Tuesday, 10 July 2018

The Problem of Sport

I play a lot of sport, I watch a lot of sport. With the sole exception of golf, I can enjoy almost any sporting activity you could name. But I've never played in an RPG which has sport as its focus. I can think of a number of reasons for this.

1. A lot of nerds don't like sport. Thinking about it, most of the people I've played RPGs with over the years have been of the two-left-feet, "it's just eleven men running around on the grass chasing an inflated pig's bladder", last-to-be-picked-for-team-games-during-gym-classes subspecies of geek (which I think is probably the dominant variety).

2. There aren't many RPGs that concern sport, and the ones that do are not popular. This is undoubtedly causally related to reason 1.

3. Sport is hard to operationalise for RPG purposes. This is for two sub-reasons:

a.  If you want the actual sporting events to be the main focus, what you will essentially end up doing is playing out the minutiae of matches in extended form with bits of role-playing in between, so that ultimately you may as well just play a table-top sport game such as Blood Bowl.

b. If you want it to be more to do with role playing, you would either end up with a very proscribed and railroady sort of experience in which the PCs mainly do the same thing over and over again in slightly different ways (playing different teams in different places every week, repeat ad nauseum), or with a game which is mostly about the adventures the PCs get up to between games, in which case why not just have them be adventurers?

4. It's hard to think up new sports that make sense (just ask JK Rowling) and existing ones are really complicated to model. Games Workshop did a stunningly good job with Blood Bowl, which is ridiculously fun to play while also kind of making sense as a mixture of rugby league, American football and Warhammer. But that may be the exception that proves the rule.

That said, I don't think all of these problems are insurmountable. In order to work, the game would have to be both compelling in the sense of being very enjoyable and tense to play through a match/bout/event, while also having a method of generating interesting random events to take place during downtime, together with a way of rewarding PCs for spending time training or learning new skills. You would have to make both elements of the game equally rewarding and deep, in other words, and that would require a lot of effort.

Oddly enough, the "builds" mentality of 3rd edition D&D marries well to the idea of sport: it would perhaps be quite straightforward to develop a gladiatorial version of D&D 3.5, and I suspect many people have. Old School D&D, not so much - indeed, the general trend among storygamers and D&D enthusiasts alike is, I think, towards being rules-lite rather than crunchy, and if sport is to be done well there needs to be a good amount of crunch.


  1. For me, sport in RPGs exacerbates the problem of combat in RPGs without any of the payoff. The problem is that the action tends to be much, much slower than the event it's simulating. Now, if a two-minute fight takes ten minutes, that's not much of a problem. But an 80-minute match played at the same rate becomes a whole lot worse. It's probably your whole session - or more than one.

    And there's no real payoff, because a game's ultimately just a game. If you're playing an orcish wargame against an orc in the orc's lair: you're a layer too far down for it to be fun (at least, if it happens often). An Alviss-style battle of wits would be much more fun to play out, as would a straight fight.

    Yes, you could have important consequences hinging on a game, but if the game takes up much time, then those consequences are going to be irksomely delayed.

    Despite having played rugby for years and years, I've never seen the attraction of Blood Bowl. I may well have missed out, but if I'm playing a game, I'd rather play a game with a *story*. A battle or skirmish or raid is much more satisfying in narrative terms, because the fictional stakes are higher (and aren't something I'd rather be *really* doing myself).

    That's not to say that sport doesn't produce stories, but that the stories tend to arise from the campaign/season/tournament, rather than from an individual match. For example, the 1995 World Cup (South African victory, vicious early matches, "Susie", defeat of the All Blacks and Lomu) is much more than the story of the final. Ditto This Sporting Life. Or the current football World Cup; the story very clearly isn't finished.

    All of that is why I always found the Trollball explanations and rules by far the most tiresome part of the otherwise excellent Trollpak. But I know that many people think otherwise!

