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The Setting Less Traveled: Ancient Greece

Written by Nicholas - Published on March 7, 2009

Nicholas is the columnist in charge of Nerd Watching and part-time Expy wrangler. He also works as the community manager, so keep an eye out for him on RPG blogs and forums.


Meteora Valley, Greece. Picture by Neona

In the last ten years there has been an influx of ancient Greece into our culture. It has been in the movie theaters with films like “Troy” and “300”. It has been in our video games, “Age of Mythology” and “God of War” are just a few examples. Even before that we have been fascinated with the age as a culture. Everyone has heard about Socrates, Hercules and Zeus. Yet somehow a culture known for its epic tales and most popular mythology has not worked its way into our RPGs. Off hand the only Greek focused RPG I can think of is a GURPS setting book, but since GURPS books are being written for every noun in the English language I’m not sure that actually counts. I’m sure there are some ancient Greek RPGs (and I expect to hear about them in the comments) but if I can’t think of any as an avid gamer, it seems like the setting is not being utilized as much its potential allows.


Picture by Zagarbal

Inspiration: Thanks to the abundence of the setting in other forms of media, inspiration for an ancient Greek setting is easy to come by. There’s a load of movies on the subject, “Alexander”, “Troy”, Clash of the Titans”, “Disney’s Hercules” and “300” just to name a few of them. They cover the full range from realistic to absurdly cinematic so there is a film out there to help you peg the feel of your game. If you’re of a more studious persausion you can break out the history textbooks but I think most of us would rather spend a few hours hopping around wikipedia.

However, I say if you really want some inspiration for creating your own Greek mythology, you have to go straight to the source. “The Illiad” and “The Odessey” are the most obvious choices. There are also many easily overlooked choices. Hesoid’s “Theogony”, which tells the story of the creation of the gods and the world also reveals a great deal about the cosmology of the ancient Greeks. Likewise the “Homeric Hymns” go into more detail about individual gods. There is also a rich history of plays in ancient Greece and some of the scripts have survived to this day. I recommend Sophocles for tragedies and Aristophanes for comedies. The work of Pliny the elder can provide an interesting, if often baffling, pictures of how the ancient Greeks understood the natural world.

Props: Greek mythology is full of symbols. The golden fleece, Medusa’s head, the golden staff of Hermes, Zeus’ lightning bolt, the thread of life, the hide of the Nemean lion are just a few of many examples. Gods and heroes in Greek myth are recognized by the symbols that they wear and carry. You can use existing symbols or create your own equivilents. Players can define themselves by a symbol or spot important figures by them. Ideally you can put these symbols in a physical form to hand to the players, even if it is only a picture of them.

The Setting Less Traveled:

Speaking of pictures, visual arts flourished under the ancient Greeks. Use it! There’s a wealth of wall paintings, sculptures and pottery. You can find additional materials about ancient Greece, from Renaissance painting of scenes from the “Theogony” to modern computer models of how the Akropolis once looked. There is a load of material out there that you can display to your players so they know how their world looks.

Hazards: War ranks high on the list. There were wars between Athens and Sparta, wars between Greece and Persia and wars to unify the city-states. War was a near constant and most of the great thinkers and leaders of the era started out as soldiers.

Less realistic but even more dangerous is the threat of hubris. If a mortal were to put himself at the level of a god or ever question the will of a god even in ignorance, the punishment would be devastating. More generally a character in ancient Greece should be afraid of the gods. Gods frequently enacted cruelties upon mortals, sometimes with cruel intent and sometimes through ignorance of how mortality actually works. Even if a character is able to gain the favor of a god that often results in earn the ire of another one.

Social hazards also play a part. If you are going to play an ancient Greek game you are likely going to need the players to be either part divine or aristocratic males. Everyone else is too poor, too enslaved or too female to be allowed to function freely in society. It is possibly to play a socially realistic game outside the aristocracy but it would not be easy. Alternatively, you could just throw out the social order and have fun slaying minotaurs and battling wits with Hermes.

Have you played an ancient Greek game? Know a good system for it? I wanna hear about in the comments!

