What Makes a Mythic Hero Game?
This question is one that I’ve asked myself for the last six years of my life, since I started screwing around with Mythender in Autumn of 2007. And it’s a question I got to revisit as I worked on Pathfinder RPG Mythic Adventures. I have a handful of answers to that, which are simple and yet important to ensuring a “mythic” story, whatever that generally means to people. In the following, I’m going to refer to Mythender and Mythic Adventures quite a bit, but they’re far from the only valid examples around.
First, Mythic Heroes are of Great Stature
This starts off by meaning that mythic heroes are filled both with greatness and the potential for even more. They’re stronger, faster, craftier, etc. that most if not all other people (which we’ll call “mortals” for the rest of this piece, even if the mythic heroes are also mortal). That’s just a function of how awe-inspiring mythic heroes are in the ancient stories, and it’s no wonder that we look to emulating that sense of awe when we’re sitting down to play a mythic tale.
But that means that the rules have to significantly feel like you’re not just playing a mortal, which is where contrasting Mythender and Mythic Adventures gets interesting. In Mythender, there are no rules for playing mortals, so there’s no inherent “if you were a mortal, you would be doing X instead, so don’t you feel awesome?” comparison element. Instead, what you can do in Mythender in dealing with mortals is how know you’re not playing one: you can casually slaughter scores and scores of them without any difficulty, or force them to all bow to your will, and in fact that gives you mythic power. That doesn’t feel like a mortal thing to do, so the game succeeds here by relying on the player’s natural sense of what mortals can and can’t casually do in a mythic world.
In Mythic Adventures, on the other hand, there are rules for playing mortals, as it’s a bolt onto Pathfinder, but just as Mythender has the hurdle mentioned above, Mythic Adventures also has a hurdle: it’s a system where you’re already playing characters with beyond-mortal powers. Here, it starts to achieve mythic stature by adding a couple rules universal to all mythic characters, which you can check out for yourself on the PRD. These are features that allow a mythic character to endure longer and succeed more often, which means they have greater stature.
Second, Mere Mortals Recognize Mythic Heroes
This is a very important component to the mythic hero story. Heroes can’t just have stature, they need to project it, and it’s best if they do so in a way that doesn’t require action on their part. Sure, there are plenty of stories about the character that seems frail, and yet bends metal or conjures storms to show off how badass she is, but classically, mythic heroes are just known to be awesome.
There’s inherent reputation, which functions as a burden — the mythic hero also cannot escape her grandeur to live a normal life. They carry a certain sense of authority, perhaps purely from their power, divine mandate, or some other means. Mythic heroes have a genuine status above mortals, and that’s something that mortals need to inherently be aware of. (Dogs in the Vineyard does this sort of thing, with authority — authority is a great way to separate characters by status.)
This is a GM technique, which I talk about in the “Being a Mythmaster” chapter of Mythender and in the “Running a Mythic Game” chapter of Mythic Adventures (see “The World’s Reaction” on page 123, and see the similarities).
Third, the Hostile World Recognizes Mythic Heroes
Likewise, the threats of the world needs to recognize mythic heroes as being of consequence. Mythic beasts need to speak to heroes (when they speak at all) in a way they wouldn’t to mortals — perhaps as peers or with some other form of respect, either of the “I respect you, so we shall see if the Son of Thor can kick a Jotunn prince’s ass” sense or of the “I respect you, and it unfortunate that we must fight today, for surely one of us shall die” sense.
If not respect, then a more personal connection could be displayed that mortals aren’t capable of having. Maybe a coven of witches and warlocks summons a demon who, upon seeing your character, rages with uncontrollable hatred, for it was your angelic parent who banished it to the Abyss. Even the non-combat-oriented elements of the mythic world should treat the mythic heroes with a sense of familiarity, often one that’s eerie and uncomfortable. (Here’s where the “usually-blind oracle who knows all your secrets and foretells nebulous doom and betrayal” comes in.)
Again, this is a GM technique, but it’s key to the mythic hero story, because it makes mythic heroes integral to the greater mythic plots in the world — they’re already involved, with no choice of their own, which is different from the mortal who interjects into the mythic world. (Though, that latter bit can easily turn into a mythic-heroic tale.)
Fourth, the Mythic Hero’s Story Holds the Seeds of Tragedy
The three things above I hold as pretty solid, from years of running and playing mythic games. Breaking any of those tenants has caused games to feel non-mythic, to not deliver what’s promised by the premise and setting. There’s another thing, though, that I see as key to many mythic tales: the looming sense of tragedy, either certain to happen or possibly avoidable. In Mythender, this is both a Mythender’s fate to become a god and the Mythender’s inability to escape her mythic nature (which can annihilate the free will of mortals she wants to connect with). In Mythic Adventures, this would be a GM/group storytelling trick, rather than mechanized, but I think there are some interesting tools inside that could cause this to happen (like with the augmented mythic modify memory spell, which is probably my favorite tool in that particular box).
This, to me, relates to the sense that the world, both mortal and mythic, reacts to you in a different way than others. That means you are constantly reminded that you cannot flee from fate, that you’re a tool of it, but perhaps through your epic might, you can struggle to overcome it. And that, honestly, is the greatest challenge of a mythic hero, far beyond slaying monsters and forging and sundering nations.
What does the mythic hero story mean to you?
 Which is not the same as a mythopoetic story.