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How To Run An Epic Gladiatorial Adventure

The other day I saw that Sly Flourish answered a question on his RPG talk show about running gladiatorial arenas in D&D. Given that I dedicated 1.5 years of my life writing an epic 300-page arena adventure, I figured this is probably a topic I should also address on my own media! Especially since writing DRAGONBOWL meant identifying and solving some of the common pitfalls that DMs can experience when running gladiator scenarios.

3 Common Pitfalls of Arena Adventures

A quick perusal of the all-knowing Internet will turn up plenty of comments from Dungeon Masters stating that gladiatorial scenarios are best avoided in D&D… and, depending on the context, those naysayers could be right…

i. Player vs. Player is a Recipe for Disaster

One scenario I would strongly advise avoiding would be player vs. player battles. Maybe, just maybe, if your players love competition, and are happy to treat D&D more like a tactical board game challenge for the night, a player vs. player arena encounter could turn out to be epic… but it’s far more likely to go horribly wrong. DMs need to consider that roleplaying games are a lot more emotional than board games, and it’s a lot more painful to lose a PC to another PC than to a random monster. Secondly, every ruling your make as a DM will feel personal and biased when it’s made in a player vs. player duel. And probably it will be biased… you are likely to favour (unintentionally or not) some people at your table over others. When you set up PC vs. PC violence, and make yourself the referee, you’re almost bound to create unnecessary angst, bad vibes and even humiliation, at the table, esp. if it involves the defeat and possible death of characters folks have invested in.


Brother on brother action… works better on the tele than on the table!

A couple of exceptional cases I could think of would be if, after getting the go ahead from everyone, you wanted to finish a campaign with a madcap battle royale (“we’re never going to use these characters again, so do you want to throw them in a fighting pit together and see who comes out top, just for fun?” kinda thing).

Or, maybe you could set up some alternate reality scenario, where the players face off in a dream, and the victory / death are just hypothetical. The players would need to know that beforehand (not as a reveal), as otherwise you’d be creating the same angst as if they really were losing their character at the hands of someone else on the table.

ii. PCs Should Never Be Bystanders

You’re also best avoiding scenarios where just one or two PCs enter the arena, as you’re effectively turning the rest of the party into bystanders for that combat, or game session. The scenario where one PC is buffed by all his mates and then fights a hapless bad guy isn’t too satisfying either, unless you make the bad guy WAY more powerful than the PC… now the other players are essential to their friend’s survival and part of the story. Still, casting a spell and then doing nothing for several rounds of combat isn’t going to lead to the best D&D the bystanding players are ever going to play.

iii. Repetitive Combats Threaten the Fun

Once we’ve ruled out player vs. player violence, as well as sessions that exclude half the party, we reach a clear conclusion: by far the best way to stage a gladiatorial scenario is to pit an entire team of PCs against rival teams of NPCs / monsters!

But even then we’ve still got a challenge to overcome, because D&D combat can quickly get tedious, and nothing is more tedious than a succession of similar style combats. Trading blows in a barren sandpit will quickly get stale, and doing this multiple times, with nothing to differentiate the fights, except the AC and HP of the foes, is going to lead to one, or more, dull sessions of D&D.

In the next section of this post, we’ll find plenty of solutions that will help keep things fresh and exciting…

9 Tips for Running An Epic Gladiator Adventure

Now with a solid notion of the potential pitfalls, let me share my tips on designing and running gladiatorial adventures in 5e D&D.

Warning: this advice comes with A LOT of shameless plugs for insightful examples from my own work, but I think in each case they help illustrate the point I’m trying to make, so hopefully they prove useful.

1. Give PCs a Compelling Reason To Enter The Arena

Sure, that compelling reason could be more wealth than they can imagine, and that might work for some players, but you could also make the situation more personal. What if the tournament favourites just happen to be the arch enemies of the PCs… folks they have crossed swords with before? If your PCs don’t have any surviving antagonists from actual play time, you could mine their back stories for offscreen enemies… “these are the mercenaries that brutally murdered your tribe!”

