Sports in Roleplaying Games
by David Morgan-Mar
Many people enjoy playing sports. Even more people like watching spectator sports, a pastime which has become a major form of recreation in modern society. RPG characters need time off from their adventures, so it is likely that many characters will have an interest in or participate actively in sports. This article discusses how sports can be used in roleplaying games, and presents some optional rules for treating them in a little more detail in GURPS.
Sports in the Campaign
Whether or not the optional rules for GURPS presented later in this article are adopted, it is worth examining how sports can be used in an adventure or campaign, in any RPG system.
In many types of campaign, an athlete is a suitable character type. The character may be a serious amateur athlete, such as an Olympic competitor (before professionals were allowed to compete), or may engage in sport for a living. Other characters for whom sports may form an important part of their personality are the fan and the weekend athlete.
An interest in sports, either through fanhood or participation, provides a focus for roleplayers. Since many of us are familiar with sports, it gives an easy hook for the player to get into character, and a point of reference through which others can relate to the character. Not many of us know what goes on in a nuclear physicist's head, but if he's also a Tigers fan, or bowls on Friday nights, then we know something through which we can engage him in conversation and understand some of his motivations.
A sports background can also justify the knowledge of certain skills not otherwise widely known, or suggest certain personality traits for roleplaying. Finally, sports can be used to provide game ideas for the GM and hooks to pull characters into adventure scenarios.
The Sports Fan
"Mighty Man! The Green Fiend has escaped and is terrorizing Megalopolis!"
"Hang on . . . the Giants are trailing by 2 with 3 minutes to go . . ."
Sports fans are common throughout many eras, whether gladiatorial spectator or modern football-lover; this can, of course, extend to cyberhockey or whatever events people of the future will watch. Any character of an appropriate time period can have the personality quirk of being a sports fan. Such a person will seek out scores for their favored sports and teams when they can, and either listen on radio, watch on TV, or attend events in person when convenient.
A more dedicated fan will attempt to tune in or attend even when it's not so convenient, and may possess an annoying habit of neglecting duties or friends when there is a big game on. This could lead to trouble at work or with personal relationships. Getting a glimpse of the action or a score update during an otherwise demanding situation might cause a dangerous distraction.
Some fans seem to have a photographic memory for scores, statistics, and obscure trivia -- an ability which could translate either into a brilliant all-round memory, mathematical talent, or absent-mindedness over anything other than sports. Armchair coaches may have brilliant strategic and tactical skills, or may simply harbor delusions that they do.
- Someone who wants a sports fan out of the way for several hours (an enemy, rival, or someone who wants to commit a crime) send him impossible-to-get tickets to a Big Game. The recipient will be hard-pressed to question where the tickets came from and why, and might be more likely to just go and enjoy the game while his home is searched, bugged, or trapped.
- A fan wins an invitation to spend a day at his team's training camp before the new season. In a quiet corner, two of his idols get into an argument and start fighting, with only the hero to break it up. Team management queries the witness about the incident and disciplines (or sacks) one of the athletes, who then develops a grudge against the PC.
- An evil villain (or supervillain) has chosen the local stadium as the venue for his latest mischief. The PCs in the crowd catch a glimpse of something suspicious and must either try to convince skeptical security staff, or do something to thwart the diabolical plan . . . without causing a panic and disaster among the huge crowd.
The Weekend Athlete
"We've arranged to meet with the Kelly Mob on Wednesday to cut a deal on the diamonds. Be at the Pink Boa at 8, and pack some heat."
"But boss! Dat's my bowling night!"
Many people enjoy playing sport at least as much as watching it. These are the ones with a regular job who spend their days off practicing their golf, hitting a tennis ball with friends, or playing in the local softball competition. These people often have a semi-regular social commitment which they will be reluctant to break under normal circumstances, and less spare time for adventuring because of it. On the other hand, a regular circle of sporting acquaintances can provide contacts with a collection of diverse knowledge and skills. John the cop doesn't know the first thing about stopping an alien plague, but his squash buddy Phil is an epidemiologist.
An interest in sports can also be used as an excuse to meet and interact with someone. The classic example is James Bond toying with Auric Goldfinger over a supposedly chance meeting for a social game of golf. Many NPCs are good candidates for having sporting habits, and heroes wishing to meet them, or investigate them, will find good opportunities to do so if they can share the experience.
