Be Nice, Roll Dice: Navigating the Narrative-Competitive Spectrum

Credit: Robert "TheChirurgeon" Jones

Gaming expectations can be a spectrum; one that everyone tends to fall onto somewhere. At one end of the spectrum lies the narrative gamers, individuals who play to tell a story or rebuild a classic moment from the lore of the 41st millennium, universe 616, the mortal realms, etc. For these players the mechanical aspects of the game and notions about who wins or loses aren’t as important as the story being told during the game. On the other end of the spectrum you’ve got competition-first games: Players for whom the mechanical aspects are all that matters. These players see the game as a puzzle to be solved and seek the best tools to do so and may not even have the faintest idea what the lore of the game is (NB: Please do not confuse people in this category for “Win At All Costs” players – more on that later).

 

“Sick paint job, friend! Are those female Space Marine heads? That’s so dope! Why don’t you just choose the mission!?”

 

Both sides of the spectrum are equally valid and most people will fall somewhere in the middle. Despite this, some people who identify most with one of the extreme ends might look at players further down the spectrum from them with a critical eye. When players anywhere on the spectrum meet up to play, they may have entirely different expectations in mind for the game. This can sometimes lead to some bad experiences at the table. It may seem that these two gaming ethos are incompatible and irreconcilable, but maybe with a little understanding (and effective communication) we could all come together at the table and have more fun.

Here are my three steps for navigating these differences in gaming ethos:

1. Understanding Yourself

Before you can negotiate with someone else effectively, you need to understand what makes you tick. The first step is evaluating why you play the game and what you’re looking for in your next game. Are you looking for a competitive challenge, a tragic narrative, or something more casual? How much does it matter to you if you win, and if you don’t, does it need to be a close game for you to feel like you weren’t wasting your time? If you aren’t sure, you may want to sit with that question for a bit until you figure it out. It’s really important to be honest with yourself at this point, which is easy because there is no wrong answer to this question. The next part is a little bit more difficult; you will need to identify what your favourite part of the game is. Maybe there are multiple things that you like but you need to identify the one thing that always brings you back to the table. For me as a developing player, I like when new concepts and ideas “click” in my brain once I implement them on the table. Whatever your favourite aspect of the game may be, keep it in your mind when navigating interpersonal difficulties at the table.

If your absolute favourite thing is just winning, then you might want to proceed with caution. There’s not necessarily anything wrong with wanting to win; after all this is a game and typically there will be a winner and a loser, but you might want to think about how much you care about losing and how that affects how you play and interact with other people. As a community we tend to use the term “WAAC” or “Win At All Costs” to refer to players who act like jerks in order to win games but their attitudes and behavior likely come less form being hyper-focused on winning and more from being desperate to avoid losing. WAAC players tend to be a “fun sponge” in any environment they’re in – they aren’t particularly well-loved or tolerated in competitive play circles either – and no one wants that. But if your primary driver is winning games and overcoming a competitive challenge, that’s going to have a major impact on how you interact with players taking a more casual or narrative approach, and that may make the next steps a bit more difficult.

 

2. Establishing and Managing Expectations

You have done the self-reflection and now you have to do the communication part of this process: The pre-game chat with your opponent. This chat feels very weird at first, but it is a very important part of the game, especially when playing someone new. This conversation should be clear and concise: “Hi there, nice to meet you! What kind of game would you like to play today? I am hoping for a friendly game / a chance to test my skills / an opportunity to test my new tournament list / etc.” You can usually tell by their reaction to your own expectations if your gaming ethos will align for the type of game you have in mind. If there is a look of defeat, surprise or disappointment on your opponent’s face then you will need to actively listen to your opponent’s own answers. Active listening may require you to restate your opponent’s ideas in your own words to make sure you understand their concerns (“I think you are saying that you would like a more relaxed game”.) Once you both clearly understand each other’s expectations, you are now ready for the last step.

 

3. Reaching Compromise

Think back to step one. This is where your favourite part of the game comes into the discussion. Would you still be able to enjoy your favourite part of the game while also facilitating your opponent’s hopes for the game? How can you accomplish that? Does your new friend across the table also have to bend their expectations a little to meet halfway? While being a newer player, I do still tend to play in a competitive local group, so when I come to play someone who plays a bit more casually I might suggest a crusade style mission. I still get to practice my new tactics and ideas to get those “a-ha!” moments, and my opponent gets a more narrative mission and potentially more fun. Conversely, narrative players might have to help their opponent craft a narrative, or they may have to accept their competitive friend’s army composition if it goes against their ideas of what a narrative force looks like.

 

“Use your words, sweetie”

There are some things Communication and Compromise just can’t solve

Wargames are complicated. There are a lot of factors that go into how someone builds an army, from just picking models they’d like to paint to building toward a theme to creating a competitive list. When you show up to a store to play against someone new, you’re each going to be limited by the armies you have available. There may just not be a way to tone down your competitive list to a more narrative or casual level, or to beef up a casual list to a more competitive level.

Likewise, just because a competitive player has brought a bad or more narratively focused list doesn’t mean they’ll suddenly stop being a competitive player. And by this I don’t mean they “can’t turn off wanting to win,” I mean that good players are good because they have internalized the core aspects of good play. A good player will always have a better grasp of the rules, better game plans, better threat and risk assessment, and better targeting priority than a more casual player who just doesn’t play that many games or think about these issues. This isn’t something they’ll necessarily be able to “turn off” and so even with a very casual army they are still much more likely to win in casual games.

Sometimes your opponent, or even you yourself, may not be able to be flexible enough to make a compromise happen. In these instances, it is okay to decide to agree to disagree. Three hours of your time is precious and sometimes it’s better spent not forcing yourself to play a game that is only going to leave one or both parties miserable. It’s always OK to just not play a game, or to end a game early if it’s not working out. I do strongly recommend trying to reach compromise though, because you might just have a lot of fun while trying something new.

So really it all comes down to effectively communicating with your opponents. With a little bit of practice it will become second nature. I always say that while our game is a competition to find the best general, the process of playing the game is very much a cooperative experience. Embracing the idea of cooperation can lead to all parties enjoying their time at the table, regardless of differences in gaming philosophy.

Until next time, everybody: Be Nice and Roll Dice.