Wednesday 24 January 2018

He denies that he is ill, but they take no notice, kill him, and have a feast

I am almost finished re-reading Herodotus's Histories, this time Robin Waterfield's brilliantly readable and gossipy translation for Oxford World's Classics. I first read it back as an undergraduate and would have enjoyed it a heck of a lot more if I'd had this version.

You could make a superb campaign setting out of the world of the Histories, taking Herodotus's stories at face value. Just the many descriptions of the tribes of Libya, Scythia, etc., would be enough in themselves:

Next to the Zaueces are the Gyzantes. Bees produce a great deal of honey in their country, but even larger quantities are produced of a syrup, which is said to be the local specialty. Anyway, all the people there smear ochre on themselves and eat monkeys, which throng the hills in huge numbers. According to the Carthaginians, there is an island called Cyrauis off the bit of the coast where the Gyzantes live; they describe the island as being two hundred stades long, but narrow, accessible on foot from the mainland, and full of olive trees and vines. On the island there is supposed to be a pool where unmarried native women use birds' feathers smeared with pitch to draw gold dust up from the mud. I cannot vouch for the truth of this story; I am simply recording what is said. 
A very large tribe called the Garamantes live here... [It] is also the place where the cows walk backwards as they graze; the reason for this habit is that their horns curve forwards - so much so that if they walk forwards as they graze, the horns stick into the ground in front of them, and so they move backwards. In other respects they are no different from cows anywhere in the world, except that leather made from their skin is exceptionally thick and durable. The Garamantes use four-horse chariots to hunt the cave-dwelling Ethiopians, because the cave-dwelling Ethiopians are the fastest people of any of whom we have been brought a report. These cave-dwellers eat reptiles such as snakes and lizards; the language they speak is completely different from any other language, and sounds like bats squeaking. 
Far past this rugged region, in the foothills of a mountain range, live people who are said - men and women alike - to be bald from birth; they are also supposed to have snub noses and large chins, to have a distinct language, to dress like Scythians, and to live off trees. The tree is called pontikos, and is about the same size as a fig tree... When the fruit is ripe, they strain it through cloths and extract a thick, dark juice from it, which they call askhu. They lick this juice and drink it mixed with milk, and compress the thickest sediment into cakes for eating...They each live under a tree, and wrap white waterproof felt around their trees in winter, while dispensing with the felt it summer. They are said to be holy, and so no one acts unjustly towards them, and they do not have any weapons of war. When disputes arise between neighbouring tribes, they are the ones who settle them, and any fugitive who takes refuge among them is safe from unjust treatment. They are called the Argippaei. 
Rather than dying, [the Getae] believe that on death a person goes to a deity called Salmoxis (or Gebeleizis, as some of them call him). At five year intervals, they cast lots to choose someone to send to Salmoxis as their messenger, with instructions as to what favours they want him to grant on that occasion. This is how they send the messenger. They arrange three lances, with men to hold them, and then others grab the hands and feet of the one being sent to Salmoxis and throw him up in the air and onto the points of the lances. If he dies from being impaled, they regard this as a sign that the god will look favourably on their requests. If he does not die, however, they blame this failure on the messenger himself, call him a bad man, and then find someone else to send. They tell him the message they want him to take to Salmoxis while he is still alive. Another thing these Thracians do is fire arrows up into the sky, when thunder and lightning occur, and hurl threats at the god, because they recognize no god other than their own. 
Another tribe of Indians, called the Padaei, who live to the east of these marsh Indians, are nomadic and eat raw meat. They are said to have the following customs. If any of their compatriots - a man or a woman - is ill, his closest male friends (assuming that it is a man who is ill) kill him, on the grounds that if he wasted away in illness his flesh would become spoiled. He denies that he is ill, but they take no notice, kill him, and have a feast. Exactly the same procedure is followed by a woman's closest female friends when it is a woman who is ill. They sacrifice and eat anyone who reaches old age, but it is unusual for anyone to do so, because they kill everyone who falls ill before reaching old age.

I fucking love this kind of thing. I'm aware of attempts to produce fantasy versions of these more gazetteerish elements of Herodotus (Ursula Le Guin's Changing Planes and Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities come to mind), but it's really very hard to top him.

