Background, Beardiness, and The Way We Play...

A recent event I moderated touched off anew the conflicting approaches players take to the hobby of miniatures wargaming. Though there are gradations in every player, most fall to either the 'competitive' side or the 'simulation/storytelling' side. It is worth knowing which way you prefer to play--as very few organized events cater well to both.

This divide in approach is by no means limited to the hobby, of course. It may go by other names depending on the framing event, but virtually anything with a win/lose result sees it: in sports, there is the constant tension between 'winning at all costs' and 'playing with standards,' for example. Whatever the venue, it boils down to whether the participant •most• values 'experience'--the enjoyment gained from actual play--or 'outcome'--the satisfaction derived from triumphing.

Sportsmanship--how a participant comports themselves--is an element of this...but especially as it pertains to the hobby, is something apart, as well, so I will address it independently.

The local event was a tournament--which by it's definition is more attractive to 'outcome' oriented players, as opposed to story- or simulation-driven events like megabattles or campaigns--but which clearly and in advance advertised that it was going to break a few rules in the 'competitive balance' area usually so necessary to such outcome-oriented events. In this case, participants were offered the opportunity to bring units more powerful than standard army composition allowed--but with the caveat that such units might face in-scenario handicaps which would re-level the playing field. The motive was not hidden from participants: the sponsoring venue was new to the hobby, and wished their customers to be able to pick up starter games or starter army boxes and put together a playing force from whatever it's contents were, while also offering veteran players a reason to come familiarize themselves with the new store by picking up a needed unit and knowing they could immediately turn around and use it.

The whole thing was presented from the start as a variation on the familiar tourney scene, the attraction being the challenge of overcoming new threats under new mission conditions. The problem arose amongst players concerned that such powerful units would prevent them from winning. In other words--none of the event's particular appeals, which were 'experience' enhancing, offset the dismay felt by 'outcome' focused hobbyists that their desires would not be satisfied.

The back-and-forth became more heated than it should have, however, because some of the hobbyists either did not know or had not come to terms themselves with which kind of way they preferred to play.

There is not one approach necessarily better than the other, and certainly there is no 'right' or 'wrong.' That is one of the reasons the question of sportsmanship must be addressed separately: there is a tendency to categorize the theme/background/story players as better sports, as hobbyists who 'get it,' and the truth is that there can be 'background bullies' or 'history snobs' who are just as offensive presences in story-based events as 'win-at-any-cost' types can be competitively...and there can be masterfully-proficient tabletop tacticians who are as gracious and fun-to-play as they school you in a competitive tournament as any story-telling opponent can be in a campaign. The whole question of what kind of person you are as a gamer is independent of what way you play.

The danger for an 'outcome' emphasizing hobbyist, of course--as in any competitive pursuit--is that his satisfaction •must• come at the expense of his opponent. One who appreciates the 'experience' may well find moments of enjoyment and satisfaction in the hobby in loss--even in multiple losses--but the further toward the 'outcome' side of the scale a hobbyist veers, the more difficult it can be to be gracious in defeat (and the more difficult it can be to control one's exultance in victory). Asshatdom is only a step away for this gamer (yet another reason recognizing whether this is the way you play is valuable--because who wants to be an asshat if it can be helped, really).

Hobby leader Games Workshop struggled mightily with this issue as their self-run Grand Tournament circuit grew increasingly significant in the late 90s/early 00s. They had always emphasized that the 'non-tabletop result' aspects of their hobby (modeling and painting, composing to the established background, having fun playing) were as important as the outcome of any game...but hadn't worked out with complete satisfaction how to score these more experience-based aspects in a tournament setting. Worse, they kept whatever solutions they had come up with secret. Army Composition scores especially became controversial--pointedly, when a GW official would have a comment become public like the infamous 'perfect space marine army comp is 100 tactical marines on foot' remark--a composition the then-current V3 Codex would not even allow if it •had• been desirable, or thematic, or made sense. Very few hobbyists left GTs of that era happy; experience-based players weren't getting much and stayed away in droves and the outcome-based majority couldn't all win against each other. Fortunately, independent hobbyists recognized the system's failings and undertook to fix them by example, running their own, better events (the Astronomi-con circuit at being the pioneers and still the best)--and GW, to their credit, recognized and integrated many such fixes in their own GT and Rogue Trader Tournament packages first, then began integrating the independent events themselves under their official GT Circuit banner in North America (the current roster is viewable at GW's website and will climax in summer 2011 with winners from all the qualifiers meeting under GW's aegis in Las Vegas for a grand showdown).

