Mythulu isn’t a game, but it can be used by game designers or game masters. It’s also intended for novelists, songwriters, artists, or anyone who is trying to tap into their creative side.
The stated purpose of these cards is as follows:
The human brain is an imitation machine. We mimic to learn. If it works, we are rewarded with dopamine and our brain says, “do the same thing again.”
Creation, therefore, is rebellion. Invention requires sending an electric signal in your brain where neurons have never been—something our brains are explicitly NOT supposed to do. This is why creation is painful.
To speed up the process, MYTHULU provides the meaningful stimulus needed to escape your comfort zone.
While this might seem a wee bit overly dramatic, it is true that it’s not always easy for writers (or GMs) to create something new. Some of us end up going down clichéd paths trodden a thousand times before with only slight variations, or we try to do something so random it actually seems random, which makes the scenario harder to buy into.
I should point out that there is a distinction to be made between familiar and cliché. Having loyal soldiers working for the bad guys wearing bad ass looking uniforms is familiar. Making their armour white with big black lenses on the helmets is cliché. Especially if they never hit any of the good guys.
Inside the Box
The box itself is thick and sturdy cardboard, intentionally sized so that the top half doesn’t quite reach the bottom, giving it a stylish bi-level look. The cards come with app codes so that you can use Mythulu on your iOS/Android device as well. These cards are available just as a standalone app, for those who don’t want to bother with a physical deck. Heck, there’s a VR version using Tabletop Simulator on Steam!
There are 150 cards in the base core deck, Starter Pack A, and another 150 in Starter Pack B. The cards are thin, but sturdy, and glossy. The backs of the cards feature six different colours and symbols, denoting the six categories covered—Elements, Habitats, Characters, Relationships, Traits, and Textures. The “playing” side is borderless, covered from edge to edge in artwork, which is provided by a wide range of artists, but it all fits the mood-evoking theme of the set.
The text on the card indicates what archetype is being portrayed, some flavour text which might explain how it can be interpreted, and whether additional cards can be drawn.
Lastly, there is a folded-up instruction sheet, explaining how the cards work, and providing links to many useful resources.
Scanning the Rules
There are no hard and fast rules per se, but plenty of suggestions on how to draw the cards and in what variations. For example, a Character Arc might involve drawing one Character card for where they start, another for where they end, an Element card to see what the catalyst for change is, and a Relationship card for what stays constant about them throughout.
The instructions provide a number of drawing suggestions, but even these are kept flexible, allowing you to draw an additional Trait or Texture card to any of them. Ultimately the goal is for you to find your own way and understand the nature of each deck so well that you can instinctively pick what you need, when you need it. It’s not meant to replace your creative skill, but rather enhance it.
I know this might seem a bit wishy-washy, especially to those gamers who are all about the rules, but this truly is reflective of the creative process. It’s not a science. The drawing suggestions provided are like recipes, but every good cook knows when and how they can go off the recipe.
Rolling the Bones
When I described how to draw a Character Arc before, I literally drew the cards while writing it. In this case, my character starts off a hunter, becomes a healer, is changed through the passage of time, but is constant about balance (Yin/Yang card). Not bad, I can already see that as a cleric’s journey. Or perhaps a ranger who later changes class to cleric.
While the cards are drawn randomly, which types of cards are drawn are not. There is no point in drawing a Character card if you’re creating a normal disease, for example. And a heavy part of the process is interpretation. Not every mashup will be as obvious as the cleric I just drew. Some will require very loose connections to make things fit. Drawing “fire” as the symptom of a virus would more logically be described as a fever… but, of course, depending on your world, maybe the disease does cause spontaneous combustion?
To help you get a sense of how it’s done, your best bet is to check out the growing library of Mythulu video tutorials, which not only go over the basics, but explains some of the more difficult-to-interpret cards you might come across, what to do if you happen to draw them, and why the deck will not solve ALL your creative problems (nor should it).
In fact, even how you choose to lay your cards out on the table while drawing can be used as part of the process, to create a pyramid that establishes a setting, or a wheel of opposing values.
But wait, you might be saying, with all this interpretation stuff, doesn’t this sound a bit familiar? It seems a little bit like, I dunno, tarot cards, doesn’t it?
Why yes, it does. And I’m glad you brought that up, because I have a surprising secret to share…
Astrology, tarot cards, palm reading, rune stones, tea leaves, chicken bones…they all work.
All of them.
They just don’t work the way you think. They have zero predictive capabilities. They can’t divine the future, they can’t actually tell you anything about the universe. But what they can do is let you tell yourself something. Let your brain find and make connections, which, depending on how you’re using them, can be quite insightful. And Mythulu utilizes this pattern recognition in a similar way.
Others might ask how this differs from random d20 charts or throwing a dart at a board full of ideas, or the age-old “Plot Wheel” (often attributed to prolific authors like Edgar Wallace or Erie Gardner) and the answer is… not a lot, really. But also more than enough.
