As I write this, the baseball World Series is going on here in the States and people are looking forward to the World Cup for soccer next summer as the last countries qualify. I’ve never been that into professional sports (and I imagine that I’m not alone in that among RPG enthusiasts) but they’re a great way to add some depth and color to a campaign world. In this post, I go over a few ways to do that.
Besides all the sporting events currently underway, another reason I’ve been thinking about sports in RPGs is the much-loved dinosaur race in the port city of Nyanzaru. This event, which takes up the biggest chunk of the first chapter in Tomb of Annihilation, is an awesome chance to live out your childhood dream of riding a dinosaur, but in the land of Chult it’s also a major sporting event that is drawing in crowds and money. Before that, the Race of Eight Winds in Eberron, the chariot racing in Fall of the Camarilla, and even gambling in Freeport are memorable examples of games and competition in RPGs but you don’t have to rely on others putting it into your game for you. There are lots of reasons to write them in yourself.
But I’m Not a Sports Person!
Let’s just get this out of the way first. You might be thinking “Yeah, this sounds interesting but my players aren’t really into sports.” If so, you’re looking at this all wrong. Nobody plays RPGs to be themselves, we’re all playing characters and trying on different lives. Your players might also not be into sword fighting or shooting guns or playing the lute or exploring alien worlds (at least, not all of those) but they’re willing to try it out to pretend that they are.
Putting a sporting event into your game can be a way for your players to pretend they are part of sports culture for an evening or two. Barring that, it’s a way for them to thumb their noses at a sporting event without any actual risk (you might not be able to roll your eyes over football without offending a family member but no one is emotionally vested in dragonhawk racing). Player feelings aside, sports are a major part of our world whether you’re into them or not and adding that element into other worlds can make them feel more interesting and engaging.
A Gathering of Forces
One really big reason to use sports in RPGs is that they bring people together. Sure you can talk about a city being very excited about a sports event or player characters might bond with an NPC over admiration of a particular team but they also literally bring people together. A big sports event draws huge crowds and it makes for an excellent backdrop to a set-piece battle. Hazardous terrain can spice up a combat and in this case the hazards are panicking crowds and collapsing stadium seats.
For something especially fun, consider a huge event like the World Cup or the Olympics. These bring together fans from around the world and if that happens in your campaign world, who would show up? What happens when fans from hostile countries show up at the event? Could there be spies among them? I ran a (short-lived) campaign for Eclipse Phase that was focused on a hockey tour on Europa that was bringing in tourists from all over. A Firewall team had to negotiate this chaotic scene as they figured out who was smuggling in biogenic weapons and why.
Normally when you get visitors from nations that are hostile it’s for a diplomatic summit or something else official. The question inevitably becomes, though, why the PCs would get involved. For sensitive negotiations or a delicate military matter you hire random murder-hobos for security? I don’t think so. On the other hand, a sporting event that some crazy wandering sellswords who have unhinged warnings about a spy ring at the event? Well that’s just nuts and the PCs will likely have to take matters into their own hands.
Combat Without the Combat
Another great option for including sports in your campaign is to give the more physical characters a place to shine out of combat. Normally, the party goes to approach the crime boss or goblin chief or robot warlord and the party face steps forward to show proper respect or invoke ancient custom or provide a gift of silicon chips. Maybe the wizard casts some helpful spells or the rogue picks some pockets but the fighter and barbarian are sometimes relegated to the background.
Why not flip the tables? In order to meet with the NPC or make a reputation in the city you have to compete in a game of the beloved local sport. The physically-based skill checks mean that it will be up to the warriors to get through it. You also can run them concurrently: a negotiation in the stands that is affected by the prowess of the athletes in the arena. Either way, it’s a fun way of opening up new options for characters to excel where they normally are dead weight.
The Passage of Time
Even if your player characters never attend a sporting event, even if sports are never part of an adventure, you should consider including them. Sports are a great way to show the passage of time, something which can get truncated in some games. As your players delve into dungeons, travel across the nation, and face down dragons they hear about what’s going on. Harvests come in and winter snows melt but that stuff can’t happen every game session. What about hearing news from back home as they travel? While they were in the hinterlands, their home city’s sports team had a series of major victories and are poised to take the championship cup. Then they go to the trade city far to the south and when they return the final series was played and the team narrowly missed victory. Or maybe they won, to boost the spirits of a battered and bruised party.
Obviously, if all the current events updates are sports-related then the campaign starts to sound like talk radio. Still, this is something to mix into your normal background updates over the course of a campaign, something that is quickly relatable and draws the players into the game world. Give it a try and tell me what you think!