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Agon 2nd ed actual play


I've run a couple of sessions of Agon for my kids. They're not experienced RPGers: I've GMed a bit of Classic Traveller for both of them, they've played a session of The Green Knight together (and lost), and the older one has played some D&D (a bit of 5e with friends, a session or two of AD&D with me).

The system
Agon 2nd ed's designer is John Harper, probably best know for BitD. The basic structure of Agon is quite similar to DitV, only rather than religious enforcers travelling from town to town resolving troubles, the PCs are Greek heroes who get blown from island to island where they confront strife. The system is distinct from both BitD and AW, but like those systems it involves asking questions and building on answers. When the heroes arrive at an island, they receive Signs of the Gods, and the heroes have to interpret those signs to determine what the gods want on the island; this then provides a "benchmark" against which to determine, when they leave the island, whether or not they pleased or angered the gods. (Unlike, say, the Green Knight RPG, or a classic D&D paladin, there are no "right" or "wrong" answers here - the players aren't trying to guess what the GM has in mind, but rather are invited to impose their own interpretation on the situation. In a similar vein, when a player wants to spend divine favour or call on a bond with a deity to buff a roll, the player has the final say on whether the help of that god makes sense in the particular fictional situation.)

My kids grasped the action resolution system pretty easily. It's all one-roll conflict resolution: the GM rolls an appropriate dice pool (d6s to d12s, normally two or three dice), keeps the highest roll, adds the strife level (which by default is 5) and thus sets the target number; the players roll their pool (same sorts of dice, but often four or more, plus a possible d4 for divine favour), keep the highest two, plus the d4 result if they had one, and tries to equal or beat. Of those heroes who prevail, the best earns Glory equal to the target number; other heroes who prevail get half that; any hero who fails gets only 1 Glory. Earning Glory earns increases in the one die that figures in every player-side pool - the Name die - and so there is a competitive element here between players. My kids didn't take long to work that out either!

PC progression in Agon is along multiple tracks: as well as the Glory from victory in contests, pleasing the gods (in accordance with their Signs, as interpreted by the heroes) earns Boons, and so does progressing on the Fate track, which mostly happens if things are going badly for a hero (reaching the end of the Fate track is one way a Hero's tale ends; the other is by way of Homecoming, if you please enough gods to complete the required number of constellations on the Vault of Heaven). Boons allow stepping up elements of a PC's build other than the Name die.

As well as the rules for the game, the rulebook includes 6 "starter" islands and 6 "advanced" islands. Each has a three-page write-up. Over our two sessions we've visited two of those - Tymisos and Nimos.

The heroes
The two heroes that were created were Nimble-footed Dionyxae, Scion of Artemis - a wolf-y human who, it was conjectured (given Artemis is a maiden), was found and reared by the goddess; and Shadow-wise Eris, Scion of Hermes - a more conventional demigod wearing silver armour and armed with a dagger. A starting hero has a d6 in three of the Domains of action (Arts and Oration; Blood and Valour; Craft and Reason; Resolve and Spirit), and d8 in one. For Dionyxae, the d8 was in Resolve and Spirit; for Eris it was in Craft and Reason.

As per the rulebook, we had to establish which hero was the leader - who gets to take the lead in interpreting the Signs of the Gods and establishing the heroes' strategy on the island. This is done by the GM narrating a threat to the heroes' vessel, which the PCs must overcome: the best hero is the leader. I narrated heavy seas; Dionyxae was the best hero and hence the leader.


Before our first session I'd already decided I wanted to use Tymisos, which involves a labyrinth of canals walled by sheer obsidian. At its centre is a siren, and her beloved hero the Bull of Tymisos, who holds the adamantine chains that in turn hold up the obsidian walls. On the walls are names of former heroes who have travelled and been lost in the labyrinth, but the siren has erased/effaced them.

