It’s easy to picture some literary characters slotting right into your next D&D campaign. For starters, you could fill up a party with adventurers plucked right out of Middle-earth, from Gimli the dwarven fighter to the mysterious ranger Strider, a grim stranger whose weatherbeaten looks hide the noble bloodline of an incognito king.
But you don’t have to limit yourself to Lord of the Rings, which feels almost like cheating. After all, its role in shaping high fantasy as a whole makes it a not-so-distant ancestor to D&D. To really stretch your creative muscles, why not swap out Tolkien for Cervantes, turning Don Quixote into an ardent, windmill-tilting paladin? Or, try building out Odysseus, the “man of twist and turns,” as a rogue who’s ten steps ahead of everyone else on the map.
If you’re the kind of bookworm who longs to slip between the pages of your favorite classic, the tabletop is the closest you’ll get living out those portal fantasy dreams. Just think: roleplaying is all about storytelling, so why not let some of the best storytellers in literary history join you on your next campaign?
And if you don’t feel up to homebrewing a whole setting in homage to your preferred literary masterpiece? Don’t let that stop you. Here are four games that make classic literature playable right out of the box, whether you’re in the mood for axe-shattering adventures or white-gloved courtship.
Released within a decade of the original D&D, this minimalist offering from Fantasy Games Unlimited is ancient among RPGs. Of course, it’s got nothing on its epic source material. The 1980s might have been the greatest decade, but the eighth century BCE was the greatest century. Or so you probably believe, if you’re tempted by the sound of a Homeric adventure game.
No matter what your feelings on the Odyssey-versus-Iliad debate, Odysseus has you covered. Contrary to its name, it’s an equal-opportunity Homeric game engine. In other words, you can use it to relive the Trojan War or to fight your way back home to Ithaca after its conclusion. In fact, because the rulebook focuses so heavily on combat (hand-to-hand and, in a true Homeric fashion, ship-to-ship) it might actually be better suited for running an Iliad game than an Odyssey one.
Either way, Odysseus makes it easy to get an ambrosial taste of life as a Homeric hero, complete with high-stakes battles and prying patron gods. As for whether to outwit a Cyclops or to stoke the rage of Achilles, that part’s up to you. May I suggest you kick off your gameplay with an invocation of the muse?
Speaking of “epic,” here’s an option for aspiring heroes whose tastes lean more Geat than Greek. Like Odysseus, Handiwork Games’ Beowulf claims descent from the western epic tradition, broadly speaking. But this is a very different game.
Created last year for D&D’s 5th Edition, Beowulf has a relationship to its source material that’s far more playful and meta, if no less reverent. Rest assured: this is a more sophisticated adaptation than that Angelina Jolie movie from 2007. For one thing, Grendel’s mom won’t be wearing built-in stilettos.
Beowulf provides a particular boon to those of us who are a little crunched for time: it’s optimized for duet play. The rules will stretch to accommodate a more traditional party, but all you really need to run it? A hero and a gamesmaster. That way, you’ll be able to play even if you only manage to rustle up a single friend who shares your enthusiasm for aiding the Spear-Danes against the monster Grendel.
Whether you’re the player or the GM, you’ll have need of song and good cheer before the evening’s done. Just make sure one of you remembers to bring the mead!
3) The Play’s The Thing
Imagine having the Bard of Avon as your GM. Mistaken identity and ill-timed suicides, donkey transformations and exiting pursued by a bear…. He’d have plenty of plot twists to throw at your unsuspecting party. But of course, you wouldn’t be unsuspecting, not if you’re a Shakespeare fan. Ophelia drowns, Romeo drinks the poison, Lady Macbeth goes mad from the stain of murder on her hands. You can see the tragic endings coming from a mile away.
Luckily, this playful offering from Magpie Games gives you a chance to mix things up (or to save your favorite character from their grisly, scripted fate). This open-ended storytelling game lets you play as, well, a player: a member of a theater troupe putting on a Shakespearean drama.
But you and your fellow actors quickly throw off the Playwright’s attempts to railroad you (which, in this case, means “get you to perform the play as it’s written”).
This isn’t a number-cruncher’s game: if you prefer minmaxing to melodrama, The Play’s the Thing may not be for you. But for armchair thespians and wannabe dramaturges, it provides the perfect stage for acting out Shakespearean what-ifs to your heart’s content. If you’ve ever wanted Juliet to run off with Rosaline instead of Romeo, now’s your chance. Now ask for your robe and crown, because your immortal longings are about to be fulfilled!
4) Good Society
This lavishly produced jewel of a game ranks among the best that indie RPG has to offer. If you didn’t think Jane Austen would translate well to the tabletop, the folks at Storybrewers Roleplaying are here to prove you wrong.
With its focus on romance, reputation, rumor-mongering, and social events, the game boasts social mechanics sophisticated enough to put many combat systems to shame. But the game’s narrativist (sense and) sensibility means you won’t be rolling dice to “win” the social season. (In fact, there aren’t any dice at all!) Instead, you’ll be fleshing out your character’s relationships and motivations to tell a compelling, collaborative, Austen-worthy tale.
To keep your DIY regency romance coherent, Good Society comes pre-stocked with tonal playsets: Farce, Romantic Comedy, and Drama. That way, you’re free to channel Emma with light-hearted social satire, or to go full-on swoon-worthy with a Pride and Prejudice remake.
Maybe you’re a diehard bibliomane whose Penguin editions share shelf-space with your rulebooks, or maybe you want to relieve your AP English glory days. Either way, there are plenty of games that can bring some literary flair to your time around the tabletop. It might make you see a hoary old classic in a playful new light.
Lucia is a writer with Reedsy, a marketplace that connects authors with the industry’s best editors, designers, and book marketers in self-publishing. In Lucia’s spare time, she enjoys drinking coffee and trying to shoehorn a character from an interwar comedy of manners into a medieval fantasy campaign.
Picture Reference: https://www.magpiegames.com/our-games/theplay/
All blog materials created and developed by the staff here at High Level Games