Have you ever read a story from Greek mythology and been deeply bummed that a cyclops never fought a team of dragons? Do you long for the days when people kept their promises or faced the common consequence of slowly transforming into a harpy? Does Hesiod not quite do it for you anymore, and you spend your slow afternoons hoping against hope that someone will write some new Greco-Roman creation myths? Then hoo, boy, have I got some good news for you.
Odyssey of the Dragonlords is an unsurprising success story: its recent Kickstarter raised nearly half a million dollars from over eight thousand backers. Created by Arcanum Worlds – the name chosen by former BioWare creative directors James Ohlen (Dragon Age Origins, KOTOR, Baldur’s Gate series) and Jesse Sky (The Old Republic: Knights of the Fallen Empire)– Odyssey of the Dragonlords uses the Fifth Edition Dungeons & Dragons scaffolding to build an intriguing fusion of Greek mythology and Tolkien-ian fantasy. Ohlen and Sky, along with their author friend Drew Karpyshyn, are behind a stellar list of RPGs, including Baldur’s Gate, Dragon Age: Origins, Mass Effect, and Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. And based on their freely-available Player’s Guide, that pedigree looks ready to fulfill on its promise.
Gods & Monsters
Odyssey of the Dragonlords takes place on the lost continent of Thylea, whose topography of scattered islands and rocky, mountainous coastlines very consciously calls to mind Greece. Ohlen, Sky, and Karpyshan have created a rather rich mythological history for Thylea. When the first humans, elves, dwarves, and halflings found their way to the Forgotten Sea and its coasts, they were utterly powerless, their own magics rendered null in this new land. For generations they were ruled distantly by the Titan twins Sydon and Lutheria and more locally by the powerful tribes of cyclopes, satyrs, and centaurs that had long called the continent home. Only when bronze dragons and their powerful riders arrived in Thylea did the new settlers have a chance to assert themselves. When Sydon and Lutheria pushed back against these new powers the First War broken out, resulting in the complete destruction of the newly arrived dragons (so soon after they got there), the arrivals of five powerful new gods and – eventually! – a five-hundred year peace. Odyssey of the Dragonlords takes place in the waning years of this peace, as various factions prepare for the potential outbreak of more violence.
While Odyssey of the Dragonlords lives or dies as an achievement by how much you want your sword-and-sorcery fantasy thrown into a blender with Greek mythology, the Arcanum World team has succeeded in creating the backbone of an interesting, dynamic world to play in. Its history feels lived in. And integrally this is true for mythology nerds who can geek out that the patron of Thylea’s central city mirrors Athena as the goddess of wisdom or that the god of forges is named Volkan, or for people who dumped all their knowledge of Greek mythology as soon as they got out of sixth grade. Factional resentments of the centaur of cyclopes are historical rather than racial, and the wide swath of gods, titans, and demigods living in fragile balance makes the world feel real, messy, and fraught.
Fas est ab hoste doceri
These factions also are notable for their flexibility in terms of game play. The factions set up in Thylea allow for a myriad of styles and games. You could go on an adventure that is focused on the rivalries between the three city-states of Myrtos, Artesia, and Estoria (here’s to you, Greek politic nerds!). You could go on an adventure that is rooted in the rivalries between the Titan twins, the aloof Sydon and Lutheria, and the five gods who defended the newcomers to Thylea in the First War. You could explore why the Mytros thieves guild and its mysterious Lady of the Coins is breaking into the wealthiest houses in the city, and why they are worshiping Hexia, the god of war’s greatest foe. Not your cup of tea? Want some more glory? You can rampage through the world as a demi-god, undertaking Herculean labors and looking for your long-lost mom. You could be a centaur or barbarian who simply wants these newcomers and their uppity dragon history to go away. The flexibility of Odyssey of the Dragonlords is impressive, allowing for play on a multitude of scales.
Another admirable element of the game is its early attempts to be more than just a Greek veneer over a standard Dungeons & Dragons game. This happens largely through the implementation of guest friendship, sacred oaths, and mortal curses as game mechanisms. Attempting to build some key aspects of Greek social life into the game, Odyssey of the Dragonlords makes guest friendship – the insistence that guests be treated with honor and never betrayed – and oaths clear cultural touchstones throughout the Thylean world. Those who break them are immediately subject to the Curse of the Treacherous – in which three, Fates-like goddesses send their minions to hunt down the oath breaker and maintain the social fabric of Thylea.
Playing It Safe?
If there is one downside to Odyssey of the Dragonlords, it is that it doesn’t take these risks quite often enough, or dive into them with enough depth. This, certainly, is something that may be addressed when the 280-page Campaign Book is published – at nine times the length of the Player’s Guide we are bound to get more details. But as it stands, these unique mechanisms are a bit too rare and underdeveloped. Curses, for example, consist largely of turning into various mythological creatures and require divine assistance in lifting. This is fine, but also lacks the flexibility and variety that is a strength of so much of the rest of the Player’s Guide. Similarly, other mechanisms remain surface-level or non-existent. The attempt to work in Greek hoplites and phalanxes into a Dungeons and Dragons game is… intriguing, but remains a reference more than an actual experiment in game design. Similarly, the game plays lip service to the balance between fame, glory, and hubris in Greek culture, but never really provides any incentive for avoiding the latter. These are small quibbles – it always feels a bit unfair to chide a game for what it chooses not to do. Still, in a game that otherwise has so much potential, they feel like missed opportunities.
On the plus side of this, Odyssey of the Dragonlords will be easy for anyone with any 5e experience to dive right into. And, on the whole, the release of its Campaign Book ought to be a great addition to any RPG library. You can still get in on the action through Kickstarter: the $25.00 “Bronze Medal” package gets you the book and lots of printable posters and maps, with goodies like posters and GM screens available at the higher tiers. There will also be a Roll20 plug-in coming soon as well!
Thanks to Arcanum Worlds and Modiphius for the chance to check out Odyssey of the Dragonlords, and be sure to keep an eye here for all the latest on D&D and the world of tabletop gaming.
All images via Arcanum Worlds