    1. I don't know if I agree that sport only produces stories across a season or tournament. It does, but each game is also a story - that's part of the appeal, I think. Wasn't England v Croatia itself a story, with a beginning, middle and end?

    2. It had no end for me, alas - I was trapped in work with it on on the laptop, and the STV link went stubbornly down halfway through extra time!

      Well, yes. But isn't there something unsatisfactory about the *sort* of story you get in a match? I mean, the most exciting sporting event I've ever seen was this year's Calcutta Cup. We were sitting behind the England line for the first half, which was perfect positioning from a local perspective. And it was exhilarating for the first 40 and fraught for the second - so perfect. But it would take about five minutes to describe satisfactorily in full - about the same time it takes to watch the highlights.

      I can see that a well-designed boardgame (I'll take your word on Blood Bowl) might convey that sort of experience, but I don't really see how it could be a satisfactory RPG session. Either you get the blow-by-blow boardgame instead of an RPG session (which will take longer than the match does in game time, almost inevitably) or you get an impressionistic 'highlights' set-up in a very short time. So you're either playing a boargame/wargame instead of an RPG session or having a short, abstracted interlude. If the latter, it's something like a chase or tavern gambling or whatever, or it's a series - and so a season.

      If the former? Well, if there's a big game that's pivotal to the plot every so often, you could just have the PCs play Blood Bowl (or whatever's appropriate) against the GM. The problem here is asymmetry, though: several players v one GM.

      That makes it a bit harder to do than integrate a war into the campaign. A quick-play wargame like Hordes of the Things or Dragon Rampant can be quite easily incorporated into an RPG session, because you can have several commands playing against the GM's several commands at once without too much trouble.

      Perhaps there are sports games that are as "zoomed out" as HotT, though.

      Actually, one thing that work out pretty well as an RPG session would be some sort of inter-village medieval football - something like an extended version of the Kirkwall ba game. If you had, say, a four-mile space between the villages, you could do that as a hexcrawl with ambushes set by the other team, lurking bandits who don't care about the ball but want to divest players of their sporting finery, and - of course - lurking monsters disturbed by all the ruckus.

  2. Racing -- foot, saddleback, or chariot -- is the best sport to model in an RPG. As a bonus, if you work out a system for that you also have a viable chase procedure for other occasions.

    1. It’s good to see you bumping around here Roger

      Say, what about shooting contests?

    2. There is one in Pendragon, right? (Race rules, I mean. Not shooting contests.)

  3. Sport in fiction is almost never really about sport, though, is it? It's all about character drama, whether that's some generic story about a bunch of scrappy underdogs learning to win through the power of teamwork, or the sort of tortured psychological anguish you see in 1940s and 1950s boxing movies. A focus on the actual nuts and bolts of sport - strategy, training, etc - would usually make for a much less compelling story.

    I'm sure you could put together some kind of storygame that would let you play through 'sport movie' storylines - in fact, I'd be surprised if someone hadn't done one already, probably as a PBtA hack. But I struggle to imagine an RPG group, even one composed of sports fans, really enjoying playing out a fictional football game in the same way as a fictional firefight. Surely that sort of thing is what board games are for.

    1. Doesn't the character drama "emerge" in a sport game in the same way we always say that narrative "emerges" in OSR games?

  4. This reminds me of how it's hard to create or GM military games - where PCs are part of a military unit following the chain of command, doing what they're told. Sports has it even worse with PCs doing the exact same thing every week.

  5. Playing by the rules isn't much fun in an RPG so have the campaign be focused on cheating as much as possible while not getting caught while keeping the opposition from doing the same.

  6. I'm reminded of a discussion I once read about a Yu-gi-oh rpg. I don't remeber much other than the general consensus at the time was that something like Fate would work best and that the duels would be heavily abstracted to advance the actual roleplay.

  7. Pure sport better translates to non-RPG tabletop games. I'm thinking of Car Wars, for example.

    For RPG, I think the sport would have to be in the service of a larger goal (someone else mentioned gladiators) both to the players and their world. A pure sport RPG, with no world outside the playing field, sounds pretty boring to me. Sort of like playing a game about playing a game.

