House of Horrors and How Not to Tell Stories
This is my third article about professional wrestling and tabletop games. It’s not out of any specific intent to combine the two, but I keep seeing segments, stories, or themes in the shows that make me think, “man, it’s just like this thing in tabletop.” The same could be said about normal TV shows or films – prepare for a future article about the genius of Jason X and setting shifts – but there is something about the reactionary and interactive nature of wrestling that lends itself to these comparisons more readily.
The WWE is putting on multiple live televised shows every week, and keeps a close ear to the ground to understand the fanbase and react when needed. Meanwhile, the creative team is scripting out to various pay-per-view events in an attempt to tell compelling stories and craft characters that resonate with viewers. The creators have to seed ideas and then rush to paint a visual representation of those ideas without the sometimes necessary rounds of input and feedback. A lot of times, this doesn’t matter all that much. We don’t have to really care all that much why AJ Styles is fighting Shane McMahon – though a strong story can elevate the language in the ring to a much higher level – but it can lead to some strange circumstances that are baffling at best, and just plain awful at worst. I have been playing tabletop and live-action games for two decades, and I have seen this combination of poor preparation and dogged determination to adhere to the story many times. Sometimes it can work out, if the creative voice is exceptionally strong, but more often than not it is a lesson in what not to do. This has never been more evident than in WWE’s woefully misguided “House of Horrors” match between Bray Wyatt and Randy Orton.
The Magic Man and El Diablo (Spanish for “fighting chicken”)
First, a little bit of background. For all that wrestling is super in-shape people tossing each other around, the fans and the companies love supernatural storylines. Papa Shango cursing the Ultimate Warrior to make his head ooze black goo, for example. Heck, people might not know that the Ultimate Warrior claimed to be a space alien sent to Earth and was blessed by the space gods with magical powers – which occasionally showed up as teleportation, weird mirror magic, and invisibility. Gangrel and the Brood were pitched as actual vampires. Sting was returned to the WCW as a ripoff of the Crow. The Undertaker died and was reborn in various incarnations over his career. In this same vein, Bray Wyatt is actually a demon inhabiting the body of Husky Harris – the wrestler’s old character – and is intent on building a cult and destroying the world. This is important because the storyline of the Wyatt v. Orton feud depends on this supernatural aspect. As you might expect, it’s not easy to do supernatural stuff in a live environment when the people involved don’t actually have supernatural power. At least not these supernatural powers – I don’t know their lives.
I’ll do my best to keep the feud history brief. Like most of the “join Team Evil” storylines, it began with the Wyatt Family – the cult controlled by Bray Wyatt – attacking Randy Orton over and over. It was delayed when Orton was injured in real life, and then came back with a push against Brock Lesnar to remind people who he was and why they liked him. However, unlike a lot of feuds, his with Bray Wyatt was resumed. This speaks volumes to the creative belief in this storyline. So many are just dropped when something else comes along, but not this one. Wyatt continued to attack Orton, until Orton finally joined the Wyatt Family and helped Wyatt defeat Kane – another supernatural character.
The presence of Orton drove a wedge between the other members of the Wyatt Family. After the Wyatt Family lost the tag team title belts, Bray Wyatt took out his anger on the other family members, but not Randy Orton. Randy Orton went on to win the Royal Rumble, guaranteeing a title shot at Wrestlemania, and Bray Wyatt picked up the championship title in the interim. There were a few promos that showed Orton still subservient to Bray Wyatt, calling the title picture into question. However, that changed when Randy Orton appeared in a video promo during a Bray Wyatt live promo. Orton was at the Wyatt Family house – a derelict building in a swamp – where the “bones of Sister Abigail” rested. Sister Abigail is the name of Wyatt’s finishing move, but also a key supernatural figure in the whole Wyatt-demon-mythos. Orton burned the house down, betraying Wyatt – Orton’s nickname is the Viper, natch – and setting up a conflict at Wrestlemania.
Here’s the thing. Up until the Wrestlemania match, the storyline was good. It was sorta silly – most feuds ignore the outside world, so it’s not a big deal – but the tension was good, the plotting and pacing were solid, and it seemed to be heading to a pay off. Unfortunately, they went a step too far at the main event. It’s not hard to understand why – Wrestlemania is the biggest event of the year for the WWE. Everything has to be bigger, better, and more theatrical. However, this is an example of the creative team clashing with the booking team. The creative team decided that Bray Wyatt would get more supernatural, while the booking team decided that low numbers on RAW since Wyatt became champion meant that he needed to drop the belt.