The heroes had some initial successes: Dionyxae scaled the walls to see the siren at the centre, and the chains; and was also able to enforce the rations as the ship spent weeks in the labyrinth sailing inevitably to its centre. Eris used charcoal rubbing to identify the names of the forgotten heroes. And when the heroes confronted the Bull and siren they were able to get the initial advantage. But they had more losses: their attempt to properly mourn the forgotten heroes petered out as they were distracted by the siren; they were further entranced by her song in the final confrontation; and the Bull ended up besting them and sinking their ship with their sailors.

The consequence of this is that, in the next session, the heroes will be washed up on an island and need to find a new vessel and new crew, together with whatever other strife is waiting for them there.

Over the course of the contests on Tymisos Dianyxae earned a bit over 40 Glory, Eris a bit over 20. The disparity in Glory earned was steady over the course of the session, leading Eris's player, early on, to name their saga The Adventures of Dianyxae (and Eris was there too).

In the post-island discussion (the Exodus and Voyage phase), it was agreed that the heroes had pleased Demeter (by remembering the forgotten heroes), Artemis (through Dionyxae's dancing and distraction of the Bull initially), Apollo (by correctly interpreting his warning about the light cast by the siren) and Hephaistos (through demonstrations of ingenuity). But they had angered Athena, whose sign had warned them to know when to accept losses, which they hadn't done (in particular, Eris's player's narration of repeated failures against the Bull revealed an unwillingness to accept losses; and an earlier failure on Eris's part had also suggested such unwillingness).

Eris earned two Boons (one from the gods, one from Fate) and so increased Resolve and Spirit from d6 to d8, and also took on a second epithet, Silver-Tongued. Dionyxae earned one Boon (from the gods) and stepped up Arts and Oration from d6 to d8.

Dionyxae's player commented that whereas it was never really clear what you would use CON for in D&D, in Agon it was clear why you would want to be capable in Resolve & Spirit: your hero will be tested by the elements and by strife. The only times on Tymisos that contests took place in the domain of Blood & Valour (which means just what it says on the tin) was when Dionyxae scaled the obsidian walls, and when - in the final contest - the Bull had seized control and hence was able to attack the heroes directly. Which as I said above did not end up well for them!

As I mentioned above, the other two domains are Arts & Oration and Craft & Reason, and there were contests in both of these (eg Arts & Oration for mourning, and for dancing; Craft & Reason for charcoal rubbings, and for sneaking up on the Bull while he's distracted by dancing). I think it makes for a good balance of heroic endeavours.

At the end of our first session we didn't have time to fully resolve the Voyage. So we did this at the start of our next session.

Normally, this happens on the heroes' ship. But Dionyxae and Eris had lost their ship. So I narrated them being washed up on a deserted island, with little but palm trees growing on it. They were able to eat dates, and fish. They asked and answered questions (the Fellowship phase, which establishes Bonds - a type of player-side resource - between the heroes); they sacrificed food to the gods (the Sacrifice phase, which earns Divine Favour - a different player-side resource); and then the time came for the contest of Leadership. I posed the challenge in these terms: the heroes were becoming comfortable on the island, enjoying their dates and fish; but if they did not leave they would never make it home. They decided to build a boat: Eris was best, and so became the leader. And they set sail.

I had read this island closely several times. It is also the island used in the examples of play in the rulebook, and this had also helped me think about how to run it.

I narrated the Signs of the Gods and the arrival - the PCs are taken to the palace, where the funeral for the dead prince is being held, and games are to take place in his honour. The heroes were invited to take part in the games, but instead chose to sneak in to the palace to see what had happened to the prince (they thought that he might be the "headless serpent" that figured in Artemis's sign). This contest succeeded, and they learned that the priests had snake tattoos and also that the prince had been poisoned. Then I decided to apply some pressure by having the mourning king arrive on the scene, asking the PCs why they were in the palace despite Priest Harkon's decree that only the family may mourn by the body of the prince. Instead of trying to gain his confidence or reveal the truth about the prince's death, they acceded to his request.

