The story so far: Mythras is the Design Mechanism’s fantasy RPG designed by Lawrence Whitaker and Pete Nash. It was formerly known as RuneQuest 6, but then when Moon Design Publications (owners of the RuneQuest IP rights) took over control of Chaosium they elected to wind down the RuneQuest trademark licence so that they could use the name for their own new Glorantha-focused edition of the game. Mythras is, as I’ve outlined before, one fantasy-oriented Basic Roleplaying-esque system out of many. There’s some system aspects to it which make it stand out, like special moves in combat, but I don’t think it’s so much better than, say, OpenQuest or Magic World or the new or classic iterations of RuneQuest that these aspects alone provide a decisive advantage.
Indeed, as the proliferation of BRP/RuneQuest-inspired systems demonstrates, it’s wickedly hard to retain proprietary control over a particular rules concept in tabletop RPGs; you can stop people ripping off your text exactly with copyright provisions, but nothing stops others from taking the underlying idea and reimplementing it. The new regime at Chaosium have followed a policy of tying their games to distinctive, exciting game settings, perhaps realising that you need a combination of a hot setting and an interesting system to really catch people’s eyes in today’s RPG market.
The Design Mechanism are not unaware of this, and have spent some energy on developing new setting books for Mythras; here’s a look at a sample of them.
Mythic Britain is the first of a series of Mythic (Place) supplements for Mythras. It makes sense that Design Mechanism would produce such releases; as well as being of general interest as culture sourcebooks, such materials helps them position themselves as the inheritors of the “fantasy Earth” setting that Avalon Hill tried to push as a default for RuneQuest 3rd Edition before they belatedly pivoted back hard towards Glorantha in the later phases of that product line.
After all, “Earth but magic and other fantasy ingredients are real” isn’t exactly the sort of setting concept which people can lock you out of using by claiming IP ownership over the concept, and though Chaosium have taken back the RuneQuest name and the Gloranthan setting with it, taking back the fantasy Earth concept is harder.
However, I feel like this selection of setting to kick off the Mythic (Place) line may be misguided. Dark Ages Britain in general isn’t exactly a time or place that has wanted for attention. In addition, the specific spin offered here includes a significant dose of Merlin and King Arthur – not a dominating dose, but just enough of a sniff to make it difficult for me to look at this and think “I could try doing something with this… or I could run some more Pendragon,” and to be honest I love Pendragon enough that it’s going to win that fight more or less every time.
Sure, it’s a different interpretation of Arthur and Merlin there, but their mere presence is enough to prompt this reaction. And it’s a specific interpretation of pre-modern Britain at a particular time, but the industry is littered with such things. Other Mythic (Place) supplements have followed, but I have found myself taken with more distinctive settings. Such as…
Luther Arkwright: Roleplaying Across the Parallels is an adaptation of the graphic novel series by Bryan Talbot. Talbot’s main Arkwright-related works are The Adventures of Luther Arkwright – Arkwright being a psychic secret agent with the power to mentally transport himself between parallel universes – and Heart of Empire, which primarily focuses on his daughter and spends most of its time in a single parallel world.
This supplement does not cast player characters as figures as powerful as Arkwright himself becomes – that would get old quickly – but PCs here can easily be as important as, say, Rose Wilde, one of Arkwright’s fellow agents, who has a special rapport with her alternate selves in different parallel universes and can convey information and co-ordinate action in that manner.
The assumption is that PCs in a Luther Arkwright are, like Luther and Rose, agents of the Valhalla Project – the institution in the timeline designated Zero-Zero that monitors the timelines and tries to counter the attempts of the Disruptors to spread their destructive influence over the entire multiverse. The baseline time frame for the RPG setting is 1981 – a few years before the action of The Adventures kicks off – which is good for this sort of approach: the events of that story lead to the destruction of the Disruptors, for one thing, and they make pretty good adversaries for interdimensional agents to contend against. For another, it’s before the big ramp-up in his powers that Luther experiences in the course of that story, at which point he basically becomes the protagonist and saviour of the entire multiverse, so kicking off a campaign before that happens can ensure the PCs aren’t overshadowed by that.
This slim supplement incorporates rules updates to Mythras to allow for more modern-era and futuristic adventures, significantly expanding the scope of the system, and in addition includes a nice range of psychic powers and other abilities for PCs in the Luther Arkwright setting and some handy tools to help referees cook up their own aesthetically interesting alternate Earths. In addition to being handy for Luther Arkwright campaigns, then, the book can also be mined for a wide variety of other genres; running a modern-day espionage game or a steampunk caper with this would not be all that hard.
In fact, through this selection of licence the Design Mechanism have successfully produced something useful for gamers using other Basic Roleplaying-derived RPGs steeped in Michael Moorcock’s multiverse – from Stormbringer! and Hawkmoon onwards to more recent Mongoose-published attempts – since Talbot wore his Michael Moorcock influences on his sleeve when developing The Adventures of Luther Arkwright, and the series has enough influence from the Jerry Cornelius and Oswald Bastable stories that the supplement would be a pretty handy tool for anyone attempting to tackle those.
