Agon: A Review

Agon by John Harper and Sean Nittner, Evil Hat Productions, 2020.

Agon takes its premise from The Odyssey: great heroes sail home from war, and along the way, they land on islands riven by conflict. Since they’re heroes, they must try to resolve these conflicts, thereby enhancing their renown and status.

Sure, you’ll help some people along the way—but these are all minor, highly expendable characters. Agon isn’t about the travails of everyday, average people. It’s about the struggles of epic heroes who supplicate or defy the whims of capricious gods, wrest triumph from perilous crises, and earn the right to forge their own legends.

Gameplay

The term agon means conflict or contest. It is the root of the terms antagonist and protagonist. And agon is also one of the major typological categories of play, encompassing any test of personal skill.

Appropriately, in Agon, every action is a contest in one of four domains (Arts & Oration, Blood & Valor, Craft & Reason, and Resolve & Spirit). These are obviously much broader than the granular skills we find in many other RPGs.

The d20 system is probably a trite but still-illustrative example of the latter approach. If a character wants to sneak past the guards, scale a tower, and steal something from the prince’s pocket, they’ll have to roll stealth, climb, stealth again, and then sleight of hand. In Agon, this entire sequence is a single Craft & Reason contest.

As a result, Agon’s gameplay eschews fine mechanics and focuses on imaginative storytelling and roleplaying. Players set conditions and objectives for each scene, roll to see if they achieve their goals, and then collectively narrate the outcome.

Contests

Each island (a scenario or quest) consists of contests, which are competitions between characters and opposing forces. Contests can include putting an insolent priest in his place, outracing a champion runner, climbing a mountain, sailing your ship through a storm, and fighting a rampaging monster. Any action that has stakes is a contest.

Players resolve contests by rolling dice pools and summing the highest results; other factors can increase the total or introduce additional dice and effects. The total set of options is relatively small, but that limit makes them easy to remember and work with, and the mechanics are diverse enough to provide plenty of strategic interest and different approaches to navigating conflict.

Each island’s contests build to a final battle. Battles are linked sequences of contests that decide the island’s fate. Each climactic battle is iterative; the three phases build directly on previous results, bringing conflict to a tense crisis and satisfying resolution.

Hero Characters

There are no classes in Agon. All characters start on fundamentally equal footing. This is the essence of agon: the playing field is level, and each individual demonstrates prowess through their own efforts and exertions.

Characters are mechanically defined by die values (for name, epithet, and domains), divine favors, and bonds (with other characters and divine ancestors). The latter two can be spent for benefits and additional dice in contests.

Players choose one domain in which they excel, and they can choose which gods and goddesses they currently hold favor with. Players also choose their own names and epithets, but this is purely cosmetic; every name will start out at d6 value. All other choices, like appearance, armor, and favored weapons, have no mechanical bearing—but they are a great opportunities for players to make creative investments in their characters, immersing themselves in the game’s heavy roleplaying element.

Despite its apparent complexity, Agon requires little mechanical preparation to begin playing; just complete the sections outlined in red and you’re ready to sail. Agon character sheet © John Harper and Sean Nittner, Evil Hat Productions, 2020.

Characters receive “damage” primarily in the form of pathos and fate. Characters will only die if they choose to sacrifice themselves in contests (an automatic victory) or when they check the final fate box. The closer they get to their end, the more powerful they become by accumulating perks like trophies and boons.

When introducing a new character, players choose how far to advance them along their fate track. Taking on more fate creates a more powerful hero, but that character will be closer to the end of their voyage. This quid-pro-quo encourages constructing new characters at a level comparable to current heroes; they’ll be able to compete without compromising survivability.

But in the first session, this is all beside the point. Allotting a few dice and establishing a few relationships with other PCs and the gods is the only mechanical prep required.

