Tuesday, October 2, 2018

The Kynthiad: Sources for reference and inspiration

Artemis, goddess of the hunt
For the past 11 years, I have been running a solo RPG campaign for my wife Erika, using the Big Eyes Small Mouth rules. "The Nine Journeys of Kynthia," AKA "The Kynthiad," is set in the world of ancient Greek mythology, with a certain amount of real-world Bronze Age history mixed in with the purely fantasy elements. Over the course of the game, I have drawn details and inspiration from a great many sources, the most important ones of which I'll briefly touch on here.

A more complete bibliography of the game's sources can be found here, but that page lacks the commentary I'm giving in this column.

The Game System

The campaign uses BESM Third Edition. The Second Edition BESM Fantasy Bestiary includes a large number of creatures based on Greek mythology, many of which I have converted to Third Edition or used as a benchmark for my own versions. Big Ears, Small Mouse has also been invaluable in designing smaller creatures, and animals in general.

Other RPG Sourcebooks

My lifelong interest in history and mythology has resulted in a good-sized collection of sourcebooks for other game systems that I've been able to use as reference for The Kynthiad. To start with, I have a large GURPS library of over 40 titles. The research put into that game's historical and genre sourcebooks is pretty solid, and most of the subject matter is system-neutral. Unsurprisingly, GURPS Greece and Egypt have seen the most use, but Bestiary, Fantasy Bestiary, Monsters, Places of MysteryTimeline, and even Celtic Myth have all been very useful, too. In GURPS Greece, author Jon Ziegler even provides a timeline that tries to make sense of the often-contradictory sequencing of the major myths, which I've adopted mostly intact as a framework for the recent history and current events of The Kynthiad.

Green Ronin Publishing's "Mythic Vistas" product line includes a couple titles that are great references for this game: Trojan War covers the most famous conflict of the period, and Testament provides information on the ancient Hebrews, Canaanites, Egyptians, and Mesopotamians.

There are also a few older D&D sources that I've used in my research for the game. I own the Dragon Magazine CD Archive--which includes occasional mythology-themed gems such as Michael Parkinson's "The Blood of Medusa"--and the Age of Heroes Historical Reference sourcebook. (I also own the deities sourcebooks for 1st, 2nd, and 3rd edition, but I find the treatments of the Greek gods in books such as Trojan War to be far preferable to these versions, all of which devote far more space to game mechanics than to divine lore.)


I have used a combination of ancient and modern texts to research the ancient Near East. Herodotus's Histories provide a wealth of detail about the world of his time (circa 440 BC), and he isn't stingy about relating myths tied to the events, people, and places he'd writing about. Even though he's writing several centuries after the "Heroic Age," the Histories have provided me with a wealth of details to flesh out obscure parts of the world such as the Scythians, Amazons, Medes, and Hyperboreans.

Probably the most important scholarly text that I've read in preparing this game has been The End of the Bronze Age: Changes in Warfare and the Catastrophe ca. 1200 B.C., by Robert Drews (Princeton University Press, 1993). This book takes a detailed look at the widespread sacking of Mediterranean cities contemporary with historical Troy, and the technology and tactics that contributed to it. The section on chariot design and tactics alone is worth the read, just to dispel a lot of common misunderstandings about how war was conducted at that time.


My collection of translations and retellings of Greek mythology is far too large to catalog briefly, but a few items stand out as most useful to a GM trying to run a roleplaying campaign in this setting.

Robert Graves' Greek Myths is one of my primary reference works for quickly finding summaries of many stories, and following connections between them. My copy (The Folio Society, 1966) has an index of names which includes the meanings of many of them. Each section of the main text is followed by Graves' notes on sources, and his theories about the origins and meaning of the myths. Many of these notes are typical scholarly glosses, but in some passages, Graves expounds on his own bizarre pet theories about the subject at hand (however tenuously linked that subject and his theory might be). To give just a couple examples, he shares Frazer's obsession with attributing everything to sacred kings and fertility cults, and he has some very radical (many would say crazypants) ideas about the secret tree lore of the Druids. However, I have managed to distill a number of very useful ideas for use in my RPG campaign from his weirder ramblings.

My other favorite reference is Carlos Parada's Greek Mythology Link website, which is a massively hyperlinked database of people and places in Greek myths, including footnotes giving the original period sources for each page's topic. Special features of the site include genealogical charts, contextual charts (e.g., events before, during, and after the Trojan War), and detailed maps. These graphics are often limited in resolution on the website, but can be purchased as high-resolution PDFs. I acquired my copies several years ago, back when a handy and inexpensive archive of the complete database was available for purchase on CD.


Naturally, movies and television have provided a great deal of inspiration for The Kynthiad. Series like Hercules and Xena play much more "fast and loose" with historical periods than I'm ever going to in this campaign, but they're still good for mining for story ideas. Movies like Clash of the Titans, Jason and the Argonauts, Troy, and Gods of Egypt provide great over-the-top battle scenes to use as models for RPGs involving gods and monsters, despite their many deviations from the classical versions of those stories. (I used to get much more bent out of shape over the liberties the screenwriters take with the source material, until I realized that the ancients were just as guilty of it.)

As I mentioned in an earlier column, I cast most characters in The Kynthiad using real-world actors so that my wife and I have a common frame of reference for them. The movie Troy was released just a few years before we started the campaign, and I knew that many of those characters would appear in the game, so it was easy to just keep the same casting for most of them. To cast other roles, I've drawn from a wide variety of other movies and TV shows--many but far from all of them being period pieces or fantasy films--to find suitable actors. In most cases, I limited myself to living actors whose current ages fit the parts I choose for them, but I have made a few exceptions. For example, Jolene Blalock played Medea in a TV movie of Jason and the Argonauts in 2000. My game is set a generation later, but Medea is a demigoddess who doesn't age as quickly as mortals do, so my reference photos for her include that costume as well as more recent headshots. Similarly, a handful of actors have died since I started the campaign (most notably Alan Rickman and Peter O'Toole), but I continue to use them in the game.

If you have a favorite source for information on the ancient Near East and its history and mythology, please share a link in the comments!

Past posts about "The Kynthiad"

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