*Or, How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Monomyth
This post came about for a couple of reasons.
I’ve been enjoying John Dodd’s Million Word Man blog recently. Between unwelcome intrusions of real life, reviews of razor blades and kicking off the inevitable holy war between D&D 5e and Pathfinder boxed sets, John continues to focus on his goal of a million words in one year. Good luck, John.
Back in June, John heaped praise on Joseph Campbell’s Hero With A Thousand Faces as a tool for aspiring writers, primarily because it’s not about writing. He also mentioned Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey, of which he has a slightly lesser opinion.
we call it vog-camp for short
Then just recently James Wallis published his game narrative reading list, and Campbell’s book was at the top. “HERO is quite old hat these days” says James, “but a core text”. Well, OK.
Then there’s the third reason. I’ve been thinking about the application (and limitations of) the monomyth in RPGs. Specifically the mythic structure in Beyond the Wall, which is my new favourite game. I have some ideas. But before I can properly put them into words, I need to write down some theory first. And it’s quite long, so sorry about that. But there are some nice diagrams you can look at.
Edit: Since this is a long document, I’ve added a table
1.0 Monomyth for Gamers
1.1 Mythic Cycle as a Shared Journey
2.0 What the Monomyth Can Do For You, and what it can’t
2.1 Not a Novel
2.3 Short and Long Cycles
3.0 What Is It Good For?
3.1 Microcosm and Macrocosm
3.4 Structure and Pace 3.5 Subversion
There are plenty of places to learn about the Monomyth: the wikipedia page, for one. There’s also a separate page for Vogler’s stripped-down analysis in The Writer’s Journey. Really you should read Campbell’s book anyway, because James Wallis says so.
I don’t want to get heavily into the comparisons between Campbell and Vogler, so here are the hilights:
- Campbell has 17 stages which Vogler shortens to 12
- Campbell’s 3 phases are Departure, Initiation and Return; Vogler calls these Acts I, II and III, and gives them a 30-60-30 page count
- Vogler’s method is much more focused on human trials and glosses over the metaphysics such as meeting the goddess, atonement with the father, apotheosis and the mastery of two worlds
- However Vogler also includes Archetypes, which arguably have a similar spiritual function and serve as reflections of the hero herself.
I’m going to start by assuming the monomyth can be used to describe the structure of an adventure. Because this adventure has multiple participants (the party) I’ll call it the Shared Journey.
Let’s think about the three stages in the context of traditional roleplaying games.
Act I: Departure This is the preamble before the adventure where the players are trying to find reasons for their PCs to go adventuring. Their Ordinary World is a base of some kind; maybe a town or village (fantasy), or an espionage bureau (mission-based spy games) a Fortress of Ice (supers), etc. There’s often a surprising amount of activity going on in this segment: plenty of planning and second-guessing the coming adventure (some of which is a Refusal of the Call), interacting with Mentors, and domestic roleplaying that is really just an affirmation of the Ordinary World.
Act II: Initiation This is the “adventure” (as drafted by the GM) that happens in the unfamiliar, magical world. Allies, Enemies and Tests turn up in the wilderness on the way to the dungeon, the characters penetrate the dungeon and Approach the Inmost Cave where they undergo the Ordeal which they (hopefully) transcend death by surviving, to be Rewarded for their efforts.
Act III: Return This is the section we so often take for granted; the GM will usually conclude with “you got the treasure, you go home” and close the rulebook. And usually we’re satisfied with the treasure. But in the context of a wider campaign where the party is battling some great evil, a denouement where the party Returns with the Elixir and sees evidence that they have made a difference may be desirable. But even the act of returning home is desirable; it’s reassuring (the PCs move from a position of danger to safety, and can gather resources), and it places trials in context.
I’ll admit this framing is very traditional; the first thing I’d want to do with this setup is subvert it!
Interestingly it also assumes the bulk of GM preparation is the dungeon itself, i.e. Initiation. The Departure may well have lots of roleplaying, and yet it’s frequently unstructured. Does this say something about the player vs. GM priorities?
Let’s consider limitations.
You can (indeed, you should) read some of the objections to the Monomyth on its Wikipedia page. Campbell’s approach picks and chooses stories with differing cultural contexts and homogenises them into one global concept of trial and heroism. Academics have accused the myth of lacking robust support for the theories, as well as being too abstractive. David Brin considers SF as antithesis of the Monomyth, which is a significant statement given who the main consumers of myth and fantasy fiction are.
Of course being roleplayers, we’re comfortable with abstractive systems. We don’t expect them to be perfect, but we expect them to be useable.
We know that RPGs are not linear stories. The narrative should emerge through play, which means you can’t depent on the players following a pre-determined path through your scenes.