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Written by Nicholas

Nick DiPetrillo is the original author behind the games Arete and Zombie Murder Mystery available at http://games.dungeonmastering.com

Nick is no longer active with DungeonMastering.com, however he is an accomplished writer and published his first game in 2009.

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The Setting Less Traveled: Ancient Greece, 3.5 out of 5 based on 2 ratings

Nicholas is the columnist in charge of Nerd Watching and part-time Expy wrangler. He also works as the community manager, so keep an eye out for him on RPG blogs and forums.

 

 Comments

21 Responses to “The Setting Less Traveled: Ancient Greece”
  1. Wiz of Ice says:

    SKR’s The New Argonauts. More here.

  2. Delf says:

    Interesting. I’ve been thinking about an ancient Greece set game for a few years. 3.5 recommended reducing weapon damage to symbolize weaker materials like bronze.
    Most of the movies you list are heavily cinematic, and don’t provide a very good look at ancient Greek culture at all. 300 is the best of your list, and the Spartans were very different from the rest of the Greeks. PCs need not be demigods or aristocrats, as every able-bodied man was expected to serve his city’s army when war came.
    Also, many of the monsters in the MM come from Greek mythology, including Cyclopes, Medusa, Chimaera, Manticore, minotaurs, satyrs, dryads and other nymphs, etc.
    Putting an ancient Greek game together should be a snap, really, with just a little cultural research.

  3. Delf says:

    Oh, and Bulfinch’s Mythology and Edith Hamilton’s “Mythology” are good sources of the classics.

  4. Yax says:

    Thanks for the links and resources

  5. phycoshane says:

    i know alot about greek mythology and theirs a place very much like greece in my world areitium.im gona make it so the pc have to make themselves heros start from the bottom and build up their reputation.i was thinking i they would get traped in the underworld,and later at near epic levels the pcs could be sent back in time to the titanic wars.you could let your pcs be spartans if they were fighters,barbarians.you could let them be persian sorcerers.the imortals could be avengers.druids are easy so are wardens.the races would be the only problem i dont think some of the races would fit

  6. There’s also Agon which I have heard about, and there’s Mazes & Minotaurs, an faux old school game designed with an awesome premise: “Mazes & Minotaurs is what the first fantasy roleplaying game could have been if its authors had taken their inspiration from Jason & the Argonauts (yes, the 1963 movie with all the cool Ray Harryhausen monsters) and Homer’s Odyssey rather than from Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings or Poul Anderson’s Three Hearts & Three Lions.” I’ve haven’t played either.

  7. Nicholas says:

    @Wiz of Ice, @Alex Schröder: Thanks guys. I figured that stuff is out there, I just didn’t know about it. It is strange that the setting never really caught on in the mainstream the way that Tolkien-style fantasy, cyberpunk and superhero games did.

  8. Sean Holland says:

    I used D&D (first with 2nd ed and later with 3rd) for an Hellenic inspired campaign called the Isles of Reason. It was a lot of fun though I had to reign in the high magic of D&D a bit to better fit the style. Quite fun.

  9. Sandrinnad says:

    The Greek gods (among others) are in the 1st ed. um…. ‘Deities and Demigods’ (I think that’s what it’s called) Decent resource if you’ve got it handy.

    for a Roman retelling of the Greek myths you can’t beat Ovid’s ‘Metamorphoses’. It’s very readable with the chapters fairly organized into themes.

    Herodutus’ ‘The Histories’ is a great resource too :) Runs from ancient to the more modern Persian invasions (well, modern when he wrote it :D ).

    Both of those should be decently easy to find second-hand. Both are available online, but unless you’re in to 17th century stylings you’ll probably want to spring for a more modern translation of Ovid. :)

  10. Todd says:

    I heartily suggest that one take a page from Hercules/Xena when running a Greek style game. The larger than life heroes are far more suitable for an RPG (especially a 4e dnd one), and there is really no longer any reason to disregard women in general from anything but second hand politics and baby making. This model also allows easy introduction of out-of-culture elements like steel weapons, martial arts (after a fashion), and the like as well.

