How To Make The Pro Bowl Fun

As a gamer and strategy junkie, I have a high-octane love for the sport of American Football.

That probably surprises some people that are used to hearing me talk about Dungeons and Dragons and the Fallout franchise. But the truth is, football is a real-time strategy board game using the most dynamic pawns imaginable: humans.

There’s a stereotype that football is only for meatheads, jocks, and Average Joe’s, and no self-respecting Geek would associate with such a brutish display of <gasp> physical competition.

But listen, haters: Football is cerebral first and physical second. The field is a chess board. Player positions mirror class systems in an RPG. And if you’ve ever planted a bomb in your enemy’s base in an MMO, you’ve scored a Touchdown.

You might not see it if you only read the headlines about off-field behavior, or catch highlight reels on accident when the news comes on after The Orville. But there is a depth to this game that only true brilliance can comprehend (Go). There is beauty in its play-calling, personnel groupings, and situational theory (Final Fantasy). It’s a game of math and statistics (D&D), and physics and wit (Portal). It’s outsmarting your opponents (Chess), supplanting their expectations (Werewolf), and matching up skill sets in order to eliminate threats (Magic: The Gathering).

But it’s human. There is heart, and RNG, and chaos. It’s the ultimate 4X/Roguelike mash-up.

Okay. Now that we have that bit of business out of the way, let’s get to the topic at hand.

Let’s talk about the NFL’s greatest failure as an organization: The Pro Bowl.

There are very few things that the Pro Bowl does well, so we’ll start there. The highlight (sadly) is Scheduling. Fitting the game in on the otherwise vacant weekend between the Conference Championship and the Super Bowl is the right move. Before 2009 the Probowl was played AFTER the Super Bowl, which encouraged its irrelevance. The Super Bowl is a natural bookend to the season, and fans can mentally and emotionally decompress when it’s over. Playing one more “just for fun” game afterwards doesn’t make sense, and besides, there’s an empty week just sitting there between the conference finals and the Big Game. Kudos on their recent scheduling placement, it should remain.

Likewise, moving the game out of Hawaii has been the right move. Football should be played in its relevant market, and although the fine denizens of Hawaii probably enjoyed getting a taste, it felt too removed from the action for most NFL fans. (Take note International Series schedulers!)

This leads directly into our first area that needs to change:

1. Location. Orlando is not a traditional NFL market. Let an NFL stadium have the honor of hosting the game. Let it be played in a city that has an established and excited fanbase. Make it Super Bowl Junior.

2. Skill Challenges. The Skills Showdown is the most exciting and interesting part of the event. So it’s completely baffling that they show it on Thursday evening when nobody is around to watch it. This is fun, relaxing, entertaining tv; It’s Saturday afternoon programming. Move the skills section to a reasonable time slot on the weekend and watch the ratings climb.

3. MORE Skills Challenges. While we’re on the topic, let’s just say it: The actual Pro Bowl game is boring. So let’s spruce it up by adding more of the fun and excitement! Add more interesting events, trick catch competitions, showcases and rivalries. Hell, throw some Combine events in there, let us see what these All-Stars can really do. This should be the focus of the event; a fan-friendly entertaining circus of hijinks and next-level competition. Think Slam Dunk Contest with footballs.

4. Rules. We all know why the rules are the way they are in the Pro Bowl. Nobody wants to see their favorite player get injured in a meaningless game. But remember that this is an exhibition match, it only exists to entertain fans. So if the players aren’t going to be going full speed, let’s give them something fun to do. Add 4-point Field Goal zones near the sidelines. Allow Holding and Pass Interference. Let each team forward lateral once per down. And as far as making the players themselves more in to it, I propose…

5. The Swap. The highlight of this year’s game was seeing offensive players on defence and defensive players getting carries. Instead of just peppering this in for a couple of plays, let’s bake it right into the game: In the second half, offense and defense switch. It would turn the game on its head, fill the arena with cheers and laughs, and give fans something special to look forward to. And plus, what defensive back hasn’t dreamed of being placed out wide on offense and burning the competition for a receiving touchdown?! Maybe the Tight End has a sack-dance all queued up for a wild occasion. This is the type of thing that can create memories.

