The historian Daniel P. Mannix tells an interesting story about the Roman Games. During the reign of Nero, the Empire's economic troubles got so bad that there was two weeks of uninterrupted rioting in the city streets.
While this was going on, the Captain of the Shipping had a crisis meeting with the First Tribune. He had the Merchant Fleet from Egypt ready to land. But there was a choice of cargo; corn for the starving people or sand for the Circus arena. Which, asked the Captain, was it to be?
“Are you mad?” shouted the harassed Tribune. “The situation here is out of control. The Emperor is a lunatic. The army is on the edge of mutiny. The people are dying of hunger. For the gods' sake, get the sand!”
– Man, Myth & Magic Book I (p. 18)
The boxed set of Man, Myth & Magic contained three rule books; Book I – 'The Basic Rules' – was intended for people who “have never played a role playing game.” People “already familiar with role playing games” were directed to go to Book II after reading the sections on “Combat, Reading the Dice, and Basic Characteristics.” Man, Myth & Magic started out as a game called Arena, according to Appelcline's Designers & Dragons. We see evidence of this in Book I, the introductory version of MM&M wherein all player characters are gladiators (prospective gladiators really) in ancient Rome. The back of the box reads, “It is summer, 41 A.D.” but the actual year – as we shall see – is not fixed. Beginning players are not coddled with pre-generated characters, they create characters by rolling (percentile) dice to determine the prime characteristics of Strength, Speed, Endurance, Intelligence, and Courage. A sixth characteristic – Skill – is left undetermined because the characters have not yet received training. Characters are required to have names; a couple of dozen sample names are provided. Players also roll percentile dice to determine the number of gold pieces (libra) each character has as an inheritance.
The party of player characters begin the game en route to the Gallicus gladiator school where they are expected to arrive by a certain time. The way is blocked due to a military procession which will take hours to pass. In order to reach the school on time, the party must travel through a violent and unsavory section of town called 'the Warren'. The players are presented with a goal, then a complication. Various establishments exist in the Warren for characters to encounter, among which are an apothecary that sells healing potions, an amulet & charm shop, and the requisite tavern. As the characters travel through the Warren, the players become acquainted with the rudimentary RPG 'skills' of observing the environment and interacting with non-player characters; of course, they are also exposed to the essential rules of MM&M combat.
Book I isn't arranged merely for the benefit of the players; it also instructs the novice game master. On page 5, author Herbie Brennan explains:
The prime function of a GM is to describe to players what their characters are seeing and experiencing. Just that and nothing more. His secondary function is to act out those non-player characters the gladiators meet; and to decide, by dice rolls, on the outcome of any conflicts.Of course, these are fundamental tenets of RPGs, but rarely have I seen them explained so succinctly and clearly. There are no 'gray box' read-this-out-loud passages in Book I, but Brennan provides examples of what a GM could say and emphasizes the importance of dramatic effect. He says on page 6, “...Game Mastering is about drama, atmosphere, mood, fascination and excitement – not about rules and regulations, although the rules and regulations are a necessary evil.”
It is no part of the GM's job to compete with players or direct their movements. Each gladiator character is free to behave in any manner he sees fit. The GM's sole concern is to calculate and describe the consequences of any action.
The Gallicus school is mapped out (see below) and its various locations described “[s]hould the party elect to explore.” The main point of interest, however, is the training labyrinth – in effect, a 'micro-dungeon'. “Training” consists of players learning about the different gladiator types, their weapons, and an expansion of the combat rules. (In MM&M, the gladiator types are retiarius, secutor, thracian, samnite, sagittarius, and thrax.) For training purposes, each player is allowed to choose a type for his (or her) character. Upon choosing a type, characters are expected to enter the training labyrinth. As might be expected, the training labyrinth takes the form of a maze; at various points there are pit-traps, opposing gladiators, and even a lion encounter. Opposing gladiators will have 'Life Point' totals equal or similar to that of the player characters. Characters may enter the training labyrinth individually or as a group. Opponents of individuals will be singular while groups will face groups of equivalent size. Survivors of a group expedition get to roll percentile dice to determine their 'Skill' characteristic and they add 10% to Strength, Speed, and Endurance. Individual survivors roll twice for 'Skill', choosing the better roll; they also add 15% to Strength, Speed, and Endurance.
Having 'graduated' from the training labyrinth, characters are ready to participate in the gladiatorial games. “Each Games session concludes when every gladiator character has fought once in the arena,” we learn on page 18. Perhaps the most important aspect of any Games session is which Emperor will preside; 1d6 is rolled: 1-2, Tiberius; 3-4, Nero; 5-6, Caligula. That's right, Nero can preside over one session, Caligula the next, followed by Tiberius, then back to Caligula. It is for this reason I said above that the year is not fixed. MM&M Rome essentially exists in a timeless realm where different reigns overlap one another. Some may find the irrationality of this (non-)continuity to be a game-breaker, but those who can accept it are more likely to tolerate the irrationality to be found in the advanced rules.
Anyway, if Tiberius is rolled, players may ask for a re-roll. If Tiberius is rolled again, the players are stuck with him; otherwise, players may choose between Tiberius and the second Emperor rolled. Under Tiberius, players can decide to have their characters fight one another ('competitive combat') or against NPCs. Nero requires competitive combat while Caligula requires competitive combat or animal combat (50% chance of either). Monetary awards to victors tend to be small when Tiberius presides, but he is more apt to permit a loser to keep his life. Nero is generous but will never issue a Gladiator Pardon. Caligula, being the original poster-child for crazy, is unpredictable.
Supposedly, “When Tiberius presides...experience adjustments are less than those arising from combat under other Emperors.” However, page 20 makes no distinction among Emperors with regard to combat experience. Every successful arena combat improves a characters 'to hit' score by 5 and adds ten percent to “basic statistics.”
1 – Legion Barracks
2 – Legion Barracks
3 – Legion Mess Hall
4 – Gladiator Mess Hall
5 – Cookhouse
6 – Arms Store
7 – Food Store
8 – Communal Jail
9 – Administration Building
10 – Chief Trainer's Villa
11 – Gladiator Barracks
12 – Gladiator Barracks
13 – Training Labyrinth
14 – Latrines
15 – Solitary Confinement Cells
16 – Animal Houses
17 – Whipping Post