Where people go, so too goes the need for competitive sport. On Wyrlde, there are a few different kinds of Grand Games, and each is very much a part of everyday life.
500 years ago, the Black Emperor ordered that there be built a grand and great Stadium in Sibola and granted to his eight Dukes the right to found and train and prepare Vanguards. And from that humble beginning arose The Grand Games, the Spectacles, the Show of Shows, the one thing that has overwhelmed all other entertainments in the Empire – and even beyond, for even Antilia has built a Stadium.
A Stadium is a vast, oval building that typically rises five, seven, or even nine stories high. Made of vast blocks of stone, they can vary in decoration and manner, but are set up so that one can enter from twenty-five marked points at the ground level and make one’s way up the many ramps to the different levels. The levels are important, for the wealthiest have large terraces on the third level, regardless of the height, and the first level is reserved for the assorted participants in these shocking and stunningly varied games. All the other levels are set for those who can afford seating, which is typically in a small are called a box, with four seats to each space, and beyond that they are packed tight. In the very tall ones, the seating is little more than a bench that surrounds the entire thing, for those who are the poorest but still want to partake in the viewing.
There are other places, as well – smaller, fashioned of wood more often, typically around 3 stories tall, with the nobility and participants all crammed into the same first level. While the vast City Stadiums can hold as many 30,000 people (nearly half to a third of a city!), these smaller ones can hold perhaps one to two thousand.
All of them share a few traits in common though – originally as part of an Imperial decree (that was immediately flouted by Aztlan), but today more a formalized aspect because of complaints from the guilds. First is the size of them. A Stadium is oval in shape, 500 feet wide and 700 feet long. Within it lies what on the surface appears to be an Arena that is also oval, 300 feet wide and 500 feet long. The Arena is surrounded by a seven-foot-high wall, beyond which is a seven foot wide, double that deep trench, above which rises the seating are, with the first ring of seats also having stairs that descend at 25 points that do not match the entrances, being slightly rotated. The “stands”, or seating area, is divided into 25 sections as well, and within each section are either marked boxes or general seating, depending on the level.
Beneath the arena, which in its most basic form appears to be little more than polished stone tiles, lies the warren of rooms, passages, chambers, secrets, ways, means, and places to turn this massive place into all manner of possible environments, and a small army of people to not only make it all work, but to do it on time in sequence. It is said that the art of clockworking began here, and that some of the amazing clockworks one can buy of grand games are derived from the massive wheels and cogs and levers and what not that allow the entire are to be changed. Sand can be moved out to cover the floor, grass can be raised, the whole thing can be flooded, and more.
Situated about halfway along the length of the Arena are two large entrances, typically about 25 feet high and 25 feet wide. These massive openings are sealed by immense doors that can open in sections as needed, from something the size of a person up to something the size of a great ship.
The top of each Stadium is ringed with long poles that are connected to a vast ring, and within the ring is a grid of triangles arranged to support both ropes and pulleys and chains and other items, but also that supports a series of narrow walkways that cross and provide further capabilities beneath the grid. Above, the grid supports large sheets of waterproofed canvas, which also hangs over the seating areas, though less rigidly, Water from rain is always collected, however – it provides the best source for the aquatic spectaculars and is stored in cisterns beneath the building. Vast fires and other features exist, including ritual spaces for the workers who help to shape the events that are possibly the most important entertainment in all of Wyrlde.
Lighting is made possible through carefully placed movable mirrors that right upper walls, above the heads of the highest level of spectators. These are manned and moved throughout the day for lighting effects and to ensure that the whole of the Arena is well lit. The larger boxes and nobility patios all have additional lighting as well.
Stadiums are laid out along a compass line, and at one end of the stadium, slightly overhanging the very edge of the Arena, is the Imperial Box, though really it is just called that because of the one in Sibola. It is a small pavilion, able to seat about thirty or so, but is the place for the ruler of the area to sit and enjoy the entertainment.
While the Stadiums themselves are incredibly structures, based on very ancient designs, they are themselves only one of the many wonders that surround the Grand Games.