Weekend athletes will have one or a few physical skills related to their sports of choice at moderate levels. They are probably better than average health, strength, or reflexes, since active people tend to be fitter than sedentary ones. They can sometimes be braggarts, or sore losers, or supremely overconfident in their abilities. Especially good or poor performances may earn them a minor reputation among a small circle of friends.
- Unknown to the heroes, one of their tennis (or other sports) partners has acquired an enemy. As a classic example, the friend may be a spy, and kept this fact secret from his social group. Their buddy has a heart attack and dies (or is rushed to the hospital) during a game, but first manages to pass on some cryptic information or an object to the heroes. The victim's enemies decide the heroes now have something they want, and do their best to get it.
- At a chance meeting over a game of golf or other suitable sport, a newly-met person starts dropping hints that he may be interested in hiring the heroes for a job. This leads naturally into many other plots, but leaves open the question of who arranged the meeting, and his true motives.
- A community sports league teammate has a bad string of poor performances. He visits a psychic, who tells him he is under a curse and his life will get worse until disaster strikes. He appeals to his friends (the heroes) for help. They must determine if there really is a curse, and if so, who laid it and how to remove it . . . hopefully all before the league playoffs start and their friend's misfortune ruins their championship chances!
The Amateur Athlete
"Sorry I'm late, sir . . . Training. For the Olympic Games, you know."
"Do it again, Jones, and we'll see if that bloody rowing puts food on your table."
Amateur athletes are dedicated competitors who take part in serious competition, often at an elite level, for no financial gain. They must have some way of supporting themselves financially, so sports will not be their entire life unless they have the luxury of wealth or independent income. If they do not, they will often struggle to make a living. An amateur athlete template could be added to almost any character, justifying the knowledge of skills such as martial arts, archery, throwing, dodging, running, or swimming.
Amateur athletes are most likely to be found from the Victorian era through to the 1970s (or thereabouts), but may also be found in older historical periods such as ancient Greece. Students are also commonly amateur athletes, right to the present day and probably beyond. Characters especially suited to being amateur athletes may be found in Victorian horror, steampunk, European colonial, and cliffhangers era campaigns. Common amateur sports include track and field, swimming, boxing, wrestling, rugby, and golf.
Amateurs must train often, usually most of the time which they don't spend at their jobs. The amateur may be obsessed with his chosen sport, thinking of little else and perhaps casting everything into sporting metaphors.
- A promising athlete struggling to make ends meet financially is approached by a well-dressed person with a proposition. He will offer a large sum of money for a simple favor: Deliberately losing at the next big competition. This is clearly immoral, but the cash will be tempting. Taking it will result in an ever-increasing spiral of corruption and potential scandal, while trying to report the person will create a powerful enemy.
- A government or other organization wishes to place a spy into a foreign country. It either recruits an amateur athlete or uses an agent with athletic ability to enter the country under the pretense of competing in a competition. Early modern Olympic Games are a good setting for such a scenario -- particularly Berlin in 1936. Ancient Olympic Games can be used as settings for similar intrigue in classical Greek campaigns.
- A group of amateur athletes need to cross the country to compete in a big meet. Depending on the era, different modes of travel might be used. Trains are particularly interesting, and provide good settings for adventure along the way. Besides adventures and other eventful delays, the heroes need to get where they are going in time, and still be in a fit state to compete!
The Professional Athlete
"Hey! You're Reggie Jordan! Fantastic game last week! Can I have your autograph?"
"Er . . . sure. But I really just want to pay this bill . . ."
Professional athletes earn their keep by playing sports, so their skills are tuned more exclusively to their sport of choice. This does not preclude other experience; it is certainly possible for the professional footballer to be as well-rounded as any other character. Particularly suitable secondary skills include those related to human physiology, psychology, administration, public speaking, journalism, politics, and teaching. Of course some pros are simply all brawn and little brain, but this can also be an entertaining roleplaying opportunity. Many professionals are well-known to the general public, and some have considerable reputations (not always good!) or social status due to their celebrity. Of course, fame opens many doors, but can also be a terrible inconvenience or make one a target of stalkers or other sociopaths.