Friday 19 January 2018

In Which I Have a Breakthrough

For an extremely long time (blogger tells me it was 2014) I have been wanting to write up a campaign setting based on that wonderful bastard love child of Borges and Lewis Carroll - the map whose scale is 1:1 (mooted in "On Exactitude in Science" and Sylvie and Bruno respectively). 

My original idea was to imagine a country in which at one time there had been a ruler who dictated that a map should be made on a scale of 1:1, so he could survey his realm properly. It was necessary to float this map on the neighbouring sea or install it in a huge empty plain nearby, for obvious reasons, but over the centuries the wind and elements had torn it up into fragments which had blown around and caused the giant map to become fragmented and disrupted. Somehow, I felt, this ought to be the basis for an interesting and gameable campaign setting in which the PCs set off to these various different giant map fragments, but there were two insurmountable barriers to conceptual progress, namely:

1) Okay, so there are big bits of paper depicting fragments of a country on a scale of what? What is it about them that would make PCs want or need to explore them?

2) Paper is, let's face it, just paper. It's not as though anything interesting goes on on top of bits of paper which couldn't be accounted for without having the paper. (How, actually, is "An archmage has built a tower on this piece of map!" different from "An archmage has built a tower here!"?)

Today in the shower (natch) I made an epic breakthrough: it's not a map whose scale is 1:1. It's a scale model whose scale is 1:1.

This ancient ruler, whoever he may have been, began a project to create a scale model of his realm on a scale of 1:1, floating in the sea nearby. The passage of time (hurricanes, storms, freezing and thawing of the ocean, etc.) and the gradual disenchantment of his successors with the project render it incomplete and ultimately abandoned; some centuries after its inception the giant contraption is cut adrift and left to float away across the ocean like some vast island of flotsam. Parts break off and form mini islets of their own; other parts sink; other parts decay into ruin. Pirates use parts as bases; seagoing monsters lair in it; ghosts of dead sailors haunt it; outlaws and exiles infest it; wizards build strongholds in it; and so on and so forth.

I now move from the conceptual barriers to the practical. A floating warped and ruined three-dimensional replica of a real world place whose geography is the same, but different, and which gradually moves across the oceans in a shifting flotilla which is always slowly but definitely changing position. How to draw a map of that?

The Alternate Appendix N Campaigns

There are a few attempts to my knowledge to imagine 'What if?' scenarios in which Gary Gygax didn't draw from a rather esoteric list of pulp fiction of varying quality for his 'Appendix N', but other sources entirely. There's Mazes & Minotaurs, in which the inspiration for his game was imagined to come from Greek myth, and then there's that game somebody created, and which I linked to on the blog but irritatingly can't seem to find, in which 'Appendix N' was Shakespeare's plays. There may be others.

You can imagine more or less any alternatives using any set of similarly-themed fiction, of course. Here is a list of possibilities....

Lilliputians & Laputa. The game is based not around the exploration of dungeons but lost travelers shipwrecked in strange lands trying to find their way home; the nature of the lands they have to travel through are generated randomly. XP is gained by narrowly escaping death.

Herodotus & Histories. A variant, I suppose, on Mazes & Minotaurs. Herodotus's world is the real one: there are ants the size of dogs, Egyptians who do everything backwards, Indian tribes who have sex in public and eat each other when they get old, Persians who never lie...and the world ends at the Atlantic. XP is gained by visiting the Herodotus tourist trail (Croesus's offerings to the Oracle at Delphi; the temple to Aphrodite on the island on the Nile, etc.). 

King & Koontz. Ghosts and monsters haunt American-gothic landscapes. The PCs struggle to overcome ancient evil (and are frequently writers from Maine). XP is awarded for surviving each session. 

Twists & Copperfields. The PCs are members of the hard-working, deserving poor in the slums of 19th-Century London, scrabbling to survive as best they can and, if possible, climbing the social ladder. XP is awarded for progressing upwards through the slivers of English social hierarchy. 

Egils & Eriks. The PCs are 8th-century Norwegians exploring Iceland and Greenland, fighting walruses, raiding the civilized world, developing blood feuds, and discovering America. XP is awarded for...well....killing things and taking their stuff.

That's enough of that for one night.

