"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 24, 2023

Cults of Runequest: Mythology and Eliade's Eternal Return

This is part two in a series of posts about the new Cults of RuneQuest: Mythology title. See part one here.

Glorantha, Tradition, and the Fantasy RPG Dilemma

The Gods World. HeroQuesting. Time. In its first twenty pages, Mythology tackles many of Glorantha's core concepts, but these three in particular are the trickiest for new players, and the most important to getting the most out of the setting. "Cults" are familiar to most newcomers, bearing rough similarity to character classes or the clans/tribes/traditions of settings like the World of Darkness (RuneQuest is referenced as an inspiration in both the first and second editions of Vampire: The Masquerade). "Magic" is familiar as well, though in Glorantha it has deeper meaning attached to it. Even "Runes" are somewhat relatable if one is at all familiar with the concept of elements (classical or chemical). "The Gods World," "Time," and "HeroQuesting" are different, however. They are firmly part of a world that the Enlightenment put a sword to, a world alien to modern minds. A world most fantasy RPGs have declined trying to engage with.

In writing The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien used the highly anachronistic Hobbits to ease the modern reader into pre-modern, or Traditional, reality. Bilbo lived in a world of clocks, schedules, and pocket watches. He wore waistcoats, was deeply concerned with middle class notions of respectability, and lived in a house called Bag End (quite literally the English for "cul-de-sac"). Seeing Middle-earth through his eyes softened the alienness of it. Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin later served the same function. One of the reasons The Silmarillion is more challenging for many readers is they do not have the Hobbits to serve as this bridge. It displays Middle-earth as the Traditional world, a world of living nature animated by spirits and inherent divinity. The sacred permeates Middle-earth, and where the setting's inhabitants work to acknowledge this and live with nature, they thrive. Where they reject the sacred, the inner, and turn to what Tolkien called "the Machine," setting themselves over nature, the world becomes a poisoned hellscape.  

By (the Machine) I intend all use of external plans or devices (apparatus) instead of the development of inherent inner powers or talents..the corrupted motive of dominating: bulldozing the real world... 

Tolkien, 1951 

Fantasy RPGs, which owe so much to Tolkien, to Homer, to Virgil, did not have the luxury of point of view characters to ease modern players into Traditional settings. So instead, fantasy RPGs chose to simply toss the Traditional out of the setting. This in effect turned them into the dice and paper equivalent of a Renaissance Faire. Sure, they looked medieval or ancient, but this was a facade. Most were set on worlds that orbited suns, where the laws of physics, biology, and chemistry were mostly intact and magic conveniently operated like a science. It was a "force," an "energy," that like electricity or magnetism could be directed by repeatable procedures to produce reliable effects. The societies in these fantasy games were surprisingly egalitarian and firmly capitalistic. You adventured for coin so you could buy better and better things. "Danger? How much are we getting paid?" Nothing in these RPGs challenged players to try and look at the world the way that their actual characters would have. They could play Bilbo rather than Aragorn or Boromir. It wasn't roleplaying. It was a mirror.

If you are coming off of experiences like this, then, Glorantha can be a head-spinning one hundred and eighty degree turn.

Make no mistake, Glorantha has its own anachronisms. It is a fantasy game, not a slavish recreation of the Bronze Age. But is a setting and game that refuses to jettison the Traditional aspects of mythology and legend from the dragons and swordplay. 

That brings us back to the Gods World, Time, and HeroQuesting.

Mircea Eliade and Traditional Cosmology

We--like dear old Bilbo--live in a world of clocks, calendars, schedules, Time. Minute follows minute, day follows day, year follows year. It is a linear forced march. Our watches and alarm clocks provide the drum beat.

Yet imagine the point of view, for a moment, of a farmer or a shepherd 5000 years ago. 

Time is not a line, it's a circle, a wheel. The sun rises and sets. The moon waxes and wanes. Days grow shorter then longer again. Without clocks and calendars it isn't about numbers, it's about events. It isn't next winter, it is winter come again.

This is not to say the ancients were ignorant of the passage of time. There is a line in the Mahabharata that likens it to a chariot wheel. The wheel turns, and from our fixed vantage point the same spokes come and go and return again, but at the same time the chariot is moving down the road. 

But chariot wheels sometimes break. This was a constant danger in the minds of ancient peoples. The moon goes dark...but what guarantee is there she will wax full again? Winter comes and nature dies. Will it be reborn? Will the sun climb back out from the land of the dead? What is it that turns the wheel?

And a deeper question looms...why? Why does the sun set and rise? Why do the nights get longer? Why does the moon go black? 

