The Sports Paradox

Every now and again someone gets it in their head that they want to do a sport-based RPG. It’s a logical instinct – there’s lots of great, classic sports stories out there, and they hit a lot of the same notes that make an RPG fun. I have nothing but admiration for anyone who wants to try, and I’m sure that someone will crack this nut someday, but in the meantime I want to call out the one big obstacle in the road that has been the doom of many of us, something I call the sports paradox.

The RPG Sports Paradox: The only way to make an RPG about a sport is to make an RPG that’s not about that sport.

What does this mean? To understand it, take a minute to imagine a sports RPG. It doesn’t matter much what the sport is, but the expectation would be that you would need rules for playing that sport. Seems obvious, but that’s the trick – sports stories are not really about playing any particular game, they’re about a destination. There are a couple of possible types of destinations, but they’re mostly some variant of needing to win “The Big Game”. The exact form of the Big Game is less important than the fact that it provides meaning to all the games along the way – they’re the road to the destination.

And that’s where the problem arises. Such a game will fall apart if the players lose a game. Oh, sure, there are some tricks you can pull to smooth over things (“The Maplewood team got food poisoning! We’re in the finals!”) but they have the clear stink of Deus Ex Machina about them. So you’re left with two choices: You can either allow the players to lose their games (and hope they won’t) or you can guarantee that they won’t.

Allowing them to lose may be a viable option for a GM _running_ a game, but it’s a bad decision for a designer unless you’re very comfortable putting a warning label on your game that it could really end up sucking. It’s an easy solution, and it produces unsatisfying games.

The alternative, guaranteeing victory, can be approached in a huge number of different ways, but they all have something in common – they shift to making play (and the challenges and fun in play) about things other than the game, like achieving personal goals, overcoming personal challenges, building the team dynamic and so on[1]. These are good things, and they’re the actual bread and butter of sport stories, and that’s awesome.


You’ve just made play about something other than the sport. Play is no longer about the game on the field, as would be envisioned when you describe “A sports RPG”.

So, that’s the paradox and the trap. It doesn’t just apply to sports, but rather to anything with a sports-like structure (Battle of the bands, Mortal Kombat, Shootouts at High Noon, Poker and so on) . If the narrative depends on a progression of wins to reach climax, then you’re looking down the barrel of the paradox. And may god have mercy on your soul.

Now, I’ll toss in my two bits here for anyone looking to crack this particular nut. It’s not my white whale, but I’m sure it’s someone.

The underlying system problem with this model is that it’s fault intolerant. The fragility of the system is such that a single failure breaks it[2], so the trick to getting it to work may revolve around figuring out ways allow for failure in your particular narrative without being cheesy. There are a few possible models for it, some better than others. A hidden points system can kind of work, but the hand of the GM is pretty obvious in play. Similarly, you can put the players in a context like, say, college football, where the decisions on the final bowls have no relationship to previous play.

One system that I haven’t seen done, but which might actually be fun, is to treat it as generational play, with each “Generation” being a season. If the players lose in a given season, you advance the clock and pick up at the next season. Obviously, this only works for certain structures – it might suit a game about high school soccer, but not one of underground martial arts battles to the death.

Whatever structure you settle upon, don’t be lazy. The ultimate goal is not to be able to make a game that makes playing the sport matter without worrying about all that narrative crap. You want a solution that let’s you bring those two elements together, so the dramatic and personal elements provide fuel for why your time on the field matters.

1 – One trick is to give the characters access to currency (plot points or the like) that can give bonuses in play, and allow an unlimited amount of them (effectively guaranteeing play) but then use the number or type of points used to fuel between-game problems. At first glance this seems like a great solution because the sport-play is still “real” but that veneer is very thin indeed, and doesn’t hold up under heavy use.

2 – This is, BTW, the subtle distinction from a dungeon crawl. A single failure _could_ be a game ender, but the dungeon is more fault tolerant. There are many potential failure outcomes, including things like running away, getting captured or otherwise allowing the game to continue through a failure.

