Thursday, May 19, 2016

Knowing one's role: what writers and GMs can learn about villains from Pro Wrestling

Part of a series. (The introduction can be found here) Originally, this post was written solely from the perspective of RPG GMs, but after writing it I realized how much I liked these structures for fiction writing as well. YMMV, but I found the concepts unexpectedly useful.

Tonight, in this very ring... blatant and unrepentant theft!

So, last time we got together, I promised that we'd be shamelessly stealing drawing inspiration from shamelessly stealing some of the ideas and constructs from professional wrestling, and applying them to roleplaying games. 

Let it not be said that I left you hanging (all like, nine of you who were interested in this.)

So, let's get started! Are you ready? Let's get ready to ruminate!

This man is rrrready to rrrrumintate.

Knowing your role

Not you - you're the GM. You're the creative department, a tiny god, overseeing this fictional realm. But your characters, the NPCs, as well as the PCs it's them we're going to talk about. 

There's some criticism in wrestling circles about pandering to certain main eventers, at the expense of other workers, and occasionally the audience. Fortunately, this is an RPG; the PCs are a nice combination of main character and audience already. You should be defining everything around them, because this story is about them. By definition, really1. So let's talk roles.

Enhancement talent

Jobbers, carpenters, whatever you call them, these people have but one goal: to make your PCs look awesome. This can be as mooks, with mobs of them falling before the heroes' kung fu, or a more significant procedural challenge, that really shows the protagonist overcoming a meaningful challenge.

Knowing what role you want your opposition to fill beforehand is a great way to keep things running smoothly, and avoid "filler" content. It also lets you prioritize when surprises come up - if you have a mook-filled ambush set up, ask yourself: what's the point of this fight? Because if it's simply to showcase what badasses the heroes are, it's no big deal if they bypass it, right? The clever heroes outwitted the stupid mooks, good for them. 

Of course, if it's supposed to be a more meaningful challenge, the urge to negate the PCs success can be real - but think about what this gets you. There are always more challenges to be had - we'll get to rivals, nemeses, things like that in a bit - but if they're just there to provide a platform to show the PCs overcoming challenges, don't negate the main characters' accomplishments for the sake of enhancement talent.

On the flip side, sometimes your expectations aren't met in the other direction; and it can be rough for a player when their competent character is having trouble with a lowly minion. 

You, however, know an opportunity when you see it. This little mook just stepped up the ladder to become serious enhancement talent - they're not like other mooks - and these encounters can be solid gold for in-fight drama. Your description is going to be a big part of this; action heroes tear through mooks like tissue paper, this is part of how we show how awesome said heroes are. But when someone reveals themselves to be made of sterner stuff, roll with that.

3rd goblin from the left becomes Gr'nash, flesh-render. Give him a line about the last opponent who underestimated them, may they rest in peace. Describe a cool scar, or notches on their blade, but single them out as being more of a big deal than their fellows. 

And if they die in the next round, that's fine. Have them spit out a death curse, or have their death break the morale of the rest of the mooks, sending them running. After all, if Gr'nash fell, what hope do they have? 

Just like that, you've turned a potentially annoying quirk of the dice into a (hopefully) memorable little moment, just by presentation. As long as you don't overdo this, it's a neat trick. And it also leads into our next category.


The role of a rival is a much longer-term deal. They get into storylines - often called "feuds" - with your protagonists, and that takes much longer to resolve. In the end, they're still a stepping stone to bigger and better things, but they're big stones that take a while to climb.

There's often a rhythm to these angles, a structure. Face is blindsided by heels, face tries to get even but heels get away, heels lie, cheat, and sabotage their way through life, Face finally gets a chance to face them on their terms, Face wins clean. 

Given how freaking difficultit is to keep villains alive when RPG protagonists are in the same room with them, there's a lot to take away from this. Firstly, a rival has genre savvy - they know that if they're ever in a fair fight with the heroes, they're mincemeat. So they do everything in their power to avoid that fair fight. They take cheap shots when the heroes are fighting someone else. They spread nasty lies about the heroes when they're not around. They use cheap, dirty tricks to run away from a situation they'd have to fight their way out of, because they know how this is going to end.

Then, when they're finally cornered, they fight with the ferocity of an animal with its back against the wall. They - and by extension, the writers - know this is their last gasp, and they're going to give it their all. Make room for a moment mid-conflict where the rival starts thinking that maybe, just maybe, they're going to pull this out after all. Give them a moment to gloat, as they realize all that running maybe wasn't necessary after all. 

It'll make that moment when the PCs prove that yes, it was absolutely necessary, so much sweeter. 

Rivals are great, because they're annoying little turds, dishonourable jerks that really make the PCs want to get their hands on them, and the fact that this takes a while makes it much more gratifying when it finally comes around.


Ohhhh, these guys. These freaking guys. If Enhancement Talent is there to show the competency of our heroes, and Rivals are there to provide a meaningful challenge (and satisfying crunch) on the way to the top of the mountain, Nemeses are the people waiting for them at the summit. Because they've been there for a while, and they don't intend on leaving.

And they don't like this newcomer.

A feud with a nemesis can be career-defining in wrestling, partially because while the Enhancement Talent is busy enhancing new talent, and the old rivals aren't a problem anymore, a nemesis tends to stick around for a long time, often permanently. A solid nemesis isn't easily dispatched, and can be a thorn in the heroes' side for their entire careers.

