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Wraithsight: Breaking the bubble- a look at gaming groups.
Old 05 Sep 2008, 17:56   #1 (permalink)
Yriel of Iyanden's Avatar
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Default Wraithsight: Breaking the bubble- a look at gaming groups.

Hi. I’m Yriel. Yeah I know, not very original…I swear I picked the name before the model and rules came out. Hey, uhh…wanna play some 40K? Oh, I see, you’re meeting your buddy here to play. Okay.

Hey how about you? Ahh, testing a tourney list. Yeah- you can’t be bothered playing a pick up game- go ahead and test it against the gaming bud you can already beat, sure I understand…good luck man…

Hey! False newb! Come and try out your Space Marine rumors on me! Come on! You don’t even need a list! I know you don’t have one anyway…ohh- you are waiting for the store event….okay…

Okay so does anyone here want to play Fantasy then? How about Blood Bowl?

Blood Bowl, anyone?

Oh hey. I’m Yriel- professional game ‘scavenger’. Glad you could join me down here in ‘please-play-me-ville’. You know- it didn’t always be this way for me- I mean I used to play in weekly leagues, and challenge boards, and I painted non-stop and have been in, led, and revived my share of gaming groups. I’ve been doing this a long time you know. It was all that other stuff- growing up, having a career, getting married, you know…all that ‘life’ stuff that got in the way. Now I have to scavenge time as well as games, and this can be tough in a gamer society largely dominated by anti-social stereotypes, and reclusive cliques or gaming clubs.

I was talking to my bud- Lonely Tau the other night about his particular role in his new gaming group, about how he is the ‘alpha’ and used terms like ‘scaling up’ and ‘fundamentalizing’, you know- all that ‘jargon’ I bandy about whenever I talk shop, and well- what I was trying to explain to him was how his experience wasn’t as uncommon as he felt, and share some of my own experiences with gaming group dynamics. And that’s what got me writing- again. It doesn’t take much. So this episode of Wraithsight is about just that- dynamics of gaming groups, and you. Enjoy!

What is a gaming group?

Literally speaking, a gaming group is any collection of gamers that play games against one another multiple times. This can be as formal as a true gaming club that hosts events, wears matching shirts, and has its own charter and website to those two or three guys you always seem to run into and play at your local hobby store. The key thing about gaming groups is that regardless of its rigidity and structure gaming groups always feature 3 or more gamers who give preference for playing one another.

This is a huge advantage in the gaming hobby, for as I pointed out, there is an odd dichotomy about gaming in that it tends to attract the traditionally anti-social who then congregate in social hobby using a rigid clique structure! That’s right folks- the very same people who loathe the ‘cool clique’ in school and appear to celebrate individuality practice their own form of pack mentality. And please don’t take too much offense to that last comment, we’re gamers- we play with little hand painted future toys. If we can do that with a straight face- it doesn’t hurt us to lighten up a hair.

Of course, a simple “anti-social” comment doesn’t address the entirety of why gaming groups are exclusive. In fact it is the sociality of gaming that often necessitates exclusivity. (Wow, can I include any more irony here?) Let me explain this a bit:

Gaming groups thrive on group immersion. They work together to ‘create’ their worlds. They design campaigns on planets they created. They write RP modules for the characters they envision. Their Space Marine Commander is the most important Space Marine Commander in their lives. Their Blood Bowl season record is only important to other members of that Blood Bowl league. So what you have is a bubble wherein everything on the inside is of critical, if imaginary, importance- and when considered outside the bubble it means nothing at all.

Therefore it behooves a gaming group to be extremely selective about who it actually lets inside the bubble- for the actions of that person can dramatically affect every single important thing within the bubble, and the addition of each member dramatically alters the look, feel, and operation of that gaming group.

Gaming Group dynamics

Now while all gaming groups are made up of different individuals, there are some common elements to them, and these manifest in different ways depending on the ‘primary’ identity of the group. A group’s primary identity is its external image when regarded by other players or other gaming groups. On a superficial level- gaming groups are portrayed on competitive levels, such as experience and how well the members perform at a tournament, or how intricate their painting and conversions are, for example. Other aspects of the primary identity are relate-ability, availability, power-immersion scaling, and creativity.

