Category Archives: wrestling

Tales from the inframundo

Holla folks,

Once again I’ve ventured into the world of professional wrestling and colourful grappling to learn its storytelling techniques, and once again it’s taken me like two weeks to come back and write about it. Pretty slack of me, I know. Will this improve once I return to non-powerbomb-focused content, i.e. after this week’s post? We’ll talk about that next time.

This time, though, I want to look at a third wrestling promotion, the one that is probably my favourite now that I’m watching wrestling again – a promotion that has quickly developed its own identity and unique style while staking out a storytelling space somewhere between the extremes of WWE’s ‘realism’ and Chikara’s out-and-out fantasy.

I’m talking, of course, about the high-octane action of Lucha Underground.

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Lucha Underground is a televised promotion created and broadcast on the El Ray Network, a US cable channel, that has just kicked off its third most-of-a-year season. It’s connected with Mexico’s respected AAA promotion, and features a lot of Mexican wrestlers and lucha libra influences. Matches tend to have a lot of high-flying action and/or power-based mat wrestling, with a bit more blood, weaponry and brawling-through-the-audience than you’ll see in WWE shows. Characters range from traditional competitive athletes through a variety of masked luchadors (including my personal favourite heel, the deer-head-wearing King Cuerno) to outright horror/fantasy figures. (It’s a promotion where a dragon-man wrestled an alien superhero five shows in a row, and it was awesome.)

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And from a storytelling perspective, they do a number of other things that set them apart from other promotions and provide useful lessons for writers.

Crafting a unique voice

The thing that immediately stands out when you watch an episode of Lucha Underground is that it looks like a telenovela or soap opera rather than a wrestling show. (I mean, other than all the wrestling.) Backstage scenes are lit and shot like moody dramas, and they’re all vignettes and fictional in-character scenes rather than promos or to-camera interviews. (They have occasional sit-down interviews but film them differently.) There’s also an unusual cinematography for wrestling action, thanks to the use of an overhead camera as well as the usual ringside views. All of this combines to create a fresh, distinct voice for the show, one that captures its pulpy grindhouse story style, encourages viewers to suspend their disbelief and keeps them coming back to witness more plot developments. (Lesson: a unique voice may be the single most important thing a writer can develop; more than any other skill, it’s what captures readers attention and keeps it on you.)

When you can see the wires

Lucha libre is a thrilling style of wrestling to watch – high-flying, high-energy, full of impressive spots and sequences. But it’s also a style that relies on orchestration and cooperation, with wrestlers working together to pull off those spots and sequences. If done well, you never notice the wrestlers waiting for the spot or holding their opponents’s hand in position – but if you do notice, that’s a problem. Nothing pulls me out of a match faster than seeing three guys hang around at the side of the ring, waiting for their opponent to come over the ropes and land on them (except maybe a wrestler who’s meant to be unconscious adjust his tights and mask in full view of the audience). And this happens in pretty much every Lucha Underground episode, damaging the tension of the match and my engagement with it. (Lesson: Action scenes need to feel natural and organic, no matter how much orchestration goes into them. Don’t let logic gaps or too-overt direction creep into your fight writing, or readers will see the wires and lose engagement.)

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Setting your tone and sticking with it

Lucha Underground eschews both pure escapism and pure realism to stake out a space somewhere in the middle. Alongside stories of athletes fighting for belts or settling personal grudges, there are arcs about mystical prophecies, warring lucha families, monsters in the basement and a witch recruiting an army of death-cultists to take over an Aztec temple. It all works because there’s a consistent tone across the board – a pulpy, grindhouse kind of action-adventure/urban fantasy-horror that can accommodate both straight and weird stories without much difficulty. (It’s kind of like how From Dusk ’til Dawn could fit both crime and horror action – not surprising, since Robert Rodriguez is an executive producer of LU.) This tonal scope lets shows veer from the normal to the weird and back without losing audience buy-in, and is also a heap of fun. (Lesson: you can fit a lot of different ideas together in a story so long as you have tonal consistency – so work out how you want your stories to feel, then go crazy on plot points that support that feel.)

