40K: Safe, Sane and Consensual, or The Arrogance of Unacknowledged Playstyles
One gamer explores the pitfalls and soaring possibilities of gamer playstyles in the wargaming community.
WARNING: This is the longest article I’ve ever written, and I normally write long-a** articles. Seriously, this thing is absurdly long. If you want the TL;DR version, skip to the bottom paragraph. I’ll understand.
Coloured Hankies in San Fran.
I’ve always been socially awkward.
Actually scratch that. I was barely more than a nervous frown with the social grace of a rancid fart from the age of fifteen until I somewhere round twenty three. Even now, I find it hard to be around people. A combination of introversion, social anxiety and outright terror leaves me ill at ease in almost ninety per cent of my interactions with humans and functionally unable to talk without embarrassing myself the remaining ten per cent of the time.
You don’t even want to know how difficult I found it when it came to finding a romantic partner. From stumbling my way through what could only be called ‘conversations’ in the most charitable sense of the word, to spending dark hours enjoying that special kind of loneliness you only find in nightclubs, women were never really into me. Even back in the day when you could mount the Steps of Shame to Sheffield’s Poxy Roxy, an establishment infamous because you could catch syphilis from touching the bar, I managed little more than a single snog with a drunken girl in an entirely blacked-out room. And this was over the entirety of my youth out clubbing.
Pictured: Leviathan, Lord of The Labyrinth.
Thus it was that when I learned about the gay scene of San Francisco in the seventies, I couldn’t have been more jealous of those burly, beautiful men, and not just for their luxuriant facial hair and stunning abs.
You see, for a maladjust like me, the hankie code of the gay scene seemed the single greatest idea in the history of dating. Identifying someone with the same interests as yourself can be a difficult affair at the best of times, but these magnificent men had the perfect answer: just put a handkerchief in your back pocket and boom – everyone knows you’re single.
Like that, you never again need to be embarrassed by hitting on a some beauty, only to discover they’re already taken. Not content with this one great idea, the brave men of San Fran took this concept even further into the realms of brilliance. Hankies of various colours could be used, in either the left or right rear trouser pocket, indicating availability, personal tastes, every kind of useful data one could want to convey to a potential new friend. Currently with a boyfriend and just out for a few drinks? No handkerchief for you. What if you’re just interested in the most simple hook up? Light blue fabric on the left if you want to be in charge, the right if you prefer to be the one supply the fun.
Pictured: Codex Astartes, circa 1972.
Imagine: instantly having a fair idea of what a potential, definitely available partner is interested in. Clear, simple, easy to follow communication, and all of it free from those awkward ‘So…’s you normally have to start a conversation with. To my young mind, I couldn’t believe this system hadn’t been adopted across the world in every nightclub, ever. The time saved alone could extend the working week by at least another day.
Then I learned you could just talk to girls. Not only that, but if you just talked to a girl, you could get even more information about her likes and dislikes than a hankie might convey. All you had to do was listen. So, yeah, it turned out the problem wasn’t the world. It was me.
After talking to more girls, I eventually talked to one who really liked talking to me, and that’s when I discovered that you can fall in love quite easily. Of course, then I discovered that love isn’t actually enough to build a relationship. It’s a big part of things, but it’s not the only part. You have to find out if you’re right for each other, and that means more talking: exploring and explaining your own expectations, listening to theirs… Discovering, then explaining your boundaries; playing it cool as you discover they have significantly fewer than you, and so on.
It turns out if you want to be an adult, you need to be an adult about it.
This kind of communication, this careful and deliberate exchange of opinions and needs, this meticulous consideration of two people’s shared and conflicting desires, is something that only ever occurs in the world of romantic intimacy, or so it seems.
And I think that’s a mistake. Not because I’m an oversharing crazy man who wants to talk about things that will make your toes curl at the emotional frankness of my statements, but because there are many times in life when there needs to be a free and frank exchange about our needs and expectations when romance has nothing to do with it at all.
