Thursday, July 30, 2015

The Kynthiad: How many gods?

From the very first, The Kynthiad was never intended to be exclusively derived from Greek mythology, though that would be the primary source. The Bronze Age Near East was chock full of competing cultures and religions, such as Egypt, Canaan, and the Hittites, and it would be unrealistic to ignore them all. (I realize that "unrealistic" is a slippery word when you're talking about a fantasy setting featuring monsters, gods, and magic. I simply mean that Greece did not exist in a bubble.) My research also suggested that the most likely dates for the historical basis of the Trojan War and the Hebrew Exodus roughly coincided with the long reign of Ramesses II. Or close enough to make for a very interesting background to the game, without resorting to the violent mashing of timelines that, say, Xena: Warrior Princess regularly indulged in.

One of the first issues I had to address was how many of those other cultures, and their pantheons, to include in the game. To start with, Egypt was irresistible--it seemed as old and exotic to the "heroic age" Greeks as it does to us now. The Hellenistic Greeks' attempts to syncretize their gods with the Egyptians' raised some relevant questions for the game: Were different cultures' gods actually the same gods, or truly distinct and separate pantheons, or some combination of the two?

For the purposes of the Kynthiad, I decided early on that the Egyptian and Greek gods would be two separate pantheons. I did choose one point of overlap, inspired by the Greek story of Typhon, a terrible monster who almost overthrew the gods. One late version of this tale claimed that the animal-headed gods of the Egyptians were actually inspired by the Olympians, who had fled in fear from Typhon and disguised themselves as animals to hide in the far south. Typhon is equated with Set in this version of the story, and many English translations of Egyptian myths use both names interchangeably for Osiris's brother. For my game, I decided that Typhon and Set were indeed the same entity. Kynthia has recently learned during play that it took the combined might of both the Greek and Egyptian pantheons to stop him. This is a secret that both families of proud gods would prefer be forever forgotten--but with our heroine experiencing visions suggesting that Typhon is working free from his prison, it's one they will not be able to ignore for long.

The world of the Kynthiad is full of fictional lands drawn from Greek mythology, such as Ethiopia, Hyperborea, the Amazons, and Cimmeria. Because of their literary origins, these regions usually worship the same gods as the Greeks--or a subset of them, at least. Most seem to prefer the Olympians, but some honor Titans, Winds, or other gods instead. (Kynthia has found a second--or third?--home among the Amazons in part due to their shared reverence for Artemis.)

In other regions, such as Scythia and the Tin Isles [modern Britain and Ireland], the exact nature of the local gods is not always so clear cut. As Kynthia travels through foreign lands, I occasionally provide names and portfolios for gods worshiped in the area. I try to leave some mystery about whether those gods can be mapped to the Greek pantheon. or to any other. Very few of those gods will ever play as critical a part in the story as the Greek and Egyptian gods do, so definite answers are unnecessary for now. And for those that will, Kynthia will learn more in due time.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

The Kynthiad: Solo adventures in the world of ancient Greek mythology

I have been a fan of Greek mythology since early childhood. I read Edith Hamilton's Mythology before the end of elementary school and Bulfinch's Age of Fable during high school, and took a Classical Mythology class early in my college career. Between that and my passion for game mastering RPGs, it was inevitable that I would eventually run a campaign based on these myths. The surprising part is that I didn't start planning such a game in earnest until my 30s.

In the early 2000s, I mentioned to some of my gaming buddies that I wanted to run a mythology-based game. At the time, GURPS was my system of choice for anything that wasn't D&D, so I started working on ideas using those rules, and my wife Erika and another friend even started working out character concepts. However, that campaign never happened, in part because I couldn't settle on a coherent focus or frame for the story. (Classical mythology covers a vast body of texts, many of them blatantly contradictory!) 

A few years later, Erika and I became parents, and having two small children greatly curtailed our gaming schedule. Erika requested that I run some kind of solo game for her, so that she could get her RPG fix more often. I realized that this would be an excellent opportunity for me to finally run a Greek myth game, without any of the potential headaches of scheduling a full-sized group and balancing spotlight time for multiple PCs. 

