Review Soundtrack: Beat the Champ by The Mountain Goats
Bolds: A siren call of my youth. The gravel-voiced radio or television announcer chanting “Sunday!” and pointing you at an arena of legends. A contest of champions. A wholly made-up, entirely absurd, totally fixed contest of champions. If you did not grow up with it, if you’re just a roleplaying game enthusiast, well, I have an experience for you.
In an entirely approachable, well-laid-out 160-page volume, World Wide Wrestling gives you a set of rules that drive you into a world of entertainment and drama, screaming and spandex, costumes and camel clutches, masks and monsters. In the game, players are archetypal wrestlers – working people who play a role in a show, but also have to live their own lives. It adapts well to either small-scale independent wrestling or the big, media-frenzy contemporary wrestling that gave birth to people like Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. Hell, allow me some contradiction: I think it’s so precisely designed that it reaches beyond the world of wrestling.
It’s a lovingly, considerately designed game that doesn’t ask you to bring much to the table other than a few opponents to body slam through the table. Compared to past wrestling games, World Wide Wrestling gets a leg up on the competition and then uses that leg to deliver a vicious, Hogan-style drop straight to the dome.
Playing World Wide Wrestling is pretty simple. It’s a player-driven game, so though the game master – called Creative – has some ability to manipulate what’s going on, they more exist to help shape the players’ goals into a coherent narrative. At heart, all a player does is say what their character does, which will probably then align with one of the things you do in the game – called moves – then you roll a couple dice and add a statistic. Once you’ve done that, you know how it turns out and make a few choices. Those choices usually revolve around currencies that you gain and spend for benefits, but we’ll talk about those later. (This is actually the same system used in several modern roleplaying games, starting with Apocalypse World and going through to also-excellent games like Monsterhearts.)
Since the game rules are structured like a live television broadcast, a wrestling show, it’s nearly always clear who should be talking and moving the story ahead. That’s a lovely thing if your roleplaying table can stumble on low-energy moments, or gets distracted easily. For example, in a match, one wrestler is always “in control.” They talk about what’s happening, say, staggering their opponent while they clamber up the turnbuckle before launching a flying drop kick.
If that was all so much gibberish to you, what’s great about World Wide Wrestling is that you only need the most cursory knowledge of professional wrestling to play it. See, the book has a fantastic emphasis on the basics: How wrestling works, what it means, and even great reference sheets with dynamic illustrations of basic moves. Having those on the table during play means that you don’t slow down because player(s) don’t know wrestling, they just eyeball that sheet and say “Once he’s down, I take a seat on his back and put him in the Boston Crab. While I do it, I stick out my tongue at the crowd and scream!”
Furthermore, World Wide Wrestling has something that I’ve come to believe every single genre-specific roleplaying game in the world should have: Essays.
About 20 pages of the book is sliced up into essays by game designers and wrestling commentators on not only basics like how wrestling works, but under-the-skin deconstructions of how wrestling is a sort of performative masculinity – similar to how how modern burlesque can be about performative, affirming femininity. It’s the sort of content that you’d desperately want to seek out on a smart blog post or thinkpiece about the game, but instead it’s right in front of you the second you need it.
Roleplaying games most often fail to teach the players how to appropriately play them as games. Secondarily, they fail to teach players how to appropriately employ the subject matter of the game in furtherance of their own fun. What is perhaps World Wide Wrestling’s greatest triumph as a game is that not only does it resoundingly succeed in teaching you how to play, it puts you in a gentle, nurturing headlock that forces the appeal of wrestling deep into your eye sockets like a screwdriver during a hardcore match. And, you know what? I don’t think more than one person has to have read the book to play. That is not something I say a lot.
As you wrestle with the how-to of the game, you’ve got a few things to fiddle with. First you’ve got your wrestler’s Audience, which they gain and lose along a spectrum – from getting fired at zero to the top spot, which only one wrestler among the group can hold. You’ve also got Heat, the tension you build with other fighters, and Momentum, how well you’re doing moment-to-moment in a session of the game. Nearly everything you do interacts with one of these three pools, from losing audience when you botch a move to spending momentum to make sure that management books you in the fights you want.
Behind all the technical bits and bobs you do, of course, have the character. Those numbers really do just serve to make sure the arc of the game and the things you need align with how wrestling shakes out – and they succeed, to varying degrees. The game’s design works hard to force you into matches, rivalries, and betrayals. Into the archetypes of wrestling, the heels and babyfaces, the champions, the glory hounds, entertainers, monsters, and anti-heroes. By building rivalries and friendships, your wrestler evolves, gets new ways to manipulate the show, and fills out their character’s story.
But that can be weird. Remember, you’re playing a person who is playing a character. But it more often feels like you’re playing a character who is also a person. Finding the line between the real world that the wrestler lives in alongside the fictional world of the show can be hard, and the rules don’t always get you all the way there. Some archetypes are easier than others, but without concerted effort to work in the real over the fake, it’s possible for the game to completely miss out on the dual-life aspect of the wrestling world in favor of the wrestling itself – which the game more readily supports. If your play group loves in-character drama, there’s no way that’s going to happen, but it’ll take some pushing on the game master’s part to get it out there. That can be a challenge in a game that’s more player driven than otherwise.
Being the game master in this one is pretty fun, though! You get to take on an array of larger-than-life Non-Player Wrestlers alongside the fans and support personnel, the managers and bookers, that make the show run. Preparation for play is very simple, and the game asks for little more than ten or fifteen minutes of forethought and a few scribbled notes before each session. And like I said above, it’s also pretty quick for you to learn and teach. The drawback for some game masters and groups is that it’s a game more aimed at six to twelve sessions of play than fifty. For most, though, and to my view, that’s a really good thing.
If wrestling is not your group’s thing under even the most ideal circumstances, World Wide Wrestling does still have something to offer. I think it’s pretty hackable – you can take this thing apart, and, doing very little work, make it about some fantasy gladiators, or the inter-studio clashes of comic book superheroes and their creative teams.
I recommend World Wide Wrestling not just because it’s fun to narrate the over-the-top clash of good and evil inside the squared circle, but because there are also intensely human stories to be told inside that world. This is a world that exists for entertainment, to have fun, and that’s precisely why you’re playing roleplaying games, right? It’s a fantasy of a world where conflicts can be resolved in the most direct way possible, and I think that uncomplicated story appeals to many roleplayers. It’ll probably appeal to you.