Note: Since writing this piece I’ve had the opportunity of playing in a Mythus campaign. You can read about those experiences here.
Back in 1992 I was on the lookout for a new set of game rules. I’d spent my time at university playing MERP and HârnMaster, with the occasional foray into Megatraveller, Fantasy Hero and RuneQuest III. I fancied a change.
Two things drew me to Dangerous Journeys – or, properly speaking, to Mythus, the only part of the Dangerous Journeys system that was ever published. The first was the wonderful artwork by Janet Aulisio on the Mythus Gamesmaster Screen, a beautiful triptych watercolour of a Middle Eastern dock scene that promised something radically different from stereotypical European fantasy.
Janet Aulisio’s awesome three-panel painting for the Mythus GM Screen. Who wouldn’t want to meet these people during their adventures?
The second was the name of the designer – Gary Gygax, co-written with Dave Newton – and the promise of the blurb on the back of the Mythus rulebook, which seemed to address every issue that led me to abandon AD&D: it had a percentile-based skill system, logical advancement, social classes, plenty of background detail. A flick through the book confirmed that armour absorbed damage. Gygax, the grand old man of roleplaying, had designed a system that seemed to tick every box I had at that time.
The main rulebook, magic supplement and screen were more than I really wanted to spend. I put them back on the shelf and continued browsing while I had one of those in-shop debates with myself. We all know how those end. I walked out of the shop with a lighter wallet and a new rules system. I even picked up the first couple of copies of Journeys magazine, intended to support the system.
And thus began the longest love-hate relationship I’ve ever had with a game system. Mythus has intrigued me and frustrated me in equal measure, but I’ve never been able to put it entirely out of my mind. As one person put it, when I mentioned the system on an old school discussion group, “I tried to like it… still trying.”
My main frustration with the system is Gygax’s writing style. Long-winded, precise to the point of prissiness, self-referential and full of exclamation marks! There are endless acronyms, most of them pointless bacronyms. Money, for example, is the Base Unit of Currency, or BUC, unless you want to call it the Quantifying Unit Indicating Denomination, or QUID. Grrrr…
Some people like Gary’s style; I don’t. That’s not criticism of Gygax the man, or of Gygax the designer, just of his writing style in games (oddly, his style in his novels is much better). In Mythus, Gary’s game style is pretty much unadulterated – it isn’t so much that it needed a decent editor as that it needed a complete re-write before ever being sent to an editor. Still, my reaction to it isn’t quite as bad as the chap who made a drinking game out of reading Mythus.
And yet I’ve always sensed a pretty solid system lurking somewhere behind the modifiers, sub-clauses, digressions, pomposity and axe-grinding. And every time I go to look for it, I get caught up in the frustrations again.
My fascination was further compounded with the number of people praising Mythus’ setting book, the Epic of Aerth, even as they condemned the rulebooks. I didn’t have that. So last year, I splashed out on a second-hand copy. And, I thought, while I was at it I may as well get the rest. I’m now the proud owner of almost everything ever put out for Dangerous Journeys. I’m missing the third novel and the last two copies of Journeys.
And it still frustrates me. Tempts me. Taunts me.
My Dangerous Journeys collection.
Last night, I sat down determined to finish a character. Yeah, I know: 20 years and I’d never made it through character generation once. I chose the simpler option of a non-heka user (Mythus uses Egyptian terminology for magic).
I wish I had done so earlier. Things are falling into place. My frustrations have become less to do with the language and writing style, and more with the need to flip through rulebooks hunting for elusive tables – the booklet of tables in the GM screen helps, but doesn’t entirely eliminate the problem. But I am convinced this is playable. The question is whether it offers anything more than systems I’m using now. It is, after all, an early 90s rule system.
Mythus has a fairly complex random character generation system, but nowhere near as complex as Rolemaster Standard, for example. I’d put it on a par with games like Chivalry & Sorcery 2nd edition (or Rebirth), or creating a mid-level Pathfinder/3.5 character. I’m OK with that; I don’t mind complex character generation if it helps enhance play and roleplay.
