This article originally appeared in Pyramid #16
At first glance, it seemed obvious. The Greek heroic myths are one of the main sources for modern fantasy fiction. The historical Greek culture is one of the foundations of all later European history, particularly our own Western civilization. What better setting for roleplaying, especially for GURPS, a roleplaying system that already had several superb historical sourcebooks in its product line?
Once the project was under way, however, the idea seemed less obvious with every piece of research. Look at the Greeks on their own, without the filter of Roman commentary, and they become much more alien to our way of thinking. Greek myth, examined in detail, no longer resembles the swords-and-sorcery genre we gamers spend so much time with.
Some of these differences were easy to incorporate in the book. Surrounded by austerity, Greek heroes work for goals other than wealth. Greeks are quarrelsome and fiercely independent, so their politics is small-scale and full of intrigue. The one thing Greeks agree on is their disdain for the outsider, the barbarian who can never be fully accepted. The Greek's religion colors every facet of his life, his gods present at every moment whether he is actively worshipping or not.
It wasn't clear whether some other elements should be included. Greek moral values are very strange to the modern mindset. Greek culture was sexist in ways few of us would accept today. Hellenic society accepted prostitution and the widespread practice of male homosexuality to a degree that even liberal moderns might find unusual. It occurred to me that GURPS Ancient Greece could end up pushing all the hot buttons of today's moralists: paganism, occultism, violence, and sexual "perversion." Yet GURPS sourcebooks have never glossed over the truth about historical civilizations. I decided nothing less would do justice to the Greeks.
Finally, there was one more common element in Greek history and myth, an item which the Greeks themselves never took note of and which may not be clear from the book. Only from our perspective does it become plain: the story of Greece is essentially a tragic one.
"Don't be afraid, Father. We won't fail you. The Pythia will know what has made the gods angry with Tegea." King Pagasus frowned at his daughter. He had never regretted allowing his only child to learn hunting and warcraft. At least, never until now. At this moment, he could wish that Chryseis was safe and happy in the women's quarters, not about to leave Tegea in the midst of dangerous times. Yet, "I know it," was all he could find to say.
She turned with a grin and leaped to her chariot. Her white cloak and golden hair swirled with the exuberance of her movement. Her driver moved to follow, but the king grasped his arm to stop him. Old and ill Pagasus might have been, but his grip was still strong. "Amphion, you've served my house for many years," he said.
The scarred commoner nodded. "Aye, Sire."
"I put my daughter in your care. Make sure no harm comes to her. If she comes back from Delphi safe, you can name your reward. If you fail, may the Gods Below hound you to your death."
Amphion didn't react, but Pagasus knew he understood. The charioteer climbed up, taking the reins with the ease of long practice. Chryseis smiled brightly and waved to king and townspeople as Amphion shouted to the horses. The chariot moved away, and the king wondered if he would ever see his daughter again.
There was nothing he could do. He knew, all too well, why the gods were angry with Tegea. He remembered the treachery that had ended his predecessor's life. And now his only child would probably end as a sacrifice for his sin.
The greatest art form of the Greeks was tragic drama. Many of their arts were idealized. Architecture, sculpture, epic poetry were all intended to show the Greeks and their gods at their best. But in tragedy the Greeks show their deepest understanding of imperfect human nature.
Tragedy was moral and psychological drama. Almost every tragic drama centered on a single hero, portrayed as a living person with his own virtues and flaws. The hero's virtues made him a great man. Yet the hero invariably brought his suffering upon himself, his sins bringing down the punishment of the gods, his attempts at evading Fate simply redoubling its impact on his life.
Looking back, we can see this theme over and over again. The Greek myths are almost always tragic, although this shouldn't surprise us - much of what we know about the myths comes from tragic poetry. Oedipus, in his pride, calls down the judgement of the gods on the killer of the previous king of Thebes, then discovers that he himself was unknowingly that killer. Agamemnon, blind to everything but winning his war against Troy, provokes his wife into a hatred that ends in his murder.
Greek history repeats the same theme. One after another, the great statesmen rise to power, perform tremendous services for their cities, then are driven into exile or death as their success awakens the mistrust of others. Socrates, possibly the wisest man who ever lived, is executed for corrupting the young with dangerous ideas. Alexander nearly conquers the known world, but drives himself to an early grave, and his empire disintegrates almost before his body grows cold.
Even Greek civilization itself can be thought of as the hero in a tragedy. The Greeks are brilliant and full of energy. They nearly conquer the world, and they do hand their ideas down into the distant future. Yet their flaws overcome them. Their inability to cooperate leaves them helpless before any organized enemy. Outsiders constantly take control of Greek affairs, and in the end it is the unimaginative but disciplined Romans who carry the Greek legacy on to us.
The weather-beaten man scowled at Chryseis from under a shock of filthy hair. "Come to look at the hero in his kingdom, have you? Well, look around."
Behind him sprawled a wreck. Wind, water, and time had done considerable damage to what was once a very large vessel. Only the prow was more or less intact. Otherwise, beams and timbers were piled on each other in no particular order. In the distance, the walls of Corinth gleamed white in the morning sunlight.
