“Sing, O muse, of the rage of Achilles, son of Peleus, that brought countless ills upon the Achaeans.”
-The first line of Homer’s Iliad
|Odyssey on papyrus, 1st Century BC|
I am obsessed with Greek mythology, almost as much as I am obsessed with Dungeons and Dragons. I fell in love with DnD back in middle school, when a good friend of mine showed me his new 3rd Edition Player’s Handbook. I would later trade him some Magic cards for that book. I still have that book, it’s binding has been duct taped and blood stains its pages (from an ill fated DnD game on a camping trip). My favorite part about roleplaying games is the fact that I’m not the only one who is so passionate. This past year I got to go to GenCon 50 and was surrounded by my people. A giant mob of nerds just as in love with gaming as I was.
I’m a high school History teacher, and obviously the king of the nerds on campus. I started a board game club at school, which was the smartest thing I’ve ever done at work. First, I used this time to teach Magic to my students and play Magic at work. However, Magic soon grew stale. So I proposed that we would play Dungeons and Dragons. This was fortuitous since it coincided with the new 5th edition had just come out.
Since then, I’ve ran several long campaigns in the past few years. None have been more successful than my campaign built around Greek mythology. The campaign setting worked so well because of the familiarity and richness of the setting, and the fact that I let my students play as demigod heroes.
Everyone is at least somewhat familiar with Greek mythology. We have all read about it in high school English class. In fact, my original goal of the setting was to create something that could tie back to teaching mythology. Greek mythology is popular in film (Troy, and all of the Clash of the Titans films) and is popular in video games (God of War is a standout). The beauty of playing a game set in mythical Greece is that your players are going to be very familiar with the concept. They know who Zeus is, and could probably rattle off most of the Olympians. That’s some awesome branding right there. Compare that to when you spend an afternoon constructing this well thought out pantheon of gods and those pesky players don’t bother to remember who they are. Because Greek mythology is so familiar, your players are bringing a lot to the table for you to work with.
The richness of the setting is what makes the campaign so gratifying. This is part of the draw for role playing games like Star Wars, Star Trek, and Lord of the Rings. Players are already invested in the world. However, these types of games bring their own pitfalls. As great of a game as The One Ring is, (if you’ve never checked it out, do so. They really are some of the best sourcebooks being produced) the drawback is that players are forced into the margins of the story of Lord of the Rings. The players might butt up against the story of Lord of the Rings and find themselves relegated to bit playes.
For all its richness, Greek mythology is full of empty spaces and conflicting reports. There were many of authors who wrote the plays and epic poems that make up the Greek mythology canon. Most of these writers are far removed from their subjects. Homer, who wrote such a detailed tale about the Trojan War wrote it 500 after the war ended. Some historians question whether he was even a single person. Oh, and the Iliad is missing parts. It only describes 4 days in a ten year long siege of Troy. This means there is plenty of room for the players to be great heroes.
The final key element that made that campaign successful, was I allowed the players to play as the children of the Olympians. I took the races from the 5th edition Player’s Handbook and tossed them out (no dwarves and elves). Instead I made twelve options for the players to be the children of Olympians (or in the case of Artemis or Athena who were virgin goddesses, they were her chosen).
This was a thematic choice and fit well with the setting. The kid didn’t just make a human barbarian, he was Lycaneous! Son of Ares, the god of war. My students were tapped into the campaign setting in a way that they never would have if I had just cooked up some Tolkien rip off for them. All of their magic items came directly from the gods. Almost everything interesting in the setting was tied into the Mythology.
The goal of this blog is to expand on this concept. There are lots of blogs out there about how to be a good DM or about the philosophy of Dungeon Mastering. But I want this to be more about the idea of bringing Greek Mythology directly into Dungeons and Dragons.