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Brad Gamma

Competitive or Narrative? A False Dichotomy. Share your stories.

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Hello Everyone!

First off, I know that there has been a lot of competitive vs narrative discussions as of late and some of them have been quite heated. It has been clear through all of these that there is a wide range of different play styles, different attitudes and creative ideas.  So just to be clear, this is not intended to be combative and I hope that anyone posting in this thread takes engages with an open mind and spirit.

The False Dichotomy

I wanted to discuss what I believe the be a major false dichotomy in (some of) our discussions about Age of Sigmar and the hobby in general. Often we see things being lumped into 'competitive' or 'narrative', whether that be rules, games or players. Because of these simple categories,  exclusive and conflicting ideas get swept up into these boxes and people end up being at odds with each other.

Competitive is often used as a synonym for "Strict Rule Adherence", "Matched Play", "Tournament Play", "Balanced", "Fair" and "Challenging" and of course the multiple meanings of the word competitive itself. However there are already lots of inconsistencies here that can lead to confusion. Matched play can often be the easiest, quickest way to have a no fuss casual game. Lots of fiercely competitive people will go nowhere near the tournament scene, and conversely some people who couldn't care less whether they win or lose will love tournaments. Some competitive styles of play are designed to minimise the in-game challenge by winning in the list building phase and eliminating scenario variance, and some of the most difficult challenges someone can give themselves are with house rules.

Narrative is often used as a synonym for "Casual", "Rules Agnostic", "Imbalanced", "Lore adherence", "Narrative Play", "Open Play", "Fluffy", "Easy" and even "Uncompetitive". Again lots of these things can conflict with each other. The games that have given me some of the greatest challenges have been house-ruled custom-scenarios. Some custom scenarios have nothing to do with the lore or make any narrative sense. Narrative games can be tweaked and replayed, swapping sides to achieve a game balance not obtainable in broad matched play tournament setting. Some of the greatest stories told by a game can happen in a tournament game with no narrative intent at all.

I believe that there is a great deal of confusion and animosity caused by the way we use these words and our attempts to box up a broad and colourful hobby. I would be hard pressed to define what a "competitive player" is, or go into a match saying whether it is or isn't narrative. The only thing of any certainty is knowing which game type you are playing "open", "narrative" or "matched", but none of those game types are synonymous with "Challenging", "Casual" or "Competitive".

I hope that thinking deeper about the terms, what they may or may not mean to different people, can lead to a better experience of the game.

Share your Experience!

In an attempt to distinguish this thread from other discussions, I want to encourage people to share their experiences that you feel buck the trend of some of these labels and highlight the breadth of the hobby.

One of my best examples to highlight what I mean is actually from 40k, between Orks and Space Marines (apologies!), but the message is the same so please substitute for orruks and stormcast eternals (Iff we were talking the base greenskinz, it would probably be quite accurate). My ork force does not contain the amount of troops required to play a powerful list, and while I work on my dwarves I am not going to expand it further. So in my weekly games with my friend his marines would end up defeating me with very little problem. We even swapped armies a couple of times to deliver the same result.

So we set up a campaign where he chose a set list of 3000pts of marines, and that would be the forces he could chose from for the rest of the campaign. Once something is dead it is dead forever. I on the other hand had a defined 600pts of HQs and then whatever I wanted to bring for each match. The games would be 1000pts, and my challenge? To defeat his entire force in 5 games. Suddenly everything is more interesting. He had the most fun in  building his list, everything was much more challenging having to plan for multiple games, with reserve characters , troops etc. Each game became more monumental, losing a character could have long lasting effects. My tactics changed completely to take out strategic targets that impact more than just this single game.

We are having our 5th game soon and this time he can only field 800pts of figures, in what be my best chance yet to clinch it.

So please share your experiences? What narrative or custom games gave you the most competitive experience? What matched play/tournament style games told an epic story?

Thanks for reading if you made it this far!