Or maybe there’s a noble reason to enter and win this particular tournament? In DRAGONBOWL, the shady NPC behind the Blood Games is a manipulative sports media mogul, who defrauds the champions of their prize money each year by turning them to stone and sending back faulty clones in their place. This has raised the suspicion of friends and relatives, and one such relative urges the PCs to help her find out what’s going on…

2. Make The Arena Memorable

In any type of RPG adventure, good design means maximising each of the main adventure components. In a gladiatorial scenario that means the arena itself.

i. Get Epic & Inventive

Assuming it makes sense (i.e. you are running the adventure in a city, not The Shire), then I suggest you go as epic as possible. Multiple tiers of bloodthirsty spectators, gargantuan gates, extravagant pyrotechnics… the works. When I created the Dragonbowl Arena, I decided that the shape of the arena itself is created by a huge likeness of a dragon, curled in an oval, with the head as the main gates and the wings arcing over the arena like a modern-day sun shade. The circumference of the fighting pit meanwhile is surrounded by gold statues of former Dragonbowl Champions.

The Dragonbowl Arena… with monster pits behind the gladiators to ‘inspire’ a little movement!

ii. Include Terrain Features & Hazards

You should also consider if the fighting pit itself is more than just a walled-in patch of sand. Ideally you want some built-in effects that might force combatants to move, thus making for a more dynamic fight (rather than an attrition of blows). Monster pits that release beasts, more terrifying than any of the combatants, can be fun, especially in a fight where the players have easily overcome their opposition… or perhaps as a deus ex machina if they are about to be defeated! Obviously, spun with an illusion of randomness! Gusts of winds, balls of fire, laser beams, potions and power ups can all provide a compulsion or desire to move around the battlefield, while visible hazards like pits or lava could provide incentive to move your opponents around, and introduce a more tactical aspect to the fight.

An arena floor doesn’t have to be flat either… it could contain platforms and barricades, or even be flooded, Colosseum style for a naval battle.

One plausibility mistake, which I’ve seen in a few scenarios, is adding in an arena feature that would ruin the spectacle of the show, such as tunnels, mazes, or large walls or pillars. If the ticket-paying crowds can’t see the action from their seats, then it’s unlikely the organisers would deliberately create such a feature. (A huge scrying screen, on the arena ceiling, could be the solution if you wanted to run such features).

3. Make The Rival Gladiators Memorable…

More important than even the arena is to have some badass gladiators for your party to fight. Here are some simple steps to make sure they stand out:

i. Dig Out Some Cool Stat Blocks

Now is a great opportunity to look through all those monster supplements you bought and barely use and dig out some of the cool stat blocks to create some badass rival gladiatorial teams. When designing DRAGONBOWL, I leaned heavily into Volo’s Guide to Monsters in particular, as you can see from some of the teams here…

Making use of Volo’s Guide to Monsters…

…and again!

…plus a fun monster from Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes!

ii. Give Them Unique Appearances (and Weapons)

The best villains, lieutenants and antagonists have unmistakable physical appearances, from Vader and Venger, to Baron Vladimir Harkonnen, Bane and every Batman baddie. Whether its masks or muscles, scars, eye patches or missing limbs, give your rival gladiators a distinctive, and preferably intimidating, twist. Distinctive weapons are a nice bonus too. For DRAGONBOWL, I created two particularly dangerous teams, for DMs to pit against their players in the grand final. My favourite are the Kiss of Death, which feature two vampire spawn lovers (one a gun-toting maniac inspired by Slaughterhouse from the Dragon Claws comics, the other a meteor-hammer-wielding maniac inspired by Dragon Claws and Kill Bill), a deep scion, and a dapper goblin gunslinger who is actually a barghest.

The Kiss of Death team make for memorable rivals….

iii. Give them Unique Tactics & Team Fighting Features!

Taking it for read that your players enjoy the combat pillar of D&D, you can pose distinct tactical challenges for them in each different bout they fight in, by your choice of stat blocks – and a bit of extra Dungeon Masterly manipulation. A team sponsored by a beholder who directs their antimagic cone on the battlefield will need to be tackled by brute force (or the players will have to find a way of nullifying the cone). Meanwhile, a team built around a mix of arcane firepower and manoeuvrability will pose a different threat. And what about a team of ordinary-looking ‘bandits’ that are secretly lycanthropes? Will the players twig before the fight and silver their weapons? These challenges can be different enough that, even if they take place in the same physical space (the arena), each will feel like a very different combat.

