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The Toy Soldier Habit

Damned lies is what this is.

Damned lies is what this is.

I play Warhammer 40,000 (or ’40K’). I play Warhammer as often as I can, which is not nearly enough. If I had my way, I’d play a game a week and enter a tournament a month. As it stands, I play about a game a month and enter tournaments once or twice a year. I am always trying to get new people to play the game, because those friends of mine who do play are either few in number or difficult to pry into actually playing (or both). Typically, when I broach the subject of playing 40K with somebody who sounds potentially interested, I usually get the response “It’s so expensive, though!”

And that, my friends, is just soooo much bullshit. So, in the interest of procrastinating the mountain of work I’ve got sitting here to be graded, I’m going to rant a bit.

All right, Warhammer 40K is not super cheap. The sticker shock of buying an army outright seems overwhelming. The rulebook will cost you $75, the army specific rulebook (which you’ll need) will set you back another 50. Most full-size armies, if bought at the sticker price, will cost you several hundred dollars. Throw in another hundred-ish bucks for paint and brushes, and you can reasonably expect to drop ~$500 to start up (though there are a *lot* of ways to get discount stuff and come under this figure). When people go to the website and start adding things together, they start to freak out.

What they’re forgetting, though, is that nobody expects you to go out and buy everything all at once in the same sense that nobody expects you to go out and buy every single piece of a model train set all at the same time or expect you to buy and entire set of golf clubs and attire the first time you play. This, I feel, is part of the misunderstanding: people think Warhammer is a game. It isn’t. It’s a hobby.

Playing the actual game of Warhammer 40K is only about a third (or less) of what you spend your time doing. For the rest of the time you are buying models, building/painting/customizing those models, putting together army lists, modeling terrain, chatting tactics online, and so on. For every game I play of Warhammer 40K, I’ve probably put about 10 hours of prep time behind it over the course of however many weeks or months. I enjoy this process – it is part of the hobby. It’s fun and very satisfying to finish painting a really cool model to add to my collection.

People who think it’s a game are usually folks that approach the world from the perspective of the video gamer. You buy it, you sit down, you play it, and, 20-ish hours later, it’s over. Never mind that video gamers are paying the exact same amount of money (if not more) for their consoles + games as I do for my 40K armies. Nevermind that, unlike video games, an army that I build or a model that I paint I can use and will remain relevant forever. I am still fielding models I purchased almost ten years ago. Did that little plastic tank cost me $50? Yeah, it did. But when I laid out the money for that tank, you were laying out $50 for Halo 2. Tell me, are you still playing Halo 2? Hmmm?

Didn’t think so.

Furthermore, when you compare Warhammer 40K with other actual hobbies, it compares quite favorably. It’s cheaper than golf by a country mile, it’s less time consuming and less expensive than fishing. It costs a damn sight less than boating hobbies of any kind. Model Trains? Warhammer is both less expensive (overall) and takes up less space. Gardening? People spend more money on gardening than on any other hobby (in aggregate, granted). Sure, when you’re a teenager with a crap minimum wage job you only work part time, a Warhammer army is realistically out of your reach. If you’re a full grown person, though, with a salary and a car who pays your own rent and taxes and still has the money left over to occasionally take your significant other out to an expensive dinner, don’t sing me the ‘but it’s so expensive’ sob story. Bull shit, cheapskate–if you want to, you can afford it without even making a noticeable dent in your bank account. Hell, afforded it while working as a dog walker and then as an adjunct professor, and let me tell you: those jobs do NOT pay that well.

If you want to whine to me about how much 40K costs, what you should say to me is “I don’t like the idea of this hobby enough to invest the resources necessary”. I don’t have a problem with that. That is totally fine by me. There are a lot of hobbies I don’t like enough to invest in (like fishing, for instance). I do not prance around, though, using the ‘exorbitant’ cost of fishing rods as an excuse not to get involved. I just say ‘no thank you’ and move on. What drives me bonkers is the perception (A) that if I play this game I somehow have buckets of disposable income and (B) that I’m supposed to believe that you really want to play but are just too broke to start. Sure, some people are legitimately strapped for cash for a variety of reasons, but the majority of the people who say this to me are not among them. They’ve been making more money than this poor-ass writer for a long, long time. They just, for some reason quite beyond me, can’t simply admit to me that they don’t think the cost is justified considering the enjoyment derived. That doesn’t mean you can’t afford it; that just means you don’t want to. Stop pretending and just tell it to me straight.

