I love me some geek hobbies. Not content to play obscure computer games or waste my life away on kooky MMOs, I've always been vulnerable to the siren song of tabletop gaming.
Part of this is my driving professional interest. When you are turned upside-down and dipped into the military world, I suppose it is only natural that you find yourself engaged in some militaristic hobbies. Paintball is fun but hurts like the dickens when you get shot. Likewise I enjoy the occasional shooting-type video game, but they tend to be pretty short and I have no great urge to subject myself to the lunacy one might find in that multiplayer crowd.
But oh, those tabletop games. With their delightful little figurines and turn-based strategy that allows me to perfectly align my plans and schemes until the moment when the dice betray me and I am trounced by a middle-schooler at the local hobby store.
This is something that I've always really wanted to get into, and have dabbled in on more than one occasion. I've tried the Warhammer and 40K circuit, the Warmachine/Hordes thing, a few weirder and quirkier things here and there. I find myself daydreaming about the fantastic armies I could be leading to glorious victory, if only for... well, a lot of things.
1. Crystal Meth is Cheaper (and Probably Better for You)
First, money. Now as a privileged white person with steady employment I am at liberty to do pretty much anything I like in our economy that doesn't involve copious amounts of precious metals. Yet even by that silly metric these hobbies seem really, really expensive. I get that is by design, but when the economic barriers to entry are so high you're really limiting yourself. Let's do some basic math. I want to embark on a campaign to build a mighty force of SPESH MAREENS. Rather than subject myself to the questionable man in a trenchcoat that is eBay, I go straight to the source over at the Games Workshop website where I am sure to see the latest in stock. My first step is to buy the rulebook, which helpfully comes with a low-cost, no-frills, black-and-white option that is 168 pages and sells for the low low price of $49.50. That's right, a tome whose length Amazon would be ashamed to sell for more than $4 runs about the same price as a slightly discounted Xbox game at Target. Right-o. I can also snag a "starter set" hobby kit for only $60. I can then buy two squads of basic Space Marines for $40 each and then a commander for $22.50... of wait, I forgot to get my army's codex, which is $58 and smaller than your average issue of Foreign Affairs. Total cost: $270. Just to compare, a Kindle Fire HD is $140. The Xbox Kinect Holiday Bundle is $250.
I'd also like to point out that up to this point nothing I have done has been "fun", unless you find it really fun to spend a bunch of money (in which case I need to send you the link to my PayPal account). I have two obtuse rulebooks, some paints and a bunch of unassembled plastic dudes. Even once I slap them together this force, which meets the bare minimum requirements for legal play, is so laughably inadequate that most opponents would find it a waste of time to even face me. We now see that the person willing to invest more money into their force will have many more options, giving them a decided advantage against a less-funded opponent. It's not quite so severe as in Magic the Gathering, where some rich bastard could cultivate an almost unbeatable deck, but it's still pretty bad. I mean yes yes, I get it, rich people have all sorts of advantages over less-rich people, but that's not something I want to heavily influence my leisure time. After all, if we sit down to play a game of Risk the result will hinge on our luck and skill, not our respective bank accounts.
There's also a significant fixed cost problem, since once you invest in one army it is not easy to switch factions without spending a lot more dinero. Sure the core rulebook remains the same, but now you're shelling out money for a new codex and all new figurines. Heck, you probably need to buy new paints, which brings up the next gripe:
2. Paintin' Ain't Easy
This may seem petty, but stick with me on this one. Part of the appeal of having physical miniatures instead of, say, a digital army in a video game, is that they are visually pleasing. Go to hobby store and look at the displays. They look cool, don't they? And the box art makes this little buggers look fantastic.
But most actual player armies look like sparkly turds.
Part of it is surely skill. As someone who is highly caffeinated and has the patience of a squirrel, I admit that manipulating a fine-tip paintbrush is not one of my core competencies. But I defy you to really care about detail when you are on your sixth or twelfth or twenty-eighth miniature representation of cannon fodder. It takes an absolutely stupid amount of time to do right. Which brings up the biggest problem.
3. Time is Not on Your Side
While the monetary cost of these games is frightfully silly, their real cost is that they require an enormous investment of time. Time to read the silly rulebooks, time to assemble and paint an army, time to find an opponent, time to play a match that will probably run several hours long.
And time is, in its own weird way, very expensive.
There is a strange American notion that poor people are in their lot because they're incredibly lazy. If they would just get off the couch then they'd find jobs and money and we'd all be better for it. Except in almost every real case I have seen, being poor is incredibly time consuming. The hardest-working person I know is the homeless guy who pushes a grocery cart up and down the Charles River trail collecting bottles that he can donate for spare change. He walks more in one morning than I do in a week just so that he can scrounge up enough to buy some awful sandwich at McDonald's. Being poor means you probably use public transit (or walk), which takes a lot more time than driving or hailing a cab. It also means you have to budget in order to get those creature comforts like food and electricity and heat, which takes time. It means you probably can't afford higher education, which means you have to take a lower-wage job, and wouldn't you just know that taking lower wages means you have to work longer in order to make ends meets.
Conversely, having money allows me to enjoy leisure time since my survival isn't dependent on my individual economic efficiency. If we're busy and don't feel like cooking we order out. I don't need overtime pay, so I can spend those hours at home.
So what's the point Dave? The point is that not only do these games cost a lot of money, they cost a lot of time. That creates a double-barrier to entry into the hobby. Even if I can afford all these little pieces and am so enamored with them that only tabletop wargaming can fill the tiny plastic man-shaped hole in my heart, I may just not have enough time to engage in the hobby. This distorts the target market by narrowing it to people who have significant disposable income and enormous amounts of time on their hands, which basically leaves the game in the hands of children with very indulgent parents and well-off twats who really, really, really love Warhammer. I find this sad, because while I would love to geek out over a fake battlefield, I am not willing to do so at the expense of all my other hobbies, or my family, or my writing.
4. Miniature Creep
But what really bugs me is seeing this diabolical market seep into the roleplaying industry, where I do have a long history and vested interest. The two biggest fish in the pond, Dungeons & Dragons and Pathfinder, are now both using miniature-based combat systems. While I suppose this allows for a certain tactical granularity that people addle-brained enough to like Pathfinder might crave, it sucks because now you are significantly raising the costs of play. I get that the parent companies want to make profit, but making profit at the expense of narrowing your market seems like a not-so-great long term strategy.
If I can play Apocalypse World or FATE or Burning Wheel with some dice I pocketed from the local casino, why should I now plunk down hundreds of dollars on miniatures for your system? Is it really that much more fun? And yes, I know that you can use stand-ins like pennies or counters or whatever, but that looks silly and jars me out of the game narrative. At least Warhammer has the common decency to restrict their army lists to a few dozen or so figurines each, whereas in Pathfinder you suddenly find yourself fighting dozens of ghouls because the DM just bought a ghoul figurine and feels obligated to get her money's worth.
Miniatures are great for helping to ground a game in tactical specificity, but who gives a hoot about that in a roleplaying game? Can't you just make it up? I don't get it.
Keep it pure, friends. If you are one of the blessed few who can get a beautiful tabletop army then good for you, but roleplaying is about the story. Miniatures aren't story. They're a distraction.
Protect the story.