Sunday, June 14, 2009

Blood on the Sand

" you like movies about gladiators?"
- Captain Oveur, Airplane!

I have to say that I am a huge fan of "Sword and Sandal," flicks...always have been.  And it's not just 'cause I think the Russel Crowe movie is great (though I did cheer when it won the Oscar for Best Picture), or 'cause Eric Bana is so righteous as Hector in Troy (booo! he should have gutted Brad Pitt!).  No, I've been watching blood on the sand films for a looooong time.

Even before I started playing D&D, I can recall watching some sort of gladiator movies on the TV.  Every Sunday (before and/or after going to Church), I'd flip through the (four or five) channels on my TV to find something with dudes dressed like Greeks or Romans or Israelites...I seem to recall watching Hercules and Samson movies, biblical stories being interchangeable with Greco-Roman myth.  In retrospect, these movies were probably filmed in Italy, dubbed in English, and featuring some Italian bodybuilder, a la Lou Ferrigno (just kidding...Lou was born in Brooklyn, folks...but someone like him).

And it's not just "gladiator" movies specifically. From the Sinbad movies to the Greek mythology to the 1001 Arabian Nights tales to the Arabian Knights cartoon...if it involves curvy swords, dry climates, turbans, flying carpets, and ivoried elephants then its MY type of fantasy.  From the Mediterranean to the Aegean Sea to the Middle East...I guess I prefer warm weather for my adventuring climate.

It may come as some surprise that I have never owned, borrowed, or read the Dark Sun campaign rules, nor any of it's supplementary material.  There are several reasons for this, not the least of which I wasn't play D&D (any version) in 1991 when the game was released. Another reason is that the setting of Athas and its history was eerily similar to the last D&D campaign in which I played prior to AD&D2...circa 1987 or so. 'Course we used half-ogres instead o half-giants.

Fact o the matter is, though, that while swords and sandals may play (as a D&D campaign), gladiatorial combat does least, not very effectively.  D&D combat is simply too abstract to represent the give-and-take, the ebbing of the crowd, and the spirit needed to triumph in man-to-man combat.  Hey, I've tried it before (Thyatis, anyone?)'s simply a no-go.  It's a real case of system DOES matter.  Of course, it's pretty hard to model the gladiator mood effectively in game play...I've purchased, downloaded, and attempted design of several gladiator-themed games, none with any satisfying results.

Thing is, there has to come a time when you step OUT of the arena...personal, individual glory only matters so much within a limited context.  If you're not out exploring the world (or a dungeon) or righting wrongs and saving folks...or conquering and carving out a kingdom...personal prowess in the ring is a shallow thing indeed.

But still, it calls to folks...and I think, in its way, D&D (especially the Old School variety) represents something of the gladiator in our game play.  Characters are still competing, still facing death, and still seeking the adulation of the crowd (in this case, the oo's and ahh's of fellow players, including the DM). The arena exists, in the form of the shared imaginary environment.  Survival and earning glory do not always go hand-in-hand, sometimes the choice comes down to one or the other.  But there is some drama in that, if you make room for it.

More on this later.

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