ars ludi

if you asked Ben's brain about gaming, this is what it would say

Missing In Agon

If you’re wondering where the Advanced Agon posts are, I moved them over to ars ludi where I should have put them in the first place. Deeper Quests and Wrath of the Gods are already there and a third installment is coming soon. Agon up!

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.

Advanced Agon: Wrath of the Gods

“Is it pious because the gods love it, or do the gods love it because it’s pious?”
– Plato

I was having brunch with Ping and John Harper, so naturally talk turned to the complicated relationships between heroes and gods.

John was saying he wanted Agon to be a game where in the long run the heroes wound up with complex, even adversarial, relationships with their gods instead of just being dependent on them. After all when you’ve got a d12 Name die, is a d12 god oath really that big a deal anymore?

Very cool stuff, but as written the Agon rules don’t do enough to support really juicy god-hero relationships. First there’s a pitfall where a hero has a particular patron god but the Antagonist has set up a quest that will clearly offend that god. What’s a young hero to do, take the quest or be faithful to their god? It’s potentially a cool point of friction, but it only works if it presents the player with interesting choices. Right now it’s either do the quest or reject it and blow a Fate — no fun.

A second problem is that a hero’s relationship with the gods doesn’t change. If you do take a quest that offends your patron nothing happens. You can hand wave the god rejecting you, but it’s all arbitrary. Angering gods is also a big part of the genre, but you have no method of tracking all the gods you cheese off along the way.

Here’s an add-on that tracks your ongoing relationship with the gods. Tick off your patron god too much and maybe you better start making sacrifices to someone else next interlude…

Optional Rule: Wrath of the Gods

A hero has a separate relationship with each god. Heroic deeds and bold words can change these relationships, provoking the anger or affection of each god.

Write down god relationships at the bottom of the Oaths section of your character sheet. Use the box to track any god oaths you have as normal, but after the god’s name write your relationship score. A positive relationship means the god likes you, a negative score means you’ve angered the god.

Pick a patron god at character creation as usual — you start with a +2 relationship with that god. You begin with a 0 relationship with the other gods, but don’t bother to write them all down until you interact with them and your relationship changes.

Serving the Gods — Whenever you complete a quest for a god improve your relationship with that god by 1.

Angering the Gods — If you do something that offends a god, like slaying their favored hero or pet monster, reduce your relationship with that god by 1. Deeds that directly attack a god or its name, like sacking a temple or impugning the love goddess’s beauty, reduce the relationship by 2. Refusing a god’s quest reduces your relationship by 1.

Changing Patrons — You can choose a different god as your patron whenever you want, so long as you make a bold pronouncement about it. Take a -1 to your relationship with your old patron. During Interludes you can only sacrifice to your (current) patron god.

Sacrifice — The only mechanical effect of your relationship is sacrifice. When you sacrifice during an Interlude, take your (relationship – 2) as a modifier to your die roll. You’ll always get your divine favor back, but you are less likely to get a god oath and escape impairment if your patron is mad at you, and more likely if your god is pleased.

Let’s say I start with Zeus as my patron god. After a few quests, the bottom of my Oaths section looks like this:

Zeus +1
Ares +2
Hera -1

Now I’m at a -1 when I sacrifice to Zeus. Hmm, I might have to start thinking of switching to Ares as my patron god.

Playing the Relationship

A bad relationship won’t prevent a god from giving you a quest, but it can and should color things. When an angry god issues the quest it might be more of a threat than a challenge — Hera descends in a thundering cloud and demands the heroes do her bidding or risk her wrath. On the other hand a good relationship means the hero is loved by the god and will be showered with affection and pride.

The Antagonist can (and should) use the evolving relationships between the heroes and the gods to guide future quests. Man those heroes have annoyed Hera again and again. Time for her to get some revenge!

For extra fun instead of just showing the total, put the total positive and negative points you’ve accumulated for the god in parenthesis. Apollo +1 tells you how the god feels towards you right now, but Apollo +1 (+7/-6) shows that your relationship with the god has been a divine roller coaster ride.

Game Balance and other minutiae

Because heroes can wind up with a net bonus for sacrifices if they please their patron they’re more likely to get god oaths. Of course the Antagonists can always throw in some quests against the wishes of their patron god to slow that down…

Heroes are free to switch patrons to take advantage of good relationships that develop but there’s a hidden cost: during character creation a player generally picks a patron god with sacrifice abilities that match their hero’s strengths, but the new god might not match up so well. What’s better, keep the god with the preferred abilities or get the bonus for the good relationship? It’s up to you.

