Review: Mythical Adventures of Theros

The second hardcover campaign setting adapting a plane from Magic the Gathering to the 5th Edition of Dungeons & Dragons, Mythical Adventures of Theros was released in July 2020. The physical release was delayed due to the Covid-19 pandemic, but the digital release on came a few weeks earlier, maintaining the original street date. Which was a nice way to satisfy anyone eagerly awaiting the book or had preordered the product.

Theros follows the Guildmaster’s Guide to Ravnica as a physical 5e D&D book, although there were a number of other PDF releases prior that can still be found for free on the DMsGuild under the “Plane Shift” label, which adapt other MtG planes. Mixing the D&D chocolate with the MtG peanut butter. (The reverse will also happen in the summer of 2021 when the MtG Core Set is being replaced by a Forgotten Realms themed set. Which might be the first MtG cards I buy since 1997.)

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What It Is

Mythical Adventures of Theros is a 256-page hardcover product with an alternate cover limited to game stores. (Or game stores with online stores like Miniature Market) Mythical Adventures of Theros describes the Ancient Greece-themed land of Theros. Like all 5th Edition D&D products, it’s full colour, although the trade dress of this product is fairly different and the whole product has a slightly different feel. Wizards is going to greater effort to make each of their products look distinct while still instantly being identifiable as 5e books. Like Guildmaster’s Guide to Ravnica it uses a heavy amount of art recycled from Magic cards; however,  if you’re not a Magic player, you’d never know. 

The new mechanic—because every new D&D hardcover has to have a brand new mechanical hook—is the supernatural gifts. There are nine gifts, each of which is kinda-sorta equivalent to a feat, as you can choose to have a feat in place of one. There is also the new Piety subsystem, which is a variant of the faction mechanic from Guildmaster’s Guide to Ravnica and Dragon Heist, which measures how much a god favours a particular hero. Like Guildmaster’s Guide to Ravnica, this book assumes a specific tone for your campaigns: the adventuring party are the champions of a god—or number of gods—doing great tasks in their name(s).  

Rounding out the book are five new (or reprinted) PC races, the centaur, leonid (lion-person), minotaur, satyr and triton; two new subclasses, the bard college of eloquence and the paladin oath of glory; and the athlete background. It ends with forty-odd new monsters plus three “Mythic” monsters that make use of the also brand new Mythic rules. 

As mentioned, Theros is a setting based on Ancient Greece, or rather the Greece of the surviving myths and legends. As the gods play a significant role in the setting, Theros is less “ancient Greece” and more akin to the Disney take on Hercules. Or, dating myself, like the cheesy ’90s TV Hercules: the Legendary Journeys. Theros isn’t a true world. The land on the accompanying map is pretty much the entire world, as beyond the known region is a small unexplored wilderness that ends with a void. (Is this typical of Magic planes? Was Ravnica like that as well and it just not mentioned?)

The fifteen described deities most map nicely to the known Greek gods, or related mythological figures (such as Athreos, god of passage, being an analogue of the Charon, boatman of the river Styx). Presumably they also have some tie to the Magic the Gathering mana colours as well, but that’s not clear in this book and my MtG lore is too limited to make a decent guess—especially as how my guess on how the guilds of Ravnica mapped to the colours of mana was completely off. Possibly five high gods, each related to one colour and then ten blended gods? I’d have loved a “behind the curtain” sidebar on how that aspect of the lore.

The Good

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The flavour of the book is excellent. Everyone knows Greek mythology to some degree. It’s familiar but a type of era that hasn’t been explored much in D&D prior. Mythical Adventures of Theros draws from the same archetypes, but presents a more fantastic and slightly sanitized version of Greek Mythology, while retaining some of the grey morality as any god could be either a patron or an antagonist. Because it is similar to but not literally magical Ancient Greece, this also allows it to surprise people who are deeply familiar with Greek mythology while also allows Dungeon Masters to tell their own adaptations of classic myths, perhaps with a twist. And it allows people to fudge historical details, and handwave those discrepancies away as being how Theros differs from actual Greece. Like how the statues and buildings are all clean white and not garishly painted; Theros is how we imagine Ancient Greece and not how Ancient Greece actually was.

