Dungeons, Dragons, and Wrestlers: An interview with the man behind the first wrestling role-playing game

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It may not shock you that along with being someone several hours each week writing about wrestling, I’m also a fan of tabletop role-playing games. There’s something truly magical about sitting around a basement with your friends, with the seductive knowledge that the only thing restricting your adventure are the limits of your own imagination. There’s always another corner, another wrinkle, and another laugh. There’s no endpoint to the journey, you can roll more dice and fight more monsters. Sometimes that’s all you need.

But eventually you might grow tired of the self-serious likes of Dungeons and Dragons and Pathfinder, and discover a whole new world of exciting, independently developed pen ‘n paper odysseys. That’s the culture that helped produce World Wide Wrestling, a new wrestling-themed role-playing game that throws you into the backstage business and kayfabe theatrics of an imaginary wrestling promotion. It has a game-master, character classes, dice-rolling, and a level-up system, which is, of course, all draped in that ridiculous macho pageantry that we love so very, very dearly. The designer, Nathan Paoletta, has been making games since 2005, but given how WWWRPG nearly tripled its Kickstarter goal, it seems reasonable to think that this is his most visibly heralded project. We talked to him about his design theory, his history with pro wrestling, and the sort of one-of-a-kind moments that make gaming irreplaceable.

When did you start watching wrestling?

I came to it later in life. My undergrad roommate was a wrestling fan, and he got me into it because it was always on in the dorms. It was cultural osmosis, I liked Hogan and the Road Warriors as a kid, but it was in college that I actually got into it heavily. It’s funny in retrospect because it wasn’t really a great time for the product, we’re talking post-WCW early-2000s era, so before a lot of the good stuff going on now. It was original Evolution, Randy Orton the Legend Killer, that stuff.

So you were never a mark then, you were always something of a conscious internet fan.

Yeah when I got into it my roommate was a total smart-mark kinda guy. I learned about what it was to get “buried.” The balance between what’s going on backstage and the product on screen.

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What’s your history with tabletop gaming, were you a D&D kid growing up? Are you a Pathfinder guy? How did that all start for you?

I’ve been into games since forever. I was really into it, and I wanted to get my friends into it so I was always the DM. In high school was when I started thinking about designing my own games, and I stumbled upon the independent game publishing scene, and that’s where I planted my flag. I’ve always liked the idea of owning my work without having to put out endless dungeon modules.

Let’s dig into the actual design theory of World Wide Wrestling, when you decided you wanted to make a tabletop wrestling-themed RPG, what were the first steps you took?

This game is actually built on the bones of another game. There’s this RPG called Apocalypse World which came out around the time I was getting back into wrestling. It’s a great game, and also very hackable, it’s easy to paste in your own ideas. So as I was watching wrestling, I realized that a lot of that stuff fits the Apocalypse World framework. A founding concept of that game is “when you take this action these are the consequences that can happen,” and wrestling is all about things that happen over and over and over again and a reset of consequences. It was a natural fit. I wouldn’t say it was a joke, but it was a wacky idea. But once I did the work to do a very basic reskinning, I realized that there was something interesting going on. It was very well received at the tables I was playing, so I ended up doing a much deeper investigation and adding a bunch of new mechanics.

World Wide Wrestling is a game that uses a DM right?

Yeah, the DM is called “Creative,” and that represents the creative forces that occupy any wrestling promotion. Creative has a bunch of things you’d associate with a dungeon master or a game master, so Creative actually books and determines who wins all the matches ahead of time. But the players have the power to throw a bunch of swerves into the booking, and Creative’s main job is to try and make those swerves look like what they had planned all along. It’s cool because it feels like how wrestling feels. Stuff happens and people run out and things are rolled into another feud.

That’s interesting because one of the primary questions I had about your game was whether it aims to simulate some of the backstage business side of things or stick strictly to kayfabe, it seems like you’re trying to straddle that line.

Yeah exactly. The player is playing a character who’s playing a character. We have all the pageantry and craziness, and there’s a system so you can narrate all your exciting moves, but there’s moments where the legit stuff slips in or you can go off-camera and be like “we’re co-workers, and we both want to get paid, so we need to work this out.”

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How numbers-heavy is the gameplay? Is this a game where I can level up and pool together a bunch of dice, or is it more story-driven?

It’s more story-driven, but there is some character development. You can gain “experience,” by doing stuff like finishing feuds or winning belts or getting over with the audience. And those get you advancements where you can gain more moves, or more stats, you can get a manager or change your gimmick. That’s the advanced stuff, where after you’ve been playing for a while you can go off-screen and change your character, so like, you could go from Undertaker to Biker Taker. That’s one of the more exciting things, is seeing your character go through multiple gimmicks.

What are the character classes?

Yeah, character classes are basically gimmicks right? So you have the basic archtypes and they’re all different. There’s the Golden Boy, the Veteran, the Manager, the Monster, the High-Flyer, all that classic stuff. The game ships with 10 gimmicks, and five extra ones for my kickstarter backers, including The Giant.

Do the Giant start with horrible in-ring wrestling skills?

They start with mediocre skills, but they also get the ability to use their size instead of their actual skills. But they’re also really beholden and unable to resist Creative because they don’t have many options outside of wrestling.

Is there a CM Punk class designed to be super resistant to Creative?

Yeah there’s an Antihero class, whose main ability is how they can walk between the line of kayfabe and legit stuff really well.

In your play-testing of this game, has there been one moment that really stuck out to you and made you think “man, this thing can totally work?”

Yeah, we had this long-term game we were playing last winter. And one of the guys was playing this monster character. “Mammoth Marco,” was the character’s name. He was from Alaska with a big beard, and he was a heel through the entire run of the game. He spent the entire arc of the campaign angling for the belt, and he was in a feud with the current belt-holder, and he was having this title match in a cage, once and for all. And Marco had spent the entire match building up a ton of momentum, which is a currency in the game. Usually you build up two or three and they boost your roll. But he was saving all of it up.

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So we’re doing this match, he has this ridiculous spot where he punched through the cage to attack the other guy’s manager. And Marco was booked to win the match, so he goes to do his finisher, and he rolls snake eyes, the worst possible roll you could make in the game. Which doesn’t mean you don’t hit the move, it just means the move looks terrible. It’s the most anti-climactic finish at the end of this amazing match. But! He had cobbled up enough momentum to turn his abject failure to a brilliant success. It was one of those times where the mechanics lined up perfectly with the story.

Who’s your favorite wrestler of all time?

Macho Man Randy Savage. The whole package. I’m watching a lot of old stuff, and every time I see him I’m once again awed at how great he was. The way he moved, the way he interacted with people, he was great. 

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