Agon Review

Fantasy RPGs borrow heavily from myth. The superstructure of character advancement in D&D has always intended to emulate character growth from humble beginnings to nearly godlike heroism. Where D&D takes this broad structure and uses it for its own unique version of fantasy, Agon goes back to the source. Agon is an RPG of mythic heroes, seeking to emulate epic poems of Ancient Greek heroes and their exploits. Where a game like D&D guides the action and the narrative in broad strokes, Agon uses a more structured set of procedures to play through the trials faced by the characters. Designers John Harper and Sean Nittner seek to provide a specific structure by which players address challenges, see the consequences, and grow in relation to their world. The result is something evocative and easy to play, but which may frustrate players used to the more open-ended approach of D&D and other older, more traditional RPGs.

Mechanics

The first thing that is clear from reading Agon is the, ahem, role of dice rolls. Each roll is part of a Contest, and each Contest has a fairly specific procedure. Both the description of a Contest as “trying to achieve a goal that’s blocked by a worthy opponent” as well as the four-step process to build a dice pool imply that the rolls should be few but significant. The core mechanic here is, like in Harper’s earlier game Blades in the Dark, ‘Roll and Keep’. Generally, the GM (Strife Player in Agon) keeps the highest die, while the players keep the two highest dice. Unlike in Blades, there isn’t a set value to aim for or even gradations of success, just a target number which is set by the dice roll of the Strife Player, who establishes the nature of each Contest.

For the most part, players roll the same few dice each time. The die associated with the hero’s Name always applies, and is reflective of the deeds the hero has performed (and, mechanically, how long the character has been played). The die from the Hero’s Epithet applies when the player of that Hero sees the Epithet as being relevant. Titles like “Hot-Headed” and “Well-Learned”, Epithets are intended less as limited bonuses and more as lenses which focus how the hero’s actions manifest in-game. Finally, the die from the Domain is the mechanical reflection of what the Contest actually is. Each Hero has a die rating in each Domain: Arts and Oration, Blood and Valor, Craft and Reason, and Resolve and Spirit. The relevant Domain for any Contest is chosen by the Strife Player, though there is an option to roll an additional Domain die in relevant circumstances. Finally, a player may choose to spend Divine Favor or a Bond, two of several meta-currencies tracked for each Hero which reflect the favor of the Gods and the relationships with other Heroes, respectively.

While each session of Agon is intended to be self-contained, the progress of the Heroes is tracked through several different meta-currencies. Glory is the “XP” substitute, and Heroes earn Glory for every contest they take part in. Earn enough Glory, and a Hero can increase the die size of their Name Die. Divine Favor is earned narratively, though each Hero starts with three marks of Divine Favor at character creation. Heroes earn more Divine Favor both through the outcomes of their adventures as well as making Sacrifices during the Voyage stage (Islands and Voyages will be discussed in more detail in the Structure section), and can spend it either for a bonus to their roll or as a consequence of taking harm. Pathos and Fate are analogues to Stress and Trauma from Blades in the Dark; you can spend Pathos for bonus dice or when a Hero takes Harm. While Pathos recovers during the Voyage stage, if your Hero marks more than five Pathos they enter Agony and start marking Fate instead. Fate does not recover, and while your Hero can earn new abilities from taking Fate, if they ever mark 12 Fate their journey is at an end.

There aren’t many unique mechanics in Agon, though every one can come up in basically every roll. Without a wider pallet of mechanical choices, how characters evolve is much more up to the imaginations of the players.

Characters

Agon as a game is about how the Heroes develop in play over how they’re defined in character creation. While you choose your Epithet and your Domain in character creation, the Heroes become significantly more fleshed out as the game goes on. At the end of every adventure, players record Great Deeds and Virtues for their heroes. The Great Deed is literally just the recounting of the deed the player wants the Hero to be remembered for, while for Virtues each player votes to give the other players’ Heroes a point of Virtue in one of four categories: Acumen, Courage, Grace, and Passion. While Great Deeds can be used in future conflicts to gain an extra die, the core function of these two mechanics is defining who your Hero was once their story comes to an end.

As noted in the Strife Player’s chapter, each Hero’s player is expected to have the final say as to how and if their Epithet, Divine Favor, and Additional Domain (if chosen) are appropriate to the roll at hand. The mechanics imply little about this, and in fact the choices which are mechanically optimal change little based on circumstances, as the system does not intend to adjudicate this. This, though, is where the emphasis on qualitative character traits is so important. More so than a game like Fate, which leaves all mechanical adjudication of Aspects up to the table and its social contract, Agon entirely depends on every player being equally interested in the story and the details of how the Heroes evolve. While some games treat the dice as a core contributor to the narrative, in Agon they are a bit player, providing only outcomes to the events which the players must build up given their understanding of the characters. On one hand, this is going to make the game deeply unsatisfying to your average D&D or Pathfinder player. On the other, it’s a strong meta-fictional choice for a game that’s so clearly emulating The Odyssey, where the journey is not only more important than the destination, it’s the whole point.