Obviously… these two ideas don’t mesh that well. Bray Wyatt was depicted using psychic powers to project images of worms and insects on the ring to throw off Randy Orton – and to draw upon images associated with Sister Abigail. While this gave Wyatt the upper hand over Orton temporarily, Orton managed to land his finisher and take the title from Wyatt. As Wrestlemania is the conclusion of most storylines, this should have been it. There would have been a no-fanfare rematch on one of the weekly shows, and that’s that. That didn’t happen. Instead, Wyatt challenged Randy Orton to a House of Horrors match. What is a House of Horrors match? Good question! Even the WWE didn’t know at the time they announced it.
Maybe, Like…Some Werewolves or Something?
It’s not an inherently bad idea. The genre has to keep evolving and trying new things. A House of Horrors match might have been something that all supernatural characters ended up doing in the future, if this proved successful. The biggest issue is that four weeks isn’t much time to put together a completely new idea that also needs to be practiced. There was also a roster change across the two main WWE brands. Randy Orton and Bray Wyatt were not on the same show anymore, and Randy Orton was then embroiled in a new feud against Jinder Mahal. That left little to no build-up between Orton and Wyatt for this second match. Even worse, the WWE creative team sent out clandestine surveys asking what people expected from a House of Horrors match. With no build-up or interaction between the stars, and limitations on the match based on the feud with Mahal, it was clear the creative team had no idea what to do. This left people with a weird sense of anticipation for the pay-per-view on April 30, 2017. The actual product was stranger still.
Much like tabletop roleplaying, part of the visceral enjoyment of watching wrestling comes from the live-action feel of it. This is especially true of attending a show in person. The audience paid good money to be at the pay-per-view and feel this live energy. People at home then draw on the energy of the crowd, while having a better view of the filtered-through-cameras action. Imagine being in the crowd, amped to see something you have never seen before – the first ever House of Horrors match! – and getting… a video of two dudes fighting in a poorly furnished house with bad music, bad lighting, and only the barest understanding of horror movies.
The audiences in the arena and at home were subjected to this pre-taped fight between Wyatt and Orton that lacked any sort of propulsion and offered nothing new. It was an anything-goes fight in a house. Had that been the pitch, people might have been on board with it. I mean, people slamming into walls, having lamps broken on them, smashing furniture, and having appliances dropped on them isn’t boring… except when you are expecting worms, insects, supernatural entities, and maybe even a retributive burning house. The two fought for what seemed like an eternity; Wyatt dumped a fridge on Orton, went outside to the waiting limo, said a catchphrase, and then headed to the arena where the conceit was that the bout in the house had to finish in the ring. In order to make this pre-taped event seem live, there was another bout – a good one between Seth Rollins and Samoa Joe – that got no enthusiasm from the crowd because they were so disappointed with watching a fifteen minute pre-taped segment on the jumbotron at what should have been a live event.
After that bout concluded, Wyatt made his way to the ring and began laughing, waiting to be declared the winner. Suddenly, the lights went out and Randy Orton was there behind him, uninjured. To summarize, Randy Orton suddenly beat a car to the arena and was healed, giving him powers of regeneration and teleportation. Sure, why not? The rest of the match was incredibly pedestrian, and involved Jinder Mahal and his lackeys stealing the belt from Orton and beating him up so Bray Wyatt could hit the finisher and pin him. The final conclusion to this ongoing saga was three dudes interfering to allow the bad guy to get the win. This happens all the time in normal wrestling storylines. To say that this is a bad payoff for the oddity that was this storyline is an understatement.
That said, what options did the WWE actually have? They kept amping up the magical powers of Bray Wyatt, but realized that expressing what they had built up would more or less bury the current career of Randy Orton and the rest of the competition on the show, until such time as they worked another angle to diminish the supernatural aspects. They had painted themselves into a corner with their storytelling. Let’s look at the steps to see the crucial mistakes, and how you can avoid them in your own stories:
- Forgetting the audience
- Inorganic Adherence to an Idea
- Murky Expectations
- No Endpoint
Well, We Screwed That Up. What’s Next?
The first point is honestly the most important to digest and understand as a DM. If your audience isn’t responding to your idea, do not force it. You are trying to tell stories and get emotional engagement, but that comes from your players and audience. You shouldn’t strictly adhere to their whims, but if the audience isn’t enjoying something, you need to look at what isn’t working. Your corrections need to respect what they do enjoy, the idea itself, and the method of presentation.
From a game perspective, consider a twist where players discover a beloved ally has died… off-screen from where they are, with no hope of them saving the ally. They are forced to watch the bad guy torturing and killing the ally, with no hope of interaction. This forgets that the players are the primary actors in the story. Everything the players aren’t immediately acting upon are things they can’t control – which is okay, but action drives stories. There is a time for events moving off-stage, but what amounts to a cut-scene and a commercial break is never the answer. Even a situation where they discover the bad guy torturing their ally, and the adventurers attempt to stop it, but fail, is better than having Divine-o-Vision show them the situation. If you are worried about the bad guy getting killed in the situation, then it’s a high-ranking lackey that does it (every bad guy needs an entourage). This is because the players are an active audience. Having them be passive participants in a story they are used to interacting with causes a disconnect that is difficult to overcome. The same can be said if the game is more of a passive affair – while observational games are not for me, they are for others – then suddenly presented several time-sensitive, combative decisions to be made isn’t the best option. In all things, you need to know your audience and tailor your product for them. Remember, making them angry within the context of the world is totally fine. The problem isn’t that Randy Orton won. It’s the complete ignoring of the live audience in favor of a taped segment.
