Sunday, January 17, 2021

(AD&D 2e)The Glory of Rome Campaign Sourcebook

 Ah, but why did the Romans have so many enemies?

The Glory of Rome Campaign Sourcebook clearly doesn't realize what thin ice it's standing on. It talks a lot about Rome, but it makes the mistake of largely taking Rome at its word when it comes to the context of its imperial conquests. Rome is constantly "adding new provinces" whereas "barbarians" are "overrunning Rome's borders."

I wouldn't call this book a complete white-washing - there are definitely times when it points out Roman atrocities, and there are bits and pieces of the history that are not told from the Roman perspective. However, I can't help but feel that, historically, the way Rome was used as a story was to support a very conservative and hierarchical cultural mythology - one where kings were like "the Good Emperors" or slave-holding colonial aristocrats had the dignity of the Senate - and nothing about this book challenges those hagiographic narratives.

Where's my Rome-punk, damnit?!

I mean, I get it. This was 1993, and TSR wasn't exactly a radical company. There likely wasn't a market for a mean and gritty street-level Roman game where all that nonsense with the Senate and the Legions are merely a backdrop for your day-to-day hustle. And even if there were, well this is a time naive enough to assume the graffiti in Pompeii ("Crescens the Net Fighter holds the hearts of all the girls") was both heterosexual and true (I mean, it's pretty obvious that Crescens wrote that himself, right).

Would The Glory of Rome Campaign Sourcebook really have been better if it had taken time out to explain that one of the few things we know for sure about Roman culture is that people would shit all over the street? Probably not. But it might have spared us at least some of the two and a half pages devoted to describing the offices of the Roman government. That may just be a danger that comes from writing about such a literate and self-regarding people, though. They were most interested in the deeds of powerful men and the various titles they gave each other, and thus that is what survives to the present day.

I shouldn't be such a curmudgeon, though. I think it was probably plenty obvious that a Rome sourcebook was going to focus on Senatorial intrigues, Legionary conquest, and gladiator-drama. "Rome" is basically a genre, and "people who have completely justifiable grievances with Rome, existing in the cracks of a system that oppresses and exploits them" is really more of a fringe commentary than a part of what the genre's about.

So, if I look at what the book was trying to accomplish rather than what I wished it would be, how does it fare? It's a good supplement. It has less of what I like most about the green books, but the day-to-day details are not entirely absent. I liked that it gave specific dates for the Roman spirit-appeasing festivals (the 9th-13th of May). There were also some interesting hints about a unique form of organized crime (siphoning off water from the public fountains to illegally deliver to the houses of the rich). And if it focused a bit too much on high-level politics for my taste, at least it was good about tying those politics into potential adventure hooks.

Mechanically, it's pretty solid. It's much more pragmatic about adapting the magic system to a semi-historical setting (no spells of 6th level or above, no evocation school), even if it's still under the mistaken impression that specialist wizards are notably less versatile than regular mages (yes, you lose one or two schools, but you get an extra slot to spend on spells you were probably going to memorize anyways). I'd still rather do a 4e all-martial party, but assuming you're okay with wizards and priests getting nerfed to hell, these rules largely work.

Overall, I'd say that The Glory of Rome Campaign Sourcebook is decent, but it doesn't do much to elevate the material. It needed either more fantastic elements or more mundane minutiae, but winds up taking a middle of the road approach that is serviceable, and sometimes even engaging, but which never really surprised or challenged me.

Ukss Contribution: According to this book, Rome's fish market smelled so bad that people met up there to avoid the prying eyes of the upper class. Not sure I believe that, but a criminal fish market is a fun location, so maybe there's a bit of truth to it after all.

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