In order to complement their stat blocks and optimise their tactical approaches, I decided to give each of the 16 teams I created for DRAGONBOWL their own unique “Team Features”, or bonus abilities.

In the screenshots below, you can see how the Scimitar Sister’s Team Features complement their strengths. For example, the “Witch Switch” feature enables their star player, Shaxlex the tiefling mage, to fire off a cone of cold as early as possible in the combat, while their “Help A Sister Out” feature, helps her get out of trouble if she gets locked in melee, and grants the whole team a lot of extra maneuvrability.

The Scimitar Sisters rely on Shaxlex to soften up their opponents…

Witch Switch enables Shaxlex to go before her teammates…

Coming up with Team Features is fun, and also helps balance out some of the powerful abilities PCs inevitably have up their sleeve, which often make 5e combats rather one-sided in the favour of PCs.

iv. Consider Giving Them a Back Story…

To really round off your rival gladiators, how about giving them their own back stories and motivations? Why did they come to the tournament? Do they have any secret ulterior motives, private missions, love interests, sworn enemies or hidden death wish? If they are being forced to fight, what is stopping them escaping? Could they be persuaded to turn against their masters? When you answer these types of questions, you will find new plot hooks, side quests and intrigue developing before your eyes…

4. Amp Up Rivalries, with Run-ins Between Bouts

If your PCs arrive at a fighting tournament without any preexisting rivalries, don’t worry, you can soon fix that! Wheel out the tournament favourites at some social event and have them mock the players, or challenge them in some game where they are clear favourites to win, in order to humiliate them. Maybe these fresh rivals try to sabotage the PCs’ chances in the next bout by attempting to poison them, or employing similar skullduggery? Or perhaps thy simply bribe the appropriate officials to send all the power ups to their side of the arena etc. By the time they meet in a grand final, your players should be chomping at the bit to spill their blood on the sand.

A seemingly low stakes encounter at the Dragonbowl Funfair can build tensions and foreshadow a life and death bout in the arena…

5. Make Sure There’s Plenty Going On Outside the Arena

If I had to pinpoint a reason why many gladiatorial adventures fail in D&D, it would be because they don’t provide any infrastructure or intrigue outside of the arena. If you fail to do that, then you run the risk of getting bogged down in combat after combat, with nothing to change the pace, or to add context or heightened emotions to the fights.

By adding some symbiotic locations and events, together with some powerful spectators and stakeholders, you can ensure your adventure supports the exploration and social pillars of D&D, and not just the combat pillar. These additional components might be used to simply add flavour or fun distractions, as a change of pace, however with a little thought they can often be the starting point for intriguing side quests.

i. Symbiotic Locations (Casinos, Beer Tents, Bazaars…)

Assuming your players aren’t being held in chains in a dungeon under the arena (…a typical scenario you’ll see in many RPG gladiator adventures, but one I’d personally advise avoiding, as it can be very restrictive*), then there are a lot of fun locations that might spring up around a gladiatorial games, targeting the custom of spectators, or even the gladiators themselves, which can be great fun for your players to visit.

Beer halls, bookmakers, tattoo parlours, casinos, baths, fortune tellers, loan sharks, markets, shrines to the gods of combat, or even a gift shop selling ‘upcycled’ body parts of slain gladiators as souvenirs could all be fun to places to explore, especially if you provide reasons for them to go there (hint: getting a buff for the next fight usually works!) and things to do once they get there.

(*If you do want to play the whole “you’ve been captured and your only hope of freedom is to fight” scenario, you could still allow the PCs to explore outside the arena by shackling them with some kind of magical bonds that teleport them back to captivity if they try to move more than 500 feet from the arena…)

The Dragonbowl Festival grounds offers plenty of locations to explore outside the arena…

ii. Accompanying Events (Races, Theatre, Parades…)

When the Romans threw their public games they consisted of much more than just gladiatorial combats. Chariot races, naval battles, public executions and parades of exotic beasts were all popular spectacles that might also be held in an arena, alongside fights, as were theatre performances. Dungeons Masters should also consider what accompanying events might take place outside the arena, such as opening and closing parties, street fiestas, religious rites and adjacent festivities.

