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Friday, 20 May 2016

Obedient to their laws

Maybe you noticed the Sparta roleplaying sourcebook that popped up in the sidebar recently. Here’s the story with that. One of my group’s longest running campaigns is the Immortal Spartans, devised by Tim Harford, in which a bunch of young Spartans discover they have Highlander-like regenerative powers. As a meta-campaign, it has proved a robust armature on which to hang individual mini-campaigns set in Alexander’s empire, Caligula’s Rome, 9th century Baghdad, and even 1930s New York.

The irony is, the campaign hasn’t till now had a whole lot to do with Sparta. We began the game already on the march to Thermopylae. (We could hardly slink back home afterwards. You know how the Spartans treated deserters?)

But as a long-time Tekumel enthusiast, I’m always more interested in the social and cultural side of roleplaying than all the scary monsters and super creeps. So I got to thinking it would be fun to run a prequel game before our little band became immortal, back in their salad days as junior soldiers of the Spartan state. That meant drawing a map – I always like to start with a map. And so I got to researching Spartan society from a gaming perspective.

I should insert a caveat here. Nobody knows a lot about daily life in Sparta in the early 5th century BC. Our best source is probably Herodotus, writing only a generation later. Pausanias’s descriptions come from the 2nd century. Plutarch was separated from the heyday of Sparta by half a millennium; by his time all that was left was a sort of theme park Sparta for Roman tourists. The upshot is that I had to create a Sparta, not necessarily the Sparta.

Another caveat: there are no women player-characters in this campaign. We do have one woman player, but her character is a man because the game required us all to be soldiers in Leonidas’s royal guard. Women in Sparta at this time actually have a pretty good life compared to, say, Athens, where they would be shut up behind closed doors or obliged to go about veiled. Spartan women owned property and conducted business, they were confident and outspoken, they mingled on the street with men and wore no veils. In fact, they were sneered at as “thigh showers” in the rest of Greece because of their revealing split skirts. Meeow. So you could have a game based around a group of Spartan women, but it would have a very different character from one involving Spartan men.

The best equivalent I can think of off the top of my head is the way men’s and women’s roles are portrayed in classic westerns. Out on the wild frontier, men are men and they let their fists and six-guns do their talking for them. But that society is at heart matriarchal. Women don’t take a back seat the way they would in the drawing rooms of cities back east at the time. Think of the Spartan mother pointing to her son’s shield as he set out for war: “With it, or on it.” They could be as laconic as their menfolk, those Spartan dames.

Anyway, if you pick up the Sparta sourcebook, bear in mind that it’s just designed for roleplaying male characters. Which is also something of an irony, as the game I chose to run didn't involve any of the fighting for which we nowadays think the Spartans famous. This scenario was 90% investigative. The players are tasked with uncovering the full story of King Cleomenes’s suicide -- if it was suicide. That scenario would have been equally suited to female characters, but as it was a prequel I was stuck with the characters we already had. If you play it (coming up next week) with women characters, drop a note in the comments about how it went.

Setting the scene for the PCs

The year is 485 BC – five years after the Battle of Marathon, but Persia remains an ominous storm cloud in the east. You are Spartans youths who, at 20, have just entered the lowest category of adulthood. Who knows what the future holds for you. Great things? But to you as individuals that is meaningless; a great future means a great future for the Spartan state which is your whole lives.

In creating your character, recall the advice given at Delphi. First: know thyself. You are Spartans, trained for the specific purpose of being hoplite infantry, the world’s most effective shock-troops. Never mind what you later became; maybe the seeds of that were in you even this early, but right now you are soldiers of the phalanx. Secondly: nothing in excess. There’s a temptation to max some stats and minimize others, but a well-rounded character may do better in the long run.

The virtues of a Spartan are: obedience, loyalty, courage, steadfastness, and piety. Reflect those how you will, but bear in mind that you are the aristocrats of your society – the knights, in effect – and civilized behaviour is important to you. Your principal training is in spear, shield, javelin and military manoeuvres. And yet you are very far from the brutal, half-savage warmongers of 300. It is said that it is easier to convince ten thousand Athenians to go to war than one Spartan. To draw an anachronistic parallel with today’s Marines, you are the sheepdogs. Your training is aimed at making sure that, while Spartans rarely start a fight, they can be sure of being able to end it.

While choosing your other skills, you may want to consider how you spent your late teens – that is, the “senior high” of the Agoge. This is where you pick up those extra-curricular skills.

Maybe one in ten of the 18+ group are considered as recruits for the Krypteia (think: Special Branch meets the Freemasons) and to test their mettle this “regeljugend” are sent out into the countryside to spy on helots and murder any who seem like they might be trouble-makers. So in that case you might pick up stealth skills and outdoor survival, for example.

Other late teens focus on subjects like diplomacy (learning languages, history and oratory) or on religious matters (lore and ritual) or on athletics and sports (especially the rugby-on-steroids ball game episkyros). Or maybe you’ve stepped out of one of the main school paths to do your own thing: travel, hunting, even medicine; those would count as eccentric choices but are tolerated in moderation.


  1. Hi Dave do you ever listen to Dan Carlin's podcast Hardcore History ? He's done some interesting stuff on the Spartans in his most recent series "King of Kings"

    1. That's a new one on me, John, but I'll check it out. I'm quite a fan of Melvyn Bragg's In Our Time podcasts, which often deal with historical subjects.

    2. Yes, IOT is great although you only get 40 minute segments - Dan Carlin has done a 6 part series on World War 1 "Blueprint for Armageddon " which clocks in at about 18 hours !

    3. 40 minutes is how long I spend on the cross-trainer, so IOT is quite a useful fit for me :-)