Ego Check: Nathan Paoletta, Creator of World Wide Wrestling RPG

Nathan Paoletta
Nathan Paoletta

When I first learned about the World Wide Wrestling RPG, I questioned, “Damn, why didn’t I think of that?” The game takes elements of professional wrestling and turns them into an organized, functional, highly entertaining tabletop roleplaying game. I previously shared my initial impressions from playing the game, and posted a template for a recap of our wrestling promotion’s episode. Below, I interviewed the game’ creater, Nathan Peoletta. He was kind enough to discuss the aftermath of his successful Kickstarter campaign that brought WWWRPG to life. We explore how the game compares to traditional tabletop offerings such as Dungeons & Dragons, and delve into how he addresses the darker elements of professional wrestling within the game.  Please enjoy the interview below, consider visiting his Patreon, and certainly try at least one session of WWWRPG!

Now that World Wide Wrestling RPG has been able to breath for a few months, what does it feel like to have the project completed?

It feels really good! The response to the game has been great so far, both in terms of play activity and sales. The community that has grown up around it – centered in the Google+ community I run, but also including general conversations on Twitter and other platforms – has been incredibly gratifying. I obviously am happy that people are playing the game, but it is a testament to the strength of the design itself that the game experiences seem to be generally positive, and that multiple people in the community are emerging as rules experts without me having to use the “designer voice of authority” very often. I think every designer is nervous about their design not actually communicating to their audience, and having tangible evidence to the contrary is probably the best part on the pure creative level.

Another worry was that the Kickstarter would be the peak in terms of reaching an audience. Thankfully players have been doing a great job of spreading the word about it since the public release. It is fantastic that people are finding the game post-Kickstarter, that people are signing up to play at conventions, running games online for their non-gamer wrestling friends, and all of that. So far I’m counting the entire experience as a success!

I am one of the people that found the game after the Kickstarter. I finally ran a session of World Wide Wrestling RPG for the first time earlier this year, and all five players reported that it was a great time – and several of them had not watched wrestling in many years. As the game seems to be taking off in some circles, what has been the most surprising aspect of the fan reception?

I am honestly most surprised by how watchable the game is. That is, I regularly hear that people enjoy watching other people play the game, either by sitting in on a session or watching recorded games on YouTube. The Journeyman’s Cup Tournament Exhibition Season I ran over the last couple months generated a small but pretty engaged audience of folks who watched, commented on the action, and even fantasy booked upcoming episodes as if they were watching an actual wrestling show, which was very surprising and cool!

As for the game itself, one of the design goals was for play to create a positive environment for people to learn about what makes wrestling so fun and compelling. I do talk to players who say that they have gotten back into wrestling or even into wrestling for the first time since playing the game, which is fantastic. It is not so much surprising, because it is something I was aiming for on some level, but it is satisfying to see it working when it very easily could not have.

I remarked that it was probably the most I have laughed during a gaming session at things happening in gameplay. The game truly offers all the players a stage to work with each other to advance the story. The cooperation by all the players is what struck me the most during the first session. When I first read the rules, I worried that the players not involved in the current wrestling match might be bored. However, WWWRPG allows for players “off camera” to announce the action or they can disrupt the current match at any moment by running into the ring. It honestly felt more integrated than many sessions of D&D I have played, where there can be long stretches of time when certain players are waiting for their turn.

With that in mind, how would you compare the experience of running a typical RPG like Dungeons & Dragons to running WWWRPG?

I have not played D&D in a long time! But overall, WWWRPG is basically designed to fit my personal GMing style. There is a lot of GM-facing structure and some useful-but-not-strictly-necessary between-session prep. The moment-of-moment of play invites the players to contribute a lot of their own ideas, and the rules of the game create a way for all of the contributions to work together. I think a lot of games, including D&D, are agnostic as to who is bringing what into the game and when – if the group is already good at it then they can do it well, but if they are not than the rules do not help. I like games where everyone generally has to bring some amount of creative energy for it to work, and WWWRPG is structured to channel that from everyone.

There are three specific things that help keep everyone engaged and able to contribute – the Run-In Move, the Announcer role during matches, and the idea that “there’s always a microphone available” regardless of whether the segment has been framed with one or not. I make sure to highlight those things when I run the game and players are great about taking advantage of them. Also, the structural element of booking tag-team and free-for-all matches means you can have a large group all involved in the same scene at the same time, but nobody needs to carry the “story” by themselves the whole time.