The relationship is also different. Even when they hate each other, Nemeses tend to treat one another with a kind of respect, even when there's no love lost between them. After all, each side recognizes that the other is, in most practical regards, more or less an equal. Nobody gives you trouble like your nemesis.

So how do you do this in an RPG, when PCs tend to violently put down anything that opposes them?

It's a good question, and a hell of a lot of digital ink has been spilled on the topic of recurring villains in RPGs, namely, how difficult they are to pull off. But specifically in wrestling, which is where we're pulling inspiration from today, Nemeses stick around for some pretty specific reasons. Namely, they're tough to beat, they don't go away when they're beat, and sometimes they win. Let's break that down.

A Nemesis is tough to beat

This one is easy. Mechanical challenge in a fight or other physical challenge, robust support in political conflicts, and someone insufferably difficult to budge in social interactions. GMs have been making tough opposition for years; frankly, I trust y'all to get this one right without my help.

A Nemesis doesn't go away when you beat them

Now we're talking. How do you do this, and keep it believable? Well, you'll want a plan for what happens when - not if, when - the PCs beat the ever-loving crap out of your villain, and you'll want that plan sooner rather than later. PCs love to beat up their enemies, regardless of context, and you should be prepared for that to happen early and often.

So how does that work?

The first - and in my opinion, most important - part of all this is the social contract. Let people know beforehand that you'd like to work with some recurring villains, and ask if that's something they're interested in. Chances are, they're quite interested in that, and that can turn into goodwill when you bull some bullshit in their nemesis surviving. Nobody likes having their successes invalidated, so handle this carefully - if the PCs feel like you're depriving them of a hard-earned victory, you're going to erode trust pretty quickly. 

So to that end, make sure that when your PCs come into conflict with a nemesis, you've got at least some of the following going for you:
  • A conflict over something besides the PCs or Nemesis dying
  • A believable escape route for either side
  • Some way for defeat to mean something other than an exit from the story 
  • A method of illustrating how both sides are on relatively equal footing
There are a couple of ways to handle this. Firstly, if you've already established the convention that defeated =/= dead in combat, you're golden. If you're playing a system like Fate, then the rules already support conceding a conflict without anybody dying baked in. 

If you're using a more traditional gamist RPG, or you feel like the above might come off as contrived, then you need a way to cheat death. 

If the conflict is less physical, then this doesn't need to be literal. Beat somebody in a race, they'll race you again, sure. Beat someone in a tense negotiation, they come back later, nobody's surprised. Beat someone in a swordfight, it might strain credulity if they show up the next day. Thankfully, there's a couple ways to go about this.

Firstly, there's the "Nasty Scar Method." If you don't have heroes who make sure to disembowel and decapitate everyone they fight, then having someone survive a nasty wound happens all the time in real life, and more importantly, in fiction. Having someone fall from a great height is a trope for a reason, so don't expect to use it twice, but having someone go down - only to be conspicuously absent when the dust clears - might prove more reliable. 

Of course, they'll probably want to make sure they stay dead the next time. Which brings us to the "Lich Method." Basically, this person can't be killed by conventional means, possibly at all. Undead sorcerers in fantasy can resurrect themselves, AIs or "uploaded" people in sci-fi can just reload from their last backup, and angels or demons tend not to "die" so much as "go home for a while." Of course, D&D has relatively affordable resurrection available on tap, so just make sure your nemesis is well-funded, and has an estate that likes them, and you're golden.

Another, which borrows some ideas from the Rival, is the "Untouchable Method." Maybe they're a prince, or the beloved friend of a megacorp CEO; the details will vary by setting. But the important part is that the PCs are strongly disincentivized against taking their nemeses out of commission permanently, as the repercussions would be far more than they're worth. 

Until, of course, they're not. But that makes for a hell of a story in its own right.

Anyway, the role of a nemesis is that of a foil; a mirror to the heroes. Some great storylines can (and have) come from something that requires nemeses to work together, however begrudgingly, to overcome. Nothing provides a feeling of gravity like seeing a hated rival fighting alongside you, because what you're up against is that bad. 

Also, hell. Nemeses become quasi-allies all the time in fiction, and that can make for some great stories. The important takeaway here is that nemeses are around for the long haul; they're often defining elements of a story, and the metric by which protagonists are measured.

In summary: your (characters') role. Know it.

I tried really hard not to use The Rock in this post. I, of course, failed.
Thanks for reading! There's more to glean from this topic, but that's a subject for another day.

Some pro wrestling RPGs. Because reasons!

More Lucha love from me. If you ever wanted to be
El Santo, this is your jam.
A pretty awesome, modern PbtA game.
You put on shows, it's quite fun.

* * *

1 - This doesn't mean that the story is about the PCs becoming the most powerful and important characters in the setting, just that the story is about what happens to them, and what they cause to happen. If you and your players are happy telling the tale of how Swordy McStabface became the god of destruction, bending planets to their will, that's awesome. But it's in no way required.

2 - A term first popularized by (I think) Arn Anderson, this is a way more respectful term for "enhancement talent," somebody who's there to make the main eventer look good. Like a carpenter, they build something that can last. The pro wrestling historical society has a neat little article on the concept.


4 - This deserves (and will eventually receive) its own post, but for now it's worth noting that this is good advice for writing conflicts in general - if the only suspense is whether the hero lives or dies, and it's not the last scene of the story, there's not any suspense. Or conversely (in RPGs), sometimes the Hero dies for a stupid reason, and it becomes difficult to maintain continuity in narrative. Either way, it's lazy writing, and we can do better.