Wednesday, October 21, 2015


Pantheon is a storytelling game. It's made to be played with friends as a role playing game, but can also be played alone as a writing exercise. By the end of it, you’ll have created the plot of an entire novel, to do with as you please.

I can’t seem to find the quote, but some author or other (maybe one of the Orsons?) said that a good plot is a combination of something ordinary and something extraordinary. The Hero’s Quest is one of the seven basic story plots [CN: That's a link to TV Tropes], as old and familiar as storytelling itself. In Pantheon, the ordinary comes from the tried and true story structure, while the extraordinary comes from the Vision cards, and from competition for control of the plot.

The Basic Idea

There are three roles for Pantheon players: The Hero, The Pantheon, and The Muse. Any number of players can form teams as The Hero and The Pantheon, but there is only one Muse.

The Muse’s goal is to inspire the Pantheon to send a worthy Hero on a quest so grand that it will outlive the gods themselves in song and legend.

The Pantheon’s goal is to torment the Hero so he gives them a good show, and reveals himself to be worthy of their attention.

The Hero mainly wants to survive all of this.

The Pantheon can contain any number of gods, each of whom may choose which human motivations they embody. There might be a God Of Love, who wants to pull the story toward romantic interests, or a God Of Chaos, who delights in giving the Hero particularly surreal experiences, and struggles against the Muse’s notion of an orderly plot.

The Hero can also be played by any number of people. He has an Inner Coalition, multiple values and interests making up his personality, all tugging his actions in different directions. Precisely what those are is determined in game, but once established, different players can represent different parts of the Hero.

For example, perhaps one player represents the Hero’s desire to stay close to home so he can care for his ailing mother, and tries to convince the rest of the Coalition to take safer actions less likely to get him killed. Another player responsible for the Hero’s preference utilitarianism pulls toward actions most likely to benefit the greatest number of people. A third is on the side of the Muse, an aesthetic part that wants nothing more than a glorious tale to tell to his grandchildren. The caretaker part and the aesthetic part will probably spend a lot of time in direct conflict, while the utilitarian part tries to pull the rope sideways.

Game Play

The Muse has much lighter responsibilities than Game Masters of most tabletop RPGs - once you've got the deck, there's no prep-work required - but she guides the players in two ways. One, she has a deck of Story Cards representing essential plot elements, like setting and conflict, which she presents in the right order to send game play through a solid story structure.

Two, she sends the players Visions, depicted on a second deck of Vision Cards. I have cards with interesting pictures from a game called Dixit, but a Taro deck would also work beautifully.

At the beginning of a round, the Muse looks at the next Story Card in her sequence, but doesn’t reveal it to the other players yet. She draws three Vision Cards, and chooses the one she most wants to send the players in this round. She plays her chosen Vision Card, and then sets a timer for thirty seconds (or, preferably, turns a very small hour glass).

Everyone who's active that round (the viewpoint characters, if you will) looks at the Vision card, not yet knowing what exactly it’s for, and spends thirty seconds free associating with the image. I imagine everyone shouting out whatever thoughts come to mind, but the players can also brainstorm by silently writing if they prefer.

Next, the Muse plays a Story Card. The players then use their inspirations from the Vision to fill in concrete details of the story they’re creating.

For example, suppose it’s the Pantheon’s round. The vision the Muse sent was of a rhinoceros covered in feathers, and she’s just played the Inciting Incident card. On the back of the Inciting Incident card are some questions: “How do the gods make their plans known to the Hero? What event acts as The Call To Adventure?” The Pantheon collaborates to answer these questions in a way that they somehow associate with a rhino covered in feathers. Having already established that the Hero’s Quest is to steal the Terrible Weapon from the Evil Emperor, maybe they decide that the Hero will learn of his quest when he happens to be on safari in the same place as the Emperor, sees him test his contraption on an innocent rhino, and recognizes how much destruction will inevitably ensue if the mad old man is allowed to wield such a powerful device.

Once the gods have exerted their mysterious influence, it is time for the Hero to respond. The Muse places Story Cards (usually preceded by a Vision card) that work as leading questions. Example: The Story Card “The Adventuring Party” asks the Hero, “Who will accompany you on your quest? Must you raise an army? Convince one loyal friend to join you? How do you do that?”

Gameplay progresses through chapters, beginning with “Prelude”, in which the Character and Setting are established, and ending with “Resolution”. This is what the game might look like halfway through Chapter Two.

You'll see there are three Vision cards on a single Story card at the end of Chapter One. Most rounds will just get one Vision card, but a few - Internal Coalition, in this case - get some other number. The appropriate number of Vision cards is written at the top right corner of each Story card.

Most chapters consist of four rounds. For example, “The Call” is the chapter in which the Pantheon designs the Hero’s Quest. It includes “Adversary”, “The Hero’s Goal”, “The Inciting Incident”, and “Or Else…” (which asks the gods what incentives they’ll offer if the Hero resists his call to adventure).

In some chapters, a single team plays four rounds back to back. In others, such as The First Challenge, the teams alternate, usually with the gods throwing things at the Hero and the Hero trying to bat them away or catch them to use as projectiles later. (Metaphorically speaking. Maybe.)

Here's the full list of chapters as they currently stand:

  1. Prelude
  2. The Call
  3. The Quest
  4. First Challenge
  5. Second Challenge
  6. Nightmare
  7. Resolution
  8. Ending

And here's all the Story Cards laid out in order. The cards on the far left are just chapter titles, and would be part of the game board if I had one. Each of the other cards represents a round.

During the Challenge and Resolution chapters, the round structure dissolves somewhat, with the Hero and Pantheon duking it out organically. The Muse presents Visions whenever she sees fit, and decides when the Hero has adequately overcome the Pantheon’s obstacles. If she’s not satisfied with the story, the chapter continues.

Divine Intervention

Finally, there is a Divine Intervention option. Any time the Hero's active, he can pray to the gods for a miracle. The gods can choose from two types of responses: “Yes, but…” and “No, and furthermore…”. The Muse, of course, inspires their answers with a Vision. The Hero never gets a straight “yes” when the gods answer his prayers - that would be bad story craft - but sometimes he can trade one problem for another (though of course he might just get extra problems on top of the one he hoped to dodge). Perhaps if he tries bargaining with the gods, they’ll respond to his prayers more favorably? It’s entirely up to the gods.

Your Turn

Here's a spreadsheet with the full list of Story Cards and everything the Muse needs to know to play them. Just write it all down on index cards, or print it out, and get yourself a Tarot deck or some clever alternative.

This version is for alpha testing, and can surely be dramatically improved. If you make up a deck and try this yourself, please do leave comments and let me know how it goes! Feel free to ask questions about the game here or through email (

May you live happily ever after.


Magnap said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Magnap said...

Is this the proper place to post about typos in the story deck? If so, you have a typo on the back text of the card "Adversary" (currently cell E8). "organization" appears misspelled as "oragnization". Great idea, by the way. I am definitely getting some friends together to play this.

William Eden said...

I'm extremely pleased to see the creative use of Dixit cards. I've maintained for *years* that Dixit cards are currently underutilized, and that an awesome game is likely waiting in the wings here.

Also, you could consider using Story Cubes for a similar purpose. said...

Pantheon seems to be a really interesting game. I love it and will play with my friends. I will know how much they are knowledgeable in other stuff than work.