Temple of Elemental Homer, or Gygax’s Odyssey

Posted by Michael

*This a just-for-fun topic to keep things light-hearted as we finish off the Odyssey.*

For those of you who don’t recognize the references in the title, a quick explanation is in order. This post will assert that the story of the Odyssey was simply made up by some random bard as something to entertain folks in an effort to convince them to give him free food, but it is in fact an account of one of the first role-playing games played in human history. By this I mean that a group of Greeks (ha ha, check out that hidden pun) got together and played an epic fantasy role-playing game with a heavy story telling focus and liked the story so much they shared it. And when the tale got to Homer he wrote it down.

First Clarification: What is a role-playing game? It’s the origins of World of Warcraft. It’s a game traditionally played with friends sitting around a table with paper, pencils, polyhedral dice, and miniatures of various creatures and characters. One participant would be the Game Master and would describe the world, everything in it, and everything that happened. The other players would control a single character in the game and interact with other players as well as characters and environments controlled by the GM (Game Master). Together everyone would tell a story of how these character got together, what they are doing, and where they would go from there. The is no “winning” or “losing”; the goal is only to have fun.

Second Clarification: How does this relate to the Odyssey again? Simple. Everything that happens in the Odyssey can be explained by either player or GM motivations, most of them having now become stereotypical and cliché. The initial plot is set up by the GM, and the players explore the world, unravel the plot, and work towards achieving personal goals. Often times the GM will incorporate a character’s background and goals into the main plot. Odysseus is definitely a player’s character. Judging by his broad range of skills that are always relevant and useful, he was obviously played by a very skilled player who new how to min/max his character effectively and enjoyed combat and story telling equally. If we bring in Dungeons & Dragons 3rd Edition alignments, Odysseus is characterized by Lawful Neutral, that is he adheres strongly to a set of rules and goals (these rules and goals are not necessarily shared by others or the society as a whole) but has no determinate stance on Good vs. Evil, meaning he will help or hurt others whenever it would further his goal or conform to his rules. Another player could be one of his “best men” from his crew that doesn’t get killed until Hêlios’ island, Eurýlokhos. His death by temptation is a very common role-playing element and though the player was likely not very happy, the character’s assertive style suggests that the player prefers combat to story-telling anyway and wouldn’t have much enjoyed the rest of the campaign until the very end. Telémakhos might also be a player-character, though likely a late-comer who didn’t show up very much and was thus willing to have a more minor role for most of the game. The game would have played through events in chronological order; Homer switched things up when he wrote it down because that’s the kind of things writers do.

Third Clarification: What is the point? Everything that happens can be easily explained from this point of view. Odysseus always wins battles and can convince anyone of anything because his is an epic (i.e. very high level) character and is thus not challenged by mere mortals, hence the need for his major contention to be with the gods. Athena helping him along is the GM providing assistance when he realizes (by himself or with help from the players) that he’s pushed things too far. The scene in the underworld starts out as the players trying to get as much information as possible while left to the GM’s whim as to who they’ll actually meet. The fact that they succeed causes the GM to retaliate by forcing meetings with many extra people just for the sake of annoyance and drowning them in useless information. Penelope starts out as an NPC (non-player character), but then becomes and player character towards the end when a player’s sister or girlfriend finds out about the game and insists on joining, hence the sudden switch from sitting in the background to joining in the action and attempting to help.

What about the rest of it? It all still works; I’ve sent all our class discussions through this filter as we’ve had them. So not only is there way to much to fit in one reasonable post, I can’t remember it all. So to those of you who aren’t going to shoot this down with all four of your fireball spells, I ask you to suggest other events (the stranger the better) to analyze. If you think you know the explanation, go ahead and provide. Otherwise, I’d be happy to clarify how anything you doubt really does fit.

For your own reading I provide the following links that may shed some illumination:




One response to “Temple of Elemental Homer, or Gygax’s Odyssey

  1. I think that looking at the Odyssey as a giant game is a very productive approach, and one that can help shed light on its larger structure. It’s important to remember that ancient Greek storytelling most likely wasn’t monological – i.e. there wasn’t just one storyteller surrounded by a passive audience. Unlike modern TV, the audience would have participated, by begging to hear specific stories, shouting interjections, and the like. A good bard would have accommodated these requests, incorporating them into his narrative. That’s not entirely unlike D&D, where good Dungeon Masters will also work with their players to create a compelling campaign that satisfies everyone involved.
    If you would like to follow up on this, you should check out John Barth’s 1963 short story collection “Lost in the Funhouse.” Each of the stories in this book functions as a kind of game (one story needs to be cut out and twisted into a Moebius strip to make sense, for instance), and the last two (“Menelaiad” and “Anonymiad”) relate directly to the Odyssey.

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