That said, if you are used to really pre-planning and having specific outcomes in mind as a GM, WWWRPG may require a mental shift. If you follow the rules, it is almost impossible for Creative’s [the GM in WWWRPG] initial plans to fall out they way they were intended – the players always manage to swerve the booking, either intentionally or just by the fall of the dice. However, if you are comfortable giving up that long-term control, the stuff the players come up with is always way better than what you had in mind! So I think that’s a good tradeoff.

You hit on many of the things I enjoyed about the cooperative nature of gameplay for everyone at the table. It helped that I had many years of experience watching professional wrestling because I knew a few dynamics I wanted to create during the play session. First, I created a babyface play-by-play announcer that I would roleplay so he could be paired with any type of heel color commentator a player wanted to roleplay, which worked beautifully with two different players throughout the night. Second, I created a non-playable wrestler (NPW) to host an interview show within the promotion, and used him to interview a third player during the session. As you mentioned, the WWWRPG gives the person functioning as Creative a lot of options to get players involved. What are some of your favorite things to steal from the history of professional wrestling to implement into an episode of the game to spice up the events and involve the players?

I often find myself swept up in the events of play so, for me, it’s less stealing specific moments and more about having some go-to setups that I know I can throw in for any situation. One of my favorites is the “talk show” segment where you put two rivals on a cheesy set with a slightly antagonistic host, which is ironic because I find most talk shows in actual wrestling painful to watch. However, in the game it is a great opportunity for players to chew some scenery and get their characters across without always talking about the upcoming match. I also love a good “I just do what the people want” authority figure to make matches and serve as a foil for anyone who needs a personality to push against.

For a large table of players (like a convention game) I often do a warm-up after everyone makes characters where everyone cuts a promo about the big battle royal (or Regal Wrangle) that I announce as the main event of the show. This comes straight from the classic Royal Rumble pre-taped promos. For my home games it is mostly little details, though. Like narrating what is keeping the referee’s back turned so the heel can cheat, or coming up with crowd chants with the right syllables/clapping, that kind of stuff. I’m so immersed in wrestling that those things come naturally and I do not think about them, but I’d recommend finding a handful of little details that you like for anyone who’s aiming to bring in more wrestling stuff to their games.

In thinking about the session our group played, the process of playing the game in many ways was more important than the outcome of playing the game. For example, our session featured two wrestling matches that resulted in winners and losers – but that was not the most important feature of the session. The process of creating characters, building relationships, ad-libbing, and one-upping each other during the episode was fantastic. It was not about who won or who lost a match, but how effective everyone was in telling a good story and creating dynamic moments. It was liberating as the GM to not have to plan for a variety of possible outcomes and build a sprawling world with monsters, traps, and challenges. I was able to focus on the process of making the gameplay experience worthwhile for the players without looking up monster stats or consulting a variety of rules on spells or movement – and I did not roll a single die.

I think the game design helps all players including Creative break out of that mindset regarding pre-planned agendas for each session. I could see myself getting lost in enjoying the process elements of WWWRPG, but I’m aware that players – and the imaginary viewing audience – need to feel like the outcomes of matches are important. How do you emphasize the process and outcome of your WWWRPG sessions? And how do you maintain the importance of match outcomes in WWWRPG?

Well, it is kind of a meta-commentary on how RPGs work, right? Playing the game is the fun part, the final outcomes are almost besides the point, except in-as-much as they feel like satisfying capstones to the play itself. Theoretics aside, part of the fun of being a wrestling fan is thinking about how the form “works” and speculating as to what parts of a show stem from which elements – was that the booking or not? Did that wrestler capitalize on a mistake or was that the plan? Did the fans make that moment matter more than it was “supposed” to? So giving the players access to the “structural” decisions makes that excitement part of play for everyone. I emphasize to players which Moves allow them to override booking or make what they want to happen stick, because that sense of “the plan was A but I want B to happen and this is how I do it” is satisfying and productive.

