You and your friends gathered around this place today for something special. To participate in a spectacle than you would never quite see in our daily lives. A story being woven, of valiant heroes, with strength as fierce their virtues. Of the dastardly villains, imbued with a ferocity of their wickedness. You will witness villains become heroes. Heroes become villains. The brutalist of battles. Mightiest of hugs. The bitterness of betrayal and the triumph of cavalry. This is a world where everything gets just a little bit more magical.
This is pro wrestling.
Now, while the surface level of the two may seem to have very little in common, I’ve honestly found that my knowledge of pro wrestling has helped me become a better GM for my players. Pro wrestling is the world but amplified. The emotions. The dramatics of pain. The sweetness of victory. Everything has the knob grasped and twisted all the way over. Which, let’s be honest, relates well to RPGs.
Some of the best moments of the tabletop hobby are when we reach the climax. When the paladin vanquishes the blackguard. How the young hero managed to save his boyfriend from his supervillain archnemesis. How the coalition captain maneuvers her fleet to end the invaders’ threat. And the thing that makes these climaxes so satisfying is something that, when it does it well, pro wrestling excels at.
Think of these moments. Just really think of them.
The blackguard has no sway over the heroes if he simply appears and states “I’m evil and you must defeat me for ten gold!”. No, the blackguard gains the ire of our treasured party when they’ve cut off their goal at every turn, making the players thirst for the moment when they may finally wipe the smile off the damned knight’s face.
If the young superhero was simply told “This is your boyfriend. You love him. Now go do the saving!” it would be a hollow act. It’s the time the superhero puts into getting to know his love. Finding moments between crime fighting to sneak coffee dates with him. Grappling with lying about his dual life to the man he cares about most. That value and weight to the relationship is what makes this man someone the superhero wants to save and protect against any villain that comes their way.
If the invading fleet simply states “We’re here to kill your people. That’s it.” You would feel a bit let down by it all, right? What makes the threat compelling is how the invaders begin launching attacks upon the planets the members of your coalition had previously visited. When they kill the people from those planets you had gotten to know and care about. What really steams your goat is knowing that, to avenge these people and earn justice, you will have to work for it.
In pro-wrestling, there’s two types of storytelling: That which is done in the ring, through the art of wrestling and squared-circle psychology. And that which is done on the microphone, through barbed words and promises of a fight to come. The climax and the build-up respectively.
Today, through the lens of independent wrestling promotion, Beyond Wrestling, I am going to tell you of how this staged sport can help you become a better GM.
I hope you all enjoy it. Cos I have a lot of fun talking about wrestling and would love to do it again.
Chuck O’Neil: The Indomitable Foe.
You’ve all dealt with a villain like this in your games, I imagine. The mage whose magic turns reality into play-dough for them to mold and shape. The superhuman assassin with a healing factor that can take literally everything your team of ragtag heroes can throw at it. The vampire who’s lived for a thousand years and has dealt with bands of uppity wizards like your group enough times to not take you seriously.
This is the villain that you fight and then realize how out of your depth you are. How fleeing is likely the best option rather than staying and dying like fools.
For Beyond Wrestling Season Two, that villain is Cold Steel Chuck O’Neil.
A real-life former MMA fighter (which in pro-wrestling is basically the equivalent of being Sabertooth when it comes to bad-ass reputation) Chuck O’Neil is defined by a disgust for the more outlandish elements of Independent wrestling, preferring the idea of his previous profession’s stone-dead seriousness. And to do this, he plans to break the bones of and choke out anyone who gets in the way of “His” Beyond Wrestling.
During his first match in Season Two, Chuck is placed against D.L. Hurst. As D.L. walks to the ring the commentators sing his praises, of how he’s going to go far in the business, how he’s going to make a ton of money and how they personally like him as a performer. All the while speculating on who he is going to face.
Then Chuck O’Neil’s music hits and a commentator can only utter:
“I don’t know how long D.L. Hurst’s night is gonna last.”
Immediately, O’Neil is acknowledged as the overall superior opponent in the storyline. Use that in your games. Have the people who’ve witnessed this foe describe their strength and prowess. Have those who your players have come to respect for their own ability show fear at the thought of facing this enemy. The build-up is not simply locked to the storyline. Build up your threats too. Make the players wonder just what the hell they’re about to face.