Grand Games are held in every city and town, and some villages that have built one, every 10th and 24th of the month. They are held even if there is a local festival – they just end up becoming combined, and the truth is most people wouldn’t be able to tell the difference. The night of the 9th and the morning of the 11th (and the same for the 23rd and 25th) there is a festival like atmosphere, with betting, celebrations, parties, vendors selling food and banners – it is an experience in and of itself, and the Circle of Lanterns is known to run some very interesting deals. Entire lives are planned around these games.
Each Stadium has five to nine, and traditionally eight, though one is always considered lower and an upstart and unworthy, official Campuses, and these are where the peculiar arts of entertainment are taught apprenticed, built up, and sometimes even housed. In the earliest years, these campuses included a barracks, a training field, and tutors, all derived and supported by the Dukes. These days, while nobility is still involved in many cases, they are often owned, run, and operated by patrons or well-connected merchants.
For the poor, enrollment in a Campus offers a trade, regular food, housing of sorts and a fighting chance of fame and fortune. If they are not able to work as Vanguards, they may find trade and new skills as one of the hundreds who supported the games, which happen with little failure on a schedule and persist enough that one can make a very respectable living.
The Grand Games are advertised well beforehand, on billboards that gave the planned main events for the games, the Curator of the Stadium, the participating Campuses and their most famous or infamous members, date, and the number of paired Vanguards to be used. The cost for a seat can vary from 2 Bits for a bench seat at the top where one might get a nosebleed or neck cramp looking down, to a full crown if you can get a noble to give up their box.
Other highlighted features could include details of featured beasts to be shown or slain, executions, music and any luxuries to be provided for the spectators, such as an awning against the sun, water sprinklers, food, drink, sweets and occasionally “door prizes”. For enthusiasts and gamblers, a more detailed program was distributed on the day before, showing the names, types and match records of Vanguard pairs, and their order of appearance.
There is absolutely no question that the Vanguards are the stars of the show when it comes to the Grand Games. Skilled, trained, fierce, cunning, creative, and known to be able to cleave through entire forces almost singlehanded, there are few who would say that they do not deserve it, for while they are best known for their martial prowess, their true skill is still and always a gift for showmanship.
They are not, however, the only thing that happens at the Grand Games, for they are a constant, ongoing competition that ultimately ends in the weeklong Imperial Games held in Sibola on every anniversary of the Emperor’s ascension. This is currently Meadow 15th. A Grand Cycle, where the competitors vie to move forward in rankings, is two years, and so after an average of two dozen Games, their particular aspect of performance is honed to a fine edge. This can be important, especially for many of the more unusual side events.
Where I came from originally, I remember some odd things, though they are often vague and seem quite strange. But among them are county fairs, carnivals, circuses, sport contests, and craft shows. The Grand Games are a lot like all those things thrown together at once. With brutal contests of assorted types added in.
Anyone can enter the games, but everyone must pay a fee of 1 Shilling per event entered into. One need not be a member of a Campus, and one can enter as a team – so long as each member of the team is paid for. Entrants must specify which events they are entering and are walked to the areas for them to await, where they are typically attended by rather burly and experienced guards who have an additional role in ensuring that they do not suddenly change their minds.
Once entered, one must complete one’s event, though standing doesn’t matter.
The Grand Games start early, with announcements just before the Morning Bell and lasting until the Night Bell is rung. For some events, multiple activities will be going on at once, and for others the audience applause combined with judges is what determines a win. In events that happen around the Stadium, craftsfolk might be showing off their finest work, artisans may be competing within a given theme, and bards may be practicing or performing. I one was asked to judge the work of confectioners who had been asked to craft bouquets of flowers from little more than pure sugar and I will forever be in awe of what I saw.
At the Morning Bell’s last peal, a procession enters the arena, led by Heralds who bear the standards that signify the Sponsoring Noble and the Stadium Lord. They are followed by a small band of trumpeters playing a fanfare. Next is a group of scribes to record the outcome, and a group of Glitterati who carry the assorted wreaths, circlets, and bouquets used to honor victors. The Apprentices then enter as a retinue who carry the arms and armor to be used, and the section chiefs and Games designers as well as other folks. After them come the many assorted performers who will have a scant Chime to prove themselves, and finally they come, last no but least: The Vanguard.