But--again to GW's credit--while fine-tuning this tournament circuit to fairly and transparently reflect the breadth of the hobby in scoring, making the tourneys much friendlier to the 'experience' oriented hobbyist, they've further legitimized the 'outcome' element of the hobby community through the creation of the Ard Boyz Tournaments--which are exclusively settled on tabletop results, a 'generalship' equivalent to their Golden Daemon painting championships.

Of course GTs, company-run or independent, are still ultimately competitions, so the competitive player should always feel at home there; and there will continue to be story-emphasis events like campaigns, specific-battle recreations and multiplayer megabattles (including official events which incorporate all three, such as the Apocalypse 'Lucky 13s') for those sorts of hobbyists, as well. Historical miniatures wargamers will find their hobby equally provides broad-spectrum events, from pure recreations/simulations to cross-era competitive tournaments (think yourself a real general--try succeeding against the cannons of medieval Burgundians with your Egyptian charioteers!).

The trick these days isn't lack of events catering to the way a hobbyist plays--it is the hobbyist himself knowing his preference, so he can either gear his available hobby time to sympatico events...or, hopefully, broaden his hobby experience by occasionally tackling an event of a different kind. There is nothing wrong with sticking to what you prefer (though trying to prod event sponsors and/or moderators into turning a given event into something it is not is unwelcome--go make the considerable uncompensated commitment of time, effort and expertise to be the moderator yourself if you feel strongly enough about it to try hijacking someone else's work); it simply means fewer opportunities to play than if your hobby tastes were broader. A fair-minded, 'challenge-me' approach will go far toward insuring you find something to enjoy in any given game, even against a really hard army fielded by an extremely competitive player, or in a background-soaked campaign against someone who knows every fact from every edition of his army's codex (and probably yours).

And there •are• armies out there which are completely legal in composition which are totally geared to maximize tabletop effect. This is simply because some concession must always be given to background in miniatures wargaming--as opposed to abstract 'wargames' such as chess. It is a truth of the hobby that there are units worth more than their points cost (and units worth less) and the 'outcome' based player is going to identify the armies with the most of these and load his composition with them as heavily as possible. This is one of the two ways I have always found best for a player to estimate where he is on the sliding 'experience vs outcome' scale: evaluate every unit in the army you take to a tournament for whether their inclusion is motivated by the models' coolness/your happiness with their painting/how well they fit your force's historical composition/how integral they are to your theme--•or• for how effective they are. Some, fortuitously, will be both...but if you are honest with yourself about why they are there, you can learn quite a bit about the way you play (for the other easiest way, see 'Sportmanship scoring,' below).

I have always found it fairly easy to identify an army composed for as much tabletop effect as possible--and have gotten better at it as I've broadened my hobby experience. Certainly it began as an artifact of competing in over a decades' worth of tourneys and especially GTs: when the GW GT circuit was at it's height in the early 00s, there were a handful of players who traveled to every one (and there were then more than a half-dozen a year) with the hardest possible armies they could compose, their sole goal winning--and remember, in those days, the non-tabletop scores (sportsmanship, army composition and painting) were VERY ancillary and totally •non-transparent•. By sheer circumstance I wound up pitted, in round one of a Dallas GT, against one of the winningest, hardest, most competitive players on the circuit fielding what was then considered among the nastiest possible army builds--the Eldar 'jedi council'--and (largely through a scenario friendly to the numerous Terminators I had brought--and his inability to deal with them since 'no one brought Terminators to a GT'-- and very lucky dice) I defeated him soundly. This unfortunately thrust me up onto the very top tables for the ensuing rounds, where I had to endure the era's other nasty builds (the dark eldar 'all-skimmer/all-dark lance' pt boat army, the 'get first turn and eat you before you move' V3 Blood Angels army and the just-released multi-HQ Black Templars army)--and players who made no pretense about being there for any reason other than winning. One even casually admitted how much he had paid someone else to paint his army so he could max those points. This was the least-fun tournament experience I ever had: no amount of (temporary) excitement at being on the high tables was worth the complete disregard these players had for theme, background or storytelling. I honed my 'army-built-to-win' radar, already reasonably sharp from years of other cons, to a razor edge that weekend and have learned a great deal about the kind of hobbyist I do not want be since (as GW has learned a lot about the kind of events they do not want to sponsor in the intervening years as well, through the example of independent tourneys like Astro or the local Lone Wolf, at which such narrowly-focused gamers and armies would now be very challenged).

