Roman Reigns and the Perils of NPC Course Correction
You just spent four hours meticulously crafting the perfect NPC for your characters to meet. The character is the perfect ally for the PCs. You know well the eccentricities of both your players and their characters, and have accounted for their peculiarities in this NPC’s creation. The scene you’ve crafted is perfect. The PCs have a chance to shine, the NPC doesn’t come and rescue them or upstage them, and it’s instantly obvious their motives and goals align with the NPC. It’s a work of art, and you couldn’t be happier. Finally, the moment is upon you. The players fight their way into the room, the encounter goes off exactly as you planned it, the players meet the NPC and… absolutely despise her. They think she is only saying the things she says to try to make them like her, don’t think she should have succeeded in killing the things she did, and think her attitude is a pile of hot garbage. It’s a complete failure. You shouldn’t get too discouraged, though. In fact, you are in good company. The WWE has the same problem with Roman Reigns – one of their biggest names.
Before looking at why he is failing, we need to look at what led us here. Roman Reigns is one of the school of wrestlers who came from outside of the indie wrestling scene. He was a football players who had a cup of coffee in the NFL and in Canada before looking for success elsewhere. He ended up signing a developmental contract with the WWE, and began participating in Florida Championship Wrestling – which would later become the best WWE wrestling show known as NXT. Not being an indie dude, he didn’t have a concept of his own, and had to learn both sides of the business as he was going. This was in 2010, but he was brought up to the main roster in 2012. Given that he had no prior experience, this is a pretty quick ascent from non-wrestler to the WWE full roster. He went up with Dean Ambrose and Seth Rollins as part of the Shield, whose schtick was claiming to be fighting against injustice but they were really just “mercenaries.” They first worked for CM Punk, and then began branching into their own stories once they caught on. This is all pretty typical stuff. When he was packaged as part of the Shield, Reigns was pretty popular – the Shield as a whole was, really. When viewed from this perspective – a good lookin’ dude with crowd appeal – it makes sense that the company would want to move him into a more central role.
Out with the Old
The problem the WWE had then is one that it still faces right now. The iconic wrestlers that used to serve as the face of the company were getting older or leaving the company for other opportunities. The Rock was a bonafide movie star, John Cena had already been wrestling for over a decade and was getting involved in movies and television, Batista (more on him later) had left, and people like the Undertaker were getting long in the tooth. The company had to start looking at who would carry them for the NEXT decade or two. Why not this dude who had been with the WWE his whole career and could be molded into what the company needed? It makes a lot of sense. I am sure the company was thinking just as you were thinking when you created that NPC. This is the perfect solution to the problem, right? Unfortunately, a few things got in the way.
Once a moment is missed, it’s gone. You can have a different moment in the future, but that specific moment in time is forever lost. This is what ended up happening to Roman Reigns. Right before the Shield officially dissolved in mid-2014, Roman Reigns competed in the Royal Rumble in January. The Shield was still popular, and he eliminated his teammates during the rumble – also managing to secure a record for most eliminations in a single rumble. This was a fairly perfect time for him to start getting a naturalistic push towards the championship. The tension would have boiled over to dissolve the team, all three would have gotten a push as a result, and Reigns could have lost in the title match, or possibly even have won it, without it feeling forced. This is growth from a moment that would appear natural because it didn’t have a lot of build-up and fit the existing stories. Unfortunately, he didn’t win. He was the runner-up to Batista, who returned for a short run during the press and publicity of Guardians of the Galaxy. The Shield broke up a few months later, Seth Rollins turned heel, and the rest of the storylines the Shield were embroiled in were dropped.
In with the New?
What happened next is a series of well-meaning mistakes. Reigns received a huge push by the company to be the next “guy” for the WWE. He headlined two pay-per-views in a row – losing in championship bouts both times. To try and build him up, he got a win over Randy Orton – a big name – and then got a feud with Seth Rollins…only for Reigns to get injured and have that story dropped. With the plan way off the rails, the company tried to give him the Royal Rumble win he should have had in 2014, but by then people were aware Reigns was being forced on them. In a particularly blind moment, the WWE had the wrestler people were huge fans of and wanted pushed – Daniel Bryan – cut a promo about the greatness of Reigns. This…did not go well.
Even after this, Reigns continued to lose. He lost to a host of people, and even took a step back to partner with Ambrose, hoping to recapture some of that Shield love. After it didn’t really work – he was pushed as a solo again, and would receive ANOTHER title shot – his fourth in just over a year. This was to be against Seth Rollins, but Rollins got injured this time and the title was vacated. Reigns fought his old standbys to win the title, but the story had him lose the title after holding it for only 5 minutes (really). As you might surmise, this did not do anything to take away from his loser persona. He did manage to win the title back, but dropped it shortly after, won it back again, but then got suspended and dropped it a final time. This was the last time he held the title, but he did get another title shot after he came back from suspension, showing the company still had faith in him.
Fast forwarding some, he began feuding with the Undertaker, leading to his match against him at this past year’s Wrestlemania. Everyone was aware this would likely be the last time the Undertaker would wrestle, and there was already a lot of anger and sadness that the last match would be against Reigns – despite the fact the Undertaker hand-picked him. The match was very sad to watch – watching someone break down physically is not fun – and the booing after Reigns won the match was tremendous. It didn’t get better the following show, where the crowed booed Reigns so loudly that he couldn’t speak on the mic for over ten minutes. Remember, Reigns is supposed to be a face (good guy), not a heel.
Back to the Drawing Board
So what now? This is an excellent question, and there are a few options that could be pursued. These are the same options you should pursue if one of your NPCs ends up going sideways.