Like in, say, wargaming.
Joffrey and the Teachable Moment.
The three universally acknowledged Truths of Life are: death, taxes and Rousey by armbar. The Fourth Truth of Life is that teenaged boys are singularly incapable of any kind of activity without said activity becoming a brutally Darwinian struggle for the fragile, precious resource that is their masculinity. This is because it is a truth almost universally ignored that the most delicate part of a man is his masculinity. This is because he can lose it in a moment, by breaking any number of unwritten rules: showing any kind of fear or weakness; lacking a comeback when he insulted; enjoying anything perceived to have a feminine slant, including baking, sewing, having emotions of any kind… The list goes on and on.
Losing to Ronda Rousey is not on the list, though. Seriously, the only way you’re winning this fight is if you show up with a gun. And a tiger in case you miss. Even then, I don’t fancy your chances.
I’ve run a Games Club at school ever since becoming a teacher, so I get to see just how brittle masculinity is every time those dice get picked up . One the thing you learn very quickly when you’re a teacher is that the moment you put dice in the hands of twelve year old boys, they basically become asocial psychopaths. Fast friendships and lifetimes of companionship are discarded as a single, ugly goal takes their place: winning.
And if you can make him cry at the end, that’s +1 VP.
The really unpleasant thing about when this happens with younger boys is this: the fight doesn’t have to be fair. To a boy, beating an equal or weaker opponent carries no greater reward than whupping some one-foot nothing asthmatic suffering from a gammy leg, a phobia of dice and fear-induced diarrhoea.
The most extreme case I saw was when one boy (We’ll call him Joffrey) decided to ‘introduce’ a newbie to the game (we’ll call him ‘Sansa’. There is no significance to the names. I’ve just been watching a lot of ‘Game of Thrones’ recently.) Now, you all know someone like Sansa. Hell, you’ve probably all been someone like Sansa. Eleven years old, his first few months at Big School, and he’s heard about Games Club. He’s seen Space Marines and DAMN does he want some of that 41st century action. Then he’s seen Tyranids and
OHMYGODMUMTHOSETHOSEARETHEONESLOOKATTHATONEIT’STHE SIZEOFABUILDINGANDHASFOURARMSOHMYGODIT’SSOCOOLMUMC ANICANICANICANIMUMCANIPLEEEEEEEAASE?!!!
OHMYGODLOOKHOWCOOL!!! Seriously mum, I want three of these. Look how cool they are. This model has to be the best in the whole game. I bet it could fight an army on its own!
So, post-Xmas, in addition to candy-induced pre-diabetes, Sansa show up with a tiny beginner’s Tyranid force: thirty Termagaunts and a Tyrant. He didn’t like the wings and he doesn’t know any better, so he’s built it as a footslogger. He’s brought his little army – all painted in what looks like a mix of 10% emulsion, 15% Tipp-ex, 75% childish joy – and more enthusiasm than a puppy trapped of a basket of clothes which are warm from the dryer. See, he’s got his army sorted, for today, He Becomes A Man.
Unlike Sansa, Joffrey is a Lannister, and so he’s got a lot more income. He, too, has brought his new Xmas army, but he knows exactlywhat he’s doing. He’s rocked up with 10 Grey Knight Paladins, a horrifying number of Psycannon, Draigo and an Imperial Knight. That’s right. For a half hour pick-up game at lunch, he’s done the equivalent of showing up to a playground fist fight with a ninety pound lump of plastic explosive carved into the shape of a giant middle finger.
Sansa, who at this point is friends with Joffrey, asks him if he’d like a game, and Joffrey? Well, he’s more than happy about this… In the same way a 220 pound San Quentin inmate is pleased when he’s finally given a new cellmate to replace the one he ate. Unable to turn down fresh meat when it walks so willingly into his larder, Joffrey leads Sansa over to the table and – like a good friend – starts setting up his Tyranids for him. By the time he’s finished, the Tyrant is out alone in the middle of nowhere, the Termagants are positioned thirty inches away, and he’s huddled them into a single block, with all their bases are touching in a cluster conveniently designed to be exploded by a single large blast.