Tuesday 16 January 2018

Expressionism, Realism/Unnaturalism, and Hyper-realism/Hyper-unrealism

I want to draw a distinction between three different approaches to fantasy art: what I will refer to as "expressionism", "realism", and "hyper-realism". In reality, of course, everything is on a spectrum between those three points of the triangle, I know, but any taxonomy of anything will elide very fine differences and that's the nature of categorisation, so fuck you.

Let's begin with expressionism. I use this term not like an art critic but like a lay person interested in art. Expressionism is an approach to art which does not attempt to reflect any sort of seen reality directly in the photorealistic sense, but to express mood and emotion visually. In the context of fantasy art, it means art which does not seek to produce an image which would persuade you it is really real or could be a real thing in some fantasy world. Rather it means art which evokes the quality of a fantastical thing in pictoral form.

Hence, some examples:

"Crossing the Vimur River", by Hellanim (

"The Old Saints, VIII" by Valin Mattheis (

"The Ichthyosaur's Pool", an illo Matthew Adams did for Issue #1 of The Peridot

Next comes realism, or the attempt to create actual pictoral representations of fantastical things in such a way that you could imagine them appearing to the naked eye if you were to actually see them. ("Realism" is a slightly unsatisfactory label because, of course, we are not talking about "real" things; maybe a better term would be "Unnaturalism"?) It does not have to be photorealist; it may be impressionistic in its brush strokes.

Some examples:

"Lancelot", by John Howe

"Scythe" by Jakub Rozalski (

"The North Watch" by Keith Parkinson

Finally, there is, I would suggest, a third category, which I refer to as "hyper-realism" (or, perhaps more appropriately for reasons alluded to above, "hyper-unrealism"). This is fantasy art which attempts to produce a version of a fantastical reality which is more vivid and exaggerated than the more prosaic "realism" of the second category, while being faithful enough to an imagined visual reality that it cannot be described as being "expressionistic" (unless by "expressionistic" you mean "evokes a sense of vividness and dynamism").

Some examples:

"Mirror Men's Judgement" by Rhineville

You know where this comes from.

And this.

I have nothing against hyper-realist art particularly, but I would suggest that there is a preponderance of it in RPG products and this trend has become more pronounced over time rather than less so. I can think of two reasons for this: 1) RPG art is strongly influenced by comic and, nowadays, video game art; 2) RPGs are about action and imagination and hyper-realist art is the natural bi-product of the interaction between those two impulses.

Challenge me and prove me wrong, or agree with me and praise me and my taxonomy to the heavens.

Saturday 13 January 2018

Anak Wungsu and the Ziggurats in the Shallow Sea


The Sumerians, Babylonians, Elamites and other ancient peoples of the fertile crescent spoke of a race of fish-men, who dwelt at the bottom of the Persian Gulf and rose to the surface as caprice dictated. Whenever they appeared, it was said, they would dispense dangerous wisdom to the peoples on the surface - the kind of wisdom that leads to civilization but also brings with it disease, war and enslavement.

These fish-men were first named in a human language by those young grand-nephews of the Naacals, the Sumerians, who called them the Oannes. Their existence was no myth. The Oannes were ancient astronauts, an alien race who originated in the cosmos but who had been dwelling on earth for aeons in cities they built in the pitiless frigid blackness of the oceanic depths.

In times past - before even the Naacals had risen to prominence, when the earth was stalked by giant mammalian beasts - these Oannes also built tombs and other monuments in the warm shallow seas near the coasts, all of black obsidian embedded in white sand and coral in azure waters lit by sunlight beaming through. The crocodile saw this, of course, on its wanderings. Black geometric nests or hives swarming with the activity of things that to its mind looked like fish, though fish of an altogether unusual type, with gracile hands and tentacles and fingers able to manipulate objects, and intelligent eyes. Their mythagos haunt its memory as scaly fish with many arms endlessly grasping, clasping and groping around them as they swim through clear warm waters around reefs of vivid coral in the Remembered Ocean of the crocodile's mind.