Professional athletes are rare at the beginning of the 20th century, and become more common with time, until there are many thousands engaging in dozens of different sports worldwide today (some for enormous salaries). Many Roman gladiators were also essentially professional athletes. Sports commonly played professionally today include soccer, football (of various types such as American, Australian rules, or Gaelic), baseball, basketball, ice hockey, cricket, tennis, golf, boxing, motor racing, cycling, and numerous others.
A professional athlete will spend as much time training as anyone else spends on their job, and be concerned with maintaining fitness and form. An important aspect of this career will probably be seeking more or better opportunities for earning money, either through playing contracts or endorsements.
- One or more of the heroes play or work for a professional sports organization; when the star player fails to show up for training on Monday, people start to get nervous. Phone calls reach only an answering machine, and nobody knows where he is. The party investigates, hoping to find him before the big game on the weekend.
- A PC is approached by a pro athlete (either a player on the same team, or just a friend) who requests help dealing with a problem. The athlete has run up gambling debts with some shady characters, and needs a way out without alerting the police, team management, or the media. This can be particularly tricky if the person with the problem is the team's star player, a role model adored by children, and the best chance to make the playoffs. Ideally the heroes should have a strong desire to support the team.
- The characters are professional gladiators (either historical, fantasy, or science fiction -- or in a present day campaign they could be pro wrestlers). Their fights are normally fixed, to provide entertainment without danger of serious injury. A rival manager has arranged for some of his fighters to fight dirty, however, which the heroes will need to recognize and then deal with in the ring. There will be consequences after the fight, especially if they had to kill their opponents; the person behind it all will need to be tracked down and dealt with.
Sports in GURPS
There are, of course, rules in GURPS covering sports. Apart from combat sports however, they consist only of a generic Sports skill with minimal description, and the Contest of Skills rules to be applied at the GM's discretion.
For many purposes the existing rules are enough. But sometimes the outcome of a competition can be crucial to an adventure. An extended resolution can then be useful to allow characters the chance to interact (or cheat) during the event and players to enjoy the thrills and suspense leading to the result.
Combat sports are covered by the rules on pp. CII92-93, and the Combat Sport skill (p. MA32, p. CI133). A few additional points are worth noting.
If the optional maneuver rules from GURPS Martial Arts or Compendium II are not in use, most combat sports simply use one of the following skills:
- Boxing Sport: Western style boxing.
- Wrestling Sport: Greco-Roman or Freestyle wrestling. (Pro wrestling uses the skill of Wrestling Art.)
- Karate Sport: Martial arts sports involving striking.
- Judo Sport: Martial arts sports involving grappling and throwing.
- Fencing Sport: Fencing.
- Katana Sport: Kendo.
All skill rolls in the combat can be made against the one skill.
Some other combat skills might also be turned into sports in specific settings. Lasso Sport (against cattle) works for rodeos, a form of Flail Sport was used in the Star Trek episode "Amok Time," and a decadent culture might even get some entertainment out of Brawling Sport.
If maneuvers are being used, a specific martial arts style can be used to represent different combat sport disciplines. GURPS Martial Arts will be invaluable in this case. The maneuvers can then be used for appropriate combat tactics in the detailed method of resolving a bout.
Sumo wrestling is a special case. It uses the Sumo Wrestling skill; there is no specific Sumo Wrestling Sport skill, since Sumo is never performed in real combat. The rules for resolving a Sumo match are given in the skill description (p. MA35, p. CI136).
An additional skill usually required for formal combat sports is Tournament Law. The GM should require rolls against this skill in each round of a bout to avoid infringing a rule and being called for a foul. Note that Tournament Law requires specialization, and it must be bought separately for each different combat sport.
Archery and Target Shooting
Archery uses the skill of Bow Sport (a type of Combat Sport skill). This is the skill of firing arrows accurately at non-moving targets under competition conditions. The usual -3 defaults apply between Bow and Bow Sport -- a competition archer will have trouble adjusting to actual combat, while a skilled combat bowman will wilt under the pressure of archery competition unless trained for it.
Similar comments apply to competitive target shooting, which uses the skill of Guns Sport, specialized in whatever form of gun is being used. Note that both Bow Sport and Guns Sport can be bought up from the default skill level granted by Bow and Guns respectively (or vice versa). This means that characters who wish to be proficient at both combat shooting and target shooting must take two different skills but do not need to spend an inordinately large number of character points.
