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Make Like A Gaming Pirate: Sports

ALL the sportsSports are not something you often see in your tabletop gaming. Society, possibly as far back as there has been a society, has had some sort of sport for entertainment. Wrestling, boar hunting, gladiatorial combat, baseball, horse racing, tag, and on and on. Yet despite the prominence of sports in cultures, especially our current society, very little of it has made the jump to be featured in our tabletop community. Not to say that sports are entirely absent, of course. Gladiatorial combat is not an uncommon thing to run into in fantasy games, races of all sorts are featured here and there, there’s an entire game based on a football parody (Blood Bowl), and so on. However, on the whole I think people have missed the possibilities presented by involving sports into your game. Maybe it’s because of the ingrained/perceived “nerd vs. jock” mentality, maybe it’s because you don’t think that your particular genre of game really would have much in the way of sports. I just hope that you might open up ESPN or chat with your football buddy and see what sort of ideas come to mind looking at the wild world of sports.

Cheaters May Or May Not Prosper
I suspect that as long as sports have been played, there have been people trying to cheat their way to victory (or at least not complete failure). Looking into the sports news in recent years, you can see that the trend certainly hasn’t changed. Performance enhancing drugs, accusations of fixing games or matches, deliberately trying to injure opposing players, doctored equipment, and more. As a GM, sports cheaters are an excellent opportunity to get players involved. And further, it’s not hard to get players involved on either side of the cheating equation. Players might be tasked to investigate the a grand champion of the arena and discover how he manages to consistently win in such one-sided fashion. Depending on the genre, players might find drugs, magical assistance, illegal genetic enhancements, the champion’s associates blackmailing his opponents into throwing a match, or crooked referees. Or maybe it’s the other way around, where players have to help someone cheat their way to victory. Maybe the players have been hired for the job, maybe they’re being blackmailed, maybe the person they’re helping is in desperate straits, or perhaps the players need one of the opponents taken down. Players don’t even have to do it from a morally upstanding reasoning either. Maybe they want revenge one one of the contestants for an insult. Maybe the players want to help someone cheat so they can rake in money from the betting. Which brings us to the second point…

I’ll bet on “The Criminal Element” to win, please
Betting and bookies and baseball oh myIf cheating was the first thing that happened after the creation of sport, I’m sure that betting was probably the third. I don’t think you hear as much about this sort of thing in the news, but every once in a while it does pop up. It’s something you’re more likely to find in movies, TV shows, and books. Because of all the fictional descriptions and scenarios sports betting, to me, brings to mind things like shady or slimy bookies, mob connections, desperate debtors, and rigged matches. Where there’s money to be made, you’ll find criminals trying to make or steal it. This may tie directly into the previous topic, where criminals ensure that someone cheats in some manner so that they can reap the benefits afterwards. The criminal element is an even better way to get players involved with sports-themed sessions because in many games, criminals are likely to be involved with the players anyway. Players might be hired to protect the star player on a football team because he refused to help throw a game and ended up costing the mob millions of dollars. A desperate friend of one of the PCs might beg for help because he got in over his head betting and owes the local thieves guild more than he could ever hope to pay back. The PCs might have to pretend to get into sports betting to get close to a particular criminal they need to capture and interrogate. When dealing with the criminal element and sports, the sport itself is often a secondary element, but sports don’t always have to play second fiddle…

A Winner Is You
If you really want to get the players involved in sports-themed campaigns or sessions, you should probably just ensure that they have to participate in the sport directly. It’s an easier situation than you might think and ideas are all around you. Look at Robin Hood and the idea of the archery contest that comes up in nearly every retelling. Movies are filled with stories of quirky bands of misfits that band together to play sports for different reasons. How many movies are about martial arts tournaments? Don’t you think some of those could make for an interesting game session? The question is how to get the players to that point, but I think there are a lot of options available to a creative GM or player. Maybe the players need the prize being given out for victory in a tournament or game. Maybe a character wants to prove himself the strongest/fastest/best and participating in the game is part of their personal character arc. Perhaps the time surrounding the game is the only time PCs can talk to someone who has vital information that they need to continue on with their task. So, now that you’ve got all these sports ideas, what sort of sport should you have your players get involved with?

Calvin Ball, All The Way
CalvinballIt’s easiest, especially in a modern or near future setting, to just use one of the sports out there right now. Football, basketball, baseball, hockey, soccer, boxing, cricket, or any other thing that catches your fancy. That’s not to say that these sports won’t work in another genre, it just might take some tweaking to produce something that better fits the play environment. Look at Harry Potter, for instance. Quidditch has a lot in common with games like hockey or soccer, but is made more exotic by being played on flying brooms and adding in another couple of balls. Blitzball from Final Fantasy X is also a lot like hockey, except played entirely underwater. Imagine people playing polo… while flying on gryphons. Some sports might not need changing in and of themselves, just the locale or environment. Imagine a swimming contest being held in a frigid mountain lake inhabited by dangerous aquatic creatures. Think about what a low-gravity parkour race through an abandoned orbital colony would be like. What would the pentathlon be like if it were being hosted by a fey court? If none of this works for what you have in mind, feel free to create something yourself. You could have a game where shooting a specific opposing player with a magical wand before that player gets to their homebase nets you points. Maybe a contestant has to do tricks and avoid obstacles while flying through a zero gravity course. Go crazy, make something fun.

Play Ball
Except in certain sorts of campaigns and genres, sports aren’t likely to be the focal point of the story. Despite that, I think there’s something to be said for considering adding sports scenarios or elements into a campaign, if for no other reason than to change things up and add some variety. In a serious and heroic D&D campaign, spending a couple of sessions dealing with corruption in the kingdom gryphon racing circuit can be a welcome lightening in mood. Exalted players might get really pumped up to kick ass in an epic martial arts tournament hosted by the Infernal Exalt they’ve sworn to kill. Shadowrunners playing bodyguard or body double for a famous Combat Biker and getting to enjoy the perks that come with it might be a nice change in pace from dealing with backstabbing corporate Johnsons and scummy underworld figures. The important thing is, as always, just trying to make things fun both for you as the GM and your players and I think that sports contain the seeds for numerous entertaining scenarios that you might not have considered before.


WolfSamurai (a.k.a. Aaron) has been a long time roleplaying geek, starting back with 2e Shadowrun almost 18 years ago. Through the years he’s played everything from D&D to Call of Cthulhu to Werewolf to Kult to Big Eyes, Small Mouth, and many other games. Recently he's branched into more indie fare with Technoir, Bulldogs!, Wu Xing, Dungeon World, and Do: Pilgrims of the Flying Temple. Aaron hopes to eventually be writing his own game products as well as fiction.

3 Responses to “Make Like A Gaming Pirate: Sports”

  • This gave me an interesting idea.

    Imagine a mage’s college playing a team-based version of a spell-duel.

    One member of each team is the “goalie” and is covered in multiple layers of warding magic. Each team tries to draw blood on the opposing team’s goalie. The rest of the team? Keep them from doing it.

  • That’s also an interesting idea. Certainly might be fun to deal with, especially with some of the other ideas presented where players have to help/stop cheating or deal with gambling.

  • […] Make Like A Gaming Pirate: Sports at RPG Musings: Looking for something a little different? What about a campaign based around team sports? Advancement, cheating, competition, crime, and intrigue abound! […]