Thursday, July 23, 2015

Commentary: Competitive (Tournament) Play Is Not Narrative

Am I trying to pick a fight?  Hell no.  Just stating a fact, and getting folks to think about something we all know is true.

The first thing we need to do, within the context of this commentary, is define narrative and competitive play.  Narrative play is, simply, a game that tells a story.  It may be part of a larger campaign.  It may be a string of 3-4 games that a couple of friends have written scenarios for.  In essence, it is not about the win.  It is about the game telling a story.  Competitive play is about the win.  True, all 40K games could be defined as competitive; it is a game with victory conditions after all.  But within the context of this article, it is about building lists that are powerful and are, in most cases, built to take on all comers.  It may even be driven by mission specific goals, but it is still about getting the win.

Narrative gaming also is not reliant on brining the best of the best in a killer combination.  It is about bringing Stealers, Lictors and Mawlocs because they are stealthy and sneaky.  If I bring a list built about the aforementioned units, I very well may not win.  The story, however, is about those units coming out of nowhere to strike at a remote outpost of Marines.  Or maybe an Eldar scouting party.  Whatever.  The win is not the thing here.  Do I want to win?  You bet.  If I don't, however, it is OK as long as the story is supported and/or advance.  If certain conditions are met, then perhaps I can bring something more the next game.  Or maybe those Eldar will be forced to play without certain heavy support units.  Whatever the scenarios/conditions that tell the story are, they do not depend on winning.  However, they will, quite frequently, require brining units that are not optimized for getting that win.  They are about bringing models that will help tell the story.  The other thing that defines many narrative games is that they do not specify points.  Unit types yes; points, no.


Compare this to competitive play, as we have defined it here.  There are certainly some well designed missions that are used during tournament play.  Those missions, however, do not require the use of specific units.  They do require that I bring those units that will allow me to score the maximum number of objective points so that I can, ultimately, win the tournament.  Those Genestealers, on most cases, will not be a popular choice for Tyranid players who intent to win.  Lictors, Mawlocs and Spores...another thing altogether.  Competitive list building is about point efficiency and optimizing unit selection.  No stories are told, other that those that players share as they sit around after the game with a cold one.

Space Hulk is a great example of narrative play, IMO.  The units that you take, as well as the enemy that you will face, are fixed.  The mission is fixed.  You have no opportunity to "optimize" your "list" or even think about point efficiency.  There are no points!  It is about completing a mission, which is part of a chain of events that build a narrative. Ultimately, the story will be told by how successful you are at completing your missions, and how you go about doing so within the confines of the predetermined units that you will use.


There is a third category of game we play, that is neither narrative nor competitive as we have defined them here.  Just two people picking a point total and throwing dice.  No story to tell.  No mission points to advance in a tournament.  Just two players rolling dice, drinking, and talking smack.  I sometimes think, or maybe it's hope, this is what the majority of the 40K games being played out there are.

So is tournament play narrative? No.  Is it another way for a large portion of the 40K community to interact with other players, enjoy the game and have a great time?  Sure.  But it is not about telling a story, and building a narrative around the models, paint schemes and scenarios that you create.  Tournament play is about winning.  It is about taking the latest, greatest, cheeziest (word?) and opponent stomping list you can think of.  In the end, both narrative and tournament gaming are essential parts of our hobby.  One is not better than the other at keeping 40K alive.  They both serve a purpose.  Most importantly, players in each of these gaming styles will finish the day sitting around with fellow players; drinking a beer, sharing tales of dice rolling (terrible and great), bemoaning list insanity and a myriad of other foolishness.


Do you consider yourself a narrative or tournament player? Perhaps both? Neither?


  1. While I never have a story to tell, I do tend to play the armies I think are fun. With 5 different armies I could just go with the overpowered one (necrons) but I am having fun playing the weaker ones (ork/ not flying tyrant spam nids) Sure they might get their day in the sun some day but then I can go to my other armies. So I guess I am neither.

  2. Having attended four tournaments now, I'd also say that not everyone does go to a tournament to win. The very nature of the bracket system means that if you lose a few games, you will be matched with other people who have lost a few games as well. This eventually means that by the end of the first day, you are playing with people who are like minded to yourself. Be it extremely competitive (if you are winning a lot), or more relaxed (just drinking beer and having a blast). You can go to a tournament with a "crappy list" and still have a complete blast, as long as you don't mind getting steam rolled once or twice.


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