BBRPG: An Introduction to the Imperial League

I discussed my plans for a Blood Bowl RPG a couple of weeks ago in the newsletter: a slice of life sports drama that utilizes the Blood Bowl boardgame fully as a phase of play, making the on-board maneuvers matter for the career and self-esteem of individual sports heroes.

As part of preparing the campaign I’ll need to create a snappy setting overview, and that’s the sort of stuff that I might as well publish on the blog, so here we are. I’m thinking of arranging the key material onto a cardboard screen of some sort, a bit like a GM screen that can be used as a long-term reference at the game table during the campaign. This is all “fluff” as opposed to “crunch”; I’ll probably write about the rules side of things at some later point.

A petty point of nomenclature: I find myself inevitably calling the in-setting game of Blood Bowl by the name of “rugby” instead of “Blood Bowl” due to how the latter is actually the name of a specific tournament in the setting, and the game itself is played in other contexts as well. Calling the game by the name of its most important tournament just seems weird, and the game of Blood Bowl is basically a fantasy rugby, isn’t it? I don’t see any need to naysay my instincts on this, so “rugby” it is — with the understanding that the word is rather generic in-setting, referring to all rules variants of the ball-carrying contact sport. (“Football” probably also exists, but that’s reserved for the ball games where the ball is kicked rather than carried and thrown.)

BBRPG Setting Design

The BB rpg campaign is set in the year 2973 (Imperial Calendar) in a world that I’m treating as sort of a non-canonical offshoot timeline of the Warhammer Fantasy Battle setting: the mystical and mythical rediscovery of rugby in the 2350s had minor significance for the Old World at first, but come 26th century we find that the world has actually deviated from the canonical Warhammer world history sufficiently to avoid the End Times altogether; the strand of time would wind on in this world, ignoring the sudden annihilation that seems to have gripped the canonical Warhammer world when GW decided to end the gameline a couple years ago.

(I’m seriously not a GW hobbyist myself, and a quick skim couldn’t make heads or tails about what actually happened in the End Times storyline aside from “Chaos destroys the world”, so I’m not going to explain what happened in the 26th century in detail. Perhaps we’ll find out during the campaign, there are some reasons why the campaign might be interested in historical events.)

Here are my design precepts for the setting:

Warhammer World: my starting point is the Warhammer world of the 26th century, the early modern fantasy world familiar from the franchise. I’m not wedded to the minor details, particularly as the old world (ha ha) is 400 years in the past by now, with magical and political events confusing the historiography, and the ideology of modernity casting doubt in some of the events of the past. The modern society of the 30th century may hold onto some of the canonical past of the Warhammer world as historical reality while rejecting other elements as old myths or propaganda. Many people in the modern world do not actually believe that Sigmar, the mythic first emperor, ever even existed. Generally, though, this world is the antecedent of the one we’ll play in.

Blood Bowl Lore: Blood Bowl has some setting lore of its own. I’m… generally not going to respect it, but insofar as it’s usable, it’s in. For example, the Blood Bowl backstory about the game being discovered around year 2350 in an ancient temple works for me as a mythic backstory, while the formation of a professional international rugby league in a renaissance era world doesn’t. Some team identities might make it in, and Star Players will fit in well. A magic-based television broadcasting network won’t, on the other hand.

Analogous Modernity: The modern setting of BBRPG will draw its essential inspiration from mixing the fantasy world implied by the above precepts with the nature of the modern world in the year 1973. Warhammer world’s imperial calendar seems to (for some reason I do not personally understand on account of not having examined the historical timeline sufficiently) run roughly thousand years in advance of our own common era calendar insofar as the obvious world analogy goes: the 26th century Warhammer world is similar to our own 16th century in broad outline. I’m going to simply assume that this trend will continue, and therefore 400 years later Warhammer world has advanced analogically through a modern age and achieved wholesale industrialization.

