Hey there, any advice on how to make a gladiator style boss rush not feel bland? Like players are fighting for their lives in an arena. I feel like after a few rounds it'll get old and that's the last thing I want to do to them
You got it.
So I reached out to @eagererudite for more context. This situation involves an actual gladiatorial arena with spectators and judges. Also, they’re using D&D 5e.
How to make arena combat engaging in D&D
First, a brief aside on game design and the intent of combat in D&D:
There’s two equally valid ways to approach combat in general, old school and new school.
In old school games (OD&D, AD&D, OSR), combat is treated like a puzzle to be solved through improvisation, cooperation, player skill, and creative thinking. Most PC’s are at a mechanical disadvantage when up against monsters; they don’t have the hit points or the attack bonuses to make straightforward “let’s hit each other with swords until one of us falls down” combat a tenable solution. You have to be crafty, or your character will most likely die.
New school games (D&D 5e, Pathfinder, DW, etc) levels the playing field between PC’s and monsters. More mechanical combat options are available to all characters, not just fighters. Encounters are typically balanced to be “fair” or “equal”. Just straight up fighting enemies is no longer an un-winnable situation, because the focus is shifted from “player skill” to “avatar skill”.
I bring this up because my advice is rooted more firmly in the old school approach. I think its application is better suited to life or death arena combat.
So how do you present arena combat as being interesting in a D&D game?
Well, I think it’s best to go all in on what a gladiatorial fight involves:
Games where combatants must fight each other under specific circumstances.
Opponents from all walks of life: slaves or prisoners just trying to survive, ex-soldiers trying to make it big, and celebrity gladiators who’re at the top of their game.
Games pitting unarmed or disadvantaged fighters against exotic beasts or animals.
A wild and rowdy crowd, cheering on their favourites and booing the losers, reacting to what the fighters do.
Rough, bloodstained terrain filled with obstacles, traps, and cover.
A capricious judge (or judges) who listens to the crowd before making the final judgment whether a contestant lives…or dies!
The players should be at a disadvantage here. This isn’t their home turf, and they shouldn’t (immediately) have their usual weapons or spell components. You need to be clear with them: Life is cheap in the arena. If they don’t improvise or fight smart…they WILL die.
My advice is to have the encounters focus less on back and forth fighting and more on the realities of the situation and surrounding environment. Ask your players “what they want to do” and remind them of what’s around them at their disposal:
Their environment: pillars for cover, sand or dirt, small stones, corpses with discarded weapons or armour. Maybe slanted walls to run or slide across. Pits with spikes maybe. Each of these things should provide a tangible advantage when used (bonus to damage or AC).
Their opponents: Gladiators are seldom dumb brutes. They’ll team up with one another, make hasty bargains or truces, and single other fighters out. Even in one on one fights, they can be chatty…and can be intimidated. A character’s skills can be used here.
Beasts and animals: They can be distracted, or befriended, tamed, or ridden. Beasts only attack if they know they’re guaranteed a kill.
The crowd: Brave actions impress them, and cowardly actions annoy them. Their cheers or their boos can provide either inspiration (advantage) to fighter’s next action, or disadvantage. Rallying or grandstanding for the crowd can be an action (contested Charisma checks) that grants advantage on the next thing they do.
The judge(s): Ideally, a judge’s temperament and tastes can be ascertained from the arena. What kind of actions that excite them. Do they prize cunning, or bloodlust? Mercy, or revenge? A popular arena fighter pleases the crowd, but a smart arena fighter pleases the judge. Their life is ultimately in the judge’s hands.
This setup is designed to promote improvisation, which will make every round of combat more dynamic. Remind your players to engage with the environment and characters, rather than look to their character sheets for all the solutions (Some solutions will absolutely come from their skills/spells).
When possible, don’t have these confrontations be one-on-one. While that can be dramatic and tense, it leaves other players out of the action. Throw everybody into the arena. Gladiator matches should be wild and messy, becoming more straight forward as the body count climbs.
Finally…have surrender be an option. This may be a life or death confrontation, but depending on the feedback of the crowd, fighters might be spared so they might can again. A judge that spares the life of a fighter now owns them. That might seem harsh, but it keeps the game moving forward. Don’t discount it.
For inspiration, watch or rewatch scenes from Gladiator (2000). See the arena fight scene in Star Wars: Attack of the Clones before all the lightsabers come out. Watch the pit deadite fight scene in Army of Darkness (1992) or the fighting pit scenes in season 5 of Game of Thrones.
All of this stuff is available on YouTube, and will help inspire you when you’re designing terrain and gladiator characters.
Si sumas todas las estrellas del cielo, todos los granitos de arena en los océanos, todas las rosas en el mundo y todas las sonrisas que haya habido en la historia del mundo, empezarás a tener una idea de cuánto te quiero.
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