Secondly, there is a time and a place for everything. Understanding when to let things go and move on is critical to providing the best experience for your players. Recently, my players were embroiled in a workers strike between foundry workers and royal guards. Rather than force my players to deal with the conflict, they wanted to pursue other things. This was a big part of the plotted story of the city they were in, but it was obvious they didn’t care about it. I could have re-worked the story and let it continue to be at the forefront no matter what they wanted to do, but they just wanted to cut their losses and let the city devolve into chaos. I’m a big believer in supporting player action – good and bad – meaning the city continues on the back burner while they sail around, fight undead monkeys, and contracting deadly, deadly viruses. Literally nothing positive would be gained from forcing them to interact with the story I had seeded. It wasn’t the right time for them to explore those seeds, from their perspective. My energy is better spent creating more content to engage them, while keeping this story on ice for when, and if, it makes sense. If other events are underway, it doesn’t make sense to push both if they are not related. If they are not related, don’t force a connection. The world needs to make sense internally. For the case of wrestling, the “world” is just that story line.
My esteemed colleague Brandes tells me there is a well-known Story Hour, called the Defenders of Daybreak. In the campaign that was being run, the DM attempted to get the players interested in a small, strange event that was taking place in the planes. The Modrons were marching across the Great Wheel, despite it not being time for this event to take place. For the obviously handsome and cultured readers who recognize this, you will know it is one of the primary conceits of one of the best adventures ever written for D&D – the Great Modron March. This adventure provides extensive guidance on how to introduce and re-introduce this adventure as the players gallivant across the planes. The march follows a set path, so the players going about their business will encounter the march in various places in the planes – but in a specific order. If the players choose to engage with the march, great. If not – spoilers – they get Orcus. The key guidance here is it’s okay if the players don’t engage with it. Present them other opportunities to care, but if they don’t – just move on. After the lackluster response to the Wrestlemania event between Orton and Wyatt, there should have been more interplay between them at the weekly shows to re-establish the conflict – and focus on the established story – to provide a secondary opportunity for the audience to care. This never occurred.
One Step Too Far
The third point is one of the more difficult items on this list. It is incredibly easy to fall victim to over-escalation.There is always a desire to make every new thing bigger and better than the last thing. You want to hit the dramatic beats so hard the police are called for you disturbing the peace. This can be problematic. When you are running a game, a big climactic encounter is often just the end for a particular leg of a story line, and not the end of the story line itself. For example, your story might be about two ancient dragons clashing over the control of a kingdom. The story line is only resolved when you deal with Red Matriarch Adset’urla, Dread Wyrm of the Fifth Temple. Before you can get to her, you first need to end the immediate threat of Cinder Knight Iro – faithful knight of the Red Matriarch – and his red dragons attacking one of the major cities. If you have red dragons attacking a city, the characters fighting them on gold dragons, and the battle taking place on dragon-back, in mid-air, and inside buildings they smash into, there are a couple things to consider. First, you probably need to consider buying a bigger scale to measure how frickin’ rad you are. Second, you need to understand that every encounter after that is going to compare to it. If this is the campaign closer, great! If it’s not, you need to look at how to continue past that point.
It’s a hard thing to do even with a lot of levers – political and emotional escalation, for example – at your disposal. Wrestling doesn’t have a lot of those levers, and has to escalate on either a character or action level. This escalation has to be considered for the performers going forward. When you introduce a character called the “Eater of Worlds,” who has transformed from a creepy home invasion dude to a mystical demon bent on world destruction, what exactly is your game plan? Either you feed into that, play against it, or end up not supporting it. No matter what, you have drastically changed the future perspective on that character, and any characters facing him. In the case of Bray Wyatt and Randy Orton, the initial level of the feud was fairly low. Wyatt had his power diminished by Orton with the destruction of Sister Abigail, and the Wyatt Family was broken up. The first point of escalation was Wyatt having powers of psychic projection. The second was Randy Orton suddenly having powers of teleportation. The third was the inclusion of more combatants. However, the company branding makes it impossible for this story to continue to move forward from this point, so the escalation was for the sake of escalation and provided nothing meaningful in the way of story elements. A way to rein this back in could have been depicting these psychic powers as manifesting only against Orton because of his action, and possibly establishing that when people betray Wyatt they face the wrath of the demon inside of him – which otherwise has issues manifesting. This would have been a more personal form of escalation, and left a situation where Wyatt comes off as a man not to be trifled with and also making Orton come off as fearless and strong. It’s a win/win.