The answer to both questions was clear. Something set the wheel in motion, something started it, and that something must be what keeps it in motion. That thing is outside the wheel, not turning with the wheel but instead turning it.

Romanian religious historian Mircea Eliade (1907-1986) was among the first to formulate these observations. Eliade was--and remains--a titan in the field because he essentially helped to create it. It was an 18th and 19th century academic conceit to dismiss religious experience, to pass it off as something else. For anthropologist Sir James Frazer (1854-1941) magic and religion were developmental phases, like childhood and adolescence. Magic was practiced by "primitive" humanity, followed by more mature religion, until both were replaced by mature science. Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) predictably explained religion as the product of psychological complexes. Karl Marx (1818-1883) had economic and political explanations. Perhaps the closest we get to Eliade was Emile Durkheim (1858-1917), one of the founders of sociology, who at least saw religious experience as a natural aspect of human life. Cult, to his mind, was like culture, forming bonds between individuals and creating commonality. 

Eliade had a more radical notion. Perhaps religious experience was just that...religious experience. Perhaps it was an encounter with the transcendent. With the sacred. Durkheim wrote of the sacred, but he viewed it as a feeling of awe, devotion, respect. He was careful to skirt the supernatural. Eliade instead saw the sacred as a universal experience of something outside. He was careful not to assign it to any one religion or tradition. This all led him to one of his most famous concepts, eternal return.

To simplify, Eliade theorized Traditional humanity being conscious of two types of time, Profane and Sacred (Eliade used the term "sacred time" extensively, a phrase Greg Stafford would later adopt for Glorantha). Profane time was the wheel, the circle, we discussed above. This was the world inside of Time, the world that turned endlessly through days and seasons. 

Sacred time was what existed outside the wheel, the world outside of Time. It was what set the wheel in motion and what kept it turning. Outside of the wheel, it was a single, omnipresent now. This is where all the things that set the wheel in motion existed. Gods, heroes, sacred ancestors.

Critical to all of this was Eliade's observation that in the Traditional mind, the essence of a thing resides in its origin. Its origin established the nature of a thing, formed the pattern of its existence, its identity. Thus creation stories, myths, contained tremendous power. If you knew the origin of thing, you could exert influence over it. And the way in which human beings learned these origin stories was hierophany, the "breakthrough" of the sacred into profane time. These revelations--like the sages who first heard the Vedas or Muhammad hearing Jibreel recite the Qur'an, gave humanity the origin stories of things so that they might use these stories to participate in the sacred.

The eternal return was made possible by these hierophanies. By having the origin story, one had the beginning of a thing, one could touch its source, which lay outside of profane time in the sacred:

In imitating the exemplary acts of a god or of a mythic hero, or simply by recounting their adventures, the man of an archaic society detaches himself from profane time and magically re-enters the Great Time, the sacred time.

In Glorantha

It is easier to see now how Greg seized on these ideas and digested them, re-interpreting and reweaving them. Hierophany is Myth, the revelation of sacred time to mortals. Sacred time is the Gods World;

The realm of eternity. Every deity who performed great immortal deeds is found here. Within this world of extremes lie the heavens and hells of the cults, where initiates and devotees go after death. Here, too, lie the great pools of creative material from which were made the primal oceans, ancient mountains, and first skies of the Mundane World.

Mythology, p. 14

New players often struggle to understand how the Gods World could have ages, sequences of events, cause and effect, if there was no Time. While a standard answer would be that "we" as beings inside of Time are imposing our perceptions on these stories, I would refer the reader back to the wheel. We think of time as a chain of events, but the Traditional viewpoint is to see it as the cycle. Before Arachne Solara birthed Time, there were no sunrises and sunsets, no seasons, therefore no wheel, no cycle, no Time. Events were fluid then, not fixed.

On the other hand, it is important to recognize that all of the Myths still exist, and can be accessed now. They can be experienced and visited. Through Myth you can enter the Golden Age and see the Spike, the cosmic mountain at the center of exist. Through a different story, you could enter the Greater Darkness and witness the Void, the hole in creation left when the Devil shattered that mountain. Then you could go back and visit the Spike again. This is not possible within Time. If your comrade dies you may attempt to bring them back, but you cannot go back to yesterday or last week to save them. We are trapped on the wheel, and the wheel turns in one direction only. 

