Adventurers of Old: Perseus

Sarah Darkmagic - Posted on 03 June 2012

While doing research for my The DM and the Medusa post, I was struck by how it has many of the elements of a decent adventure. Here's the story as related in the Perseus entry on wikipedia.

When Perseus was grown, Polydectes came to fall in love with the beautiful Danaë. Perseus believed Polydectes was less than honourable, and protected his mother from him; thus Polydectes plotted to send Perseus away in disgrace. He held a large banquet where each guest was expected to bring a gift. Polydectes requested that the guests bring horses, under the pretense that he was collecting contributions for the hand of Hippodamia, "tamer of horses". The fisherman's protégé had no horse to give, so he asked Polydectes to name the gift; he would not refuse it. Polydectes held Perseus to his rash promise and demanded the head of the only mortal Gorgon, Medusa, whose expression turned people to stone. Ovid's account of Medusa's mortality tells that she had once been a woman, vain of her beautiful hair, who had lain with Poseidon in the Temple of Athena. In punishment for the desecration of her temple, Athena had changed Medusa's hair into hideous snakes "that she may alarm her surprised foes with terror".

Athena instructed Perseus to find the Hesperides, who were entrusted with weapons needed to defeat the Gorgon. Following Athena's guidance, Perseus sought out the Graeae, sisters of the Gorgons, to demand the whereabouts of the Hesperides, the nymphs tending Hera's orchard. The Graeae were three perpetually old women, who had to share a single eye. As the women passed the eye from one to another, Perseus snatched it from them, holding it for ransom in return for the location of the nymphs. When the sisters led him to the Hesperides, he returned what he had taken.

From the Hesperides he received a knapsack (kibisis) to safely contain Medusa's head. Zeus gave him an adamantine sword and Hades' helm of darkness to hide. Hermes lent Perseus winged sandals to fly, while Athena gave him a polished shield. Perseus then proceeded to the Gorgons' cave.

In the cave he came upon the sleeping Stheno, Euryale and Medusa. By viewing Medusa's reflection in his polished shield, he safely approached and cut off her head. From her neck sprang Pegasus ("he who sprang") and Chrysaor ("bow of gold"), the result of Poseidon and Medusa's meeting. The other two Gorgons pursued Perseus, but, wearing his helm of darkness, he escaped.

Perseus is a bit brash and gets called on it by Polydectes, a moment of "Oh yeah, you think you're hot stuff? Fine. Bring me the head of Medusa." We fear for our hero because, well, Medusa is scary, but by doing some research and planning (and a little wit and luck), he's able to assemble a number of tools that make it a bit easier. This sounds a lot like the play sought in the diceless skill check system. The magic items are unique and separate quests are undertaken to find them.

While some people enjoy this type of play, others might feel too much like they are playing a game of read the DM's mind. It can also be interpreted as a way to force players to play through a particular story line. Also, planning all of this can add to a DM's workload, especially if the DM isn't keen on improvisation. I've heard some groups, including some of my friends, who aren't keen on how easy encounters can get after smart play by the players.

I'm interested in exploring another path. What if players, with the DM, could easily find out or even design the solutions that makes the challenge easier to overcome. Perhaps the character studied monsters with a particular keyword or from a particular location. Or maybe each player could contribute one idea of an item they would have to retrieve or create. We could even tie it into the various themes, backgrounds, and traits. Are you an artifact hunter? Great, you grab a trait similar to the blacksmith one but it lets you detail a new artifact in the game world (with DM permission). It could have a limit of once per day, once per creature or even once per level.

For inspiration, I'd turn to other games, like Spirit of the Century. It has a "Declaring Minor Details" action under the Academics skill. The player proposes a fact in the character's specialty. If the GM approves it, she asks for an Academics roll to see if it becomes true. It also has rules for how to conduct research and recall information that I wouldn't mind converting to D&D Next.

I recognize this won't work for every group. Some DMs enjoy tighter narrative control and sometimes players don't want to be responsible for creating content. After the character creation details come out, I'm sure I can provide more exact examples of what I mean.


Nice summery, allowing players to create aspects of a game world is quite useful and increases world buy in. But not all players are interested in doing such or are not used to such freedom, so it can be a challenge to get players to buy in. Once they do, it is usually quite nice though.

To have a singular story line is also something I dislike. It sounds more like a book emulation than roleplaying itself. And also, to explore another path is something suits better my taste. However, while we are looking for a solution that makes challenge easier to overcome, if we start from the perspective everything will be fine in the very end then I do not see so much difference from the first approach. My understanding is that roleplaying means risk and both - success and failure - should be good endings for roleplaying. Even if everyone turns into a stone, we can force our imagination to open a new door like Hades releasing adventures from stone but placing another curse or letting them in debt so they can be charged later. In fact, I do prefer to deal with failure scenarios than with the successful ones. When we fail, we have the opportunity to get deeper trapped into the story. The single challenge become two or three - get back to normal, deal with the god entity demand and finish the medusa. Because, on the other hand, success usually means there is nothing more to do. To have a solution which creates another problem that is something that makes more sense to me in roleplaying.

Gumshoe might work for that as well. Lorefinder, the Pathfinder variant, has the players always finding out the minimum aount of information they need to move forward but they can spend resources to find out more. Good stuff.

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