26 thoughts on “The Sports Paradox

  1. Irven Keppen

    Interesting post Rob! You have pulled me away from my High Noon fascination and have now got me thinking of making a hockey game as well.
    I like the idea of making a sports game generational. It would be like the bad news bears in theme. Starting with a team full of low stat players. I would institute something like treating individual league games as player character stat builders (with losses possibly providing more character building) or some function there of. I could see a system where the players eventually come together as a team (stats are maxed out through playing games) to eventually become that “big game” winning team. The “fate point” mechanic used by players to achieve plays would be good to allow the game ref to insert things like player injuries or unlucky plays, etc.


    Street Fighter is a great example of a non-sport sport RPG that has this trouble as well. Go fight in this competition! It’ll be awesome! Oh, heck, you lost your first match. Back to the gym, I guess…

    …but SF is still a magnificent game.

  3. Dan

    I’ve recently been looking at Clash Bowley’s The Tools of Ignorance, which is a baseball rpg. He seemed to address the problem with making individual games replace combat in a traditional rpg, and focusing on the individual players arcs. They earn renown, which represents how famous/successful the player is. It seems the assumption that as the campaign progresses (by seasons) some players will be retired from the team, and others will come in. So the game’s about baseball as much as a dungeon crawl is about killing monsters, but in the end it’s the PC’s story, which might be the promising player/players on a crappy team, which seems interesting.

  4. Rob Donoghue

    Very interesting comment on twitter suggests another possible angle – you could do an RPG of team _owners_ (rather than players) with their sports competitions as a backplane for their business and personal rivalries. Very good for a gladiatorial type game.

  5. gamefiend

    Good post.

    Streetfighter (fighting games in general) are near to my heart, and I think the classic format for such an RPG would be the tournament. Every character comes into the tournament for a reason, and not all reasons are winning the tournament. A character might be an Interpol agent trying to learn more about the workings of the underground crime syndicate that runs it (*cough* Chun-Li *cough*), for instance. The tournament is a means to an end, but is not the only thing. Characters alternate tournament rounds with “mission rounds”, trying to acquire enough points to make a go at their end position. A tournament win can help the mission, and vice-versa.

    I think the structure is in line with what you are saying, and also allows you to do a lot of interesting stuff.

  6. Rob Donoghue

    @gamefiend Yes, that illustrates it exactly. If you make the game just about the fights and the tourney, it gets fragile. If you add more threads, you can build something strong.

  7. Greg Sanders

    It might just be the baseball fan in me, but your “big game” emphasis seems to mandate a single-elimination mindset that isn’t true of all sports.

    There’s still the problem of what to do with a losing season, and I think you may well need have a means like you mentioned to advance to the next season once this one has gone bad. If the PCs don’t manage to win a solid majority of their battles then you’ve got a different sort of problem.

  8. Jason Pitre

    I would think that a Grey Ranks approach – where you can either succeed in your mission (game) or your personal goals might provide the appropriate hard choices. Victorious and miserable or joyous failure, with some secondary system that could alter the balance and nudge the system to win-win or lose-lose.

    Fundamentally, its the d&d dungeon crawl problem. If all you want is procedural sucess and tactical choices, it’s easy. If you want some social context, such as between players and fans, it takes more skill.

    Certainly not my white whale…

  9. Jason Pitre

    I would think that a Grey Ranks approach – where you can either succeed in your mission (game) or your personal goals might provide the appropriate hard choices. Victorious and miserable or joyous failure, with some secondary system that could alter the balance and nudge the system to win-win or lose-lose.

    Fundamentally, its the d&d dungeon crawl problem. If all you want is procedural sucess and tactical choices, it’s easy. If you want some social context, such as between players and fans, it takes more skill.

    Certainly not my white whale…

  10. Rob Donoghue

    @greg Baseball still has a big game, they just stretch it out over a much longer period of time than other games. πŸ™‚

    I jest, but only partly. Baseball’s an interesting one for a lot of other reasons, but I want to avoid that particular rabbit hole and I’ll simply note that baseball may approach the problem slightly differently, you can still hit the same problem with a few losing games (and I’d go further to say that if you try any numerical cheating to smooth this over, baseball fans are more likely to catch you at it).