Structure

Agon is built of nesting structures; at the bottom layer is the structure of a Contest, around that is the structure of each Island and the Voyages between them, and around that is the Vault of Heaven, the structure which tracks the Heroes progress between each Island and determines when their journey comes to an end.

Having a strong structure for the game’s Contests has the twin effects of constraining the dice options and making them easier to understand, and making pretty much every Contest in the game mechanically similar. Whether intentional or not, there is certainly some evolution here from Blades in the Dark, where Position and Effect help establish the consequences of each dice roll and the mechanics stripped of those two elements end up being fairly undifferentiated. This ends up being why maintaining a philosophy of few but crucial dice rolls is important: If there are only so many Contests which determine the fate of each island, then they each have weight and even if they’re mathematically similar to each other they each deserve their own narrative consideration.

The core structures of the game are the Islands and the Voyages. The Islands are the core narrative unit of Agon and are intended to be roughly a session of play each, while the Voyages are a downtime mechanic which links the Islands together and gives the players a chance to reflect on what their Heroes have done so far. The Islands themselves each follow a “diamond-shaped” narrative; there is first the Heroes’ Arrival on the Island, which gives an entrance into the overarching conflicts of the Island and some initial Contests to set the scene.

The structure of an Island.

Then there are Trials, a number of Contests (typically 2-4) which establish more truths about the underlying conflict and give the Heroes opportunities to gain advantages for the final battle to come (or, should they fail, cede them to their enemies). Finally there is the Battle, a momentous final encounter between the Heroes and the core Threat on the Island which happens over three Contests: the Clash, the Threat, and the Finale. While the results of the Trials may determine the positioning (and some bonuses) for the Battle, only the Battle itself decides the fate of the Island. Once the fate of the Island is decided, the Heroes leave, and that Island fades into the mist, never to be seen again. In addition to the Fate of the Island, departure from the Island (called the Exodus phase) gives the players an opportunity to choose a Great Deed for their Hero, give Virtues to the other Heroes, and change their Epithet if they so choose. 

The Voyage phase serves both as the game’s downtime as well as the link between the single session islands and the final, broader structure which ties a campaign length game together. Voyages have four phases: Fellowship, Sacrifice, Leadership, and The Vault of Heaven. Fellowship is purely narrative, giving each player the chance to ask questions and help deepen their understanding of the Heroes. Sacrifice is a literal sacrifice to the Gods, which could bring Divine Favor if done well but Wrath (which can give extra dice to the Heroes’ Opposition on the next Island) if done poorly. Leadership gives the Heroes an opportunity to choose who will be the leader on the next Island. Finally there is the Vault of Heaven. The Vault of Heaven displays twelve Greek Gods as constellations with three open stars each. When the Heroes please one of the Gods during their time on an Island, they get to fill in a start during their next Voyage phase. These constellations mark progress in the game; depending on the length chosen by the players, filling in either three or five of these constellations will indicate that the Heroes have successfully returned home. Then, they use their Glory, Great Deeds, and Virtues to determine exactly how they’ll be remembered.


So at the end of the islands and the journeys and everything else, where do we end up? Agon is a well-designed game, but it’s also a very specific game, and one that directs its players to a significant degree. Each island has one core conflict, and despite some variations in the trials which lead there each conflict is approached, mechanically, the same way. When it comes to the ‘game’ aspect of this role-playing game, everything is quite simple, quite straightforward.

Here’s the interesting thing, though. If you buy into the concept, what you’ve got is your own myth. The intention, the writing, even the art and layout of the book leads you easily into your own Odyssey. In this microcosm, Agon succeeds at what it sets out to do and then some. I personally, though, get stuck on the microcosm part. Like Blades in the Dark, Agon is written with deliberate mechanical narrowness. Yes, you can write in a pantheon, write new Islands, and change the nature and trappings of the structures in the game, but you’re still ultimately playing through a Hero’s Journey, one very grounded in the actual myths that inspired the concepts of a Hero in the first place.

Agon is a story game, and for those that make the distinction it is more of a storytelling game than what a traditionalist would call a role-playing game. The story might be short and triumphant or longer and pockmarked by failure, but the story broadly remains the same no matter how many times you play through or what character you choose to play. And this is where an assessment becomes difficult. Agon is artful, lyric, even. The book is gorgeous (I can tell that even from the PDF) and the theme is captured perfectly. But, with its mythic story contained within such specific structures and constrained choices and conflicts, it is not a game which will give even the illusion of freedom that we all remember from the first time we played D&D. Agon will be an excellent game for a lot of people; the designers both show their talents here. The difficulty in writing this review fairly is that I will never be one of those people. More power to you if you are.

Agon is available from DriveThruRPG. Thanks to Sean Nittner from Evil Hat (and co-designer of the game) for our copy!

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2 thoughts on “Agon Review”

  1. Your mix of sincere admiration for the brilliance and beauty of Agon with certainty that it isn’t for you mirrors my reaction near perfectly. I want to stress that it is still one of the prettiest roleplaying games I’ve ever seen: the art is jaw-dropping and the design and layout cutting-edge. I might well never play it, but I will always enjoy *looking* at it.

    Liked by 1 person

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