly retinue.
There’s room in the combat system to give narrative power to the players, another benefit of The Green Knight’s rules-lite system.
This reflects the game’s focus on honour, not bodily harm or might. While there are skill checks for combat, the results of pass/fail are mostly up to the GM. There’s room here to give narrative power to the players, another benefit of The Green Knight’s rules-lite system.
Hidden in the shadows, Orion waits, an arrow knocked in her bow. She refused to speak, didn’t even flinch when Kalahdin stepped forward and offered his body for all three blows. Now, with Imai kneeling next to him, the knight would only take on her blow, a sacrifice that felt too personal, too kind. Nature was not kind, nor soft, nor good, nor evil. It existed in its own rules of honour.
Included in the book is a lot of flavour text that helps bring across the supernatural horror vibe that studio A24 is going for in the film. The Arthurian vibe is strong, but not quite strong enough to stand out. The difference between the film and the game is that the movie offers new symbols, mythologies and an understated fantasy vibe that is remarkable among Arthurian adaptations. However, any of these encounters could be played within any other European fantasy RPG. What makes the film unique does not port over to the game.
For fans of A24, the low fantasy, high-stakes, encounter-based setting of the Green Knight RPG is charming and worthwhile. Surprisingly, and despite first impressions, the real strength of the game is in the system. It doesn’t burden itself with details, it doesn’t try to add in more than necessary and it places the most importance on the binary determination of Honorable actions vs Dishonorable actions. Without any hesitation, the character knows what they’re getting into, and whether or not what they’re doing is the right thing.
The Green Knight is, ultimately, a game you play to lose. You want to push your characters to the point where they succumb to the dishonour around them, or stand and face their fate, eyes open. The outcomes of each encounter are carefully written, meant to evoke a rotting, old magic at home in the depths of the unknowable highlands of this world. Within the natural order of the world is ruin, and you must learn to trade pieces of yourself, blow by blow, as you struggle to keep your honour intact.
For a game inspired by classic RPGs, there is surprising weight put on righteousness.
The Knight surveils the three before him. Kalahdin, who will take three blows for near-strangers, seems almost pleased. Imai shakes despite Kalahdin’s hand on their arm. Orion refuses to look away from her fate. The Knight raises his axe, and their stories do not end. Their legends become a part of the Chapel, written in green saplings and the stained-glass dappling of leaves on the floor. For every breath they take ever-after, the Green Chapel grows, and grows, and grows.
Games are often overwhelmed by choice. In The Green Knight, agency is an act of rebellion or righteousness, and every single action has an immediate moral consequence. For a game inspired by classic RPGs, there is surprising weight put on righteousness, regardless of your character’s playbook. Within this framework, when you face your ending you know that you have earned whatever last words you are given.
Buy The Green Knight: A Fantasy Roleplaying Game from publisher A24.