It is this ability to 'build to power' that most often accentuates the difference between playing approaches--and leads to one of the hobby's least-attractive habits: the accusation of 'cheesiness' or 'beardiness.' Whining or complaining about another power build isn't an attractive character trait, any more than the building of such armies is (even if you are fairly accurate at identifying such builds). Having events specifically focused on building and playing with such monster compositions, like the Ard Boyz, is a partial solution...but there should be a mechanism for addressing what they are within the broader GT circuit, as well, •if• such events are--as was the event I moderated which began this discussion--intended to appeal to hobbyists all across the broad 'experience-versus-outcome' scale.

One solution is a weighted Army Composition score--such as Astronomi-con's--which imposes minor but increasing scoring penalties as players load their force composition with over-effective choices. So long as these penalties are transparent in advance--again, as Astro's are--allowing a player to build a non-penalized army, they can be effective even though they •are• guilty of forcibly altering a legal army through external arbitration, and require the moderators to make advance decisions about just which units are offensive (something not every hobbyist always agrees upon). To return to the example of the local event, some such notification of which units would be penalized and how was a thing certain of the 'outcome' oriented players wanted from me in advance, if they were to participate.

I prefer to let the players themselves 'level' such matters. This is where Sportsmanship specifically enters this discussion as it relates to our hobby, because many of our events (including most in the GT Circuit) score for it. We differ in this way markedly from other competitive events: most athletic competitions have codes of conduct which players can be looked-down-upon (or even expelled from the sport) for regularly violating--but there are no points added to or subtracted from final scores for instances of either onfield chivalry or jackassery. Chess federations do not invalidate a player's win if he gloats over the swiftness of his successful gambit after. Sportsmanship scoring in GW events stems from the company's insistence from the start that having fun--including making efforts to insure that your opponent has fun--is an essential component of the hobby. I agree with it philosophically, always have--even when what exactly a player was scoring with his Sportsmanship ballot wasn't always clear. From my perspective, so long as an army was legal under a given rules set's composition restrictions, •any• scoring of it should be the province of those who actually faced it in-game--so considering it's adherence to established background or history or theme and relative imbalance toward over-the-top unit inclusion should be considered in the Sportsmanship score. More than simply rebellion at the incomprehensible (and never-revealed) standards imposed by GW from beyond in assessing Army Composition (I lost it with this system utterly one year when a GT awarded Best Comp to a Chaos Space Marine army consisting of three Heavy Support Havoc Squads, a Great Unclean One HQ...and six Troops choices of Cultists with banners giving them Leadership check rerolls, an army which literally sat in a square of hundreds of Cultists with the Havoc heavy weapons firing from within every game--and which, as a 'Chaos Space Marine' army consisted of fifteen actual CSMs; but I digress...), observing armies which are not fun to play against and considering such a build in Sportsmanship scores is something I view as legitimate, have always articulated in rules sets for events I moderate...and which GW adopted eventually adopted in their GT rules packs.

It can be the most telling external analysis to a hobbyist of how they really play, as well: when Sportsmanship scores include assessments by opponents of a player's army build, and a consistent pattern develops, the player may have to come to terms with how important 'winning' really is to him in a way he might not have without external motivation.

Of course, as a balance for the nastier builds which might appear in the aforementioned event, Sportsmanship score penalties were not accepted by some of the objecting players...and the reason why should by now be clear if I've done my job in this essay: Sportsmanship, while not restricted to either 'experience' or 'outcome'' players, is distinctly a part of the experience of participating in the event...and not going to appeal to victory-oriented hobbyists as a tangible equalizer to something they perceived as threatening to their chances of being satisfied by the event.

It bears repeating that we are discussing preferences here; a player whose hobby interest is purely focused on outcome (ie winning) is not 'wrong,' any more than a hobbyist who paints but never fields his minis is wrong, or a hobbyist who immerses himself in the game's background to shape his army composition and tabletop play is right...•but• one conclusion which is inescapable is that in the instance of this event, and those like it, the 'outcome'-oriented player missed out on participating in play.

If he knows what satisfies him in the hobby, knows where he is on that 'experience-versus-outcome' scale, knows how he plays--and decides this wouldn't 'do it' for him--he probably made the right decision...not just for himself but for those he might have faced. But that knowing is important, not just because he may have missed an event he would excel at and be an asset to if he is wrong--but also because without recognizing where one is, in one's approach to how one plays, one cannot change, broaden, expand.