The Complete Gladiator's Handbook presents me with a certain difficulty. Its subject matter is half "unforgivable atrocity of the ancient world" and half "professional sports." And maybe, from the perspective of modern morality, it's easy to say, "we don't need to fuck with a sport where participation is involuntary and losing means severe injury or death," but . . . it's Dungeons and Dragons, and the paradox of "this would be horrifying in reality, but it's fun because it's pretend" is where the game lives.
"Oh, there are bandits targeting ore shipments from the mines, I guess we need to gather up a gang of mercenaries to enact lethal violence on them. It's our first, and only, recourse."
So look, you're going to fight in the arena. You'll use unique Dark Sun weapons like the Trikal (a polearm with three ax-heads at the end). You'll fight strange creatures like the deadly Athasian Sloth (which kills with "incredible speed"). You'll have to navigate special arena challenges like Queen's Puzzle (a cage match, basically) or brutal Urik-variant football, played in a repurposed obsidian quarry where the sides of the field are walls of scorching-hot glass. If you win, it means sponsorships, luxurious treatment, and the crowd screaming your name! Your character doesn't want to be there, but you'll want your character to be there, because that's where the excitement's happening.
And I guess it's okay. I get nervous when it feels like we're supposed to play with slavery, but this is something with a lot of mythology built around it and it feels unreal. That's not necessarily a good instinct to have, because obviously the mystique is born from the excuses the Romans used to allow themselves to keep doing it, but also, it's not (as far as I know) a practice that was taken up by other slave-holding cultures. So "gladiator" is kind of just a job, you know. It's pro-wrestling (complete with faces and heels, which you can create with the included fame/infamy rules), but you're not allowed to quit.
Because you pretty much have to play as a slave gladiator. The Complete Gladiator's Handbook offers alternatives - you could be a noble, slumming it, or a freeman from the countryside, enchanted with the big-city spectacle, but those are not fun stories. Not when you put a little bit of thought into it and realize they are both stories of a (relatively) privileged person fighting and killing slaves. It's kind of a paradox. The gladiators not wanting to be there is part of the atrocity of the game, so you might think that two people who don't want to be there is worse than one person who doesn't want to be there and one person who does, but the story only works when the killing is involuntary. Voluntarily killing another human being is just murder, no matter how you dress it up in the trappings of sport.
But if the PCs are slave-gladiators, that's on-theme. The world is ruled by evil, and thus to live inside the system is to become complicit in that evil. The fighting's a metaphor. Kill to survive. You don't have a choice. Unless you set yourself against the system and brave the immense power it can bring to bear. It's a whole arc.
And the intended mode of play. The Complete Gladiator's Handbook still exists in the rarefied company of "AD&D, but good" and so it doesn't mince words - "The DM should always portray slavery as a cruel and inhuman institution." And the "Gladiator Campaign" chapter is pretty clear about how it's going to end up - " When the PCs tire of being slave gladiators, their escape from the chains of slavery can provide nights of exciting adventure."
There's a certain hypocrisy here. "We start with something horrible, and we acknowledge that, so of course it's going to end with the characters escaping that horror, but in the middle part, there's no reason not to wallow in the decadent spectacle and use it as a backdrop for some sick-ass fights." It's easy to see how something like that could devolve into the grotesque - privileged white men deciding that slavery and exploitation will add a little spice to their beer-and-pretzels game.
But at least it's not colonialism? No, seriously, the question mark was on purpose. Dungeons and Dragons at its worst could seem like propaganda for colonialism. So far, Dark Sun has been good about not doing that. Slavery exists, but it's not justified. City States will war over resources, but it's framed as nothing more noble than armed robbery. Not saying it's super woke or anything (it's not - this book needlessly clarifies that the people of Athas can use "Oriental-style martial arts"), but the framework of the adventures has been more "you're in a bad situation, try to make the most of it" and less "here's some land that nobody's snatched yet, drive away the inhabitants." Is this an advantage of gaming in a world ruled by evil? Heroes don't align themselves with power?
Villains have to do villainous things, and when the whole system is the villain, then that creates a niche for institutional villainy like slavery. And if heroes are opposing it, then maybe it's okay that they are the victims, rising up to rebel. And if the story they tell in the process is a fun story, with lots of action and weird creatures, and funny/awkward things like being a slave with a fan club, then is that such a bad thing?
Not a rhetorical question. I really don't know. It's a better question than I'm accustomed to taking away from an AD&D book, though.
Ukss Contribution: Also, this book describes the fucking clothes! And cuisine. It's great. Find a particular red cactus, cut it open to extract the grubs that live nowhere else, they're a great stadium snack.
However, my favorite bit of background culture was the Hurrum, a flightless pet beetle that the nobles take with them into the stands because the beat of its wings produces a gentle breeze. I like the image. It's both luxurious and alien.