For added zing you could also let heroes pick a second god during character creation that is hostile to them and take a -2 relationship with that god. Your father offended Artemis and you may wind up paying the price. You could also let half-divine characters start with a +4 with their patron but a mandatory -4 with an enemy god.

And yeah, it could use a better name. I would have called it “divine favor” but that was already taken…

Beyond Agon

For extra credit, take 3 minutes and think how you could use this whole thing as a plugin for any game with lots of relationships with the gods (hint: all you have to do is remove the one line about the sacrifice rules). I knew violating that shrine of Bahamut would come back to haunt me…

Advanced Agon: Deeper Quests

Agon includes a quick and painless way to get a quest started: a god descends from Olympus and says “hey, you, go do this thing!” (well, technically three things and you pick which one to do first) That’s excellent if you are doing a pick-up game and want to get straight to the action. But for a long-term game — the Agon campaign — it’s sheer buzz-death. A total passion killer.

Here are some other ways to do quests without killing the love.

the Emerging Quest

The game starts off with normal human action: the heroes are in the court of a king, or attending the great games, fighting a war, ship-wrecked on a lonely isle, etc. Events unfold, people do stuff and the heroes just go about their business as they please, being brave and seeking glory.

Somewhere along the way the quest is revealed, emerging from the events in the game or the things the heroes do. The heroes trespass in a crumbling ruin and anger the goddess of the dawn, who won’t be appeased until her idol is returned to its rightful place. A long night of drinking in the king’s hall leads to bold words and brash oaths to slay the monstrous bull that ravages the fields.

Once the quest has been revealed, a god may or may not appear to cement the deal (see the Silent Gods below). As the heroes sleep off their hang-overs a glowing apparition of Athena rouses them from their sleep to declare that Zeus wills them to complete this task and slay the bull — or is it just a dream?

Spend strife as normal before the quest is revealed, but take it out of the budget for the actual quest. An alternative is to add a “discover the quest” objective and give yourself more strife accordingly.

the Seven Labors Quest

Instead of an episodic game where each quest is independent, string a bunch of quests together under one overarching mega-quest spread out across multiple games. Bring back the three pieces of the panoply of Apollo spread far across the earth, slay the five heroes who sacked Thebes, etc.

Usually one agency (god or mortal) sends the heroes on all the sub-quests. They might be thematically related (like the examples above) or they might be very different tasks, only related because the same person is sending the heroes to do them (like the labors of Hercules). Depending on the premise failing one quest might end the whole quest chain.

The heroes should know they are doing a quest chain, but they might not know what all the tasks are when they start — they might just learn each new task when they finish the last one. It is probably wise to let the heroes know how many tasks they need to complete from the start. Otherwise it’s hard for them to get a sense of the scope and every quest is a “jeez, how many more are there!” game.

Create and spend strife just like normal for each individual quest. Alternately you could save strife you didn’t spend in each quest and carry it forward to the next quest in the chain — be careful or else you’ll wind up with astronomical strife for the last quest.

the Mortal Quest & the Silent Gods

Somewhere up there in the clouds of Mount Olympus, the gods want the heroes to complete the quest. They want to see the monster slain or the rash king laid low for his hasty words. And they want to see the heroes do it. But that doesn’t mean they are going to show themselves. They are going to sit up in the heavens and watch, empowering the heroes when they spend their Divine Favor but otherwise just kicking back and watching. What’s the point of being a god and having heroes if you have to do everything yourself?

The heroes start off with a mission, but it comes from a mortal agency, not a god. It could be a task put before them by a king, or an oracle they’ve sworn to fulfill to save their city-state, whatever. Getting the mission might be in the past, something read out as part of the introduction, or it can be something that happens early in the game (like the Emerging Quest described above).

Mechanically it’s not really different from the method in the book (you still get an oath from the god that favors the quest), but it’s a big difference in roleplaying: Athena isn’t in your face telling you what to do, you aren’t “on a mission from god.”

A mortal quest also opens up the door for a lot more player free will — defying the gods is a big step, but defying mortals is fair game. What if you hate the king you’re on the quest for? Maybe you’ll complete the quest as sworn but find a way to twist the intent to screw him over. The king demanded you bring the head of the medusa to him, but he didn’t say anything about not waving it in his face, turning him into stone, and slaughtering his city.

the Conflicted Quest

A quest is what one god wants to happen. But what if another god wants something else to happen and the heroes are forced to choose which god they obey? Hera wants the boy slain, but Zeus wants him taken safely to the queen of the Amazons.