The hook of playing larger-than-life heroic figures is appealing. D&D often has a power fantasy element, and being mythical heroes like Hercules, Achilles, Perseus, or Theseus is a very attractive idea. And the Grecian era works with this idea of mythical heroes more than many other settings and worlds. That said, the base mechanics of playing the champion of a god or a hero that is beyond mortal could easily be adapted to other settings. You could easily port it over to the Realms and use it for playing a Chosen of a god (as seen in the Sundering event). This means even if you don’t want the setting, the Piety rules and heroic boons can be borrowed.

The divine gifts are also easy to customize, as they’re basically feats. This was an excellent bar to set the power level of the boons, especially as many DMs let players start with a free feat, and because its a known quantity, it’s easy to homebrew. It also means you could just let someone boost one of ability scores, such as letting the Hercules wannabe double down on Strength. 

Each of the racial entries includes how to calculate their height and weight in the racial traits, rather than a seperate section later in the book (which is occasionally forgotten with new races). This is minor but I like it enough to call it out.

Unsurprisingly, there’s lots of new monsters. With 50 pages of new critters, this doubles as a big book of monsters. This makes sense, as Magic the Gathering is known for having ample numbers of summoned foes, meaning there’s plenty of art for monsters that can be appropriated for this product. And given classic Greek mythology was used to inspire so much of the D&D bestiary there’s lots of neat variants for existing foes. This is very useful, as DMs often pick monsters for adventures or encounters based on their lore or how they fit into the narrative, and more variants means they can work at different level bands or have powers that surprise experienced players. It’s pretty handy to have a CR 12 hydra (in addition to the CR 8 in the Monster Manual) to give tough adventurers a familiar foe.

The monster section also gives information on incorporating some classic D&D monsters into the setting. These are mostly explaining the lore of Grecian monsters that don’t receive a new entry and stat block, like the basilisk or cyclops. But this is still good, as one of my complaints of Guildmaster’s Guide to Ravnica was not knowing how many D&D monsters named in the world actually fit in or how they looked. Also in the book are eight new magic items. This includes the flying chariot and a helm of the gods. Classic, iconic stuff. Or molten bronze that covers your body like a second skin but functions as a breastplate. (Very timely, given I just finished reading Jim Butcher’s novel Battle Ground). Also in this section are five new artifacts. I love this! Artifacts are too often a forgotten element of the game, and godly magic items feel like a big part of the setting and idea of mythic adventures. These are pretty cool and have extra powers tied to a character’s piety score, so the more closely connected you are with your god the more badass your unique magic hammer becomes.

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The Bad

This book just contains the framework of a setting. The big nations/ Poleis (read: city-states) each get around 3 pages. Other locations get less. Entire cities, like Neolantin, get one or two sentences. The entire gazetteer is just 25-pages. Like Ravnica, more effort and pages are put into how to tell adventures and story hooks—with each god getting a four-section complete with an adventure/ encounter location. The book gives you ample ideas for adventures and adventure hooks and then requires you to create a setting and locations for said hooks. Which is problematic for DMs who might be bursting with story ideas but have few ideas for interesting locations. 

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Like Ravnica the forced campaign tone grates on me. It’s not letting you make the setting your own, but instead it’s telling you how to use the setting, which I instinctively chafe at; I like to go through a list of different campaign ideas and find the one that excites me the most. The hook of playing mythical champions is a good campaign idea… once. But there’s so many other ideas for Ancient Greece. Hercules is all well and good, but what about the rest of the Argonauts who aren’t blessed? What about Odysseus who isn’t blessed by the gods but cursed? Or a Xena: Warrior Princess who flouts the gods and is a mortal champion. 

