Welcome back to the Zurn blog! This week we are continuing the #Rethinking series by looking at gladiators: warriors that fight in an arena (or other setting) for the amusement of the crowd and the honor (and wealth) of their patrons.
Movies, tv shows, and books have been made about gladiators, and the result is that the use of a gladiator in concept seems cool in a roleplay game. The issue, though, is how you maintain variety and interest instead of the campaign devolving into, "Fight to the death, then another fight to the death, then another fight to the death."
This post is designed to help you rethink gladiators to add variety, interest, and color to your arena fights. We will begin, as we always do, by looking at history and literature to get a feel for what a gladiator actually is, and then we will give you a host of ideas for how to make your gladiators more unique and engaging.
I. What Is a Gladiator?
So, to start off, there are few tropes as misrepresented as gladiators. So many things that we assume are not true historically, and while doing the research on this topic I found myself challenging a lot of longstanding thoughts I'd had on the topic (and a huge part of what inspired me to design a whole campaign around gladiators). The information I'm using to write this draws heavily on the records we have from Capua (the cultural center of gladiatorial matches in Ancient Rome) and historians of the time, and the nature of the sport is nothing short of fascinating.
To begin our understanding of gladiators, it is true that most gladiators were slaves. This makes sense because who else would fight to the death willingly? We'll address that assertion next, but it's worth noting upfront that not all gladiators were slaves: some freemen willingly fought in the arena because upward mobility was rare in Ancient Rome, and a fight in the arena was a quick (albeit not easy) way to win money and fame.
Second, most fights were not to the death. The vast majority of gladiator records show that the fighter lost multiple fights, and in a minority of cases did a combatant die. And this makes sense: in pro fighting sports today deaths are rare, and for good reason: if a popular fighter dies, people may lose interest in the sport. Most deaths were tied to capital punishment matches, where one man was fighting for their life before the law against a paid fighter representing the state.
There were also female gladiators, referred to in Capua as "gladiatrix," and these were either slaves or free women who wanted money and fame as well. They often only fought other women, but since they are not seen in most literature, know that in Capua (the heart of gladiator fighting) there were female gladiators. How common it was beyond Capua we don't know, but it definitely existed.
Fourth, there were classes of gladiators that determined who they would fight. Various classes of gladiators existed, often depicting warriors from various cultures of the Empire, and their strengths and weaknesses determined who they would fight. The Metatron has a great video on this so I won't go into detail on the classes, but suffice it to say, this works really well within the context of a roleplay game.
Fifth, gladiator slaves could win their freedom, but this did not mean that they were done fighting. Some willingly returned to the arena because, as noted above, upward mobility was rare. This meant that if a former gladiator wanted to gain some wealth or notoriety, they would return to the arena. These were typically not to the death, as the gladiator was a celebrity of his day, and who wants to kill a celebrity?
Sixth, most matches were pairs of fighters, but there were mock battles as well. This could include rare animals or groups of men, with the latter being more common. And this is good news, as we typically have more than one player in a gaming group, and we don't want most of our players sitting around doing nothing.
And finally, gladiator matches were marketing events. Gladiators had patrons and supporters, but it also meant a large gathering of the people were present and not going anywhere. So it was not uncommon to see merchants peddling goods and making money off of the captive audience.
So with all of this in mind, let's talk about how we rethink gladiators.
II. Rethinking Gladiators
First things first, if you want to run a "no magic campaign" this is a great way to set the scene naturally. If the players are playing slaves, what is the #1 thing you don't want your slaves to have? Magic. Magic complicates all kinds of things and gives a weak person with nothing a better chance at escape or challenging the master, so it would make sense that the top priority with any new slave would be breaking them of their magical connection. So if you want a different play experience, you could consider a no magic campaign centered around gladiator fighting.
Additionally, have the players choose a "class" for their gladiator, granting them added abilities and assigning them starting gear consistent with that choice. You can let them expand (change weapons and the like) to fit the style of the character, but give them different abilities or bonuses because they take one class over another. This will help the characters not seem like they are all the same (especially since their fighting styles will be relatively similar).
Pit your party against both male and female gladiators. Did the party break the law and receive a capital punishment sentence? Pit them against a group of female warriors who are tasked with killing them, as the gender adds an extra level of complexity for the good-aligned characters in your group.
Change the stakes of your fights. Not all of them should be to the death - perhaps a loss will result in being barred from fighting in a tournament (and thus making less money, delaying the time of release from slavery and reducing their fame), or the loss of a wealthy patron (thus reducing access to good medical care, high-end armor and weapons, etc.). The stakes don't always need to be "life or death": they could be more subtle, and thus more impacting.
You can use magical wards that prevent death/dying results in the arena, with an incapacitated combatant being automatically vanquished. This allows PCs and NPCs to swing with all they have and not worry about accidentally killing someone, but it also shows the supremacy and power of the masters: they hold your life in their hands, and you survive by their good graces. Don't neglect the impact of this: it's a power move, even if it insures that the player characters live.
You should also think through what causes a gladiator society to exist, as this will determine a lot of what you need in the gladiator matches. Is it a society centered around blood and gore? If so, death may be more common. Do the people love brawny displays, with more care given to presentation and display of nice bodies rather than violence? If so, high-Charm characters might actually do better than strong fighters.
Is it more of a strategic game, like chess but with people, instead of physical brawls? Similarly, what if the gladiators of a culture are "Battling Bards" rather than warriors? Who says gladiators have to be martial? You could build a culture where the use of wits or words is the battling that the people enjoy, and turn gladiator matches into riddle games or dance-offs, depending on what works best for your gaming group.
Gladiator matches are designed to keep the blood pumping, so keep in mind that energy is critical to a good gladiator match. If it's not exciting, challenging, or memorable you are doing it wrong. So if you are doing a single one-off encounter gladiator fight, you can do what you want, but if you intend to do more than one fight or spend an extended amount of time with gladiators, use variety. Your players will thank you for it.
Until next time,