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I don't have much experience with narrative play other than what I read online.  However whenever I see narrative games being played there is usually some kind of handicap in place or kneecapping of armies or some houserules in place.

That to me is the opposite of competitive, so while you may be able to play competitively in narrative, its the same as my rec-league football club.  They are competitive, but they could never play competitive football at the highest level and they often use some variation of football and not the rules of the highest level of football.

To some thats still competitive, to others thats playing the game casually for fun as opposed to competitive play which is playing the sport at the highest level and it being your job.  (Yes I know you cannot play tabletop games and make money but I would like to see that changed to fall in line with magic the gathering, I think that there is a ton of potential there)

I think its splitting hairs over a meaning to be honest.  I'm fine with narrative meaning casual gaming with houserules and army modifications and competitive meaning standard play using rules as written and tournament play.

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For me, the main difference is that competitive play focuses on the game, and the desired result is to win.  Narrative focuses on the story and the time had during the game, win or lose.  What I often see is that the competitive players only enjoy the game if they win (if this turns into "regardless of if your opponent had fun" then that is delving into the gray area of WAAC) while your non-competitive players tend to have fun by playing the game.  They might still want to win, but winning isn't the focus, having a good time and having a cool looking (and often thematic/fluffy) army is the goal, winning is secondary.

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2 hours ago, wayniac said:

For me, the main difference is that competitive play focuses on the game, and the desired result is to win.  Narrative focuses on the story and the time had during the game, win or lose.  What I often see is that the competitive players only enjoy the game if they win (if this turns into "regardless of if your opponent had fun" then that is delving into the gray area of WAAC) while your non-competitive players tend to have fun by playing the game.  They might still want to win, but winning isn't the focus, having a good time and having a cool looking (and often thematic/fluffy) army is the goal, winning is secondary.

I wouldn’t say that’s my experience at all. Even at tournaments. People want to win yes, but not at the expense of not enjoying the game if they lose. Win or lose almost every competent game I remember playing my opponent and I have enjoyed regardless or the outcome. 

I also think that narrative and competitive aren’t mutually exclusive. You just have to look at tournaments like warhammer achievements at blood and glory to see that. 

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5 hours ago, wayniac said:

What I often see is that the competitive players only enjoy the game if they win (if this turns into "regardless of if your opponent had fun" then that is delving into the gray area of WAAC) while your non-competitive players tend to have fun by playing the game. 

Not to doubt your personal experiences, but they don't mesh with mine. I can't say I'm competitive in the same way as, for instance, Dead Scribe, but I sure as heck do want to win each and every game I play.

But.

When I lose, I almost always still enjoy the game. The times I don't either have to do with my opponent being a tool or my most frustrating thing in gaming (making a perfect plan that works 215 out of 216 times, and getting that 216th option).

My preference is, by far, to win, but losing doesn't negate the fun.

I think your choice of how you presented it is, no shade to you, a representation of just exactly why we have this problem or conflict.

By saying competitive players only enjoy winning and that non-competitive players are the ones playing for fun, you are reinforcing a negative mindset and a false separation.

All Warhammer players - all of them - are playing for fun. Also, I'd wager that nearly all Warhammer players (all other things being fair and equal) would prefer a win over a loss, even in a Narrative or unbalanced game.

We're all having fun and at least hoping for the win. We just emphasize different aspects of the experience along the way.

Edited by Sleboda
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For me, narrative is what happens off the table.  Choosing what models to buy (especially this!) and/or what models out of my large collection to build, deciding how to build and paint, doing conversions, coming up with basing schemes.

Then, and only then, do I build the best list I can manage, constrained by the mostly narrative/aesthetic purchasing and painting choices already made.  And then I play to the best of my ability on the table (but sometimes the mood takes me and I make an ill-advised charge for silly reasons - I'm not a robot!).

But I still end up a mid-table chump (in a general sense, defeating poor players and losing to good ones), because I pretty much never base buying or painting on what's good.  And so I end up with Arrowboy-less Bonesplitters at the height of the pre-nerf Kunnin Rukk, and boxes and boxes of Skywardens rather than Endrinriggers, and a for-the-love-of-god-why Spiderfang army that I painted for... reasons(?).

Edited by amysrevenge
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A competitive game between two skilled players is the greatest story that this hobby is capable of producing. It's in these games that the rest of it truly becomes 'fluff'.

The issue I have with narrative gaming is that it tends to try and take control of the story being played out on the table, and it's almost always far worse than what it would have been without the interference. This is a big part of why I've been a vocal critic of the realm rules. The realm rules desperately try to force themselves into relevance, but jar constantly with what actually makes playing AoS interesting. 'Roll a 6 to be the better player', which is what the majority of the realm rules boil down to, takes an epic battle between Titans and turns it into a Benny Hill sketch.

In a response to @Wayniac, some of the best games I've ever had have been losses. Don't take momentary frustration and disappointment as their ACTUAL feelings about the game, those are natural responses to trying as hard as you can and still failing at something. They fade quickly and usually competitive players are left with a bunch of cool moments and new ideas to take with them into further games.

The only time you'll get genuine anger is when the RULES beat you rather than your opponent. Rolling Fecund Quagmire as Slaanesh against a Stormcast Gunline is a great example. Anther one is a game I had where my most expensive unit got hit and killed by a comet that the TO thought would be a fun and quirky addition to the game rather than stupid RNG bullstuff.(It could do up to 2d6 mortal wounds and hit basically anywhere on the table, landed on me, did 12 mortal wounds.)

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I quit playing League of Legends and a couple Fighters because the anti-enjoyment of a loss. Said another way, when I lost I had less than zero fun. When I won, I had some fun. This was not a healthy ration. The reason I love AOS is because I do have fun even when I'm not winning. If winning is all that mattered I'd go do other things like beat my 5 year old son in basketball. When you're competitive, COMPETITION is what matters. Adversity, improvisation, theorycraft, lines of play, and so on, and so on, and so on. You're testing yourself against people you respect in a game you revere. 

3 hours ago, Bellfree said:

Don't take momentary frustration and disappointment as their ACTUAL feelings about the game, those are natural responses to trying as hard as you can and still failing at something. They fade quickly and usually competitive players are left with a bunch of cool moments and new ideas to take with them into further games.

 This is an exceedingly important point about competitive players that often gets overlooked. A lot of people confuse "competitive" (to use the OP's nomenclature) with "must win." People ascribe undue insecurity (narrative) and superiority (competitive) to this debate which is a part of the problem. I don't think I'm better than a narrative player and I don't think the narrative player is bad at the game so they go do something else to not get shamed. People that fall into this category of toxic casual or must-win competitive player are actually just a**holes. Competitive/Narrative, got nothing to do with it. 

If you're good. You know you're good and when you get beat, it's a learning experience and a chance to respect your competitor. This is a humbling and important step in competition. You'll never get better if you think you're hots***, the best ever. Sure, sometimes the map favors your opponent or you run into your counter match-up but how you play it is where you galvanize the type of player you are. These are the Thermopylae stories. You remember those moments whichever side you're on. "Dude was losing then he..." or "I was supposed to lose this but..."

A sort of odd side note is that competitive play strips away a lot of the BS so you just get to meet the people and not just their armies. 

This entire thing is, indeed a false dichotomy, exacerbated by our tribe mentality and the binary nature of the internet (that if I voice my opinion on one thing,  I must naturally be against the other). 

I am, believe it or not, capable of playing both a Narrative Game and  Competitive one. Apparently some people are only capable of one.

 

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I've noticed that the toxic "competitive" players are usually not competitive at all.  They have all these ideas in their heads about the way the game is and how it should be and how only people doing matched play at 2000 points are playing the real game, but then there's nothing going on with them when it comes to tournament attendance, hobbying or anything.  They're just noise.  They certainly don't represent anything like the majority of competitive players.  At most they'll be the big fish in a very small pond and enjoy winning against new and casual players who aren't into the same competitive thing as them. 

