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Sporting Goods: Give your players a sporting chance with holbagen

Sporting Goods: Give your players a sporting chance with holbagen

While popular medieval pastimes like jousting and archery often feature in campaign settings and adventures, other organized sports barely rate a mention.

Even in fantasy fiction, sports get a short shrift, with a few notable exceptions, such as Quidditch from Harry Potter and Ja’la dh Jin from the Sword of Truth series.

It’s a fun change of pace to get your PCs involved in a game within the game! It lets players experience competition without life or death stakes, and lets a GM set up rivalries and enemies without worrying about whether they’ll be killed by the end of the session. That’s already a win!

Each article in the Sporting Goods series will introduce a sport that a GM can incorporate into a fantasy campaign. Given the high fantasy nature of most campaigns, many of these sports will have magical or monstrous components. Most will also be team-oriented so that a group of players can participate (perhaps with some persuasion or modification).


The hectic, icy sport of holbagen is played in cold climes where giants roam. Those in attendance of a game can expect hot pies, cold ale, cheering fans, and copious brutality.

History of Holbagen

Holbagen dates back several hundred years to a war between a clan of rapacious frost giants and a kingdom of reaver dwarves. After multiple bloody skirmishes, the two sides declared a truce and decided to settle their differences with a game. Unfortunately, they could never decide on a game that both sides could play fairly until one enterprising dwarf named Hakhig Ironbrow devised a solution: a game that includes giants and dwarves on each team.

Hakhig’s idea was a success, and the game of holbagen was born. Holbagen became so popular that it ultimately led to the unification of the frost giant clan and the dwarven kingdom, creating a new realm in their place.

Nowadays, holbagen is played throughout the winter months, and holbagen teams are treated with great respect by the common folk, who cheer raucously for their favorite competitors. Audience participation can run to a fever pitch in a match, and brawls in the stands are not unheard of.

Playing Area

Holbagen is played on a large, flat, oblong icy field 500 feet long and 200 feet across. At each end of the field are two goalposts (typically wooden trunks thrust into the frozen ground). A large net woven from frost giant hair and mammoth fur is strung between each goalpost. Surrounding the field is a wooden palisade, above which are platforms for spectators.


Anywhere from two to six teams play in a holbagen match, except during a finals series where only two teams participate. Each team contains the following members:

  • One frost giant who pushes the log (the logrunner)

  • Two dwarves whose hit the leather ball (the whackers)

  • One dwarf who guides the other members of their team and keeps watch over the opposition (the surveyor)


A holbagen match includes the following equipment for each team:

  • A hollowed-out wooden log in a canoe shape, at least 8 feet in length, onto which four steel or iron runners are attached. Each runner must be at least 2 feet long and 1 foot high.

A standard holbagen log has the same statistics as a sled and costs 25 gp. When pushed by a frost giant, a holbagen log can reach speeds of up to 40 feet.

  • Two wooden mallets (each 3 to 4 feet long).

A holbagen mallet weighs 3 lb. and costs 2 gp. Each wooden mallet has the statistics of a mace but deals 1d4 bludgeoning damage on a hit because of its padded wooden head.

  • One large leather ball (18 to 24 inches in diameter).

A dead boar is sometimes substituted for informal matches.

  • Helmets and other protective gear are optional but not outlawed.


The aim of holbagen is to guide (i.e., whack) a leather ball into one of two goals. When there are only two teams, each team is assigned a goal. In the case of three or more teams, both goals can be used to score. The winner is whoever can score the most goals in the allotted time. A holbagen match typically lasts no longer than an hour, though in the event of a tie, all teams continue playing until one of the tied teams scores or another team overtakes the tied teams.

The ball must remain on the ice or in the air. When your team does not have the ball, you can attempt to steal it from your opponents’ control. The primary means of doing this is by striking the ball away from them with your mallet or smashing your wooden log into theirs to throw them off balance. If a team’s log is destroyed or a team member is seriously injured or killed, the team must withdraw.

Any team caught using spells, magic items, or weapons on the playing field is immediately disqualified.

In recent decades, Thormag Ironbrow, Hakhig’s nephew and a former holbagen champion, has attempted to introduce the following additional rules for officially sanctioned games.

  • If the logrunner or surveyor touches the ball, or a whacker touches the ball without a mallet, they must turn the ball over to the opposing team. If there are more than two teams, the team closest to the offending team gets the ball.

  • Surveyors and whackers cannot exit the log. If they depart the log involuntarily, they must return to it immediately unless they cannot do so.

  • A team that loses its logrunner or both of its whackers must forfeit the game. Subs are not allowed.

  • If the ball is whacked out of play, it must be returned immediately. If the ball is destroyed, a replacement ball must be issued. The team who had possession of the ball when it was destroyed or whacked out of play loses control of it. In the event of more than two teams, the team closest to the offending team gets the ball.

Adventure Hooks

Here are some of the ways the sport of holbagen can be introduced into a campaign.

  • The PCs are spectators at a holbagen match when a remorhaz bursts out of the ice and begins attacking the players. They must defend the arena from the rampaging Monstrosity.

  • The PCs have been asked to participate in a holbagen match by Thormag to help increase the game’s popularity outside of the dwarven kingdom. The party must put their own people on the line.

  • An aged druid approaches the PCs and asks them to track down a local holbagen team that murdered a treant with the intent of turning her body into a holbagen log. PCs must track down the culprits involved in this atrocity and bring them to justice—possibly during a match!

about Phillip Larwood

Phillip has been writing for Kobold Press and other companies for many years. From multiple articles in the early days of Kobold Quarterly magazine to recent books like Tome of Beasts 2 and Vault of Magic, Phillip is never more satisfied than when he sees his name in print. Something that he points out to his family and friends over and over and over again.

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