We’ve all had a lop-sided game, or been blind-sided by some unit’s powerful rules. Your default state after this is shit-talky butthurt, without exception. We found early on that this hurt the club, as the character of a player would often be included in those slanderous ramblings. So unsporting guys who lost to a powerful unit would basically indirectly shit on people who used that unit. Mostly, this was friendly ribbing — “Oh yeah, let’s see how you do without all those GCs, punk!!” — but there is always a hint of seriousness to the tone. And of course, some who were fully serious.
This leads to a lot of problems:
- It’s suddenly okay to judge a person because of their army.
- It leads to the false equivocation that anybody who plays a powerful unit is a jerk.
- It normalizes the idea of blaming the game, leading to never-improving players and GW hate.
- Last but not least, it unfairly puts an impetus on the strong players to dumb it down for those who aren’t as strong.
All of these things contribute to the toxic shit-stew you are used to if you played 40k anywhere but my club in the last 10 years, but perhaps none moreso than that last one. It makes new people think the game is inherently unfair, it makes powerful players annoyed that they can’t use what they want, and it makes everybody hate everybody because their playstyles directly contradict each other.
This was particularly serious for us because Paul, my best friend and one of the founders of the club, was a very skillful player who made potent lists. And people would deem him some kind of jerk for it, when the reality is he is literally the most considerate and friendly person I’ve ever met. I soon found this to be true of many players. Some had armies that simply became powerful incidentally (Commissar Magoo’s gigantic Guard Tank collection was awful in 4th edition, then the 5E codex dropped and changed that overnight). Others had picked the army for reasons of their own but coincided with coming to powerful builds through time refining their play.
So basically we figured out early that no one really was trying to be a jerk outright. But the term “competitive” was used pejoratively EVERYWHERE when we started. So Paul and the others and I, we resolved to fix this problem.
How’d you do it?
We focused on the pre-game agreement and setting expectations. We put the emphasis on helping weak players improve, and encouraging strong players to disclose potential mismatches. We then treated those as opportunities to better themselves, pointing out the small victories in play. We played games with these players ourselves and taught them as much as we could. And of course we encouraged the empowerment culture, whereby strong players were encouraged and expected to play with an eye toward assisting their opponents for optimal gameplay.
You see, in 40k you basically have three brackets of player.
- The lowest 10% are the guys who don’t use all the options in their toolboxes: leaving out options to be fluffy, having an incomplete force, they play an out-of-date army, or they just plain build non-versatile lists. These guys are categorized by just outright not wanting to get better, and expecting their current commitment and understanding of the game to always be sufficient.
- The upper 10% are people who design their lists only for power level, with little to no concern for anything else. They will exploit virtually any opportunity for advantage, be it pre-game or during play — not immorally, just mechanically (most often it’s the stacked lists — they are concerned mostly with rules and rarely aesthetic).
- The rest are the middle 80% — our target audience, basically everyone between those two extremes, the majority of 40k players. The people who play the game and actively want to be better or more well-rounded.
Our job was to bring these people to a point where the playing field was at least typically level between them. This was the idea behind the “Rise to the Challenge” tenet: encourage people to recognize and learn from their uphill battles, and encourage the strongest players to impart their knowledge in-game. This dragged the power hate culture into the light a bit, and allowed us to supercede power hate with discussions about improvement and teaching. The net result was a much more positive atmosphere at the club, and our signature friendliness to new people (as well as a bonus…naturally keeping out people who are full-blown power-gamer assholes/cheaters, because they would not be comfortable imparting aid onto the people they crushed).
Mismatches are always going to happen. Leverage them for your gaming group and let them serve as learning experiences. They make much better training opportunities than soapboxes.