All of that said, the match outcomes matter differently at different points in play. For a one-shot, they matter pretty much how you’d think, with people being invested in whether a certain wrestler wins or loses a match. In longer-term play, the outcomes become more about expressing the storylines and providing a canvas for the players to paint on, essentially – there has to be a plan for the heel to try and cheat to get around or the babyface to overcome, regardless of what that plan is. Most storylines do have a capstone match where it does really matter who wins, but I have found that by the time you get there the whole table tends to be in agreement about who SHOULD win, because that’s just how wrestling stories work. So you see a pattern where wins and losses matter early on, then not so much as long as the feud is progressing and everyone is engaged with their character goals, and then a final match where the win and loss really do matter.

Which, again, feels like real wrestling!

You mentioned earlier that you are “immersed in wrestling.” What exactly does that mean? How would you describe your involvement on both a recreational and professional level?

Nathan Paoletta
What happens when you become “immersed in wrestling.”

Oh, that just basically means that I watch a lot of wrestling, plus there are some fanzines and podcasts that I keep up with. For televised stuff, I watch NXT regularly (it is the best; FACT) and dip in and out of RAW depending on what is going on and how much time I really have to watch. I do have a subscription to the WWE Network so I watch the PPVs (or Live Events or whatever, they need a new term now!), as well as older stuff to fill in the decades of wrestling that I have missed!

In terms of live shows, I happen to be in a great location for Independent wrestling (Chicago!). There’s a new promotion called Freelance Wrestling that puts on shows about 20 minutes from my house right here in the city, which is great. I go to AAW out in the suburbs when the card looks good, and one of my all-time favorite promotions, CHIKARA, tours through Chicago a couple of times a year so I make it a point to see them live. I also watch iPPVs of other Indy stuff everyone once in a while, like Ring of Honor and the occasional New Japan Pro Wrestling show (though a lot of NJPW stuff I just look up online).

I do not really spend much time with the dirtsheets or rumor columns. Wrestling “media” that I keep up with includes Straight Shoot (a solid, positive RAW review show) and The Old School Wrestling Podcast (great conversations about old school wrestling) – I like both of those enough that I invited a host of each to contribute an essay to WWWRPG, in fact! I also pick up issues of magazines semi-regularly, mostly The Atomic Elbow, The Tag Rope (a UK glossy magazine with really good photography, in particular) and a new thing a friend of mine is doing called Pro Wrestling Feelings. And I listen to Stone Cold Steve Austin’s and Jericho’s podcasts when they have interesting guests.

I am not involved with wrestling in any professional sense. All of my interactions are strictly as a fan at this point – though over time I have become friendly with other Indy media people such as the folks behind the podcasts and magazines I mentioned on Twitter, at least, which is very cool. There is a bit of a wrestling-fan-media circuit where people boost each other’s work and pass along cool stuff to each other, and that is rad.

I truly believe anyone who enjoys playing tabletop roleplaying games and has even had minor flirtations with following professional wrestling has to try this game. There are those with little – or no – experience watching professional wrestling. What are your suggestions for getting those players into the game?

By into I’m going to assume you mean “get someone who’s already agreed to play invested in the game,” and not “how to recruit players who are not into wrestling to play in the first place.” Because the latter, I think, is not something I’m interested in trying to do.

Here is a part of my standard pre-game spiel for convention games:

We have a spectrum here both of roleplaying experience and of professional wrestling knowledge. This means that we’re going to help each other out when there’s some confusion or a knowledge hole, and that we’re not judging each other. The game will handle making the game “feel” like wrestling, so you don’t need to worry about that – just pick something cool to play that you’re excited about and we’ll go from there.

On a “why will I like this game” level, well – it’s opera, it’s pageantry and it’s basic storytelling. There is good and evil and they are fighting and sure, it doesn’t make a lot of sense, but it doesn’t have to! It’ll come together in the end.

On a functional level I think that as long as there is one or maybe two people at the table who are wrestling fans, the game does a good job of supporting them in sharing their knowledge with everyone else. Also, pairing a wrestling fan player with a non-fan player for the first match is usually a good strategy, and explicitly saying “this player is going to be our ringer and you all can model your behavior on them for the actual wrestling bits” can help a lot.

One specific thing I like to say that “the production budget of our imaginations is unlimited,” so players are welcome to bring in whatever other influences they want into their wrestlers and segments. That seems to help people get creative and not hung up on details about verisimilitude to how it would really work.