This is a quick procession, marching quickly around the Arena in a single circuit before the Arena floor begins its transformation. While this happens, there is likely to be a troupe of burlesque musicians and tumblers, perhaps including a well-trained animal doing something silly in a peculiar costume, and they may even do a sort of mock version of the proceedings about to happen. These troupes will appear throughout the day, providing distraction as the Arena configures. Within the stands themselves, vendors will travel selling and providing food and drinks, baubles, flowers, and more to the spectators. As the Arena nears completion, the performers will vanish, and the Stadium Lord will announce the first event.
In a given day, there are going to be 10 Arena based events. There are 25 different kinds of events that can be held, and within each is a variety of ways in which it can be held, and Stadium Lords are often hired based on how creative they can be. Some will combine two different kinds of events, for example.
A Stadium Lord’s role is to ensure that their games are entertaining, that they are exciting, that there is something that will become memorable about them, and to please their Sponsor, typically a noble, in doing all of those things well. Public sentiment is usually a major deciding factor, and more than a few stadium Lords have been removed or penalized for a bad games.
There are five broad groupings: Blood Sports, Entertainments, Physical Prowess, Skilled Competitions, and Team Events. Events are accompanied by music, played as interludes, or building to a “frenzied crescendo” during combats to heighten the suspense during a Vanguard’s appeal; blows may be accompanied by trumpet-blasts and drum strikes, staggers accompanied by violin arpeggios. The whole is very much a production, even if the stakes and risks are very real – and those who can appeal to the crowd will find their efforts and rewards improved.
The possible kinds of events, and their subtypes in some cases, are described below.
Blood Sports are the combat and martial arts battles of the Grand Games. These are the highlight of the day, and are as inventive, varied and novel as the Stadium can afford. Before the Blood Sports begin, a whole fanciful production is done to make a show of the Stadium Lord checking all the weapons to be used in the next event. It ends with the naming of the bouts. It should be noted that Blood Sports can involve several different efforts. From solo matches to outright campus grudge matches.
In this format, entrants are given two sticks, one stick for offense, one for defense, and told to essentially beat the crap out of each other.
The entertainments often began with beast hunts. Meganimals and Beasts, abominations, aberrations, constructs, and horrors are all among the favorite spectacles, the brave Vanguards fighting them and taking them down.
These are often featured matches, frequently between famous Vanguards, but always one on one. Challenge match terms are agreed to beforehand by the challengers and can (and are pressured to) include death.
A free-for-all hand to hand fight that mixes boxing, kicking, and wrestling. There are only three rules: don’t bite (nobody likes a biter), don’t go for genitals, and don’t gouge out your opponent’s eyes. Everything else is fair game. Except in rare cases where a judge might intervene, the fights lasted until one person surrenders or dies.
Mage craft against mage craft. Note that this can include Swordmage Duels. It always features two, though each bout may be a part of a larger series. Only elemental and Force magics are allowed, and there is a ritual protective shield raised over them to safeguard.
Most Vanguard Events pair off either teams belong to a Campus, or Solos, in an assortment of possible formats. The Vanguards may hold informal warm-up matches, using blunted or dummy weapons – some Vanguard, however, may use blunted weapons throughout.
Armored Glove Boxing
Blunt & Spiked
Lasso & Spear
Net & Trident
Entertainments are set in between the other events and feature an assortment of things meant to get the crowd excited or to entertain and have them judge the efforts of competitors.
Executions are rare, and so they tend to get a particular degree of prominence. They are exactly as it says: an execution. Often the condemned will be armed and allowed to defend themselves, in order to provide a show, but the end result is always predetermined – even if they win, they will merely be returned in 14 days’ time to face it again, and they will not be given medical care.
Vanguards have been involved in these as executioners, though most of the crowd, and the Vanguards themselves, prefer the “dignity” of an even contest.