As per the island description, I took this to mean the end of the king as a significant player - his mourning consuming him - and to grant an advantage to Harkon, who had his serpent cultists attack. But the heroes avoided them (another contest), hence avoiding capture for the purposes of sacrifice).

The players were still inclining towards being reactive, and so I used another NPC - the unnaturally youthful Queen Naia - to push things on a bit. The players succeeded in befriending her - a contest of Arts and Oration - and joined her at the banquet that evening. She asked for tales of Dionyxae's exploits, which resulted in an invitation - accepted - to take part in the games. Eris, meanwhile, made friends with the alchemist Thessia (a solitary contest) and was taken to the Acropolis of Apollo where she learned about the various elixirs the alchemists make, including the elixir of immortality. This was Eris's first trip across the island since the initial walk from the beach to the palace, and revealed that the rest of the island was polluted as a result of the alchemists' work. (The player seemed to work out that this was a metaphor for contemporary technology.)

Dionyxae's conversation with the queen brought out further information: she uses the elixir to maintain her youth; but it can be toxic to those not used to it, such as the prince. (This did not require a further contest; it was the unfolding of the earlier success in befriending Naia.)

In the morning, Eris decided to compete in the games along with Dionyxae; she also saw the island's fighters coming to the Acropolis to partake of elixirs that made them strong and mad. Dionyxae lost in the games, while Eris succeeded (Hera aided her) and hence went on to fight the champion of Nimos. But lost that contest.

After some discussion about what to do next, the heroes decided to cleanse the island. Dionyxae suffered in this contest, from falling into toxic sludge (and around here accrued a point of Fate, which also earned a Boon - she took a second epithet, Quick-Witted); but Eris - who called on Thessia's aid - succeeded in this task.

Up to this point, Eris had been catching up to Dionyxae in Glory, even getting 3 points ahead around about this time, and it looked like the epic might need to be renamed. But from here on, Dionyxae was repeatedly the best hero while Eris struggled to succeed.

The next question for the heroes - coming from Thessia - was What now? - how might alchemy be done without using the toxic venom from the Serpent of Nimos?

One of the players had another commitment pending, and so I decided to bring things to a climax: with that question hanging, the heroes saw Priest Harkon retreating into the palace, intent on doing something bad. This was the opening of the final battle to resolve the fate of the island. Dionyxae chased Harkon, and was the best hero, arriving in the underground Serpent Temple at the same time as Tharkon, and gaining the d10 advantage die for use in the battle. Eris tried to rouse the people to resist the Serpent Cult, but failed: as the player narrated, the people remembered Eris's failure in the games and hence did not listen.

The next phase was the threats - in this case to the buildings and citizens of Nimos, to the alchemist Thessia, and to the reputation of the heroes, with Harkon ready to besmirch them as the ones who brought ruin to Nimos. Under the rules, each hero who prevails in the contest against the threats can stop one of these disasters happening. Given there were three disasters presented here, and only two heroes, at least one would therefore come to pass. The players suggested this was unfair, but I insisted on my prerogative to run the island as written! The players also disagreed between them as to which threat was greater: Dionyxae's player thought that the threat to the heroes' reputation needed to be avoided, as it might hang over them on future islands; whereas Eris's player asked "Would you rather be the Silver Surfer or Mysterio?", insisting that it's better to save the lives of others even at the expense of one's reputation. At which point Dionyxae spent a bond with Eris to have the leader take a friend's advice - an interesting mechanic - and so Eris responded to the threats while Dionyxae tries to seize control of the battle.

I suggested that Eris might try and save reputations by finding a solution to the alchemy-without-toxins problem, and Eris's player agreed. Hermes appeared to aid in the effort. But the check was a failure - as the player narrated it, when Hermes appeared Thessia was shocked into spilling acid on herself (thus dying), and Hermes then left the situation, and so Eris wasn't able to solve the alchemy problem with only mortal Craft and Reason; the writhing and lashing of the great serpent collapsed buildings and killed many citizens; and Priest Harkon was spreading the word that all this disaster was the heroes' fault.