Flabby in the middle

In wresting they call it the build – that mounting sense of tension and drama that pays off in the final match, after weeks and months of feuding and escalation. It’s the thing that sets up the stakes for the fight – and it’s something that Lucha Underground mess up about half the time, maybe more. Too many angles (storylines) fall apart due to injury or external factors, while others are cobbled together on the fly to justify a match ten minutes later.

(Exhibit A: A match built up between Texano and Chavo Guerrero for the end of Season 1 that could have been great – but when Chavo got injured, they quickly subbed in over-the-hill wrestler Blue Demon Jr rather than cancel the match, and the outcome was not good.) Even if what’s in the ring is solid, a weak build makes it feel pointless – and when the match is lacklustre, the whole thing falls apart. (Lesson: Short, medium and long-term pacing all matter, and it’s rarely good enough to get two out of three.)

Hit that payoff and all is forgiven

But having said that – when Lucha Underground get the build right, they blow the roof off. Their in-ring pacing is almost always really solid, and when it’s embedded in the overall tone and backed up by rising tension and clear stakes, the matches can be so amazing that you forgive every other misstep and rush-job. And there’s no better example than 2015’s brutal and riveting ‘Grave Consequences’ casket match between the high-flying Fenix and the unstoppable murder-machine Mil Muertes. I wish I could show you the whole match, but hopefully these edited highlights show you just how engaging and fascinating the LU take on wrestling can be.

(Lesson: Good is better than perfect, and any story that grabs the reader and keeps them engaged is doing just fine, even if it’s not 100% what you thought or hoped it might be. Take the win.)

Lucha Underground airs on El Rey in the US, as noted earlier, but it’s not on any streaming services. You can buy and download seasons on iTunes as they come out – so long as you’re using the US iTunes store. If you’re in Australia, or indeed any non-US country, then… well, tough. I don’t know why El Rey are so determined not to accept money from international fans, but they seem intractable opposed to taking our $35. So if you want to watch it, there’s only one option – fly to the US, borrow a local iTunes account and credit card, buy the season, save it to a USB and then fly back to watch it at your leisure. I mean, that’s what I obviously did. Anything else would have been illegal and wrong.

If you can afford the plane ticket – or magically find some other way to obtain US-only content – and want to see some really strong wrestling shows (and the occasional weak one), Lucha Underground gets all the thumbs up.

ALL THE THUMBS

Okay, I think I’m done talking about wrestling now. If you’re into it, I hope this has been fun; if you’re not, I hope it’s demonstrated that almost any kind of performance or genre can have range, variation and complexity to it. Plus crazy bumps.

Come back next week for a trip to PLANET OVERSHARE!

Population: you and me!

Sitting waaaaaaaaay too close together

Invisible story grenade

Hey folks – first, an apology for running so late and slow on blog posts right now. Turns out that when you’re writing about the way someone else tells stories, you need to do your research – which, in this case, means watching a lot of wrestling.

Oh boy. So much wrestling. It eats up all my time.

Because there is a lot of wrestling in the world, even though most of what you see/hear about is the WWE product. There are some very different ways of arranging grappling matches, and different ways of telling stories in that space. And if you want to see something that goes in a really distinct direction, while still having some of the same foundations (and still being in English), then you want to look at Chikara.

chikara-2014Chikara is a large independent promotion based out of Philadelphia, who put on shows in their own venue while also travelling for some national and even international shows. (They haven’t come to Australia yet, but fingers crossed.) They’re known for solid wrestling that mixes technical and lucha libra styles, a large roster of over-the-top characters, complex comicbook-inspired plotlines and a (mostly) light-hearted, family-friendly approach to the wrestling form.

What does that mean in terms of storytelling, and what lessons can be learned for prose writing? I have many thoughts. And another long-arse post in which to unpack them.