The nearest cover these poor ‘Nids can claim is three feet away.
In Joffrey’s deployment zone.
Joffrey then sets up his own men, all castled up behind a Castellum made of the finest dictionaries public money can buy. His good work finished, he then – and I kid you not, he really did this – actually started rubbing his hands and salivating.
At this stage, I could change the names to Ramsay and Theon and you’d have much the same idea what was going on here.
’If you think this has a happy ending, then you’ve not been paying attention.’
But in the end? It didn’t go that way. In the interests of full disclosure, I must admit: up until this point, I’d been sorting out some GCSE coursework in the filing cabinet at the back of the room, because being a teacher requires more work than there are hours in the day. If Joffrey’s innate need to gloat about how cool he was being hadn’t lead him to get me to step over, I probably wouldn’t have noticed this prison shanking go down.
‘Sir? Have you seen this?’ Joffrey says , a wide grin on his face. ‘This is going to be hilarious. He’s not got any weapons that can shoot me. And the ones that do can’t even hurt my knight, and they’re not going to get through my Terminator armour. And that Tyrant doesn’t stand a chance; I’ll have stripped all his Wounds away by the time he makes it into assault.’
(Oh yeah, forgot to mention: the Tyrant was equipped with quad Scything Talons, because, and I quote: ‘they looked coolest’. Sansa had actually taken the time to source extra ones off of eBay, because he liked them so much.)
I look at Joffrey’s greedy little face, and he’s just desperate to drill Sansa full of so many holes you could strain tea through him. So, I ask what seems to me to be the only question that matters when you’re an adult confronted by the ugliest kind of immaturity:
‘Why are you even playing?’
Joffrey looked at me like I’d just told him that I liked One Direction (#NotWithoutZaynIDont).
‘What… What do you mean?’
‘If you’re just going to take the very best, most unkillable units, ignore points costs, all in the name of making yourself feel big… Why even play? Why not just roll a dice and tell him on a zero or less he wins, on a one or more you win?’
Again, he looks at me like I’m mad.
‘But… But I’m only teaching him how to play. Anyway sir, he might win. If his Tyrant gets into assault with my Knight…’
There followed a few more justifications and rationalisations for his total douchery. I then reminded him that it was Sansa’s first game. That what he was planning would completely ruin the game for Sansa, and possibly put him off playing forever. That what he planned was not merely unfair, but ungentlemanly. He looked at his shoes, and then…
Then he agreed with me. He put the Knight to one side, packed Draigo away, reshuffled the scenery, and ran the game using only two three man squads of Paladins.
It was a good little game: tough, roughly fair, quite competitive. Both players came away having enjoyed themselves. Sansa joined the club as a regular.
Now, those of you with functional empathy will, I’m sure, agree that Joffrey’s initial behaviour was unfair. Some of you may even find it unfair enough that you think Joffrey’s deserving of some kind of imp slap.
Pictured: satisfaction in gif form.
The thing is, away from the gaming table, Joffrey’s actually a really good guy. He’s kind and funny, and incredible supportive of others. It’s only when he’s playing the game that something weird happens to him; it’s kind of like, because it’s not real, but still matters, he’s allowed to do crazy stuff, like claiming a Knight with a chainsaw the size of a school bus is somehow equal in value to a handful of Termagaunts (who, if left alone, are happy to hide in the brush and think about rabbits until George comes.). It’s also worth noting, Joffrey’s behaviour is understandable because he’s 12. We’re all monstrous when we’re twelve, because our brains are full of stupid and (if you’re male) the first poisonous whisperings of testosterone. His behaviour was fine for a young boy,because when he realised he was out of order, he made amends and played fairly afterwards.
Now, the thing that really matters about this story is the coda.