In the Temple, however, Dionyxae had more success, and was able to seize control, thus setting the domain of the finale - Resolve and Spirit - and the stakes - leading the serpent down into the depths of the earth where it would trouble the island, and spew venom, no more. Both heroes participated in this final contest. Eris failed again, zigging when she should have zagged and being lashed by the serpent (and progressing further along the Fate track as a result); but Dionyxae succeeded, despite the opposing pool including a die for Athena's wrath (Athena not endorsing the destruction of the serpent and the serpent cult). Thus, the serpent was indeed trapped.

This victory in the finale means that the island's future is bright - I narrated this as a future of gradual rebuilding and repopulation, without the benefits of elixirs and potions but with the land and waters remaining clean, and the animals on the island no longer sickly and suffering.

The final contest on the island was to recruit new sailors for a new ship. Eris took the lead in this respect - using Craft and Reason to pretend to be a mere merchant (not the reputation-besmirched Eris) looking for a crew for a newly-built ship. I reasoned that the destruction wrought by the serpent should raise the Strife Level from 5 to 6, but that the heroes' success should lower it from 5 to 4, and hence left it at 5; and rolled a d6 and d8 as the pool to recruit sailors. Eris's player beat the resulting target number of 8, the crew was recruited, and the heroes sailed from Nimos.

Dionyxae's took as a trophy jewellery gifted by Queen Naia; Eris recorded as a great deed the cleansing of Nimos. The heroes engaged in Fellowship (accruing new Bonds with one another). Dionyxae lead a sacrifice to the gods (and was the best hero). And for the leadership contest I narrated that the sailors had realised who Eris and Dionyxae really were; and so the heroes had to restore order. Dionyxae was the best again, and hence the leader for the next island (should we play again).

We also further filled in the Vault of Heaven. The players felt that they had pleased Artemis, by defeating the monster, and Apollo, by finding the truth about the cult; and also Demeter by cleansing the island, Hera by a show of cunning (I think in sneaking into the palace), and Hephaistos by ingenuity in dealing with the alchemy. But I added wrath for Athena (given she didn't get what she wanted with the serpent and serpent cult), Apollo (given the death of Thessia) and Hermes (for the same fiasco). Each Hero accrued two further boons. Both opted to step up their epithet dice to d8 and to increase Blood and Valour from d6 to d8.

For me, this was the fourth session of Agon I've played - I've also GMed two sessions for two players from my long-time group. I think it's a good system. And easily picked up by new RPGers.
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I'll echo what Arilyn and Joshua say above: I've been super intrigued by this game since Harper first announced it (with a brief video on his YouTube channel); though I hardly have time right now for my Stonetop game, Agon remains on the short list! Even more so after your write up of these sessions.


What is BitD, AW and DitV?
To add to what @darkbard said:

*Compared to a "traditional" attribute + skill game like (say) D&D or RQ, resolution is focused on relatively high-level conflict rather than the details of each task. In Agon, examples that illustrate this are: sneaking into the palace was a single set of opposed checks (Craft and Reason vs the snake cult); cleansing the island was a single set of opposed checks (Resolve and Spirit vs the poisoned land); trying to mourn the forgotten dead was a single set of opposed checks (Arts and Oration vs the siren).

*While the GM preps important elements of the situation (or, in the case of these sessions, has had John Harper do the prep on my behalf!), key parts of the situation are expected to be established and emerge in play, reflecting connections made by the players or the "trajectory" their play gives rise to. In the example of Nimos, for instance, this included why the prince was poisoned (drinking the elixir) and what the Queen knew about the alchemist-cult relationship (that the elixir is made from the serpent venom).