Making the most of what you’ve got

The first thing you notice when you watch a Chikara match is the low production values – well, low in comparison to WWE, anyway. There are no big display screens, no pyro, no video packages summarising feuds – just a ring and some wrestlers performing for maybe 200 people sitting near the stage. But what Chikara does is use those limitations to their advantage, funnelling almost all their storytelling (apart from the occasional, very basic speech-to-camera promo on their recordings) into the ring. That means that stories and character development happen right in front of the audience, who are close enough to the action to feel like they’re genuinely part of it; that keeps them in-the-moment so that they don’t feel distanced from the crazy plot elements. It all works, and it wouldn’t in a bigger, louder, glitzier environment that fostered a sense of detachment in the fans. (Lesson: Limitations provide the boundaries around a creative space, so work with the tools you have to make something distinct and effective in that space.)

Playing the long game

Chikara storylines are strange (more on that later), but more than that, they’re long. Plotlines play out monthly, rather than weekly, and a plot point set up in January might not fully play out until December or even the following season. The biggest plotlines play out the longest – I think the current major arc, with the evil god Nazmaldun corrupting wrestlers to make an army of demon heels, has been going for about 18 months – but smaller arcs start and finish in the foreground as the big stories grind on. It’s these big plotlines that hook Chikara fans, and the degree to which the promoters commit to them – for one major storyline, they shut Chikara down for an entire year so that they could return with a bang. But they can also make new audiences feel overwhelmed, they’re vulnerable to real-world changes (like wrestlers getting injured) and they have to be paced very carefully to maintain the momentum. Chikara generally pulls these stories off, but the effort involved is clear. (Lesson: Big stories fascinate audiences and get attention, but you have to manage them carefully, and provide entrance points so that readers don’t get lost in all the detail.)

Diversity ain’t hard (but it ain’t always easy either)

Chikara fields a huge roster of wrestlers, with different fighting styles, body shapes, skill levels and performance techniques, and they often host wrestlers from other promotions. WWE’s wrestlers are all ‘competitive athlete’ archetypes; Chikara has many of those but also fantasy princesses, superheroes, clowns, humanoid ice-creams, monsters, cultists, sea creatures, ants (so many ants), dudes with weird names (my fave is FLEX RUMBLECRUNCH) and a man with a mustachioed baseball for a head. And if you held a gun to my head I still couldn’t tell you about 90% of the their personalities or story arcs, because I haven’t had the time to invest in learning about them over those aforementioned long, slow arcs. Chikara has wonderful diversity, but I feel like it comes at the expense of strongly defined characters. (Lesson: try to embed diversity and personality in a small, controllable set of characters, rather than a sprawling ensemble, or else variation comes at the expense of depth.)

Audience buy-in

So okay, let’s talk about storylines. Chikara’s are weird. They involve demonic corruption, supervillains, time-travel, evil duplicates, mind control, black ops military units, magic… it’s superhero-universe craziness, but with fewer special effects. The shorter arcs tend to be a bit less over-the-top, but still aren’t ‘realistic’, and the in-ring storytelling often involves superpowers, magic and other shenanigans. And the audience loves it, because a) it’s fun, b) it’s underpinned by a foundation of really solid, high-energy wrestling, and c) everyone watching knows coming in that this is what Chikara offers, and that getting on board with it is the price of admission. The price is worth it; this is, after all, a promotion where a wrestler wins matches by throwing an invisible hand grenade at his opponents in slow motion, and you can’t get that on Smackdown.

(Lesson: Know your audience and what they’ll enjoy, then make that without too much worrying about justification. They’ll suspend disbelief and come along for the ride if they’re with you.)

