Living in the Classical World

A preview from the forthcoming Adventures Dark and Deep™ Game Masters Toolkit…

Broadly speaking, the “Classical World” refers to the civilizations of Greece and Rome, and those civilizations which were in turn influenced by them, such as Egypt. It spans a period of time from roughly the Bronze Age in 3,000 B.C. through the fall of Rome in the 5th century A.D. Obviously culture and technology will change enormously over such a vast period of time.

The Classical world is an important source of inspiration for the game, and an enterprising game master could set an entire campaign in a locale based on the Classical world. Jason and the Argonauts, Hercules, Spartacus, and even Gordianus the Finder can all be seen as archetypes that can be used as the basis of a campaign. The amount of information relating to the Classical world is staggering, and the below is only the most cursory of glances into this vital and fascinating piece of history.

Society and Politics

Ancient Greece began as a collection of rival city-states. Alliances would form and dissolve, rival city-states would war with one another, but throughout the turbulent times the Hellenic civilization reached enormous heights in the realms of art, architecture, and philosophy. The Trojan War became embedded in the popular consciousness as a watershed moment, and the threat posed by the encroaching Persian Empire was enough to maintain a collective Greek identity, even though the Greeks were divided politically.

Some city-states were monarchies, like Corinth and Sparta. Others were democracies, such as Athens (but it should be borne in mind that even the “cradle of democracy” did not know of universal suffrage, and the power to vote was kept in the hands of a few). The Greeks, like all ancient civilizations, practiced slavery.

The Greeks were aggressive colonizers, and Greek colonies could be found around the Mediterranean. The Greek colonies in Sicily and southern Italy were extremely influential in the development of ancient Rome.

Eventually, the Greeks were conquered (some might say consolidated) by the Macedonians to their immediate north. Alexander the Great, king of Macedon, led the Greeks on a vast war of conquest, bringing Greek civilization to a number of cultures around the Mediterranean.

Ancient Rome began as just another small city-state. By dint of their superior military technology and other factors, they eventually gained a position as the master of most of Italy. The Roman civilization borrowed much from the Greeks, and as their empire steadily grew across the Mediterranean and into western Europe, they brought their civilization, their laws, and their culture with them.

Initially, Rome was a republic, with officials being elected for year-long terms and a complex system of checks and balances on their power. Eventually, though, the Republic gave way to an Empire, and Rome grew to her greatest extent under the reigns of successive emperors. The Romans were, as a rule, quite tolerant of local customs and traditions, and conquered peoples were allowed a fair amount of self-rule.

Rome was eventually overwhelmed by hordes of Germanic tribes, initially brought in as mercenaries and auxiliaries for the Roman legions, and eventually ushering in the Dark Ages by overthrowing their once-masters.


As the name implies, the Bronze Age Greeks lacked access to iron or steel weapons and armor. Armor consisted mostly of shields and bronze and copper helmets and possibly breast-plates. By the 10th century B.C., the Greeks were using iron and eventually steel.

Greek architecture was one of the hallmarks of their civilization. They were also quite advanced in the realms of mathematics (the Greek philosopher/scientist Archimedes was a military engineer of the first order, in addition to his more academic activities).

The Greeks had access to scale armor and the cuirass, while leaders would have plated mail (but not plate armor). As hoplites were required to provide their own arms and armor, they often went into battle with no armor but a shield, or sometimes cloth armor (linothorax; AC 7). A variety of different weapons would be available to them, but the spear (doru), and occasionally the short sword (xiphos) would be the rule. Bronze armor is also available, but will have an armor class 1 “worse” than normal steel armor, and will also be less effective against rear attacks, with enemies getting an additional bonus “to hit” of +2.

The Romans were masters of engineering and architecture, and understood the importance of water in building the infrastructure of their Empire. They built great aqueducts to bring water over enormous distances to their cities. They were also fond of large and extravagant entertainments; the Coliseum in Rome was built to accommodate their gladiatorial games and other contests, and hippodromes were built for chariot racing, a very popular pastime throughout the Empire.