*The set-up, and the way the GM plays the opposition, is supposed to push the players into making value-laden choices. Examples from the Agn play I've written up include how to respond to the forgotten dead heroes on Tymisos; how to respond to the murdered prince, the alchemy-serpent nexus; what choices to make at the "threat" phase of the final battle; etc. And there's also the whole pleasing or angering the fickle gods aspect, which obliges the players to look at their choices through the prompt of the Signs of the Gods as well as their broader conception of what would please or anger the classic Olympian gods.​

While there are mechanical choices to be made (in Agon, this includes how to spend the various player-side resources - Pathos, Divine Favour, Bonds - to boost dice pools) there is not the tactical or "move around the map" aspect of a lot of D&D play. And while there are mysteries to be unravelled, there is not "hunt for clues so as to work out what really happened" aspect of some D&D play and that characterises (eg) CoC play.


I've been really curious about this game. Thanks for the thorough play report! It looks intriguing.
From some of your posts, I think you might find it interesting.

It's quite stylised in the way it plays - players choose whether or not to have their PCs enter contests, then these are resolved, and then the players "Recite their deeds" - ie say what happened to their hero - in order from any hero who failed, to the best hero. The GM interjects and elaborates in this both to reflect what any NPCs did in the situation, and to build things up to the next contest.

I think this makes it a bit "lighter" than (say) Burning Wheel or AW. And is intended to reinforce the Homeric feel - the events have already happened, and are being recited to us, rather than elaborate "I try and . . . " future-looking action declarations. (When playing with kids, I've learned that the epic form can be played with a bit - eg Eris's player recited both Eris's victory in the first stage of the games, and then Eris's subsequent loss to the Champion of Nimos, in the mode of a sports commentator. Which is not quite Homeric.)

Agon remains on the short list! Even more so after your write up of these sessions.
I think you would be more respectful of the epic form than Eris's player!

(Another episode I have in mind: when Eris persuaded Thessia to assist in cleansing the island, this was explained in terms of global warming but translated into the classical symbology - I can't recall many of the details, but one I do recall is Eris explaining to Thessia that the fumes that come from the toxic alchemical sludge cause Helios's chariot to heat up, making the world too hot.)

Just figured I'd throw this brief review out here in your thread @pemerton (you've already seen this!).

Final Agon session just ended. Fun session. Fitting end. The heroes decided to brave the climb of Cyanean Rocks to recover the winged sandals and mirrored shield to confront Medusa in her sky enclave (rather than braving the transit through The Pass of Clashing Rocks, going back in time, facing the Wrath of the Gods, and undoing her Poseidon/Athena-centered curse in the first place).

I think 15ish Islands (same # sessions) in total? Fun game overall. I think my primary issue is less about its (lack of) complexity and widgetry. The game is plenty complex. My primary issue is more about that the game's maths just produce stacked success (and again, and again, and again) on the whole. This is great for the trajectory of heroic Greek Myth (which is the point of play of course...so well-designed). Its basically the story of these Greek Heroes success (while Wrath of the Gods and other costs/toll accrued and heroes' stories accreted labors and glory, assuming 15 islands, only 1 of the 15 ended with a Finale gone awry and terrible fallout/woe). But the engine (again, by design) doesn't generate the snowballing effect of failure/setback/mixed success which infuses dynamism and intense fallout upon play that most other Narrativist systems do.

Good design for what its doing. Fun in moderation. Really requires vigorous players and interesting action declarations and very well-considered scenario design by the GM (every individual session is extraordinarily sensitive to scenario design). This is not a Gamist engine at all so do not play this game seeking tactical and strategic overhead/demand married to Greek Myth tropes/themes (play D&D 4e for that!). This game has less consequential/impactful/invigorating Gamism than does Dogs in the Vineyard (which is very much not a challenge-based engine...Dogs is very much "Big N, very small G"). Net, my assessment:

10/10 for what the game engine is trying to do.

6/10 for my tastes in Narrativist play/GMing.


the game's maths just produce stacked success (and again, and again, and again) on the whole.
How much did you use divine wrath to buff your strife-player dice pool? This is one thing which, in GMing the system, I still need to work on; and I think is something where the rulebook could give better guidance.

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