Archers use the standard GURPS combat rules to see if they hit their target. Shots will always be aimed for more than three seconds, giving the standard +3 aiming and Accuracy bonuses. GURPS Harkwood has rules for determining which scoring zone of a multi-ring target is hit (pp. HA43-44). Apply the target size modifier for the whole target. If the skill roll is made exactly, the outermost scoring zone is hit. For each extra point the roll is made by, the arrow lands one ring closer to the bullseye.
Modern archery targets have ten scoring zones, so using this system a roll would have to be made by 9 points to hit the bullseye. A natural 3 will also hit the bullseye, while any other critical success which does not hit the bullseye by the point-count rule can be considered to have hit one zone out.
This zone-counting rule is easy to apply, but not strictly in keeping with GURPS missile fire rules: An aimed shot at a target the size of a modern archery bullseye should only have a -6 size penalty, not -10 or -11 (-9 plus -1 or -2 for the target size itself). If desired, the exact size modifiers can be used to determine the amount by which a skill roll must be made to hit a particular scoring zone. In some cases, the same modifier applies to multiple zones -- separating these zones can be done with a second skill roll or by equal chance. The exact size penalties for modern archery target zones are given in the table.
Modern archery assigns point values from 1 to 10 for the target zones from outermost to innermost. A competition consists of four rounds, each of 36 arrows, fired at targets from distances of 30, 50, 70, and 90 meters (27.4, 45.7, 64.0, 82.3 yards), corresponding to GURPS range penalties of -7, -9, -9, and -10 respectively. The 50 meter range is only just outside the range for a -8 penalty, so -8 could be used instead if the GM likes the progression it provides. The two shorter ranges use an 80cm target, while the longer ranges use a 122cm target.
For historical or fantasy periods, the target sizes and competition structure can be modified as desired. Gun shooting targets and competitions vary too widely to be detailed here, but some (such as skeet shooting) use moving targets which will require target speed to be factored into the speed/range modifier. Otherwise, simply apply the principles outlined for archery.
Athletic Contests and Races
One-on-one athletic contests and races are most simply resolved with a Contest of Skills. A Quick Contest can be used for discrete events such as broad jumping, while a full Contest is suitable for races, including running, swimming, animal riding, and vehicle races.
If you need to determine the exact finishing order of multiple competitors, make an appropriate skill roll for each athlete. Order the athletes by the amounts by which their skill rolls were made, extended through to failure amounts. Any critical successes are placed in the first position, while critical failures represent a disqualification (or injury). Any pairs of athletes ordered in the same position should roll a Quick Contest of Skills to separate them (in a race, a tied result here indicates a dead heat). If more than two athletes are initially ordered at the same placing, order this subgroup by the same method as the entire group. This method can also be used for animal or vehicle races, using appropriate riding or vehicle operation skills.
Many individual sports are not covered by the categories of combat sports, target shooting, or athletic contests. Examples include tennis, squash, golf, ten-pin bowling, pool. Generally, a full Contest of Skills is the best way to resolve such a match.
If more detail is required, a Contest of Skills can be used to resolve separate parts of a game. There are too many different sports to cover each in detail, but the following examples should give an idea of the sort of details which can be simulated:
- Each set of a tennis match. The amount by which the contest is won can be used to generate a game score for the set.
- Each hole of a round of golf. Allow ties for each hole. Each hole won gives the winner a one stroke advantage over the opponent, or two for a critical success.
Team Sports: The Abstract Team Sports Resolution System
Team sports can be resolved using a method similar to the Abstract Mass Combat system in GURPS Compendium II. Use the following procedure:
- Determine Team Strengths. The Team Strength of a team is the sum of the appropriate Sports skill levels of all players who take an active part in the game. If one team used more players, choose a number of the highest-skilled players equal to the number on the other team to count at full skill and add only 2 levels for each additional player. Divide the higher total by the lower to produce a ratio. (This procedure can be made more complex by counting only half the skill of a player substituted after half the game, and so on, if desired.)
- Player Characters' Contribution. Any PCs or significant NPCs in the game must make a roll against the appropriate Sports skill to determine what effect they have on the game. Refer to the following list:
- Made by 10+ (or critical success): Legendary contribution, +2 Reputation for a year, +1 Reputation permanently, +2 to coach's skill for quick contest.
