"Come now my child, if we were planning to harm you, do you think we'd be lurking here beside the path in the very darkest part of the forest..." - Kenneth Patchen, "Even So."

THIS IS A BLOG ABOUT STORIES AND STORYTELLING; some are true, some are false, and some are a matter of perspective. Herein the brave traveller shall find dark musings on horror, explorations of the occult, and wild flights of fantasy.

Tuesday, October 3, 2023


And what if one of the gods does wreck me out on the wine-dark sea? I have a heart that is inured to suffering and I shall steel it to endure that too. For in my day I have had many bitter and painful experiences in war and on the stormy seas. So let this new disaster come. It only makes one more. 

- The Odyssey

A Truly "Epic" Game

The word "epic" comes from the Greek epikos, and referred to a specific poetic meter (dactylic hexameter, to be exact). Hesiod used this meter, as did the Delphic oracles and many others. Yet because Homer used it for both the Iliad and the Odyssey, by the time it entered Latin (epicus) meant "a lengthy heroic poem."

Modern scholarship applies the word to a wide range of poems spanning thousands of years and multiple cultures. The oldest is Gilgamesh (circa 2200 - 1500 BCE). One of the most recent is the Finnish Kalevala (19th century CE). Other notable examples include the Sanskrit Ramayana (circa 6th century BCE) and Mahabharata (5th century BCE - 4th century CE), the Aeneid (29-19 BCE), the Persian Shahnameh (1000 CE), the French Song of Roland (11th century CE), German Nibelungenlied (1200 CE), and Old English Beowulf (975-1025 CE). What they have in common, and thus the criteria for what makes an "epic" a bona fide "epic," is a matter of debate. Most scholars, however, would agree on the following:

- An epic tells the story of heroes, human beings who embody the values of the civilization telling their story and who perform extraordinary deeds in service of those values.

- An epic involves intervention by gods and/or supernatural powers, either aiding or opposing the heroes.

- Descended from oral traditions, an epic uses epithets to make it easy for listening audiences to identify characters.

- An epic follows a strongly ritualized structure, often beginning with an invocation, a clear statement of theme, and following the Hero's Journey (what Joseph Campbell called the "monomyth"). 

- An epic's protagonists (and antagonists) make bold declarations and vows telegraphing their actions, often but not always including long, formal speeches.

We need to define the epic, because it is impossible to discuss One Seven and Evil Hat's 2020 edition of Agon without first doing so. The game does not have a subtitle, but if it did, it would have to be something like "Epic Roleplaying," specifically in the sense of the literary epic. The structure of the game, its design choices and idiosyncrasies, all flow from epic poetry, and in bringing this form to the table, Agon doesn't put a single foot wrong. It is an absolute bull's eye.

Agon 2006 versus Agon 2020

Agon was first published in 2006 by author John Harper. It was a "good" game, and it was clear that the author was passionate about the source material, but in Agon terms the first edition "prevailed" but was not "best." While it introduced some excellent concepts--concepts that made it into the 2020 edition and are implemented much better--it was held back by two things. 

First of all, the 2006 Agon was a bit too much of a traditional RPG. It had skills, NPCs had statistics, combat was fairly crunchy with combat rounds, wound tracks, and armor and weapons that absorbed or dealt certain amounts of damage. You and your party roamed around fantasy Greece getting into adventures. None of this was bad, but just adding elements of Greek mythology to traditional table top systems has been tried before and never really comes close to emulating the feel of mythology or the epics. Second, Agon lacked clear focus. The Olympian gods were at war with each other. The player characters got caught up in their struggles and went on quests. Again, this sounds like your typical RPG setting. Note: Harper was always up front about this. In the designer's notes of the 2006 edition he specifically describes Agon as his "take" on Dungeons & Dragons. It shows. 

The problem I think is that you can't just do a "Greek mythology" game any more than you can do an "Arthurian" one. Both genres are too vast, too contradictory, too diverse. Greg Stafford grasped this when he wrote King Arthur Pendragon. Instead of a vague and general "King Arthur" approach, he chose Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur as the skeletal structure of the game, designing mechanics specifically to emulate that. Then, with this solid foundation, he was able to layer other Arthurian sources on it.

I think this is what John Harper--who in the interim had produced several other games including the widely-acclaimed Blades in the Dark--and Sean Nittner figured out in sitting down to do the new edition of Agon. While Agon 2006 was unfocused, Agon 2020 is incredibly specific. The player characters are heroes returning home from the War, sailing for home. Along the way, they encounter a number of islands under the influence of Strife, each one a separate challenge or adventure. They try to make things right on each island with the ultimate goal of getting home. This isn't just a "Greek mythology" game, it is the Odyssey. And just as Stafford did with Pendragon, once they had this firm foundation, they were able to add other elements to it.

