Sunday, November 21, 2021

Eric Bischoff's SARSA method - for gaming


Eric Bischoff is a television producer and wrestling announcer who worked for a couple of wrestling organizations until ending up doing similar work for Ted Turners WCW promotion in the early 90's. He eventually caught Ted Turner's attention, and was named CEO of WCW over many more seasoned candidates. This happened for a variety of reasons, but the main one was Turner's fondness for Bischoff's "gumption." Eric was coming in with, at the time, off the wall ideas, including putting WCW's new television show on opposite Vince McMahon's WWE (at the time the WWF). This was a batshit move, as WCW had not turned a profit for years. It was a vanity project of Ted's, but WWE was the 800 lb. gorilla in the room.

It as not long before the profits started coming in. Eric's ideas were new in wrestling, a format that still had its feet in an old school mindset that shouted out that change was bad for the industry. Besides the Monday night move, he masterminded the New World Order storyline and Hulk Hogan's shocking "heel" (bad guy) turn. The attention from this shot the ratings up and WCW, the red headed step child of major wrestling organizations, at one point beat WWE in rating for 83 consecutive weeks. So much pressure was put on WWE that story has it Vince McMahon had the water coolers removed from the Titan Sports offices for budgetary reasons. 

I would never say I was ever a fanatic wrestling fan. I watched a couple years in the 80's, and was a huge Hulk Hogan mark. Then I showed little interest until the mid 90's, when Bischoff's moves were getting people talking. This late 90's "Monday Night Wars" period is really the only era I'm still a big fan of. I don't watch much wrestling these days, but I listen to several podcasts by personalities from the time period. Bischoff, Jim Ross, Bruce Prichard, Stone Cold. And years ago I read a few biographies, including Bischoff's Controversy Creates Cash.

In one part of the book Eric talks about the SARSA method, his outline for putting together wrestling angles and storylines. 

“As I felt more and more comfortable and especially in ’96 when I got a lot more involved and around the same time, I focused on a formula that was born out of a newspaper article that I read, ”Bischoff said. “Dick Ebersol was being interviewed about what he was going to do to improve audiences at these Summer Olympics and one of the things I took away was the formula. 

“Ebersol spoke about making sure that you don’t just cover the sport, but that we tell the story, bringing reality to it, creating anticipation in all Olympic sports. I thought, “Well wow, a lot of that applies to what I do. And I had to tweak that formula a little bit and I did and I found a formula that I called 100,000 times “SARSA”. the acronym: Story, Anticipation Reality, Surprise and Action, and throughout my career to varying degrees, certainly in WCW to a large extent because I was in control of my own destiny there for a long time, in TNA once I really started to get involved in booking at all levels then tried to make it in WWE I just wasn’t around long enough to be successful but I always believed that no matter what, I don’t care how the fight changes, how audiences change, how many streaming platforms are coming in, how many people are watching their shit on their phones, I don’t care record because at the heart of why people watch, what they watch on any device they go to watch it on is “history, anticipation, reality, surprise, action.” If you can combine these elements into any content on any platform, regardless of audience generation, you are likely to be very successful. “

He would sit down with a legal pad and jot down notes according to his SARSA method. You can imagine how it works for wrestling plots, but suffice to say some years ago I loosely adopted Eric's interesting method for my RPG's. 

Its not hard and fast. Nor does it need to be done in any order. But this helped me as dedaces past I would sort of brainstorm possibilities for the coming game (on a walk, at the gym, at work during boring moments, etc), take a note linearly here and there ("if the characters do this then this might happen," "these NPC's might be encountered at the tavern and this is some things that might happen depending on PC actions," "characters will get access to a partial dungeon map" etc). But finding a more organized method to help me organize these thoughts and notes better, more concise, has helped immensely. Especially since thinking about game specifics on the job or anywhere else has diminished for me in recent years. So if I only take notes on a game while having some beverages and a little smoke with some tunes on, then this is a way to get them down in a more helpful manner.


 STORY - No, not really storygaming with a well written out plot. In the case of RPG's its the overall box within which your campaign or several game arc will take place in. If your setting will be The City State of The Invincible Overlord, where the characters will spend several games exploring the shops and markets at will for the entire group of scenarios, well, there is your story. In my recent story arc the setting was an area near the frontier of the kingdom, a far flung town where chicken farmers produce the best chickens in the kingdom of Tanmoor. The people are well off, but are a kind of grim folk, who I portray with East London accents and say "Bloody" a lot. Like every other word. There is a crypt of a bandit from 200 years ago and some of his men whom the folk of the town are descended from, and of course one or two other locations they might want to look into. An arc like this, just part of an overall campaign, starts with just the seed of an idea (a crypt crawl) and expands. Hey lets put it in the east most part of the kingdom. Lets have a rooster demon involved in there somewhere. And lets have the town in the area be chicken farmers who say "bloody" a lot. That seed of an idea came from the John Cooper Clark poem "Evidently Chickentown." Here it is in part:


The bloody view is bloody vile

For bloody miles and bloody miles

The bloody babies bloody cry

The bloody flowers bloody die

The bloody food is bloody muck

The bloody drains are bloody fucked

The colour scheme is bloody brown

Everywhere in chicken town

And that's the seed of the story. And more and more bits to add will come to mind the more you let it simmer. In the last town before Chickentown I had the characters overhear some little girls jump rope and sing lines from the poem to give characters a heads up that unpleasant people may lay ahead. This is all flavor and outline, and the characters will be the ones that make it an actual story with their actions. So in a nutshell you just put together possibilities hung on the skeleton of a story that the characters will fill in for you. Of course, if you like to storygame then I don't judge. It fits here under SARSA.