In Mythus, generating a PC (the game calls them HPs, Heroic Personas) is a six-step process. I’m going to go into a fair bit of detail.
1) Determine socio-economic class (SEC)
SEC runs from level 1-9, representing lower, middle and upper class, each further subdivided into lower, middle and upper. Level is determined by a simple percentile roll. There’s a table. I roll 13, and discover my character is SEC 3, upper lower class – a skilled bluecollar worker, in US terms. My SEC will limit the vocations I can choose.
2) Determine characteristics
Mythus has three traits – Mental, Physical and Spiritual – each subdivided into two categories. Mental is divided into Mnemonic and Reasoning, Physical into Muscular and Neural, and Spiritual into Metaphysical and Psychic. Each category is subdivided into three characteristics – Capacity, Power and Speed. Power and Speed cannot exceed Capacity for any given category. Characteristics are listed in the form SMCap (Spiritual Metaphysical Capacity), PNPow (Physical Neural Power) and so on. Each category is the sum of its characteristics; each trait is the sum of its categories.
To determine characteristics, you roll 2d6+8 18 times. Yes, 18. Once you’ve done this, you assign each roll to a characteristic. Cap must be the highest in any given category, and the game advises assigning your six highest rolls to the six category scores. Since I want to make a non-heka user, I’m going to put my highest scores into the Physical categories. Once you’ve assigned all the rolls, you can add up to three points to characteristics – no more than one to each, and Cap must remain highest.
My rolls are: 13, 13, 15, 11, 20, 17, 13, 18, 14, 17, 18, 13, 14, 13, 15, 12, 14, 14.
Including the three bonus points, I assign my characteristics so:
MMCap 17 PMCap 20 SMCap 18
MMPow 13 PMPow 16 SMPow 14
MMSpd 13 PMSPd 16 SMSpd 15
MRCap 15 PNCap 18 SPCap 17
MRPow 12 PNPow 14 SPPow 13
MRSpd 11 PNSpd 14 SPSpd 13
This gives the following Traits and Categories: Mental 80 (Mnemonic 43, Reasoning 37); Physical 98 (Muscular 52, Neural 46); Spiritual 88 (Metaphysical 45, Psychic 43)
Physical is the total damage I can take before dying. My Wound Level is 75% of that, 74 – that’s what I can take before becoming dazed. My Recovery Level is 10% of it, or 10, as is my combat speed – 10 paces.
Mental and Spiritual have effect levels of 80% of the total; these act as my wound levels in mental and spiritual combat.
3) Choose Vocation and Skills
Since this PC (or HP, since this is Mythus) has SEC 3 (social class, remember) and I want him to follow one of the Physical vocations, my choice is limited. All in all, Mythus has a good selection of vocations, broken down into 10 areas: Alchemy, Arms, Dweomercraeft, Mysticism, Outlawry, Priestcraeft, Primitive, Scholar and Voyager. The 10th area is for non-humans, and includes Alfar (northern Elves), Alfen (halflings), Dwarves, Elves and Gnomes.
I decide I want a fighter. There are three Arms vocations, Cavalier (Knight), Engineer and Soldier/Mercenary. With a SEC of 3, I can only pick Soldier/Mercenary. This gives me a decent selection of combat and physical skills, each calculated as a base (ranging from 8 to 20) plus one of my characteristics. What other systems call Skill Level or Rating, Mythus calls STEEP (Study, Training, Education, Experience and Practice). Sigh.
In addition, I get a number of additional skills (did I forget to mention Mythus calls these Knowledge/Skill Areas, or K/S for short?) based on my TRAIT scores. I get 2 extra Mental skills, and 3 in each of Physical and Spiritual. Each of the bonus skills will start at 2d10 + governing characteristic. I have the option to forego one of these skills and use its points to boost skills I already have, which I choose to exercise in Physical skills to boost my combat ability.
I decide this character’s a mercenary. I think of him as a sergeant, maybe – hardcore professional soldier. I won’t go into the picks I made here – the skills are listed on the character summary below – except to note that I decided not to pick Weapons, Special Skills, which would allow me things like called shots and two-weapon fighting, because I don’t see that fitting with a common soldier: solid weapon skills, yes, flashy tricks, no.