The setting itself also feels small, as it is basically just Greece. There’s no nearby Italy or Egypt. No Troy to besiege or invading Persia allowing you to replicate the battle of Thermopylae. This applies both as locations for adventure as well as playing anyone from a non-Greek culture or ethnicity. You can’t play a Celt or Viking that travelled from far away, or even a nearby Egyptian from just across the sea. You can cram a lot of adventure into Greece, but people should know ahead of time this is a bubble setting.

While the idea of mythic monsters—unique monsters of legend that are a step beyond legendary creatures—are neat, the book only has three mythic creatures. There’s not a lot of examples to draw on or use to make your own mythic foes. I was quite excited to see what made these monsters special and it was a big draw of the book for me. But mythic monsters just have a single trait that basically lets them regain all their hp, and unlock a few new legendary actions. It’s basically just a two-stage video game boss fight. Inarguably useful, but not particularly innovative or requiring a new keyword or tag. (In Rime of the Frostmaiden, the goddess there is basically a three-stage boss fight and requires no new “mythic” keyword or sidebar.)

Like Guildmaster’s Guide to Ravnica, which completely stole the thunder for a possible Planescape/ Sigil product, this book makes it slightly harder to design a Dragonlance product. The Tyranny of Dragons adventure already took some of Dragonlance’s thunder, but it still had the idea of mortal champions of the gods as a campaign through-line. Immortal conflict by proxy on the mortal world. But now that box has been checked.

The Ugly

Let’s get to what will undoubtedly be a controversial complaint: this book is pure cultural appropriation: people from outside a culture using or exploiting said culture to sell a product. Yes, there’s a “Cultural Consultant” listed but there’s no other Greek names in the credits. 

There’s no good definition of when cultural appropriation applies. Informally this is when “whites people” borrow elements of “non-white” culture, but I’ve also seen it described as when colonial cultures use or benefit from colonized cultures. Both definitions would apply, as Greeks weren’t considered “white” or “Caucasian” until well into the middle decades of 20th century, and targeted by systemic discrimination by North America for much of the same period. And the Greeks spent much of modern history being the oppressed vassal state of the Ottoman Empire and subject to severe ethnic and religious persecution, with Greece only becoming an independent nation in 1830. Greeks were the oppressed victims of imperialization. Meanwhile, Greece is famous for having their culture stolen and robbed by other European explorers and archeologists. The most noteworthy example being the Elgin Marbles  but the number of Greek statues, vases, and other historical artifacts held in overseas museums is staggering. But it feels different because everyone knows about Greek mythology and Greek philosophers, with the history of Ancient Greece often taught in schools. Mythical Adventures of Theros is a heck of a lot like doing a book on a fantastical East Indian-themed world with a focus on Hindu-esque mythology but having no Indian writers. (And after watching Baahubali I totally want to play in fantasy India and would buy that book, because that looked freakin’ awesome. But I never will because that’s not my culture and I have no right to use it as my playground.)

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The Awesome

I love the art in this product. Specifically the star pattern on divine beings, which instantly identifies them as non-mortal while also just looking cool. It’s not particularly original, as anyone who reads Marvel comics will identify it as the Eternity look, but it’s still a great way to convey divine/ celestial power. 

Each of the gods has a short half-page on their myths. These are brief little synopsis of the god’s tales, but they’re evocative and iconic in just the right way. And there’s lots of similar little myths and stories tucked away in sidebars throughout the book. This really helps capture the “mythic” tone of the book and the idea of a land filled with legends that are (probably) true.

Not all the monsters statblocks are generic variants. Some are individuals rather than a sub-type, like the harpy Aphemia or the surprising CR 19 Polukranos hydra. Which feels appropriate as so many Greek monsters weren’t actual species but individuals. 

The sphinx entry has a handful of riddles. This is such a small addition that makes the monster that much more usable on the fly. I can think of five times I could have used this. 

The chimera is designed to be customizable, so you can mix-and-match heads and other body parts. This is just cool.

It’s nice to see the return of nymphs. These are a classical monster who are fairly well known but have purposely been omitted from 5e to date. While not the traditional D&D nymphs with their particular idiosyncrasies (blinding beauty) these are more mythologically accurate, which feels more appropriate while also conveniently being less sexist. 