In plain English, gaming groups are known for being things- such as an uber-competitive group that plays topped out lists and tries to win all the tournies, or the slacked out guys who play in the store using nickels and old pieces of pepperoni to represent models. The conversion ‘kings’ who scratch build and paint everything wonderfully, or the ‘RP types’ who snub their noses at unfluffy lists. Yes, primary identities can even be things like “Newb group”, “False newbs”, or “Crotchety old men”. Now I’m sure some of you may be thinking “But my friends and I are all different, and we’re just normal folks that play an average, balanced style game with some painted and converted mini’s, and we don’t wear matching shirts.” That’s how it looks on the inside of your group. Chances are- other gaming groups you have encountered have mentally rated your group based on age, skill, and other demographics, and so this is the perceived identity of your group.

As I’m sure you can guess, a group’s perceived identity is not a reflection of each and every single member of that group. It is entirely possible (and more common than we think) that a knowledgeable, capable player or two exists in a gaming group of “newbs”. Or one of the members of the “skilled hobby” group contributes zero painting or converting to the group, or that a ‘powergamer’ has infested that largely immersive roleplaying group.

Group identity has more to do with the dominant traits of that group than it does with who is the strongest player or personality in that group. If the majority of players in the group prefer painting and conversion- then the group is regarded as “The guys that run all that cool lookin stuff”.

Common member roles and traits

Within a gaming group, members assert themselves towards a particular trait or trait they find the most favorable. This doesn’t mean that the trait always favors them, though. One thing to keep in mind as you read some of these descriptions below- it isn’t so much that the “brains” is flat out the smartest member of the group, for example, it’s that this person is asserting himself to be perceived as “the brains”, by exhibiting attitudes and behaviors as indicated below. Now, I’ve left out a common role like “jokester” or clown- this is because a majority of gamers attempt to be funny within their circle. Honestly- we ‘smart’ guys always think we’re funny, or in some cases simply are funny without trying to be.

Okay good. See, we can poke fun at ourselves!

Each of these examples include good applications of the trait, versus bad applications of it. For example a good Alpha can elevate the level of play and enjoyment in his group, where a bad application can lead to a secrecy and dominance that ensure no one want to play with him!

The Mouthpiece: While a gamer might be quiet, shy, or even aloof in the outside world, there’s no shortage of opinions, or mouthpieces inside the bubble. A good mouthpiece, though, is one who can keep everyone up to date on what’s going on- he can lead and moderate discussions that generate ideas, or even work to publicize the group’s more public events, like hosting a tourney.

Bad mouthpieces, though, tend to be more common. Bad mouthpieces can be irritating, negative, inflammatory killjoys that talk over fellow members and keep a negative tone in the group. The commensurate naysayer, sourpuss, and Monday morning quarterback, many a cool gaming group is overshadowed by one or a few too many bad mouthpieces.

The Alpha Everyone in the group dream of being the Alpha, and what’s ironic is that often the goal of a ‘good’ Alpha should be to get to a point where he doesn’t need to be the alpha anymore! Alphas are regarded as the talent within the group, whether he sets the tone for smarter, more competitive matches, or demonstrates a high degree of skill in other aspects like painting and modeling, writing, or creativity. It is the alpha that sets the benchmark for one or more of these traits, and so naturally a good alpha seeks to be helpful in elevating the skill of the group around him.

But again- there are plenty of bad alphas about. Bad application of an alpha can be something like ‘squandering’ strategic and tactical understanding so that he can continue to pummel the other members into submission, or squelching out new ideas or projects where he isn’t the primary contributor. Indeed, joining a new gaming group often hinges on whether or not the alpha accepts you into the group, or attempts to isolate or subjugate you.

The Cornerstone: The most unsung hero of them all, and the true heart and soul of the group is undoubtedly the cornerstone. The primary role of the cornerstone simple- just BE there- and the cornerstone’s principle characteristic is reliability. As gaming is (or should) be a leisurely hobby- absenteeism among members is frequent, accepted, and understood. People have jobs, wives, work, homework, kids- people have more important, often conflicting duties that interfere with getting together regularly and gaming. That isn’t to say cornerstones don’t have lives- it’s just that when they can’t be there- they can make sure critical matters in terms of gaming are taken care of. Good cornerstones form the glue of the group- they do the behind the scenes work of convincing the alpha member to attend a tourney, they use vacant gaming days to meet new players and invite them to attend the group, and they usually show the strongest support of the latest ‘craze’ that the group is onto. The most common place for a group to hang out other than a hobby store would be the motivator’s house. No gaming group survives without a good cornerstone, and it is this thankless hero that makes it all possible.