ACTION - Action is action. Role-play is fine, but action scenes are the meat and potatoes of it all to me. Just enough to please both the combat wonks and the role players. My basic notion is for two major action pieces to occur in every three hour session. At least one of them should be a true combat that involves all or at least most of the characters. But one of the action pieces could be a chase, where various rolls are involved (how fast you are moving, jumping over fences, jumping from roof top to roof top). Any scene that might involve climbing steep surfaces, avoiding hazards, swinging from ropes etc. Anything that has an element of danger and requires rolls be made to fail or succeed. In a game like Call of Cthulhu, or classic Traveller, where death comes easy and you need to have less combat than in D&D, various action ideas that don't have to involve bloodshed can be injected. Perfect for CoC really, especially if you run it a bit pulpy. There are lots of dangers in the world that don't involve guns or tentacles. So in SARSA you just keep in mind that static role-play is fine, but factor in lots of dice rolls and non-combat danger or at least suspense. Fit them in as much as you can. And of course PC's might find some chances for rolls on their own. Thieves pickpocketing at the local market is for sure a chance at multiple actions instances. So jot possibilities down under the "action" column ("players might face a fencing master if they get caught cutting his purse," "there might be lots of nobility at the market today so bigger stakes...but more guards," "there is a wizard convention in town so a chance at magic items, and possible wrath of a magic user, is possible tonight" etc).

 REALITY - Yeah yeah, it ain't real life. But verisimilitude is what to strive for; the reality in context of the setting you are presenting. But trying to keep a mind on basic physics helps make the times when reality is bent stand out more. For instance I like to have things as "normal" as possible, real-world adjacent, so that when big spells go off or I inject something whimsical (silly?) it stands out. My setting is a basic D&D world, fairly mid-magic, but I grew up on things like Judges Guild and Arduin. I just have to throw in batshit monsters or situations based on that experience. But its a sometimes thing. Most of the time my reality is kobolds, orcs, giants, big bugs. That's the reality for my players. But watch out when I've been looking at my old third party materials. The players may briefly be swept out of their reality by encountering Tegel Manor (for 5th ed!), or perhaps a merchant for the pop-up store of The Multiverse Trading Company. Or maybe a dungeon of the Mythic Underworld variety, where the laws of nature don't always apply. But everyday life should be held to the laws of physics we know (up is not down, most animals do not talk, nothing is free, etc). So in this column you jot down parts you want to have a full hold on everyday reality, and the things that might vary from those normal physical laws. And how you will bring that down to reality eventually.

SURPRISE - Twists, turns. Will there be any? Can and old enemy show up in this game? Maybe something the PC's thought of in a certain way will be changed up. Maybe a friend will turn out to be a traitor. Any ideas that might make characters do a double take can go here. 

 ANTICIPATION - I find this very important. Setting things up for the players to look forward to, and how that thing might pan out, or NOT pan out, can go here. Classically in D&D treasure is that thing they look forward to besides the monster combat and exploration. Levelling up is another basic anticipation. But maybe you have other ideas that can set up anticipation. Possibility of promotion from the queen and all the perks what come with? A surprise romantic possibility that will be put on a slow burn (true role players love that). An opportunity for revenge might be on the horizon? But if you do boil it down to treasure, a hint at what might await can get player juices flowing. But also unknown foes. PC's might know an armed force awaits them, but how many? Don't let them know unless they have some scouting tactics. Will this be an easy fight or a party-killer? And not everything has to be a mystery. Knowing a powerful force is ahead that they cannot avoid. That stirs it up. Some fights are over the PC's head, and often they can overcome such. Aid coming in at the last moment can be jotted down in the "surprise" column. Its that real possibility of death that has always been key to anticipation in games. Find ways to keep reminding them. Jot it all down in this column. 

Again, this is just an outline of one method for organizing possibilities you are thinking of that might normally just bounce around in your head, maybe forgotten by game day. Outside of your maps and nuts and bolts notes on dungeon contents and other important adventure notes, SARSA or something like it is a great way to set up a one page set of organized notes to create flavor and list the "mights" and the "maybes." 



  1. Nice. I might have to borrow this for my Star Wars game. It's been a bit too constrained and mission focused, as I'm still feeling my way around the old WEG d6 system and want to keep things simple until I get a better grasp of it. This will help me bring a bit more life to the Star Wars galaxy when I play it.

    Also, did you ever see Bischoff's TED Talk on media? Pretty interesting.

  2. No but I'll check it out. For a year or so I've been listening to 83 Weeks podcast where you get a LOT of Bisch haha. But he's an interesting cat.