Overall, I put a lot of work into trying to make the game as accessible as possible to what I call the “wrestling-adjacent,” folks who are curious about wrestling but do not have deep fan knowledge and do not necessarily want or need to engage with all of the specifics of how the business “actually” works. So far I think the work has paid off – I’ve had a lot of people tell me that they do not watch wrestling but love the game, or that the game got them into watching real wrestling, which is really fantastic!

I imagine trying to get a non-wrestling fan into World Wide Wrestling RPG would be like trying to get a non-fantasy fan to play Dungeons & Dragons. I never put on armor to fight against goblins but I have consumed a great deal of media that depicts the fantasy setting; movies like Willow and The Princess Bride along with countless books and videogames established the structure of the fantasy setting. In the same way, I have never laced up boots and executed a Rock Bottom in front of a live audience, but I watched many hours of professional wrestling throughout my life – so I understand the structure of professional wrestling.

It may be challenging to reach players who are disinterested in a game’s setting or premise – whether it is swords and sorcery or professional wrestling. In my overview of my play experience with WWW RPG, I wrote, “The game is a must for any tabletop RPG enthusiast that also happens to have a soft spot for professional wrestling.” WWW RPG Audience

The prior question was about the potential players that are outside of that sweet spot, and you answered that you are not interested in pursuing those individuals to play WWW RPG. Perhaps this is jumping into a bit of an existential hole, but how do you decide as a creator who the audience is – and is not – for a game you have created? And how do you accept that your game is not going to connect with those people outside of the sweet spot depicted above?

I mean, I want the door to be open as possible, but since I have finite time and energy I choose to spend most of it inside the house rather than outside trying to flag people down (to mix multiple metaphors). As a creator, deciding on your audience is both critical and impossible. Critical, in the sense that any creation does have an audience, and how I tend to define success for myself is how well the audience “gets” the piece, which means the audience understands, enjoys, or finds value in in the product. Impossible, in that as soon as a piece reaches an audience, the audience engagement with it changes the work. It is a kind of Heisenburgean uncertainty principle – the reception of the work changes the work, sometimes to the point of it changing so much that the audience itself changes.

But my goals for WWWRPG in particular were to create a game that served overlapping audiences roughly in this order:

First, experienced gamers who are also pro wrestling fans. Second, experienced gamers who are not wrestling fans, but are curious about it. Third, wrestling fans who are not experienced gamers. And a distant fourth, people who are neither experienced games nor wrestling fans.

So there is more in the text itself about explaining wrestling to gamers than about explaining gaming to wrestling fans, but it slightly privileges the former because I know my existing audience is primarily gamers.

At some level you have to be realistic about who is most likely to engage, and I prefer to spend my energy making that engagement as easy as possible, as opposed to maybe reach a slightly larger pool of folks. I think being realistic about that makes it pretty easy to accept that your game is not, as they say, “for everyone” – but that is an attitude you need to cultivate as any kind of creator. Nothing anyone makes is ever “for everyone,” after all.

In conversations with people about professional wrestling, it seems that phrase is tossed out often, “It’s not for everyone.” Professional wrestling features wonderful athleticism, pulse-pounding tension, and legitimate drama – while also showcasing the lowest-common denominator of our society. Racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, anti-intellectualism, and a list of early deaths likely caused by steroids and other drug cocktails used to survive the gauntlet of hundreds of performances each year mar the industry. I appreciated that you devoted a section in the WWW RPG book to discuss how Gimmicks often rely on stereotypes, and discuss how some players may not enjoy this in the game.

In my first play session, one of my players took on the role of a Cuban general who taunted the American audience; he was a perfect heel in the mold of The Iron Sheik and Nikolai Volkoff. The player is Cuban American, so the character did not make me feel uncomfortable. However, what if the player was Caucasian and was roleplaying a stereotyped Latino character? I think I would have handled it differently. The book mentions how the person taking on the role of Creative should ensure the gaming environment is safe for all players as some Gimmicks may be politically incorrect (to put it mildly).

I’m wondering how you deal with the highs and lows of professional wrestling? How do you tolerate the dark side of the wrestling business? And how do you keep the atmosphere around the gaming table a safe place?

Being a wrestling fan is problematic, absolutely. It’s “low” entertainment, which is not a slam against it, but it is intentionally aimed at a popular audience, and for all of the strengths of that – like the ability to transcend class and racial boundaries and connect with mundane struggles that people have in their lives – it proudly and intentionally leverages all of the worse parts of our culture to put butts in seats and gets fan cheering and booing.