Oration is a skill and typically two persons will be given a time to speak – sometimes four, with a concomitant reduction in time, as they take turns, and they are adjudged by both a panel of Scholars and by the audience applause. Usually done mid-day when people are hungry.
Performances by solo artists, troupes, and more, of almost any sort, so long as it can set up, be taken down, and done within the passage of a single Chime.
For this, they fill the arena with water, add a bunch of boats and recreate famous naval battles. These are often extremely bloody, often featuring prisoners sentenced to die if there are enough, or those desperate for a chance to get into a Campus or even make their way solo and become a Vanguard (even Apprentices), are set to fight one another with very high mortality rates, unlike many other competitions.
Reenactment of famous battles done on dry land, just like above.
These are contests held in three groupings: Men, Women, and Enby. The goal is to be the best in their group, and then the final rounds of each are done among the three winners. It is often startling to many how often a woman wins.
Gymnastics & Acrobatics on a specially designed course, with requirements for certain kinds of movements.
A competition that requires swimming running, and exercise while bearing a 75 pound pack.
An Obstacle Course that must be completed by the entrants in the time allotted – and these are very dangerous and sometimes deadly courses in the Imperial Games.
Running. Sometimes hurdles are added, sometimes the Arena is set to alter, and sometimes the contestants are armed.
Weightlifting and Throwing (lift it and throw it). The infamous Toss of Brillan Mastagar, a dwarf who hurled a 12 foot pole an astonishing 30 feet is still talked about eighty years later. A subvariant is hammer tossing.
These competitions involve demonstrating skill and are all entrants welcome.
Throwing Axes at a target
Hurling weights for distance and accuracy.
Throwing Knives and darts at a target.
There are five Events that are specifically only for teams. The same Campuses often sponsor these teams, and that quite grueling.
Battleball involves a hard, round ball about eight inches in diameter that must be delivered into a “Safe zone” from the middle of the field, which spans the length of the arena. The teams are made up of 9 persons on each team, and the only rule is that no one can be hurt so bad they cannot continue or the team forfeits.
It is a shocking brutal game.
This is the game of those who are prepared to die. It is played pretty much like Burnshot, save that hips, elbows, and heads can be used as well (just no hands), and the ball is usually a semisoft, sawdust filled ball wrapped in twine and covered with leather. However, the game is played with all players having to carry two knives.
The objective here is to get the metal, six inch diameter ball through a hole on the opposing team’s side that measures 2 feet square and sits seven feet off the ground. Behind the whole is a chute that returns the ball to the field. Two or four teams play this on a field that is 100 feet long and 100 feet wide, and often there are two bouts going at once. Teams are made up of five people, and they have to get the ball through that space only with their feet. The ball is filled with burning coals, and the game lasts exactly one Chime.
Essentially one big game of tug-of-war, played over a huge fire or mud pit. As you may have guessed, the losers either showed their cowardice by letting go, or became intimately acquainted with a roaring fire pit. The gambling on this one is huge, and it is said the penalty for allowing gaming to influence one’s actions is death. Each side is allowed up to 25 players on each end of the heavy, thick rope. Both sides must be equal in both number and weight, and there are five weight categories. In the Imperial Games, the pit is said to be filled with acid. Not true. But the little fish in it may make it seem that way.
A game where a team competes with another to strike a target and score a point in the other teams territory. In six foot deep water, and the ball cannot touch the water or the team in control loses a point. This is one of the few games longer than a chime – it is typical for it to be set for two chimes.
Victors always receive Prizes, split most often with any sponsor they may have. Some of the most common prizes are feasts, weapons, items of value, items of desire, and of course, wealth. In the Imperial Games, these prizes can consist of significant sums of money – one year the grand Prize was ten Crowns, though usually they will be something less.
Prize money and gambling are at the heart of all the games, for they are what support the efforts of a Vanguard, a Campus, and patrons. Gambling is done on everything, both formally and informally, organized, and friendly.
Spectators prefer to watch highly skilled, well-matched Vanguard with complementary fighting styles; these are also the costliest to train and to hire.