What I will note is that a number of skills have sub-areas. How many of these you can pick depends on your STEEP for the skill – between 1 and 4 of them, unless your STEEP is 51+, in whcih case you know all sub-areas. You can use any sub-areas you know at full STEEP, and others at half STEEP.
4) Additional Details
This is where a few game details and the character fluff is added – and quite a lot of fluff it is.
First, Attractiveness. It’s another 2d6+8 roll, and I get 15 – Attractive.
Then starting Joss Factor – Joss is Mythus’ hero points system; spending points can allow re-rolls, change success levels or buy plot twists like an escape from captivity. I roll 73 on percentile dice, and start with 11 Joss; that’s pretty good, as the table allows from 2 to 14.
Next up is birth rank, another percentile table, cross-referenced to social class. I roll low – 03 – and I’m the first child of the family. There are subtables should you be the seventh child, which carry bonuses including extra Joss, characteristic bonuses and extra heka skills, maxing out if you’re the 7th child of parents who were each also 7th children.
Age, oddly because it has a game effect, you choose rather than roll for. I’ll stick with the default starting age of 25-35, which adds 1 to PMCap (taking mine to 21). If you’re younger than this, you lose STEEP points but gain small bonuses to physical characteristics and attractiveness; of you’re older to lose attractiveness points and (if very old) other characteristics, but gain STEEP points.
You’re encouraged to choose personal details like height, weight (it’s odd that this isn’t rolled for, as weight has a game effect on wrestling), general description, usual dress, brief background and a typical quote.
Quirks – minor bonuses – are assigned by the GM, who can roll randomly, pick from a list or make them up. Each quirk generates a counter-quirk, again determined by the GM. I roll for one of each, and find that my character is toxin resistance (poisons are at 80% effectiveness against him) and a poor sense of humour.
The remaining details are optional – tables are provided for people who want their inspiration prompted or challenged.
Handedness is rolled for – ambidexterity allows you to fight with two weapons even without the skill. It’s another percentage roll, and I discover I’m right handed.
There’s a table for the briefest and brief backgrounds, cross-referenced for social class, and I discover I was an apprentice craftsman before becoming a soldier.
Then it’s time to determine race (as in, the type of human; we didn’t pick a non-human vocation). Now, you can pick this, but there’s a table provided, and random is fun, right? First, you roll to determine colour: Black, Brown, Red, White or Yellow. Each has a sub-table to determine actual race. Now, that kind of terminology was pretty dated even by the early ’90s, and it’s positively cringe-worthy now. But terminology aside, kudos to Mythus for not assuming everyone is a white European. Random rolls determine first that I’m brown, and then that I’m Hindic.
There are a set of tables for political and religious beliefs, general personality, interests and conformity. I discover I’m apolitical; follow nature deities; am a conformist (though might be trendy or a fashion chaser); am a sober person, if not downright introverted or stubborn; and that my interests are politics, status and power. Apolitical, but interested in politics and power? Interesting – that would seem to suggest a desire for political power but no firm principles. He chooses expediency.
5) Determine resources and connections; buy equipment
Starting money is determined by SEC rating. I’m not going to have much. Mythus divides wealth into several areas – Net Worth (which determines home, equipment and other possessions), Cash on Hand (which isn’t counted against net worth), Bank Accounts (which is) and Disposable Monthly Income. Age also plays a factor – the younger you are, the less money you have.
Wealth is measured in BUCs, though Epic of Aerth details coinage of its various nations.
My character’s at the default age, so no adjustment, but he’s still pretty poor – Net Worth of (3d3+5)*10 = 100 BUCs, and 5d3*50 = 500 BUCs cash on hand. I have no bank accounts or monthly income. 50 BUCs net worth isn’t even going to get me a decent set of clothes, so I’ll be spending some of that cash on hand straight away.
You get one special connection for each TRAIT over 90, rolled on a table cross-referenced against social class. Exactly who your connections are is determined the first time you call on them for help in play, at which point you note down their identity. In my case, I have only one TRAIT over 90. I roll a d20 and discover my special connection is a juggler.