- Made by 7-9: Great contribution, +1 Reputation for 1d weeks, +1 to coach's skill.
- Made by 4-6: Good contribution, +1 to coach's skill.
- Made by 0-3: Played competently.
- Missed by 1-3: Played poorly, -1 to coach's skill.
- Missed by 4-6: Played miserably, -1 Reputation for 1d weeks, -2 to coach's skill.
- Missed by 7+ (or critical failure): Injured, see Determine Injuries below.
- Modify Coaches' Skills. The outcome of the game depends heavily on the skills of the team coaches. The relevant skill is Professional Skill (Coach), which any professional coach will have at 12 or better. The skill of each team's coach is modified using all relevant modifiers from the following list:
- Ratio of team strengths: Stronger team's coach gains a bonus as follows.
1.05 or less
1.05+ to 1.1
1.1+ to 1.15
1.15+ to 1.2
1.2+ to 1.25
1.25+ to 1.3
1.3+ or more
- Home field advantage: +1
- Coach's Leadership: +1 per 2 full skill points above Leadership-10
- Sympathetic referee/umpire (GM's decision): +1
- Bribed referee/umpire: +1 to +4 depending on official's reaction
- Weary team: -1 to -3 for inadequate rest since previous game
- Other appropriate modifiers at GM's discretion.
- Quick Contest of Effective Coach Skills. Roll a Quick Contest of the modified coaches' skills. If the sport allows ties, a tied contest stands, otherwise reroll any tie. The margin of victory in the Quick Contest is a general indicator of the victory margin in the game, and should be interpreted in appropriate fashion by the GM.
- Determine Injuries. Possible injuries to PCs and significant NPCs have been decided at step 3 above. To determine how many other players were injured, roll a number of dice equal to the number of other players and count the number of ones rolled. For an injury-prone sport (football, ice hockey) divide by two, for a safer sport (baseball, volleyball) divide by three, and drop any fraction. This is the number of minor NPC players injured. Roll a random hit location for each injured character. Limbs are crippled as per the rules on p. B127 and recover as per p. B129, including the HT roll to determine lasting effects. Other locations indicate wounds such as broken ribs or concussion which render a character incapacitated, but which also recover as per p. B129.
Sometimes a random scoreline for a team sport game might be needed, either for keeping detailed results for an ongoing tournament, or simply for flavor. The following method can be used to generate appropriate point scores for many sports.
First, decide what is an average score for one side in the sport in question. This is the total number of points scored by a team over a large number of games, divided by the number of games. Note the average may be a fraction. Then use whichever of these applies:
- If the average score is below 10, multiply by 6 and then round to the nearest whole number. Roll that many (six-sided) dice. Count the number of ones rolled. This count is the generated score.
- If the average score is equal to or greater than 10, divide it by 2.5, and round the result to the nearest whole number. Roll that many dice, add up the total, and subtract the number of dice from the total. The result is the generated score.
If the result of the game is known (either by plot necessity, or using the resolution system above) do this once for each team, assigning the larger score to the winner. If the winner has not been decided already, use different average scores for each team -- for example a poor basketball team might average 80 points per game, so roll 32d-32 for its score, while a good team might average 115 and roll 46d-46. This obviously gives a good chance that the better team will win, but allows upsets. The dice may need to be rolled in batches if the number required is more than the number of dice you own. Of course, a simple computer program can easily automate the procedure (see right). If some scores are impossible (such as 1 in American football), either reroll or assign a nearby score.
Note this is a simple method for gaming purposes and not meant to simulate accurately the distribution of scores in various sports. In particular, scores of zero or other low scores are more likely to occur in real life. GMs with a statistical bent may like to devise more complicated systems.
In soccer, the average score for a team is only about 0.8 goals per game. Six times this is 4.8, so roll five dice and count the number of ones to generate a team's score. If two dice come up showing one, the team's score for the game is two goals. In basketball, an average score might be about 100 points. Divided by 2.5, this gives 40, so roll 40d-40 to generate the score. This gives a range from 0 to 200 points, with 100 being the most likely (and the vast majority of scores falling within the range 70-130).
Article publication date: April 12, 2002
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