See, Joffrey and Sansa actually had that crazy match-up a few months later. Both had been talking about it, and eventually both were curious enough to give it a go and see what would happen. So they set everything up, rolled some dice, and to the surprise of exactly no-one, the Termagants were reduced to meat paste and the Tyrant received a Destroyer Weapon enema. Not a single Grey Knight was lost.
Both boys loved the game. The reason why is obvious: they had talked. They both knew the score, they both realised what would happen, and there were therefore no problems once they were done. They actually drew a crowd to watch, and everyone wanted to see that plucky little Tyrant slap the yellow off that Knight’s faceplate. Not a single person was rooting for the Grey Knights.
Not even Joffrey.
Teaching and Learning styles
One of the first things you learn when you train to be a teacher (at least, one of the first things I learned) is how arrogant people are when it comes to their learning style.
See, everyone learns a different way, and everyone assumes their way of learning is the best. There are three styles of learning, and each can be combined with the other to greater or lesser degrees.
The first is visual. Visual learners learn by seeing and reading. They like books and words, pictures and illustrations. As a result, pure visual learners tend to be good readers or artists. The second is auditory. Auditory learners learn through hearing; they like teachers to tell them how to do stuff. Pure auditory learners tend to be great at music too – for obvious reasons. They also memorise things better when they make them into a song (where a visual learner will do much better by simply writing their ideas down). The final style is kinaesthetic. These people learn by doing things with their hands, or by moving. Pure kinaesthetics tend to be great at things like sport or carpentry, sculpting or dance.
Now, we generally all learn in all three ways, but to greater or lesser degrees. I’m very much a visual learner myself, but with a powerful kinaesthetic element. The visual side of my learning manifests through my chosen profession – there’s a reason I teach English, and it’s that I was always good at reading. My kinaesthetic skills though? I was good at making things too, and I use those skills in my wargaming: I love to convert models.
The thing is, I’m a terrible auditory learner. I know this, because I don’t remember things people tell me. And thus, when I started learning to teach, I never included auditory elements to my teaching, beyond those that just showed up accidentally.
Until I had VAK (that’s what we call it BTW) taught to me, for the first month or so of being a teacher, I had no idea I was doing anything wrong. After all, I was structuring lessons in the way that worked for me, so why should I worry? I knew my way was right, because it was right for me. Those kids who ‘just weren’t learning’? Well, that wasn’t my fault. I was doing what worked. They were probably just lazy.
Of course, I know now: they were auditory learners, and they fell behind because I hadn’t made the lessons as accessible for them as I had for everyone else. I mean, most of them still did okay, but then, once I started to include auditory stuff as well?
Man. You wouldn’t believe how quickly those ‘lazy’ kids suddenly turned out to not be lazy after all.
Well, apart from the actually lazy ones.
If you’re going to teach, you have to learn humility. You have to learn that the way that works best for you? It isn’t the only way that works. Some people’s brains are set up very differently to your own, and in subtle ways that aren’t immediately obvious. None of us can control how we learn best, and saying that a visual learner should just adapt to kinaesthetic lessons is like saying a pupil with no legs should just try harder to be good at football. (Or ‘soccer’ if you’re one of our charming American cousins).
There is an arrogance to demanding others be like you. In teaching, the self-importance can cause real damage, which is why you learn VAK so early on.
So why am I talking about teaching? Because that same kind of arrogance is absolutely prevalent in wargaming… And if you’ve ever had someone call you a WAAC player, or ever been trounced by one when you were expecting a friendly pick-up game, well: I think you know how.
The People You Don’t Even Realise You’ve Hurt
There was a recent thread on BoLS Lounge where this subject – of different playstyles – was brought up. Of course, if you read the title of that thread, you’ll see why it very quickly descended into unpleasantness.
It strikes me as kind of self-evident that there are three ‘wargaming styles’, in much the same way as there are learning styles. Just like the fact we’re all set up to learn in one primary way (with a little or a lot of overlap from the other two) I think we’re set up to enjoy games in a similar way.