The Coming of the Naacals

The first Naacals who came to this region of the crocodile's memory were nomads, navigators and explorers fascinated by the possibilities offered by the infinite warm sea. But they were quickly followed by others - those with an interest in the locations of the cities of the Oannes in the real world. For, these Naacals reasoned, there might be some correspondence between the patterns of the locations of the huge black geometric shapes as they existed in the crocodile's memory, and the actual settlements or constructions of the real Oannes that have been lost for millennia in the world above. It might be, they thought, that one could survey this region of the crocodile's memory and use it as some kind of map or guide through which to locate the ruins of the vanished civilization of these alien visitors. Theorists, then, and cosmologists, but also treasure hunters; they remain there still, though many have lost their minds or forgotten their original purpose, and merely roam the seas in their automated vessels without aim or destination.

The Coming of Anak Wungsu

Anak Wungsu is a Balinese trader who, hit by a violent cyclone when sailing his ship, was forced off course and shipwrecked on the shores of Paradijs. More than half-dead and with nothing on his person, he was nursed to health by natives who found him naked and desperate, washed up on the beach. His commercially gifted mind soon realised that there were commodities in this new land waiting to be gathered and taken back to Bali and sold - and his eyes grew bright as he imagined the possibilities this new trading route could offer him. He set off into the interior where he came upon the Lady of the Lake and was told by her of the untold riches and treasures of the Naacals waiting to be discovered beyond the veil in the crocodile's mind. He passed behind it at once.

Anak Wungsu soon made his way to the ziggurats under the sea, as if sensing by instinct the traces of greed which the Naacal explorers and cartographers had left behind them on the surface of the water. Once there, he set about building the grandest vision he could hold in his mind's eye - a vast trading network spanning the ocean's floor and bringing with it untold wealth and commerce to its centre. Goods, commodities, treasure and produce flowing between and around the black undersea Oannes "hives" in endless streams of import and export and all with him in the middle.

Now all of the mythago Oannes "hives" team with the activity of trade as their inhabitants head out into the seas around to harvest resources they can truck, barter and exchange. All of them obsessively seeking the crucial comparative advantage over the others - or attempting through force and subterfuge to take control over sources of revenue. Every one of them a rival as much as a friend, aware in the abstract that trade benefits all, but as forgetful of it in practice as the humans participating in the spice trade in the Moluccas. An unending struggle for commercial domination that frequently spills into violence and which can never end except in a constant competition that can only accelerate in intensity and never diminish.

Thursday 11 January 2018

When Yoon-Suin Meets Rifts

In the lobby of the Museum of Historical Interface, at the Brunswick Dock in Hibap'ȕ/Liverpool, there hangs a framed letter, printed on a material now known to be yak skin and written in the High Yellow City Trade Tongue. It is hidden behind a large reinforced glass case which prevents the public approaching closer than three yards, and has two permanent security guards stationed beside it for 24 hours a day. This is necessary to prevent its theft, many attempts at which having been foiled in the time it has been housed at the Museum. It is the only known replica on Our Side of the Rift of the infamous letter which the explorer Omswarop Chal sent to his master, the Grand Matriarch of the Ulele Clan, at her residence in the Wagtail Quarter, on returning from his first journey through the Rift, and hence its value is beyond priceless. The year 2018 represents the tri-centennial anniversary of the sending of that letter and Chal's first traversing of the Rift, and hence the first contact between Our Side and Theirs, and on January 12th the great-grandson of the Grand Matriarch will be in attendance paying a full state visit. Given that the matriarch of the Wimxhȁ clan and her extended family will also be present, it is the most important event expected to take place in Hibap'ȕ/Liverpool this century so far. [...]

The Case for the Small and Complex

It's a truism that the world is getting more complex in the digital age. In fact, the truth is the world is in many ways much simpler than it used to be, and that complexity tends towards simplicity over time, growing merely complicated rather than complex.

One of the best examples of this is language. Ancient languages are much harder to learn than their modern equivalents. Chinese characters, when they were first invented, were insanely complex, requiring dozens and dozens of brushstrokes. Now they require orders of magnitude fewer. Old English nouns had five cases, three genders, and could be categorised as strong or weak. Modern English nouns basically do not have cases or genders. Japanese used to have counting systems for literally hundreds of different objects (including many different species of fish); now Japanese linguists observe that the counting systems are collapsing into a mere handful.

This is also true at the granular level: five hundred years ago people living in Cumbria would not have understood people living in Cornwall because they spoke different languages. Now almost nobody speaks Cornish and the Cumbrian dialect is basically standard English with a funny accent and a few odd words. The linguistic landscape of the British Isles is becoming ever more uniform as minority languages die out and dialects merge and flatten. Multiply this by a million for the rest of the world.