Using structure to set up stories

The other, less obvious thing about Chikara’s plotting is how it actively uses the trappings and structure of genuine athletic competition as a storytelling foundation. Like most promotions they have single and tag-team champion belts, but wrestlers have to gain points in order to qualify to compete for those belts; they also have a variety of trophies and other prizes, and tournaments to qualify for them. These elements help to ground the crazy stories, but more importantly they provide a reason for two (or more) wrestlers to fight in the first place – which then opens up storytelling space for more personal issues or feuds to emerge from that initial match. The upshot is that every match, no matter how ‘standard’, feels like it has a reason to exist (something WWE often fails to achieve). (Lesson: every action/conflict scene needs a premise (why they’re fighting) and stakes (what they win/lose) in order to connect to the reader.)

Family-friendly murder

Chikara are a family-friendly promotion, with storylines and ring action meant to engage and entertain kids (and adults). They back this up with some pretty strict performance rules – no blood, no swearing, no sexual content. But murder? Murder is fine. Many wrestlers and side characters have been ‘killed’ in the ring by heels and monsters; a long-running storyline saw the supervillian Deucalion murder more than a dozen wrestlers before he was himself killed by the heroic Icarus. So – kid-friendly, except full of death. Is that weird? Kids don’t think so, because kids love elements of horror and danger in their adventures – just listen to the stories they tell each other – and they can differentiate between fun horror and real my-parents-scream-at-each-other-every-night horror. Sanitised, stylised death raises the wrestling stakes in a way young audiences can enjoy, and it can do the same in many other stories as well. (Lesson: Everybody loves murder. Everybody. Go drop a murder into your Regency romance novel right now; it can only help sales. Especially with kids.)

Oof. That was long. I gotta get these things under control.

If you’re interested in checking out Chikara, almost all of their shows going back 16 seasons (years) are available to stream on their website through the Chikaratopia service; it costs $8 US a month, and you can trial it for a week to see if it’s your speed. If you want to get in on the ground floor of stories, start with the beginning of Season 15 or 16; if you want immediate action, watch one of the King of Trios multi-part specials, which is their annual three-person tag tournament that brings in many wrestlers from other promotions. (I hear this year’s was particularly good; watching it as soon as it’s up.)

But be warned when you watch it. You might be exposed to the most illegal move in all of wrestling history:

And that’s terrible great.

Plot, character, piledrivers

So I’ve been talking about how pro wrestling is a great space for communicating character and story through action – but talk is cheap. What does that actually mean? How do you use ten minutes of sweaty grappling and backflips to define a character, and what kind of stories can you tell through that platform?

The answer is – more than you might think.

I was going to wrap up this series of pro wrestling posts tonight and get back to beating myself up for my lack of productivity, but I kept finding new stuff to write about (and distracted by other stuff, which is why this Monday night post is going up on Friday night) – so let’s assume this is (at least) a two-part post and use part one to set some foundations, with a look at something everyone already knows about – World Wrestling Entertainment/WWE (and also NXT) – and what lessons might be learned.

WWE-logoEven if you’ve never seen a match in your life, you know about WWE; they’re a multi-billion dollar company, the single biggest wrestling organisation in the world. They have two big weekly shows (Raw and Smackdown) on regular TV, monthly pay-per-view events (even bigger shows) and their own $10-a-month wrasslin’ Netflix with more shows than I care to contemplate. The WWE Network is also the home of NXT, their ‘developmental’ offshoot where new performers build their skills/discipline before graduating to the main roster; just as importantly, it’s where they build an audience so that anyone cares about that graduation.

Tonal change is hard

03A lot of folks I follow on Twitter, or who make podcasts I enjoy, are really into the current WWE promotion, or more directly into NXT, and that background interest is probably what drew me back to the sport after a decade away. It’s kind of sad, then, that I find their current product, well… kind of boring. Compared to the flash, speed and silliness of the Attitude Era (late 90s-early 00s), or even the mid-2000s, the current WWE/NXT style of wrestling is more low-key and PG-rated. The focus is on mat-based wrestling, with a mix of technical grappling and strength/power moves – there’s very little aerial wrestling, use of weapons/tools or straight-up brawling. In many ways it’s a ‘purer’ form of wrestling, but I can’t help but miss table/ladder/chair matches. (Lesson: when you set a tone early on, it’s more difficult to bring that tone down and retain readers than it is to raise the stakes and escalate.)