  11. samhaine

    It would still be a dodge, but you could theoretically balance team-based sports stories with an obvious deus ex machina of the all-star jerk team member that’s awesome and always manages to pull out a win if the rest of the team falls down. The gameplay becomes how much can each PC personally contribute to each win in order to steal glory from that guy (and increase their stats). It would probably get very old if it happened a lot, but setting players up to have a vested interest in preventing the DeM from saving them is generally a short-term palatable way of having one on hand.

  12. Craig Maloney

    I think the big reason that games like baseball, football, and games based off of arcade video games don’t necessarily work is because it’s easier to actually play the original game than simulate it. However, simulating experiences we’re not likely to have are more interesting (as in the case where you simulate owning a baseball team). That said, even experiences we’re not likely to have (I’m never going to play baseball for the 1984 Detroit Tigers, ever) are hard to simulate because you’re simulating an event. What happens if the gameplay makes it so they can’t enter the World Series?

    I think one of the reasons that certain games work well as RPGs over other games is because we approach them with mostly clean slates. I’m pretty sure none of us have been in a dungeon with a wicked wizard, or lived through a zombie apocalypse. But I’m sure most of us had one season of being stuck on a baseball field, wondering when it would just end already. πŸ™‚

  13. Jayson

    Riffing off Craig, I see a different issue with anyhthing video game related… that being that most such game experiences are SINGLE PLAYER. Even if controlling a team, they still have only one player’s worth of drive and motivation – they work in perfect tandem to advance Player 1’s goals, not their own.

    Now, as for the issue of fault-intolerance… you just need to take “the game” outside of mechanics and into narrative instead.

    I haven’t played Leverage RPG, but had some bits described to me that seem relevant here. One key conceit of the game is the assumption going in that ANY job the team takes on WILL be a success. The characters are extremely competent, and will get things done. As the saying goes, it’s about the journey, not the destination. The drama and tension in Leverage comes from the complications and plot twists, and how to overcome them. If you have a sufficiently plausible plan, you will succeed. True to Leverage, you can call flashbacks to show how you predicted a situation and prepared a contingency for it, letting you justify your own deus ex πŸ™‚

    A similar approach can be used for sports. Going into the tournament, you KNOW that the team is going to win all the matches they need to. It’s just a matter of HOW they win. Don’t roll for pass/fail, roll for degree of success.

    Poor rolls still win the game, but with complications… complications that play into between-match issues. A bad roll means Bob has a groin pull… he’ll be healed up for the next game, but he’s in a bad position when the sore losers from the last game come looking to rough him up as revenge.

    Or maybe he pulls a foul to ensure the win, and loses his girlfriend over it. Or or or. It’s not about the winning, it’s about the price of winning.

  14. Sebastian Hickey

    I just want to back up Paul Weiner’s comment above. Have you played Contenders, by Joe Prince? It’s a totally under-celebrated piece of genius. Why is it under-celebrated?

    Because it looks like it’s about boxing.

    It has been reskinned as a battle-of-the-bands game (called Umlaut), but could easily be reskinned as a mortal combat game, a cheerleader game, or any kind of contest mentioned above.

    It works because it tells stories of characters with needs, tragedies and hopes, whose primary means of resolving those is by acquiring and spending various types of in-game currency. One of the best ways to gain that currency is to engage with the sport/contest mechanic. So, as you play the game you uncover the characters in all their misery and watch them struggle toward their uncertain fate.

    Contenders, Contenders, Contenders.

    It works. It’s very nearly flawless. It’s been out for ages but it doesn’t sell well because people think it’s a boxing sim. What a pity.

  15. Rob Donoghue

    @Seb I have played contenders, I agree it’s brilliant, and I think it _perfectly_ illustrates the point. It’s not a boxing game, it’s a great game that touches upon boxing.
    The paradox is not an assertion that that you can’t make a good game by making a sports game that’s not about the sport – it’s a challenge to find a way to do so. That is, can you make a boxing RPG as most people would envision it (Boxing Sim is probably a close enough term) that is ALSO as awesome as contenders?