Similarly, it’s nice to see the hippocamp again, which I’m surprised hadn’t shown up before. A very useful addition for aquatic campaigns.

Final Thoughts

I really wanted to enjoy Mythical Adventures of Theros. While it relies too heavily on the single hook and primary campaign concept for my tastes, that hook is different enough to be desirable while also filling a narrative gap otherwise present in the game. Greek Mythology and Ancient Greece is such a familiar and yet relatively underused setting for Dungeons & Dragons campaigns. 

But the content of the book just felt a little sparse. There are only three new mythic monsters. There are five holy artifacts: barely enough to fill a single party (and if you have a six player table, someone doesn’t get a cool magic toy). There’s not even one artifact per god! There are only two new subclasses and a couple races we haven’t seen before. There barely feels like enough world for the standard level 1 to 14 storyline adventure, let alone multiple tales. There are more than enough hooks to get you started and have a couple adventures assisting a god or two while opposing another few gods, but little to sustain you after. It feels less like a book for a campaign and more the book for an extended adventure. A mini-campaign.

Which wouldn’t be so bad if WotC hadn’t released Explorer’s Guide to Wildemount a few scant months before this product, which showed you can do a big expansive world guide while also having numerous plot hooks and multiple campaign threads. 

Now, the limited scope isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It depends what you’re looking for out of the product. If you just want to do a quick visit to an Ancient Greece style world for a mini-campaign or quick adventure, then this product will work just fine. If you want help with a series of one-shots or short adventures to hook Magic the Gathering players into D&D then this will work as well. And if you’re a fan of Greek mythology and Ancient Greece already (or the aforementioned cheesy TV shows set in the era), you probably know enough already to fill out the gaps in the setting and flesh out its locations. In that regard, Theros is better than Ravnica as the source of inspiration is more accessible, and there are numerous books, websites, television shows, movies, and even video games that can be turned to for inspiration.  

But if you want to spend a lengthy period in a Greco-Roman world with multiple campaigns then this product might not be your best option. You might be better served looking at Arkadia, which is also small but features a larger world. Or Odyssey of the Dragonlords, which has a variation on the Grecian theme and is also a much larger setting. This gives you more room to explore and more mortal factions to generate stories. 

I don’t think Mythical Adventures of Theros is a bad book. And as a bonus book done primarily by the MtG team and freelancers rather than the D&D team, it’s a nice extra bit of D&D in the early part of the year. It’s good at what it does and you can easily buy this book and run a decently lengthed heroic campaign. But it also didn’t blow me away. It just compares unfavourably to other campaign settings I’ve seen, including the prior D&D book Explorer’s Guide to Wildemount. And as the third of three official campaign setting books released in the last eight or so months, it is easily the weakest despite bringing so many new ideas to the table.

Shameless Plugs

If you liked this article, you can support me and encourage future reviews. My disposable income, which is necessary to buy RPG products, is entirely dependent on my sales.
Seriously. Having only recently returning to work after being unemployed for 4 months, in part due to Covid-19, my finances and ability to pay for books to review is dependant on sales.

I have a number of PDF products on the DMs Guild website, including Who’s Doomed, a book of 5e stat blocks of darklords for the Ravenloft campaign setting, which is a huge passion product. And if it sells well, I’ll add additional darklords to the product.
Others include the Blood Hunter Expanded, my bundle of my Ravenloft books, the Tactician a level 1 to 20 class, Rod of Seven Parts, TrapsDiseasesLegendary Monsters, a book of Variant Rules.

Additionally, the revision of my book, Jester David’s How-To Guide to Fantasy Worldbuilding is on DriveThurRPG, available for purchase as a PDF or Print on Demand! (And now in colour!) The book is a compilation of my worldbuilding blog series, but all the entries have been updated, edited, and expanded to almost two-hundred pages of advice on making your own fantasy world.

Plus, I have T-shirts available for sale over on TeePublic! The art of which can also be put on cloth masks.