The Power of Myth in RPGs

What do Gilgamesh, Jesus Christ, Achilles, Luke Skywalker, Neo, and Harry Potter all have in common?  They are all faces of the same Hero.  They are all a part of the same Monomyth and have participated in the same Hero Cycle or Pattern.

If you are unfamiliar with the studies of the late Joseph Campbell, I HIGHLY recommend you pick up a copy of his book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces.  I prefer a physical copy for easy reading and reference, but I saw this copy on Scribd.  Joseph Campbell was a mythographer, he collected, dissected, and analyzed many of the world’s myths.  In his studies, Campbell came to the conclusion that the Heroes of the ages all were basically the same story.

So if all these great stories have been based on the same formula, the Monomyth, would it be possible to craft a campaign around it?  I think so.  If properly executed, I believe a Monomyth based storyline taking the heroes from obscurity to nigh divinity could be very fullfilling for everyone involved.

The Monomyth consists of three major acts which are divided into smaller segments of five to six chapters.  Not all of the chapters need to be used.  The following outline is based upon the chapters found in The Hero with a Thousand Faces:

Act I: Departure

1. The Call to Adventure

The party begins the campaign by receiving a call to adventure.  This could be a some growing evil threatening the kingdom, or world.  It could be war, dragons, or some other strange beasts.  Regardless, there is usually some sort of Herald that puts the party in motion.  The Herald could even be the BBEG.

2. Refusal of the Call

Sometimes the party may refuse to answer the call to adventure.  When this happens, the party will begin to suffer from the lack of response, until they finally accept the call.  The suffering could take the form of disease, loved ones suffering, or being hunted.

3. Supernatural Aid

After the heroes accept the call to adventure, they soon receive aid.  This could take the form of a mentor, sage, authority figure, or a divine emmissary.  The aid given could be information, additional party members (henchmen), or equipment.

4. The Crossing of the First Threshold

At this stage, the heroes must venture into unfamiliar territory.  They usually must defeat a guardian to cross into the new area.  This guardian could be protecting the entrance to another dimension, planet, kingdom, or even just a cave.

5. The Belly of the Whale

After crossing the threshold, the rest of the world thinks the worst as the party passes beyond their perception.  They now face the unkown.

Chapter II: Initiation

1. The Road of Trials

Now begins a series of quests the party must complete in order to defeat their enemy.  Their supernatural aid will assist covertly, but leaving clues for the party to discover the truth behind their aid.

2. The Meeting with the Goddess

This chapter is a little difficult apply to a party, however, I would have the party make an alliance with a hidden power, it could be related to their supernatural aid.

3. Woman as the Temptress

This is where the party must make a choice, they could take the easy path to power or they could take the more difficult, but righteous path.  Either way has drawbacks.

4. Atonement with the Father

The party must deal with a consequence from their past.  This will most likely be related to their refusal of the call, or any of the choices they made up to this point.

5. Apotheosis

The party must face their final challenge within this unfamiliar territory.  Upon victory, they receive a large peice of the puzzle that could twist their perception of what is happening.

6. The Ultimate Boon

After the Apotheosis, the party now has the key to ending the evil in their own world.  The party should be significantly more powerful than when they crossed the threshold.  This could be special powers, feats, templates, items, or artificats.

Act III: Return

1. Refusal of the Return

The party may become drunk on their newfound power, not wanting to return and finish the campaign.  This is when knowing what motivates the party comes in handy.

2. The Magic Flight

The enemy learns of the party’s power before their return, and sends an overwhelming force at the party.  As an alternative, the enemy could trick the party into a trap or otherwise force the party to flee.

3. Rescue from Without

The party is rescued by ordinary forces from their world.  This could be some commoners with special access to items or areas or even a regular army of friendly entities.

4. The Crossing of the Return Threshold

The party must return to their world.  This may require a battle against another threshold guardian.

5. Master of the Two Worlds

The party now has all the necessary knowledge and tools to defeat their enemy.  There should be a climactic final confrontation with the BBEG.

6. Freedom to Live

If the party succeeds against the BBEG, then they can restore peace and freedom.  They achieve divinity and become legends.


Of course, with such an epic sweeping story arc, there is a definite linear progression.  But unless you play by the seat of your pants, there is some amount of linear progression.  Obviously purchased adventures have definitive milestones that all mostly line on a line.

The trick as a GM is to maintain the illusion of the open ended campaign.  Plan for failure and have several options to obtain the same goal.  A campaign based upon the Monomyth could last a year or more, so many non critical adventures can be intersparsed between the actual milestones.

Never try to force players to take their characters down paths they do not feel like treading; however, a good GM should be able to guide the players down a story like with a gentle hand and some obfuscation.

Become the Homer of the game table and craft a story with your players worthy of the ancients!

Listening to:  Black Label Society – Stronger Than Death – Counterfeit God

2 thoughts on “The Power of Myth in RPGs

  1. @Questing GM: Thanks! I never been to the Tropes Wiki; I’ll have to check it out. I do not find it surprising that most of these are in there though, Hero with a Thousand Faces was published in ’49 and the likes of George Lucas have cited the book as the foundation of many of their works.

    The book aside, this “formula” has existed since men began weaving tales of heroes.

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