Despite my interest in gaming, pop culture, and general geekery, I have never managed to retain an interest in competitive card games. As such, Magic the Gathering has always been something of a blank spot in my understanding. I have played a bit, with a gifted starter deck from a friend in high school, but always found the appeal of a game of old-fashioned Gin-Rummy or Munchkin to overshadow the desire to get involved with the community.
Because of it, I’ve always been a little bit resentful of the care and attention that Wizards of the Coast, who are also the current owners of Dungeons and Dragons, seem to provide to Magic the Gathering. Especially with the release of MtG sourcebooks for the game - Ravnica, to start with, and now Theros. The artwork, worldbuilding, and even overall quality seem to have more effort put into them than strictly D&D releases like Eberron.
However, more content is more content, even if I do wish that they’d put similar effort into the Eberron and Sword Coast books. And an ancient grecian-inspired setting for D&D is far from an unappealing one .
These are my thoughts on the book.
Overview of Theros
The world of Theros is one of Ancient Greecian mythology - with gods, history, and lore pulled almost directly from Greek Myths and Literature, like the Odyssey and the Iliad.
The gods are capricious and concerned chiefly with their own petty squabbles, mortals are guided by destiny and a desire for glory, and the layers between the realms of the gods, mortals, and the dead are thin and easily crossed. Epic journeys, tragedies, and confrontations are almost commonplace.
Characters in Theros are encouraged to devote themselves to a single god among the pantheon, and in return get various features and bonuses in the form of ‘Piety Scores’, in addition to ‘Supernatural Gifts’ that attach them to a god of their choice. Races other than humans have slightly less devotional relationships with the gods, but nonetheless are moved by them, and most of the adventure hooks revolve around the schemes and actions of the pantheon.
If you went through a Greek Mythology phase in elementary school (I certainly did, alongside others), you’ll probably take in interest in Theros.
The best aspect of the world is the gods - logical, since Theros seems to center almost entirely around them. But the variety of myths, motivations, and mannerisms that are provided are more than enough to play around with for a good long time.
I especially appreciate the depth into which each god was described, including the several myths (sometimes contradicting themselves) that are provided for each.
Most interestingly, each of the gods of Theros exists by nature of mortals’ belief. It’s not exactly a new concept (most campaigns that I’ve been in have utilized the concept to some extent, and a number of novels have taken the concept to much more interesting detail than this sourcebook does) but not one that is terribly mis-applied.
The concept is extremely useful, and a good DM can work quite a bit of intrigue into the idea of gods who are not killable by physical means, but through a lack of belief on the part of mortals, and so must maintain a reputation among them (no matter how superior they view themselves). I can imagine a whole campaign around such a premise. Its enough to make me wish that the book went into more detail about the mechanics of this, and how players (as legendary figures, able to create mythos and shape the beliefs of NPCs around them) may affect it.
The book’s provided adventures, hooks, and descriptions are much more concerned with power struggles between gods and mortals. These aren’t bad concepts, by any means, and they are certainly lifted easily out of mythology, but it does leave the most distinguishing feature of this pantheon (and thereby world), what separates it in function and operation from the normal D&D gods, without any kind of guidance for gameplay.
I also wish that they had included a few lighthearted gods.
They include Saytrs as a playable race (who are supposedly mischievous fans of light and laughter), but their patron god Xenagos has been killed long ago!. The ancient Greeks had plenty of tricksters and jesters, often traveler gods and patrons of comedies, and even humorous myths for their ‘serious’ gods. Laughter plays an important role in existence, and most religions reflect that in some way, including greek myths.
A patron god of love and romance would have been nice as well, for a lighthearted aspect. Aphrodite is a hugely popular goddess, and the relative lightness of her domain does not keep her from being a meddling, sometimes outright vindictive being.
For all that the pantheon wants to create an ‘epic’ atmosphere, a lack of any lightness in Theros’ pantheon implies a very dour world, indeed.
Another aspect that I thought was under-utilized, alongside the belief-powered pantheon, was the dichotomy between arcane and divine magic (although I cannot fully blame Theros for this, since 5e in general is vague about the differences between the two).