Sports Drama Matters: The fourth and perhaps the most subtle setting design precept is that insofar as the setting goes, there is a living spirituality in the concept of athletics. The world at large realizes it not, but the re-emerging worship of Nuffle (the god of Blood Bowl) beginning in the reformation era (24th century) caused something in the world to avoid the End Times and preserve, for a world where There Is Only War, a genuine roadway to a relatively peaceful modernity. In a world more and more devoid of magic it remains an incontrovertible fact that Star Players stand apart from the world as unaging, immortal heroes. Few realize the influence of Nuffle (or the agenda it serves) in the world at large, nor understand its ultimate goals, but we as players can appreciate that this is a setting biased towards Athletics as an existentially positive, life-affirming force in human lives. For all that rugby is a brutal game played by murderous brutes.

Of course there’s also the implicit design precept of arranging the world in a way that enables the kind of game we’re planning to play: a sports drama with significant team management and Blood Bowl boardgame portions. So everything needs to be in service to that when I develop the particulars of the setting.

The History of the BBRPG world

History being an inexact science, not everything is known of the world as it used to be. The events of the 26th century in particular, the so-called End Times, are clouded in confusion due to the wide-spread destruction and the dispersal of peoples around the Old World. Modern history is considered to begin after these events, with much of what came before being relegated into myth and legend. It’s not unlike the way European historiography differentiates between the Medieval and New ages of the world.

My timeline of what has happened since the Warhammer world of old is understandably sparse, considering the actual focus of the game, but I do have a few important developments implied by the setting design precepts from before. like so:

Mid-2300s: The mythical discovery of the Blood Bowl Stadium, the supposedly ancient temple of Nuffle where fabled orc, human and dwarf founders learned the rites of worship that would become the game of rugby. The discovery myth implies Nuffle to be an ancient god, but one lost and forgotten until their worship is suddenly renewed somewhere in the Border Princedoms in the 24th century. Modern historical understanding is uncertain about the location or existence of the Blood Bowl Stadium, but it is generally accepted that a priesthood of Nuffle existed and joined the Imperial Grand Conclave of Faith in the 25th century, Nuffle being accepted as one of the minor Lawful Gods of the Empire. It would be centuries still before rugby would become a popular practice outside the walls of Nufflite monasteries, however. Cult of Nuffle possesses a complex hagiography of Sects (as Teams were known then) and Star Players from the first three centuries, describing a world-wide cultic network spanning practically every culture and race of the known world — basically what you’ll find in the Blood Bowl manual. Independent historians have consistently failed to prove the historical veracity of Nufflic cult myths, however.

Mid-2500s: A confusing world war called the End Times occurs. Expensive armies march back and forth, many miniatures become obsolete as army books are revised and factions eliminated outright. The Empire of Man survives probably due to some hijinks involving rugby players and the mighty Chaos Cup. Everybody thought that the world was going to end, but it did not.

~2600: The majority of the people who still remember the Old World have passed away, leaving behind a new generation who only have second-hand knowledge of how the world used to be. Chaos is a distant, abstract threat in this era, quiescent. Magic is becoming still; wizards claim that something has happened to the chaos rifts, weakening the winds of magic. Religious cults silently ignore the slow weakening of the Gods, pretending to things already having been this way. Disorganized Skaven are hunted like rats on the streets of ruined imperial cities. Ulthuan has sunk into the sea, if ever the fae realm existed in the first place. The End Times left behind a wounded, yet rapidly recovering civilization.

2637: A commonly accepted beginning of the process of Enlightenment, the complex socio-cultural awakening of the Empire to a much less militarized age of the world. Old Imperial governing structures and cultural mores change and are replaced in a multitude of ways when the Empire has enjoyed several generations of relative peace for centuries. Tilean affectations, perceived as more appropriate to this age, grow popular.

2648: The Kislev Deluge, a combined civil war and Kurgan marauder assault, begins. The ice magic of Kislev has grown weak while the Kurgan marauders seem, if not triumphant, at the very least grimly desperate. Imperial response is slow to materialize, and the process takes all of a generation, but ultimately the unthinkable occurs: Kislev falls to the horde and bends the knee to a Kurgan Tzar, buying peace with tribute. The Empire enters a sudden crisis as the forces of Chaos achieve what seems like a real and permanent advance upon borders thought immutable.