Chryseis looked back at the man, and shrugged. "We were hoping to find some help here. It's said the prow of the Argo could speak once, could prophesy. If it can tell us what we need to know, we won't have to go on to Delphi."
The man chuckled, and pointed up to the prow. "You're right. That beam there. It was cut from one of the oak trees at Dodona, sacred to Zeus. The god spoke from it at times, gave us pretty good advice too. But not any more." His voice turned bitter. "The gods never relent."
"I'm sorry," Chryseis said.
Jason looked at her closely, taking in her youth and exuberance. "You haven't made your mistake yet, have you?" "Sir?"
"The gods expect us all to make a mistake. One is enough. They plan on it, you see. And when we make our mistake, they punish us as we deserve. I was punished, when I betrayed Medea. Be careful, young woman. Don't make any mistakes the gods can't ignore."
Perhaps the best way to capture the feel of the Greek setting is to build on the tragic style. Greek drama was minimalist. There was very little in the way of scenery or props, and there were no more than three individual actors on stage at once (only two, in the earlier dramas). The sharp focus was on character, developed through the play of dialogue and stylized gestures. The background setting was simply suggested, hinted at through dialogue.
The GM in a Greek campaign can follow suit. Things and places are less important than characters and their interaction. Describe the setting briefly, then concentrate on what characters are doing and thinking. Keep the number of individual NPCs small, and develop each one fully.
Another feature of Greek drama was the chorus, a company of singers and dancers who performed in counterpoint to the individual actors. The chorus performed many functions. It performed between acts, providing an interlude. It set the scene, describing the situation and providing an outside viewpoint for the audience. It sometimes interacted with the individual actors. The dramatic poet also used the chorus to make his own observations, driving home the moral points he wanted to make.
The GM can use a "chorus" too. Have the most important actions the PCs attempt take place before an audience, a group of townspeople or soldiers. The members of the "chorus" may not be as individually developed as other NPCs, but they will have things to say. The chorus will comment on the characters' actions, their motives, and how the gods must be feeling about them. The GM can stay in character if he plays through the chorus, prodding the players through their words instead of speaking in his own voice.
Finally, the point of the tragic drama has to be understood. Tragedy always involves suffering and struggle. But while the hero suffers, the story does not always end in despair – in fact, there is usually a note of hope at the end of each tragedy. Oedipus managed to find peace even with his own terrible fate. Agamemnon's son Orestes managed to end the cycle of revenge that had nearly destroyed his family. And as tragically flawed as Greek civilization was, its legacy spanned millennia.
"Seems obvious enough," said Amphion. "The oracle must have been referring to your father's brother. He must be the one the gods are trying to punish."
Chryseis frowned. "That doesn't make sense. My father and my uncle have never gotten along well . . . but I always thought him honest. What could he have done?"
The charioteer shrugged. "If an evil man is smart, he can look honest enough."
Chryseis stopped when she saw movement up by the shrine. A younger priest spotted them and hurried in their direction. Chryseis remembered seeing him among the other priests when the oracle had spoken. "I wonder what he wants?"
"My lady," began the young priest, out of breath. "I apologize for interrupting you, but I thought you should know something. I have a little talent for interpreting the god's words, when he speaks through his oracle. And I'm almost certain the high priest made a mistake."
Amphion grunted. Chryseis only looked confused. "What do you mean?"
"Well, my lady, instead of saying, ‘seek out the man who harmed your kin,' the Pythia said, ‘seek out the man who can avenge your kin.' Does that mean anything to you?"
Amphion thought about it. He considered who might need avenging, and remembered the old king's death. He nodded. "Sure does. My lady, I'm afraid we're casting at the wrong target. Somebody wants us to think your uncle is the one who angered the gods. Instead, he may be the man who can solve our problem."
Chryseis gaped in shock. "But who would do such a thing? Who would dare?"
Amphion said nothing. He knew the girl wasn't ready for the truth. But King Pagasus had always been generous to Apollo's priests at Delphi. How much gold, how many cattle would it take for the priests to speak at Pagasus' direction, rather than the gods'?
Chryseis thought about it. Suddenly her expression changed, went cold and hard. Amphion realized that she had seen the truth.
"We have to go home, Amphion," she said. "There's much to be put right."
The charioteer cocked his head, considering. "What do you have in mind, lady?"
"We have to speak to my father, make it clear that the truth has come out. And then . . ." She trailed off. "Then we will see what the gods demand of us."
Amphion wanted to touch her shoulder, to comfort her. But he knew he could not so presume. He could not treat her as a girl, not now that she had earned his respect. "As you say, my lady. As you say."
Article publication date: December 1, 1995
Copyright © 1995 by Steve Jackson Games. All rights reserved. Pyramid subscribers are permitted to read this article online, or download it and print out a single hardcopy for personal use. Copying this text to any other online system or BBS, or making more than one hardcopy, is strictly prohibited. So please don't. And if you encounter copies of this article elsewhere on the web, please report it to email@example.com.