We forget that it was not so long ago that anyone daring to call themselves a learned gentleman would have a near-encyclopedic knowledge of Homer and Thucydides, of Plato and Herodotus. In short, Classical Greece and all its treasures were a mandatory part of higher learning.
More than this, though, they were something familiar to us—the struggles of mortals against capricious gods, tales of endless adventure, paragons of virtue and vice, cowardice and heroism. The mythology of a Greece that perhaps never really was has captivated us, and has influenced our poetry, our literature, and yes, our fantasy.
In my Middle Isles campaign I’m working on, I’ve been pushing to add a bit of mythical Greece to the mix (I mentioned Mythic Greece in yesterday’s post). The great thing about trying to adapt the “feel” of a Greece of myth and legend, rather than a Classical Greece proper, is that I can get a little loose with the themes, while still giving the game that overall feel. And it’s a great feeling—the dawn of modern thought, a time when the gods seemed nearer and the veil between worlds a bit more diaphanous, where single heroes could alternately raise and humble city-states, and getting to play with icons that remain a part of the world’s fantastic traditon to the present day.
As I said, if you’re looking to add a bit of mythic Greece to your game, you don’t have to learn ancient Greek to do it, or even throw the Gygax out with the bathwater. Here are a few items to consider to make your setting a bit more “Greek” to you:
-Technology: Forget the printing press, and forget deep-sea voyages. Ship travel is harrowing, and largely coastal in nature, or relatively short jaunts across open water. Bronze, “the beautiful metal”, is key, being used for weaponry and armor. Iron is cheaper, easier to mass-produce, and will change many things, but where bronze rules, metal is expensive. Spears and leather armor represent the most many warriors will have. A set of full bronze armor will be worth a prince’s ransom. Shields will often only have a coating of metal.
-Monsters: You don’t have to throw out the orc and goblin, but you can augment it with some pretty awesome classical monsters. The Gorgon, Manticore, Harpy, Siren, Ogres, Satyrs, Hydra, and many other fantasy creatures have easily-researched Greek origins. What is commonplace to us should not be so commonplace. These are creatures of legend. They aren’t going down easy.
-Heroes: As much fun as it to start out as a conscript-turned-hero, don’t be shy about giving a touch of the divine to your character. Perhaps he was the son of a river nymph, or a descendant of Ares. Perhaps Athena hates him for the offense his father once gave during an improper sacrifice. Give your players an impressive pedigree, but make the mountains they need to climb all the harder for it.
-Gods: Many games have the gods as moralistic, or easily-defined deific archetypes. No, you want petty, squabbling, gods, deities that mankind can see the greatest and worst of their attributes And while deific interaction isn’t a daily occurrence, not doing proper homage to the gods or ending up on the wrong side of a war can definitely see their interference. And they aren’t below showing up in the mortal realm from time to time.
-Quests: You don’t need to cut out the dungeon crawling, but imagine a labyrinth housing a horrifying Minotaur, who has devoured any human who has set foot in his lair. Or attempting to outwit the guardian of Hades. Or being given a series of impossible tasks by a cruel tyrant that no mere human could hope to complete. Or being cast from strange shore from strange shore because you angered a god. Bring the classical themes of adventure back into your campaign!
There are many wonderful books on Mythic or Classical Greece; I’ve used more than a few of them in giving my Middle Isles campaign I’m working on a bit of a Greek feel. Here are only a few recommendations, but there are tons of great resources out there. Greek religion and life were far from as simple or as easily-defined as we often make them out to be, but I’m not above using a condensed, popular account to have a good time. Are you?
Mythic Greece, Iron Crown Enterprises
Mazes & Minotaurs
GURPS Greece, Steve Jackson Games
Bullfinch’s Mythology—The defining book on mythology.