Finding inspiration for the tabletop adventures we create is not always as straightforward as we would hope. This is just as true for game masters as it is for players. Depending on the game we play or the genres we like, we often take cues from popular culture references such as movies, series, books or songs.
Lately, I have been taking a journey back to the tales that are at the origin of many of the contemporary stories we entertain ourselves with in modern times. Myth is at the heart of many cultures and has always played a very important role in human societies. I think mythology should always be part of your own storytelling kit as a tabletop role-player, whether you use it as an inspiration or as a setting.
Many myths start at the beginning of times, with how the world was created and who came to rule it. A variety of Gods are introduced, each with their strengths and flaws. We find out how they help shape the world of mortals. As much as mythology is part of the history of many countries, it is not based on fact. The Gods of Olympus didn’t really meddle in the affairs of Greeks or Trojans, nor does Odin really rule over one of the Nine Worlds surrounding Yggdrasil.
Even though some societies consider their legends to be true accounts of their remote past, myths are stories rooted in folklore. They often depict deities, heroes with supernatural powers and fantastical creatures. They are not designed as tales of lived exploits but as studies of the human condition. Through the successes and failures of these, perceived as perfect, divine characters we learn more about ourselves and the values we hold dear as a society.
Mythology has always held a fascination for me, since I was a kid. Norse and Germanic myths are an integral part of my upbringing. As a half Dutch and half Swede growing up in the Alps, you can imagine I have had a few cultural pools to bathe in as a child. In grade 5, I had this amazing teacher who told the greek myths like no other. It was fabulous. That same year, I read The Hobbit, which brought me to investigate Tolkien’s inspirations for Middle-earth: Beowulf and Norse Mythology. It wasn’t long before all these trails interweaved and led me to the worlds of fantasy role-playing.
The fact that many tabletop role-playing games concern themselves with heroes, fantastical beasts and legendary exploits is not their only connection with mythology. Sure, it is what inspired their creators along with other more modern works of fantasy literature, but the connection is more subtle than that.
Spoken Stories of the People
Mythos is Greek for story-of-the-people and logos means word or speech. What better way to summarize our tabletop hobby: “the spoken story of the people”. Be it perceived as real or fictional, mythology endures because its stories ring true, even today. Through the exploits of its heroes or the vengeful acts of its gods, myths give us a window into ourselves. Not only are they entertaining stories, their resonance is undeterred.
So, if you’re feeling your gaming group needs a little more focus or your player character needs something to make them feel more fleshed out, take a little stroll back into ancient myths. These are older tales than the ones Hollywood relentlessly keeps rehashing without any real purpose, conviction or intent other than draining your attention span. Many authors, including Shakespeare, loved the Greek myths. They used them extensively as inspiration. It’s time to go back to the real deal, even if, as you will see, it can be retold with a modern voice.
Old but new
For the sake of trying to keep this reasonably short, I shall focus on the two mythologies that are dearest to my heart: Norse and Greek. Where do you even start if you are intrigued by Odin, Freya and the rest of the Vanir? Sure, you could jump right in and grab a copy of the Saga of the Volsungs or if you’re looking for something more akin to English literature, yet set in Scandinavia, read Beowulf. There are many translations of it, but Tolkien’s does seem to be the one that would attract me personally the most, since he was so fascinated by it.
Once in a while, someone comes along and gives their account of stories of old. They do so with modern literary sensibilities, yet manage to stay faithful to the original in almost every way. Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology is one such work and is a great way to learn about these old tales. It’s also fun to see how an author who has been so influenced by myths in the creation of his own stories goes back to the origin of his inspiration. It’s a much easier read than older adaptations and quite fascinating to see how Gaiman interprets the myths with a modern eye and voice.
Swords and Sandals
If you’re like me and you feel classical antiquity is as fascinating as the middle ages, the great Greek myths are definitely an exhaustive source of inspiration for your games. Strangely enough, I’ve always struggled to find adaptations that really capture the essence of Greek mythology. There are scores of movies that almost get it right, but not quite. The pacing and storytelling of Jason & the Argonauts and the original Clash of the Titans have not aged gracefully and they can feel more like a chore to watch nowadays. I do have a fondness for old school practical effects and Ray Harryhausen’s stop motion creations are still wonderful to this day. More modern versions such as the 2010 Clash of the Titans and its sequel Wrath of the Titans get a lot of undeserved hate in my opinion. In fact, I find them quite good. These fast paced films do seem more concerned with checking all the blockbuster fulfilment boxes, leaving their potential completely unexploited for the sake of being just another generic action flick.
Are these as inspiring and fun as they should be? No, definitely not. Nothing I have seen on screen has managed to match the creations of my own imagination. The closest anything has ever come is a French-Japanese animated series from my youth called Ulysses 31. It’s a science fiction take on The Odyssey that manages the rare feat of capturing the essence of Greek mythology while giving it an original twist.