On the flip side, there are only two scenarios for the bad application of a cornerstone. The first scenario is the absolute lack of a cornerstone! It doesn’t matter whether your group has a charismatic mouthpiece, a brilliant alpha, a sharp brain or an inspiring motivator- if no one is showing up consistently then the whole thing falls apart! If a group loses cornerstones due to changes in life (relocation, having a kid, getting a job, having another addiction! etc.) then the cornerstone loses his primary reliability, and unless others pick up the slack then the group may die off. Alternately you have folks like ‘store regulars’ who could easily function as a good cornerstone if they just weren’t so damn repulsive to everyone around them…we’ll call them “Ronin cornerstones”.

The Motivator: A motivator is someone similar to a cornerstone, except with a little more personal influence. Motivators are generally the ‘coolest’ person in the gaming group- not cool as in up to date with trends, cool as in the person you enjoy the most, or failing that, the one you hate the least. Motivators can be vocal, like the mouthpiece, exuberant in the celebration of new models, or rules, and they can demonstrate this with actions too, such as buying said new models or rules before the rest of the group! It is often that within a group- an alpha admits he likes something, the mouthpiece announces that this is what we’re doing now, and the motivator buys, builds, and paints the first piece. In addition- motivators work as the sounding board within a group, encouraging the guy who’s suffered bad losses to continue to play, or simply telling the alpha that the group really needs him. The motivator’s principle attributes are encouragement and inspiration.

A bad motivator is simply a negative one. As good motivators can inspire new directions or encourage persistence and patience, bad motivators can suck the joy and hope from anything. An example of a bad motivator might be that guy in the hobby store, standing behind you, shaking his head as you reach for that Broadside kit, “Newp,” he might say, “That army sucks and even if I did play it, I wouldn’t take one of those.” What’s funny is- even in the remote instance that he’d be right, a bad motivator would explain it to you in such a way that you wouldn’t want to play a game- period! As good motivators keep up morale in gaming groups, so do bad motivators keep submission and negativity flowing.

The Brains: No gaming group is complete without their resident Spock, or mentat, or what have you. Outsiders say that tabletop gaming is for nerds, and even within the realm of nerd-dom is the need for a member of a gaming group to function as the raw human calculator for a group. The principle characteristics of a brain is organization, memory, and impartiality. Though it is a myth that a brain must be the smartest member of a gaming group- he’s simply the most focused and organized. Brains perform the tasks of verifying rules, they run stats and probabilities for the group, and work to maintain a semblance of order within the bubble. Often when the alpha has an idea- he’ll run it past the brains to see whether it is viable according to specific rules or fluff. When the motivator wants to see whether hope is still present in a situation he may solicit or ignore the advice of the brains. If the cornerstone is the glue, then the brain is the oil- he is there to make sure the pieces fit and are working properly.

Bad brains can be disorganized brains, like the lax folks who quote a rule from one codex and apply it to a different one, or the dreaded, ‘rules-lawyers’ whose main goal isn’t to get through a game- it is to win a ‘logical’ argument. Man I hate those guys!

These are just some of the most common roles and responsibilities within a gaming group. It should be noted that these are meant to serve as archetypes, and it is common for a member to share any or all of these qualities to varying degrees. Likewise- the perception of a gaming group as well as its primary identity can be seen as a composite of these archetypical traits. It follows that a good, healthy gaming group exhibits more of the positive aspects of these types, while an unhealthy, imbalanced group is dominated by the poor application of these traits.

So how do you fit in?

Now that we’ve done our share of poor man’s psychology- let’s have a look at ourselves and how we relate to this in a gaming group. The first thing you might do is evaluate the traits above and see how those apply to you. Are you good at promoting, inspiring, doing, or tracking? Are you pessimistic or overly skeptical of ideas? One of the hardest things to do in life is to hold up an honest mirror at oneself and then be able to do so- often.