2700s: An age of industrialized wars between the Empire and the Kurgan Khanate, the most significant remnant of the Armies of Chaos Undivided. Western polities of Bretonnia and Albion colonize mighty naval empires in the New World, exploiting the weakness of the old races. The world is slowly awakening to a modernity.

2789: A series of democratic revolutions shake the Old World over the next two generations, forcing the Empire to sue for peace in their long, generally victorious war with the Khanate. Nominal independence of Kislev is achieved, although with the tacit understanding that the “brotherly Khanate of Kislev” would henceforth be more of a neutral buffer state than an Imperial ally.

2808: The Norse Kingdom declares its independence from the Kurgan Khanate, and by implication the military alliance of Chaos Undivided. Said alliance has been weakening for a long time now, being increasingly bolstered by Kurgan military force. Kurgans accept the newly formed kingdom, albeit with the understanding that the Norse would remain theologically aligned, or at least not align with the Empire of Man.

2850s: Several well-documented arctic expeditions confirm that the vast Chaos Wastes of the north have been growing colder and lower over the generations, weighted down by newly developing glaciers, rapidly forming a new Arctic Ocean where once stood barren wastelands. If the process continues, a new North-Eastern sea passage to far Cathay may once become feasible via arctic waters. The possibility of the Chaos portals being entirely gone explains much of the lethargy of the Marauder hordes over the centuries since the End Times.

2871: The chrysalis of the future Imperial Rugby League is formed when the Grand Conclave of Faith grants the Cult of Nuffle the privilege of establishing and overseeing “layman” athletic institutions, namely sports clubs. A sign of encroaching modernity, this exception follows similar ones made for establishment of secular hospitals under nominal guidance of the cult of Shallya; despite the wording, nobody really expects the nominal religious oversight to have much meaning. Soon the landscape of the empire is dotted by local rugby teams started outside the formal context of a Nufflite monastery.

2892: The Cult of Nuffle tries to enforce its rules against Sects accepting or granting rewards or gifts for participating in the game of rugby. These “amateurship rules” are ancient and natural for the monastic Sects of the Cult, but impossible to maintain for secular rugby Clubs and players who need money to live on. The secular clubs react by starting their own guild, the Imperial Rugby League, daring the Cult to take the matter to Imperial Court in an age of increasing secularism. The weakness of the religious institution is revealed to all as the Cult backs down.

2904: The popularity of the Athletics Movement has grown to the point where national rugby leagues of the world form an international governing body, the FIRA (Fédération Internationale de Rugby Association, as per Bretognese) to facilitate international rugby. The recently formed Imperial Rugby League is one of the founding members, as are respective organizations from nations all over the world.

2908: Early on FIRA would mainly collate rule sets and cross-train referees to facilitate international exhibition matches, but even this would prove too much for the frail international relations: the Chaotic nations withdraw from FIRA as a block, claiming beyond-the-scenes pressure to revise the rules to reduce the brutality of the game. Refusing international cooperation, the Chaotic block has since then developed their own governing bodies over the sport of rugby.

2967: The mythical Blood Bowl tournament is revived among the FIRA nations as the only really appropriate institution for an official rugby world championship. Participating teams become eligible by being sponsored by a FIRA member organization; most national leagues opt to send their championship team, making Blood Bowl the greatest gathering of rugby athletes the world has ever seen. Chaotic nations forgo participation, though it’s unclear whether this is due to lack of FIRA presentation or for political reasons. Either way, the first Blood Bowl is played by a selection of predominantly human teams.

2973: Current year, year of Blood Bowl VII. The Imperial League plays its 68th Season, having grown into a venerable and beloved institution, the undisputed dominant professional sports league in the 3000 year-old Empire!

Something like that. The key points are that rugby is popular in the Empire, the national league is called “Imperial Rugby League” or simply “Imperial League”, the Empire is still the “Empire of Man”, a state of cold war exists between the Free World and the Chaotic Nations, the Blood Bowl tournament is an annual international championship, and it won’t be long before the Chaotic Nations re-introduce the Chaos Cup to have their own international championship.

