It would be difficult to argue these days against the fact that D&D and roleplaying is a thing for all sorts of people. Though it is true that people of a more sportsball-oriented persuasion have always been players at the table as well as on the field, they are now more visible and feeling more able to join in the fun, now that people are acknowledging that D&D might actually be… dare I say it? Cool? (Let’s face it, we’ve always been cool. It’s just that people can see it now.) Because of this, any given DM is now more likely to have a sports-enthusiast as a PC, or perhaps even running the game.
More and more, there is an acknowledgment that the DM’s job is to serve the players. Core books, DM/GM guides, blogs and podcasts are filled with directives to see the game not as adversarial, but as cooperative storytelling. They agree that a DM should work to understand their players and deliver to them an experience that everyone can enjoy.
Now think about this: What is generally the subject matter of most tabletop RPGs? Fantasy, science-fiction, superheroes… All things that are historically nerdy. Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, and Avengers have all helped to make these things cool, but none of these things typically have much inclusion of anything even remotely sport-related.
So let’s work to change that, shall we? I’ve assembled a collection of potential adventure hooks based upon the teams or events taking place in one of the biggest annual sports events around: the NCAA Division I Basketball Tournament. You may have heard this referred to as the Final Four, or March Madness. Your jocular players will appreciate the nod, and if nothing else, it might provide some unique inspiration you would not ordinarily turn up.
Wichita State Shockers
The mascot for Wichita State is literally an anthropomorphic stack of wheat. This is a frightening prospect to anyone who’s ever had to walk through a field at night.
Over the past 3 weeks, a handful of farmers have gone missing. No evidence is found initially, until the adventurers are brought in to investigate. It turns out that a monstrous semi-intelligent shock of wheat has been wandering from field to field at night, completely indistinguishable from a normal clump of wheat in the field until it attacks, pulling its victims within itself where it strangles and consumes them whole. Use the monster stat block from the Shambling Mound.
- One of the party members is one of the missing farmers’ children.
- After solving the mystery and slaying the “Wild Shock”, the disappearances continue… because the one they found was only one of a group, with a Mother Shock directing them.
- One of the local farmers has used forbidden magic to create the Wild Shock to slay his neighbors over a series of petty squabbles.
Alabama Crimson Tide
Fishermen from a coastal town suddenly begin to encounter patches of water while fishing that are colored a deep shade of crimson, which still feel and taste like normal salt water. They are even more surprised to find, a few days later, that the crimson patches are moving of their own accord, against the current, and are converging into a single mass. A few days after that, the mass washes up as a massive crimson tide, stripping away at the flesh of any living creature it touches. The tide disappears as quickly as it came, but patches are being discovered out in the open water once again…
Water elemental stat blocks can be used to determine the stats of the tide, if needed.
- The tide is being formed by a vengeful water fae, angry at new fishing methods that are overfishing the sea.
- The tide is an ill omen, merely a symptom of a larger problem such as a hellish invasion or an apocalyptic unbalancing of the world.
- The tide is being created by an intelligent hive mind of plankton, and the only method to combat them effectively is to magically shrink down to their size and use diplomacy or force to convince them to stop.
KU vs Duke
These two schools seem to meet quite often in the main March Madness tournament, leading to a kind of rivalry that transcends their conferences. What’s more, their mascots, the Jayhawks and Blue Devils respectively, are unique enough to inspire.
A mountain town is outwardly normal in every appearance, except for an inexplicable event which occurs there every few years. A full-scale battle will periodically erupt over the skies of this town, with two factions furiously slaughtering each other overhead: a massive flight of colossal, celestial, brightly-colored red and blue birds, and a swarming battalion of horrific cobalt winged devils. Neither side seems to care of the collateral damage that occurs in the village below, whether from falling corpses or warmagic crossfire. The battle begins with little warning, its combatants appearing with only a shrill whistle heralding their arrival, the battle already in progress. After a little over an hour, the combatants vanish just as they arrived without any sort of victor. The residents of the town have learned to accept this, having no clue what is causing it or how to stop it, to the point where they no longer fear or even react to it.
In terms of D&D monsters, you have a wide variety to choose from, depending on how difficult you want any sort of fight to be. You can easily go as low as CR1 for a Giant Eagle or CR11 for a Roc. For the devils, you can use an Imps (CR1), Spined Devils (CR2), Bone Devils (CR9), Horned Devils (CR11) or even the dangerously beautiful Erinyes (CR12).
- The battle is an eternal one, taking place on an eternal plane of war, which spills out onto other planes at regular intervals.
- These appearances actually are not happening at regular intervals, and instead vary randomly in how much time there is between each event. This is because a nearby wizard is causing each breach, each time hoping to capture one of these birds for himself. He keeps failing, so he keeps causing breaches, though it takes time to gather the resources and energy he needs.
- The battle never actually happens; it is all a mass hallucination being caused by some kind of regional effect. The adventurers arrive to find townspeople “rebuilding” houses that have never been destroyed and burying people that are asleep but breathing. The effect could be caused by background magical radiation from something buried nearby, or a kind of creature invading the populace’s minds through psionics or dream-travel.
Not a full hook, but hey, we’ve already got owlbears and spider-horses (yes, they exist in a previous version), so why not bearcats? Throw a reskinned owlbear into your random encounters, and instantly things are changed up.
Marshall Thundering Herd
The name here is just so evocative! It reminds me of a creature from the amazing tabletop RPG Deadlands, one with a hook all of its own that inspires the following.
One or all of the party members start hearing a distant rumbling at night, as if a far-away herd of cattle were stampeding. Each night, the rumbling grows louder, making sleep more and more difficult. On the 7th night, a herd of spectral cattle attacks anyone who was hearing the sound, destroying any obstacles or buildings in their path and trampling anyone who stands in their way. They will chase their quarry endlessly until it or they are slain.
For this herd, use the stat block for a gorgon, without the Petrifying Breath. As this is a herd and not a single creature, increase the hit points by 1.5x and make its size Gargantuan (though only 5 feet tall). Add the Swarm mechanic found on any Swarm stat block (such as Swarm of Bats), where it can fit through any large-sized space.
- Rather than the party or its members being targeted, the imminent victim is a random person in town, hiring adventurers to assist in solving this problem (and hopefully getting some sleep). Though he sounds crazy, he pays well. Perhaps the reason he has so much coin to spend has something to do with why he is being targeted…
- The target(s) have earned the ire of a greater power. It could be a deity of nature, or of vengeance. Perhaps someone has made a pact with a fiend to take them out. Either way, there is a very good possibility that the target is somehow becoming a nuisance and has no idea they’re doing it.
- Instead of cattle, the attacking herd is comprised of another creature. It could be aurochs (underdark cattle), dinosaurs, or something completely out of place such as hook horrors or slaadi.
The Tournament Itself
The actual tournament has an actual bracket of competitors, and pretty much each school has a mascot that can somehow be translated into a D&D monster. In the next large city that your characters encounter, there is a colosseum where an annual tournament is being held. All the competitors are animals, monsters, or undesirables, and the citizens of the city make wagers and predict the winners for their amusement. In situations such as this, however, it’s practically a given that the combatants are not being kept in the most humane of conditions…
- The souls or life force of each creature slain is being used to fuel a powerful spell that the lord of the city needs to cast once a year. Perhaps it’s to keep him perpetually young, or perhaps it’s to maintain the city’s magical defenses…
- The creatures are not just battling on their own; they have owners and masters who direct them during combat. A grand prize goes to the one controlling the victor; it is supposedly so grand that the recipient always takes his newfound wealth and leaves town… and is never heard from again.