Running the Game

Strife Players (Agon’s equivalent of the GM) play opposite Hero Players in contests, and they use slightly modified dice pools. Much of the mechanical work is on the Hero Players’ side; the Strife Player’s work is more creative.

Strife Players must string events together in a logical progression. Each island provides lots of tools and options to work with, and they grant considerable flexibility. This keeps Strife Players from feeling restricted when Hero Players inevitably do something unexpected, but at the same time, islands do not provide a solid framework to follow from beginning to end. Instead, they require the Strife Player to think on their feet and craft chaos into narrative order.

Each island is a self-contained adventure. Their plots will not intersect, and once players leave an island, they leave it forever. This places the work of creating “campaign” arcs squarely on the characters, and at the same time, allows players to rotate the role of Strife Player if they wish.

Usability

The text has a fairly straightforward, ergonomic structure: introduction, character creation, phases of play and detailed mechanics, and resources for Strife and Hero Players. Individual pages don’t have headings, but relatively short chapters and a pretty functional index and glossary offset this sacrifice on the altar of aesthetics.

A battle “map” helps guide players through each island’s crisis and resolution. Agon by John Harper and Sen Nittner, Evil Hat Productions, 2020.

The book’s usability is complemented by a free, digital Player Kit. This packet contains character sheets, instructions for character creation, and concise summaries of mechanics and gameplay. It’s a useful aid not only for expediting Session 0 and getting into the game, but it’s also a solid resource for players (including the Strife Player) in the midst of play. These document alongside the summaries of contests and battles (p. 144 – 145) provide fairly comprehensive in-the-moment reference sheets.

That being said, Agon does have a few hiccups.

One example is bolstering. The bolster ability is listed on the character sheet (a useful inclusion itself) but not in the glossary or index. The mechanic itself is explained right where it should be: under Spending a Bond in the Bonds section of the book, and under the Bonds summary in the Player Kit. But in the midst of gameplay, if you don’t remember how bolstering works and all you have is your book, it’s going to take a moment to flip to the right page—the lack of page headings comes back to haunt us—breaking the contest’s tension and gameplay’s flow. I’ll admit this problem is incredibly minor, to the point of having an overall negligible effect. But it would be nonexistent if bolster was included in the paratext.

Another issue arises around advantage dice. A player who has the advantage die in the battle can give it to another player and gain a bond in return. This is explained in Gaining Bonds, but it’s not reiterated in the Player Kit or battle summary. If the players don’t remember this option, they’re missing out on a strategic tool, thereby reducing the mechanical richness and their own agency in the game.

These two singular points aside, the book is extremely useable, and Agon is easily playable, although there may be an initial learning curve for certain players. The first contest or two will help participants get a feel for the game, and the book and supplementary documents support play well.

Printing

This is really a personal note: I reviewed the second edition, which contains frequent smudges and smears. This isn’t a fault against Evil Hat. None of these material accidents are prominent enough to obstruct readability or usability in any way, so they can’t really be counted as major defects in the print run. Agon’s aesthetic is otherwise meticulous and precise.

Conclusions

Agon gives every player huge leeway and freedom to let their imagination run wild. It even includes guidance and suggestions for changing the setting and using alternative pantheons, enabling groups to adapt the game to their own cultural preferences.

And while this is a viable and welcome option, Agon’s ethos is so firmly rooted in the classical cultural identity that straying from it seems counterintuitive. The game’s mechanics succeed in creating a very “ancient Greek” tone and foregrounding that tradition’s dominant spirit of competition. In Agon, every character cuts an epic profile, and every single action is a show of superiority put on display to their fellows, their foes, and to the gods. And that seamless amalgamation of formal gameplay and imaginative atmosphere is, in my opinion, one of Agon’s greatest triumphs.


Agon is available in multiple formats that fit most budgets. The free Player Kit will help you get a taste of the game experience and decide if it’s right for you and your group.

Liber Ludorum is entirely reader-funded. Please consider lending your support.

Recent posts

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: