Monday, December 2, 2013

Of Allies, Powergamers and Fluff Bunnies

There has been some attention to the issue of allies in Warhammer 40,000 in the blogosphere of late. I've picked up on it from a few blogs. Bell of Lost Souls had a piece on allies and Whiskey 40k mentioned the effect of allies here and there. I must mention that while strolling the gaming tables at the NOVA Open 2013, it was rare to see an army that did not utilize allies. 

The Bell of Lost Souls article basically made the argument that allies are used, not to build an army that tells a story, but to mitigate weaknesses inherent in the primary detachment. Those weaknesses, they argue, are what create the balance between armies in 40k. I can't really discuss those issues here but one of the overriding themes in the post was that allies aren't taken for fluff, but are taken for an in-game advantaged and then fluffed-up with conversions and explanations to make it appear to be a thematic choice.

I can't really comment on the in-game balance or meta as I don't play 40k in any serious way anymore, but the comments about the fluff resonate with me. My introduction into gaming and miniature painting was through role-playing games. Role-playing games rely wholly on the voluntary suspension of disbelief in order to immerse the players into an alternate universe of the DM's creation. For me, this suspension of disbelief carries over into 40k. I want to look at the field and play out a realistic game that I can imagine occurring in an alternative universe. This is why painting your miniatures, building and painting terrain and playing in a cooperative fashion is so important to me. All of these things work together to assist the players in suspending disbelief. 

Belief is maintained by things that make sense - even though it is an alternate universe with totally impossible things like space-elves, Chaos gods, daemons and railguns. Certainly, there are the parameters of the universe that we need to accept, no matter how unlikely they are. We accept that space-marines are genetically enhanced super-men. We accept that there are living gods that are born, like Slaanesh, and die, like the the creators of the Orks. The physics of the world are set up for us. Once These parameters are set up in our minds, the game, the armies and the rules need to fit within the physics of the universe. 

This is my problem with allies. They simply don't fit within the make-up of the world that Games Workshop built for us over the past 30 years of Warhammer 40k. We've always accepted and known that Space Marines are the protectors of humanity and utterly crush all aliens without mercy. 6th edition comes out and guess what? They now love and cooperate with the Tau so much, that they will lead each others squads into battle. What. the. fuck. 

Its rare to see an army without allies at tournaments - more commonly, nearly every army allies with Tau in almost exactly the same way. Minimum troop choice, broadsides, buff commander and riptide. The meta-game becomes so apparently obvious that it is difficult to suspend your disbelief. Your imagination just isn't stimulated when you across the field at almost the exact same army list as 40 other players at the tournament. 

This is the root of the divide between "fluff-bunnies" and "power-gamers."

Fluff-bunnies are all about suspension of disbelief. They want everything to be consistent with the physics of the world they imagine. They want to experience the world of 40k. They want to feel as the battle that is unfolding before them, could be occurring in that alternate universe. This is what brings them joy. In my experience, these players care less about game-balance and care more about atmosphere. They enjoy the spectacle thats fits within the physics of the 40k universe. 

Power-gamers on the other hand, don't see the game is a venue for exploring an alternate universe. These are guys who will balance a land-raider on top of a narrow tower and who will field whatever powerful and interesting combination of units they can, without much regard to internal consistency. They see the game as a battle of wits, a competition between two people. While they enjoy the fluff and paint models as well, the primary draw to the game is not experiencing an alternate universe, its about practice, strategy and competition. After all, a hard-fought game between two amazing players is quite thrilling to participate in. 

This is not to say that all players are either one or the other, just that these two approaches to the game are opposite sides of the spectrum. Surely you can be a mix of both or even a fluff bunny and a power gamer both at different times. Some people are squarely one or the other.

This topic was discussed by Mike Brandt over at Torrent of Fire here. The problem with his assessment is that he does not deal with the relative weight of the suspension of disbelief among different types of players. He simplifies the situation by focussing merely on competition and whether someone is casual or serious (among odd mentions of dwarfism). The article has good nuggets about your expectations of how a game will play out and so on, so I'm not saying the article is wholly bad or wrong, I just didn't see any understanding of alternate ways to enjoy the game beyond the aspects of competition. 

Essentially, though  my message would be the same - there is really no need to separate yourselves as a community, but be aware that the way you approach the game is different from others and perhaps bring more consideration to who the other guy across the table is and what he enjoys. Oh and if you know a fluff-bunny, leave your allies at home. 


Ziggy Qubert said...

Although, from a GW fluf perspective, space marines and the Imperium do ally all over the place, you see it with IG all the time (check out guants ghosts - where he allies with the tau and eldar), and also with the space marines, again tau and eldar are the most common (there are references in the main book to this) - also various branches of the inquisitors work with other races on a regular basis (see Eisenhorn) and in some cases you see Inquisitors with both space marines and aliens working together. GW may have overdone the number of races that can ally with each other, but from a fluf perspective it's reasonably common, not as common or diverse as looking at the tournament scene would have you believe but it is nevertheless there.

Tim said...

True, but that only explains allies in limited circumstances. I think we can all agree that allied imperial forces make complete sense. But Tau and Space Marines as battle-brothers? Allies of Convenience at best. There are others that make sense - Chaos Daemons and CSM, but thats about it.

Pete W said...

I'm with you Tim in that I think the fluff gets stretched with the allies chart. Not broken, of course, but stretched.

I've just finished reading the Ultramarines Omnibus by Graham Macneil and in that it struck me how reluctantly the Ultramarines allied with a successor chapter that had deviated far from the Codex Astartes. In the battlefield it was fine because they were fighting against Tyranids but off the field they nearly came to blows a couple of times.

The Imperium is xenophobic and brutal. Working with the aliens is definitely a low probability.

Pete :-)

Jawaballs said...

I touched on this not long ago. I think that in the con scene, we are going to see an evolution. The better cons will be offering more things like The Novas Narrative, but still competitive. We will see those cut throat players bashing each other's brains in in their own little WAAC tournaments while more and more guys who just want to have fun playing the game play in other tournaments at the same con, like the Best Painted Invitational that Battle for Salvation is putting together. Oh and you better be there for that! :)

Tim said...

Best painted invitational? Woah! Sounds I have to qualify in a local tourney?

Jawaballs said...

It's not official yet, but I will be announcing details soon. I am playing in it so I am not involved with organizing but yah, you have to have won a major GT Best Army. There will be additional invites to people who are pillars of the painting community that simply care more about painting than playing... guys like you and Dave Taylor for example. Most of the points will be based on soft scores, there may be things like a gentlemans comp score in place, etc. It should be a great tournament! Watch for the announcement soon!

Mang said...

A good article, which I agree with, almost entirely.
I have Tau and Spacemarine armies. And I am very confused as to why they can be allies.
Thing is, allies don't really effect the balance too much. Yes, you can cover your weaknesses, but so can the enemy. And if you are busy covering weaknesses, that means fewer resources spent on your strengths.

Unfortunately, you did get one thing wrong.
Railguns are rea