Review: Mythic Odysseys of Theros is an awesome tool for DMs

From what I’ve seen, the campaign books for D&D 5e just keep getting better and better. London and I have picked up three of the recent releases: Explorer’s Guide to Wildemount, Eberron: Rising from the Last War, and most recently Mythic Odysseys of Theros. Each one has a LOT of tools for DMs looking to run a campaign. The Explorer’s Guide to Wildemount has a nice big folded world map in the back, and much of the book is given over to a gazetteer, with a short list of adventure hooks for virtually every mapped location on the continent of Wildemount. Even though we haven’t started a Wildemount campaign yet, just reading those adventure hooks gave me ideas for our Faerun campaign.

Then I picked up a copy of Mythic Odysseys of Theros. Hoo boy, this book is completely packed with gameable ideas.

A quick bit of background: the Greek-myth-inspired world of Theros was first introduced in Magic: The Gathering, and it’s the second M:TG world to get a D&D campaign guide (after the Guildmasters’ Guide to Ravnica). Theros has a pantheon of 15 deities, which are reminiscent of Greek and Roman gods and goddesses while not mapping perfectly to any individual figure from real-world mythology. At first I thought it would be a pain to get acquainted with all of the new deities–15? really?–but the book does a great job of introducing them, their squabbles, and the mortal people and populations that get caught up in their intrigues and conflicts.

Ephara, God of the Polis

The deities of Theros are actually covered twice. In Chapter 2, “Gods of Theros”, each deity gets a 3-page writeup that includes the god’s influence, goals, relationships to other deities, worshippers, champions, divine favors, and divine rewards for those PCs that give their piety to that god. There is also a beautiful half-page color painting of each god, set above a set of in-universe myths relating to the god. Then in Chapter 4, “Creating Theros Adventures”, each god gets another 4 pages, covering the god’s quests, villains, monsters, and schemes, how to use the god as a campaign villain, plus a mapped location with a full-page map plus adventure hooks and potential villains to encounter in that location.

At first I didn’t understand why the material for each god was segregated between Chapters 2 and 4; why not mash it all together in a single 7-page “god-guide”? But when London and I made up characters for a Theros campaign, and I started thinking about possible adventures, I realized why the book is arranged this way: Chapters 1 and 2, “Character Creation” and “Gods of Theros”, are the player’s handbook for Theros. The next three chapters, “Realms of Gods and Mortals”, “Creating Theros Adventures”, and “Treasures” are the DM’s guide, and the 6th and final chapter, “Friends and Foes”, is the monster manual.  The gods get covered twice because there are two sets of information for each: that needed by a player whose character might serve, honor, or oppose a given god, and that needed by the DM to run the god in their campaign.

So far, so good. What sets Mythic Odysseys of Theros apart is the number of gameable ideas packed into its 256 pages, particularly for the gods. The ‘player’s handbook’ material in Chapter 2 includes suggested alignments, classes, cleric domains, and backgrounds for PCs who might serve each god, plus d6 tables of divine favors and ideals relating to that god. Chapter 4 is even better: the quests, villains, and schemes for each god are represented by a d6 table, the monsters by a d8 table ordered by challenge rating, and the mapped location for each god has tables of anywhere from 8 to 12 adventure hooks and at least 6 suggested villains. So between chapters 2 and 4, each god gets at least 7 tables of stuff. There is also a wonderful spread on pages 112-113 with d6 omens for each of the 15 deities. So make that 8 tables of ideas for each god.

The mapped locations are particularly nice (see an example below). The locations themselves are varied, including temples, towers, an arena, a forge, healing pools, exterior locations (canyon and forest), and of course a labyrinth. The full-page maps–by Dyson Logos!–are exceptionally clean and readable, with minimal coloring so they’ll reproduce well when photocopied or printed out (I know because I’ve printed them all for future use). Most of the maps are big enough and complex enough to support at least one full session, if not more, and the sheer variety gave me a lot of ideas for repurposing other maps for a Theros campaign. It bears repeating that there are 15 such locations–normally you’d be lucky to get half as many fully mapped locations in a book this size.

In fact, the more I thought about it, the stranger it seemed. How did the creators pack so much good stuff into the book? Then I realized that in most books, each of the locations would have had pages and pages of keyed information, like “This room is full of wine flasks”, or “A hungry chimaera makes its lair here”, only with 1-2 paragraphs of yap per room, so that a single small location would need 5 pages and a big one 10 or 12. In Mythic Odysseys of Theros, each location gets just two pages–the map on one page, and a short writeup with tables on the facing page. However–and this is the crucial part–that’s all I really need. I’m a DM, I’m used to making my own maps or repurposing published ones. I can figure out for myself which rooms are used for storage, which ones are functioning spaces, which might have been taken over by monsters, etc. (or, if I lacked inspiration, I could number the rooms myself and roll on a table for the contents). And if I was just starting out and didn’t know how to stock a dungeon, the tables of adventure hooks, monsters, and villains would give me plenty of ideas (and still do!).

