Back in 2002, Jervis Johnson offered the wargaming world (specifically concerning 40k) a mea culpa for introducing and promoting the Grand Tournament (GT) style of play. Writing in the Citadel Journal, Johnson states, “…the tournament style of play has its place, but it is a place well down on the pecking order of what constitutes a really good game.” In a fairly scathing critique of tournament play as the "lowest common denominator" of the tabletop wargaming experience, Johnson offers an interpretation of top-end miniature wargaming as asymmetric scenario-based games and campaigns that leverage the fundamental strengths of tabletop wargaming. These strengths-creative engagement by players in developing the world, and experiencing compelling stories-are what sets our hobby apart from all other games, with the obvious exception of RPGs. Over the past few years, the 40k community in the United States has started to describe this style of gaming generally as "narrative" wargaming, though we have a myriad of different interpretations of what narrative wargaming entails.
While "narrative" wargaming is a fairly recent idea in the tournament-dominated world of US 40k events, it is hardly a new concept. Anyone who has attended a Historical Miniature Gaming Society event in the Mid-Atlantic has seen the overwhelming draw of scenario-based narrative gaming. The HMGS model wargame is run by a game master who develops the scenario, creates the force organizations, builds the terrain, paints the models, and referees the game. Instead of a competition to identify the best player, as you would find in a tournament event, HMGS events are more a competition among game masters to see who can provide the best wargaming experience. Judging by the size of HMGS events relative to the largest GT-style events in the Mid-Atlantic region, the HMGS model of narrative wargaming is far more popular than tournament-style gaming.
Some US 40k events recently have started to provide HMGS-style "narrative" wargaming experiences. Adepticon, for example, will feature numerous hosted 40k games this year. Other events in the US have attempted events billed as "narrative," but in reality they simply offer more of the same tournament gaming experiences within a narrative context. The center of gravity for 40k events in the United States still rests squarely in the tournament.
Why does it matter?
Tournament gaming is not as interesting as narrative wargaming. With an absolute premium placed on fairness through balance and symmetry, tournament games are relatively bland affairs that give rise to meta lists and predictable game flow. Tournament style games lack the spontaneity, surprise, and uncertainty of narrative wargames.
Tension and uncertainty enrich a wargame immensely. The classic example I will use is our local gaming group's use of completely hidden setup. Imagine: you are an attacker moving your forces onto a tabeltop with no enemy models visible (the GM knows where they are). The tension caused by this uncertainty creates a level of excitement unknown in non-refereed tournament games. Such a mechanic is completely unfair, and thus could never be incorporated in tournament play.
This unfairness is kind of important, because the vast majority of wargames (40k chief amongst them) are not balanced. Warfare is unbalanced-deliberately so-so why on earth should we expect a wargame to be balanced? To attempt to provide a fair and balanced tournament experience using an unfair and unbalanced set of army lists is a little nuts, and as we see in the 40k tournament circuit, produces a lot of vitriol directed at the game designers, tournament organizers, and among the players. I was at a large Mid-Atlantic 40k tournament last Summer and did not find a single player in the 40k GT who talked to me about their awesome games. The conversation was dominated by complaints about getting stomped by cookie-cutter meta lists over and over and over again.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of tournament play can be found in the manner in which talented tournament gamers leverage and exploit game mechanics to produce innovative non-tactical ploys. For a lot of tactically-focused wargamers, this exploitation can feel like a violation of the social contract intrinsic to the game, which often leads to hurt feelings on both sides as tournament gamers get labeled as "win at all costs" or worse. This is not fair to tournament gamers. They are not violating the social contract by optimizing their resources and exploiting game mechanics to win. In fact, their actions uphold the social contract. Remember that this is tournament play; players enter into tournaments in order to determine who is the best player under a set of uniformly-applied conditions. If anyone is breaking the social contract, it is the tactically-minded player who enters into a tournament designed to identify a winner, and then lashes out at the winner, who played within the confines of agreed-to rules, for winning. Hard not to call that sour grapes, or, in the words of bitter tactical gamers, "douchy."
