22 April 2021
An Odyssey-esque voyage through a fantastical take on the Mediterranean
Over the years countless tabletop RPGs have used the epic heroes and monstrous foes of Greek myth to add flavour to their worlds, but few – if any – have managed to make something that feels either as Greek or as mythical as Agon.
This feeling comes from the way in which, rather than aiming to simulate the feel of a fantasy novel or even a TV series, Agon instead aims to capture the feel of ancient stories and legends. It nudges players towards seeking glory and valour instead of simply aiming to win the current battle, prefers to paint the world in broad brush strokes rather than precise detail and always gives its players the chance to do something heroic – rules of physics and common sense be damned.
The core premise sets up the campaign as an Odyssey-esque voyage through a fantastical take on the Mediterranean, with the players taking the role of divinely favoured heroes island-hopping their way back home. However, in true mythical style, getting back to their loved ones doesn’t depend on the heroes’ navigational abilities or thrifty use of supplies. No, instead it’s a simple matter of becoming legendary heroes and earn the capricious favour of the gods.
This isn’t just a matter of window-dressing or GM attitude, either. The rules spell out the ways to gain divine brownie points, and note exactly how many of them you need to drum up before getting back to your loving family. There’s no way around it, no matter how clever the players might think they are.
The result is a game that can feel a little disconcerting to those of us raised on traditional RPGs, where ‘go anywhere, do anything’ was always held up as a core part of the medium. Agon casually ditches this idea in favour of a much tighter, much more structured experience. While you are completely free to approach challenges in whatever way you might wish and roleplay in any style you could desire, every island you visit follows a familiar format of initial clashes, growing threats and looming finales.
This push towards a heavily codified structure even bleeds through into the core rules themselves. In most RPGs, carrying out a night raid on an enemy camp would require dozens of separate rolls, as each of the heroes try to sneak their way in, saw through prisoners’ bonds and battle the commander in their tent. Not so with Agon.
Instead, the entire conflict – from the moment the players enter the camp through to the coming of the blood-tinted dawn – is handled by a single roll of the dice. Don’t be mistaken, though, this doesn’t mean it’s a simple process of counting pips and working out who won. Indeed, one of the most enjoyable things about the game is revelling in the complexities, and above all else the drama, of its battles.
The defining moment of every roll comes right at the start, when each of the heroes has to declare their names and titles to all and sundry. From there, the party weigh up which dice they get to roll and whether they want to invoke the favour of the gods, while the GM, or, rather, the ‘Strife Player’, sets the challenge level and paints the opening scene.
The fact this this is only the first few moments of the action is important, as all the action happens after the results are already known. The players themselves get to narrate what they do in a scene, already knowing how well they did in it.
Some of the rules around the deeply stylised core mechanic can be a little daunting at first glance – the core rulebook comes with an incredibly handy flowchart detailing each phase, and you’re likely to need it for your first few sessions – but it all feeds into creating an experience that feels truly unique.
Many RPGs can provoke a table to laughter or shock, but getting a room full of people loudly declaring their heroes’ epithets to the world at large is something that only Agon has managed so far.
The result is a game that may not be particularly flexible or especially simple, but that absolutely nails its aim of getting players to create epic myths and weave legends that will live on through the ages. Amidst a wine-dark sea of Grecian-inspired games that are, essentially, D&D in sandals, Agon truly stands out as a breath of refreshing, salty air.
While it may not tick a lot of traditional RPG boxes, Agon creates an incredibly refreshing experience that neatly skewers the feel of Greek myth, rather than merely Grecian-themed adventures.
If you enjoyed the short-term campaigning and tightly focussed structure of Evil Hat’s stellar effort from last year, you’ll probably fall in love with Agon
Designer: John Harper & Sean Nitter
Publisher: Evil Hat
This feature originally appeared in Issue 49 of Tabletop Gaming. Pick up the latest issue of the UK's fastest-growing gaming magazine in print or digital here or subscribe to make sure you never miss another issue.
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