Football Fantasy Interview: Turning Football Into A Tabletop RPG
Gaming and nerd culture has come a long way since the 1980s. Hobbies like video games, cosplay, and tabletop RPGs are now mainstream parts of modern life, almost completely accepted into the larger tapestry of pop culture as a whole. That said, there's still a little bit of culture shock when the less nerdy reveal a secret love for Dungeons & Dragons.
So it might surprise you to know that a Kickstarter campaign that sought to combine gridiron football with Dungeons & Dragons in a single ruleset zine met its funding goal and is now moving forward. For fans of both, the appeal is obvious.
There's a wealth of created sports in fictional worlds where magic is woven into normal society, from Harry Potter's quidditch to Final Fantasy's blitzball to The Legend of Korra's pro-bending, each capturing folks' imagination by introducing magical elements to sport. So why not do the same with football?
Read on for our interview with Football Fantasy creator Samuel Ashton Roberts!
GS: What inspired the RPG in the first place? How did you get the idea to mash up football and tabletop RPG gaming?
Samuel Ashton Roberts: As a longtime fan of both football and Dungeons & Dragons, I have experimented with mixing the two for a long time. I've run football themed combats, puzzles that required football moves to complete, and integrated other elements in campaigns I have run over the years. I also played a fair amount of Blood Bowl as a young man, and like the general idea of exploring a game like football with the speculative fiction of fantasy and science fiction worlds.
In my 20's my Sundays were watching NFL games all day and playing D&D all night, so it seemed an appropriate thing to explore. I am particularly interested in rule sets that inspire creative and amazing play from humans, and both D&D and football do that.
Without getting in the weeds too much, what was it like to adapt these rules so that they fit well? Football is one of the most complicated sports out there, and Dungeons & Dragons is one of the most complicated tabletop games out there. Was it as much of a hassle as it seems like it'd be to make the two dovetail?
It was about figuring out what parts of each experience I was interested in - there are parts of both that are very tactical and about moment to moment decision making.
For the core of the zine, I focus on those, and that adaptation took some tinkering with, but I was able to find what I believe to be a satisfying place where they combine and feed each other. I focused around the choices of play calling and route running as seen through the turn-based D&D tactical combat, as there is a satisfying core of D&D that can create the sort of field leverage choices that we are regularly confronted with in football.
The rest of the zine is sort of how the rest of both games (outside moment to moment conflict between players on the field for football / outside of combat situations for D&D) can inform one another and be used together - i.e. what does a football themed campaign look like for D&D, what is a player class for a football player, what do football stats look like, who could be a football encounter or NPC, etc..
Since the Kickstarter was successful, it seems like you found an audience, even for a product like this, that could seem niche from the outside. What did you do to find your audience, and who do you think your audience is?
I think my audience is fans of Bloodbowl, and old school D&D fans who also like football. Mostly I tweeted promotionally about the zine, and I tried to recruit or reach influencers with a known interest in both. A few retweets from them, plus regular, steady promotion on my side and the reach of Kickstarter as a platform helped me find that fairly niche audience.
What was development like in terms of balancing everything in a way where the entire play group can have fun? Football is a sport that's defined usually by individual play, spurred on by a supporting cast that doesn't get much credit. How has that translated into an RPG where the spotlight is shared?
This is a fabulous question. The balancing came into making sure that non-QB players have a significant effect on the 'field.' The rules are structured so that when the throw happens, every player's position is a factor in determining the success or failure of the throw and the end result. Making sure each position had an effect that felt equal was the most difficult balancing act, as well as making sure that players who acted 'after' the throw had meaningful choices to make.
How has the game changed over its development?
Not a ton - the original rules had deep rulings and structures for magic on the field, but I decided to let a 'league' determine what was legal and not, and then simply adjudicate the physical effects of magic spells under the same rules. Also, as the content is being finalized, I'm finding that there is a depth to league creating and NPC creating that I am finding engaging, and I have built the zine to include more of that (without abandoning the system core.)
What is your dream scenario, in terms of people playing your game, or integrating it into an already-existing campaign? What do you want to see people doing with the rules you have created?
I would love to see someone start a football themed D&D campaign, where the players all work for a team or league. I expect more one-offs where an adventure is football themed, or DMs leverage the rules to have an encounter that is a football game in their current campaigns.
Popular shows, streams, and podcasts like Critical Role, The Adventure Zone, and Stranger Things have brought the world of tabletop gaming to a constantly growing, diverse audience.
It bodes well for the future that endlessly creative and enterprising folks like Samuel Ashton Roberts (and countless others!) are creating rulesets that riff on and augment the standard D&D rules to cater to fans of different genres (Check out the one-pager subreddit, you won't be disappointed).
At the end of the day, Football Fantasy isn't the biggest or most ambitious project on Kickstarter, but it's a unique collaboration of two things most would think is impossible -- and its success is a very good sign for dungeon masters and adventurers alike.
Many thanks to Samuel Ashton Roberts for the interview, and best of luck to Football Fantasy when it releases into the wild!