Gladiator: Sands of Death is one the books put out by Mongoose Publishing in their early days, when they were really trying to prove that a third-party publisher can produce quality work. As the title suggests, it’s about arena combat, gladiatorial bouts and chariot racing.
The book begins with a chapter that gives a look at what an arena is and how it works. The hierarchy from slave up to arena master is presented and described, as is the mob of spectators and the influence they can have on an arena fight. The book makes an effort to talk about how the various races view and interact with arenas, but I think in this it falls short of the mark and plays to Tolkienesq stereotypes. Near the end of the chapter, there’s a short discussion about using gladiatorial combat as an entire campaign, where the PCs play as slave gladiators throughout all their levels, trying to earn their freedom. I think this a good enough idea in theory, but since the book assumes that only warrior-type PCs will be gladiators and doesn’t make any allowances for magic equipment to be used, this might get a bit stale to the players after a while.
The chapter really makes up for its shortcomings when it details arenas of every size and type, all the way from a pit dug in the basement of a seedy tavern to a grand and fantastic arena that would put the real-life Flavian Amphitheater to shame. What’s better, it gives a detailed example for each category of arena, which can be dropped into the average game at any time.
The second chapter deals with the workings inside the area, specifically the combat. It opens with the presentation of a new NPC class, the slave. This give level progression is supposed to be used to represent the lowest of the low, which I think is a good idea. The problem is that it’s mechanically identical to the commoner NPC class, save that it gets a +1 bonus to all physical ability scores and a -1 penalty to all mental ability scores and gets to choose one skill to always be a class skill, no matter how he may multiclass later. To me, this isn’t lower than a commoner, this is superior to a commoner.
The chapter moves on to a couple of prestige classes, which are fine for a gladiatorial game, but won’t be horribly useful to anyone not playing a game contained entirely in the arena. As well, there are a handful of feats, most of which are likewise most useful in the arena, but not so much elsewhere. A couple of new exotic weapons are discussed, but I found most of them to be redundant at best and outright silly at worst.
Various types of matches are touched upon, which is important for any book that’s going to talk about gladiatorial combat. Any fool can put two guys into an arena and let them beat on each other, but this will get boring to the crowd pretty quickly. Pitting unarmed men against animals or chaining pairs of gladiators together at the ankle makes for a much better spectacle. This is backed up by a system of fame that the book introduces later in the chapter. A gladiator’s fame modifier is a representation of how well-liked he is by the crowd, and it can go up or down depending on how well or poorly he performs. This is translated as a morale bonus to some of the gladiator’s attacks. Finally, chariot racing and chariot combat are touched on. I think the rules presented were fine, but they might get a bit cumbersome at the table, since the gladiator is likely to have to make at least one roll every turn, lest he end up overturning his chariot and possibly killing himself.
The final chapter details a new system of play that uses D&D rules, but can be played in lieu of D&D. In this game, each of the players is a stable master and must buy gladiators, animals, equipment and all the other things that make for a good spectacle in the arena. They are then put through a series of challenges against one another, using the D&D combat system as a basis. After each match, fame and money are awarded based on the type of match it was, how well the gladiators performed, etc. The first player to have his stable reach whatever victory condition was set before the game began wins. I think this could be a very interesting way to spend an evening when some of the players can’t make it to game.
Gladiator: Sands of Death is a decent book for the price, but the DM is going to have to be willing to take what he wants and discard the rest. I think the book could have done much better with regards to including magic-users and there were multiple opportunities for the inclusion of monstrous races that went unused. It’s not likely to be an overly useful book unless arena combat is a big part of the game, though, and characters built solely with this book are likely to take a back seat in any situation that doesn’t take place in the arena.