A staple of stories and games, yet all too often: dry. Use the following tables and tools to create memorable arena fights and set pieces, with fun, dynamic scenery, and delightfully deadly surprises.

This article first appeared in issue 3 of the excellent KNOCK! magazine, by The Merry Mushmen, along a plethora of other fantastic OSR articles. Go check it, and other issues, out!

Opponents (d4)

  1. Would-be gladiators. Really just prisoners, trying to live to fight another day, or the other way around. 2d6 of them, poorly armed, and sorely untrained.
  2. Executioners. A former adventuring party that decided gladiatorial murder is easier and just as fun. 2d4+1 very skilled, bloodthirsty, well equipped killers. Their only weakness is playing to the audience.
  3. Monsters. Some more dangerous than others; all entertaining.
    1. 2d8 goblins with their legs tied to one another. They were told their opponents would be too, but they take the extra challenge in good stride.
    2. Hysterical prisoners with an enraged dire rhino armored in chain. Among them perhaps a friendly NPC or two. Maybe in formal attire, from that wedding or coronation that the characters were invited to but couldn’t attend because they were forced to fight in this arena.
    3. Wererat king. Seven glorious wererat leaders captured from opposing thieves’ guilds, their tails surgically joined. They want to kill each other at least as much as the characters.
    4. 2d6 mummies wrapped together into a ball of ancient hatred and poisonous claws. One of them frees itself every d3 rounds.
    5. Bound marilith. Can this six-armed demon free herself in time? Yes. She slips her first two wrists out of their bonds as soon as the first character closes, and the rest at dramatically appropriate times.
    6. Demilich inside a treasure chest mimic. The latter boasts about its treasure loudly as soon as its disguise is revealed, while the former enjoys its symbiotic vacation.
    7. Howling ettin with one foot nailed to the arena floor, with a really deep spike to go through all that dirt and sand. Well, one head is howling, the other has no feeling in the afflicted leg, so it does what it likes and does best: singing countertenor arias. The ettin wields an oversized goedendag, and a passionate countenance, respectively.
    8. 1d4+1 giant spiders greased with rendered boar fat. Any given round, for each spider there is a 50% chance that it will light up from an errant spark, doubling its danger while halving its longevity.
  4. No one. The characters are expected to fight each other, and the wizard with the wand of disintegration hovering above the arena makes it abundantly clear by turning a friendly NPC to ashes. They weren’t pit fighter material anyway.
Medieval warrior woman with sword and shield, and big hair.

Goal of the Match (d6)

  1. Win the fight. All opponents defeated. Yielding acceptable.
  2. Total obliteration. Be the last person or party standing. No opponent left alive.
  3. First blood. First character or creature at or below half hit points means their team loses.
  4. Capture the gem. Placed behind the enemy, or on them (especially if it’s monster like the dire rhino).
  5. Reach the finish line. Simply get from your starting point to the finish, via the dangers, distractions, and creatures wanting to stop you.
  6. Endurance. Survive 1d4+1 rounds against half that number of waves of opponents.

Gladiatorator (5d6)

# Person Wearing Wielding Excelling at Sucking at
1 Battle-hardened warrior blood-stained chainmail over sturdy leathers spear and net (with lightning conducting metal bullets to weigh it down) playing to the crowd peripheral vision
2 Terrified prisoner floor-length tunic and a battered breastplate oversized battle hammer looking harmless patience
3 Alien insectoid exotic full plate armor man-catcher and flash bombs intimidation following a plan
4 Noble risen to the occasion beautiful, expensive garments magical rapier and buckler strategy compassion (pauses to deliver killing blows)
5 Ogre-blood infused experiment torn scraps of clothing, half a chain shirt powerful muscles and whatever heavy is lying around brute force tactics
6 Mul (half-dwarf) hardened, boiled leather armor notched greataxe surprise attacks insight

Complications (d10)

