Advanced Agon: Three Flavors of Myth
I admit it: when I’m running Agon I’m a stickler for Classical Greek style. I don’t just want D&D with spears or a fuzzy Xena-barbarian analog, I want it to feel like mythic Greece. Hubris, arrogance, tragedy — the works. That’s a great thing about Agon: the built-in mechanics pack a lot of Greek punch.
But not all Classical texts are the same. There’s one thing that varies a lot, and that’s the overt presence of the gods and (for lack of a better term) the prominence of the supernatural.
So if you are going do mythic Greece, which mythic Greece is it? The one where gods frolic with maidens and hapless lovers are turned into flowers every three minutes? Or where bold heroes fight with javelins or sulk in their tents, watched by the curious yet distant gods?
We can break it down into three major styles, which I’ve named after the Classical authors who exemplify them. These are basically the three flavors of Agon you can run if you want to go solid Greek:
Thucydides (History of the Peloponnesian War) — Straight real world action: arms and the man, wars and demagoguery, kings and nations. People may talk about the gods — because they believe in the gods — but from an objective point of view the gods are never seen or directly felt. Nothing magical ever happens, and even if there are monsters in legend they never make an appearance. The story is squarely centered on mortal conflicts. Sack of Lemotea (not yet released) fits this style.
Ovid (Metamorphosis) — Yeah, it’s true, Ovid was Roman not Greek, which is probably why this style seems a lot different from many Greek texts. There’s a lot more divine intervention, a lot more maidens being turned into trees (or flowers, or streams). The gods are active, present, and magical things happen all the time. Temple of Hera falls in this category, particularly if Menae starts lashing the heroes with sorcerous fury.
Homer (The Iliad, The Odyssey, duh) — Pretty much the definitive Greek experience. If Ovid sits on the magical end and Thucydides on the realistic end, Homer sits square in the middle, permitting myth but never letting it overwhelm the mortal action. There are gods, and the gods manipulate the affairs of men, and though the reader sees them the mortals rarely do. Sometimes a god will speak directly to an important hero, but often a god takes on the form of a trusted confident and offers advice posing as them (the “divine doppelganger” approach). Later people may wonder if that really was the old mentor or Hermes in disguise, but they never really know. There are monsters like the cyclops but they are rare and important, never commonplace (one could even say mythical). Even when there are supernatural elements like the sirens or the sorceress Circe, it is ordinary mortal deeds that drive the action, not magical solutions. Beast of Kolkoris falls in this category.
It shouldn’t be any wonder that Homer falls in the sweet spot, the middle ground where there are supernatural elements but they don’t overwhelm the core of the story, the deeds of the mortal heroes. As I said, Homer pretty much defines Greek literature.
Some situations work in all three styles, only the emphasis is different. In a Homeric game the gods might proclaim to the heroes that a king be destroyed. The gods are the motivator, the watchers on high, but mostly they stay out of the way as the heroes fight and struggle. If it was a Thucydides-style game, there might be a background oracle that the gods have doomed the king, but the heroes would be doing it for mortal reasons — politics, war or vengeance — less for the gods. In an Ovid-style game the king might have offended a god who physically visited his court, and the heroes might need to accomplish a more magical goal to ensure his doom (like cutting down the tree his father planted that represents the vitality of his bloodline).
Do you have to pick one and run all your Agon games that way? Nope. Mix it up if you want and do different quests in different styles.
Knowing which style you’re shooting for helps you keep a clear mental picture of the tone you want. You don’t have to break out these categories for the players, but you can if you want to make sure everyone is on the same page. If some of your players are expecting Xena or Kratos, and you’re shooting for Achilles or Alcibiades, it might save you a lot of grief to tell them what you have in mind. “Heroic Greece” doesn’t mean the same thing to everybody.