  16. Seth Ben-Ezra

    Quick, random thought. (Admittedly, without reading the other comments.)

    Sports stories (even the chess sports movie Finding Bobby Fischer) are not about winning The Big Game per se. Rather, they are often about a certain worldview represented by the game, and success is often the result of characters conforming to the values that are represented and enshrined in the sport.

    So, Rocky is ultimately about endurance, The Legend of Bagger Vance is about honesty, Major League is about team play, and so on.

  17. David Berg

    My preferred solution to fault intolerance is flexible coverage of fictional time. Whatever you need to happen will happen eventually; you just need to roleplay the stuff that meaningfully leads up to it and skip everything else.

    I assume that’d be part of generational play, right, Rob? You don’t want to spend as much time on each losing season as you would on the one big season with the climax.

  18. David Berg

    …of course, losing doesn’t kill baseball players the way dungeons kill adventurers. So to “skip ahead” to that time when an adventurer might beat the dungeon, you may need a bunch of characters.

  19. Rach's reflections

    I wanna disagree a little bit with this post in kind of an indirect way– while I have no experience with sports games as such (though I have seen Contenders and another baseball-themed game around) I have run a few wrestling games, even some that took place within kayfabe (that is, assuming the matches were “real”). Now I can see how this might be different because the PCs aren’t going to be eliminated, they can just move on to another feud or something, but I wonder if lessons learned from running those are applicable here– I’d say they definitely could be for some sort of Street Fighter style tournament setting.

  20. Christian Hollnbuchner

    … The RPG Sports Paradox: The only way to make an RPG about a sport is to make an RPG that’s not about that sport. …

    Probably. A way to avoid some of the pitfalls you mentioned would be making a RPG that is not just about the sport as it happens on the field. Include things like training, etc. Maybe even include foul play like bought players & referees and you have plenty of RP in the sports game.

    On another note I can’t help but think that 4e D&D would be terribly well suited for a tabletop game of American football (with my very limited understanding of the sport). Biggest change I’d see up front would be allowing the grab as a melee basic attack. Then make up some new classes and powers for the various roles on the field.

    As a matter of fact I’d do it if I weren’t afraid that it might prompt a response from Games Workshop lawyers about hitting a bit too close to their Blood Bowl IP. *ponders* I’d go for a goblin team. Goblin tactics for the win! Hah!

  21. Zooroos

    I can see two main branches for approaching a sports rpg. The first is to try and “simulate” the sports experience by way of modelling the players’ actions, the rules of the game, the different tactical options, etc. That’s the way most sports videogames take while dealing with real sports. In a videogame, winning is always the objective of the game, and is more about the challenges provided by every single match than the whole tournament. BUT, it is also about the team, not the individual characters. So I think this approach should transform the old-rpg stereotype of “one player = one character” into the alternative of “one player = one team”. For example, in FATE, you could treat each major team player as an Aspect or a Stunt or a skill, using the Fate Fractal to reflect this mode of gaming. The only thing left vague would be the actual tournament, where there is the possible pitfall of a team unable to accumulate enough winnings to stay in; but again, narrative time could easily fast-forward to the next tournament, probably with some sort of team Consequence like “We can’t catch a break!” or something. Finally, I think these kind of game could benefit greatly of shared-GM duties, or at least a measure of cooperative/dialectic storytelling.

    The other approach is the one mainly followed by sports films and sports anime and manga. In these media, the individual characters are clearly portrayed with a focus on personal superation, overcoming psychological and emotional obstacles, and about important sports-related values like loyalty, tenacity and honesty. The first idea that comes to my mind is so obvious that is a literal facepalm: a Smallville RPG hack. You’ve got a cast of leads, strong relationship connections and the Values of each character challenged at every turn by the difficulties inherent of the competition.

    Well, these are my half-thought ideas anyway, surely someone else could come up with something better. Personally I’m not a big sports fan. πŸ™‚


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