What to Expect, When You’re Expecting
Fourth on the list is the problems of not having clearly defined expectations. If you aren’t sure what you want the outcome or impact to be, just don’t do it. If you aren’t sure how to present something, and you are not comfortable in your level of improvisational skills, just don’t do it. That doesn’t mean don’t take risks. If you want to have a House of Horrors match, no problem. You just need to know what that actually looks like. What are you hoping to achieve with this match, what are you hoping the outcome will be, and what are you hoping the impact will be? These are all related, yet separate, items. Each impacts the other, and you only get to the later items if you have adequately defined the previous items. You can’t have a vague notion and implement it with any level of success. When planning and preparation are required, you have to have incredibly clear expectations laid out.
In the case of the House of Horrors, consider what has already been established. The Wyatt family lived in a swamp. The images that Bray Wyatt was able psychically project were of maggots, worms, flies, and buzzards. The Wyatt Family house was burned to the ground, and the bones of Sister Abigail – whose importance has never been firmly defined – were destroyed. Randy Orton’s nickname is the Viper, and there has been snake imagery associated with him. Further, Wyatt’s whole intro gimmick is walking through the swamp with a spooky lantern and the audience light their phones to simulate fireflies. There is a lot of strong, iconic imagery here to draw from. This imagery should have been first and foremost in any creative decisions for building a House of Horrors. Had the idea had more time to percolate, we could have received a match that took place in the ruins of the Wyatt Family home, or had a changing in-ring cage or room that was altered as the match went on to simulate the established themes.
It’s not surprising the fan expectations of the match were much different than what was received. The creative vision didn’t know what it was doing – as is evident by the clandestine survey they sent out asking what people were expecting. Had the creative team been paying attention to the previous character work and the fan responses, they would have had an easier time establishing what exactly “horror” means in this storyline. Instead there was seemingly a collective shrug and a chorus of, “I dunno, doll heads are creepy, right?” Before taking any action with a story, it is important that you know what you are trying to achieve. If you don’t know what you want to do, how can you ever get there?
While the Getting’s Good
Finally, you need to have an exit strategy. This doesn’t mean establishing a specific outcome. Multiple possible outcomes are equally as good – if not better. Every detail doesn’t need to be fleshed out, but you need a story outline in place to track against. Improvisational game running isn’t on trial here, either. Winging it is a totally valid style of storytelling, but without at least a rough understanding of what you are winging, you are going to have a bad time. I mean, “they are going to fight the Onyx Panther Queen in her Lair of Wonderment” is a great setup, but sticking the landing is the most important part of crafting the story. That landing in this case could be a win, lose, or draw. It doesn’t need to be scripted, just given adequate thought. Do the players get to appoint a new Onyx Panther Queen, after she has been deposed? Does her kingdom cede to the Cerulean Wyvern Prince? Is death by her volcano lair on the table? These sorts of things. Fighting the Onyx Panther Queen to then…continue fighting the Onyx Panther Queen to then…just walk away because the Council of Rusting Worms interferes. The Onyx Panther Queen is still around, but just…isn’t mentioned again?
Introducing new threats without ever adequately resolving the old threats isn’t a strategy. It’s growing tired of the current story you are telling and being uncertain how to end it. Wanting to move on to new stories that excite you is perfectly natural as a DM. You want to flex your creative muscle and have that rush of endorphins as players get wowed by the thrill of a new tale. Players that might have slowly tuned out the current adventure will snap back and all will be right with the world. Unfortunately, starting a new story isn’t a cure-all, it’s a placebo. Medicine has to run its course to work, and that’s exactly what following through and finishing a story is. Players get a sense of finality and accomplishment, and they are willing to go into the next adventure with this experience under their belts. Never allowing them closure just because you are excited about your Tiger Vampire Coven isn’t doing you or your players any favors in the long run. That’s Council of Rusting Worms stuff. You need to plan for the completion of your story, and stick to it. I cannot stress this point enough. I firmly believe this is one of the most important points for any storyteller to keep in mind.
Don’t get it twisted, these aren’t outlandish truth bombs I am dropping. These are all fundamental parts of storytelling and game-running. However, these are the points often lost in the excitement for an idea. When you have a high level of enthusiasm for a particular story, you want everyone to like it, and to share it as soon as possible. The key is to find the balance between that exuberance and story guideposts. The goal is always to provide the best product possible, and create something memorable. This doesn’t always work out. When it doesn’t, take the opportunity to learn from it and ensure it doesn’t happen that way again. You pick yourself up, don’t have a second House of Horrors match without doing a lot of iterative design, and move forward with your head held high. Hopefully, the lessons learned will make the next one all the better.