by Wanderer Werewolf
©2009 Wanderer Werewolf

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   Sport, especially in the shape of field games (such as baseball and football) has been around a long time. The Cherokee Indians had anetsa; the Celts had hurling, or something remarkably like it; the French had jeu de paume (literally, ‘game of the palm’). The Maya of South America even had a game, pitz, which the Aztecs later adopted; these days, it’s called ulama, from its Nahuatl name, ullamaliztli. And, while all of these had certain elements (and even rules) in common, each one was shaped by its culture—each one immortalized, in its own small way, a part of the time and place in which it was born.
   (Note that I’m purposely skipping simple tests of ability like the discus, shot put, hammer throw and caber toss. While fascinating in their own right, their very basic structure limits the amount of information they carry.)
   It’s instructive to look first at anetsa, the ‘Cherokee ball game’ of North America. The name literally means ‘little cousin to war’, and that’s how it was used; a game of anetsa was a ritualized conflict that not only prepared young men for warfare—it was a very rough game—but was used to settle disputes between villages and towns.
   The rules were very simple, as befits a sport of such age: Try to get the ball (roughly the size of a golf ball) through your opponent’s goal in any way you can. You could throw it, hit it, carry it with the stick (rather like a lacrosse stick) or even carry it in your mouth. (Long before a certain Seeker almost swallowed his Snitch, at that.) The opposition will try and stop you, any way they can… and there’s no such thing as ‘unnecessary roughness’ in this game. Deaths were not unknown, and injuries were common.
   Now, taking this all together, what does this game say about the tribe from which it came?
   First, it says the tribe had been around through a long and violent history; ritualized warfare tends to be created when you get tired of losing good men to battle. More, it reveals that hand-to-hand combat and clubs were common, and skill with these weapons was a sign of greatness. In fact, the Cherokee considered their ball players on a par with modern athletes; the best were tempted to other villages with beautiful girls, rich payments and the ability to get away with violating tribal law. Some things never change…
   (N.B.: While the game is best known from the Cherokee, versions of it were known in most tribes.)
   Moving to the south, we see the Maya, and their game of pitz. Like a cross between handball, soccer and tennis, this game primarily involved getting the ball to the other end of the field; points were gained (according to surviving accounts by the conquistadores) by hitting the opponents’ wall, but lost by going out of bounds, letting the ball bounce twice before returning, or missing a ‘bonus’ goal attempt at the iconic stone rings, located about 18 feet above the court. (If you could make that shot, you won instantly. Goodness knows, you’d deserve it.)
   Yet, while pitz was also a surrogate for war, many things were different, especially in defeat; as early as the Classic Maya period, ballgames were also sacramental rites, in which losing teams’ captains would be sacrificed to the gods. Depictions of captives inside the ball may have been poetic (your life sailed with the ball) or realistic (there’s a school of thought that skulls could have been used for balls at times).
   This game immortalized a culture on top; having conquered their neighbors, they commemorated the victory in sport by sacrificing team captains (rather than all opposing warriors, as in the beginning). There’s even some suspicion that certain games were rigged, to provide a sacrifice on holy days. The Maya had risen to power, and had no intention of giving it up.
   Of course, the Aztecs felt the same way after they took over…
   Jumping across the water to visit the Celts, Ireland holds what is believed to be the oldest field sport in existence: Hurling. With early elements of both soccer and baseball (or at least baseball’s direct ancestor, rounders), hurling later became standardized at Trinity College, Dublin in 1879. It was commonly played between rival villages, as well as in border towns.
   In its essence, hurling (which also has an Irish name, iomáint) is very simple: Hit the ball (the sliotar) between or over the goalposts with wooden sticks (hurleys). (Between gives you three points for getting past the goalkeeper; over gives you one point.) In addition, the ball must be hit with the stick; using the hand to put the ball in the goal is a technical foul. Finally, the ball cannot be carried for more than three steps without bouncing or carrying it on the stick, and can only be handled twice in a row by the same player.)
   This sport carried the abstraction to its highest point: Injuries were against the rules of the standardized game (though not so much in older games), while the sticks bore even less resemblance to a weapon than the Cherokee LaCrosse sticks. This was the game of a settled people on equal terms with their neighborhood; it was neither new enough to have truly basic rules nor bloody enough to be a ruling nation’s game.
   Now: How can this serve us as we make and play in the worlds of fantasy?
   1. To start with, we can see that we’re entitled to create games in which a ball must be delivered to the other end of a playing area. The concept is so widespread as to be almost ubiquitous, reaching to every corner of the globe.
   In designing them, we can keep certain simplified truisms in mind:

  1. Ruling powers will tend to skew the game in their favor. Remember the tale of the Japanese admiral who rigged his own tactical simulation; when you have power, it’s easy not to play by the rules.
  2. The older the game, the simpler the rules. Hurling’s rules were fixed in the Nineteenth Century, while anetsa hasn’t changed in centuries.
  3. Sport is conflict; even when not standing in for war, an athlete still stands for his people, and they tend to treat him accordingly.
  4. There’s a reason they call it a club: Most implements of sport have some relation to warfare or conflict. Many times, a culture’s preferred weapon will be represented in their sports, like the clubs in anetsa (descended from war clubs), while the hurley of hurling was shaped like a flattened sword. (To be fair, the more mobile games tend to do away with the ‘weapons’ in the name of speed on the field, and prize accuracy; the Greek ancestor of soccer involved ‘shooting’ the ball through a hole in a silk cloth.)

   So, put them together, and we get:

   2. Because sport is conflict, your adventures now have a new option. Imagine the heroes playing a game with the gnolls to save the captives, only to face the gnolls’ constant desire to rig the game. Imagine your heroes recruited to fill in for the team that ‘mysteriously’ vanished or fell ill before the match to decide the fate of the baron’s lands. And everyone knows the superhero plots spawned by this idea…
   2a. However: Before you use a game in your plot this way, make sure you know the rules and how to break them. You’re the ultimate referee, and the players will do their best to keep you honest.
   Of course, if your villains cheat, that’s another matter…

   From sport, we’ll be moving next time to arts and literature; there’s more to Klingon opera than bleeding eardrums. See you next time in the Red King’s Dream!

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