  1. Flailing mannequins. Several large, armored mannequins with terrifying flails are positioned about the arena, each surrounded by obvious yet seemingly unavoidable pressure plates. Stepping on one, predictably, sends the mannequin spinning and flailing. But each plate has a 2-in-6 chance of activating 1d3 random mannequins instead.
  2. Human fence. The middle of the arena, or a spot with a treasure, is blocked by a fence. Except it’s chained up humans and some fat pylons. Perhaps there is even a crocodile infested moat on either side of the fence, and a ramp that might just give enough air to a strong runner to jump it. Will the characters stop for a rescue, treat it like any other fence, or even power through?
    • Pick a beloved NPC or character to form part of the fence to raise the stakes. Don’t think that a chained up character has nothing to do! In OSR-style play, they have their mind, their slippery fingers, and above all their player’s ingenuity. Constraints—well, restraints here—can boost the creative juices.
  3. Boonful prisoners. Tied to poles about the arena. Their mouths are obviously stuffed with spell scrolls or potions. Get to them before the prisoners' drool ruins them! Beware of prisoners accidentally crushing the sneaky stinking cloud or cloudkill potion.
    • As with the human fence, tie a character to one of the poles. Gag them with a locust plague potion, and make them roll not to break the glass.
  4. Upright, coffin-like wardrobes. Spread about on mounds on fresh earth. Inside:
    1. chainmal poncho (quick to don)
    2. skeleton with skull crushed by spiked flail
    3. mermaid style leather dress with straps and studs and high heeled boots
    4. crazed, diseased monkey
    5. smotheringly screaming, gagged prisoner infected with sewer plague, desperate to cough
    6. freshly risen vampire, imprinting on whomever opens the wardrobe first
    7. spear sickle on a bed of super flammable dry wheat
    8. mirror that reflects an angelic version of the viewer, and that reveals a powerful (but unhealthily codependent) bloodthirsty sword behind it, if shattered
  5. Giant nail platforms. One foot diameter discs on tall, thin, viciously barbed poles. Easy enough to climb if you're wearing good gauntlets or don't mind slashed hands. The rest of the arena appears (and is) soaked in oil. The platforms are paired, and act like seesaws: so climbing one will make it sink and raise another. Some platforms have torches on them and are unpaired. (1 unpaired platform with torch for every 2 paired ones without.)
  6. Black pyramid. A steep, basalt pyramid bisects the arena, no way around. Atop it, a withered, black mummy on a basalt throne, surround by four bowls on pillars. Climbing halfway up tips the bowls, which pours their liquid (super glue, rust monster antennae juice, acid giving off poisonous fumes, cool looking dry ice) down the steps. The mummy is impaled by an ornate, golden scimitar. Removing it reanimates the powerful mummy, who will cause havoc. But now you have a magic scimitar that deals double damage against ruling tyrants and ignores their armor.
    Muscled and helmed gladiator flexing and being angry while covered in blood.
  7. Spiked pit traps. They’re classics for a reason. Some are obvious, but others are practically invisible.
    1. An obvious pit. The tips of the spears at its bottom are still shiny and happily reflect any sunlight or hope.
    2. Well concealed pit. Only detectable by experts in such matters, before it’s too late. Still harbors a corpse, but it’s content to be dead.
    3. Concealed pit with some use. If you survive the fall and the spears, you might find one of: spiked hammer still grasped by gnome hand, experimental personal catapult (one shot), lightly magical but stubby dagger, corpse with gown made from many surprisingly durable layers.
    4. Pit with fanfare. If you survive the fall into this concealed pit, you’ll encounter an equally trapped (and with an impaled leg) member of the opposing side’s guards, who recognizes you and is your greatest fan.
  8. Guarded treasure. Thin posts are staked into the ground, atop each a magnificent weapon that would definitely give you the upper hand. The snag: a manticore is leashed to each post.