- Be the bad guy. If the NPC is hated, write a story to let her be hated. Let her be an actual bad guy or foil. You are getting a reaction, lean into it.
- Break down. Allow the NPC to be broken down in a way that sees the NPC punished for what the players see as being “unjustly rewarded.” When the NPC struggles against these odds, the players can see the work.
- Redefinition. Recontextualize the NPC from the perspective of other, already trusted NPCs. This has “company man” risks.
- Write off. Sometimes your gambles don’t pay off. Just scrap the NPC and start over with a new plan. For Roman Reigns, that could just be a new persona or a new way to approach the one he has.
- Persistence. Keep doing what you are doing. Who knows? Someday everyone else might change their minds (I don’t recommend this).
Out of these non-exhaustive options, I heartily recommend the first option. Your plans haven’t worked out, and the players or crowd know that your plans haven’t worked out. There is not a great way to salvage a situation in which it has become transparent that each side has different desired outcomes. The NPC becoming a foil or a villain allows for a sort of catharsis. The feeling of displeasure and hate is now justified and the focus can shift away from this sort of meta-narrative of conflicting participant goals and get back to being completely “in-world.” Wrestling needs the established fiction just as much as any RPG, if not more so. Once all emotions are back within the fiction, you can then work to use the other agents and stories you have in motion to begin altering the narrative. In a perfect world, this new narrative is kicked off with the displeasure of the players being one of the primarily catalysts for this new world view. The NPC can be driven by the hate and bile of the players. Importantly, this gives you a new baseline to work with, because the players quite often feel they are being listened to, and see that you are willing to be flexible to make things work. It becomes an exercise in trust building, which is never bad.
The second option is more of a fan-service, but it can be effective in its own way. Breaking down the NPC – which the players know is one you liked – can prove you put the satisfaction of the players above your own. The players could also derive a type of sadistic pleasure if the breaking down is physical. They might harbor a grudge against you and the NPC, believing they can not harm the NPC – adventurers typically express displeasure with violence, after all. Seeing the NPC harmed allows them a similar catharsis, but one decidedly more mean-spirited than the first option. This can be effective, but don’t expect a quick turnabout with regards to the NPC. Quite often the amount of “punishment” needed to be received is not proportional to the allegedly “crimes” the NPC has committed. It can also engender a feeling of correctness of viewpoint not truly achieved in the first option. It’s a “Hah, we didn’t like you and now you get what’s coming to you. The world agrees with us” sort of thing. This is more about gratification on the part of the players, and about you trying to start over to land the same narrative that failed the first time around. I think it can work, but it’s a lot of work and you need to be honest about what you are trying to achieve.
The third option is one we saw in action with the Daniel Bryan scenario. In that case, a beloved figure attempted to give a bolster to the hated character, hoping to capitalize on his celebrity to cause the reactions to pivot. Instead, the fans saw him as being “forced” to give Roman Reigns a positive boost. It’s completely possible Daniel Bryan actually felt that way, but it occurring sort of “mid-narrative” meant the reaction was a negative one. I have seen this same phenomenon occur in LARPs and tabletop games, so I think it’s something that translates directly. It can certainly cause people to stop and think about their own assumptions, but it seems more likely to cause the participants to react even more negatively about this perceived “coercion.” The good news is the NPC people like isn’t going to experience the backlash, but the DM or creative team is likely to lose a little trust and get the side-eye, at the very least.
The fourth and fifth options are opposite sides of the same coin. One option just has the NPC leave, never to be seen again – or perhaps die off-screen. This is more possible in a tabletop game than in the WWE, as it’s not like you have invested millions of dollars into this NPC – or maybe you have (I don’t know your life). At any rate, this is straightforward, yeah?
The other option has you ignore all of the feedback you are getting. Stay the course. The world should change around you, shouldn’t it? That’s a little unfair of me, as that can work in some cases. There might be a moment of connection in the future that allows the previous work to suddenly click in the minds of the participants. It’s not typical, but it shouldn’t be discounted. I also don’t necessarily consider this approach to be railroading. It is a case of a DM wanting to present a particular story element in a certain way. This can easily lead to railroading, but as long as the DM is just establishing that this NPC behaves in a certain way – and the DM isn’t trying to actively change the minds of the players away from the game – then it’s totally fine. From the DM’s perspective, this is best case scenario. Unfortunately, it’s also the least-likely outcome, in my experience. Once the players have decided something, that’s typically all she wrote. The place where this might see the most success is in a game with a rotating roster. That way, the players have a consistently different set of opinions, and might view the NPC through a different lens with different people around them. I have seen this in action more than once – which is pretty cool.
The Silver Bullet
If there was a single right answer, any sort of negative reaction to characters who were supposed to receive positive reactions would have long since vanished. Sufficed to say, that is not the world we live in. Much of our popular culture discourse revolves around we connect with, or fail to connect with, certain characters across a bevy of mediums. It’s a great thing in a lot of ways that there is no one way to connect with characters, but it does mean that when you present a lot of different characters critical failure should be expected from time to time. As a DM, you have to be resilient enough to accept that sometimes you shoot and miss, and that sometimes you can take the rebound and score off the glass. Not every time, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try…and then try again…and then try again. It’s not always glamorous, but grinding it out is a big part of success. After all, it’s not as if the WWE failed as a business despite this failure. It’s a billion dollar industry and a huge success story. While you might not end up with pile of money, you will assuredly end up with some huge successes somewhere down the line. Until then, try out some of the above options when things go off course. You won’t know what might work unless you try.