Most Dungeons & Dragons settings (Forgotten Realms, Eberron, DragonLance, Midgard, Greyhawk) exist in a similar socio-economic state to the late Middle Ages through the Victorian period. The commonality of magic, the relative wealth and existence of a middle class, and other indicators compare fairly well to those concepts. There is a certain apocrypha that makes it clear that much of the fantasy we roleplay is not from Arthurian legend, instead there are modern concepts such as trade guilds, inns with more individual rooms than sleeping halls, massive sailing ships, some worlds even have printing presses producing newspapers.
Something lacking in almost every world set within that many hundred year period is sports. Almost all sporting events mentioned in the literature is individual in nature, essentially replacing things which were in the original Olympics. This ignores the fact that by the time societies had inns, guilds, papers, etc they had team sports.
A partial list of the team sports from around the globe within the time periods that inspire a majority of D&D fiction includes Town Ball (ball, stick, & safety), Mob Ball (ball, foot, & goal), Lacrosse (ball, stick, & goal), Maya Ballgame (ball, stick/hip, & goal), Polo (ball, stick, horse, & goal), Dakyu (ball, stick, & goal with maybe horses), Buzkashi (animal head, horse, & goal), and others like the predecessor of hockey.
Fantasy Team Sports
Fantasy literature tends to ignore the element of sports. There are some that exist – from the barely mentioned phandrel (team chasing-and-destination) in the Forgotten Realms to, of course, quidditch, which somehow exists in the real world now. The Magicians has welters, which combines chess with magical violence.
Yes, adventures like Tomb of Annihilation, Rime of the Frostmaiden, and maybe Theros capture individual sports. But we know that the times upon which our worlds are based have a wonderful glut of sports. At the minimum these should be used to add color and flavor to our worlds. Make them part of festivals. Have a red v blue v green v orange v black phandrel contest that interrupts a chase scene, or maybe even becomes part of it.
Still, there’s more available to make your world live and breathe. Not just the Athlete and Gladiator backgrounds, which are great for a hero that specializes in individual sport. Add team sports to your character’s history.
Sports (type): A 5th Edition Tool
Lean into tools. They are an excellent way to add more story to your backstory. The use and specialization in a specific set of tools tells us much about the artisan, the bard, the entertainer and so much more.
Expand on your Athlete by adding Sports (type) as one of their tools. Borrow from what was established by Musical Instrument (shawm, etc) for your model. The specific type of sport is purely a flavor and story element, until it isn’t. Maybe, you’ll find a fun town ball bat, or a ball game stick, or whatever, during your journeys and that may provide a clue as to who was in that space prior – DC YY Intelligence (Investigation) with advantage if you have experience with that or a similar sport, for example.
Bringing sports into your game as a tool expands the tales you can tell. Be Waterdeep’s version of Roy Hobbs, or a Sharn’s version of Mara. Maybe during a chaotic match of mob football between Aviceland and Copperwall in the Foxshaw Field you became a folk hero that repelled a skeleton attack.
Don’t Worry About Mechanics
As always, here at Full Moon Storytelling we’re focused on story rather than mechanics. Using a new Tool isn’t going to change your D&D game’s power level, not even as much as Coffee Gear.
Trying to figure out a winner might be necessary, but infrequently. If you wanted to roleplay actual sports something like Blaseball would be a better than D&D. But, if you need a result and want to use the dice, limit the contest to a single roll for each participant, and have it opposed by an NPC. Through the description of their primary role within the sport and what that character is attempting have them make a roll Athletics or Acrobatics, assigned to an attribute that most fits their action and with advantage if they character is proficient. Then roll the same for the NPC. Have the first team to 3 successes wins that match.
Most games before the codification of rule and laws (baseball and football/soccer in the mid 19th century) could last from sunrise to sunset. If the players succeed on their first three rolls, consider that a game done by lunch. If it takes five, or more due to a bunch of ties, make it last into twilight.
Do not attempt to get deeper into the mechanics than this. Your session doesn’t need hours dedicated to sport. Instead any match should be a way to access new stories told at the table. Instead of hanging at the bar, or boxing – play some Dakyu. Meet some new NPCs based around that event, then hit the tavern to talk about that day’s new star athlete.