The narrative is also multi-threaded. There’s a big macrocosmic view that’s provided by the GM, but then there are microcosmic cycles contributed by each player. While everyone in the game tries to make those cycles visible to the other players as part of collaborative storytelling we do, it’s only the originators who fully understand the trials involved. More on this later.
This means that even if the monomyth really works for you as a template for the trials and adventures of your PCs, you can’t rely on the players feeling the emotion you want them to feel, learning the lesson you want them to learn, or choosing the path that fits with your story.
In Chapter 4 of Ron Edwards’ Annotated Sorcerer (which you should have by now, since you’ve had two opportunities to get a copy via the Bundle of Holding) Edwards discusses four “ways” of orienting the game: Dungeon, Squad, The Hard Way, and “No Way”. I’m paraphrasing the last one since Edwards originally calls this the “dumb way” based on assumptions at the time of writing the first draft, an opinion he revises in the annotations:
The squad way is the one I wanted to stomp into
the ground, and in retrospect if any of them deserve the label “dumb” relative to Sorcerer play, that one’s
it. (Annotated Sorcerer, p72)
Let’s consider these four modes:
Dungeon The PCs are together for mutual support in addressing some threat or danger, knowing that if they can overcome it they will all benefit.
Squad Characters are part of an organised unit, acting at the behest of some agency or other, and tasked with missions by their employer.
Hard Way There is no formal in-game relationship; instead, the GM interleaves the players’ backstories together, in the hope that they will find each other and self-organise.
No Way The characters have no reason to be together and are roped together in a situation which they then deal with. There’s no reason to stay together. Edwards initially considers this “dumb” because there’s no reason for any narrative to develop; but later revises his opinion, saying that it can work fine if supported by the various character definition diagrams.
The mode you choose will determine how suitable the monomyth is for modelling your game narrative. But even then the monomyth is likely to degenerate and be subverted; the mode you choose will only determine how soon that happens.
Consider a Short Cycle game structure: every week the party will leave their relatively safe Ordinary World, Cross the Threshold to do the mission, survive the Ordeal, get the Reward and Return. The Dungeon and Squad modes fit this model pretty well, the primary difference being on an organisational level (self organising for fun and profit vs. some imposed team identity).
This Monster of the Week formula has plenty of fans. Of course the Ordeals and Rewards are usually literal and probably not very satisfying in the long run, and that’s why we have the Long Cycle.
The Long Cycle is your series arc, and represents an overall goal or transformation (stop the evil spy network, cure the zombie infection, vampires achieve Golconda, etc.). The Departure and Return of this cycle exist at the very start or end of the series or campaign. More importantly players are already assumed to have Crossed the Threshold before the start of the game, and the Ordinary World is an ideal. Sometimes it’s simply not achievable, either. In Call of Cthulhu the Long Cycle describes a promise that is never delivered because once the PCs learn about Mythos they never truly “go home”.
If you’re running an episodic game (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, perhaps) with both long and short cycles, the Ordinary World of each individual Short Cycle is entirely contained within the Magical World of the Long Cycle. The cast accept certain norms that are absurd and unbelievable to outsiders. Yet they still move between relative positions of security and danger within this framework.
Sooner or later the difference between Ordinary and Magical World becomes irrelevant and the Threshold blurs. You can see this happening with most long-running series where at some point the arc plot takes over and the individual episodes pay lip service to the Short Cycles at best. And yet, people still enjoy these series because what they’re actually invested in are the internal trials and cycles of each character and how they grow.
None of this invalidates the monomyth as a model, but sooner or later it will disintegrate. If the No Way / Hard Way modes can be ascribed to a cycle at all, it can only be the Long Cycle, and more often than not these approaches subvert the mythic structure rather than rely on it.
Those are a lot of objections. With that in mind, what can we use the cycle for, then?
- Preludes. Understanding that all PCs have already gone through their own Journey before the game has even started, and will continue to develop.
- Transitions. Appreciating the transition between the safe Ordinary World and the dangerous Magical World, and establishing why the party may or may not return to the Ordinary World and what the consequence may be.
- Structure and Pace. We know where we’re going with the cycle, but what’s holding us up? And do the players want us to go faster or slower?
- Subversion. Fantasy games already look like the mythic cycle, so we don’t really need a process for that. Knowing how to subvert the cycle on the other hand is pretty useful
The monomyth as applied to the game narrative is bound to become irrelevant. But at the same time what both the audience of a work of fiction and the players of a RPG are truly invested in are characters.
Vogler’s tool centres on one hero, and all the other characters are there to reflect that hero, performing roles in the service of the narrative via the eight Archetypes. This is fine if you want to tell a story centred around one life or perspective, but it’s a questionable tactic — in long-running pieces of fiction we’re frequently invested in an ensemble cast, and to reduce them to mere Archetypes in the service of one hero ceases to make them characters.
