Some older roleplaying books seem to exist purely to save their readers a trip to the library. Age of Heroes is about 75% one of those, quite clearly condensing a bunch of books about Greek history and culture into one slim volume. And you know what? That aspect of the book is pretty great.
If the historical sections of Age of Heroes were a new campaign setting, they'd hit pretty much the exact right level of detail for roleplaying. There are sections about fashion, trade, laws, and religion that don't begin to do justice to the complex and fascinating culture of classical Greece, but also don't overstay their welcome, and give you just enough detail to sketch out a backdrop to an adventure. Reading this book does not feel like homework.
It even does something that I wish ALL rpg settings would do - it walks us through the typical day of a well-off Athenian. From gossip in the barber shop during the morning to watching the ships getting built after lunch to working out at the gymnasium in the evening, it brings the city to life in a way I rarely see in any rpg material. It's actually kind of distressing to see what should be setting-guide best practices in a book from 1994 and realize that almost nothing in the subsequent years has followed its lead.
Then again, Age of Heroes may be cheating, having real history to work from. Still, the "day in the life" stuff is something I'm going to take pains to incorporate into my own worldbuilding from now on.
Where Age of Heroes doesn't really work is its AD&D material. It tries to give options for both historical and fantasy games, but it never quite manages to break free of certain vanilla AD&D assumptions, so you've got things like the suggestion that players stick to upper class Greeks, because characters like freed slaves wouldn't have the money to outfit themselves with equipment - you know, because character classes are jobs and only certain people can afford to be fighters. What it really needs is a frank discussion of things like "theme" and "genre," but D&D discourse wasn't really there yet, and fantastic Greece, especially, suffered for it.
Though funnily enough, it was in the course of the book once again being a total pill about AD&D rules that it accidentally pitched one of the best campaign ideas I've ever seen. To set the scene - it's explaining a chart that contains monsters from the first couple of Monster's Compendiums that you should not use in a Greek campaign, and then it offhandedly throws this out:
[A] Companion on a fantasy campaign with Alexander the Great might find himself facing a rakshasa who takes poorly to the notion of Alexander's legions conquering India.Excuse me, what? You're just going to toss this out there to explain why your "forbidden encounters" aren't always forbidden, and you're never going to mention it again? You had the idea that Alexander of Macedon maintained a crack squad of monster hunters who traveled alongside his armies to face off against each region's native supernatural creatures as he conquered his way across half of Eurasia, and then you didn't develop that into a series of fantasy novels that got optioned into the mid-2010s most popular prestige drama? It's infuriating, that I can't buy a campaign guide that is basically just that.
I think in 1994, Age of Heroes was as close as AD&D got to an A+ book, and if it's less useful now, then it's still pretty concise and accessible, and there are worse places to start when building your Greece-inspired rpg.
Ukss Contribution: Aw man, this one is tough because the best stuff in this book is the real history. The fantasy stuff I know has the potential to be cool, but generally it's not used in a very cool way here.
Fuck it. Sparta. I'm going to encounter a lot of fantasy civilizations that will try to be "Sparta with X," so I might as well nip those in the bud and just put in the real thing. Maybe if I do that, I can control the narrative and show what a hateful, cruel, and hypocritical place it really was.