After besting Hurst, Chuck O’Neil goes about weaving a path of destruction through Beyond Wrestling, showing it’s more than just words behind his ability.
Have the players see that. Got some royal guards who your players think are cool? Have a group of them sent to face down this threat and come back with only one left, if any.
A noted swordmaster that has previously pushed your players to their limit? Show how when facing down this enemy, this is what pushes that swordmaster to their limit.
The fact is, actions often speak louder than words. Chuck O’Neil was doing a good job of building himself up in Beyond through the storyline, but it was when he bested Chris Dickinson, one of the top faces of the promotion, did he become solidified as “THE” bad guy to beat.
Think of how you can evoke this feeling in your players. What comes to mind when you think “powerful” in your setting? Is it a warmage? An invisible superhero? Have this character tear through that like paper. Let the players know that if they don’t deal with this threat, they will pay for it.
It’s only a question of how.
Danhausen: The Quirky Friend
We’ve seen them, right? That one NPC you made to be a bit weird or off or stand out in any way shape or form. Just for a little minor character in the background or a comedy moment. And just like that! Your players cling to that NPC like adhesive. They’ll bring up any opportunity to meet that NPC. The party will want to take this random character on their adventures. They adore them.
If you watch Critical Bits, this is known as the Stealy Joe. If you watch Beyond, this is the Danhausen.
Danhausen, a demonically painted face in the style of Pazzu from the Exorcist movies. Adds the suffix “Hausen” onto the end of random words. And gets repelled by fellow wrestlers making a haphazard cross with their fingers. OH! He also carries around a jar of teeth.
And the Beyond crowd loves him so much. The weirdness done so well is often paired with a genuinely nice and genial nature which makes him easy to like. Remember this with the Quirky Friend. You can’t have them be too much of a normal person without them losing their namesake quirky-edge. But without some humanity to help balance them out, they run the risk of alienating the players by being too strange.
While there is the option of having the more serious-natured NPCs being tired and annoyed with this character, an alternate option could be to have those NPCs gradually become more friendly to this weird individual as your players do, helping emphasize the universal appeal of them. This is put to use when Danhausen – after his match with the tag team of Chris Dickinson and Pinkie Sanchez – is welcomed to team with the duo whenever he wants due to them finding him just as lovable as the crowd.
An important part of this character, however, is that you cannot force the appeal of them. You just gotta throw it out there and see if it sticks. If it does, focus on what works and make more of it. If it doesn’t, you can try it again with a new NPC and idea. If you force it, you run the risk of getting a Stardust.
Right, we’re gonna go a bit mainstream with this example from WWE.
Stardust was a short lived gimmick put upon Cody Rhodes. Already known for doing both comedic gimmicks in his “Dashing Cody Rhodes” persona orr more serious and dark during the days of “Ugly Cody Rhodes”, Creative seemed to assume this gimmick would flourish as well as those.
They were wrong. It just didn’t suit at all and led to a lot of resentment from the performer, which can be seen to this day in Cody’s not so subtle jabs towards his former employers.
Remember: Genuine weirdness is very hard to manufacture. You just gotta let it happen and capitalize on it when it does.
Josh Briggs: The Joking Bruiser
They stand out in most rooms. Towering above the others in the room, like a looming spectre. If, instead of ethereal energy, this spectre was made from a body you could only get from downing protein shakes while also doing push ups at the same time 24/7. Everything about this person seems to spell trouble.
Standing at 6’8 and 268lbs of muscle, the wrestler Josh Briggs matches this personal ad pretty closely. Combined with the armor like leather pauldron across his shoulder, Briggs doesn’t seem like someone fun to mess with.
Then, in his first appearance, Briggs beams a huge grin as he enters the ringside, interacts with the crowd and even poses with a homemade sign of him before shooting an appreciative smile towards the person who made it.
This is one of my favorite character archetypes. The musclebound bruiser who just wants to have a fun time and help out their friends. And that seems to fit the persona of Josh Briggs in Beyond Wrestling.