A general melee of several, lower-skilled Vanguards is far less costly, but also less popular. Even among the Vanguard, match winners might have to fight a new, well-rested opponent, either by prearrangement; or a “substitute” Vanguard who fought at the whim of the Stadium Lord as an unadvertised, unexpected “extra”. This yields two combats for the cost of three Vanguards, rather than four; such contests are prolonged, and in some cases, bloodier.
At the opposite level of the profession, a Vanguard reluctant to confront his opponent might be whipped, or goaded with hot irons, until he engages through sheer desperation. Combats between experienced, well-trained Vanguards demonstrate a considerable degree of stagecraft. Among the cognoscenti, bravado and skill in combat are esteemed over mere hacking and bloodshed; some Vanguards make their careers and reputation from bloodless victories.
Trained Vanguards are expected to observe professional rules of combat. Most matches employ a senior referee and an assistant to caution or separate opponents at some crucial point in the match. Referees are usually retired Vanguards whose decisions, judgement and discretion are, for the most part, respected; they can stop bouts entirely, or pause them to allow the combatants rest, refreshment and a rub-down. A Vanguard who refuses mercy is dispatched by their opponent. To die well, a Vanguard should never ask for mercy, nor cry out. A “good death” redeemed the Vanguard from the dishonorable weakness and passivity of defeat and provided a noble example to those who watched: A match is won by the Vanguard who overcomes his opponent or kills him outright.
Victors receive an award from the Stadium Lord. An outstanding fighter might receive a crown and money from an appreciative crowd but for anyone originally condemned the greatest reward was manumission, symbolized by the gift of a wooden training sword from the Stadium Lord. This is rare, but does happen, particularly if a given condemned somehow survives seven matches – it is considered an Ordeal and judgement of the Powers That Be.
A Vanguard can acknowledge defeat by raising a finger, in appeal to the referee to stop the combat and refer to the Stadium Lord, whose decision usually rests on the crowd’s response. In the earliest Grand Games, death was considered a righteous penalty for defeat; later, those who fought well might be granted remission at the whim of the crowd or the Stadium Lord.
The contract between Stadium Lord and the Campuses may include compensation for unexpected deaths; this can be some fifty times higher than the lease price of the Vanguard.
The night before the Games, the Vanguards are given a banquet and opportunity to order their personal and private affairs; it is sometimes called a “last meal” to acknowledge the truth of a Vanguard: for some, these games will be deadly.
Campuses are headed by their familia Vanguardia, which after signing on have lawful power over life and death of every family member – that is, all the members of the Campus. Socially, new Vanguard are on the same level as pimps and butchers and as despised as price gougers. No such stigma was attached to a Campus owner of good family, high status, and independent means. Campuses will rent out Vanguards for private functions of various sorts, and there is a reason that Vanguards are often very handsome, very beautiful, or very appealing. In some cases, this kind of activity can make up for the entirety of a training program for them.
Volunteers require a magistrate’s permission to join a Campus as an Apprentice. If this is granted, the Campus’ physician assesses their suitability. Their contract stipulates how often they are to perform, their fighting style and earnings. A bankrupt or debtor accepted as an Apprentice can negotiate with his Familia Vanguardia for the partial or complete payment of his debt.
All prospective Vanguards, whether volunteer or condemned, are bound to service by a sacred oath. Apprentices train under teachers of fighting styles, probably retired Vanguards. They can ascend through a hierarchy in the same way as any other profession, with Grand Master Vanguards being a very rare thing indeed. Lethal weapons are prohibited in the schools – weighted, blunt wooden versions are used. Fighting styles are learned through constant rehearsal as choreographed “sequences. An elegant, economical style is preferred. Training includes preparation for a stoic, unflinching death. Vanguards are typically accommodated in cells, arranged in barrack formation around a central practice arena. Discipline can be extreme, even lethal. Successful training requires intense commitment.
Those condemned are branded or marked with a tattoo on the left side of the neck. Condemned are usually sent to a given Campus under a contract, and at least one (in Durango) is almost exclusively made up of condemned persons.