Agon, from John Harper and Sean Nittner, has recently been delivered in its second edition from a successful Kickstarter. Its first edition was an excellent blend of storygaming sensibilities and hard-core gamism – it was explicitly competitive, and when I ran it at cons it was deliberately about who could amass the most Glory by the end of the session.
The second edition is a sleek, slimmed down version that is razor-focused on its setting and protagonists – pulling 1st ed. down, it’s surprised me how crunchy it was, with some aspects of the game – a skill list of a whole 16 skills – that I probably didn’t sniff at in 2006, but feels a huge number now! Second edition trims this – and everything – down, making a fantastic game for short- to medium-length campaigns that will also sing out in one-shots.
You’re bronze-chested, thick-hewed Greek heroes and heroines on your way back from the wars. Along the way, you and your crew encounter various islands, and each one has some form of strife you must attempt to resolve – earning the favour and displeasure of various Greek gods along the way. The game comes with a total of 12 islands, as well as guidance for designing your own.
In terms of play, each island is a session, and there is a structured sequence of reflecting on the previous island, building bonds with fellow heroes, and sacrificing to the gods to earn their favour between islands. This tight episodic structure works is great in longer play, and makes the game well-suited for one-shots. It’s an easy setup in a mythic/historical setting that feels familiar and has baked-in an expectation of action from its protagonists.
Agon has a unified system for conflict resolution – each challenge features on of your hero’s four domains (Arts & Oration, Blood & Valour, Craft & Reason, or Resolve & Spirit) and you then build a dice pool that will always include a die for your name, and might include other dice depending on whether they apply or whether you spend resources to narrate them in. You total the highest two dice, add any bonuses from Divine Favour (a limited resource you can choose to spend), and compare to the Strife Player (GM)’s total. Usually a few players will all roll against one target number (quite often, the whole party) and the resolution is about not just beating the GM’s roll, but getting the highest total – and thus the most glory.
By having everyone roll and compete, you introduce an interesting spotlight-sharing technique – it’s not just about how well you do, but whom is most impressive. It’s a technique I’d like to try in other games (see my post on Skill Challenges for examples of others) – the competitive roll where you don’t just want to succeed, but also be the best.
Agon makes for a very satisfying one-shot. PCs are simple enough that character generation could be done at the table (you could even offer it as an option for some players, or allow some to generate them and some to pick from pregens) and they are distinct enough that they can feel very different in play without too many differences in dice.
In terms of structure, each island normally begins with a contest for Leader, who gets to choose the party’s approach at each stage of the island – for a one-shot, I’d keep the contest in as a sort of ‘training challenge,’ and keep the Leader role loose – the game is simple enough to support the party splitting and taking two different approaches, and the islands provided all lead inexorably to a final confrontation everyone can be a part of.
In a one-shot, I might make it more of an explicit glory race, too – maybe displaying current glory for each player – and perhaps offering a prize for the most glorious hero at the end – it pushes players to greater, more heroic deeds along the way. In one-shot play you shave off some of the subtleties of campaign play, but that’s a concession we make with one-shots all the time.
The design of the islands in Agon is brilliant – and instructional in that it contains a structure that is applicable to other games. Each island begins with omens – the signs of the gods, symbolic indicators that give clues as to what is within, and then begins – usually as the crew make landfall on the beach – with two or more options to pursue. PCs are free to follow their own third route, but two clear routes are offered into an antagonistic sandbox that get them embroiled in the plot immediately.
Sometimes, this is as simple as there being two conflicting factions on the island facing a common threat, and two NPCs representing them on either end of the beach – it sounds cliched, but in play it offers a chance to dive straight in to an interlocked situation. Often when presented with a sandbox puzzle, players will skirt around and only gingerly poke at the plot so as to avoid putting their eggs in one basket to start – with this approach they are pulled in onto one side – at least temporarily – and get to see the problem from one point of view immediately.
To summarize, Agon is a brilliant game, and offers excellent one-shot potential. If the setting doesn’t interest you, then first of all you’re mad – it’s mythic Greeks – and secondly the presentation and structure of the islands and the competitive challenges offer interesting models that can be ported into other games. I know what I want to do for D&D one-shots when Mythic Odysseys of Theros comes out.