Law is the same. Once England was a patchwork of, in effect, different legal systems, for different regions, different purposes, different disputes. Five small towns in Kent, the Cinque Ports, had their own entirely separate courts. So did the Church of England. Now there's uniformity. Again, multiply that a million for the rest of the world - and add the universalizing effects of international commercial law.

And consider politics. Read Herodotus and you get the impression that almost every square metre of the ancient world had its own ethnic group, city-state, language, unique culture and fiercely independent ruler. Thracians, Phrygians, Scythians, Lydians, Lycians, Paphlagonians, Pamphylians... Just think of modern day Turkey - one country with one main language and ethnicity and a few minority groups - and compare it to Anatolia in the age of classical antiquity and you will see how much the world has simplified geo-politically.

Why do I harp on about this at such length? For many reasons small, dense campaign maps are to be favoured, but you can add realism to that list of reasons. Small geographical areas packed with different cultures, legal systems, languages, religions and polities reflect what a pre-modern world would be like.

Tuesday 9 January 2018

Appearing to do two things while really doing neither

Sodajerker recently released an interview with Noel Gallagher. I am not a huge Oasis or Noel Gallagher fan, but you couldn't escape his music when I was a teenager - it was basically the soundtrack to life in Britain between about 1994 and 1997 - so I was still fascinated to hear his views on the creative process. 

He used a nice metaphor to describe the old principle that creativity is all about putting in the hours: he likens it to fishing - you may not catch a fish by fishing in the river every day, but you absolutely have to go to the river if you are going to catch one. Creativity isn't magical; it's time and effort, mostly.   

But the really interesting throwaway revelation was that a lot of his songwriting is done by noodling round on a guitar while watching TV with the sound turned way down. As I think he puts it (I don't have a transcript), to the untrained eye he is playing guitar while watching the TV. But actually he is doing neither. He is in a kind of fugue or flow state, waiting for something to hit him. When it eventually does, that's when the work begins and the actual songwriting starts.

I would not want to compare myself to somebody like Noel Gallagher, but I was struck by this because it is exactly the same thing I usually do - the TV is on in the background and I have a notepad in front of me jotting things down. I'm not really paying attention to the TV, and not really thinking hard about what's on the notepad. Something about that brain state results in a kind of tuned-down, out-of-focus blue-sky thinking that occasionally causes gold to flow out of you, and if you pay just enough attention you can catch hold of a handful of it and then get to work shaping it into something. In other words, doing two things in a half-arsed fashion allows you do to a third thing - come up with ideas - amazingly well.

I don't have an explanation for this, except to suggest that perhaps something about watching TV keeps part of your brain sufficiently distracted that it stops editing out some other part of your brain which is responsible for your imagination. If it's true, it supports the idea that the brain is essentially modular and part of being successful is the quest to herd those different modules into behaving in the ways in which you want them to. It's as good an excuse I can come up with for watching Homes Under the Hammer repeats on the Home Channel at 9 o'clock at night.

Saturday 6 January 2018

Uesugi Saburo's Slavers

A band of desperate, stinking, uncouth killers who roam wild and rural places searching for children to kidnap and sell into servitude down south. They are largely cowards but that does not stop them slitting throats in the night or kicking the weak and frail to death for sport. They are led by the exile Uesugi Saburo, once the third heir of the great and ancient Uesugi clan, cast out from his family for his wayward behaviour and long since sunk into debasement.

There are 18 of his comrades in total; major NPCs are:

The Onmyouji of Mount Kintake. A tall, thin purported soothsayer and wizard who in fact has no magical prowess - but is expert in chicanery and bluff. He wears a baggy purple kimono which conceals his many tricks and gadgets.