The other key difference, and the one that makes the new edition of Agon sing, is that in lieu of traditional RPG approaches to play, Agon looks to the epics themselves, following their highly ritualized and formulaic structures to produce a table top experience that could never possible be confused with something like Dungeons & Dragons.

Let's explore how.

Character Creation

Agon (and from here on in we are referring exclusively to the 2020 edition) begins with a chapter called 'Thesis," in which the basic premise and assumptions of the game are explained. One of the most important sections here falls on page 8, where the authors make a statement that explains not just the game but the epic hero as well:

Heroes in Agon are defined by an essential duality: the human and the transcendent. They are powerful figures capable of epic feats, but they’re also people—they can be hurt, exhausted, and heartbroken.
To reflect this Agon uses two resources, Divine Favor and Pathos. Divine Favor comes from pleasing the gods, whether through serving them or sacrificing to them. Pathos is a measure of the character's endurance and perseverance. We'll be coming back to these in the Contest & Battle section, but they are key concepts that needed mentioning up front. They provide not only bonuses in the game, but are sometimes employed as measures of "injury," and ultimately govern whether your character falls during the journey or makes it safely home.

Agon uses a simple dice pool mechanic. The character's aspects and traits are measured by a polyhedral die. The larger the die the more potent the trait. The game uses d4, d6, d8, d10, and d12 dice. When a trait applies, you add its corresponding die to the pool.

In character creation, the first thing you chose is your Epithet. Are you Far-Sighted? Iron-Minded? Lion-Hearted? Strong-Limbed? A generous list is provided but a player could just as easily create their own. The Epithet starts as a d6. Epithets can be improved (to d8, d10, d12) by spending Boons on them (more on these later).

Next is the character's Name. Once you choose a name you assign a d6 to it as well. Your name is your core trait. In other words, if no other die applies to the task, you will still have this one in your die pool. This might seem a bit odd to some readers, "your name is an ability?" Yet this makes perfect sense in the context of the epic. Heroes do not adventure for gold, they adventure to be remembered, for their name to live on. A name strikes fear into the hearts of enemies, a name inspires courage in allies. Your name is the sum of all your great deeds. For this reason, while other traits in Agon are improved by expending Boons on them, your Name is increased by accumulating Glory (see below).

Now you will chose the character's Lineage. Do you descend from a great king or queen? A hero? A god? Regardless you will select one of the four Domains in the game (skill sets, with Arts & Oration, Blood & Valor, Craft & Reason, and Resolve & Spirit) that you ancestor excelled in and assign a d8 to it. The other three Domains are all d6.

So at this stage you might have Silver-Tongued (d6) Nikanor (d6), Son of Kythia (Arts & Oration d8, Blood & Valor d6, Craft & Reason d6, Resolve & Spirit d6). Or perhaps Loud-Roaring d6 Nemaios d6, Son of Pelon Son of Ares (Arts & Oration d6, Blood & Valor d8, Craft & Reason d6, Resolve & Spirit d6). Your character is nearly finished.

12 Olympians are listed on the character sheet, each with a quality they embody. You will chose which god you favor most and tick two of the boxes next to their name. You make tick of three other boxes for other gods as you please. This is to establish your starting Divine Favor. More on this below.

Now decided on your character's Style. These are features that characterize them or stand out. Do they resemble animals somehow? Perhaps they are Bear-like, Hawk-eyed, or Panther-like. Maybe their eyes stand out somehow, such as Bright-eyed or Pale-eyed. Maybe you want to describe their physical form or hair. Then you described their armor and favored weapons. 

Finally, if your character is fully human, you start with two Bonds with each of the other player characters. If you chose a demigod Lineage, you start with 1 Bond with each player character and 1 Bond with your divine ancestor. 

All together, a character might look like this;

Islands of Adventure: Contests & Battles

Like the epic poetry that inspires it, Agon follows a formulaic, almost ritualistic style of play. This is mitigated however by the amount of narrative control it grants its player characters.

Before landing on an island, a leader must be chosen for the session. The Strife Player (GM) will engineer some sort of ship-board challenge or crisis. This will be resolved in a single Contest, and the Best player is the leader for that session. To explain, let's detail Contests now.

A Contest is a single dice throw, usually made by all participants including the Strife Player. For the Hero Players (the PCs) it follows four steps:

1. Face your opponent
2. Speak your name
3. Test your fortune
4. Recite your deeds

For the Strife Player, the Contest is set up in three steps: Reveal, Ask, and Judge. 