I envision civil life in the Empire to be a combination of realist 1970s Germany-Britain-America and romantic space opera style throwback monarchism. It’s not a space opera setting, but what I mean is that the Imperial society has not undergone a revolution and the Estates are still an on-going political concern, so people like Knights and Dukes and Princes and so on are around and influential. Furthermore, the attitude towards this arrangement is generally positive and respectful (but not fascist like in GW products generally — the Empire is a constitutional monarchy, albeit with a powerful imperial executive). If you’re not familiar with the trope in general, think of the way Princess Leia is handled in Star Wars: she’s a princess, and it’s cool to be a princess, and somehow princess doesn’t mean “enemy of the people” in this fantasy setting like it does in the real world.

Imperial League Today

An old map of the Empire for reference.

Imperial Rugby League is the national professional rugby organization in the Empire of Man. It’s generally considered the world’s single most popular and profitable professional sports organization. Millions of of imperial citizens enjoy the matches both live and on television every week. The League is less appealing internationally partially because international tv is still undergoing development, and partially because Imperial sports have a (deserved?) reputation for institutional racism in a world full of all kinds of inhuman creepy-crawlies; orcs and elves and dwarves and so on are more interested in their own sports leagues than the practically human-only Imperial League.

The Imperial League originates in the worship practices of the Cult of Nuffle, an old religious cult that used to play rugby as a rite of worship. Layman teams developed over the 29th century, often as adjunct to a monastic Sect (Team) of the Cult. In 2892 a number of the most powerful layman Teams formed the Imperial League to formalize their competitive relationships and create a governing body independent of the Cult of Nuffle; the next year, in 2893, was the first League Season for the Imperial League, which has played ever since excepting a few breaks during wars, plagues and player strikes.

The League has become a fully professional organization over time, meaning that becoming enfranchised as a League team is a business decision made by the Board of Directors that consists of the owners of the pre-existing teams. Market areas are defined and guarded zealously, and teams are forbidden from recruitment, marketing and sales (of team paraphernalia) outside their designated market territory without arranging a permission with the local team. All teams are expected to maintain their local fandom to benefit both the team and the League as a whole. Needless to say, expanding the franchise has been slow and difficult, and is generally not in the interests of the Board.

(Amateur rugby is played in the Empire, but the rules and culture of play are much less violent; professional rugby is generally considered the prestige format by both the Cult of Nuffle and sports fans.)

In its modern form the league has franchised teams in most of the major cities and states of the Empire; the market territories generally center on a major city, focusing on citizens likely to make it to the city to watch the games. The league has two divisions, the Southern and the Northern, to reduce travel times and maintain audience interest. Here’s a rundown of the modern situation:

DivisionMarket Territory
SouthernAltdorf and Reikland
Southern Nuln and Wissenland
Southern Averheim and Averland
Southern Wurtbad and northern Stirland, Sylvania
Southern Kemperbad and southern Stirland
NorthernTalabheim and Hochland
NorthernMiddenheim and Middenland
Northern Wurzen and Talabecland
Northern Bechafen, Heffengen, Essen and the rest of Ostermark
Northern Salzenmund and Nordland
A geographical map of the league. The red part is the southern division, the blue part is the northern, and the yellow dots are potential future franchise cities.

Note that Marienburg is not currently in the League. I was planning to add Marienburg and maybe another coastal city (and a single Bretonnian city for the exoticism), but the travel logistics became tricky; it may be the case that these all have to wait until a major rethinking of the league structure.

The League currently has five teams in both divisions, for a total of ten teams. Population and wealth of the Empire has grown sharply over the last 80 years, so there is some pressure to extent the franchise; this is important for our campaign, as we’re planning to start an entirely new Team in the League. I’ve marked down a few possible expansion ideas to the side; they range from starting a team in Sylvania (hey, vampires!) to a second team in Altdorf (except it’d play in the Northern division) and so on. Should be something suitable, or we can figure out a good spot with the players.