In a linear story fixated on one hero the Hero’s Journey is a macrocosmic event — it defines the entire narrative that we witness. But logically all the well rounded characters in an ensemble cast are progressing through their own Hero’s Journey, passing into unfamiliar territory, being tested and developing as a result. Individual characters arcs are microcosmic, but no less significant.
The problem with the microcosmic, personal cycles is the only person fully aware of them is the player of that character. But you can get around this by having players freely talking not only in character but about their character’s arc and how it fits the whole narrative, and taking a “director stance” as they jointly form the narrative with the rest of the party.
Even before the “adventure” begins, each PC has already completed a round of the Hero’s Journey. Perhaps not on a formal or conscious level; but it’s true even for characters generated in the most mechanical, cynical fashion. I can’t think of anyone who would consider their character completely naive or incompetent, so… where does this competence come from?
The character at the start of play has already undergone trials that have rewarded them with experience and capability. They left their own Ordinary World and then returned (possibly more than once) and now they’re equipped with the necessary skills and experience they’re ready to participate in this adventure and collaborate as necessary.
The fad for “preludes” went mainstream with Vampire. Admittedly the VtM approach relies heavily on illusionism:
Let the players make lots of rolls so they feel like they are doing something… but don’t give them much time to think. (Vampire 1e, p56)
But the idea is sound. In fact the Monomyth fits the vampiric cycle like a glove: meet the Mentor/Sire, be embraced and cross the first threshold, come to terms with undead self (Atonement, Apotheosis) and maintain humanity (Master of Two Worlds). All this happens before the coterie assembles.
Let’s consider another example: Ron Edwards’ Sorcerer. In this game the Sorcerer has just bound a demon, which they consciously decided to do. There is no victim, no get-out of “the Demon posessed me, poor me!” It’s on them.
Go back to that point about the distinct differences among the three levels of a Sorcerer player-character: a person, a person who’s a sorcerer, and a sorcerer who faces a Kicker. Don’t mix them up or fold one into another. Most especially, “I just bound a demon!” cannot be the sole content of a Kicker. (Annotated Sorcerer, p34)
So, the sorcerer is a person. This is their Ordinary World. At some point they realised that binding a demon was possible; that’s the Call to Adventure. Their decision to bind a demon for fun and profit is where they Cross the Threshold. Actually binding the demon is their Apotheosis, the point where they Grasp the Sword. At the end of it all they’ve returned to the normal world and are Master of Two Worlds.
Then, and only then, comes the Kicker. The Kicker is in fact part of a completely separate cycle; it’s a new Call to Adventure that shakes up the sorcerer’s Ordinary World — a world in which they have bound a demon, at some cost.
There’s no reason we can’t do this for all characters, if we have the time and inclination. Even D&D characters must have done something to merit a transition from zero to first level; and arguably the heroic cycle is even easier to apply to generic fantasy. Defining a Mentor, establishing what Threshold was crossed in the backstory, what Ordeals (social drama, conflict, a difficult period of training) and what Rewards (knoweldge and skill, physical posessions, relationships) should be all you need.
If you’re going to consider such a cycle for your newly-minted D&D5e PC, you should note that most character generation is all about deciding on the Rewards you character has picked up (skills, gear, life experience). As such it may be easier to work backwards:
- You have these skills — what Ordeal did you have to go through to get them?
- What caused you to Cross the Threshold and better yourself?
- Before you Crossed the Threshold, what was your Ordinary World like?
The transition between Ordinary World and Magic World is paramount. In the mythic cycle it signifies decision-making and awareness. But there’s a much more practical significance we can take for RPGs, which is general resource management and safety.
Here are the things that change when going from one world to another:
Stability The first rule is that the Ordinary World is stable, and the Magic World is unpredictable. The point of transitioning back is a return to a predictable lifestyle. It may be a pretty miserable lifestyle of course, like a dystopian future where the PCs must scavenge to survive — but the lifestyle alone isn’t going to kill them.
Safety What will kill the PCs is going outside that stable environment. And by “stable environment” we mean conforming to its behaviours and expectations. As soon as you break the rules in your dystopian world, well — you’re no longer in the Ordinary World.
Resources Inside the Ordinary World stuff is “free” but limited. You can assume a base level of existance, even if it’s a miserable or boring one. As soon as the characters pass into the Magical World, they’re responsible for all their own resources — but at the same time, they may have access to much more exotic stuff.
Relationships In the Ordinary World people — even sworn enemies — will associate with one another without conflict. Once that world is upset — say, the Ordinary World is tossed into the unfamiliar territory of a zombie apocalypse — lines start to be drawn, factions are established. Why do people freely associate with each other in the Ordinary World? Because they have to live together, because there are consequences of acting on their grudges that will destabilise the world they depend on.
