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Reviews - Gladiator: Sands of Death
 
by Matthew Pook


Gladiator: Sands
of Death coverMongoose Publishing, not a company content to rest upon its laurels, continues to widen the range of d20 System sourcebooks it publishes. These have included examinations of hobgoblins, gnolls, centaurs and troglodytes in their Slayer's Guides, and demonology and necrology in the Encyclopaedia Arcana series. The first of a new range of sourcebooks is Gladiator - Sands of Death.

As the title suggests, Gladiator is an examination of gladiatorial combat, the spectacle in the arena before the masses baying for blood. But where previous books on this subject have dwelled upon the arenas of ancient Rome for their primary source and inspiration, Mongoose Publishing have gone a step further to bring the arena into a world of fantasy, swords and sorcery.

Matthew Sprange's 80-page sourcebook is not quite up to the standard of presentation set by previous Mongoose releases. This is not to say that it is as bad as many other d20 System titles which I have had the dubious pleasure of reading. However, there are textual errors in Gladiator - Sands of Death which one hopes would be corrected in future reprintings. This gives the book a rushed feel, which somewhat lets it down. The standard of art is in general below par; some is rather good, but the majority is either scratchy or ill proportioned, if not both.

Clearly inspired by such films as Ridley Scott's Gladiator and the swords and sandals epics of Dino de Laurentiis, Gladiator - Sands of Death explores the arena from the lowly pit fight to those that dwarf the coliseum of ancient Rome. Details are given for everything from single one-on-one bouts to mass combats, with beast fights and chariots thrown in along the way. The gladiator himself is described as well, from the first time he steps into the arena until the time his prowess and skills command the adulation of the masses. Besides all that, the book also includes rules for a d20 compatible game, Sands of Death, in which the players each run their own stable of gladiators.

The book is broken into three parts. The first of these is "Arenas & Campaigns," which opens with an overview of the arena, and the relationship that other races have with it. For the most part, the arena is the domain of humanity, as most other surface dwelling races find its constant display of death and bloodletting to be highly distasteful. Notable exceptions to this include the orcs, the drow and other races of the underdark who all embrace their own form of the arena.

Seven examples are given for the various types of arena. These start out with the lowly and illegal pit fight situated below an isolated tavern, The Strutting Wench -- though it seems such a waste to illustrate the establishment with a full page's worth of art. The book goes on to describe orc cavern arenas, the provincial town circus, the city arena and finally the grand arena. The examples are ready to work into a campaign, and while some are illustrated, it would be nice if some form of a map had accompanied each of them. The smaller arenas are suited to extended encounters, while the larger can become the major feature of an actual campaign or even the central focus of a campaign itself.

In the second section, "Gladiatorial Combat" gets down to the nitty-gritty. You would think that the arena was purely suited to the fighter and similar classes, but the book suggests otherwise, giving reasons why and how spell-casting classes can be introduced. Yet central to the book is a straight gladiator-only game, and to this end, we are presented with four new classes. The first is the Slave class, which can also be heavily used outside of this book in other settings and campaigns. Designed as an NPC class, it can be used as a starting class for player characters before they go on to something more proficient and suitable for the arena. In the gladiatorial campaign, the three new classes are the Gladiator Champion, the Beast Handler and the Charioteer. Supporting each of these are several new character feats, all suited to arena fighting. Thus you have Armour Penetration, Death Move (for delivering that coupe-de-grace in particularly flashy way), and Taunt for driving an opponent into a rage.

All sorts of matches are discussed: their nature, set-up, weapons and armour, as well as how to run them under the Sands of Death rules. There is even discussion of beast fights and mages in the arena. Unfortunately, the book gets a little repetitive when it covers how to run each of the match types with the Sands of Death rules; much of the section could have been reworded or even cut. The rules for fame, mercy and the crowd given here are clear and simple. As a gladiator gains fame, his notoriety and entry into the arena can be enough to drive the crowd wild and strike fear into an opponent.

Likewise, the rules for chariots and racing are also simple, but their use in play might have been made easier had Mongoose included a sheet of counters to copy and cut out (perhaps this is something that could be included as a download at their web site?). Though any character can participate in these races, it is the Charioteer character class that has the natural advantage. This section includes a list of a few new weapons, and also outlines dirty tricks that combatants might want to pull on each other.

The third and final section is "Sands of Death." Players take the part of a stable master and are given a budget to buy, train and run their own gladiators. The rules as presented can be played as an abstract campaign, including the actual combats. Alternatively, the d20 System rules on combat can be used to work out each fight. Going one step further, these rules can actually be used as a framework around which to run a whole gladiatorial campaign.

Gladiator can be quite useful for a campaign into which the referee wants to inject the spectacle of the arena, but to get the fullest use of this book, the referee will need to run a full gladiatorial campaign. Such a campaign would provide plenty of opportunity for combat, roleplaying and intrigue, but this is not a campaign with long-term or repeat appeal. One aspect that the author has carried off rather well is moving the focus away from the games entirely being the province of the fighter class. Of course, each of the three new classes the book offers is combat oriented. But the point of being a gladiator is to fight in a manner that pleases the crowd, rather than slaughtering a horde of orcs.

Gladiator - Sands of Death is not just useful by itself, but is a potential complement to a number of different settings. This can be as simple as the pit fighting to be found in the Old World of Hogshead's Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, if not the ancient arenas to be found in Tilea. For D&D3e, Paradigm Press' setting of Arcanis: the World of Shattered Empires -- fully detailed in Codex Arcanis -- also contains gladiatorial arenas, as seen in the scenario, The Bloody Sands of Sicaris, the first part of The Coryani Chronicles. Fans of AD&D Second Edition may like to dig out their copies of the old Glory of Rome supplement.

Priced at $16.95, Gladiator - Sands of Death is a little too expensive -- unless you need a book on gladiators and the arena. If this is the case, then Gladiator provides everything you would want as a starting point and a little more.


 

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