Time as a Wheel

Myth, by contrast, can lead us anywhere in the ages of the Gods World, and these visits to the sacred, to the Gods World, are HeroQuests:

Heroquesting is a direct interaction by mortals with the divine realm of myth and archetypes. When heroquesting, participants enter the realm of legend and myth to interact with heroes and gods, gambling precious life force to gain miraculous powers and bring back magic, whether that be Rune spells, guardian spirits, a good harvest, something long forgotten and hidden, or other magical boons or curses.

Mythology, p. 14

In Tolkein's legendarium, which I would argue derives as much from the Traditional worldview as does Glorantha, the world was initially flat but bent into a circle to prevent humankind from ever sailing against the lands of the immortals again. Time, in Glorantha, is similar. The gods made the world, there was a golden age, then they began to war upon each other, the world collapsed and died. To save it, Arachne Solara and the gods bent the world again. That sequence of events was turned into a circle of constant creation and recreation. The Green Age became Sea Season. The Golden Age became Fire Season. Earth Season, harvest, is the first intrusion of Death into the world, the Lesser Darkness. Then Dark Season, the Greater Darkness, befalls the world. The Grey or Silver Age, when Orlanth quested to save creation, is Storm Season. 

Then comes the crucial moment.

In his theory of cyclic time, Eliade cites numerous examples of rites and rituals who's intent was to help the gods "recreate" the world. As mentioned above, there was always a fear that maybe the wheel would stop turning or break. Through myth, and ritual, humans could revisit the origins of things, the source, and help the gods recreate the world. Greg put this at the end of his Gloranthan year and called it--and I think Eliade might have been pleased--"Sacred Time."

Closing Notes

If you have never read Eliade, and are curious about some of Greg's influences, I strongly recommend The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion and The Myth of the Eternal Return. Both are very accessible. Eliade was a prolific writer and researcher, who also wrote on alchemy, yoga, and shamanism. I would heartily recommend these as well but they stray a bit from the main topic here.

I admit to being a bit of an Eliade fan boy. I blame Greg for this and all that RuneQuest in my adolescent years. While I never had the chance to study under him, I was able to study under two of his University of Chicago proteges, Alf Hiltebeitel and Wendy Doniger. While both focus primarily in the mythology of the Indian subcontinent (Alf taught me the Mahabharata), any of their works are also terrific and show a deep Eliade influence. 


Saturday, October 14, 2023

CULTS OF RUNEQUEST: MYTHOLOGY, The Forward and Introduction

This is the fourth in an ongoing series of posts on the Cults of RuneQuest series. The posts will continue as each book appears. Go back and read the first here.

Further, there is far too much to discuss here for just one post, and I would like you to regard this as more of a discussion than a review. Here we will just set the stage by discussing the Foreword and the Introduction, two very important chapters that set up the rest of the book and entire series. Look for further posts on Mythology in the days ahead.

The Indispensable Guide

Mythology should have been the first release in the Cults of RuneQuest series. That is not me speaking ex cathedra: it says so right on page 5. It is a sentiment that I happen to agree with, however. I also agree with the statement that immediately follows: It is an indispensable guide for anyone seeking to play or gamemaster RuneQuest. I have a quibble with the article in front of "indispensable" however. The "an" should be a "the."

The truly great fantasy settings--and there can be no doubt that Glorantha qualifies--come with worldviews. Howard's was that in the contest of barbarism and civilization, barbarism would always win. Tolkien's was rooted in his faith. There is a divine plan and it is wrong to surrender to despair, hope and faith must triumph. Moorcock saw that opposite extremes are ultimately just reflections of one another and equally toxic. The only sane position is balance. Greg Stafford's worldview--at least the one that informs Glorantha--can be summed up in just a single sentence from his "Foreword" to Mythology. There he tells us:

Truth is found where we find a way to be at One with ourselves and the cosmos.

Let that steep for a moment until it brews in your head. He goes on to say:

If we are touched by a thing, whether it is a story, a person’s action, or even some distant event, then it holds meaning, and therefore, Truth, for us. It is our responsibility, then, to pursue this, that we may do our part to preserve the cosmos and live once again among the gods.

The worldview of Glorantha is that Truth is cultural, Truth is local, Truth is individual. The sin of the God Learners--and it is a sin that we see perpetrated every single day in our own world--was to believe that their Truth was Universal and applied to everyone.

Facts and Truth

Now...I can hear some of you in the back there saying "feelings are not facts." And you are quite right. Your mistake is that you think facts and Truth have anything to do with one another.