    1. Vibro-glaive. Double the damage, double the carnage. Anoint in the blood of the innocent each day for continued function. 1-in-6 chance of jamming after each use.
    2. Melancholiator. A thin sword with a blade of sullen souls fragments. Ignores armor but inflicts debilitating, doleful sorrow instead of damage.
    3. Flail of Tears. Its swings are accompanied by the mournful cries of imprisoned angels. Ethical outlook determines whether this is soul crushing or invigorating.
    4. Caber Bolts (2d10). Regular-sized bolts that violently intumesce to caber size when launched. Fire the lot for a quick palisade.
  9. Tower of woe. Multiple levels (4+) that need to be scaled on this round structure, while a score of goblins belt the contestants with stones, loud crackers, balls of glue and spit, or whooping powder. They also have heat-seeking arrows if you happen to be a flying spoil-sport. Winner is whoever gets to the golden egg in the harpies' nest at the top. Two angry harpies on 2-meter chains guard it. Levels include:
    1. Warm-up with basic handholds. Difficult but not impossible to climb.
    2. Trapped. As above, but 2-in-6 handholds are upholstered with gecko paw skin which adheres to anything.
    3. People fence. Prisoners, NPCs, and maybe a PC, are chained along the level. Easy enough to climb if you don’t mind the protestations or screams of those affected by your weight on their bonds or face.
    4. Hidden Weal or Woe. Numerous handholds on this level. For each climb action there is a 3-in-6 chance of grabbing one that comes off and reveals an arm’s width cavity behind, containing:
      1. Nothing. Really.
      2. A pot of universal glue. Tool or weapon?
      3. A whistle. It’s loud and superlatively shrill.
      4. A single random card from a deck of many things. It takes effect immediately when picked up.
      5. A flawless ruby. When touched it activates a manacle trapping the arm.
      6. A golden cup with the symbol of a glowing and floating sword. When touched, a blade capable of severing unarmored hands appears.
      7. Squished goblin. It’s mightily livid, but also hurts from its cramped predicament.
      8. A rare albino osquip. With teeth like shovels.
    5. Blades masquerading as handholds. They’re a little rusty and dirty, so you probably won’t notice the danger until the first person without metal or magical gloves tries to hoist their weight up on one and suffers the lacerating consequences.
    6. The aquarium. Each climb action has a 3-in-6 chance of tearing out the handhold, which acted as a kind of plug. The first couple just spew water, but after the third, the pressure blows a ring around the tower and the full volume of water comes gushing down at once, sending all but the hardiest to tumble. They find themselves on the bottom, soaked, and covered in:
      1. A squirming fulmination eel. Arcing lightning between it and the nearest pieces of metal.
      2. A handful of hungry rust monster tadpoles. They gotta eat to grow up.
      3. A couple of undead piranha. Similarly dangerous to live ones.
      4. The flopping remains of a half-eaten fulmination eel. Zombie piranhas had their fill.
  10. Perfidious perfumier’s playground. Quick-release gas bombs littering the arena like a minefield, tucked away in other structures, or hidden in seemingly discarded weapons or armor for an extra surprise.
    1. Airsplosion. Blows you 2d6 meters into the air.
    2. Blue paint. Bright and very hard to wash out.
    3. Skunk effluvium. Might stop other gladiators from voluntarily approaching you.
    4. Cupid’s instant summons. The next person that smells you develops a powerful crush on you (saves are boring).
    5. Jelly legs. Your legs stop working for 1d6 rounds, then you have irritating pins and needles for another 1d6.
    6. Noumena nullifier. You become insubstantial for 1d6 rounds, unable to physically interact with anything, including air to make sound.
    7. Heavy water. Soaks you with an odorless, translucent liquid that’s twice as heavy as water. Movement is impaired unless you get naked.
    8. Garroting Gary. A monstrous, choking poison that requires two successful saves to shake.
    9. Frog fountain. For the next 1d6 rounds you cough up colorful frogs.
    10. Avant-garde fragrance. Roll again twice and combine the effects.