The main difference here is context. Most randomized creators are limited in scope. Just how many concepts can you fit on a dart board or wheel? With six different categories and a hundred and fifty cards, you have the makings for a much wider variety of possible outcomes. And one should never underestimate the impact the artwork will have as well. That’s something no d20 chart is going to provide.
Back to the Cards
So let’s start creating a simple adventure setting using these cards and see how it plays out…
First I need a location to start from. I draw cards to see what my setting will be: two Habitat (Mountain, Atlantis), two Traits (Beyonder, Awake), and two Textures (Woven, Vibrating).
For the Habitat, one might think that Mountain and Atlantis cards contradict each other, Atlantis being underwater and all, but in this case, I’m choosing to interpret Atlantis as a “lost” location. Nothing wrong with an underwater mountain, mind you, but lost works better for me because of the next cards.
The Beyonder Trait card refers to places unknown in this realm, and uneducated in the current location, such as rituals, cultures, and so on. The Awake card refers to the idea that it’s been pulled from sleep, or have achieved a higher state of consciousness. This former fits in nicely with the “lost” theme I latched onto earlier. Maybe this place isn’t just lost, but was disconnected from the world around it for a period of time, has been asleep for a thousand years, and finally waking up.
The Textures I drew, Woven and Vibrating, I think don’t describe the land, but the shell around it that kept it in seclusion all this time. A woven shell of energy that vibrates with a low hum. It has kept the mountainous world inside sealed and in stasis for eons.
After all that, I’m pretty sure I just found not the hero’s starting location, but the lair of the campaign’s villain—someone whose entire army of evil has been sealed off from the rest of the world for a thousand years. They’ve just awoken and are starting their campaign of destruction and conquest.
Having created this setting, my next question is what this bad guy’s lair is like. This resulted in something surprising. It seems that it was made by someone who wishes to make up for this unpardonable deed (Character: Stained Hands) and that the lair is made of a foul-smelling fungus that glows in the dark (Elements: Miasma, Fungus. Texture: Bioluminescence). Now, all of a sudden, that woven stasis bubble they were trapped in seems more like a cocoon. That right there changes my thoughts on what this evil horde even looks like, and why they exist.
In time honoured fantasy tradition, I’m gonna go with “A wizard did it,” only in this case he really regretted it afterwards, and is also the one who sealed them off. And though he is long dead, some remnant of that era remains, a tome, an amulet with a recording, who knows? Maybe I’ll use the cards to find out. Whatever it is, it will help guide the heroes to stopping whatever it is that lives in the fungus city on the hidden mountain…
The key to using these cards is not to let them dictate everything, just what you need them to. Since I’ve now got a good start here, I personally don’t feel like I need to use the cards to determine what lives in the fungus city… I figure they’re bug-like warriors initially bred/conjured to defend the land against some great threat but were ultimately corrupted. But if I wanted to add strange and unusual details about what this bug-culture is like, I probably would dip back into the cards for a few more random ideas.
Of course, not every reveal is going to work, especially if you’ve got a well-established world and are looking for something that will fit inside it. The trick is to remember to interpret the cards as broadly and loosely as you need to. Don’t be afraid to redraw if something doesn’t fit, but also don’t be afraid to take a difficult card that doesn’t seem to fit, and just run with it. It might take you somewhere surprising. Don’t be afraid to draw multiple cards to choose between, or perhaps to see if two ideas can intersect somehow to create something new.
But most importantly, don’t be afraid to play with the cards. This is why I chose to review it like a game. In a way, it plays out like a bizarre collectable card game, just without the score or winning conditions, and the hands being drawn in different combinations every time.
And like any game, the mechanics make a difference. You could achieve similar results with a number of d20 or d100 charts, sure, but rolling dice feels like cold probability and randomness, while drawing cards feels more like divination. Sometimes you have to allow for a bit of mental theatre to help the creative process.
Starter Pack A and B each contain150 cards within the six mentioned categories. Starter Pack B. The main difference between them is that Pack A contains character archetypes commonly used for major characters, while Pack B will contain more supporting character archetypes.
In the online version, Pack A will be free, with additional packs made available as in-app purchase, along with some additional categories that are online exclusives, such as Travel, Dialogue, and Love, and more in the future.
Sometimes being creative is hard. Sometimes the block is so bad that you can’t even get started, and other times it’s just one little detail that’s hanging you up and stopping progress on your campaign or character creation. While there are lots of tried and tested ways out there to get past a block, there’s no reason it can’t also be a bit fun and surprising as well. Even if you’re not having trouble creating, maybe you just want to do something a little bit unexpected and see where that takes you.
Mythulu fills a very specific niche for creators. But if you’re in that niche, I think it’s something you’ll find enjoyable and useful to have around.