Note: Divine magic is magic originating from the gods, nature, or deep personal conviction. Its often assumed to be associated with emotion and force of will. Arcane magic is magic inherent in the fabric of the universe, as though it is another force or element, which can be utilized by study or magic. Druids, Paladins, Clerics, and Rangers cast divine magic, while Wizards, Warlocks, Sorcerers, Bards, and Artificers cast arcane.
In a world as controlled and dominated by the gods as Theros, it can be assumed that most magic is divine. If arcane magic exists at all in Theros, that presents a distinct threat to the gods, as it is a power source rivalling their own, unconnected from their influence. There isn’t even a god of arcane magic, so presumably none of them have proper domain over it.
Do the gods resent wizards and warlocks? Do they actively punish fools who attempt to gain arcane power? Or do they allow it as another tool, so long as people don’t over-step their position? Does arcane magic stem from a study of the Archons, the predecessors to Theros’ civilization? Is the Nyx (the starry realm of the gods) a sort of arcane plane of existence?
The questions abound, and Theros gives us no answers. Even a brief answer would make it much easier to incorporate sorcerers, warlocks, and wizards into the world.
Alongside developing the pantheon, the worldbuilding seems to have been well-considered, at least for the humans of Theros. The world itself is limited, with only 3 major cities, each with a distinct culture and little overlap, a few alternate habitats, in which most non-human races originate, and the realms of gods and the dead.
This may seem a little limiting, but it actually makes a good deal of sense. After all, where are you going to set an ancient greek campaign but Ancient Greece? And each of the locations provided is given enough detail that any party can spend a long time exploring and learning about them. Only the Siren Sea and Skola Vale (home to tritons and satyrs, respectively) feel a little underdeveloped - but these can be easily supplemented with other underwater and feywild sources from other sourcebooks, anyway.
Where the most appealing aspect of Theros is the worldbuilding, and all the potential concepts that can be toyed with in it, perhaps the most disappointing is the distinct lack of actual supplemental content.
Theros includes: 5 races, 2 subclasses, and 1 background.
There are additional rulesets, with supernatural gifts and piety bonuses (which I do think are interesting concepts, especially for more highly powered and divinity-heavy campaigns), but these are limited to use in the realm of Theros only and have no place in any other publication or setting.
It's a decent amount of new races (although I would have liked to get a Returned race, even over Centaurs or Satyrs, given that the memory-less undead have their own entire kingdom, and more actual influence on the world), but the number of subclasses and backgrounds is ridiculous. Especially given that what we are given is so interesting!
The Oath of Glory Paladin subclass is fantastically fun, and potentially a source of amazing roleplay. The Centaur, Satyr, and altered Triton races were a long time coming, and the Leonin looks like an engaging race to test out as well. Even the lone background, Athlete, is a perfect fit for the setting and unique backstories.
Adding this to the fact that this is a book filled with MtG lore, which can presumably be searched or researched separately from this publication, the lack of content that can be used across campaigns is extremely disappointing. And it isn’t for a lack of inspiration - even a quick read-through was enough to spark ideas for homebrew and custom content in my mind. Heaven only knows why WotC decided not to include any more than they did.
Overall, the world of Theros is pretty interesting, with beautiful art and lots of interesting concepts, but fails to really flesh itself out. The basic concept of an Ancient Greek universe to explore is an appealing one, but the application of 5e’s mechanics and gameplay is uncertain and not nearly well-enough developed. A good deal of the concepts that the publication introduces will require a lot of effort on the part of DMs to actually incorporate and use - enough so to render the Theros sourcebook fairly redundant.
That being said, the art truly is gorgeous (as most of MtG’s art is), and I completely understand the desire to collect it. Fans of Magic: the Gathering and Greek Mythology may also find it worth the price, or those who are fond of collecting homebrew to go along with official publications (and I’m already seeing a good deal popping up around the internet).
As it is, I’ll probably spend the next month or so working out a dozen homebrew subclasses, races, and backgrounds of my own, in case anyone ever wants to run a campaign in Theros (the good news is that my favorite poet used quite a bit of Greek mythology, so I have no limit of inspiration).
That, or frantically starting writing a Xena: Warrior Princess campaign.
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Small correction; the old Red/Green God that was killed long ago is unknown. Xenagos (also the primary ‘villain’ of the Theros story) is a “usurper”, a planeswalker who was able to force themselves into the vacant god’s place through an enormous ritual, and is alive through to the climax of the original Theros plot.