4th level Specialist, 16 hp, AC 12, AB +1, Weapons: Short sword (d6)
*Carries the following special equipment:
-6x smoke bomb (can be thrown after being set alight; explodes to cause a cloud of dense smoke of 6' radius to appear, lasting 6 turns and blocking the line of sight)
-6x gas bomb (as with the smoke bomb, but emits noxious gas that causes effects as a stinking cloud and does not block the line of sight)
-4x flash bangs (packages of powder concealed up the sleeves which can be produced with a flourish to cause loud bangs and bright flashes of light which deafen and daze anybody in a 6' arc in front of the Onmyouji who is not forewarned for d3 turns)
-4x "pharaoh's serpents" (a small package of white powder which, when lit and thrown on the floor, instantly produces a glowing "snake" of ash and billows of smoke which momentarily make it seem as though a large magical serpent has been summoned - until the onlooker realises it is not moving or otherwise inspects it closely)
-4x blazing batons (foot-long sticks coated in a chemical which burns intensely when lit and can be used to send signals, set light to flammable objects, or dazzle people [-4 to all dice rolls for d3 turns] by waving in front of their eyes from a distance of up to 12')

Little Kikuchio. A huge figure, thick and tall like a cedar, who wields a 5-foot long rice-pounding mallet in one hand like it is a fly swat. He speaks like one would imagine a tree to speak if it could: slow, deep, simple.

4th level Fighter, 32hp, AC 16 (cuirass and greaves), AB +5, Weapons: Rice-pounding mallet (1d12+4)
*His rice-pounding mallet cannot be wielded by anyone with a STR less than 16

Mame-san. A glum-looking man with an adolescent frame and wistful eyes whose disappointment with the world manifests itself in acts of extreme cruelty and violence.

4th level Specialist, 18hp, AC 14 (leather cuirass), AB +3, Weapons: Bow, knife
*He carries a copper amulet from an ancient Chinese kingdom, with the character for 'water' carved crudely into its surface; this allows the wearer to move instantly up or down a river up to a distance of 100 yards if he touches the water

The Lady. A failed maiko who has taken up with Saburo as his “crown consort”, though they are not officially married. She still wears the tattered regalia of a geisha, and often sings old songs she learned during her training – melancholy ditties about three things she rarely now enjoys: feasts, love, and beauty.

4th level Specialist, 15hp, AC 12, AB +2, Weapons: Naginata (1d6+2)
*She carries a pouch of makeup which, when worn, allow to her to make suggestions to any men who are attracted to women; these function as the spell and she can make a total of three to any one man

Uesugi Saburo. A tall man who was once handsome, but who wilderness exile has rendered thin, drawn, and unkempt. He has missing teeth and is balding, and his once fine aquiline nose is broken half way down. Nevertheless, he still carries his swords – ancient heirlooms which he polishes daily and loves more than anything else in the world.

5th level Fighter, 30hp, AC 18, AB +6, Weapons: Daishou (1d8 and 1d6)
*He carries a katana and wakizashi that were forged in the time of the Sengoku era by a master swordsmith and which he stole the night he was forced to leave his castle. When used together in daishou form the wielder suffers no penalty for fighting with two weapons because the swords are so well-balanced; the swords are also forged so finely that they can easily break or shatter lesser blades (there is a 1 in 6 chance an opponent in melee's weapon breaks each round of combat)

Ordinary members of the slaving band are 1st-level Fighters. Typical stats are as follows:

6hp, AC 16 (cuirass and greaves), AB +2, Weapons: Wakizashi or yari

Thursday 4 January 2018

On High Level Warriors, Gods, Mortals and More

I read The Iliad for the first time over the Christmas break (the Penguin Classics prose version, for those of you familiar with it). I was expecting something that was going to be interesting but turgid and difficult; I'm not sure why I had that impression, because it's actually a rip-roaring page-turner of a yarn and I bloody loved it. I suppose I shouldn't have been surprised - if something has been raved about for 2,500 years it's probably a pretty safe bet it's worth a read - but still, it's amazingly fresh, vivid and exciting even to the modern reader. 

I thought about D&D a lot while I was reading it, because I think the case can quite easily be made that The Iliad is the most D&D thing ever written other than D&D itself (or, vice versa, that D&D is the most Iliad thing ever written other than The Iliad itself, except obviously Mazes & Minotaurs?). What is Achilleus, other than a 20th-level fighter in comparison to the 1st-4th level Trojans he dispatches with ruthless ease? What are the Achaean invaders, if not murderhobos in search of booty, glory and XP at the expense of all else? How else can the behaviour of the protagonists be explained, other than that they are being controlled by the kind of wild uber-machismo that often overtakes groups of teenage D&D nerds?

