One of the most iconic image of ancient Rome is the Colosseum, and the spectacle of the games has left a mark on our culture, from modern sporting events to movies like Gladiator. While most campaigns in D&D focus around the idea of a group of epic heroes fighting against a great evil, it might be a nice change of pace to have the characters participate in arena games. But how do you make players that are used to behaving like adventurers behave like sports stars instead? In this article, we will look at a method to tackle this problem by incorporating the DramaSystem into D&D.
Sports Celebrity Heroes
The focus of stories centered on any sort of sporting event is typically the drama between the major players. They typically involve underdog characters who win against all the odds. There are tons of movies you can pull inspiration from, such as Gladiator, Major League, Creed, and even The Waterboy. In all of these movies, the characters’ personal struggles with each other and overcoming them are just as central to the story as winning the game.
So when it comes to the sport combat elements of the story, D&D provides an excellent system for handling them. The structure of 5th edition is especially good at simulating various forms of combat. Each arena event is just a series of encounters, and between matches the players can typically take a short rest. In ancient Rome, the games became fairly involved, with ship battles, chariot races, wild animal fights, etc. So you will never lack for fun ideas to include in the games.
But once you’ve dealt with the combat elements of the story, how do you make the players’ interpersonal drama as much a part of the campaign? One interesting solution is to merge the DramaSystem RPG rules with D&D.
The DramaSystem is an open license game created by Robin D Laws. Used as is, it gives you a very good way to run games where the main conflict resolution system is based on drama instead of sword fights. In fact, the way DramaSystem handles physical conflicts can be described as a form of rock-paper-scissors. You can read the full OGL and Creative Commons rules for this game at the Pelgrane Press website, but in a nutshell, the gameplay can be described as thus: a player petitions for a scene between their character and another character (or two, three, etc). Most of the time, that will be between player characters, but if needed, the Game Master can take the role of an NPC that’s involved in the scene. Over the course of the game, the players earn Drama Tokens which they can spend to duck scenes, force themselves into other scenes, or perform a variety of actions. I highly recommend reading the full rules at the link above to get a sense of the system and its many possibilities.
For a Gladiator campaign, the players will be part of a Gladiator team in whatever fantasy world you choose. When I originally came up with this idea, I wanted to use it for Goodman Games’ X-Crawl setting, but there are many other settings where the existence of Gladiators are appropriate. Keep in mind, because the players are on the same team, they (probably) won’t ever fight each other in the games.
During the campaign, the players’ lives exist in two parts: the games where the players fight for the amusement of the masses, and outside of the games where they are celebrities adored and reviled by those same masses. To keep the two parts separate, only money earned within the games can be used for equipment upgrades and supplies. Any money they earn outside of the games can be used for lifestyle expenses outside the games. During Roman times, Gladiators would often endorse products, and sell personal affects, such as bathing in olive oil, then scraping the mixture of sweat and oil off their bodies, which were then bottled for sale. It’s not difficult to imagine the ways a Gladiator can cash in their celebrity for wealth. Modern celebrities can provide plenty of examples.
To represent this balance between the two worlds, I recommend having two to three out-of-games sessions in between Gladiator events, the approach of which can cast a looming shadow over these sessions. The players can use these sessions to work on character arcs and/or personal projects.
When the Gladiator Game arrives, you switch into D&D mode and fight battles. You should do your best to provide your players with a variety of interesting encounters, since after all, these battles are meant to be mass-entertainment. Between battles, you can use the DramaSystem to call scenes, to insert moments of drama. In sports movie terms, these would be scenes where the players have a tense stand off in the showers, or have a heart-to-heart on the bench watching from the sidelines.
Players should create their characters using the DramaSystem first, as this gives players the basic outline of what sort of character they will create once they get to the D&D side of it. If you haven’t done so already, make sure you have the “Creating Characters” portion of the DramaSystem OGL open for reference.
Step 1 is the discussion I had you have with your players, about this being a Gladiator campaign. From then on, have the players follow the rest of the character creations steps. DramaSystem defaults to players being part of a bronze age tribe, but for this game, of course, replace that with “Gladiator Team.” This will establish the roles everybody has in the Team. One person may become the leader, or the sponsor of the team at this point. That’s fine, but make sure they are aware they will be fighting with the team in the arena.
After you finish DramaSystem character creation, you roll up characters in classic D&D style. However, instead of alignment, have the players write in their “Dramatic Pole.” Players should also pick background features that tie into the DramaSystem roles and pick corresponding Personality Traits and Flaws. Ideal should be replaced by their Dramatic Pole, and Bonds are replaced by the DramaSystem relationship maps.
The Games Begin
You are ready to go with your player focused Dramatic D&D game! One very solid benefit of this system is that most of the plot of the campaign will be player-created. The main work of the DM will be making up the encounters of the Gladiator Games, which can be created with anything. Do you have a small dungeon from a random adventure you like? Is it October and you feel like having the players fight werewolves and vampires? Want to have a ship battle with a flooded colosseum (which actually happened in Rome)? The more insane, the better! If there were two words that can describe the Gladiator Games, they were decadent and absurd.
The storylines outside of the games are mostly up to the players. As the DM, you can introduce NPCs, like a wealthy merchant looking for a Gladiator to hawk some product. You can introduce friction where one of the characters becomes immensely more popular than the rest. Perhaps rumors spread of a rivalry between teammates, or a forbidden love affair. Another classic trope of the sports-movie genre is the evil boss, from Commodus in Gladiator to Rachel Phelps in Major League. For those DMs like me, who are a very busy and don’t necessarily have the time to make up a home-brew campaign, this system is a great way to get your gaming group to hack ’n slash a dungeon while also roleplaying some fun character drama. May the odds be ever in your favor!