This leads to the real big problem raised by tournament play. Because the games are unbalanceable, and tournament play demands unachievable balance, the tournament focused culture of the US 40k community is fraught with negativity. Nasty accusations are being thrown around the blogosphere placing blame on the GW Design Studio (Make balanced army lists!), tournament organizers (Ban broken army list entries!), “competitive” players (Stop being WAAC douchebags!), and “non-competitive” players (Stop whining and learn to love losing!) alike for the degeneration of the 40k gaming scene. These accusations all contain valid points, but all fall well short of characterizing the cultural problem facing 40k wargaming in the United States.
The cultural problem rests in our fixation on tournament gaming. Tournaments are designed to identify a winner. We play tournaments to win. Successful tournament gamers optimize lists and exploit game mechanics to solve complex problems and win. That is exactly the right approach to successful tournament wargaming, and it is exactly why tournaments should not be the centerpiece of wargaming. Tournament gaming places overwhelming value on winning, and that promotes a gaming culture driven by exploitation of game mechanics.
This is where tournament gaming starts to damage the hobby. Our tournament fixation provides a largely negative experience base to under-gird the gaming culture. It goes something like this: I check out a sample of the seventeen billion podcasts and blogs out there that tell me how to optimize my tournament list so I can most efficiently leverage game mechanics. The message is clear-the correct force selection leads to success in GTs. Because I, like the vast majority of wargamers, am an average player, I take my optimized list to my first GT and get stomped. Clearly, I got my list wrong, so I go back to the podcasts and blogs and re-tool my list, go shopping for some more ridiculously overpriced models, and I get stomped again at my next GT. When I'm not getting stomped at a GT, I am playing in my local gaming group, but because we are all focused on tournament success through list optimization and game mechanics, my gaming experience is loss, after loss, after loss. The only guy I can beat is that one dude who refuses to update his Feral Orks list and has really bad dice. This cycle of failure-driven motivation repeats itself ad nauseam, netting GW a lot of money as I keep heeding the optimization message, keep buying the newest and shiniest game winning models, and keep getting stomped until I rage quit the game, lashing out at GW, douchy WAAC gamers, and their scummy TO enablers on some public forum on my way out the door. TOs and tournament gamers naturally respond in kind, and the discord deepens.
As the 40k community in the US is starting to figure out, this is not sustainable. Dissatisfaction with 40k has reached a fever pitch in the blogosphere as gamer patience (and money) runs thin, while in the background the podcasts and blogs continue to beat the drum that the road to GT success runs through list optimization. This is the culture that must change if we are to get back to enjoying 40k as a fun activity.
The good news for 40k players is that it is not the game. There is nothing wrong with 40k. The problem is us and our nearly exclusive prioritization of tournament play at all levels from our largest wargaming events to local gaming groups. If 40k TOs would take the plunge and introduce true narrative gaming events-look to Adepticon to lead the way in this-they might simultaneously save a really neat wargame and increase the size of their events.
So what's the solution?
Keep playing in tournaments! Seriously. But make them a side dish that enriches your wargaming experience rather than the main event. At the personal level, form a gaming group and experiment with true narrative wargaming. Offer to GM a game and impose true hidden setup. Give players mission tasks that do not specify victory conditions. Make force organizations that support a tactical scenario, regardless of point imbalance. Make beautiful terrain and set up tables asymmetrically so that side selection actually matters and the table top looks more like a battlefield and less like, as another member of our gaming group describes tournament terrain, "40k Paintball."
But cultural change does not begin and end with local gaming groups. Tournament Organizers: Go play in a hosted game at Adepticon or go to one of the HMGS events (Historicon is coming in July!) and experience true narrative wargaming. I challenge you to add true hosted narrative war games (vice "narrative tournaments") to your events. Offer prizes for the best GM and see what happens.
In fairness, true narrative wargaming is not for everyone. Some gamers thrive on the predictability and control that optimizing resources and leveraging mechanics brings to a gaming experience, and naturally prefer tournament gaming to narrative wargaming. Unpredictability and uncertainty can push high-octane competitive tournament players so far out of their comfort zone that they cannot enjoy the gaming experience. We have seen this in our local gaming group. Fortunately for these players, the tournament scene is not going anywhere.
As I said before, none of this is new. Historical wargamers have been enjoying the deep experience of narrative wargaming for over a century. If the 40k GT community wants to soothe the discontent and advance the culture surrounding the game, we can start by prioritizing true narrative game play and relegating tournament play to a more appropriate spot in the "pecking order" of really good wargaming.
Wouldn't it be cool to enjoy playing 40k again?