I jest, obviously - the culture that produced The Iliad utterly fascinates me and the beautiful complexity and dark brilliance of the narrative is done a hideous injustice by comparing it to a mere RPG, but still, bear with me. Four thoughts emerge:

1) I'm serious about the levels thing. Hektor, Paris, Achilleus, Agamemnon, Menelaos, Aias and so on make perfect sense when thought of as higher level warriors; they are more-or-less impervious to harm from ordinary mortals in only the way that a 9th+ level warrior facing 1 HD monsters can be. I'm surprised, indeed, that more has never been made of the depictions of high level fighters in D&D materials. A 12th-level fighter should be practically a demi-god, shrouded in mighty armour and bristling with magical weapons, like the member of a race of superheroes descended from Krypton, inspiring awe-like worship in his followers and utter terror in his enemies. In The Iliad, Hektor and Achilleus are forces of nature, able to sway a battle one way or the other with their mere presence and the effect it has on their enemies. D&D writers have never been ambitious enough in their descriptions of what being a high-level fighter entails - possibly because of a misplaced desire for realism when they should be dialing things up to 11. 

2) Gods in The Iliad have three different modes: squabbling together in Olympus, descending to earth to interact with humans (from shooting them with arrows like Apollo to guiding them around like Hermes), and, most interestingly and strangely, acting to possess them like Biblical evil spirits: Terror, Panic, Strife, and other emotions are not in fact mere emotions at all but actual persons, who stalk among men and infect them when the time is right - or at the behest of other gods. Clerical magic not as protective/healing spells, then, but rather as the ability to summon personified emotions to possess one's enemies or friends. Imagine if your cleric, instead of being a walking CLW factory, instead was able to call upon the god Panic to walk among that tribe of orcs bothering you and spread his power through them. The cleric as invoker and summoner of raw and terrible emotion. 

3) For all that the culture of Homer's Iliad is alien to the modern reader - harsh, violent, obsessed with honour, despising weakness, glorying in death - it is a very human text: it is emotions (pride, anger, love, hate, friendship, desire) which dominate and drive the narrative, not reason. The characters routinely ignore good advice when it is given, let stubbornness get the better of them time and again, and never, ever stop to think things through. Their passions overwhelm them in a way that is both exaggerated and also very true to how people actually run their lives.

What I find most interesting about the humans in the Iliad is that, for them, death is just something that happens. It was all around them: battle, disease, starvation, wild animals, floods, storms. One's own mortality was lurking nearby waiting to confront one at any given moment. Yet this did not lead these people to live their life like frightened rabbits hiding down holes, scared of danger. Quite the opposite: they threw themselves into their own lives, and deaths, with gay abandon, hunting their own mortality down, grabbing it by the neck, and throttling it.

In other words, it depicts humans as all passionate, over-emotional, and carefree - almost careless - with their own lives. Mortality doesn't breed fear; it breeds a devil-may-care perspective on physical danger.

The elf stands as counterpoint to this. If you were immortal, you would treat your life like a precious piece of porcelain and swathe it in yards of cotton, because death would mean missing out on thousands, nay, millions of years of experiences - you would want more than anything to be still around in a billion years' time to see how it all turns out. You would also, being jaded by age and the feeling of having seen everything before, probably view emotions with a heavy dose of skepticism. Why let temporary feelings perturb your carefully-worked out plans, your painstakingly-created work of art, your eons-long ponderings on the nature of your own navel?

4) Everything is Ancient Greeks. I knew that there was a longstanding legend, rumour or piece of propaganda which held that Britain was colonized by refugees from Troy. But, in reading around The Iliad, I also learned that the invading army of Achaeans mostly never made it home but were instead rumoured to have spread around Europe and founded its various civilizations. So you have this strange alternative history presented in which the conflict results in the emigration of Greeks and Trojans to all the far-flung corners of the known world, bringing with them the seeds of their culture and inevitably, one supposes, clashing with the locals. I can't be the only person who immediately starts thinking of campaign ideas: Achaean warriors ending up in ancient China or Japan, anyone? Trojan refugees in aboriginal Australia - no takers? Odysseus ends up sailing over the ocean and finds himself in pre-Maya Mexico, perchance?