TL;DR: 40k in a Non 40k World

Neither of these people are James.

James Hildebrand has written a very funny short essay about being a closeted Eldar player in high school. He's a student at Amherst, and I believe he has stopped playing, at least as of this writing. It's lighthearted and leads into a lovely overall message about doing things just for the sake of doing them. But there was something else in the article that got me thinking.
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Because it was written for a non-hobby site, James had to describe 40k comprehensively and succinctly using very general terms. He also had to pick out the few things (like expense) that would resonate with civilians and provide the base one which he built his argument.

"Well, technically, I guess the whole "No Wolves on Fenris" thing could mean that any canine beasts on the planet are actually mutated novitiates who could not handle the geneseed. Whew! Enough about me...when did YOU join OK Cupid? Hello? Hello?" picture from 1D4Chan

And that's the thing that separates a full-on (and admittedly stereotypical) neckbeard from the general populous, in my opinion. If you cannot ever discuss your hobby without delving into the minutiae, you are in too deep to interact with normal humans. In fact, this really applies to any special interest, right? And that SHOULD be fine, and it IS fine. More power to you all.

Where this all breaks down, though, is when a 40k enthusiast needs or wants to explain the hobby to someone who is not into gaming or miniatures at all. Maybe you are a preteen that needs to explain to your parents why every bit of your allowance goes towards army men that aren't even assembled. Maybe you are trying to get a group going at work, but your cube farm is a veritable minefield of asshats and ex-jock bullies. Maybe you've made it to a second date and are desperately trying to avoid landing in the Friend Zone. Or maybe (like in my case) you're trying to figure out how to describe your passion without seeing eye rolls or worse: the blank gaze of misunderstanding.

Of course, there is nothing wrong with staying close to familiar surroundings and just socializing with people who are also into 40k. But does life need to be so one dimensional? There's a difference between a hobby taking up 20 hours a week and a hobby taking up 16 hours a day. Obviously, if you are a casual 40k hobbyist, this does not apply, but I have some bits of advice for people in our realm who eat, sleep, and breathe 40k on communicating with diverse groups of people.

I think hardcore gamers in general are miscategorized as antisocial when in reality, they are just socially awkward. Sooo...IF you want to comfortably communicate your passion for this hobby to innocent bystanders (and that's a big IF...there's nothing wrong with being introverted), here are a few things to keep in mind. Oh, and this comes from someone with many niche hobbies who lives and works in an environment made up of 99% sports enthusiasts):

Have an Elevator Pitch
I'm your typical settled-in dude with wife/kids/job/house, so I am constantly asked what the hell this stuff is that has taken over my office by neighbors, friends of my wife, etc. In fact, it's so common that I've come up with an elevator pitch.

For those of you who are not in marketing, media, or consulting, an elevator pitch is a QUICK description of the high concept designed to sell it to a funder, be it a movie producer, venture capitalist, or a parent (jk).

Here's my elevator pitch: All this shit you see is part of a game called Warhammer. It's a science fiction wargame where you move these guys around (and roll dice) on a table with scenery. I like it because you build and paint the models, and the rules and backstory are very complete.

Yes, it's 40k, not just WH. Yes, there's a lot more to it than how I described it. Yes, the rules are arguably unbalanced. But do you think anyone outside of the hobby is going to care? And the elevator pitch does something much better than a detailed description: It invites questions. The type of followup questions will indicate how much further detail a person wants or can handle. See? Now you're having a two way conversation.  :)

Respond to Analogies with Enthusiasm, not Scorn
Don't be an arse. It's up to YOU to explain what 40k is. When you hear "Is it like Dungeons and Dragons?",  the answer "Pfft. No, Grandma, why are you so stupid?!" should probably be low on your list of possible responses if you want to actually continue the conversation.

When someone asks you to compare 40k to something else, they are asking you to ground your concept in some experiential anchor that they possess. Ridiculing them or worse, jumping into microscopic differences, will only distance them further. Here are some that I've heard and my recommended answers.

"Is it like Dungeons and Dragons?" Well, it is very epic, and sometimes it's very immersive, but it's more a recreation of a battle than taking on the role of an adventurer.

"Is it like Risk?" It's similar in that it's a game of conflict, but the game deals with a single battle, not world domination. (Yes there's Planetary Empires, but who the hell actually uses it?)

"Is it like model railroading?" Yes! The assembling and painting is similar to model-making or model railroading, but there's also the game component.

"Is it like Dawn of War? Cause it looks like a rip off of Dawn of War..." (bites tongue) Yes, it's a ripoff of DoW. :)

Move Forward, but Constantly Check Pulse
So now, you've introduced the concept and provided some ancillary information...now is the time to be a really good self-monitor. Show them some of your favorite models, let them page through the BRB (This is what those Black Library art books are for!), but don't go crazy on the details. Some people will really be interested in why you are interested, but that's a minority. Any curiosity usually comes from the tiny painted details, the realistic ruins, and their inability to juxtapose YOU with little army men. It's up to you to decide whether you want to possibly create more mainstream acceptance for 40k. You can help the cause by explaining the hobby while maintaining the perspective of the layperson, or  you can confirm their worst suspicions about us being unplugged versions of World of Warcraft addicts.

Here's a good rule of thumb. The very first time you talk about 40k to someone who has only used dice to play Yahtzee, avoid the following words:

Horus Heresy
Corpse God
Win At All Costs
Dark Eldar
Eternal Warrior
Army Lists

I had last played 40k during second edition. Almost twenty years later, a coworker and I started talking about the state of the hobby, and he was very careful not to inundate me. Two weeks later, I was in deep and I've been so ever since.

So give it a try. Stealth evangelism is fun. Baby steps gentlemen (and very few ladies). Baby Steps.

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