  11. Anarchangel says:

    Agon has already been mentioned, but, I’ll mention it again because it’s hard to go past it for Odyssey/Clash of the Titans style gaming.

    Hellas is a relatively new sci-fi game which mines Greek myth for setting flavour.

    There have been adventures set in ancient Greece in Dungeon magazines over the years, but I can’t remember anything useful like issue numbers.

    In terms of ancient sources, Pausanius (essentially a 2nd C AD travel writer who focuses on mythic ties to locations) is also worth a read.

  12. James Pope says:

    Don’t forget White Wolf’s Scion game setting, where the players take the roles of the children of the gods. Scion focuses on modern characters, but the sentiment and notions are straight out of Greek mythology (Hercules anyone?)

  13. PapaBear says:

    [pedant] Hercules was Roman mythology. Heracles is Greek.[/pedant]

    Happy to help!

    That said. I would enjoy playing in a roleplaying game styled on Greek mythology! Bring it on!

  14. Todd says:

    While you are technically correct PapaBear, I was referencing Hercules: The Legendary Journeys (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0111999/ ) which is historically inaccurate in many ways. Often those imprecisions are useful to emulate in the context of an RPG, which is why I made the suggestion. I have always seen Xena as a sort of spin off, but included it for it’s relevance to women adventurers in a historical game.

  15. The Wizard of Celn says:

    The New Argonauts is being given away over at Paizo (http://paizo.com/store/downloads/seanKReynoldsGames/v5748btpy84e8). I haven’t had a chance to try it yet, but on read-through it looked pretty interesting.

  16. Wiz of Ice says:

    I have tried it. Should have mentioned that at top. We played a one-off at GenCon in 2005 or 2006 run by Bill Collins (aka Varianor). Was tremendous fun.

    Check out the purchaser comments at Mr. Celn’s link.

  17. Daniel M. Perez, The Gamer Traveler says:

    There’s also Green Ronin’s Trojan War.

    I also publish a magazine in support of the Ancient World in gaming called Targum Magazine that might be of interest.

  18. Mark says:

    A great modern rescourse, much better than edith hamilton if you are out of high school, would be “Classical Mythology” by Mark P.O. Morford and Robert J. Lenardon. I have the 6th edition from 1999 so it has legs, not sure what edition is out there now.
    Huge collection of the myths with selection from the epics and tons of other tales like Herakles’ Labors and the Nemean Lion, the returns of other leaders (not just Odysseus) from Troy… Just packed with myths.

    A great collection of translated primary sources is “Anthology of Classical Myth”, Trzaskoma, Smith, and Brunet; Hackett Publishing Company Inc. Mine is from 2004. A lot of the Trojan Cycle, outside of Iliad, in summary; Hesiod’s Theogony in its entirety; and the Homeric hymns all in one book, plus tons more.

  19. phil says:

    Agon. It’s not a conversion from another setting, so the feel is Ancient Greece from the start. Doesn’t suffer the constraints of D20 levels or classes–the player charactes are heroes from the start. Lots of depth in this game, so don’t be discouraged if it feels like a dice rolling contest the first time around. I’ve been running this game off and on since 2007, and it’s still my favorite. The review below pulled me in, and I haven’t looked back…

    http://www.rpg.net/reviews/archive/13/13154.phtml

  20. Scoot says:

    I got the idea for a Greek campaign while reviewing the mythology. I’ve been doing some reasearch and I’ve hit a few snags getting in the way of more fun things to do.

    1. Demigod PCs? Maybe with critical weaknesses (Achillis’ heel)

    2. What races? (I was thinking Humans, Satyrs, Pans)

    3. Whether or not to include popular legends (Heracles cameo and the like)

  21. Matt Celis says:

    How would you modify D&D to make it suitable? As it stands, it is way down the list of RPGs that work well for Greek/ sword-n-sandal games. Heroes of Olympus was made for it. RuneQuest apparently works well too. D&D kinda sucks for anything not using D&D tropes.

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