Let’s get ready to rumble, folks! But before we do, let’s take a closer look at Upper Hand, a TTRPG system about wrestling.
I caught wind of this game on Twitter. I began following the creative team and company that produced this unique system. After discussing the game and concept, I was privileged with the opportunity to purchase a prerelease copy. For that, I am very grateful. This is a fresh, interesting, and creative game.
Upper Hand widens the scope of tabletop role-playing games by diving into a unique setting, the world of pro wrestling. Along with combat mechanics for a wrestling match, this system also dives into the backstage world of the industry. You play the role of a wrestler and promoter. Players set up matches before they step into the ring. Essentially making this a fleshed-out system for both combat and non-combat scenarios.
It’s the dual system for gameplay that really caught my eye. This game isn’t just about fighting, though it is of course the backbone of the system. It is a game about pro wrestling, after all. However, a TTRPG can’t just be about combat. A system like that would be missing something important, the RPG! And approaching something so contemporary and intrinsic to a pop culture phenomenon is no small task, but Upper Hand manages to gamify promoting and booking wrestling matches in a fun and exciting way.
How does this game work?
The first half of the book details the rules for a wrestling match. The mechanics employ 10-sided dice, cards, and tokens for tracking health. The “wrestler cards” are distinctive to the game. In other words, you cannot use an ordinary deck of playing cards; a common mechanic found in some TTRPG systems. These card’s design work specifically for the Upper Hand system.
As you read through the combat instructions, it becomes apparent that the creators, Zachariah Van Sluyters and Mark Bell, know and love wrestling. This is not a half-fast attempt to capitalize on the established market of wrestling fans. Oh no, these guys know their stuff, and they clearly love the world of professional wrestling.
Player Wrestlers (PW) are built through archetypal wrestler ideals such as the “Underdog” and “Death Match King”. Though the mechanics vary drastically, you can look at these “Wrestling Styles” like the character classes in games like Dungeons & Dragons and Pathfinder. Each style provides specific abilities and weaknesses as well as a role-playing identity. Playing an “Underdog” gives you access to the special move “Reversal”, but you also start out with some disadvantages when dealing with the “KO” stage of a fight.
I’m sure it’s not a surprise that a TTRPG fashioned after pro wrestling would provide a class system styled after popular archetypes. If you are even marginally familiar with the wrestling world, you know how monolithic these personas can be. However, this game provides 14 “Wrestling Styles”!
The exceptionally large number of “Wrestling Styles” demonstrates how Van Sluyters and Bell thoroughly understand the subject. To define and thoroughly dissect the distinctive pro wrestling archetypes in order to identify specific characteristics convertible to game mechanics, they must possess a deep and complete understanding of wrestling culture. The sheer number of wrestling styles in Upper Hand proves the creator’s dedication to the subject and their craft.
And that’s just the first step in wrestler creation!
As you move further through the book, you’re shown how to create “Signature Moves”. The style and flair of the move are up to the players, but the game provides mechanics of the move’s effect. Again, we see a large list of thematically appropriate effects a player can choose from when building their wrestler.
The level of detail provided by Van Sluyters and Bell not only denotes their deep understanding of the industry and fundamental TTRPG mechanics but also offers players a deeply immersive path through the world of pro wrestling.
Booking a Fight
Every fan knows that WWE, WWF, and even luchador matches are about more than getting into the ring; they’re also about showmanship. Storylines develop and evolve over the course of years. Characters with distinctive personalities and motivations wow audiences with their audacity and charisma. How could you make a tabletop role-playing game about wrestling and not include this theatrical and exaggerated aspect of the wrestling world? Obviously, you can’t, and the creators seem to agree.
The second half of the book centers around developing a “show” and a wrestling league. The players act as both wrestlers and promoters. They design matches that make for better shows. Upper Hand also provides a point system that rewards actions that exemplify persona and character. Acting as an over-the-top wrestler gives you in-game advantages. The goal is to make a good show with the other players, so showmanship and ostentatious behavior get rewarded.
Everyone’s the GM
Upper Hand is a GM-less game, but, in some ways, every player at the table is the GM. It’s a unique system that offers every player the opportunity to help develop and craft the story. The players actively work together to promote shows, that’s a huge part of the game. They don’t work against each other despite this being a game about strong-arming your opponent until they’re pinned to the ground. Combat does occur between player wrestlers as well as between PW and NPW (Nonplayer Wrestlers), but the goal of the game is to develop a storyline and put on a good show.
Unless you are a dedicated fan of wrestling, you might not realize why an elevated focus on writing must be critical to a game like Upper Hand. “Story” remains an inseparable and intrinsic part of the industry. Van Sluyters and Bell obviously took this into consideration when crafting the “promoter” portion of the game. Players individually write back-stories and character personalities when they fashion their wrestlers, but together and through gameplay they write a narrative.
Who is this TTRPG for?
This may be an obvious answer to the above question, but, wrestling fans. Upper Hand belongs to a niche market. That being said, the system offers interesting, fun, and unique mechanics. Anyone truly identifying as a TTRPG enthusiast would enjoy the gameplay. If a friend or family member wants to try it out but doesn’t know a damn thing about professional wrestling, they’ll have a good time. It’s a solid game with clever mechanics and effective pacing.
But let’s be real; this game is for wrestling aficionados. That’s who’s going to get the most out of Upper Hand, and that’s okay. Over the course of the last six months, I’ve met a surprisingly large number of TTRPG buffs who also love professional wrestling. The crossover and market exist. This game knows its audience and is not afraid to be all about that niche.
I wouldn’t call myself an avid fan of professional wrestling. I went through a phase once or twice when I was younger. A friend of mine was obsessed with the sport in high school and ended up getting me hooked for a while, but over the years my interest slowly faded. This game has inspired me to take another look at the drama of the ring. I can’t honestly say that I’ll be catching every match, but Upper Hand has piqued my curiosity again.
Overall, as a TTRPG system, the game is solid. If you’re a wrestling fan who also likes to roll dice and build characters, buy this game today. You won’t find a better role-playing game for your interests. This is for you!
Why it works!
My favorite aspect of Upper Hand is unquestionably how and why Van Sluyters and Bell remove the GM from their game. For me, tabletop role-playing games have always been an experiment in collaborative writing. I have DM’d a Dungeons & Dragons game for years. My approach has been to write the world and let the players write the story. It’s about crafting an interesting narrative. But in so many games, that gets forgotten. Even in D&D, it’s easy for a Dungeon Master to railroad his players into a storyline strictly of their own design.
Van Sluyters and Bell crafted a game that actively forces all the players to share the writer’s seat. It’s built into the system. They can’t avoid it, and the process is fun. Upper Hand makes collaborative writing and storytelling the goal and a game. I look forward to seeing what else this creative team and their company, Axiom Games LLC, will release in the future. And you better believe this company is going to have a future.
If you’re interested in picking up Upper Hand as always, I’ll be placing the link below.
Until next time, keep off the ropes and never lose the upper hand.