Risk aversion is sensible but boring

The other big change is in the attitude of the corporation, which has come to really emphasise the ‘professional’ in pro wrestling. WWE is a  big, big business, and they don’t want to jeopardise that business by relying on unpredictable, idiosyncratic wrestlers with their own style or ideas about things are meant to work. The result, to my biased eye, is a growing homogeneity among the wrestlers, who are all drawing from the same set of moves and character concepts – moves and concepts largely chosen by an external group of coaches, managers and marketers – rather than bringing their own individual style and flair. And I get that, because you want a reliable and commercially viable product, and for your staff to be safe from injury due to unpredictable circumstances, but it makes it hard for me to tell many of them apart, or to care which one of them wins the day. (Lesson: you don’t have to play it safe, and you can depict any kind of character doing any kind of thing. SO DO THAT. Leave the homogeneity for the real world.)

Stick to the schtick

A lot of character development in WWE comes through visual flags – a wrestler always dresses a certain way, has a specific entrance, uses identifiable gestures. Similarly, every wrestler has signature moves and catchphrases that they’ll use in almost every match and promo – things that reinforce the character in your mind, that make them memorable even if you can’t connect that memory to a specific action or event. That’s a technique that’s very powerful in visual media, but can also be tapped in prose storytelling. (Lesson: set out simple, short signifiers for a character like a piece of clothing, a phrase or even a radical haircut, something you can describe in five words, and drop them into scenes so that readers get that instant bit of connection.)

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Use all your tools – but use them properly

WWE make heavy use of promos, vignettes, backstage skits, brief interviews and other non-match showcases to build character, but their in-ring character development is a bit lacking; the current product doesn’t do much to showcase agendas, motivations or unique traits once the bell rings to start the fight. Almost all of that comes before and after, which is maybe the main reason I find their stuff a bit dull right now. Still, all of that developmental material works in building character nuance and substance. What doesn’t work is when the announce team just tell you a character is awesome, even when you can see that they’re a bit shit. WWE have been doing that for years, and if anything it’s even more distancing and annoying now that the video quality is so good and you can see mediocre characters underwhelm you in HD. (Lesson: character can come from lots of interactions and presentations, big or small – but keep the focus on what characters do, and don’t forget about ‘show, don’t tell’, okay?)

We don’t talk about the weird stuff any more

WWE’s storylines used to have a few weird and strange elements, but that’s largely been excised these days. Modern storylines revolve around professional rivalries for belts and prime roster positions, which bring larger paycheques and more merch opportunities. In other words, they’re wrestling stories about wrestling; the business is about the business. That has potential for metatextual shenanigans, but they’re rarely explored, and the end result is a storytelling environment that leaves me kind of cold. At the same time, the rare inclusion of a new element – a personal grudge, a lapsed friendship, a reflection of external factors – is just enough to stand out and get my interest, even if it’s never anything as over-the-top as the Undertaker fighting Kane in the fires of Hell. (Lesson: it’s good to set a baseline of realism, but staying there is kind of boring; look for ways to make stories be about more than their own immediate, sensible and predictable contexts.)

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Good pacing makes up for many sins

The thing that WWE really understands these days, after decades of experimentation, is the rhythm of action storytelling – the pacing skeleton that supports all manner of wrestling meat. A standard WWE feud starts just after a pay-per-view, with hostilities rising between two wrestlers; at the next PPV they either settle things (short arc) or the situations escalates (medium arc). There’s a consistent, engaging build with peaks and troughs, highs and lows – something that gets you pumped and then lets you cool off. Matches are the same; the rise and fall of energy and spotlight in a WWE show is so crisp you could graph it. (Well, usually; I hear the recent SummerSlam PPV was 6 hours long, peaked too soon and burned the audience out by the halfway mark.) (Lesson: knowing the rhythm and flow of fights and stories is more than half the battle of conveying both effectively.)

