I will get to gaming eventually. Need lots of arm drags first.
I don’t watch sports entertainment or those associations that still call themselves pro wrestling on a regular basis anymore, so I don’t feel like I can judge the specific product. I did catch part of RAW last night and, when the storm hit the NE a few weeks back, ended up watching part of the Royal Rumble. Did watch some TNA while living in China in 2007 because … the anime station kept repeating the same episodes, ESPN (Asia feed or whatever feed) provided so much snooker but it was really showing the same Red Sox/Yankees game three times in a week that caused me to only be a part time snooker watcher, and I couldn’t be bothered to watch other stations.
I also have tickets to Wrestlemania this year and need to figure out what to do with the second ticket.
Anyway, besides the fact that you can only watch so much of the same thing over and over again, there are some specific reasons I lost interest in keeping up with pro wrestling. It just felt like the narratives grew insipid. The matches just felt heatless. The number of things to mark out to were minimal. Sure, I used to predict 80’s NWA matches with 98% accuracy, including whether the match would end with a clean finish or not. So, at some point, it did get more twisty.
Let’s start with kayfabe. I understand the metaness and “whoa, this is a shoot” or “is this a shoot or is it a faux shoot?” of breaking kayfabe. But, it wasn’t breaking, it was strangling it to death, burning its corpse, and urinating on the bones level of “heh heh heh, this isn’t real”. Compare to soap operas, which pro wrestling often gets compared to. Sure, not everyone is sleeping with their parents, grandparents, children, siblings for realsies, but you have to actually stop for a moment and think about the characters’ histories to realize just how closely blood related various couples are. Thinking is not what we want to be doing when watching these sorts of shows. We want to feel.
We want to feel animosity between stars. We want to chant U-S-A whenever some guy ends up with a foreigner gimmick … and mean it.
Stars. A huge problem is that everyone is a star. Back in the day, jobbers were the puddle of grease to build stars. Now, either you kill some star’s heat by having them job to someone else or it’s some new guy on some awful side show who jobs. You need jobbers to get destroyed. You need jobbers for those underdog moments when they dropkick and back body drop before getting destroyed. You need jobbers to sell finishing moves (get to this in a moment). What helps is when those jobbers are identifiable. Sure, you can take tag team members and have them destroyed in singles bouts, which was done all of the time, but, if those are your only victims, well, there’s only so many of those guys (I should say something about tag team wrestling).
Finishing moves. They don’t finish. I watched Ziggler hit Wyatt with a finishing move and a follow up last night and he just kicked out. Old timey pro wrestling gets credit for building better in ring stories. You do your arm bar, arm drag, elbow to the arm for 4 minutes boring crap before you get into the suplexes before you get into the finishing move phase before someone gets disqualified or there’s a timeout because clean finishes between stars was reserved for pay per views where I just watched free TV.
I watched the I Quit match, for those that don’t know one of the more famous matches in history, recently for the first time. I’ve kind of been checking out some Magnum TA matches because he was my fave to remind myself what his matches were actually like. That match was awful from a move standpoint. There were like three wrestling moves between Magnum and Tully for the whole match, along with lots of punches and kicks and head-pulling. Another thing I noticed that didn’t register back in the ’80’s was that Magnum only punches with his right hand unless he does the both arms pumping punches with someone against the ropes. Talk about redundant. Sure, Flair does the same moves in every match, but they are more creative than right hand haymaker, right hand haymaker, right hand haymaker, especially the upside down into the turnbuckle thing with its two variations of either fall or run along the apron.
So, it’s not like old timey matches were brilliant showcases of athletic artistry. Nevermind the rest holds. But, when a finishing move is just something you do to hit the prescribed notes in a match and it doesn’t really mean anything to the result, then you lose a powerful storytelling tool. In the olden days, a match was all about the finishing moves. Building to them, threatening them, missing them, hitting them and having the ref distracted by the opponent’s manager/valet. A lot of matches didn’t see the finishing move ever go off because … then, that guy would win. Sure, superheroes would kick out of a finishing move in giant pay per view events. Flair’s figure four was constantly escaped as were numerous submission moves. On the other hand, Baron von Raschke actually Clawed his way to victory a lot.
