“Self, don’t abandon projects when they frustrate you. Keep them around and take more shots at it. The only way to get better is to do the work. But it’s also ok to finish something and decide not to put it out into the world. Your development as a designer is not contingent on your output, but you’ll get better faster if you design more stuff.”
This week we introduce you to Nathan D. Paoletta (he/him), a veteran game designer, independent publisher & freelance graphic artist based in Chicago. Nathan is best known for his game, World Wide Wrestling RPG, but has a real plethora of works that you can (and should!) explore at ndpdesign.com
We speak with Nathan this week on his experience developing WWWRPG and his approach to game design. Read to to find out more abut the glamorous entertainment world that is pro-wrestling.
World Wide Wrestling RPG is a masterclass in how a roleplaying game can steer players into an experience that really feels like the pro-wrestling source material it is inspired by. Can you tell us why wrestling is different from other forms of art or entertainment, and what fascinates you about it?
Nathan: Answering this actually shares a problem with trying to explain what makes roleplaying different, in that there’s a lot of things it’s kind of like, but isn’t. An art form that uses the physical language of amateur (i.e. real) wrestling and gymnastics, the visual language of the circus and the narrative language of opera; at its core its about getting money out of people!
Over time I think the kind of person who wants to be a wrestler has shifted, but “the business” is so intertwined with it as an art form, it’s impossible to separate from those roots. And what keeps people coming back and buying tickets is the violence (but controlled!) and the storytelling (but not too complicated!). I think the unique aspect of wrestling that it has the capacity and, I would argue, the directive to shift what’s happening in the ring based on the response of the audience–but it simultaneously is deeply invested in shaping that response.
I mean, the surface-level stuff is easier to define as what wrestling is, the over-the-top characters and the athletic moves and the dual-consciousness of the real and the constructed (kayfabe) existence of the storytelling. But what really drew me in as a subject for a game is this relationship with the audience and how that underlies everything else that wrestling is.
One of the most common praises we hear for the game is “I didn’t know anything about wrestling but I really enjoyed playing the game. It helped me to understand why people love wrestling so much.” This is no easy feat! How does the game support these new-to-wrestling players? What were the challenges in designing for this group?
Nathan: That’s wonderful to hear! Here’s a secret that (I think) explains it: roleplaying is wrestling without punching.
That’s summarizing the insight I had that turned the project from something to mess around with for fun into something that had legs: the dynamic at the table that makes roleplaying work is very similar to the dynamic that makes wrestling work – you have some established structure, but in the moment you are listening to each other and performing for each other, showing off what makes your character interesting but also working with everyone else to make a successful game experience.
Wrestlers work together, while pretending to fight, to make a great match; players and GMs work together, while pretending (through the medium of the game rules) to be in conflict, to make a great game.
So I don’t think it’s anything particularly brilliant in the design, other than structuring the game to leverage what players are already doing in 90% of the games they play, and then providing the color and trappings of wrestling to grab on to while you do it. And it’s that color that most communicates what people love about wrestling, what drew them into being fans in the first place, so you end up connecting the experience to the draw, and players who are big fans can use the game to communicate their enthusiasm and bring the others along for the ride!
What was the most memorable wrestling persona you’ve had at your table?
Nathan: One of my all-time favorites is from my original playtest group, Mammoth Marco, a Monster from the frozen north of Alaska who ended up changing gimmick into the Veteran after a big defeat. He came back as Millionaire Marco, flush with oil riches from an offshore drilling business he started.
There’s also a friend of mine who plays his backyard wrestling personae of Joey Crack, in various forms across individual WWWRPG episodes – he’s an expert in the game, and I always know it’s going to be a wild ride when we get to play together.
It’s been more than a decade since your first published game and that represents a pretty large body of work. Reflecting on the various games you’ve designed over the years from Annalise, carry, to your upcoming project Imp of the Perverse, what do you know now you wish you knew when you first started designing games?
Nathan: A lot of learning is making the mistakes that lead to new insights, so I wouldn’t really want to stop myself from making them. But if I was able to send a letter to myself of 2005? “Self, don’t abandon projects when they frustrate you. Keep them around and take more shots at it. The only way to get better is to do the work. But it’s also ok to finish something and decide not to put it out into the world. Your development as a designer is not contingent on your output, but you’ll get better faster if you design more stuff. Oh, and always sell a PDF version.”
What singular issue is important to you right now that you want us to leave here thinking about?
Nathan: I’m going to cheat with two things, but they’re related. Centering disenfranchised and marginalized voices in gaming is critical right now – that’s where innovations in the art and practice of gaming, and improvements in gaming culture, are coming from. It’s easy to stick with legacy games and systems that we’re comfortable with, and I don’t blame anyone for playing the things they know they like. But progression towards new frontiers of design and play is in a lull, to me, and I think the next explosion of innovation will come from the margins. So buy and play games that aren’t made by cis white men! You won’t regret it!
Nathan can be found online @ndpaoletta, but better yet, you can support him over on his Patreon which gives you access to a steady stream of quality digital games and content.
He is also currently releasing Two Hundred a Day, a podcast (with Epidiah Ravachol) exploring better narratives for writers and gamers through an analysis of popular 70s detective show, The Rockford Files.