We decided against GURPS as being too crunchy, and chose Big Eyes Small Mouth instead. BESM was designed as a rules-light system allowing play in any genre of anime, which means that it also works well for most genres of non-anime gaming, too. A few years before, I had run a successful medieval fantasy mini-campaign using BESM Second Edition, and now (in 2007) wanted to try out the newly-released Third Edition. 

The campaign was set in the Bronze Age Greek world, circa 1200 BC, during the first couple years of the Trojan War. Kynthia began play as an acolyte in a temple of Artemis in Colophon, one of the many smaller cities along the Aegean coast of Asia Minor. This city appears in the Iliad as one of many cities sacked by the Achilles to collect supplies for the siege of Troy and weaken any potential allies to that city. During the first session, a group of Greek ships attacked the city, and Kynthia joined the defense of the goddess's temple. She experienced intense headaches just before the raid, which only grew as the Greeks broke into the sanctuary itself. Kynthia prayed to the goddess for protection--and the ground shook, dropping pieces of the roof upon the intruders and frightening away any Greeks who were not instantly killed. The priestesses were saved, and the city was spared a full sacking. 

Up to now, Kynthia had been an indifferent acolyte--one of many who assumed their parents would find them a wealthy husband before taking their final vows--but this miracle demonstrated that Artemis had other ideas for her life. And so began "The Nine Journeys of Kynthia," AKA The Kynthiad. Our heroine would go on to become a world-traveling seeress and champion for the goddess, and--after performing her first few quests--formally becoming Her priestess. 

We've had a few hiatuses along the way--the longest being prompted by our cross-country move a couple years ago--but the game is still going strong many years later. In fact, one week from today will be the 8th anniversary of our very first session--and we've just recently passed the 200 mark. 

Emmy Rossum, cast as our heroine, Kynthia of Colophon
Now that I've posted this introduction, I intend to write more about this campaign in future columns. This campaign has far too much history to try to chronicle it all here, but it does provide plenty of material for discussing various challenges and decisions I faced in preparing and running the game. Some of the topics I plan to touch on include:
  • Combining mythology with real-world history to create a consistent and authentic-feeling fantasy world.
  • Portraying the gods, who interfere constantly in the myths--and deciding how many of them to use, in a world with many different cultures and pantheons.
  • Reference works and other inspiration for background, characters, and plots.
  • Casting characters using real actors, to provide a convenient photo reference. 

Thursday, July 9, 2015

TBT: Character Background Questionnaire

Here is a questionnaire I shared with my players when I was starting a new campaign quite some years ago. At the time I was inspired by my friend Anne Cross, who had created a background questionnaire for the players of her Earthdawn campaign. 

I also distilled many of these questions from Central Casting, by Midkemia Press. This book--which was long out of print even when I was using it a decade or two ago--was designed as a system for randomly generating backgrounds for medieval fantasy RPG characters. Leaving everything to chance would often produce rather bizarre, unwieldy characters, but the book was a rich mine of ideas to pick and choose from, and the life events tables doubled as a generator for downtime events and adventure ideas (by design). I no longer own the book; the closest equivalent in my present library would probably be the background and downtime rules in Ultimate Campaign (for the Pathfinder RPG).

The following questionnaire is being provided to help players develop and organize background information for their characters. You do not need to answer all of these questions, but the more of them that you can, the more clear the character will be in your mind, and the more possible hooks your GM will have for connecting your PC to the campaign world.

Note: This questionnaire is designed for a medieval fantasy campaign. In all of these questions, "you" means "your character."


  1. Describe yourself as someone meeting you for the first time would see you. Race? Gender? Age? Size? Coloration? Attractiveness? Dress? Do you try to emphasize or hide any of these features?
  2. What other details would someone notice on a closer look? Do you have any distinguishing marks (birthmarks, scars, etc.)?
  3. Do you have a distinctive way of speaking? Any mannerisms or other memorable behavior?