As passionate as can be
I’ve had to wait many years but finally, someone with a huge passion and interest for these stories decided to give it their due. As masterfully as you can expect, Stephen Fry gives us his retelling of the great Greek myths, in not one but three books that are as true to the source material as they are delightful and entertaining: Mythos, Heroes and Troy.
I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the first volume, Mythos, in its audio form, read by the author himself (Stephen Fry stands on a pedestal of his own when it comes to narration), and I’m looking forward to the next two. If you ever wonder what I listen to these days while designing and illustrating fantasy maps, this is it! Mr. Fry’s new version of the old favourites found in Mythos is faithful, informative and a breeze to read (or listen to). The book conveys the many aspects of these defining tales of the human condition: good and evil, the meaning of suffering, the origin of place-names, animals, cultural values, traditions, the meaning of life and death, etc. Whether you are familiar with Greek mythology or are looking for a good primer, I cannot recommend this book enough!
How you apply what inspires you in old myths to your own game is up to you. You will find what speaks to you, it isn’t a recipe. There are, however, games and supplements that can help you along the way to bind it all together and give it an adequate dressing of sorts. A great tabletop role-playing game will make good use of the uniqueness of its setting. With that in mind, here are some of my favourites but do keep in mind this list is far from being exhaustive. It solely derives from my own interests and preferences, in the hopes of inspiring you to find what tickles your fancy!
If Norse and Celtic myths are your thing, why not try something like the Trudvang Chronicles. It features art by the amazing Paul Bonner and really seems to convey its source material in wonderful ways. As its publisher, Riot Minds, puts it: “Trudvang Chronicles is an award-winning fantasy roleplaying game based on the mysterious and dark Nordic and Celtic sagas and myths.”
Beowulf Age of Heroes
Since I mentioned Beowulf earlier, I cannot pass on Handiwork Games’s latest creation: Beowulf, Age of Heroes. It’s a unique D&D 5th Edition supplement released this year, and it is already garnering a fair bit of attention. It has been designed for duet play (often referred to as solo play), so all you need is a Game Master and one player. “One of the oldest recorded stories in Western Europe, Beowulf is the ultimate tale of hero vs. monster – and now a dramatic, 5e setting.”
Moving on to mythical and bronze age inspired games and supplements, RuneQuest is almost impossible not to mention. It was originally published in 1978 and has been in the hands of many publishers before coming back to the TTRPG company that started it: Chaosium. “RuneQuest is a roleplaying game of heroic fantasy rich in magic, mystery and extraordinary adventure, set in the world of Glorantha. RuneQuest is filled with mortals and gods, myths and cults, monsters and heroes. The most powerful building blocks of the universe are the Runes, mystical symbols that permeate everything, and mastery of Runes allows astonishing feats of bravery and magic.”
Right at the intersection of the bronze and the iron age, we find Conan: Adventures in an Age Undreamed Of. This unique setting is many fans’ fantasy favourite and publisher Modiphius has done a great job at bringing it to life!
This roleplaying game “takes you into the world of Conan the Barbarian, where heroes raise blood-spattered swords against dire sorcery, exotic lands beckon to the daring, danger and treasure lurks in forgotten ruins, and where loathsome creatures haunt the spaces beneath the earth… as well as in the throne-rooms of mighty kingdoms!”
Next is a game I do not know much about but it has been recommended to me by a trustworthy source. Since Agon seems to fit the bill so well, it would be silly not to give it a mention. “Far back in the mists of antiquity, a poet sings of great deeds wrought by mighty heroes—of monsters slain and justice restored, of wise council and devious strategies, of courage, valor, and daring—defiant of the gods themselves. In Agon, you create and play these heroes, crafting their epic tale into an immortal legend.”
Mythic Odysseys of Theros
I will admit that before this official Dungeons & Dragons 5E supplement was released, I knew nothing of Theros, one of the worlds of the Magic: The Gathering playing card game. But what a surprise it was! The world of Theros is its own take on Greek mythology, drawing heavily from it while still feeling fresh and original. It introduces new playable races such as Centaurs, Satyrs, Leonins & Minotaurs while making deities an integral part of the fate of the heroes. I really like Mythic Odysseys of Theros and quite possibly will make it my favourite flavour of D&D. “Legends walk the lands of Theros, a realm shaped by deities and the deeds of heroes. From the temples of omen-speaking oracles to the five realms of the Underworld, the champions of the gods vie for immortal favor and a place among the world’s living myths.”
Make it your own
As always, the best piece of advice I can give you is to not be afraid to make it your own. Regardless of the game you play and how much you adapt it to match your own preferences and sensibilities, I hope that this short excursion into our own world’s myths and legends will provide you with some helpful inspiration!
Wouter F. Goedkoop is a multi-faceted designer, artist, cartographer and storyteller who, after living across Europe decided to find his home in Nova Scotia where he lives with his wife and kids. He helps people and companies connect with their audience in meaningful ways by telling relevant and impactful stories. For commissions and freelance inquiries, please use the form on the contact page.