And finally,

6. The Fans. It’s no secret that most great hobbies (and cultures!) are ruined by the very people that Stan them. There is no greater enemy to the NFL than the fans themselves. By giving them a third of the votes you can be guaranteed to see the likes of Jason Garrett on the sidelines even if his team goes 4-12. Why? Because the fans, especially in big markets, just vote in their guys instead of the actual best and most deserving players in the league. It devolves into a popularity contest, or a war of populations. Neither of these things are conducive to accurately producing a best-of-the-season lineup in the so-called All-Star game. Give them, say, a fifth of the vote. Or let a qualified committee whittle it down to two choices at each position and let the fans be the tie-breaker. This isn’t Prom, it’s a reward for outstanding play.

Do I think any of these changes will someday be implemented? Probably not. But there is nothing outlandish or unreasonable here (except maybe that forward lateral thing.) But one thing is certain: Something’s gotta change, or this game will end up being just a footnote in NFL history for the next generation.

*Matty usually writes about board games, video games, and scifi/fantasy media. He only devolves into a football troglodyte for 5 months out of the year.

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Rule Zero

First of all, I am under no delusion that there aren’t already 10,000 gaming blog posts called “Rule Zero,” and that they are generally about “The GM is always right,” or that “The GM can say no to anything,” so let’s just recognize that and move on.

Moved on? Great.

I invented something called Rule Zero.

Rule Zero is simple: You can try anything.

So, I’m a big fan of rules-as-roadmaps (RAR) instead of rules-as-written (RAW). Rules are there to guide both the player and the GM, to give action meaning, to establish strategy and consequence in the game world, and, as a last resort, to answer questions and respond to disputes at the table.

GMs should make rulings. These rulings may originate from their deep knowledge and implementation of the game mechanics, from random dice results, or simply off the top of their heads. In any of those cases it’s the GM making a ruling. That’s what they are there for.

But why are we collectively at the table? For fun!

Let me go back real quick. When I played my very first D&D campaign (as a player) once upon a time, I tried to do something. My character was on a small roadside cliff-edge above an enemy. I decided to jump down, swing my club, and allowing gravity and momentum to give me a boost to the attack. I had the high ground, and I was a larger creature than what I attacked. It seemed reasonable that this action-oriented type of attack would grant my character an advantage.

It didn’t. There was no official rule that said anything about having a bonus to one’s attack based on environmental elements or improvised action. My character didn’t have a specific “leap attack” or anything of that nature. Because the rules didn’t specify that I could do this, I was met with “You can’t do that.” I was penalized for creativity, immersing myself in the environment, and thinking outside the “this is what your class can do” box. A basic melee attack–clearly spelled out in the PHB–would have been a better choice with this GM. RAW screwed me.

This experience left a bad taste in my mouth, and eventually it helped lead to developing a system without classes. As a player, I never wanted to be limited ever again.

As a GM, I never wanted to limit my players, either.

This is where Rule Zero comes into play.

Rule Zero: You can try anything.

Failure is still a possibility, of course. Just because you can try doesn’t mean you can succeed. But the spirit of letting anyone attempt anything was built into BASE12 from the very beginning. In Shattered Empire, anyone can attempt a Skill check, even if they don’t possess that Skill; or rather, everyone has every Skill, but that Skill may be at level 0. You don’t have to be a Class to make a certain type of attack. In fact, even characters without training in a weapon or armor can still wield or wear that item. Training makes you more likely to succeed, but even a child can pick up a stick and try to hit an Ogre with it.

When I GM, one thing that I try to get across to my players is that if they can convince me that something is possible or “realistic” (relative to the environment) then they can succeed. Sometimes I’ll ask them for a Skill check without telling them which Skill. “Which Skill?” they may ask. “Whichever one will make you succeed at what you’re attempting,” I reply. Three different players may end up using a Search check, a Survival check, and an Arcana check based on individual character backstories, play styles, or critical thinking. It’s the same Skill check, but they are each rolling different Skills. Now as a GM I could have said “Everyone make a Search check to find the hidden cave entrance.” Maybe one of them has a good Search rating, and the other two are just going through the motions. Or maybe they wouldn’t: “You roll for it, my Search Skill is only 1.” It doesn’t connect the player with the character to be told what to try. Even if they suck at Search, if that’s what they choose to use for their Skill check, they’ll have a connection with their character knowing that they are struggling to do something they don’t excel at, instead of mindlessly following the GM’s instructions.

So, Rule Zero is really about experimentation, creativity, and problem solving. It’s about using the rules as a guideline, and not as a forcefield. You can try anything, and perhaps as an addendum, if you can convince me (the GM) you succeed. And, as always, it always comes back to what is the most fun.