The modern English "truth" comes from Old English triewð (West Saxon) or treowð (Mercian) meaning "faith, faithfulness, fidelity, loyalty." These ultimately trace back to PIE *drew-o-, meaning "to hold, to be steadfast." This is why we talk about remaining "true" to something. "Fact," by contrast, comes from the Latin factum, "something that happened, something real." The two have nothing to do with one another except in the post-Enlightenment mutilation of language so that only what can be seen under a microscope is of value. But what it comes down to is "fact" is something we can see, and "Truth" is something we feel.

We start here, because too often in discussions of Glorantha there is confusion between the two. People want the facts, not the Truth. After the last several centuries of God Learnerism in our own modern world, we can hardly blame them. The indoctrination runs deep. So they ask "How many arms does Orlanth have?" "Is Vinga Orlanth's daughter or his female form?" "In the core rulebook Issaries has two Runes and in The Lightbringers he has three. Which is correct?" For decades the term for contradictions and deviations like these was Gregging. "Oh Yelmalio is Elmal now. It's been Gregged." Post Greg, there is often the assumption that the current team (lead by Jeff Richard) is "getting it wrong." These assumptions spectacularly miss the point. 

This is why I feel Mythology is "the" indispensable book for playing or running RuneQuest. Had it existed before it might have put an end to two decades of Internet arguments and round-the-table arguments before that.

Truth is not fact, and mythology is about Truth, not fact. If the Orlanthi know it is true that Orlanth slew Yelm and caused the Darkness, and the Dara Happans know that it is true that the Darkness was caused by the Rebel Gods killing the Son of the Sun Murharzarm, there is no contradiction. The facts seem to differ, but that underlying certainty, the feeling of faith and fidelity that both Orlanthi and Dara Happans feel in the experience of their respective myths is the same Truth.

Facts divide us. The experience of Truth can only unite.

What is Mythology (the Book, not the Subject)

Despite being the fourth title released, Mythology is and should be the first book in the Cults of RuneQuest series. At around 165 gloriously illustrated pages (more on that later) it is an overview of the setting's worldview, a deep exploration of what makes Glorantha tick. It opens as mentioned with a Foreword by the late Greg Stafford, creator of the setting, then an "Introduction" which explains what every subsequent book in the series is actually about.

The "Introduction" explains what we mean when we talk about "mythology" in relation to Glorantha. This matters, because academics have squabbled over what "myth" is for decades. Mythology tells us how Greg defined it, and how Jeff and subsequent authors have then applied this definition to their own work. Though I do not intend to quote the entire book to you, there are two sections here that have to be quoted because they exemplify the message of the book:

Mythology reveals the nature of the soul. Despite our enlightenment conceits to the contrary, humanity is not so far removed from our Pleistocene roots, and we have never been much interested in objective explanations of the obvious. Instead, we have an imperative need to assimilate all outer sense experiences to inner, psychic events. It is not enough to see the Sun rise and set; this external observation must at the same time be a psychic happening: the Sun in its course must represent the fate of a god or hero.

That is a stand-out passage because the entire structure of Gloranthan mythology is built upon it. It is followed a paragraph after by this reminder: 

These sacred narratives do not explain the world—they are the source of the world.

Again, I can see some of you in the back rolling your eyes. We have been taught that myths are how "primitive" peoples explained natural phenomena. That is nonsense. Myths are the source of the world, because "world" is yet another word butchered to fit modern assumptions. We learned in school that "world" meant the planet we live on. It doesn't.

In old English woruld meant "human existence, the affairs of life." It was cognate with Germanic wer, "man" (we get the English werewolf from there) and the Latin vir. So myths, then, are the source of the world by relating the cosmos around us to inner human existence. Science explains the planet we live on. Myth explains us.

The "Introduction" goes on to define the core concepts of the game and setting. It discusses what a "cult" is, what "magic" is, what "God Time" and "Heroquesting" and the "Runes" are. And it also introduces something new, and one of Mythology's finest features.

Throughout the book we find red blocks of text, not "boxed text" exactly but set aside by borders at the top and bottom. These are actual Gloranthan myths, the stories your characters might hear in world. With each myth comes its "source," who wrote it or is telling it (this matters, remember that Truth is local, like a microclimate). These myths are ready to go, to be dropped into your ongoing campaign or to be used to build heroquests on. They make up large sections of the book (particularly in the initial half) and are a very welcome addition.

Before we close our discussion for now, in the "Runes" section (pp. 17-20) there is another extremely important line that could be easily overlooked:

Some philosophers hold that the deities themselves are merely approachable personifications of the Runes. (p. 17)

A great deal of confusion arises in Gloranthan discussions when new players and GMs view the gods as "people," as if they had bodies as we do and biologies. Throughout the Cults series there are genealogies, and it is easy to mistake these for "bloodlines." It is probably more accurate to regard them as "lines of descent." It is not DNA being passed down, it is the power of the Runes. 