For equipment, my 100 BUCs will buy me a kilt (25 BUCs) and a pair of shoes (50 BUCs). I’ve got 25 BUCs of my net worth left, which won’t buy much. I’ll dip into my chash on hand to get a longsword and a cheap (half-price) small roundshield, which won’t protect me as well as a full-price one, but it’s the best I can do. All but 50 BUCs of my cash is gone; I can’t afford armour.
Looks like I’d best be off adventuring – I’m going to need the loot.
All I need to do now is name this chap and decide where in the Hindic lands he’s from.Logging on to behindthename.com, I decide his name is Chandrakant Tamboli, and he comes from the Deccan Highlands near Hyderabad. I also have to pick a couple of foreign languages, but I’ll do that once I know where the campaign will be set.
Vocation: Mercenary SEC: 3 (upper lower class) Current Joss: 11
30-year-old Hindic male from Deccan Highlands. First child. Former apprentice craftsman. Attractiveness 15 (attractive). Right-handed. Height 5ft 11ins. Weight 190lb. Stocky. Black hair. Brown eyes. Usual dress: Kilt and shoes.
Personality: Apolitical, but seeks power and status. Conformist. Worships nature deities. Sober & introverted. Tendency to be stubborn.
Special connection: A juggler.
Equipment: Kilt, shoes, longsword, cheap small roundshield.
Mental: 80 – Mnemonic 43 (MMCap 17, MMPow 13, MMSpd 13); Reasoning 37 (MRCap 15, MRPow 12, MRSpd 11). Mental Effect Level: 64
Physical: 98 – Muscular 53 (PMCap 21, PMPow 16, PM Spd 16); Neural 46 (PNCap 18, PNPow 14, PNSpd 14). Wound Level 75, Critical Level 89, Recovery Level 10
Spiritual: 88 – Metaphysical 45 (SMCap 18, SMPow 14, SMSpd 13); Psychic 43 (SPCap 17, SPPow 13, SPSpd 13). Spiritual Effect Level: 70
K/S Areas (sub-Areas in brackets)
Mental: Etiquette/Social Graces 15, Native Tongue (Hindi) 32, Language (Trade Pheonician) 26, Gambling (Dice, Dog & Horse Racing, Sporting Events) 32, Criminal Activities – Mental (Extortion, Gambling Operations) 27, Military Science 28, Foreign Language (choose) 25, Foreign Language (choose) 25, Fortification & Siegecraft 26, Weapons – Military Other 27.
Physical: Perception – Physical (Noticing, Hearing) 25, Riding (Horse, Camel, Teamstering) 36, Combat – Hand Weapons (1H Swords, Spears, Daggers & Knives, Shields) 46, Criminal Activities – Physical (Sneaking, Hiding, Ambushing) 36, Escape 36, Handicrafts 35, Survival 42, Combat – HTH Lethal (Hands, Feet, Sais) 32, Combat – HTH Non-lethal 32, Combat – Hand Missile (Bows, Knives, Crossbows) 38, First Aid 31, Jack of all Trades (Carpentry, Masonry, Construction) 32, Travel 28, Arms & Armour (Swordmaking, Bowyery & Fletching, Making Light Armour) 42, Endurance 32.
Spiritual: Streetwise (Rural Poor, Mercenaries, Urban Poor) 33, Jury-Rigging 27, Animal Handling 28, Leadership 23.
Overall, Mythus character generation isn’t too bad – if you can get past rolling 2d6+8 18 times and you have the booklet of tables from the GM Screen to hand. Without the booklet, you’ll be flipping from page to page, moving between the table itself and the note on another page, buried between layers of unnecessary verbiage, which describes how to use it. Mythus may be a usable system, but it’s not user-friendly.
It does, at least, produce an interesting character. I’d like to play this guy. However, this is a deliberately simple character with no heka abilities. Making a magic user or priest adds another layer of complexity. And that’s what I’ll be trying next… Cover me. I’m going in.