Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Dungeons and Dragons and . . . Gladiators

With 4e, my long simmering idea to run a gladiator campaign has re-emerged. Not in anything approaching full force, mind you; the tropes of classic heroic adventure and sandbox-y wilderness exploration sing their own siren songs.

But ever since I read Dragon #303 (the only issue of Dragon I have ever owned, though now I'm not sure now where it is) I've thought that having an entire campaign revolve around the gladiatorial arena was a pretty neat idea. I put it aside in favor of other things, but what's got me thinking about it again is that I think 4e would be a much better fit for it than 3e.

Having just one fight per day wouldn't massively skew the power curve or the XP system; I'd just have to take into account that the players would pretty much be able to use all their dailies, if they wanted to, and make the fights a little tougher than usual. And the game seems geared towards big, set-piece battles, so I can use lots of monsters and throw in lots of gimmicks and I'd have a lot of support from the books on how to do that. It's also an excuse to use mechanically interesting but plainly bizarre monster combinations.

If I was going to do this, I'd make the party a team of gladiators, and the setting would revolve around them and other teams fighting monsters and occasionally each other. Put together a tournament system, some kind of rankings they could work up in, and probably use an actual, numerical system so the players have something to keep track of. Then add in enough behind the scene schemes within their stable and between stables to keep things interesting outside the fights, and to make ways to make the fights meaningful. Rivalries, bets and so on; maybe the start out in some small town, outskirts ring and have to work their way up to the big leagues, maybe there's an emperor who they can impress by pulling stunts and doing daring deeds in the ring, or particular kinds of daring deeds.

I'm still considering whether they'd be slaves or whether gladiatoring (gladiateering?) is legitimate employment. To a certain degree it depends on the death rate, and how final death is. I'm kind of leaning towards the former, based on its potential to generate subplots, but figuring out why they're crazy enough to want to be doing this could be interesting in itself. The free-agent model would also work better with mixing the idea with some urban adventuring/mystery solving.

There's a lot more I could do with this, but right now I haven't figured out where it ranks in the ever-shifting pantheon of games I want to run. I really badly want to do a straight up, 1st-30th sword&sorcery-ish exploration game, but I doubt that's particularly realistic. I'm also not sure which one I'd get more players for, as I don't yet have a solid college group, and might need to do some recruiting.


  1. Some thoughts:

    1) If you haven't done so, read Planet Hulk.

    2) Is there any reason that you'd have to limit it to one fight a day? There could easily be series of bouts. Also, there should be opportunities for combat (and noncombat challenges, of course) outside the arena. I can even see training involving lots of "traps" and such.

  2. I've run games where some or all of the PCs were slaves. It really doesn't preclude urban adventures or intrigue when you remember that the slaves don't need to spend every waking hour under lock-and-key, assuming they've come to accept their lot in life to some extent. In ancient Rome, folks sent their slaves out on errands all the time, without supervision, confident that the slaves would return home. After all, without any money, where were they going to go? If they did head out on the open road, the most likely result would be enslavement again by someone else, and life might not be as good where ever they ended up. Also, punishment for fleeing could be extremely harsh.

    And since we're talking about the sort of fantasy world where the powers-that-be can capture manticores and kuo-toa and the gods alone know what else to pit against their gladiators, there might be magical means to keep the gladiators on a leash long enough to let them get into some fun trouble.

    - Brian

  3. A resounding "why didn't I think of that?" on all counts. Particularly the multiple fights per day thing . . . chalk it up to some kind of weird half-remembered residue from the original Dragon article.

    I've got to get to the library. I used to be really into ancient Rome as a kid, and there's probably all kinds of cool detail to snag.

  4. Just had a thought on this topic:

    Depending on how "out there" you want to go, you could base the game in the City of Brass. The efreet are something like 20th level foes, which means they don't need to fret about even heavily armed 10th level characters running about, they have the strength and power to toss all sorts of interesting monsters into the arena to pit against the PCs, and they'd seem the sorts to enjoy that kind of spectacle. The City of Brass isn't the sort of place you can easily escape from, being adrift in the Elemental Chaos, but is brimming with all sorts of intrigue the PCs can get mixed up in.

    The big negative is that it's usually assumed to have a Middle Eastern flavor, as opposed to the Roman one you seem to be aiming for. But since it's your City of Brass in your campaign, that's easily fixed.

    - Brian

  5. Ooh, yeah, I like that. Hrm . . . I could definitely see drawing from a mix of ancient civs. Because, after all, this is D&D.