I would define the three playstyles as follows:
Competitive: you like to win. In fact, it’s the main reason you play. The other person is there to serve as a challenge. You may or may not enjoy the social aspect of the game, but that dopamine rush as you take the victory is why you pick up the dice. Losing is anathema to you, and while you may not despair when things go your way, losing is an uncomfortable experience emotionally. You find it hard to understand why anyone would willingly go through it.
Narrative: you want to tell a story. For you, wargaming isn’t like other games exactly because of this opportunity. Sure, you enjoy when things go your way, but even if you lose, as long as your side got to participate in some awesome events (maybe good, maybe bad, maybe funny), you’re less worried. Your ‘win’ doesn’t come at the end of the game, but much later, when you get to tell people about what happened: the dice roll that let the Genestealer kill the Dreadnought, the time the guy with the 2++ invulnerable bought the farm to a laspistol… If there’s an interesting enough anecdote, you might even forget who won. You go all-in to for the fluff, and probably have hugely detailed army backgrounds… Not to mention named characters leading. And not named characters created by GW. As a side note, this is obviously the player GW is pushing us all to be, what with their ‘Forge The Narrative’ thing.
Casual: You’re just here for a good time with friends. You’d like to win, but mostly? It’s about the chat. The game is simply a structure to hang your social engagements around; a shared interest that gives you and your buddies something to jaw about.
Pictured: Competitive meets Narrative. Spoiler: this doesn’t end well for Narrative.
For my part, I’m primarily a Casual gamer, with the Narrative side brought out by the modeller in me. As far as being Competitive? Never. I don’t think it’s too strong a statement to say that I not only dislike the idea of competitive play, I actively despise the very concept of a tournament. I can’t imagine ever going to one, even to simply watch.
Now, I’m sure that statement seems not just wrong, but actually crazy to more than a few people reading this. Especially when I tell you I enjoy reading articles on strategy and tactics, and that I like seeing the statistical breakdown of the meta after a big tournament.
But these are the things I like about the hobby: how can I be wrong about what I enjoy? I literally can’t be wrong: enjoyment is a purely subjective experience.
Which means you can’t be wrong about what you like either.
However, all of us can do harm.
My friend Arya is an abuse survivor. She spent two years of her childhood suffering the most appalling horror, and at the point this story takes place, she had only just been able to finally admit to herself that those experiences had left her with a number of debilitating mental health issues. One of them was introversion; another was a fear of going out.
Then she got an invite from my mate Podrick. Pod’s a great guy, and he knew she was in a bad way. He asked if she wanted to join him for a game of ‘Vampire: The Eternal Struggle’. It’s like ‘Magic’ but with vampires and politics, and it’s a great game. He knew Arya enjoyed LARPing at the local Camarilla game, that she’d just picked up a Toreador deck, so he thought she’d enjoy a game. If nothing else, it’d finally give her a reason to get out of the house.
So, she put on her prettiest clothes, put her nicest bow in her hair, and set out in her knee-high sh*tkickers to be social. It was the first time she’d felt capable of leaving the house in a fortnight. It was the first time she’d gone out socially in six months.
She sat at the gaming table, was welcomed, and everyone smiled. It was friendly. Pod got the beers in and the game began.
Within two hours, Arya was barely holding it together. Another player, a friend of Podrick’s named The Hound, was attacking her with the relentlessness of his namesake. Everything she tried, he countered. Every fight ended in her minions destroyed, her holdings razed to the ground. After two and a half hours, she started to have a massive panic attack because The Hound would not stop. Unlike most people I’ve met who suffer from panic attacks, Arya’s are almost undetectable; she doesn’t say a thing. Not because she doesn’t want to, but because of the lessons her stepfather taught her. The lessons she had learned at twelve, lying on her back in terror as he did what he liked, all while making it very clear:
If you make a sound this will get worse.