 

For DMs, Mythic Odysseys of Theros trades depth of detail for a diversity of ideas. And frankly, as a DM, I need the latter a lot more than the former. It’s the classic “give a person a fish, or teach them to fish” dichotomy. Long, detailed writeups of each location would give me a lot of crap I’d have to remember, or look up on the fly, and which I would probably revise or just ignore when I ran the location anyway. By going detail-light but idea-dense, the book’s creators were able to give me a lot more locations, and the number of potential applications of each one (and the potential reusability) is sky-high. The Coastal Temple of Thassa, goddess of the sea, might be a functional temple, or an ancient pilgrimage destination, or maybe it’s just been flooded by a tsunami, or taken over by monsters, or, or, or…you get the idea. Fifteen locations with a dozen suggested adventures for each one is a whopping 180 combinations. And sure, I’m not going to run each location 12 times, but I can certainly find or create maps of equivalent depth and use additional adventure hooks and villains related to each god for future adventures.

(If you need or want a little more guidance on running encounters in mapped locations, either because you’re starting out or because you need to run a weekend game for your nieces and nephews and don’t have time to do much adventure prep, that’s fine! Far be it from me to tell anyone they are doing it wrong. Happily for you, almost every published adventure for 5e will give you room-by-room maps and more detailed support. Theros has no training wheels or seatbelts, but a million cubbyholes, USB jacks, and cupholders. It’s up to you to decide if that style fits your own.)

In addition to all of the aforementioned adventure fuel, the book also has a 10-page starting adventure with yet another mapped location and more tables. Plus four pages apiece on running nautical adventures and underworld adventures, each with–you guessed it–even more tables. And not just boring stuff I could have thought of myself, like “this island is volcanic”, but “this island is a dense layer of seaweed that has developed its own ecosystem of strange beasts and trapped sailors” (p. 177), or it’s a fallen fragment of heaven, or a paradise that tempts visitors to never leave, or (my favorite) the dream of a sleeping deity–and what happens when the deity wakes up? Sure, I could probably think of most of those given enough time, but given enough time you can recreate all of human technology starting with rocks and fire. The point of useful tools is that you can get to work building other things instead of building the tools themselves. Mythic Odysseys of Theros is a useful tool, and probably the most useful and most DM-facing product yet produced for D&D 5e.

That’s not to say that the player options aren’t also excellent. There are new playable races: minotaurs, centaurs, satyrs, and a humanoid lion race called the leonin (some of the others have appeared in other books by now, but they were new to me); a new background, the Athlete; and a host of divine gifts, omens, and prophecies to help flesh out PCs. The divine patronage options alone will give you plenty to think about, and they’ll get the players started with some gameable relationships right out of the gate.

Chapter 6, the section on monsters and foes, presents information on three categories on creatures and constructs: first, some notes on how to run 10 of the most Greek-themed monsters from the Monster Manual (basilisk, cyclops, medusa, sphinx, etc.), then stats and descriptions for 49 new monsters, and finally a section on “mythic monsters”. This is a new category for D&D 5e: super-monsters that not only get legendary actions, but also mythic actions that kick in when they are reduced to 0 hit points the first time. Yes, the first time, because the mythic traits give these walking catastrophes either a pile of temporary hit points, or new targets to destroy (the four hearts of the mega-kraken Tromokratis, revealed when its carapace cracks open), plus new legendary actions. If you’re worried about keeping your players busy between levels 15 and 20, these awesome adversaries should give them something to tilt at. There are only three mythic monsters detailed in the book, but you could apply similar logic to other monsters to create mythic versions of your own.

As a final plus, Mythic Odysseys of Theros is just gorgeous. A lot of pretty amazing M:TG art got repurposed for the book, and the new art is also excellent, giving the book a cohesive feel and really selling the idea of a mythic world of gods and monsters.

Are there downsides? I’m very visually oriented and to keep the pantheon straight I could have used a diagram showing the gods in their domains (heavens, sea, underworld, etc.), although there is a table, so that’s a pretty minor nitpick. As with many of the 5e books, I have my doubts about the longevity of the binding under heavy use. After 5 years, some pages are falling out of our Monster Manual, and our Dungeon Master’s Guide is on the cusp of losing pages. You may want to put some post-its or flags to help you find content quickly, but that’s true of every game book. On the flip side, Mythic Odysseys beats most D&D books by having a consistent layout for each god–the tables for each god are on the first two pages, map and tables relating to the location on the next two, and so on, to minimize flipping around while you’re prepping or running a session. This conservation-of-page-flipping extends throughout the book, and it is most welcome. Having material unnecessarily split across more than one spread has been my major gripe with virtually every other D&D 5e product–I hate having to flip pages to find out that room 11 is “storage”, when there was room on the map to just write “storage” on that room!

But now I see that I’ve lost the plot and veered back into praising the book. Oh well, sez me: the praise is earned. Even if you never run a Theros adventure, or play D&D at all, if you are into tabletop RPGs I think it’s worth picking up this book to see a campaign book done right, and to get ideas for whatever world or game you do run. Highly, highly recommended.

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