For example, the Strife Player reveals the situation. The ship begins to groan and shake as massive, serpentine tentacles emerge from the deep. A mighty kraken surfaces, wrapping its limbs around the ship and chewing at the hull with its beak! 

Usually it is up to the Strife Player to then determine what Domain this Contest is, though sometimes the Hero Players will. This is the ask stage. It is a Contest of Blood & Valor against the beast. Who will face this challenge?

The Hero Players confer and each decides how they will be responding to the challenge. in the meantime, the Strife Player assembles the opponent's dice pool. This is the Monstrous Kraken of the Black Abyss! It might roll a d10 for "Monstrous" and d8 for its Name die. To this pool the Strife Player might also ad advantage dice for any special powers the creature has or situational bonuses working in its favor. They might add Wrath dice if any of the gods are currently angered with this players. Finally, on an island they will add the Strife rating. By default this is +5, but if the players have reduced the strife on the island it might go down to +4, or if the strife had increased, it might go up to +6. The Strife Player will roll their dice pool, take the highest result, and add the Strife rating. This becomes the difficultly the Hero Players must beat.

The Strife Player rolls in the case above and gets an 8. They add +5 to this, the current Strife rating, for a difficulty of 13.

The Hero Players now speak their names and whatever bonus dice they are bringing to the contest. 

I Keen-Eyed Pythia will lean over the rail and shoot for its eyes with my bow. I call upon the Precision of Artemis to guide my aim!

I Nikanor with call upon the Daring of Hermes and slash at its tentacles with my paired swords.

I Mighty-Limbed Telos take up my spear and stab it in its side.

In the first case Pythia gets her name die (d6), her Keen-Eyed (d6), and her Domain die Blood & Valor (d6). She is also calling up Divine Favor by invoking the Precision of Artemis. She will erase one of the checks she has in Artemis' boxes and add +1d4 to her final total. This is how Divine Favor works in the game. She rolls a 4, a 5, another 5, and gets +2 on her Divine Favor Die. Player characters total their two highest dice (in this case 5 and 5 for 10) and then add the Divine favor. Her total is 12. 

Nikanor rolls his name die (d6) and Blood & Valor (d6) and also spend Divine Favor with Hermes with a +1d4 bonus. His is lucky. Get gets a 5, a 5, and a +4 for a total of 14.

The final player rolls his Mighty-Limbed (d8...he has increased it in play with a Boon), his name die (d6) and his Blood & Valor (d8). He also decides to spend a point of Pathos. This is, as we mentioned, tenacity, determination, and inner strength of will. When spent, you roll an extra Domain die, so he rolls 2d8 for Blood & Valor. He gets a 3, a 6, a 6, and a 7. His total is 13.

The kraken rolled a 13, so this is the difficult. Pythia's result is less than the difficulty, so she "Suffers." She gets only 1 point of Glory for the contest and may suffer some further consequence of failure. Telos scored a 13, this is equal to or higher than the difficulty so he "Prevails." His roll is a success and he will get 7 points of Glory (1/2 the difficulty rounded up). Nikanor has the highest roll of 14, so he is "Best." He gets the full 13 points of Glory for the contest, equal to the difficulty. If this was the initial contest to determine the leader this session, Nikanor would be it.

The Hero Players will now recite their deeds, narrating how their characters performed in order of "Suffers" to "Prevails" to "Best." Pythia describes leaning over the rail but losing her footing on the slippery deck and missing the shot. Telos describes during his spear deep in the monster's blubbery hide. Nikanor, the Best, narrates slashing at the tentacles, but also seeing Pythia lose her footing he dashes forward and saves her from falling over as well.

If all Hero Players suffer, the opponent wins the contest. This was not the case, so the kraken sinks back into the deep. The ship is spared.

Most challenges in Agon will be face with Contests, but the final climatic struggle on an island should be a Battle instead. A battle is essential a Contest but it is resolved in three rolls, not one.

1. The Clash. The Hero Players and Opponent declare their opening moves. Heroes here are allowed to declare what individual Domains their are using to resolve the situation. The winner (Best player) will add a d10 Advantage die which they may use once in the battle during the second or third stage.

2. The Threat. The Strife Player now describes what the Opponent is doing. This should include two or three "disasters." The Hero Players must decide which of them, if any, will Defend against the disasters and which of them will attempt to Seize control of the battle.

For example, the Hero Players are facing a flock of Harpies in the final Battle. The Strife Player decides to narrate two disasters. "One of the shrieking monsters seizes the daughter of Prince Delos, living the screaming girl into the air. Another attacks the temple of Apollo, threatening to tear down the statue of the god." The three player characters could all elect to ignore these disasters and concentrate on Seizing control of the Battle from the Harpies...but in this case both disasters would occur even if they win the day against the Opponent. or they could try to prevent them, Pythia saving the little girl and Nikanor rushing to save the statue with Telos tries to Seize the battle and drive the Harpies off.

