Wednesday, August 20, 2008

The great Mythus swindle

When I was 14 years old, I got swindled.

I think we all have this kind of experience, hopefully only once or twice, when we're young and have a few bucks in our pockets. We're out and about, in a store somewhere, and we see something that piques our interest. We take a look at it (or maybe a pushy salesperson starts pitching it to us) and suddenly we must have it. Then we get it home and think, "Wow, I blew a month's allowance/birthday money on this?"

For me, the quintessential experience of this sort of thing (for I did go on to make the same mistake to a lesser degree on a couple other occasions) was Gary Gygax's inaugural (and to my knowledge--thanks to the infamous TSR lawsuit--only) entry in his "Dangerous Journeys" series: Mythus.

I distinctly remember seeing the Larry Elmore cover winking down at me from a shelf at B. Dalton Books. The book was huge, a big, meaty softcover. I took it down reverently, hefting it, feeling the weight that seemed to say, "I'm jam-packed with charts and all sorts of crazy shit that you'll drool over but never use in a million years."

And then I began to read the back copy.

Now, this back copy is what SOLD me on the book. And for many years afterward, I could still remember certain phrases from it. But imagine my joy when I discovered that the RPGnow entry for the PDF version of the rulebook reproduced the back copy word for word. So, for posterity, I hereby reproduce that reproduction, along with--to the best of my recollections--my 14-year-old brain's reactions as I read said copy:

Roleplaying at its finest ("Wow, really?")-simple or with elective complexities which place this game far beyond any other ("A bold statement! It must be true!"). Straight forward mechanics, with emphasis on percentile dice and the six-sided die, yet allowing a battery ("Fuck yeah!") of optional modifiers to heighten realism to any degree desired ("Modular systems--sweeet.").

More that 30 starting vocational backgrounds ("Fancy!") for Heroic Persona ("Oooh, more fanciness.") creation, plus as many personalized ones as the gamemaster wishes to add ("Oh, and I will add many, rest assured.").

A "Knowledge/Skill" system using percentile probabilities, with hundreds of areas and sub- areas to learn ("Doesn't get better than that!"), and specializations too ("It just did!"). With Joss, ("Wow, the use of obscure terms as if I should know what they are. Awesome!") Socio-Economic Class considerations, Special Connections, Quirks, background information, and more included ("Hot diggety!"). Never ("Never?") have RPG personas had the character and personality of the Heroic Personas herein or has roleplaying been so detailed and enabled. More armor and weapons included than would be found in the arsenal of a medieval potentate! (Seriously, this is when I was pretty much just drooling. The phrase "medieval potentate" has become firmly lodged in brain for all eternity.) Use them with a short and easy combat resolution method, or with expansions that take account virtually every salient feature of armed, magickal, and mental or spiritual battle, too (::drool::).

Persona advancement based on logical and realistic standards, not relying on loot garnered and critters slain (I was, alas, too young to fully appreciate the irony of Gygax essentially dumping on the very XP system he had helped develop, but "critters slain" was another phrase that got stuck in my head.).

No totally fanciful monetary system with ridiculous standards and confusing pricing (Again, irony goes unappreciated.). Income and costs are as easy as knowing what a BUC is ("Sweet, more arcane terminology bandied about as if it were plain language!").

All this and still more ("More?! How could this be??").... Need more details ("Yes! God yes!")? Buy this book (That was in bold, if I recall. The brashness of it hit my impressionable brain like a missile; if I wasn't sold by this point, that's what drove me over the edge.). In it, you'll find everything you need to begin playing. Along with it, pick up the Mythus Magick volume (Book II of these rules, with over 1000 magickal Castings, plus Powers, personalized Castings, and more) and the Epic OF Aerth companion volume (which describes the world ofAerth in detail). Find a comfortable place, and begin reading immediately (I'm always a sucker for this sort of imagery, so it was right up my alley. Must. Begin. Reading. Immediately.). This work is a quantum jump in roleplaying games, something which enthusiasts have awaited for years! ("No one would dare make such claims if they weren't true!")

And so I submitted, only too willingly. Mythus went right on my Christmas list, and I received it as asked for a couple weeks later. We were taking a trip out to visit my brother and grandparents the next day; the promise of a five-hour car ride in which to "begin reading immediately" loomed ahead of me. I couldn't have been happier.

It probably wasn't a good sign when I fell asleep reading the first chapter. Or when the same thing happened later on at my grandparents'. Mythus was, I believe, my first experience of trying to slog through an RPG book (an experience that's regrettably all too common these days, what with books being written more and more like technical manuals...but that's the subject for another post). Yet I persevered. After all the promise of the back copy, I couldn't bring myself to believe that it wasn't going to start paying off...at some point...even after some of the pages started falling out...

I stuck by Mythus for far longer than the game deserved; for a year or more, I nursed the dream of running Mythus. I ordered the Epic of Aerth to get a better grasp of the setting. I put my friend Alex through the arduous, multi-hour character creation process. And then, eventually, I gave up. The book ended up buried in my closet, then later tossed in recycling.

I like to think I learned a bit in the process. I learned to be a little more cagey in my buying habits. I learned that a profusion of "modular complexities" and strange, arcane terminology (seriously, that shit was all the rage in the 90s--what was up with that?) did not equal a better game, nor did size of the rulebook. I learned that softcover books with color inserts tend to fall apart after about three days. And I learned that, despite what Cyberpunk 2.0.2.0. would have me believe, it was indeed all about substance over style. I'm still a sucker for flashy art and layout and well-written ad copy, but I like to think I can modulate myself, and it's thanks almost exclusively to that day I stood drooling over a book's back copy in a quiet corner of B. Dalton's.
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