I signed up for a free month of the WWE Network; that subscription renewed today, and that’s fine, but that’ll do. That gives me time to watch some of the ancillary shows (Breaking Ground is intriguing) and the Cruiserweight Classic, which is my kind of flippy-skippy wrestling, and maybe to take a few more notes on Raw and Smackdown. After that, I think I’ll be happy enough to let it lie. WWE have their own thing, and it works very well for their audience, but I’m okay with not marking out for them any more.

Who do I mark out for? And plunder for storytelling ideas?

Let’s find out next time.

Wrestling with words

I am still writing about wrestling, and if that bores you then I imagine you stopped reading like ten words ago. So all that’s left are the rest of you, so eager to read about men in tights slapping each other that you’d come here to my humble little bespoke word servery. But there are way more places you can read about wrestling – in these things called books.

Yes, I have read far more books on wrestling than one might think, and tonight I come to make some recommendations for you.

First, let’s talk about autobiographies of wrestlers. There are dozens and dozens and dozens of autobiographies of wrestlers. They’re pretty much all terrible – and, since they’re mostly all written by the same small cabal of ghostwriters, pretty much all terrible in the same way. They give stories of coming from humble beginnings and overcoming adversity, vent a few frustrations with WWE management – but not so many as to damage the wrestler’s livelihood – and rival wrestlers, share some hilarious anecdotes and say that the best is yet to come. Rinse, lather, repeat. The worst I ever read being Goldberg’s, because he ran out of stories halfway through and the rest of the book was about football.

(I will admit that The Rock’s book has some interesting stuff about growing up in a Hawaiian wrestling family, and I kinda want to read William Regal’s autobio because, come on, William Regal… but other than that, they’re usually terrible.)

That said, there are three autobios that are really worth checking out, all for different reasons.

218496First is Mick Foley’s Have a Nice Day, which maps pretty closely to the formula above but is told with a distinct voice – Foley turned down the offer of a ghost and wrote the whole thing himself. It turned out that Foley’s image – a bearded, husky everyman with a weird sense of humour and a sentimental streak – was pretty much exactly who he was, and that he also had a decent ability to write genuine, engaging prose that didn’t aim too high and thus hit its mark. Have a Nice Day is readable, fun, remarkably bloody – Foley was the Hardcore Legend, after all – and paints a picture of late 90s WWE that is sanitised but not to the point of flavourlessness. Foley wrote two further autobios, with predictable diminishing returns, and there’s absolutely no reason to ever try reading his novel, but Have a Nice Day is worth checking out.

quackenbush_bookAt around the same time Foley wrote his book, indie wrestler Mike Quackenbush wrote his own memoir, Headquarters, which is fascinating because it follows the same arc as all the other bios – until Quackenbush realises that he’s not going to make it to the same happy ending as all the big name wrestlers. Instead, his career has plateaued, his injuries are becoming more serious and his dreams are fading away. That sounds maudlin, but Headquarters is that rarest of things, a story of failure that doesn’t descend into self-pity; Quackenbush writes with good humour and nerdy flourish, and makes you feel sympathy for him rather than pity. Headquarters was self-pubbed and is difficult to find, but if you can dig it up it’s a really interesting read. And I’m keen to read the sequel, Secret Identity, and see how he turned his career around into founding and managing the popular, family- and nerd-friendly Chikara promotion.

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Finally, there’s an autobio that seems written out of spite rather than self-aggrandisement – Pure Dynamite, the story of Tom Billington, aka The Dynamite Kid. Billington was one of the most skilled and ferocious wrestlers to ever come out of Britain, hugely influential in the 70s and 80s and a top draw in Japan. He was also arrogant, belligerent, petty and just plain mean – and he doesn’t back away from admitting to any of that in his book. He doesn’t apologise for it, but he doesn’t try to absolve himself either; he’s content to show himself, warts and all, and he’s too old and bitter to care about what anyone thinks of him now. As prose, Pure Dynamite is pretty lacklustre; as a peek at the 70s/80s wrestling industry, and into the head of a star who burned bright and then out, it’s fascinating. And damned hard to find nowadays, but so it goes.

