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Thoughts on Aria: Canticle of the Monomyth and Collaborative World-Building.

Aria: Canticle of the Monomyth is the notorious Fantasy Role Playing Game (with a unique emphasis on the fantasy) published by Last Unicorn Games in 1994. It was designed by Christian Scott Moore and Owen M Sayler. It was comprised of two books, Aria: Roleplaying and Aria:Worlds, which comprised the RPG rules and the world design systems specifically. It was printed as two softcover perfect bound books with some great art, including a favorite artist of mine, Janet Aulisio. It name checks and draws heavily upon the works of Joseph Campbell and James Joyce and the idea of the Monomyth and the Heroes Journey. So what it’s about?

From the Back Cover Blurb":

Aria  is designed to function on several levels; during the course of a single-game, players can assume the roles of individual personae, persona lineages, or even whole societies; all such interaction is directed towards the development not only a personae, but also entire cultures and worlds. As an integral part of the game, Aria players weave together mythic, historical, and personal time into one great tapestry of life — a living history beginning with the first game session. Creating this vision of the Monomyth where heroes and villains clash in a world as well-developed and as  rich in character as its mightiest inhabitants, aria players engage in the pageant of mythmaking, the evocation of numinous  symbols summoned from the collective imaginations of the entire gaming group.

From the “Prelude to Aria” introduction.

“Welcome to Aria: Canticle of the Monomyth! Aria is a sophisticated environment oriented fantasy role-playing game of politics, cultural interaction, and subtlety. It is a game dedicated to playable realism on epic scale. The cornerstone of this philosophy is a concept we like to call meta-design. Meta-design is design or creation, from within, and serves as the principal guiding force behind most of the procedures found in aria. The results of are both uniquely fulfilling and consistently original.

Legends and stories created in Aria affect the societies and cultures in which they occur, allowing them to eventually assume the mantle of mythic history. This theme of mythmaking and creation permeates the game. Both scenarios and personas to and operate on epic scale, often challenging the social and clinical institutions of their environments. Personas are heroic visitors within a living history, made all the more real because their players have created this history themselves.

Well that’s a mouthful. So meta-design they are talking about creating settings, cultures, races, vocations/professions, magic and religious systems. That is, Design As Play is a major element of Aria. It also includes an emphasis on the group collaborating to do this design (though it is abashed and still reserves most of it to the ‘Mythguide’ the GM in this case, though is role is more of a Guide than a master. The term Guide as used in my system (Play Guide, Game Guide, Rules Guide, Setting Guide, and Narrative Guide) is adapted from this.

To reiterate, Aria presents a detailed toolkit with which players create their own richly detailed fantasy world, a communal fantasy, of which they tell the stories of its heroes. That was an ‘OMG awesome” revelation to me when I first read the book. However, the game sold poorly because it was poorly organized and ridiculously over-written. There are endless terms and concepts without much in the way of connective tissue to develop a broad picture of what’s going on. Thus, most people didn’t bother and the game was a commercial failure. Though there are still copies floating around if you want to farm it for its great ideas.

Lets get back to those ideas. From the section Aria Concepts we have



From the aria concepts section:

“Aria Narratives are an ongoing exploration of the eternal ‘Hero’s Journey”, its possible incarnations, and its relation to diverse and original social and cultural forms.”  So ultimately Aria is a vehicle for shared mythmaking and communal fantasy among a group.  One interesting bit is that characters are all loosley coupled in the game, with the feeling that they belong to ‘myth and legend, destiny and fate’, rather than any on player, which is supported by the higher levels of play.

So there are 3 key concepts to this Mythmaking, MetaDesign, Playable Realism, and Myth Creation.


MetaDesign in the text refers to the many design subsystems which the ‘Ensemble’ or troupe of players use to create the details of the world. Its settings, cultures, races, societies, magic and religious systems.  The use of Heritage Templates, that define particular cultures, races and species of the game world, or narrative environment are a major element of this. By creating peoples richly tied to their custom setting, the players are immersed in the game world at a deep level


The idea of Playable Realism permeates the Aria Game System. Playable Realism can be subdivided into 3 parts, *Detail*, *Possibiility*, and *Believability*.

    • DETAIL
      • “The creation guidelines for both persona and narrative environments are extremely detailed. Yet the mechanics governing them are fairly simple.” – Or so the text attests. The idea being that simplicity of individual mechanics make play fairly smooth. Except no effort is made in the text to present the rules in an easy to learn way. (true of the entire text, it must be studied and transmuted to be grokked.)
      • From the book“The detail inherent in Arias realistic nature creates unlimited possibility as well. It also stresses one of the most important elements of Fantasy roleplaying – Suspension of Disbelief. This occurs by giving The players abundant background color and narrative explanation. Working from this knowledge the believability of the roleplaying experience is enhanced.” Here is an area where the text’s abashedness in applying collaborative design and shared authority holds it back, beyond the overly densely written poorly organized rules that is.  One extension of the Detail and possibilities is that the characters in Aria are at the other end of the scale from Murder Hoboes, rather than floating about in a half realized generic setting, murdering and wandering, Aria characters spring fully formed from their native culture and society, and exist within and influence a real world. It posits a persistent world of deep detail.


      • “Aria is principally a game of epic narrative interaction and mythmaking.” This means that Aria focuses on long time scales, and what I call in O:CotEC, Grand Narrative. The idea is that we zoom out to not just on individuals, but organizations, family, societies, etc.  This falls into Aria’s Interactive History. More recent games that utilize the idea of Interactive history are Microscope (Which I am gonna shamelessly rip off for bits of O:CotEC) As well Ars Magica in its evolution of a Coven through seasons, and in a much stronger way, Iron Empires, which is adapation of Burning Wheel. It takes the Grand Narrative concept up to the next level. This is fertile design space for new games. Particularly those that aren’t afraid to dip into a bit of Board Game mini-game elements.
      • One of the coolest ideas in handling Grand Narratives and maintaining roleplaying interest in “Interactive Histories” are the three options of *Perpetual Genealogies*, a fated family who figures throughout the history of a particular society or culture, Individual Appearances, in which an incarnation of an ‘archetypal figure’ is played through events within the interactive history, finally there is the “Eternal Presence” in which a god, immortal or other character is able to interact with a culture throughout history (think Gandalf, The Comte St. Germain, Aslan, etc). So some very cool ideas.

So that’s a very brief overview of Aria’s high points(The main rulebook is 285 pages, of which half is the very detailed persona creation rules, the rest a very detailed combat and resolution system, and GMing advice.)  I wil do another post looking at more details of Aria’s character creation and interactive histories. And then I will do an in depth review of the very cool Aria Worlds book, which I will be ripping off several bits of for O:CotEC

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