The real competitive players can attune their approach to be appropriate to the game they are playing.  They enjoy it when they get the opportunity to take a unit off the shelf that doesn't have a place in their tournament army.

People working out their own inferiority complexes by winning games of toy soldiers or trashing how other people are approaching the game are simply not competitive players.

And this isn't a "no true scottsman" fallacy.  You can actually see the real competitive players with their awesomely painted armies, their passion for the background fiction and their respect for the less serious approaches to the game taken by others.  Yes, people can get frustrated and their sportsmanship can slip, but the fact that good conduct is a rewarded ideal among the competitive crowd should speak volumes.

Edited by Nin Win

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That's a quality thread. Gives food for thought. 

I love the idea of that campaign Orks vs Marines ! 

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While I agree that "narrative/casual" and "competitive" are not well defined and delimiting terms, to me there is difference. Generally speaking, and with differences from person to person, and different groups of players, I would summarize them as following.

When you play competitive, your main goal is winning, and possibly winning with the highest margin you can achieve. So you're not putting "models" into your list, but their profiles. All you're interested (or you should be interested into) is the math behind the pretty models. And usually, to make the whole thing "fair" you'll want the less random events happening.

When you play narrative/casual, you're mostly interested in the tale being told. You build your list following a background idea, like your personal take into a warlord into the mortal realms struggling for his share of glory, or fighting for the freedom of his people, whatever... or maybe you're just assembling a force of models you like the look of, notwithstanding they don't synergize very well together. I'm a slow painter and so many times (not limited to AoS) I've played a force that has its main trait in "just painted models", for the sake of a nice spectacle... I wouldn't do it in a competitive environment. When you play casual, you can try weird scenarios, make up your own, try stupid ideas... 

This said, I don't mean that competitive players can't appreciate a good looking table with gorgeous models on it, or that they have to act as a**holes, as much as I don't mean that casual players have not interest in winning and will not try to give a fight to their opponents. It's just that the main motivation to play is different. Furthermore, I'm not even saying that competitive players and casual players are necessarily different persons. There could be people interested just in casual play or just in tournament play, as much as there could be people that appreciate both and are happy to play both kind of games depending on the situation. 

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I played a 3-game narrative campaign that was fiercely competitive. The narrative element was that it was an attack on a Free Peoples territory by a Slaves to Darkness warband. The armies were balanced, but I was allowed to use a second batch of Marauder Horsemen and Marauders set up on my table edge if they were all killed. The defender had a load of town buildings available as cover. There was also a tower in the middle of the board in which he could stick a single unit as lookouts. The tower was an objective, and then 3 objectives in the town, with each granting whoever controlled them overall control of that third of the town. Any of my models within 1" of a building in my hero phase could also set it ablaze. We decided to go with victory points for various things to determine the winner at the end, though the state of the battlefield at the end would be the best way to work it out.

So straight away we had a story, two 1500pt armies with a balanced addition for each, and the board looked great - town outskirts one side, tower in the middle, trees and rocks on my side. Once the game was on that was it - full on Slaves to Darkness Warlord. I was going to burn that town down if it was the last thing I did! What followed was 5 turns of carnage. Marauders running into disciplined ranks of handgunners and dispossesed artillery, Knights charging in and destroying everything. The story actually made the game more competitive, it felt like there was something to lose. 

You don't have to have total imbalance in Narrative Play. All you're doing is telling a story, giving meaning to the objectives and motivation for your armies to be doing what they're doing beyond wanting to win because it's a game - it doesn't necessarily detract from the competitive aspect of it. In Narrative Campaigns that are giant territorial battles between the Grand Alliances, things can be fiercely competitive - you want to win your battle to increase the power of your allegience through a series of battles for different areas. In some of those, you might be at a disadvantage, but you have a go anyway!

Edited by AlphaKennyThing
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