Not released as a Mythras supplement but instead published as a standalone RPG that happens to be powered by the Mythras engine, this is the official licenced tabletop RPG of Jack Vance’s Lyonesse trilogy, his other major fantasy series. I’ve reviewed it at length back on Fake Geek Boy, so I won’t give it an extensive rundown here; suffice to say that whereas The Dying Earth series kicked off Vance’s career in 1950 (with subsequent revisitations in the 1960s and 1980s), Lyonesse was a late-career work of his and something of a departure for him. Most of Vance’s bibliography consists of fairly trim books, but the volumes of Lyonesse are more expansive, detailing the world of the Elder Isles – a legendary archipelago just off the coast of Europe where Ys, Hy Brasil, Avalon, and all the other legendary island locales of medieval folklore and legend may be found – and chronicling a years-long struggle therein.
Like much of the medieval literature it was intentionally imitating, Lyonesse weaves a bunch of different narratives together into one grand tapestry, but if I had to pick out the definitive thread that makes the whole structure hang together, I would call it the story of Suldrun and Madouc. Suldrun’s difficult life under the power of her tyrannical father, King Casmir, and her tragic demise are the catalysts for the action of the trilogy; Madouc, despite beginning in very similar circumstances, is able to address them from a different angle, and in doing so utterly throws Casmir’s plans into disarray. Though the trilogy ends with a grand war to finally put an end to Casmir’s plans for domination, less attention is given to his ultimate demise than to the execution of Father Umphred, which is unambiguously an act of revenge for his crimes against Suldrun; the “happily ever after” at the end of the trilogy has Madouc attaining personal happiness and fulfilment with her family of choice, rather than the family that the accidents of birth (and fairy mischief) have placed her with.
The Design Mechanism design team for Lyonesse – usual suspects Nash and Whitaker, plus Mark Shirley, Dominic Mooney, Dave Morris of Dragon Warriors fame, and a host of others – interpret the trilogy a little differently, presenting the crucial thread as being the long-running feud between King Casmir and King Aillas which runs through all the action. Whilst this is not my preferred framework to analyse the books through when it comes to discussing them as literature, it’s still a valid perspective, and I think it is one which it makes sense to emphasise for the purpose of a tabletop RPG.
King Casmir’s ruthless pursuit of his ambition and Aillas’ adamant determination to oppose Casmir are big-picture matters which shape the politics of the entire Elder Isles over the course of the trilogy. As such, they are matters which will be occurring in the background of everyone’s lives – regardless of whether your Lyonesse campaign directly impacts on these grand national feuds or not, odds are the consequences of this struggle will come up sooner or later. Conversely, whilst Suldrun and Madouc’s stories have moments of far-reaching impact, they also have plenty of stuff that unfolds on a much more personal level. As such, when it comes to presenting the setting for the purpose of an RPG, such personal stories (which player characters could live rich, fulfilling, meaningful lives of significant impact without ever intersecting with) are less important than the stories with setting-wide implications that play out in the public eye.
Not that passionate loyalties and personal agendas are irrelevant to the game – the optional passions system for Mythras is made core here, in fact, one of the system tweaks that adapt the system to the Elder Isles setting. The major difference is the bespoke magic system, with fairy magic and sandestin magic given suitably differing flavours. Other subsystems distinct to this book include tables for randomly rolling up an interesting town for the PCs to visit, or to work up the details of a suitably Vancian meal; these and other additions ensure the game is packed with flavour.
Mythras seems to me to be a good fit for the setting. The Dying Earth RPG system tends to work better for the more comedic tones of the latter three books in that series, but whilst Lyonesse has its comic elements it’s substantially more grounded. Likewise, Pelgrane’s Gaean Reach RPG (the Gaean Reach being the setting of a good chunk of Vance’s science fiction) uses the GUMSHOE system, which is an apt choice because it takes a lot of influence from the revenge narrative of The Demon Princes and using GUMSHOE‘s investigation system as a pacing mechanic to control the PCs’ pursuit of their nemesis makes a lot of sense in that regard, but Lyonesse lends itself to a wider variety of narratives, many of which wouldn’t necessarily focus on investigation.
More so than The Dying Earth, the Lyonesse books are reminiscent of high fantasy, with a strong pinch of the sort of Arthurian epic that the BRP-related Pendragon system handles so well, so it makes sense that a BRP variant like Mythras should handle it so well. In addition, the Design Mechanism have done a sterling job of distilling the setting information, expanding on it, and providing a basis for playing a campaign set at any time during the span of the saga.
With the creation of Lyonesse, there are now three distinct flavours of Vancian RPG out there, but I think this effort more than justifies a third strand and does an excellent job of teasing out the themes of the books. It also makes good choices of what to leave off the table; there’s some incidents of sexual assault in the trilogy which on reflection I thought Vance just about managed to justify his use of, though some of the relevant portions were handled well and others somewhat clumsily. To my eyes there’s no direct reference to this in the rulebook, which makes sense – the whole gaming table needs to opt in if you want to include such themes in your game, and it’s just not essential enough play to foreground like that.