Plated mail (lorica segmentata) would be the standard for soldiers and veterans, while gladiators and others would have access to a variety of more exotic, but less protective, gear. Plate mail (but not jousting plate) would be available, but usually restricted to officers (and twice as expensive as the price listed in the Adventures Dark and Deep Players Guide). The long, broad, bastard, and two-handed swords were largely unknown to the Romans themselves, but their neighbors would have them, and thus such things would be possible in the Roman-themed campaign, but not common. The short sword (gladius) and dagger (puglio) would be the standard.

Neither the Romans nor the Greeks had the stirrup, which made fighting from horseback a much more difficult prospect than it was for later peoples. Without that key piece of technology, all rolls “to hit” from on horseback would be made with a -2 penalty (including missile attacks).


The sea was the primary means of moving goods and people around in the Classical world. Especially in the Greek world, roads were iffy things, and travelers would have to rely on the hospitality of strangers overnight, or else be forced to sleep outdoors. Bandits and brigands were not uncommon. Travel overland was done mostly on foot, with animals being used to haul carts, wagons, and chariots.

In ancient Rome, the situation was somewhat different, owing to the emphasis the Romans placed on creating well-designed and well-maintained roads. These roads were one of the primary means of communications, being used both for commerce and military transportation. There was even a postal service that used these roads to deliver letters from one end of the Empire to the other. Travel in the Roman Empire was relatively common; the wealthy would vacation near the sea to escape the heat of the city in the summer, and travel was easy enough to make tourism a viable industry. Major routes between the cities were served by inns where travelers could stay for the night and enjoy a meal. Travel was still primarily by either walking or by cart or wagon.

A Classical Campaign

An Adventures Dark and Deep campaign in a Classical-type setting could be quite exciting. The full assortment of equipment would not be available, naturally; a Bronze Age setting would obviously not have any sort of steel armor (mail or better), and even a late Roman-type setting wouldn’t have jousting plate.

One could imagine a setting with a myriad of city-states united by a single culture and religion, yet divided politically and giving a plethora of opportunities for the player characters to get involved in intrigues and skirmish-level battles. Perhaps neighboring these city-states would be a Romanesque empire in its expansionist phase; aggressive, yet bringing a level of order and civilization with it wherever it goes (although not necessarily universally loved!). The sea would be a prominent feature, and monsters taken from Greek mythology (centaurs, harpies, cyclopses, etc.) would predominate.

Thematically, such a campaign could take a number of directions. For those game masters wishing to evoke the spirit of Homer, the theme could be “men as playthings of the Gods”. Humans struggle against the whims of the Gods, who have a very real and not altogether welcome presence in the physical world, making their wills manifest through acts of nature, supernatural intermediaries, and their own direct involvement. In a campaign set in a later time within the Classical period, the game could be set around the notion of bringing justice and order to the benighted barbarians just beyond the border; accompanying the legions of the Empire on their quest to civilize the world. Other possibilities include exploring the position of slaves, who in historical times had a much better life than most slaves in the antebellum South, for example, and yet they still lacked what we in the modern world would consider fundamental liberties.

Written by 

Wargamer and RPG'er since the 1970's, author of Adventures Dark and Deep, Castle of the Mad Archmage, and other things, and proprietor of the Greyhawk Grognard blog.

5 thoughts on “Living in the Classical World

  1. You do know about "Mazes and Minotaurs," right?

    I have used a roman or Byzantine-themed Empire in all of my games since the mid 1980s. I have always loved the Classical Period. It;s a shame that i do not get to teach it at the University. (Except in world Religion and early medieval history).

  2. I've always dreamed of GMing a Homer-esque game where everyone played a leading family in a city state. Then go through two campaign segments (think 10-20 sessions each segment) each with the feel of the Iliad and the Odyssey.

  3. 508 b.c., Darnizhaan. In all honesty, it's not intended as an in-depth study of Roman history, just a quick overview of the highlights salient to an RPG campaign. If someone is interested enough in Roman history to want to explore the monarchy period, they'll already be equipped to go beyond the page or so I give them in the GMT…

    Indeed I do, Anthony. But given the context, you'll understand why I don't include any pointers in the text itself…

    Great stuff, seaofstars! Far too in-depth for the sort of thing I'm trying to do for Adventures Dark and Deep™, but excellent stuff.

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