Birth & Family

  1. Where and when were you born? Do you know your exact birthdate? Did anything unusual (storms, accidents, deaths, etc.) happen about the same time, with which some people might still associate your birthdate?
  2. Who are your parents? Names? Occupations? Social class? Were they married? Are they still alive?
  3. Do you have any siblings? How many? Gender? Older or younger? Are they still alive?
  4. Do you know any members of your extended family (grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins)?
  5. How did you get along with your family?

Education & Work

  1. Did you serve an apprenticeship in order to learn your current profession? For how long?
  2. If you were not an apprentice, how did you learn your trade, skills, etc.? Formal schooling? Informal teachers? Self-taught?
  3. Who was your master or teacher? (Race? Gender? Appearance? Personality?) Is he/she still alive? How were you treated? Are/were you on good terms with your master?
  4. Did your teacher have other apprentices or students? Who were they?
  5. Are you literate? How important are letters, books, etc. to you? Do you carry any writings and/or writing materials with you on your adventures?
  6. Do you have a job other than "adventurer"? Who do you work for? (Or are you self-employed?) How much of your time does this job require?


  1. Who were your friends as a child? As an adolescent? As an adult?
  2. How many of these people are still alive? How many are you still friends with?
  3. Who is/was your best friend? What is the most memorable thing that the two of you ever did together?
  4. What do you look for in a friend?
  5. Have you ever been in love? Was it recriprocated? Do you have (or have you had) a boy-/girlfriend, a lover, or a spouse? More than one? Are you looking for one? What do you look for in a romantic partner?

Attitudes & Beliefs

  1. What are your beliefs about religion and the afterlife? Do you follow any particular god or gods? What appeals to you most about this religion? Least?
  2. Where do the spirits of nature, the elements and the dead fit into these beliefs?
  3. What gods, religions, or priesthoods will you have nothing to do with?
  4. What is your moral code? Under what conditions will you kill? Steal? Lie? Do you have a personal code of behavior about violence? Magic? Sex? Dealing with evil beings?
  5. How committed are you to seeing through something (a task, quest, bargain, etc.) that you have started?
  6. How important are the following to you?: Power? Wealth? Fame? Honor? Family? Friends? Love? Knowledge? Religion? Your job? To what lengths would you go to acquire or preserve these things?
  7. How often do you remember your dreams? How much attention do you pay to them? Do they inspire you? Guide or warn you? Frighten you?
  8. What is your attitude towards magic? People who use it? Fearsome monsters? The unknown in general?

Edges & Flaws

  1. What is you especially good at? What sets you apart from the rest of the world? A skill? An unusual knack? A certain flair of style or wit?
  2. What flaws do you have? Bad habits? Obsessions? Terrible (or embarrassing) secrets?
  3. Do you have any enemies? How much trouble do those conflicts cause you?

Likes & Dislikes

  1. What do you love? (People? Places? Creatures? Kinds of food? Activities? Subjects?)
  2. What do you hate? How do you typically react to these negative stimuli?
  3. What do you fear? What is your worst nightmare?

The Other Player Characters

Note: Many of these questions are best answered in collaboration!
  1. How did you meet the other PCs? How did you become adventuring companions?
  2. What were your first impressions of the other PCs, and how has that impression changed (if any) since then?
  3. What is your relationship with each of them like? What bonds keep you together?


  1. Describe your first encounter with a nonhuman monster. (Not counting player races, animals, etc., that you grew up with--but feel free to mention them, too.)
  2. If you are a spellcaster, describe your first experience with using magic. What were the circumstances? Were you expecting it?
  3. If you have an animal companion or familiar, describe how you acquired it. Describe this ally's personality, and its attitude towards you (loyal unto death, mischievous, lazy, etc.).
  4. If you have any unusual personal possessions, describe how you acquired them. Is their value practical, monetary, sentimental or some combination of these?
  5. If you wish to add any pre-game history that is not already covered by the questions above, please do so (especially if you are much older than the default starting ages).