    I recall Piers Anthony's Juxtaposition: a planet of players backed by shadowy patrons who go head-to-head in randomly-selected games. Winning and losing can have huge, even life-or-death, consequences. It sounds to me like the basis for a campaign if constructed well.

  8. Trollball is pretty big in some areas of Glorantha...

  9. Have you seen The World Wide Wrestling RPG? I've got it, never run it (of course). Powered By The Apocalypse, made a lot of noise when it was crowdfunded a few years back. Moves/rolls are for the stuff inside and outside of the ring, character playbooks are based on archetypal wrestling characters.

  10. Some unrelated comments:

    i) I was going to say that the sporting events would presumably have set procedures which wouldn't be effected by role-playing, encouraging players to ignore the role-playing and just work on whatever stats helped them win the match. But substitute 'combat' for 'sport' and existing RPGs have the same potential problem.

    ii) Barnstorming teams ( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Barnstorm_(sports) ) could potentially live a similar life to wandering adventurers.

    iii) I've got a few notes for an RPG-like game, called 'A Game of Throw-Ins', about managing a soccer team in a fantasy world.

    1. PS Apparently there's a sport equivalent to LARPing:


    2. Actually, managing a sport team might work better - dealing with rivalries, trying to get your team an advantage without actually directly controlling play, scouting players, etc.

    3. Footy Manager (https://boardgamegeek.com/boardgame/96602/footy-manager) is an example of a system for abstracting matches.

  11. A game where the focus is sport, with social intrigue roleplaying in between doesn't sound so bad. Exactly what it looks like would depend on the players' preferences.

    I immediately think of the episode of Jeeves & Wooster where everyone is betting on (and sabotaging) the events at a church picnic.

    I also think of "Trullion: Alastor 2262" by Jack Vance. The fictional sport of "hussade" seems at least as interesting as quidditch (although I don't love the "sheirl" as human virgin snitch idea). But like, the key aristocrat is trying to win enough money to buy back some land that his idiot family gave away while he was in the army. In addition to social intrigue related to putting the team together (and improving it), there's intrigue related to the land sale, and intrigue related to sabotaging other teams.

    So maybe a few ideas emerge:

    a) the players have their main characters who participate in intrigue between game-matches. during the game itself, the players also control some number of team-members as proxies. the players might also be compelled to roll the dice for the opposing team, although the judge makes decisions for them.

    b) the roster of the team, and/or the rosters of opposing teams are things that can be affected by social intrigue. maneuver well to improve your roster or disqualify key members of the opposing teams.

    c) don't actually roleplay the entire sport-match. abstract it a bit. teams are rolling dice, both to determine what "event" happens, and to add to a running total. "events" range from disadvantageous/disastrous to advantageous - and can include changing one's opponent's dice-size (which can make it both easier/harder to reach the total, and make the likely events more/less advantageous). when one team's running total gets high enough, they've scored, and the next point is ready to be contested.

    you can play (1) until one side reaches a certain total (3 in hussade), (2) have quarters and halftime (so 4 points per match, divided between the two teams), or (3) have some maximum number of dice rolls per match, that get ticked down every time someone rolls (so the number of points scored depends on whether the teams get a lot of advantageous or disadvantageous events, and how quickly the reach the total needed to score).

    1. Yes - again, maybe managing/running a team works better than actually having the PCs be the team itself. See my comment above.

      Also, having a reason for running the team (needing money, needing to win the league for some reason, etc.).

  12. Why not use a board game or rotisserie league to simulate the games? People will sometimes (and should) run their castle upkeep cycles away from the table in the in-between times. There’s no reason you couldn’t do the same for sporting contests.

    Delta has the best chase rules.

  13. “Sometimes I can’t see myself when I’m with you. I can only just see you.”
    Online Shopping Engine
    Best Price Online Shopping Engine