Options The characters are “free to live” in the confines of the Ordinary World, but that may be stifling. Leave the settlement, and you will see things you’ve never dreamed of (just before you’re eaten by a grue).
This transition doesn’t have to be voluntary. We normally think of our hero leaving a physical place of her own volition to answer the call (hmm, that didn’t come out quite right…) but crossings get forced on characters all the time. The aforementioned zombie apocalypse, unfair laws in your dystopian future, your neighbour suddenly decides to act on the grudge they’ve been nursing for years.
So let’s say you’re running a game that’s pretty traditional. It conforms quite well to the monomyth cycle, in retrospect: your PCs have set up a base, established norms of interaction with each other, and are listening for a Call to Adventure at which point they will dash off and get stuck into the next Ordeal.
You still can’t force the party to take the decisions you want them to take and conform to your story arc (well, you can, but we really don’t approve).
What you can do is make use of the elements of the cycle to help with pacing and structure. We can look at the crude Shared Journey with its three Acts and consider the individual stages within, and their role in helping the players make decisions.
We said that the Departure is frequently unstructured; it’s the resource-gathering phase the party likes to go through before it commits.
Call to Adventure
Most gamers I know will leap on anything with the merest whiff of adventure. If it’s the adventure you have planned out for them, all well and good, but if it’s something else… that’s a distraction.
Refusing the Call
There are plenty of reasons the PCs may refuse the call, including
- too risky / not enough reward
- didn’t hear the call (too subtle)
- distracted by false calls
One of the roles of the Mentor is to help the hero get over the first one; so we’ll get to them in a minute. As for not hearing the call, well… call again.
Distractions are a different matter. If the players have found something that smells of adventure then they will pursue it. It may sidetrack the game away from your prepared encounters. It may turn the game you thought you were going to run into a competely different one. What you as GM must do is decide how far it takes them away, and if it involves crossing a completely different Threshold to the one you thought they were going to cross. If it does, go to the Initiation.
The lesson here is that players will refuse the call all the time, and we shouldn’t take it personally. They can’t see our plans, and even if they can they’re not obliged to like them.
Meeting the Mentor
This is the wisdom, the supernatural aid that helps the hero get into her groove and take the first step on the Road of Trials. All the Mentor really does is tell the dithering hero to get on with it. The Mentor has a promenant role in the Squad mode of play; in such scenarios the Mentor and the Call are one and the same.
Another thing about the Mentor: in a Squad style game where there is a collective identity, players may step into the leader role and become the de facto Mentor. And if they can do that, they can also transform into Vogler’s other Archetypes.
This is the part that is usually structured. In the dungeon metaphor the Allies, Tests and Enemies will be found outside the dungeon, the Approach to the Inmost Cave will be the dungeon, and the Ordeal will be the boss fight.
Tests, Allies and Enemies
You can think of this as a resource gathering phase, before the dungeon proper. Perhaps not apt for classic fantasy, but certainly true for espionage and detective games. You could say that Call of Cthulhu is one long Tests segment.
Approach the Inmost Cave
It should be pretty obvious, but the transition between the Tests and the Approach is a mini Crossing the Threshold in itself. Just like the previous Threshold, this is a decision the PCs can make, or it can be made for them.
There’s not much to say about the Ordeal or the Reward; it’s either overcome, or it isn’t.
What’s the purpose of the Resurrection in a roleplaying party? In the monomyth it’s the province of trancendental figures, or at least characters who have achieved a physical/spiritual balance. Vogler calls it the climax, and equates it with a number of things — sacrifice, a final stab at atonement, catharsis. How do we even attempt to include this in a game?
Crucially the Resurrection comes after the Road Back (or Crossing the Return Threshold) so any decision the party makes at this stage must be in their Ordinary World; and yet it has the potential to make a permanent change. If the heroes have returned with a weapon that could be used to destroy their enemies, it’s their decision to see it used, for example. If there’s responsibility to be taken, it’s here.
Mostly though the Return with the Elixir and back to the Ordinary World is all that’s needed to put the Ordeal into context. In other words, the characters need to come home to reflect on where they’ve been.
Now you know how to use the elements of the cycle, consider how it might be subverted. What if…
- no-one listens to or respects the Mentor, even in a Squad?
- the Mentor doesn’t have the PCs best interests at heart?
- no-one actually wants to do the structured adventure; they’re rather stay in the Ordinary World and gossip with the other villagers?
- the players hear a completely different Call to Adventure to the one you thought you were giving out, and instead of dealing with the local brigands violently they mobilise them into a political force, and take down the local oligarch in the region’s first ever democratic election?
- the PCs turn back just before the Ordeal, because they’ve got enough treasure?
- the PCs don’t like their Reward?
We need to be ready for this.