The Labors of Hercules as OSR Obstacles
Over at Goblin Punch, Arnold has been talking about what makes an OSR adventure, and in particular what a good OSR challenge looks like.
- has no easy solution.
- has many difficult solutions.
- requires no special tools (e.g. unique spells, plot devices).
- can be solved with common sense (as opposed to system knowledge or setting lore).
- isn’t solvable through some ability someone has on their character sheet. Or at least, it isn’t preferentially solvable. I’m okay with players attacking the sphinx (a risky undertaking) if they can’t figure out the riddle, because risky-but-obvious can be a solution, too.
This has led to a great discussion on G+, and even a community dedicated to making up these kinds of tasks.
However, thinking about this keeps bringing me back to my favorite OSR adventure, The Labors of Hercules. In this episodic greek myth, which sounds exactly like something out of a DnD campaign, Hercules has to atone for killing his whole family in a drunken rage. His penance is to serve king Eurystheus for twelve years, and ends up accomplishing twelve tasks for him. What nearly all of them have in common is that they require Hercules to solve a difficult problem in an unorthodox way.
- Slay the Nemean Lion. The lion has an invulnerable hide. Hercules solves this problem by first sealing up one of the exits to the lion’s cave, so it can’t run away. Then he uses non-lethal damage and stuns it with a club, and then strangles it to death. In other stories, he shoots it in the mouth, which is another great solution. He wants to use its hide as armor, but of course he can’t cut it. Solution: use its own claws to skin the beast.
- Slay the Lernaean Hydra. The hydra lives in a cave in a toxic swamp, and it grows two heads whenever you cut off one. Solution: Hercules creates a breathing filter out of cloth and drives the hydra out into the open with arrows, then he burns each stump with fire to stop them growing back. In another version, he burns the heads with the hydra’s own venom, which is even better. After it’s dead, he dips his sword in its toxic blood, because hey, now you have a poison sword. After this point, king Eurystheus stops giving Hercules tasks to kill things, and has him start capturing things instead, which makes the tasks harder.
- Capture the Ceryneian Hind. The hind is so fast it can outrun an arrow in flight. Solution: Stalk it slowly and set a net trap for it while it sleeps. He then uses charisma to talk Artemis into allowing him to take the hind to the king.
- Capture the Erymanthian Boar. The boar is gigantic, dangerous, and very fast. It needs to be brought back alive. Solution: use the environment against it by driving it up a mountain into deep snow where it is immobilized until it can be tied up.
- Clean the Stables of Augeas. The stables are full of 1000 divinely healthy cattle, and the stables have not been cleaned in 30 years. Solution: Divert a river into the stables to do the work for him.
- Defeat the Stymphalian Birds. The birds are made out of bronze, can throw bladed feathers at enemies and have toxic dung. They live in a swamp. Solution: Shake a huge rattle that scares them out of the swamp, then shoot them with arrows as they flee.
- Capture the Cretan Bull. This one isn’t that interesting. Big bull destroying Crete, Hercules sneaks up behind it and throttles it until it passes out, then ships it to the king.
- Capture the Mares of Diomedes. This is a good one. Diomedes has bred fire-breathing, man-eating horses, which are wild and uncontrollable. Solution: visit Diomedes, but stay awake all night so he doesn’t feed you to his horses. Then cut the horses free, and drive them towards the end of a peninsula. Dig a trench through the peninsula to turn it into an island, trapping the horses. When Diomedes shows up, kill him and feed him to the horses, which temporarily calms them. Then bind their mouths shut and ship them off.
- Retrieve the Belt of Hippolyta the Amazon. The is the first genuinely social task, but Hercules just kills Hippolyta and takes it. Boring.
- Capture the Cattle of Geryon. Geryon is the three-headed grandson of Medusa, but the cattle aren’t particularly interesting. Hercules just kills Geryon and drives the cattle back. One OSR moment is when Hera (who hates Hercules) floods a river to prevent him crossing with the cattle, so he throws huge boulders in until the water level is lessened.
- Retrieve the Apples of the Hesperides. At this point, Eurystheus is just trying to set tasks that should be completely impossible. No one even knows where the apples are, and it’s guarded by a full-on dragon. Solution: Visit Atlas, who holds up the sky. Atlas knows where the Garden of the Hesperides is, but he can’t put down the sky. Hercules uses his strength to take Atlas’ place, and in exchange Atlas goes to get the apples. When Atlas returns, he’s decided he doesn’t want the sky-holding job anymore. Hercules asks him to take it back for just a second so he can adjust his cloak, and then walks off when Atlas falls for it.
- Capture Cerberus. A supposedly impossible task, but Hercules succeeds by being inducted into the Eleusinian Mysteries, and getting two gods to guide him into the underworld. He then gets Hades’ permission to take Cerberus by subduing the monstrous dog with his bare hands. Not a terribly creative solution. There are some great traps in the underworld, though: snakes that twine around your limbs and then turn to stone, and a chair of forgetfulness that prevents you from wanting to leave.
There’s lots of other stories in which heroes overcome problems with ingenuity rather than brute force. Theseus and the Minotaur, Perseus and Medusa, the Trojan Horse etc. It seems to be a running theme in greek myths, which is what makes them so entertaining.