This character could snap anyone in two if they wanted to. But why would they? The point of this character is that while the strength and martial prowess should be a part of them, the focus of them is how they’re there for their friends. How they love to share some food with those who need it. How they enjoy just being nice.
While Josh Briggs is an amazing in-ring performer, what made me fall in love with him was his character. A particular moment comes to mind. After a long losing streak, Briggs finally manages to pick up a win to end it. How does he react to such a moment?
By calling out his friends, thanking and celebrating with them.
Never underestimate how appealing this character can be. There’s a lot of knucklehead bruisers with a heart of stone. But the heart of gold musclehead is criminally underrated.
Christian Cassanova: The Enemy To Friend
The idea of a former foe of the PCs who – after many a fight and some somber moments thrown in for good measure – begins seeing the light and eventually comes around to your group’s way of thinking, is a time honored tradition of TTRPGs. Heck, it’s even a mechanical aspect of one of my favorite upcoming TTRPGs, Thirsty Sword Lesbians.
The Heel-To-Face dynamic is also a cornerstone in wrestling. Many performers who were formerly hated rogues turn to valiant heroes. The reverse is also very true. The fact is that most performers find their best stride through trying both roles in their careers. However, often it’s not done well. Rather than a gradual and logical turn, the wrestler simply performs a heroic act and expects the entire fanbase to now realize they’re a complete tried and true good guy.
This is not the case in Top Talent, Christian Cassanova.
Beginning in Season Two of Beyond Wrestling as a member of the ever hateable Club Cam, Christian sticks out by being the least vocally antagonistic to the heroes of Beyond. Never showcasing the vicious arrogance of Ken Doane, the unbearable arrogance of the Airpod God (yes, that’s his title) Rich Holiday, or the weasley nature of their manager, Cam Zagami. Instead, Cassanova comes off as slightly cocky if anything and just got involved in the wrong crowd.
This, in my opinion, was a pivotal part of the character’s eventual heel-face turn and should be taken into account when using this trope in your game. If the villain has done horrific acts or even killed a PC, there’s a good chance the player party will not be so willing to forgive such a character. You must weigh the sins committed with the favor of the players when it comes to redemption arcs.
Christian Cassnova’s lack of flaws is honed in on by his fellow members of Club Cam as a negative, often treated as the runt of the litter and looked down upon. This helps give reason to why Cassanova would be more open to changing his ways as he obviously isn’t finding respect within the ranks of his villainous faction.
Make that clear to the players how the villain that may be redeemed would want to be redeemed. How they may not be as happy as you’d expect with their current lot in life. Give a reason for why the turn would be believable.
After an extremely entertaining and hard fought battle with John Silver – a top face of Beyond – Christan is offered a handshake of respect by Silver after the match. While seemingly debating both with himself and how his fellow members of Club Cam would react to this, Cassanova’s competitive spirit and sportsmanship wins out and he accepts it.
Sprinkle in moments like this for the villain. Like I said before, a sudden change to good just isn’t believable. Highlight the villain’s more virtuous and good qualities, rather than just having them as a cackling schemer. Let the players see the potential there.
Finally, the turn is all but solidified when Ken Doane takes out Christian’s planned opponent in the Tournament For Tomorrow first round, taking the opponents place on Cam Zagami’s orders. While the commentators are torn on whether this means Cassanova is ousted or that Club Cam is intent on teaching Cassanova a “lesson”, it’s the final straw as Christian proves himself by besting Doane and going onto the finals to beat the remaining fellow Club Cam member, Rich Holiday (yes, the Airpod God) and show his true skill as the winner of the tournament.
This is the climax – the payoff to the build-up. Make sure you have a moment like this for your players. The moment where the villain shows the result of the slow-burn you have been adding kindling to all this time. The instance when the players see it and finally know “Yeah, this one is with us now.”
When Zagami attempts to show his weasley cunning by claiming credit for Cassanova’s win, still acting as if Christian is a member of Club Cam, Christian Cassanova puts a nail in the heel-face coffin by answering with a springboard clothesline. Which is followed by an equally emphatic request to the fans:
“Say it with me now: F*** Club Cam!”
Well, that ends this chapter of Dropkicks and Dice. Please let me know if you’re interested in more of these. I REALLY like talking about wrestling and RPGs. So this is kinda my dream job.