One of my favourite optional events outside the arena in DRAGONBOWL is the Ermageddon festival, where orcs celebrate their feminine side for the day, and also give succour and hospitality to strangers. It’s a chance to break bread with these green meanies for a change, and perhaps take part in an aurochs rodeo.

iii. Intriguing Stakeholders & Spectators

You can add depth to a gladiatorial scenario by thinking about the whole ecology and economy of the games, and how they work. Which NPCs are funding and organising them for a start? And not just the big boss, but the announcers, accountants, animal handlers, gladiator trainers…. do any of them have an axe to grind against the management? Are any of them romantically entangled with a gladiator and willing to do whatever it takes to make sure their beau or belle survives?

Powerful spectators, meanwhile, might take the form of ambitious politicians, shady businessfolk and ruthless crimelords. Are any of them bankrolling a team? Do any of them have an ulterior motive to be at the tournament… are any of them willing to sponsor the players with new equipment and magic potions, if the players just do one, morally ambiguous, favour for them first?

iv. …Leading to Side Quests?

If you’ve fleshed out the previous three points, you might find that you have almost effortlessly generated some mini adventure hooks for side quests, which can provide a nice change of pace from gladiator combats. In DRAGONBOWL, I labelled such side quests as ‘Entanglements’ and included plenty for DMs to choose from. Players might find themselves on a side quest to desecrate a duergar shrine, assassinate an orc warlord, free captive dinosaurs, stop a plot to blow up the arena, or steal the blueprints of the Dragonbowl airship.

The latter mission, I actually developed into a fully fledged heist, in the mould of the excellent adventures in Keys from the Golden Vault

6. Remember It’s A Spectacle

One thing I’ve frequently seen designers get wrong, when creating gladiatorial scenarios, is to forget that the entire (in-world) point of these events is to entertain the spectators. As with most design restrictions, this is something you can actually turn to your advantage…

i. Ban Magic that Obscures, Banishes, Summons or Charms…

Remembering that the enjoyment of the spectators trumps all other considerations, gave me the perfect excuse to ban a bunch of annoying spells from the arena… such as banishment! The crowd has come here to see a fight, not to watch the most fearsome of the gladiators disappear in a puff of smoke. Other spells that organisers would definitely ban are incantations like invisibility, fog cloud, hold person and hypnotic pattern. At Dragonbowl, mages are stationed around the arena, ready to cast dispel magic if the rules are broken.

ii. …And No Poison Either!

It’s also highly unlikely that the use of poison would be allowed in any arena catering to ‘sports’ fans. And for Dragonbowl, I also banned magic items… unless they were purchased from the ArcTech Expo, one of festival’s official sponsors.

Worried your players will complain? Just stick it in their contract…

The terms and conditions for registered gladiators….

ii. Add Mechanics for Engaging with Crowd!

A common feature that most designers do get right, and you should to, is to include some mechanics for engaging with the crowd, and to earn an advantage with displays of showmanship. Meanwhile, any display of cowardice should result in a stadium full of jeers that could easily put off the weak-minded.

7. Build The Tension Towards a Final Battle

When running a multi-stage gladiatorial tournament you want the tension to build up, round by round, as you head towards a fêted grand final. Ideally, you’ll set the asshole tournament favourites (think Iceman in Top Gun), on a collision course with the charming but troubled player characters (Maverick), so they can duke it out for death or glory in the final fight. But, harking back to Tip 4, the tension will only really build if there’s some kind of relationship happening between the two parties. That’s why you’ll want to foreshadow the final meeting with some run-ins and clashes beforehand to make sure the hatred is real when they do finally step on the sand.

You’ll also want to make each round of the tournament progressively harder. Throw your PCs an easy fight to begin with to gauge their level and then make the teams they face tougher each time, until you are able to throw them a final fight that really goes to the wire. Don’t be afraid of them dying. Run the combats honestly, and if there’s a TPK just have an ally or admirer bring them back from the dead after the tournament (this ally can always invoice them for the raise dead material component fees, or request a return favour). Now your players will have to wait until the next tournament to get their revenge on the team that kicked their ass!