Managers were all the rage for certain stars. Partners or whatever also worked. You needed lots of disqualifications and cheating to build long term stories. The heel had to be heel-helped with cheats. The heel had to retain titles for much of the time by disqualifications.
Titles. Nothing has gotten worse, not even the “I hit you three times with my finishing move and still lose” nature of matches than how titles are treated. Titles used to be a thing. I used to know every wrestler who beat Flair for the NWA Heavyweight Title (I thought of it as the NWA title, the history of the NWA, WCW, Mid-Atlantic, et al, is horribly confusing). You could hold on to a title for years. Look at Hogan’s title reigns versus the “Dolph Ziggler is a two time world’s champion” announcing that we now suffer from. Sure, Harley Race got that sort of announcing back in the day when he would job to younger wrestlers, but that was an exception. Seriously, Cena “15-time” world’s champ? Everyone under the Sun has been a champ of something and many have been some form of world’s champ. The US Title means nothing. The Intercontinental Title means nothing.
Back in the mid-80’s, you had the TV Title that changed hands frequently, though I associated it with Arn Anderson. The US Title would change hands but rarely, with heels holding on to it for much longer stretches. The World Championship rarely changed hands, with Flair almost always champ. It mattered when someone won a title. It mattered when they got stripped of a title.
Tag team wrestling was different, of course. While the Rock and Roll Express were often champs, you had to give the Road Warriors the titles when they came visiting, and you needed to support a larger roster by having various wrestlers actually have success in tag team bouts when they would get destroyed against singles stars. But, that’s the thing, you knew the teams. Sure, superteams were always a thing. Oh, look, Hogan teams with whoever. But, there was continuity with teams. I can’t follow tag teams at all, anymore. They just seem to come and go and so many matches are singles matches or wrestlers who don’t want to team being forced to by authorities.
One of the big advantages of old timey wrestling was that you had stars move from association to association. The Road Warriors were a great example. They would appear and wreak havoc but eventually go away so that someone else had a chance to star. So, you had your regular stable, but, then, you would have some star go somewhere else and people would go crazy when they’d appear in a different territory or when they’d return. Ric Rude had an element of that, as a singles example, even though I think of him mostly as a WCCW star. The Von Erichs, of course, would stay home because they owned that league.
Okay, let’s get into how all of this relates to gaming. So, Bubba Ray Dudley was one of only about two things interesting about the time I spent watching the Royal Rumble. Diamond Dallas Page was something else I recall.
Bubba had heat, unlike a lot of the match. Why? I didn’t care that they were in Philly and the ECW crowd went wild. I cared about what he did in the ring. He did signature moves. I always appreciate the Dusty Rhodes elbow homages that certain wrestlers, like Dustin, do. He talked during his time out there, where others just brawled. He worked with another wrestler for a shout out to the Dudley Boyz that people outside of Philly can recognize. There was energy to his story. Then, he lost because he had to lose.
See, RPGs are about storytelling. You can play them as tactical wargamey as you want or whatever other way, but there’s still a story, even if that story is “I got hit by acid and it melted my +2 Chainmail, but I killed the black dragon with my +2 longsword.” The story doesn’t have to be coherent, though I like it to be. What the story should have, though, is energy.
Bubba Ray and DDP gave that match some energy that many others didn’t. The RPG adventure should consider how it’s going to get the players to mark out. What events are going to create excitement?
While different people care about different things, some things are likely to cater to a variety of players.
It’s not a good thing when everything is new all of the time. While I find certain jokes in movies or whatever to be unclever and a waste, like one of the Star Wars movies doing some joke on the ratlike robot running around as a callback to I believe A New Hope, a campaign should have the breadth to enable callouts to prior events.
I am a bit amazed at how much more I care about NPCs than people I play with or run for, to where I throw out a name and players have no idea who I’m talking about, though might have some inkling if I start describing aspects of the character. But, in theory, this is why recurring NPCs are important. They don’t just flesh out part of a world they anchor it.