In terms of the dark side of the performers lives, that is pointed at through some of the mechanics (like how the Wasted’s addiction works), but is generally left to the backstage side of the game, so it can be as present or absent at the players want it to be in the game. Do not get me wrong, pro wrestling is a tragic business in terms of the toll taken on the wrestlers bodies and relationships, but the game is agnostic as to how deep down that well you want to go.

At the table, I do my best to elevate the good stuff and kind of sideline the bad stuff, honestly. An easy example, I always run a non-gender-split roster, which is a growing trend on the independent circuit though the big companies still keep a strict split between male and female performers. When there is a borderline-inappropriate (i.e., racist) Gimmick presented, I try to pin down exactly what the player is going for. There is a difference between celebrating something (which I generally try to avoid) and presenting something to be a foil or to be challenged by the other players (which is fine). When the racist caricature is a Heel, that’s generally fine, because they’re the villain of the piece. There is a spectrum of player identity, character presentation and what the player wants out of their play experience that is impossible to design absolute tools for dealing with. Being clear about expectations and asking players to talk through their thought process for content that you find problematic is the best you can do.

Overall, what I love about wrestling outweighs what troubles me about it, and I tried to focus the game on the former and do my best to put the latter outside the bound of gameplay in my design and productions decisions for the game.

It is great that you have taken the positive elements of professional wrestling – the energy and entertainment that many of us grew up loving – and turned it into a functional roleplaying game. Once again, congratulations! I wonder if you have anything else in store for WWWRPG moving into the future?

I am working on a supplement that will cover non-American pro wrestling as well as some optional rules for things like long-term play and giving a promotion and “the audience” their own unique character. I have been wanting to do the former pretty much since I knew the game was going to be successful. I did not feel like covering Lucha Libre and Puroresu (Japanese pro wrestling) was going to fit into the scope of the original game, but those, along with catch-as-catch-can (the more technical grappling style you see in the UK) and some modern Indie stuff is all in consideration. The optional rules are coming out of my insights into what groups tend to “miss” from the base game, along with thoughts and suggestions straight out of the WWWRPG G+ discussion group since the game’s release. It’s all exciting stuff!

Excellent to hear that you have more in store for WWW RPG. I wanted to end on a high note, and learn about your favorite professional wrestling moment (or two). What was that moment that transcended you to another place as a fan and viewer?

There are two times when wrestling is at its best, when it completely surprises you and when it gives you exactly what you want. The purest moments of both of those for me were at Wrestlemania XXX.

The one that completely bypassed my analytical brain and hit me straight in the heart was when Brock Lesnar broke the Undertaker’s Streak. I loved the Undertaker since I got into wrestling, and even though he’s been on the downswing of his career, he’s been a constant joy to me in mainstream wrestling. That moment was just so unexpected, so untelegraphed, that I was literally frozen with shock. In retrospect it was amazing and in a way kicked off the last couple years of the main event scene, but in that moment – man – I was so sad and angry.

On the opposite end, Daniel Bryan beating Triple H, then going on to beat Randy Orton and Batista to FINALLY win the World Championship was just fairy-tale, good-guy-finally-wins perfection. It helps that all of those guys are amazing wrestlers, of course, but I (along with everyone else) had wanted Bryan to win so hard for so long that when he did it was an amazing moment of catharsis and joy.

An honorable mention (and probably up there if you’d asked me on a different day) is the CM Punk “pipe bomb” promo and then the “Summer of Punk” ending with him taking the title from the company. It is the best example of “rolling with + Real” (in WWWRPG terms) in real-world wrestling to date.

There are other individual matches that I have liked more than any of those, and storylines that I have found more satisfying, and wrestlers that I think are the absolute best, not all in the WWE either, but all those moments are pure expressions of the power of wrestling to grab you emotionally that I will never forget.

Yes, there are moments in time that basically reduce us all to this guy!

I know, right!

Thank you again for your time, and good luck with WWWRPG!

Author: The Id DM

The Id DM is a psychologist during the weekdays. He DMs for a group of fairly loyal and responsible PCs every other Friday night. In the approximate 330 hours between sessions, he is likely anxious about how to ensure the next game he runs doesn't suck.

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