8. Subvert and Surprise

As a player I hate it when the GM changes the goalposts… and when I say hate it, I mean I love to hate it. It’s unsettling and frustrating, but damn, does it add to the drama.

If the players are expecting the same old monster pits and arena hazards as last time, then guess what? Tonight is the night the organisers flood the arena floor with 1.5 feet of sticky tar which reduces all Medium-sized creatures movement by half… naturally their opponents are a bunch of Large-sized ogres.

Or maybe there’s been a sudden change of the rules that the players weren’t notified about? Poison is allowed after all… and here come the drow now!

Maybe the players just pissed off the organisers, and are forced to face two teams at the same time, both of which have made a pact to take out the PCs first.

You could go even further with a surprise that uproots the entire scenario…. in DRAGONBOWL, for example, one possibility I offer DMs is that the patron of The Twisted Firestarters team tries to open a portal to summon an ancient red dragon in the middle of the grand final, and burn every last spectator alive.

9. Revel in the Guts & Glory!

To make your arena adventure truly legendary you are going to need to tap in to the excitement and drama that these steaming cauldrons of combat would evoke. You’re going to need to describe the frenzy and bloodlust of the crowd and the loudness of their cheers and roars.

While its probably not best practice to tell players that their characters are nervous, you could remind them of the stakes… and ask players how their characters are responding, as they sit in the hypogeum, awaiting to be called to battle. Good roleplayers will relish the chance to describe how they are pacing nervously, sharpening their blades, sweating profusely, praying to their god, or exuding calm focus.

It’s also a chance to go a little over the top and have some fun, WWF style, with some OTT commentary, fighting names (The Pulverizer, Night Knight, The Duke of Hazard etc.), and gruesome descriptions of critical hits and killing blows. In DRAGONBOWL, I created a large-than-life djinni to the master of ceremonies and commentator, and used him as a mouthpiece for revelling in black humour and the gory side of the tournament.

And, if your players do win, don’t forget to throw them a grand closing party where they can fraternise with VIP spectators and soak up the adulation due to them after dicing with death and coming up 6s.

BONUS TIP: Tier 2 is Best!

When it comes to what level is best for running an arena adventure, I would strongly consider tier 2. At tier 1, players go down very easily and so you’ll be extremely limited by what hazards and enemy stat blocks you can throw at them. Level 2 strikes a nice balance of PCs being robust, but not invincible, and you can throw genuinely scary rivals at them. While tier 3 should probably be ok (at least if you’re providing some limits on the use of magic), generally-speaking at tiers 3 and 4, PCs are so powerful that it’s harder to predict what they can handle, plus fights are likely to last longer and the whole scenario may drag on a bit too long.

A Guaranteed Solution: Run DRAGONBOWL!

Want to run an adventure that follows all the advice above, without the hassle of creating it yourself? Then I suggest you just pick up a copy of DRAGONBOWL, which at time of press has garnered 100% 5-star reviews, and led to plenty of DMs sending me DMs to thank me for creating the scenario.

(One ‘pro’ of the adventure I probably haven’t got across before is how you can run it multiple times without repeating the same content, due to the number of rival teams provided, side quests and various other options. Great if you DM for more than one group of players!).

A DRAGONBOWL Discount!

Hell, since you’re here already, let me do some slashing damage to DRAGONBOWL’s full price and provide you with a 25% discount link for the adventure.

Grab Tickets to DRAGONBOWL with 25% Off!

Advice on Other D&D Scenarios

This article is the latest in a mini series of in-depth advice posts that covers running common D&D scenarios. The others are:

Designing & Running Heists in 5e D&D

How To Run (Murder) Mystery Adventures in D&D

7 Haunting Horror Stories for Halloween

No doubt I’ll add to this series in due course.

Happy Easter, and hold tight for some new developments regarding my Dirty Jobs campaign very soon!

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2 Comments

  1. Rick Coen

    Great article, Duncan! Well-thought out, and good examples for each point. I especially like the reminders about the life (and strife!) *outside* the arena!

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