The I Quit match might have not been all that if it were just a “let’s throw two guys in a ring and have them bleed” match. It was the culmination of a feud (not that Tully and Magnum didn’t continue to feud) storyline. Actually, better example for me was the best of seven series with The Russian Nightmare, Nikita Koloff. (Btw, look up what that totally not Russian guy did to stay in character – mad props for his investment.) Now, I watched some of those matches, but I also remember Magnum’s feud with Nikita better than the numerous battles with Tully and the Four Horsemen.
One thing I find with campaign play is that so often there’s a lack of drama, of epicness, to events. Maybe it’s because you know that there’s going to be another episode next week that adventures often don’t get structured with “time to save the world”. A lot of TV episodes don’t have major climaxes. But, you know what, it isn’t always about street brawls in Starling City or whatever. An epic moment can be much more personal. Find a long lost sibling. Get married. Master the Western Long Bite Technique.
I realize games and fiction are two different things, but there must be better ways to write into sessions the possibilities for someone to have a special achievement. Whereas, instead, I find that players often speak of mechanical advancement achievements after sessions. There’s nothing wrong with going up in levels, spending XP to improve your awesomeness, learning a new Discipline, or whatever. It’s just that those shouldn’t be the only things going on and they shouldn’t be “oh, by the way, I just gained an extra attack” moments.
Another angle to focus on – the achievement needs to feel like an achievement. Something I’m guilty of is structuring sessions towards inevitability. HoR modules have this, as well, where you expect to be successful. I certainly like feeling like I earned a result through decisions and character sheet ability, though probably more so the former. I have the sense that others like to feel they earned something, though they may care more about character sheet ability than player decisions.
It’s not good enough to set up cut scenes. Sure, pro wrestling is scripted, so you tend to know what is going to happen, where one hopes that the RPG experience doesn’t feel like you can predict results. I’m also guilty of pushing things too much in a particular direction and not having enough flexibility to see things go in other directions.
Though, I would say that I have certain expectations because I see the point of games I run to be to do heroic things. That does cut down dramatically on what are reasonable actions to take.
Jobbers have a very important role. They promote the stars. Mooks are often considered to have this role in RPG play, but I just don’t feel it much of the time. However, there needs to be those moments when the players feel like the PCs are special because someone else isn’t. This is one of the reasons, I think, that rescue missions feel so good. Some NPC, group, or locale gets trashed because they couldn’t protect themselves. Well, we hero types are better than you are and will totally fix this for you.
What I want to avoid is the situation where PCs feel like they are just some dudes. You should never feel like the jobbers. When you get thrown out of the ring at the half hour mark, you should still have hit your finishing moves on a few guys and made people laugh with your schtick or your borrowed schtick – “wooooooo”.
Where the section above was all about reminding players about the world and where they fit in it, the PCs can’t just be doing the same thing over and over. They need to have a variety of achievements to differentiate. One of the reasons I don’t have much enthusiasm for the idea of playing D&D or similar dungeon crawl style RPGs is that I think there’s more to life than just hitting the next dungeon and killing some monsters and finding some treasure. The achievements don’t have a qualitative difference in feel.
Many of my PCs are not all that good at combat because I don’t really find combat that engrossing. Even so, almost all of my campaigns have a significant combat aspect, so having them achieve at some point combatwise does have that specialness of achievement that we mark out for. Hak might have been our Conan group’s combat god, but we all remember Ty’s “shot in the dark”.
The NPCs can’t be videogame NPCs who always have the same dialogue and always serve the same function, either. The locations can’t always be “I go to Pete’s Funky Herbs Shoppe to see what he’s got on tap” every time the party hits town.
The point of a story is that it moves. Something needs to change. If every wrestler came into the Royal Rumble and did the same stuff, what would be the point? That’s the way I feel about so many matches – they lack any sort of narrative to where it is just the same guy coming into the ring and doing the same stuff and having the same catchphrases (waving “their” country’s flag, etc.) and there’s no progression from beginning to end. Titles change hands willy-nilly to where they don’t feel like part of the story anymore. So, sports entertainment, what is the story and why should I care?