Money and Make-Believe

Call this 'a lot' and we're satisfied. Nobody's breaking out the old abacus, are they?

Call this ‘a lot’ and we’re satisfied. Nobody’s breaking out the old abacus, are they?

I’m currently reading Wise Man’s Fear, second book in Rothfuss’s Kingkiller Chronicles, and the ups and downs of Kvothe’s meager finances has gotten me thinking about the presence (or absence) of financial concerns in scifi/fantasy stories. More often than not, it is left out – characters are poor, but we don’t spend a lot of time counting the contents of their purses, or they’re rich, but we don’t spend a lot of time considering the state of their investments or where, precisely, they keep all that money, anyway. Readers of scifi/fantasy aren’t really in it for the in-depth analysis of microeconomics in some made up non-realm, anyway – they want adventure. So, sure, there might be a treasure at the end of the quest and there might be some social or societal pressures making this or that object more valuable, but how much time do we really want to spend counting coins and handling living expenses?

Maybe, though, we’re missing something.

Now, Rothfuss goes into exhaustive detail involving how much money Kvothe has and what he spends it on. His work serves as a pretty good example of what is both good and bad about involving money in a fantasy story on an intimate level. On the one hand, money (or the lack thereof) is a fantastic motivator for characters to do things – often desperate things – and the prospect of Kvothe being kicked out of the University for failure to pay tuition creates some real tension in the story. This makes for good storytelling. Furthermore, the details of expenses makes the world more immersive, more real – also a bonus for our fantasy world.

But then there are the drawbacks: it gets old, all this money grubbing. As I am now in the second book of Kvothe having no money and facing the same tuition problems, I’m getting less interested in them. From a meta-plot standpoint, Kvothe has weaseled his way out of poverty enough times now for me to be less invested in his continued struggles. I figure he’ll find a way or, if he doesn’t, I’m growing less invested in the constant updates on the contents of Kvothe’s purse. So he gets an extra talent here and an extra bob there – so? I’m not really keeping a logbook, so I gather it would suffice for Rothfuss to simply have Kvothe say “I didn’t have enough money for x and still be able to eat, so I didn’t buy it” or “I earned a little cash from playing corners that night, but was still far short of tuition.” The numbers are getting stripped of their meaning; they’re boring. Additionally, the ‘does Kvothe have enough money’ conflict has faded from a primary concern to a secondary one. He’s poor – we get it.

One of the best examples of taking bean-counting too far in literature is Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders, in which Flanders gives us an exhaustively detailed account of exactly how much money she has and when, what she spends it on, how much it costs, and the profits she expects from the exchanges. It’s as dry as reading expense reports, except with a madam involved. Of course, Defoe was trying to pass off his novel as non-fiction, ostensibly, and the details served as a sort of con-job for the reader – why would somebody making up a story spend so much time quibbling over shillings?

I think, on the whole, I prefer how JK Rowling handled it best. Despite the wildly improbable economic model of the wizarding world (another post for another time), the fact that Ron was poor and Harry wasn’t played as important character traits without us having to spend time worrying about where, exactly, the money was coming from and/or going. Then again, Rothfuss and Defoe are telling different kinds of stories, I guess – stories that hold realism up as a guidepost, and play it accordingly. One has to ask, though, are we reading fantasy for utter realism? Shouldn’t there be a middle ground?

Now, I’m not here to bash Rothfuss, precisely (I’m enjoying the books very much so far), but I’m worried we’re about to take a turn from ‘high adventure and melodrama’ into ‘Upton Sinclair would be proud of this book’, which I really don’t want to happen. I’ve read The Jungle and Sister Carrie and Moll Flanders already; I don’t need to do it again, particularly not in a fanciful world.