So she sat there for another forty five minutes as The Hound played card after card after card, as her minions burned around her. So, in desperation, she began playing to lose, just so she could end the nightmare that was happening to her. In the end, even losing proved too much. She got up, said she’d had a lovely time, but that she needed to be up in the morning. She reached down to pick up her cards.
‘If you’re withdrawing, you have to wait until next turn; there are rules. You can only withdraw if you go a turn without being attacked.’ said The Hound, readying his next attack card.
To my eternal admiration, she said no. She said that she was going. Then she picked up her cards and left.
A week later, I found out from Pod that The Hound talked sh*t about her not playing by the rules for the next hour. When Arya got in, she spent the night holding her knees. She didn’t cry, didn’t sleep. She just sat and rocked a little. I was living with her at the time, and honestly, I was terrified. I didn’t want to think what she might do. So I just asked if she needed anything: a cup of tea, or perhaps even a hug.
‘I just need to be alone. I need to be alone and quiet.’ She said.
She didn’t go out for another four months.
She didn’t play any games for two years.
Kittens don’t make this story any less horrible, but they hopefully take the edge off a bit.
You may be pleased or relieved to know that this story ends positively. We got to meet The Hound socially about a month later, and I was absolutely ready to beat the sh*t out of him with his own teeth. When I met him, I couldn’t have been more surprised. He’s honestly the loveliest guy you could know. He’s kind, and thoughtful; whenever he visits a friend – any friend – he brings food. And not pizza – actual gourmet stuff. Regards it as polite. Socially, he’s a gentlemen in the truest sense of the word. He’d give you the money in his wallet as a gift if you only asked, and is a man I honestly feel privileged to call friend.
Three years after it happened, Arya was finally ready to tell him her side of what had happened that night. I watched as she sat there, explaining how it had felt. When she was finished, The Hound cried. Openly. He wept like a man, and said he was sorry, that he had no idea. He’d never intended to cause the reaction he did.
It’s just how he plays games, that was all.
He just thought everyone played that way.
Safe, Sane and Consensual
Arya’s story is an extreme one, no doubt, but it does serve to illustrate the problems that can occur when you make assumptions about what others want. The Hound is the hardest-core WAAC player I’ve ever met, so we never play together. I literally refuse to play him, because I know I’d hate every moment of it. He’s honestly one of my very best friends, but I have boundaries.
See, I know what I want.
In my opinion, and no matter what you may hear online, honestly, there’s nothing wrong with being a WAAC player, a fluffbunny, a beer & pretzel guy, or anything in between. Nothing… As long as everyone knows the score. It’s entirely possible to have a great, great game where a Tyrant and thirty Termagants get kerbstomped by the cheesiest Draigowing + Knight combo. Entirely possible.
The problem isn’t the game (because balance is an entirely different issue – one that, I suspect, Narrative or Casual gamers place a significantly lower value on than Competitive ones, because to us, as long as it’s mostly fair, we don’t mind. After all, we’re not really playing to win in the same way). The problem isn’t people being hypercompetitive, or building insane netlists, or whatever.
I think the problem is when you assume your opponent is okay with your personal style without asking. If you’re both high-level WAAC guys and you want to fight each other with the latest meta-busting netlist of doom, well, why not? If you’ve talked about it, and both know the score, who cares? Not me. If you’re both happy, that’s actually a wonderful thing.
Which brings us round to handkerchiefs again. We all know what we want from the game. You know if you love to play to win, or if you like to Forge A Narrative. In the same way that those moustachioed geniuses used a simple colour-coded system to clarify their desires, why don’t we?
I’m not saying we go around with little green swatches in our back left pockets. But I do think we should start to acknowledge that different people want different things from the game, and building a community which supports and encourages that. The more we talk openly about these currently unspoken desires, the better the hobby will become.
I don’t know about you, but I think the idea of ‘self-identifying’ to our opponent at the start of each game would be a really positive step. Pairing up with people who want the same as you, while being tolerant of those who don’t can only lead to more satisfying games for everyone. And that has to be a good thing, doesn’t it?