Agon – GMs Review
This review contains spoilers for some of the Islands you may encounter during a campaign of Agon. I’ll mark that section so you can skip it if you want. I backed Agon on Kickstarter with my own money and bought a physical copy later.
During the lockdown in the UK many of the tabletop gaming community turned online. The roleplaying game (RPG) segment of the hobby was already very well served by platforms like Roll20. I was lucky enough to play Agon with an excellent group with Gaz from “What would the Smart Party do?” running the game. I enjoyed it so much I wrote about it.
As I said at the time of that review I wanted to write from the point of a view of how the game feels as a player: what’s it like to tell your story in that system, to interact with the mechanisms, and what sort of tales does it encourage. Now I want to tell you about running the game as a GM: how does the game help you facilitate play?
John Harper and Sean Nittner designed and wrote Agon and it is published by Evil Hat Productions. It’s a game of greek heroism and tragedy. It tells tales of mighty deeds, capricious gods, and epic loss. Each session you will be guiding the players round one of the many islands the book has to offer. Each of these islands kicks off with a moment of drama as the heroes arrive on shore. A choice that sets the initial course of the story. From there the heroes pinball between moments of decision and drama until a final battle determines the fate of the island.
Let’s give the GM the title the book assigns. You are not a GM you are the Strife player. I like this for two reasons:
- It identifies the person running the game as a player, not just a facilitator and administrator. It makes it clear they are there to “Play” and, by implication, have fun.
- It tells you what you are all about in this role. Bring the strife and conflict.
As with Harper’s previous work, Blades in the Dark, Agon doesn’t just leave you with that title. The designers have packed the book with juicy advice for the Strife player. It sets out clearly not only how to run the game, but also how to get folk on board as heroes.
Starting on p.62 under Preperation, Agon lays out the trailer for the game. It starts out by giving you a pitch you can use with potential players. It’s a good pitch that shows how the designer sees the game and is the sort of thing I would like to see more games do. Not satisfied with this the game goes on to discuss tone, safety tools, and lays out all the materials you will need to prepare. All this is great at getting everyone round the table on the same page.
Agon wants you to get playing right from the first session. Creating characters is very simple, with the heroes being described in broad strokes: Name, epithet (like fierce-hearted), which gods smile on them, and which domain they are best at. Domains are the types of conflict that will happen over the course of the game.
Once created you engage in a Leadership contest. This is a simple test of the system to determine who will have the final say on the heroes choices on the island to come. I really like this kind of intro to a game. It gives the players a chance to establish a broad outline without worrying about minutiae. It the gives them a zero risk conflict to show them how the system works. There is no need for them to have studied the rules here at all. Once the leadership contest is done they have basically used all the systems the game is going to throw at them. This is a generous design that is mindful of the load RPGs can place on everyone around the table.
We arrive on the island.
A session of Agon sees the arrival of the heroes on an island. After a series of contests the final battle is met, and the fate of the island determined. It’s an episodic game and in my experience a session is about 2-3 hours, nicely fitting into an evening.
Each island is presented on a 4 page spread. An evocative piece of art gives you a feel for the themes of the island. The island is then split down into Signs of the Gods, Arrival, Trials, Battle, Characters, Places, Special Rewards and Mysteries.
The game lays out clearly how to present islands without being overly rigid as to how you interpret them. A graphic gives you the basic structure of each island a great guide to keep in mind as play progresses. The Arrival contest gives you a good starting point with an immediate decision for players to make, even if it is to choose a path not mentioned.
The core of the advice for the Strife player is Ask, Reveal, Judge. This is laid out in a section just before we get to the islands themselves and looks like this:
- Reveal the situation to the Hero players
- Ask questions and build on the answers to drive the game forward through the trials.
- Judge contests and resolve the outcomes into new situations]
This section further breaks down these ideas, expanding on each part and giving excellent examples of what this process looks like in play. It even gives you ideas if you are unsure what to say: questions to ask, how to judge the outcome, and even things to avoid and methods to try to make your game sing.
This is not only great advice from Harper and Nittner on how they want you to run Agon, but also great GMing advice in general. It creates an excellent narrative flow and keeps the game focused on the important dramatic moments. Agon doesn’t want the heroes chatting in the pub. It wants them in the street staring down a building sized golden boar. I would love to see this sort of advice in all RPGs. Every game is different and I want the designer to tell me how running that game looks from their perspective.
The islands themselves are ripe with possibility with only the initial conflict being fixed.
The Trials and Battle section of each island gives you ideas of the way things could go. It’s a map to the end without telling you what the journey or the finish line looks like. The characters section gives you protagonists and antagonists, but doesn’t tell you which is which. The Places part of each island gives you just enough location detail to bring somewhere to life without bogging you down in description. Special Rewards lends you ideas of what might be up for grabs, whether or not the heroes bring the island to ruin or not. Finally the Mysteries section gives you a story arc or two to think about. It prompts you to ask “Why are things this way on the Island?” and then leaves you to come to your own conclusions.
This is a great way to layout these episodic islands. It gives you enough detail to get the shape of the island and its themes, while allowing you room to fill it with your own details. The nature of the contests in the game means narrative control comes out of the players rolls, allowing everyone around the table to flesh out the island as they see fit.
SLIGHT SPOILERS AHEAD (I’m going to be talking about details of some of the islands)
Unfortunately not all Islands are made equal. Kryos is a great place to start: an island full of conflict and threat. I’ve had fun running Fenios and Soros & Ion as well. Now I am looking at rest of the selection and I do find some distinctly uninspiring.
Tymios, a riff on the labyrinth and minotaur myth, feels like there is very little to do other than drift through a sea labyrinth and not encounter much. Enu just feels like heroes telling their tales. I get the point of this but it doesn’t feel like it would make for a particularly interesting session.
Everyone will feel differently about this for sure. Just be aware that some islands will require a bit more work than others to make them sing and it won’t be entirely clear which is which.
There is advice for making your own islands of course. I haven’t done this yet, but the section looks solid with good guidance and some random tables for inspiration should you get stuck.
SLIGHT SPOILERS END
Agon makes for great one off sessions but it shines even more as a campaign game. It is in the quiet moments of downtime that the characters bond, background details can be drawn out and expanded upon, and the bonds that will get the heroes through the next island are formed. I wrote about this more in my player’s review.
As with all Harper games the graphic design of the book is great. There are also loads of helpful sheets for the players to guide them through the game. The book is almost too tightly put together at times, making it occasionally tricky to find a particular rule for reference, though there is a good index.
A little house rule I recommend before we wrap up. Agon is pitched for 3-6 players, with 4 being the ideal number. I’ve been running with 6 including myself, and I think at higher player counts a slight adjustment is needed. It pays to inflict more Pathos than you might normally. To that end I’ve adopted a house rule from Gaz who ran the game I played in. Whenever anyone suffers, fails at a conflict, they get a Pathos regardless of the nature of the enemy. This serves to pass the contest buck around, giving players more incentive to push each hero to the front of the action. I’ve found it useful and the players have not objected.
Here we are then at the final battle. There can only be one conclusion. Agon is superb. A couple of minor issues shouldn’t detract from a beautifully tight system that produces dramatic moments with a minimum of effort. Like Blades, it is a game that I think has a lot to teach us about how we run games. It wants to change the way we think about the relationship between GM and players, and make both those roles equal amounts of fun. It’s easy to learn, quick to teach, and fits into a reasonable evening’s play. I can’t wait to see my players don swords and sandals once more and head for the horizon and new adventures.
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