Thursday, December 17, 2020

A Forgotten Variant: Mythrules (1978)

The Elusive Shift talks about around 50 games published before 1980 that we might consider role-playing games -- "we might" because there was so much contention then about precisely what qualified as an RPG. Among the early games that self-identified as RPGs was the obscure Mythrules (1978) by Colin R. Glassey and Aaron Richardson Wilbanks. It escaped the attention of Heroic Worlds, and reportedly had a print run of just 100 copies. It is thus a game that is of interest not for any vast influence it exerted on posterity, but instead, as a manifestation of the creativity unleashed by the publication of Dungeons & Dragons, and the way that early adopters made role playing their own.

One of the very few contemporary places to attest the existence of Mythrules is Dragon #33, which surveyed the magazine's readership on the games they played - Jeff Mallett, of Stanford, California, lists it among the titles that he owned. Mythrules seems to have remained largely a Bay Area phenomenon: it was made in Berkeley, and reportedly distributed at the area convention DunDraCon. Mythrules cites as one of its more immediate influences the local Arduin Grimoire, and perhaps having learned from Hargrave's experiences as a game publisher, Mythrules makes no reference whatsoever to Dungeons & Dragons.

The system of Mythrules uses the familiar five polyhedral dice, generating characters by rolling not just for standard abilities like strength and intelligence, but also for race, on a table that includes a small chance of getting non-humanoid characters like eagles or unicorns. In a manner reminiscent of Chivalry & Sorcery, you then roll for social class, and as starting characters (who are presumed to be 18 years old) of a high social class have enjoyed more leisure time to develop their knowledge and skills, the nobility can start the game with a larger allotment of ability points (not to mention gold) to spend on professional skills, ranging from mundane occupations like carpentry (35 points), to social skills like diplomacy (35) or bargaining (30), to apprenticeships in schools of magic (42-52 points).

The second third of the book is dedicated to spellcasting. Magic in Mythrules closely follows the Earthsea stories of Ursula K. LeGuin, depending in particular on "true names," and apprentices in magic follow either the Master Patterner, Changer, Windkey, Summoner, Chanter, Herbal, Doorkeep, or Namer. Casting is klutz-based, with an initial 5% change of successful spell casting which goes up by 5 each time a caster manages to use the spell successfully: thus, after twenty successful casts, a mage has mastered the spell and can cast it without error. As beginner casting times are also prohibitively long, and spellcasting is further restricted by a spell point system -- and learning spells as well has an ability point cost -- this is not a rapid progression system.

Mythrules' final third mostly covers combat and encounters. Combat relies on a hit location system targeting 17 parts the body, from shoulders to elbows to shins, that can withstand a number of damage points determined by a character's constitution. The hit resolution system is fiendishly complex -- another likely nod to Chivalry & Sorcery -- depending on a slew of speed factors, dodging bonuses, offensive bonuses, weapon defense bonuses, shield defense bonuses, armor damage bonuses, all of which are invoked prior to rolling percentile dice against the Hit By Body Area (HBBA) chart.

Mythrules made it into The Elusive Shift largely for the story of its creation: the authors detail how the "tremendous potential for change and expansion" they found in role-playing games at the end of 1975 inspired them to incrementally develop more system until "it became apparent that we were no longer merely writing addenda to other author's rules but were actually creating an independent game of our own." D&D encouraged precisely these sorts of additions and modifications, ending with a call to treat its rules a framework, on which "building should be both easy and fun." The Elusive Shift views that invitation as a sort of meta-game that tacitly shipped with the original D&D rules, the play of which created games like Mythrules and ultimately, the RPG industry that is with us today. 

Previously on Forgotten Variants: the Observers Book of Monsters


  1. Nice peek into a "Burgess Shale species" of RPGs.

    I guess you have just written the book but it seems to me that many of these attempts to "improve" D&D proceeded along the lines of rejecting the Ironclads!-based combat rules, rejecting the Vancean magic rules, and increasing options for character customization - only the last of which was ultimately embraced by the official game. The other two generally proceeded to more detailed hit and damage models, and to "spell point" systems, respectively. Is that your perception too?

    1. Basically, yes - I'd also say alternative classes (or classless systems), different monsters, spells, equipment, and other similar things were very common differences. My book really focuses less on these minor variations than on fundamentals of how events are resolved, what part players or referees play in their resolution, and in particular which system properties govern either character behavior (does alignment determine what you should do?) or the flow of game events. Cataloging the endless variations in approaches to spells or something would require a whole book at least as long as mine...

  2. An excellent book but one which leads to as many questions being asked that being answered. on is the drive for many players questing for "simplicity" (Melee) with other wanting greater "complexity" (such as C&S.) Another one is the search for creating any genre - for example GURPS or Hero System. These result from the philosophy that the participants hold - to some simplicity means a greater chance for dynamics to be ruled upon while greater complexity requires judgements on want the rules "mean" in a legal way. Both have their fans. Another issue that needs to be explored in "meta-gaming" and its roll and role. It a sense roleplaying is a precise of philosophy in the ways that it explores the terian.