Each god’s desires are usually in direct opposition, making it impossible to satisfy both and forcing heroes to choose sides and suffer the consequences. No matter how incompatible you think the goals are, clever players might find ways to surprise you and wriggle through some loophole, fulfilling both quests. To which I say, huzzah! That’s good gaming. Odysseus would be proud.

A really good conflicted quest would be crafted so that the heroes’ choice isn’t set in stone until the bitter end — they should be able to complete several objectives without having to pick sides. Once they take steps that absolutely support one goal and defy the other it’s pretty much a straight quest. Cruel Antagonists will also look for ways to make both goals appealing or unappealing at different stages of the quest. Sure slaying the monster sounded like the better choice, but then like the Beast of Kolkoris you meet him and find out he’s a guilt-ridden philosopher king with a crying wife clinging to his knees.

the Ulterior Motive Quest or “Poor Dido”

A combination of a few things above. You have been given a mortal quest that you appear to be fulfilling, but secretly the gods have appeared and given you conflicting goals. The king wants you to bring back the sacred apples, but the gods have told you to first pierce them with the fangs of the hydra, so the king will be killed when he eats them.

It’s different from the Conflicted Quest in that the decision is pretty much assumed: unless you reject the quest you’re going to be following the god’s objectives, not the mortal’s. Mechanically if you did fulfill the mortal quest and defy the gods it counts as both a quest win (take normal rewards, earn a Fate) and a quest reject (earn another Fate).

There’s lots of room for high drama, particularly if the mortal the heroes are betraying is likable or a sworn ally, not an enemy or some random jerk.

the Prophecy

There’s a prophecy and the heroes are trying to fulfill it. Unfortunately like most good oracles the literal meaning can interpreted a few different ways. Which interpretation is the right one? What is the real goal of the quest?

Part of the heroes’ quest is to feel their way along and figure out the real meaning of the prophecy. It could be a real heartbreaker where the heroes think for most of the quest that they are intended to save a city, only to figure out at the last moment that the vague “it’s people safe behind wooden walls” didn’t mean the city walls would stand, it meant they were going to flee with the few remaining survivors by ship (the prophesied wooden walls).

A good prophecy quest should include lots of people along the way throwing out their own interpretations of the prophecy, just to stir things up and make the heroes look at the words in different ways. Kings and other heroes might take rash actions based on their own optimistic reading of the oracle, sweeping the heroes up in tragic events.

Mixing it up like this means that not only do the heroes think about what they’re doing inside the quest, they think about the meaning of the quest as a whole and their place in the world. They’re participants in an unfolding story instead of just following some god’s irresistible orders.

I present each of these types separately, but really you can blend them together in different degrees to create new and strange things. A king sends the heroes to bring back all the pieces of the panoply of Apollo (seven labors quest) thinking he will have impregnable armor, but Athena has told the heroes to give the final assembled armor to the king’s usurper son instead (ulterior motive quest), while Apollo demands his armor be destroyed in the mountain of fire since the hero he once gave it to is dead and no other mortal deserves it (conflicted quest).

Beast of Kolkoris unleashed

“Wretched man! Short indeed are the memories of mortals, that you O king should stand in this shrine and without shame ask for a father’s blessing! You who gave your first daughter in sacrifice to the Beast of Kolkoris, defying the will of the immortal gods!”

In the labyrinth of Kolkoris a monster lurks, hiding its face from the immortal gods. It has ravaged countries and eaten the flesh of the living, but now the gods have declared that the Beast must die.

Yep, Beast of Kolkoris is ready for download.

Big thanks to Antagonist Phil Lewis and his players, Gene Hughes, Tom Peters and Mark Trosien, plus all the brave players who burned through so much Fate in the first playtest round: Gavin Cummins, Mike Frost, Kevin Lewis and Ching-Ping Lin.

Think you can do better against the Beast? Now’s your chance.

Beast of Kolkoris in playtesting

Fresh on the heels of Temple of Hera, our next Agon adventure Beast of Kolkoris has gone to playtesting.

When I originally ran the game it set the record for “most Fate spent in a single quest” among my heroes. Seriously. Piles of Fate (somewhere John Harper is cackling with glee). Will the playtest heroes do better? We’ll see.

Assuming everything goes well Beast of Kolkoris should be ready for release in mid-May. Sharpen your spears.