League Season Structure

The by now traditional season of the Imperial League is as follows. I’m using our calendar because I can’t bother with the Warhammer one and apparently they’ve had a calendar reform since the olden times and now just happen to have a 365 day year like normal people.

Pre-Season: The Teams train, do marketing and play exhibition matches over the winter months. There’s an amateur draft in the fall, so the Teams generally have their hands full bringing everybody up to speed. There may also be local tournaments and such for making some side money.

League Season: The season starts in early May and runs for 15 weeks, three and a half months, until late August. The Teams play on every Sunday, with each Team facing their division-mates two times over the season: once at home, once away. A Team that does not have an in-division game scheduled may play a “rogue game” against a Team from the other division, which counts for league points for both Teams.

Playoffs: The League playoffs occur in the early September. The two highest-placing Teams from each division participate, playing first a semi-finals match and then a final match for the championship.

Blood Bowl: The Imperial League championship Team is awarded the Imperial Writ, permission to participate in the world championship tournament, playing for the fabled Blood Bowl. The Blood Bowl tournament occurs at the end of the year, in November and December. There are generally about a dozen teams participating from all over the world, and the schedule of play is a grueling three matches a week.

The season structure will have to be rejiggered if new Teams join the League, of course, but that’s a problem for them. For now we can see that playing a season of the Imperial League means doing 10‒15 games or so in total. Doable as a rpg campaign, but not trivial.

The Nature of the League

As you’ve seen, I’m not specifying the actual identities of the Teams playing the Imperial League quite yet. They’ll all need names, logos, a dramatic theme,a theme song, a few named personalities and all that sort of stuff, but I’ll sit on that for a while yet. Besides, I want to find out if the players want to bring in their own teams: the campaign will support running your own personal team in the League in addition to participating in the story of the communal team. Could be fun for the players who play Blood Bowl anyway.

I’m calling the GM-controlled NPC teams “Bot Teams” until I think of a better term. I will be designing these with specific specs in mind:

Streamlined league rules: The Bot Teams will be tracked basically as per the ordinary Blood Bowl league rules aside from arbitrary GM special perks for flavour. Their mutual matches will be trivially randomized, as will their matches against player Teams if any decide to participate; the Bot Teams only exist to provide a varied sports drama background for the actual players, after all, so I’m not going to spend a lot of time following their exploits in the League. The only full games they play will be against the rpg protagonist team in the center of this exercise.

All human: Imperial League is traditionally an all-human affair, and all of the Bot Teams are indeed human teams in Blood Bowl terms. There will be a few exceptions for flavour, but these will be more in line of having a token dwarf player (with special permission from the League Commissioner) in a human team rather than an entirely different team type. All players have Animosity (a penalty trait) against all members of different species until otherwise indicated, of course. Imperial culture of 30th century generally considers Ogres and Halflings to be “human”, so while rare, either might be found playing in the League. Amazons, Norse, Bretonnians and so on are also human, of course, so those might show up without requiring special exception, although I doubt that any of the Imperial League Bot Teams are anything but predominantly whitebread in their composition. It’s a literary theme, you see; the savages aren’t good enough to play with us.

Match stipulations: To develop exciting situations and make up for the relative lack of variety in the opponent Teams, I’m thinking of introducing a few variant rules to the rugby played by certain Teams in the League. For historical reasons the League recognizes certain regional variant rules as allowed for the Teams inducted with them; the rulebook used in each particular match is that of the home Team, which means that some matches may end up being played with weird rules. I’m thinking of stuff like the American Football goal posts or the mandatory ball-bouncing found in Australian variant. A bit of an opportunity for us to experiment with the Blood Bowl rules and explore the history of rugby variants.

The nature of the main player character Team will depend on what the players want to do; I’m planning to support a subjective player right to play whatever weird Blood Bowl critters they want as their individual player characters, but the rest of the Team probably has to be made up of human players unless the players figure out a way to import more critters from somewhere. We’ll see what the players want to do; I may have all these very particular ideas about the wider setting, but they’re definitely not there to constrain the players. I just need this sort of high-level planning to be able to model the setting effectively in play.