Designer’s Den is a game design blog by Derek Conrad covering a wide spectrum of gaming including mechanics, art and graphic design, world building, and more!
I was at the Mox Boarding House in Seattle’s Ballard neighborhood when the topic of my game’s mythology came up between myself and some other designers. One of them asked why I’d chosen not to use recognizable and publicly available “properties”, e.g. Zeus, Hades, and the rest of the gang and all their cultural counterparts.
My immediate reply was that I wanted to invent and cultivate my own mythology, particularly because I didn’t want to be captive to the expectations people have of Zeus (or any other deity). By starting from scratch, I could create these characters within the bounds of my world and shape the narrative of the game accordingly. When presented with the main conflict in my game’s story, Zeus would be expected to behave in a particular way (probably brashly and full of bravado), but on the other hand, my gods could behave entirely differently, influenced by their own unique motivations.
In essence, Rise of the Gods is constituted of a brand new IP, homemade by yours truly. In a crowded field of games built upon stories about gods (that’s growing even more crowded by the month, especially in the digital market), it feels pertinent to find ways to stand out. But the further I dive into the story and mythology, I grow more anxious about a number of things that could be sabotaging my efforts; recognizability, barrier to entry, and enjoyment being chief among them.
After all this time trying to separate myself from the pack, have I made a fatal mistake instead?
A new game, Marvel Champions, is set to be released by Fantasy Flight Games by the end of this year. It’s likely to sell well. Why? Because the brand is highly recognizable and established IPs are big business. Not only does the game draw in the regular crowd of tabletop gamers, it also draws from the general pool of Marvel fans.
Now, ancient gods are no Marvel, Thor notwithstanding. However, they’re ingrained in every Industrialized culture, even if they’re no longer worshiped. There are “fans” of the Greek, Norse, and Egyptian pantheons. If there weren’t, we wouldn’t be making Hollywood movies about them thousands of years after the fact.
Let’s loop it back to Marvel Champions. Say instead of those superheroes, FFG had decided to create an entirely new crop of its own. Of course, this is nothing new. But would the game still be as successful? Probably not, unless it was revolutionary in something else like an ingenious mechanic or component. (To be fair to FFG, they’re also a beloved and established game company that’s published original IPs before, so anything’s possible. This is all rhetorical anyway.)
Do you see where I’m going with this? By inventing a new mythology, instead of making my game stand out, I could be doing the opposite: making it disappear. People have never heard of Solarya or Carcarus, and if I slap their images on a box, who cares? Thor’s handsome countenance on the other hand . . .
But the longship is not sunk just yet. Since I can’t rely on my characters’ celebrity (or lack thereof), I’ll have to bank on something else. I can market the game on other selling points, such as the spatial relationship of the cards on the playing field, and use the concept of a universe filled with gods as a backdrop to frame it all in. Essentially, the game will be sold on its theme in equal parts with its playability. A face carved from marble is not going to cut it alone.
During a demo at my friends’ house in the shadow of Mt. Rainier, one of the friends asked me why I’d borrowed from Greek for some my gods’ names.
Don’t leave! I know I just got done telling you how I constructed my own custom pantheon from scratch. But as for the names, well . . . I may have portmanteau’d a few of them together from existing mythology.
Take for instance Demeterra, which is a marriage of the Greek goddess Demeter and the Latin word terra. (Not even the Romans are safe from my theft.) And there’s the aforementioned Carcarus, who is Tartarus and carcass combined.
You see, I knew I didn’t want to make clones of the established pantheons, but I didn’t want to rule out their characteristics altogether. Gods of ancient mythology are really just storytelling archetypes: Strategist, trickster, debaucher, adulterer, etc. I give you a name like Ares, and it conjures up a particular personality (good at war). By hinting at these archetypes, I can funnel the player’s imagination in a specific direction. The name Delphena, with its allusions to the oracle at Delphi, should give new players an inkling of what to expect when choosing her as their god.
But not all the names stoop to such unabashed lending. Solarya is a pretty-sounding name rooted in solar to elicit the cosmos. Sulfurio ought to evoke sulfur and fury, and ideally point you toward volcanoes and fire, while Zepholos is riding on zephyr and the generic Greek-sounding pseudo-suffix -olos.
And then there are blokes like Toron, whose name means nothing outside of Lebanese archaeology.
When I began to design the special abilities of the game’s gods, or what would eventually come to be called their godsends, I tried to strike that careful balance between form and function. How could I make the godsends flavorful while still being true to the archetype of the god’s specific identity? I think this is where it became most apparent I couldn’t fall back on carbon copies of the gods of real-life mythology without running the risk of shoehorning in mechanics that didn’t really belong.
So for example, Zepholos is a trickster and erstwhile antagonist in the greater scheme of divine politics a la Loki, but he also possesses a lot of charisma and arrogance generally associated with a Zeus or Thor personality, and as a Wind god, overlaps in their “magical” qualities, too. (And then there are Hermes’s winged booties.)
Zepholos, and by extension the Wind Order, is infamous for stealing things and causing a general ruckus. (After a particularly brazen robbery of his cousin Carcarus’s staff, he suffered a curse that prevents him from ever stepping foot on solid ground.) But in the heat of the battle, he can also show tremendous resolve and is capable of rallying the troops to feats of exceptional bravery, something I don’t see a traditional Loki-esque character doing well. And like Zeus and Thor, he has a penchant for wrestling sea monsters (hence the eye he lost in a fight with a swordfish).
Ultimately, when I started my mythology, I wanted the freedom to dip in and out of conventional tropes at will. I never wanted to include Zeus and then have him do something a little less Zeussy when I needed him to, only to be reminded that that was, in fact, not canon. And there’s nothing wrong with the games that choose to keep it canon, or that bend the rules and damn the consequences. That’s just not for me.
But by whacking out my own trail through the thickets of originality, I have to stay vigilant of the pitfalls I’ve set out for myself, because my game won’t be riding on the coattails of an established brand or property, public domain or otherwise. There’s no map to where I’m going. How absolutely terrifying. And yet, so thrilling and rewarding all the same.
Thank you for reading, and until next time!