Competition versus story-telling

I can’t say that I’ve ever really spent a lot of time reading 40K related forums but in the last month I have been reading quite a few and it is interesting to see the gulf there is in the hobby between “competitive” players and “fun” players.

Quite a few, or perhaps a vocal minority, of 40K gamers appear to play the game purely as a social form of interaction with a highly competitive game as its focus. For these people the fluff and sometimes even the models are secondary to the game itself and what drives them is the competition and the desire to not only win but also, in many cases but not all, to win against the best competition they can find. This group is often characterised by bloggers and gamers such as Stelek from the Yes The Truth Hurts blog.

At the other end of this gaming spectrum are people that are driven more by the hobby aspects or the background and “fluff” of the game. The folks behind the popular Bell of Lost Souls website are a good example of this type of gamer but I would actually think that most people who are less interested in competitive side of the game are also less likely to go online to discuss the game.

As you would expect from communities formed on the Internet these two groups of people both seem to think that the other is dooming the hobby either by filling it with cut-throat players who aren’t interested in the hobby or by crowding out all of the good players at tournaments and “dumbing down” the level of players to the point where no-one will want to play the game.

Now I think that I can say, without fear of contradiction, that I am not a competitive gamer. I’m really not that good at building army lists and I tend to get all caught up with themes for my forces or running an army I think will be fun. Not a lot of these are very effective and if I was ever to track my win-loss record it would probably be quite dismal.

I also know that I am not a competitive gamer because when I see 40K army lists posted by people who are focusing on winning I am often bored to tears by them. They lack the essential character that I look for in a force. This doesn’t mean that they are bad army lists just that they don’t fit my style of play or deliver the type of narrative in a game that I want to see.

This was really brought into focus for me when reading a battle report posted on 40K Online by the winner of the Pax East 40K tournament. His army list was not “competitive” to my eyes and he won in the end because his opponent destroyed one of his vehicles and in the resulting explosion killed two of his own units (both down to a single model) giving up two Kill Points and the game.

What struck me about this was how much of a great story he was left with and how it is those sorts of moments that really make me happy as a gamer. The win is in itself secondary to the wonderful narrative of the game and the story of Abaddon destroying a Razorback and having it be a pyrrhic victory. Rending the vehicle asunder but causing his own downfall at the same time.

That is the type of game I want to play and in the end the winning or losing isn’t the critical factor but whether I enjoy myself and whether I have a good story to recount. Ultimately I want the game to provide me with an anecdote and some good memories.

This though is a personal preference and there is nothing wrong with someone who wants to get their enjoyment and their narrative elements from the challenge and achievement of winning a game. And yet this divide seems to cause debates, issues and ill-feelings. There are several factors at work that are, I think, causing this to be an issue.

Fingers must first be pointed at the Internet. As great as the Internet is at connecting people it is notoriously bad at allowing people to communicate. It is quite easy for people to misinterpret comments, tone, intent and this tends to create debate and arguments that quickly spiral into pointlessness. I once had to correct Stelek on my intention of the use of the word “fun” in a reference to army lists. It is easy to misinterpret and misunderstand and I often think that the Net isn’t useful for any sort of debate. So clearly any issue that can be contentious in real-world terms can quickly spiral out of control online.

Not that this is really difficult mind you. Message boards are notorious for having debate quickly devolve to the level of primary school taunting. Online communication in general is often harsher, more blunt and more caustic than face-to-face communication ever is.

Finally I think that even if you can intellectually accept that people simply get a different type of reward from a different type of game it can often create very emotional reactions in games when you realise that your opponent is a much different type of gamer than you. You want to have a fun game and if the person across the table from you is going to be going about the game at cross-purposes to you then you are probably not going to enjoy the game. No matter what our desired path to a rewarding game is, the fact remains that we engage in these games for fun and relaxation and anything that jeopardizes that can cause a lot of tension.

I tend not to play “competitive” gamers. I don’t like the play style, I don’t like the armies and I don’t like getting my ass handed to me by someone whose only aim is to hand someone’s ass to them. I have been lucky in that I haven’t had a lot of problem finding like-minded gamers. I also tend not to go to tournaments unless I know that they are “fun” events or that attendees are not going to mind playing against a fluff gamer like myself. Nothing would suck more than to travel to an event looking for a fine-tuned competitive opponent to test yourself against and find yourself playing against the guy whose Ork army has a lot of minis that are “fun”.

I doubt that this issue will really ever be resolved. Not only because many people online like nothing more than to argue and complain about something or other but also because there is always going to be the conflict of expectations between gamers who have such varying expectations of their games. And its not as if any of this debate and verbiage back and forth is going to change anything. I can’t ever recall seeing an online debate result in someone changing their mind and I also can’t see anyone suddenly coming to the conclusion that their personal style of gameplay is wrong.

And while I might not ever want to use an army list that I see posted on Yes The Truth Hurts (and I’m sure the readers there would rather take up Bridge than play any of my lists) I always find it interesting to read the discussions and debates of more competitive players. Especially writers who back up their thoughts with some informed opinions. While I might not want to play an army list that has five identical min/max Troop choices its always interesting to read about why the author picks them, what influence and role they have in the game and how to create more effective lists.

Even though I play for fun I still like winning once in a while and even if I am not going to play purely competitive lists there is always good advice to read and take advantage of so I can build better armies. Not great armies mind you because I am always a sucker for useless things like Shokk Attack Guns, Looted Wagons and Grotz.