Worlds of Design: How D&D is Like American Football

I’m going to describe an analogy between Dungeons & Dragons character classes and American football positions (for the basics, check out this article). I've done this just for fun, though it's also useful if players think this way because it will encourage them to cooperate.


Picture courtesy of Pixabay.

It’s All About Teamwork​

The reason I use this analogy is because cooperation is required for success in First and Second Edition Dungeons & Dragons, and in American football. Third Edition D&D is more a "one-man army" game. It's more like pro-basketball where any one person can really stand out on their own in a given game. Fourth Edition brought cooperation back, but not so much as in First and Second edition because the individuals are so much more survivable on their own. There's nobody like the wizards, and even the clerics in the first edition, where if the enemy gets to him/her and melees them they can't cast spells anymore.

Also consider there are 11 players on a side in American football (really 22 with separate offense and defense) and five players on a side in basketball, and the number of characters in a party is pretty important to how the party succeeds. If you have a game with only four characters in the party as Third edition D&D recommends, this can be a lot different than if you have eight characters in the party, which is how I play First edition D&D.

So think in terms of teamwork. That's what American football is all about. And that's what some versions of D&D are about—though as we know, you can make almost anything of a given set of rules, if you want to.

I intend to match the character class functions to the functions in American football, because both depend on “combined arms” co-operation to succeed. Combined arms: “integrate different combat arms of a military to achieve mutually complementary effects." Tanks are better accompanied by infantry, conversely infantry are better accompanied by tanks, aircraft ground support has certain roles, etc.


In terms of modern professional football, quarterbacks are the wizards, that is, those who cast arcane spells. (You might even think of the ones who are also good runners as sorcerers.) They do poorly when blockers don't keep the enemy off of them. In First and Second Edition, if somebody gets to the wizard and melees them, the wizard is in big trouble: he/she can't cast spells while in melee. With the proper crew the wizard/quarterbacks do by far the most damage to the enemy. In the two most recent editions, arcane casters are less dependent on others, but still "squishy".


Quarterbacks benefit greatly from a good running game. The fighter types are the linemen on both sides, who have to block or tackle well for their team to do well. They play "in the trenches" in FRPGs just as linemen do. We can see specialist fighters like paladins or first edition Rangers as running backs who both run the ball to gain yardage (which we're converting to doing damage), and also catch passes. Clerics can be offensive if you're not playing "cleric equals healer," but clerics can also be defensive, in this case the blocking part that the running backs do both for the quarterback and for other running backs.


The linebackers also are clerics in their more defensive role. They're trying to prevent gains in yardage, but they can still hit hard at times. Clerics can also defend against enemy spell casters, that is, defend against the pass.

Defensive Backs/Rogues​

The defensive secondary is rogues. Defensive backs can be everywhere, doing everything from defending long passes to blitzing the quarterback. They're fast, but they're also the smallest players in the game. They're not primarily offensive though they can occasionally intercept for a touchdown.

Wide Receivers/Rogues & Monks​

The wide receivers would be rogues and monks. Wide receivers can provide a quick strike in football, kind of like the surprise of the stealthy backstab. Monks in particular are a kind of commando. Their job is to keep the enemy spell casters busy so the rest of a party can win the fight, and in American football that would be somebody like a safety who's an outstanding blitzer, who goes in and and takes down the quarterback instead of staying back to defend the pass.

Punt Teams/Rogues, Fighters, and Rangers​

The punt teams would be rogues and fighters and post-first-edition Rangers, the kickoff teams are also rogues.

How much this comparison works for other RPGs depends on the game. For example, the typical Massively Multiplayer Online (MMO) game has damage per second (DPS) characters, healers, and "tanks". That doesn't seem to fit football as well as it does D&D.

Your Turn: What other sports best match your group’s RPG play style?
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Lewis Pulsipher

Lewis Pulsipher

Dragon, White Dwarf, Fiend Folio


Coaching the last football game of the Illinois High School season tonight. Our season was moved to spring due to Covid. We are graduating our Wizard, but our entire frontline of Fighters and Clerics return next season. We will have to replace a couple of key Rogues next season, but we have some young talent in the guild. Excited about our young team for the next campaign season!

Aaron L

This is only tangentially related to this post, but I remember many years ago (either the late '90s or early 2000s) reading something I found on some Internet forum somewhere that was an account of the main characters from Robert Jordan's The Wheel of Time playing a game of American Football. It was hilarious, with Mat goofing around but calling spectacularly successful plays, and Rand al'Thor arguing with himself (or more accurately, arguing with the personality of his previous life as Lews Therin Telamon, The Dragon of the Age of Legends) about what to do, and ak'Lan Mandragoran getting fed up wuth everyone elses' shenanigans.

I've never been able to find it again in about 20 years of searching and I wish to the Gates of Hevan that I could!


Victoria Rules
Our crew came up with a version of the "ideal party" a long time ago, somewhat based on gridiron football:

4 Fighters - linemen (could include Paladins and-or Cavaliers here)
1 Ranger - tight end/blocking receiver
1 Druid - inside receiver
2 Thieves - wide receivers (one could be a Monk)
2 Clerics - halfbacks/running backs
1 Magic-User - quarterback

Thing is, for some reason I remember our ideal party ended up at 14 people, not 11. One of the extras was for sure a second MU; another was a second Ranger, but I can't remember what the 14th was - probably something like a Cleric/Thief for versatility.

@overgeeked - the hockey analogy works way better for a rock band than for a D&D party. Goalie = drummer. Defense = bassist (stay-at-home) and rhythm guitar/keyboards (rushing). Center = lead voice. Scoring winger = lead guitarist. Checking winger = second guitarist or lead keyboardist, depending on the band.

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