3. Finale. The final rolls are all made. Whichever side Seized control of the battle determines the Domain for the final exchange. If the Hero Player lose this round, they lose the Battle, and the Opponent wins. If they win this round but failed to Seize, the Opponent is defeated by the island still suffers. If they won the Seize and the Finale, the Opponent is gloriously vanquished and the island liberated from Strife. of course this ending also depends on which Disasters the Heroes succeeded in Defending against. 

Glory, Pathos, Divine Favor, and Bonds

As we have seen, winning Contests (and Battles) results in Glory, the lion's share going to the Best player. As mentioned earlier, Glory "steps up" your Name die. At 80 Glory it becomes d8. At 120 it becomes d10. At 240 it becomes d12. This reflects your reputation, your fame, and how long your name will live on.

Pathos and Divine Favor are different. They are in many ways the heart of the game.

Are your character sheet there is a Pathos meter and a Fate meter. Pathos can be spent for an extra Domain die, but it can also be lost in specific Contests either to enter the Contest or if you Suffer. Once you lose your sixth point of Pathos you are in Agony. You either suffer a grievous injury, succumb to despair or madness, or suffer some intense humiliation. You are removed from play the rest of that session and you tick off one box on your Fate meter.

The Fate meter has 12 boxes. Each time you suffer Agony you tick a box off and move closer to your Fate. At 12, your character is removed from play permanently. Perhaps they die before reaching home, go and and never recover, are turned to stone by the Gorgon's glare. On the other hand, at the 1st, 4th, and 8th boxes of Fate you also receive a Boon, increasing your Epithet, Domain, or gaining some other bonus. In other words every Hero should march towards their Fate...it is what makes them Heroes...but they do not want to meet that ultimate Fate too quickly.

Divine Favor, on the other hand, is won during the game when you please the gods, serving them on the island or performing a sacrifice to them aboard your ship. Divine favor can be spent to add +1d4 to your dice pools, but it also brings you closer to home.

The group uses the Vault of Heaven character sheet to chart this. Every time to gain Divine Favor with a god or goddess, you tick one of the three boxes in their constellation. Three boxes--completing a constellation--gains the group a Boon. It also brings them closer to home. The group decides how long they want their campaign to be. For a shorter campaign, after three constellations are filled, the ship arrives home safely. For longer campaigns it is five constellations. Pleasing the gods guides you home.

At the bottom of the sheet however are ticks for the wrath of the gods. these are earned by thwarting a deity or displeasing them. One tick is a d8, two is d10, and three is d12. Gods may add these to the dice pools of your opponents, aiding them against you. 

Final mention should be giving to Bonds. These are ties between the player characters.

On departing each island, Agon enters a kind of book-keeping phase in which Pathos is healed, sacrifices can be performed, and player characters award virtue points to each other (Acumen, Courage, Grace, and Passion) for qualities they exhibited on the island. They also can renew Bonds by asking each other character questions and further developing their backstories. Bonds work like Divine Favor. You form them with each of your ship mates and can use them to add a comrade's Name die to your pool, defend a comrade and shield them from harm, etc.


The ultimate goal of Agon is to reach the shores of home having built a legend for yourself. This is a combination of Glory and your Name, your Virtues, and your great deeds. It will determine how your character is remembered and how long their Name lives on.


There was a lot I glossed over. Advantage dice, for example, By coming up with clever strategies, using your environment wisely, or using treasures and trophies won on previous islands you can also add to your dice pool. This is another way to keep the game fluid and dynamic.

Agon is an RPG with an endgame. You will either meet your Fate or make it home. It is also a competitive game. "Agon" means "contest" or "competition," and we get the English protagonist and antagonist from the word. The group is a team, but in the true spirit of epic poetry everyone wants to be the best. It is built into the mechanics of the game.

As I said this is a very Homeric game, but the spirit of epic poetry is alive in many cultures. This could easily be a game of Norse explorers. It would be brilliant for Beowulf. I can easily see it adapted to the Sanskrit Mahabharata or even the stories of Arthurian knights. Divine Favor can be narrated as luck or as magic to your tastes. One of its subtleties is that the GM is called the "Strife Player," in other words, just another player, and Agon could easily be played with players trading the role of Strife Player from session to session. the episodic "island" structure is very Homeric, but could be replaced withe chapters. This is a game that would be very easy to adapt.

Ultimately, Agon offers a unique style of play, hearkening back to one of the oldest forms of storytelling. It may not be for everyone, but if you have a taste for the epics it doesn't get any better than this. 



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