Sunday, 15 November 2009

ave morituri

Inspired by the discussion between Ideamancer and Wyatt at Spirits of Eden about setting up a 4E PVP game following NewbieDM's post about a breakout of 4E PVP play.  Gladiators are a staple of the Dark Sun setting and Thyatis in D&D so it seems a logical setting for such activity.  I've been in a number of games that have used the arena as a backdrop and even run a couple.  The setup makes for a different take on the more traditional warrior-as-soldier.

Gladiatorial combat is a staple of some civilisations, their origin in Etruscan times (from Greek games or Celtic contests) as a funerary honour.  Those chosen to die in combat wore armour taken in battle against warriors from Samnium, creating a tradition of naming some armoured gladiators samnites.  This led to a form of historic/mythical reenactment and promoting Etruscan and Roman superiority over foreigners.  The contests (munera) to honour the dead were lavish if private affairs leading to gestures of public generosity.

From such roots sprang the spectacle of Roman games (ludi).  Gladiators fought each other, captured beasts and condemned criminals in contests based on famous wars and mythic struggles.  Julius Caesar forged them into a political weapon.  With the rise of empire, munera entered decline with Spartacus' rebellion, the Senate limited the number of gladiators owned by an individual to stop private armies forming and anti-corruption laws proved increasingly ineffectual.

The ludus became a political tool, Augustus formalised them as civic duty and limited private sponsorship of munera, relegating them to ludi at Saturnalia and Quinquatria.  State-sponsored ludi grew with the remit of the Imperial cult into extravagant spectacles.  Commodus, Claudius, Caracalla and others used ludi to exhibit martial prowess, a scandalous act as gladiators were often criminals or slaves, tattooed or branded on the face or hands (these were called stigmata) to show their status.

The lanista, who managed a gladiator school was seen by Romans as little more than an overpriced pimp and sometimes sold gladiators for that purpose. Private owners of wealth or standing (munerator or editor) had no such stigma.  Owners had the power of life or death over their gladiators and put them through gruelling training in stratified groups based on chosen tactics and criminal status.  Access to massage and medicine as well as a quality diet was noted. Galen, a noted physician gained experience at a school in Pergamum.

A gladiatorial game need not just feature combat.  A life in the arena campaign could feature intrigue as well as politics and a reason for exotic race and characters to associate.  While the use of magics would need to be considered (people hurling fireballs in the arena may be a problem), flashy effects are part of the spectacle of a Romanesque ludus.  The arena is a convenient place of execution, strange beasts may appear and there is the possibility of fame, freedom and betting on the outcome.

What more could you ask for?

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