51nWdhCkSNL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_Moving on from 15-year old autobiographies to newer material, I recently read and really enjoyed David Shoemaker’s The Squared Circle, which I know I mentioned a few posts ago. Shoemaker’s book is a modified collection of some of his ‘Dead Wrestler of the Week’ columns in Deadspin; he uses these stories to underline the events, changes and overaching themes of 20th-century wrestling. He’s a very skilled and clever writer – sometimes a little too clever, and too fond of quoting Barthes, but I like that kind of thing -and there’s genuine affection, scholarship and sadness in his stories of Owen Hart, Andre the Giant and Brian Pillman. I got pretty damn sad at the end when he talked about Eddie Guerrero and Chris Benoit, and I’m not ashamed to admit it.

Speaking of Andre the Giant, there’s a graphic novel about his life that’s apparently pretty good; I have to get round to reading it sometime.)

And finally, I couldn’t discuss books about wrestling without covering the glory that is Big Apple Takedown, a novel in which the NSA recruit six WWE wrestlers to fight terrorism as undercover secret agents.

I shit you not.

December 2001: Vince McMahon steps out of a snowy night into a diner in upstate New York for a meeting with old friend Phil Thomson, now a highly placed government official. Thomson has a strange proposition: creating a new covert black-ops group using the Superstars of World Wrestling Entertainment.

675941March 2006: The Superstars have been handed their latest assignment — take down a commercial-grade methyl-amphetamine plant that is bankrolling terrorist activities in Europe. Their mission seems simple and straightforward, until a member of their team is taken prisoner. Now all that they’ve worked so hard for is in jeopardy, and one of their own might be killed…

Note how the cover has bosoms. Not sure why they don’t get mentioned in the blurb.

Obviously I am not saying you should read this; merely marvel that such a thing exists. If you’re curious enough to want to experience its deathless prose and poorly described action sequences, try listening to the I Don’t Even Own a Television podcast, which discusses it at hilarious length.

The best thing? This makes me happy that my YA wrestling-dream-warriors-versus-oni novel won’t be the weirdest thing written in the powerslam oeuvre.

More on that another time. Once John Cena takes out that meth plant.

 

All the wide world round

(Pardon the downtime between posts; I’ve been working on a proofreading job with a tight deadline.)

So yeah, professional wrestling. We’ve established that I love like it a lot; now how best to express that love like? Watching wrestling on TV/the internet is the obvious answer, and I’ve been doing just that lately. Watching live shows is fun too, and there’s a lucha libre and burlesque show happening next week (oh, Melbourne) that I want to catch. Doing it myself… well, no, because I’m old and my knees dislocate if you look at them hard.

But there’s one other way to experience wrestling, in a way, and that’s by pretending to be a wrestler. Which brings us to the World Wide Wrestling roleplaying game.

download

I wrote a while back about the Powered by the Apocalypse family of RPGs, and World Wide Wrestling (or WWW) is one of the most interesting of that suite. I’ve just started running a short campaign, which is turning out to be very silly; it’s all aliens, werewolves and time travellers brawling in a cursed RSL. Gameplay writeups are on Obsidian Portal, with GMing notes on my gaming Tumblr, Save vs Facemelt, if that sort of thing interests you.

But this isn’t a gaming blog, it’s a writing blog. So if we’re primarily interested in action storytelling, what kind of thought fodder does WWW provide?

Understand your tools

As with other PtbA games, WWW provides the GM with a set of agendas to keep in mind throughout play, principles to refer to when developing scenes and moves to make that keep gameplay moving. These are the core tools for the GM, and the GM is meant to use only these tools (although WWW is more forgiving on this than some related games), because they’re designed to produce a satisfying game for all players.