When we talk about Barntar then as the "son" of Orlanth and Ernalda, we don't necessarily mean he has his father's eyes and his mother's nose. We mean, of course, that his Earth Rune power flows from Ernalda, that his Air and Motion powers flow through Orlanth. Barntar is, really, the combined powers of Earth and Air in a specific context, in this case, farming. But because myth is about relating natural forces to human experience, they personify him as a "son" with a "mother" and "father." Again, this does not mean he isn't...the Truth for many Orlanthi is that he is...but he probably doesn't need to trim his nose hairs or cut himself shaving (unless it was necessary for him to do so to explain some Truth in a myth!).




Wednesday, October 11, 2023

HYDRA! A Look at the Jonstown Compendium Release

 When we last looked in on Jonstown Compendium author Peter Hart, he was serving up what I felt was a very "classic" feeling RuneQuest adventure, Bad Day at Duck Rock. Duck Rock reminded me, in a good way, of scenarios like Apple Lane or Snakepipe Hollow, but updated to RuneQuest Roleplaying in Glorantha and with much better lay-out and art. This time, however, Peter is giving us full on, full throttle, post-Dragonrise Glorantha in his Hydra! (yup, the exclamation mark is part of the title), available now at the Jonstown Compendium. Hydra! has all the hallmarks Bad Day did. To quote one of the customer reviews (all five-star thus far), those hallmarks would be "high intention, sincere effort, intelligent direction and skillful execution." But Hydra! is bigger, bolder, and leans more towards releases like Black Spear or (ahem) The Company of the Dragon in tackling some of the heavy hitters of the setting (one of which I shall mention, the other I shall not spoil).

Like Black Spear or Company, Peter goes all the way back to White Bear & Red Moon/Dragon Pass with his titular (and rightly exclaimed) Hydra. Because we are talking about the Hydra here;

Hydra was born out of Chaos during the Great Night. Hydra thrived in that dark hour, and its skills and wiles enabled it to retain a place of power beyond the Dawning. Hydra normally resides atop Hydra's Hill.

-WB&RM/Dragon Pass

This monstrous creature, the only true Hydra on the Gloranthan continent of Genertela, resides in the Hydra Mountains, periodically spawning lesser hydras to terrorize the local populace. This is where the adventure and the player characters come in. Post-Dragonrise, things have not been going well for the Lunar Empire. The Lunar College of Magicians, looking to curry favor with the Red Emperor, have had the bright idea of domesticating lesser hydras to send into battle alongside the troops. They are looking for expendables (that would be you, potential player character, that would be you) to march into the Hydra Mountains and procure a few eggs for them.

That is the main plot, at least, because this four act adventure adds several complications. Aside from the Lunar College of Magicians, another character who may or may not date back to White Bear & Red Moon is also interested in the eggs, and a third faction is interested in neither of these sides getting them. Add to this a potential murder plot and, well, there is a lot going on.

This is where the "skillful execution" comes in. Hydra! is clearly written, intelligently orchestrated, and filled to the brim with tips for GMs running it. The text is crammed with yellow-boxed "Advice for the Gamemaster" and (to my delight) green-boxed quotes and references to previous Gloranthan publications. There are maps aplenty, player hand outs with images of the major NPCs, random encounters, a "rumor" generating table, and an entire second booklet of NPC images and stat blocks. This brings the grand total of pages to 170+ pages. With all this support, even relatively novice GMs should be able to run Hydra! with little difficulty.

And this is where I run out of things to actually say about Hydra!, always a difficulty when reviewing scenarios. Anything further goes into spoiler territory. Hydra! is loaded with classic RQ monsters and foes (including two "signature" RQ baddies), delivering what I can only call the "full monty RQ experience." Yet in bringing these classics back, it is a very epic feeling adventure, and one that feels perfect for the "dawn of the Hero Wars" timeline of the current RQ line. The fact that it is a Lunar-leaning adventure set in western Tarsh is the cherry on top, taking us out of the familiar Sartar and Prax sandboxes for a bit of something new.

Hydra! is expertly written and executed, an adventure with multiple intertwining plots guaranteed to keep players coming back for further sessions. Beautifully illustrated (mainly) by Dario Corallo, it is another one of those Jonstown releases that really puts the sword to any notion that community content cannot be top notch and thoroughly professional. It's an adventure you are going to want to have, to run, and to eventually get in print on demand. 

And yes, damnit, the "!" in the title is earned.  

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.