Retro: Gridiron Gods

2007 Feb 19

This game has a long, involved history that I wasn’t even fully aware of until I started writing this retrospective. Bear with me.

The story begins with my Argonauts project, which was an attempt to hack Steve Kenson’s Mutants & Masterminds to handle tragic Greek heroes. The inspiration and development of Argonauts will be the topic of another retrospective, so I won’t talk too much about it now. Suffice to say, John Harper was one of the project’s most enthusiastic supporters and he was clearly sad when it looked like the game was in limbo, despite being promoted in an issue of Matt Synder’s Daedalus zine.

Then in Oct 2003, a Forge poster by the name “RaconteurX” (real name, anyone?) said “…we don’t see any sports roleplaying games. Why is that, Ralph? I’d love to know. …Actually, I have an answer. It’s because gamers don’t want to play games about those things, and they’re the ones who write the games.” By this point, I’d been thinking about sports RPGs for a little while, based on the fun I had watching the basketball anime series Slam Dunk with my host brother in China. So I started a thread on sports RPGs, but people seemed mainly to be interested in crazy lasersharked fantasy/scifi sports instead of a game that tried to emulate actually playing sports, watching sports, or coaching sports.

Later, in the same 2004 Forge “wishlist” thread that inspired Nine Suns Must Fall, John Harper said: “I want Gridiron, by Jonathan Walton. The sports RPG about rookies in the NFL. What are you willing to do for your career? How much can you take? Are you a winner? At what cost?” This was clearly a terrific concept, but I honestly forgot that John originally proposed the idea until 20 minutes ago when I stumbled on the thread. How prophetic and utterly appropriate!

A few short months before GenCon 2006, John Harper was struck with the uncontrollable need to put aside his long-awaited Trollbabe adaptation, Stranger Things, and write Agon, a game about tragic Greek heroes. Agon sampled most of the good stuff from Argonauts, though I get the sense that most of the borrowing was semi-unintentional, just like how I’d totally forgotten John’s Gridiron proposal. In any case, these samples were remixed with heaping portions of John’s own design genius, creating a game very different from what I had planned for Argonauts, but one that kicked ass in no uncertain terms. I became one of the game’s biggest fans, writing a rave review for 20×20 and playing it a bunch both at GenCon and back here in Boston.

Then came Frank T’s “1st Transatlantic Setting Design Challenge,” in which designers were supposed to choose an existing game system and write an adaptation for a new setting. After fiddling around with making Folkways work under Clinton Nixon’s The Shadow of Yesterday system, I decided, completely unaware of John Harper 2004’s wish, to write a game about American football using Agon as my base. It was to be called, coincidentally enough, Gridiron Gods.

The game replaced Agon‘s skills with individual player positions. Players could be impaired just like attributes and skills to represent them being tired or injured. The battlemap was going to be replaced by a model of a playing field divided into ten spaces each representing 10 yards. If you’re on offense, you have to advance across into the opposing endzone in order to score.

Aside from players, I also included a space for player-created “Unquantifiables” which would also assist in winning the game. These could include things like “Strong Working Class Roots” or “Laser-Guided Missiles” depending on the genre and degree of silliness you were planning on.

I planned for the example team to be the fictional Pemberton Panthercats from Jason Morningstar’s Shab Al-Hiri Roach.

To sum things up, this is a game I would really like to finish, both because it would be a fitting end to all the weirdly unintentional mind-sharing with John Harper and also because having a sports game (even one about the most myopically American of all sports) would be sweet.

Edit: Additionally, Joe Prince’s game, Contenders (about boxing), has already proved that sports games totally rock, especially in a short campaign with brackets and rematches and the like. And Vincent Baker’s Mechaton has shown that the miniatures model of “create a team and tweak it over the course of a season” is something that even crazy Nar hippie roleplayers can get into. So, yeah, more inspiration from GenCon 2006 and after.

– 2003 May 20: One of the Major Argonauts Threads on the Forge
– 2003 Oct 15: Argonauts Preview in Matt Snyder’s Daedalus
– 2003 Oct 28: RaconteurX Asks Why There’s No Sports RPGs
– 2003 Oct 29: My Forge Thread on Sports RPGs
– 2004 Apr 04: John Harper “Wishes” That I Write Gridiron
– 2006 Aug 10: John Harper Releases Agon at GenCon
– 2006 Aug 15: Cache of My Agon Review at 20×20
– 2006 Nov 16: Frank T Announces the Setting Contest
– 2006 Nov 28: Gridiron Gods Initial Thoughts
– 2006 Nov 29: First Attempt at Picking a Spread of Positions
– 2006 Nov 29: Description of the “Planet Football” Setting
– 2006 Dec 01: First Attempt at a Team Sheet
– 2006 Dec 04: Thanks to Jruu, I Discover Strat-O-Matic Games
– 2006 Dec 05: Thoughts on How to Adapt Die Rolls for Football

3 Responses to “Retro: Gridiron Gods”

  1. John Harper Says:


    I am humbled by how Fate has played her hand across our tiny little lives. That is just so incredibly cool.

    Thanks for doing the archeology on all of that. I had indeed forgotten all about my wish for Gridiron. It’s strangely satisfying to go back to those threads and see the little seeds planted.

  2. Michael Schwartz Says:

    How strange to find a reference to a one-off comment I made when I still participated over at the Forge. Just thought I’d provide you with a name to go with my user name over there (and elsewhere).

  3. Thanks, Michael. That’s really cool.

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