I won’t go on about these things in detail (I did that last time), but WWW‘s suite of gameplay tools are very strong because they clearly and effectively emphasise the nature of professional wrestling stories, conflicts and shows. But even then, they’re unlikely to do that if you just pick moves at random, or apply principles without considering why they say what they do. You need to look at wrestling, look at the tool, consider the connection and understand why it’s valuable to ‘make the world seem constructed but frail’, or how sticking a microphone in a wrestler’s face opens opportunities to demonstrate character.

WWW doesn’t set a terribly high bar for understanding, and it explains what it can, but it makes it clear that you need to do a little conceptual work to get the most of your tools, just as you do in the larger world of writing and story creation.

Embrace your genre

I’ve seen a few wrestling RPGs over the years, and almost all of them focused heavily or exclusively on the kayfabe side of things – you played a wrestler, your opponents were other wrestlers, and the mechanics existed to explore matches in blow-by-blow detail. But that’s only part of the wrestling genre, and that focus excludes a lot of what gives in-ring action flavour and meaning.

WWW is broader than this; it embraces the metatextual tension between the reality and the fiction of wrestling, and uses both worlds as a setting for play. As I said to my players, it’s a game where you spend 50% of your time in the ring as The Rock, 40% of it backstage as The Rock, and 10% of it as Dwayne Johnson organising cross-promotion efforts between the wrestling promotion and the film studio for your new movie.

Most genres aren’t neat, simple things; they’re tracts of conceptual space with fuzzy borders and idiosyncratic corners. A lot of stories land in one part of that space and try to maintain control over the local narrative environment, and there’s nothing wrong with that (other than being a fairly iffy metaphor). But there’s also fun in embracing the other aspects, taking in the less straightforward ideas and exploring the tension between seemingly incompatible genre concepts, just as WWW does with reality vs kayfabe.

Remember your audience

Roleplaying is usually a private affair, experienced only by the half-dozen or so folks at the table. (Yeah, I know ‘actual play’ videos and podcasts have become a thing, but I’m not counting those because I don’t like ’em.) WWW asks players to bend that assumption and act as if their characters are trying to entertain a viewing audience – one that loves in-ring action, watches backstage interactions and enjoys the metatext of breaking kayfabe. Every part of play is aimed at that audience – especially matches, which operate by narrating interesting, engaging sequences rather than rolling dice to see if you manage to hit with your five-star frogsplash.

Writing is also an act aimed at an audience, whether a large body of readers or just the author his/herself. It’s a creative act that functions by communicating ideas to an audience, and the audience has to read the text to understand what’s going on. That seems obvious, but it’s easy to forget that readers still need a little exposition or explanation here and there to provide context, or that they won’t be able to fully understand a scene because they don’t have your knowledge of backstory.

WWW reminds me that I have to play to an audience when I write, even if I don’t necessarily know who that audience will be; it also reminds me that maybe I should try to work that out, and what that audience might want, before I finish the story.

Is it silly to hold a game about grappling and smacktalk up like it’s On Writing? Well, a bit. But you gather your rosebuds where you may, and I think the mark of a strong game – or film, or book, or interpretive dance sequence – is that it makes you think about your own work, even if just for a minute or two.

Anyway, World Wide Wrestling is pretty fun. I’m running the next session of my game in a few hours; let’s see if El Gastro can solve The Mystery of the Haunted RSL while also dropping some piledrivers onto Ned Kelly.

Also in this blog instalment, GENERAL LIFE UPDATE

I have a new day job! Next week I return to the world of educational publishing, which seems to be my eternal niche now, and start making textbooks again. I’m looking forward to it; three months of freelancing, dogwalking and not-doing-enough-novel-writing was plenty, thank you.

What will this do to my writing output and blogging schedule?

Well, it can hardly make it worse, can it?