Kayfabed By the Apocalypse

World Wide Wrestling by Nathan D. Paoletta is a tabletop RPG with a publishing history and overall place in the field that’s in some ways similar to Legacy: Life Among the Ruins. Both games had their first editions funded by a successful Kickstarter campaign that ran in 2014; both games have been reissued in second editions (also Kickstarter-funded) which incorporate into the core book the best materials from the supplement line; both games use the Powered By the Apocalypse system that debuted in Apocalypse World, but take it in genuinely interesting directions which I think play to the strengths of the system.

As the title implies, World Wide Wrestling is a professional wrestling-themed RPG. Players take on the role of the major wrestlers in a televised promotion, with the non-player character wrestlers, backstage admin figures, bookers, camera operators, interviewers and whatnot being played by the referee (dubbed “Creative” here). By default, each session of the game revolves around one episode of the promotion’s regular show (though it would require little effort to base it around a major event like a pay-per-view, or an untelevised event like a house show, and support is also provided for running material based around the trials and tribulations of touring and the like).

Like many tabletop RPGs, that means that the session is going to play out as a series of combats. Unlike more traditional RPGs, the combats aren’t really about who can legitimately beat the other up – unless the match turns from a work (a simulated combat) into a shoot (a legit fight). Instead, it’s about building up the audience’s investment in the match. If you end the match with the audience heavily invested in your character, you benefit – and it isn’t necessarily a zero-sum game, since all the participants in a match can ultimately benefit if the audience gets into both of them equally.

Between this and vignettes in which wrestlers can do on-camera promos (or indulge in off-camera backstage politics), the game embraces both in-ring action and the behind-the-scenes gossip which many modern fans love as much as the actual performances, which means it immediately is a step up from Know Your Role, the officially sanctioned WWE RPG, which clunkily used the D20 system to implement a game in which kayfabe (the illusion that the simulated matches are genuinely competitive) was maintained and the game was about actually fighting each other in the ring to see who’d win, rather than fighting a worked match to try and get over with the crowd.

Powered By the Apocalypse already has aspects reasonably suited to the needs of the game; the convention of having a discussion pre-game in which character links are established helps create internal drama and relationships, the “Playbook” concept lends itself nicely to having roles which are distinctive enough to be flavourful but broad enough to allow you to put your own spin on it (there’s ultimately only so many heel or babyface gimmicks, it’s all about how you play them, after all). The resolution system lends itself to exciting narration with a few dice rolls in it where it’s critical, rather than rigorous tactical combat, but that’s exactly what you want here.

Where Paoletta really adds value in how he adapts the system further, with the Momentum system giving players a nice metacurrency to spend when they really, really want to succeed or fail and associated systems to track how invested the audience is really helping to get across the idea of performing for the benefit of an audience. The idea of having one or more of the players whose wrestlers aren’t in the current match do commentary (which includes a “Put Over” option to give the wrestlers help winning over the audience!) helps keep people involved. (Alternatively, if they want their wrestler to come in and just interfere in the match, there’s the “Run-In” move which allows you to do exactly that.)

A particularly interesting bit of design resolves around “booking” the end of the match (determining who the winner “should” be), since the suggested method of resolving this feels to me like it works well despite the fact that it slightly goes against the received wisdom of both professional wrestling and traditional tabletop RPGs. You see, Creative decides who is officially booked to win and lose a match, but doesn’t necessarily reveal this until partway through the match.

You can reveal it right at the beginning if you want to – especially if the players in question would prefer to be able to draw on that plan in how they roleplay the match – but the game highlights lots of ways you can heighten the drama of the game for everyone by not revealing it until towards the end of the match, which seems to be the default assumption. This is an aspect which both goes against the way wrestling works (the participants in a match will know what the booker intends to happen as of the start of the match, 99% of the time) and against the usual way tabletop RPGs play out, since this would strictly speaking mean that the characters have knowledge that the players aren’t privy to (since the actual wrestler characters presumably know the booking even if the players playing them don’t).

That said, it does reflect the audience experience – which is useful for any players whose wrestlers are not in the current match and useful for getting across the idea that what matters is what the audience is seeing. You can tell the players who’s booked to win at the start of the match if you wish still to avoid that dissonance, but I can completely see how it would add an “oooh shit” moment to proceedings if you waited on it.

The important thing about this, though, is that this is only the official result. Some moves allow the player who successfully pulls them off to book the ending of the match and narrate how it ends. If this happens to be in line with what’s been established as Creative’s plan for the match, great – you can use it to end the match at a point when you’re riding high with the audience and will likely gain advancement as a result, whilst still keeping your nose clean with the back office. If it’s not – well, then you’ve ended up calling the match on the fly and there might be backstage heat involved, but if the audience love you enough, perhaps you can persuade the promotion that it was worth it.

This may require some suspension of disbelief by wrestling fans, since in most modern promotions I think such a deliberate, self-serving rebooking of a match finish by the performers would lead to someone getting fired very quickly indeed, but I think it makes for a nice soap opera-ish outcome, and that’s the sort of thing World Wide Wrestling is based on – not so much wrestling as it is in reality (because backstage politics is probably much less exciting most of the time than you’d think, since you only hear about the incidents where it gets tricky and “everyone broadly got along and did what was expected of them” doesn’t fuel gossip) so much as the stuff of GLOW, The Wrestler, or Stephen Amell’s upcoming Heels thing.

Another thing the book is really good at is organising things in a manageable, approachable way. A lot of Powered By the Apocalypse games suggest a fairly structured first session to ease everyone into the game, and World Wide Wrestling‘s “First Episode” framework is particularly good at this, doing an excellent job of easing you into the game’s basic rules conceit before it moves on to examine everything in more detail. The book also has a nice clutch of essays on wrestling history, which would be helpful both for non-wrestling fans who are nonetheless interested in the game and for those who are already fans but might not know much about particular scenes.

Thanks to advanced rules like the details on handling action “on the road” between shows and the framework for statting up the player characters’ wrestling promotion and tracking how it’s faring, the game allows for a surprising level of depth.

“Wrestling-themed soap opera” isn’t a genre which many RPGs have tried to serve, and for that matter “non-supernatural/science fictional soap opera” more broadly is a storytelling field which is under-explored in the tabletop RPG field, with the hobby’s roots in geek culture tending to strongly bias games towards SF, fantasy, and horror. The Powered By the Apocalypse ecosystem seems to do a good job of turning out games which push back against this, and World Wide Wrestling has to have a spot as one of the prime examples of that.

One thought on “Kayfabed By the Apocalypse

  1. Pingback: Over On Refereeing & Reflection: Kayfabed By the Apocalypse – Nothin' Means Nothin'!

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