But in terms of evaluating yourself for the sake of your hobby- why do it at all? This is supposed to be for fun, right? Yes it is, but the idea of tabletop gaming is to get two or more people together for mutual fun, and if your idea for having fun is overtly incompatible with the folks you game with- then you’re wasting everyone’s time- including your own. A competitive player doesn’t want to be in a group where he remains unchallenged- so he probably shouldn’t be with a group that values fluff over function, and vice versa.

But why is it a big deal?

It is a big deal because as I said at the beginning- you’re stepping into a bubble, and no matter what your function/role is within the group- you are being trusted to help build and sustain the world created within. A single member has the ability to influence the growth and direction of a gaming group, because of the fact that the games are relational and progressive. Whether we acknowledge it or not- when we are gaming with one or more other players- we are impacting how they will view or play the game in the future.

So- enough of the pulpit for now- it’s time to look at life cycles of the gaming group.

(Article continues below...)
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Old 05 Sep 2008, 17:57   #2 (permalink)
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Default Re: Wraithsight: Breaking the bubble- a look at gaming groups.

(Continued from above.)

In the beginning…

It’s very simple- gaming groups begin when 2 or more players decide they want to play a game with each other multiple times. My own experience always seems to begin with my brother, and usually a cohort (or five). I’ve met a lot of gaming groups that start off with relatives, over the years I’d say I’ve met at least ten or more, sometimes father-son, siblings, cousins, what have you. This is a fairly solid foundation for obvious reasons, but it need not be relatives that start this. Good friends work just as well if not better at times.

Early phases revolve around time and capital- skill isn’t required in the early going, for this is about discovery. It is at this stage that the mouthpiece and motivator are getting people to learn to play, the cornerstone and brain are setting up the location and schedule, and often the alpha has either not yet joined or has not yet discovered his talents. Games are leisurely, often illegal, but serve as fond memories and it’s easy to maintain excitement in the early going.

Discovery, expansion, ‘scaling up’

With the first few games underway, we’re starting to see who is good at what. At this stage the alpha and his group are starting to recognize his skill, and before long other friends or members have joined in. It is at this stage that the group is starting to build its identity, and as the alpha is discovered the chase ensues, and ‘scaling up’ begins.

Up until now people were taking units and playing games at a basic, fairly sloppy level, but often with a competitive alpha, people are starting to hit the books hard in an effort to beat him. The cash is still flowing too. Against alphas that are strong competitors- bigger, more expensive, more powerful units are being bought. Brains are researching ways to defeat the game’s latest powerhouse player. Motivators are telling people that ‘we’ can beat this guy. Some members keep buying and buying, even hiding purchases from each other until a game begins, even if it’s a one-time surprise. Scaling up is an incredibly volatile time for a new group.

Sometimes, scaling up occurs when an established group picks up a new member that has a higher skill level, or a more refreshing perspective than they are used to. This isn’t meant to brag, but I have joined a few groups where this has occurred- once it was discovered that the incumbent alpha could in fact be defeated, the rest of the group scales up to meet the new challenge. If you are in this position when joining a new group- understand that this is normal particularly if you are a more experienced or skilled player- they don’t grow on trees you know- and accept your role responsibly. For the sake of improving your new group and your games, I suggest you use fundamentalizing or ‘scaling down’ to help rectify the imbalance.

Eventually- the ‘Arms Race’ will hit critical mass, and what happens next will drastically affect the future of the group. Sometimes a group will simply implode if competitive levels and attitudes remain unchecked- causing the group to splinter off into smaller groups, purge a few members, or dissolve completely. Alternately- an uber-competitive group with a mature and realistic attitude can hit a healthy, stable level, while still continuing to push the limits of the game further and further. This can be a desired outcome as well- and seems easier to do with groups made up of self-professed competitive personalities- groups that have been with each other long enough and/or have competed in other arenas can thrive in a scaled-up environment.

Fundamentalizing or ‘scaling down’

This is a perfect time to bring up the very subject that Lonely and I spoke of the other night. Essentially- what happens when a strong, competent player joins a group that is in the middle of scaling up, or a competitive group that is accustomed to scaling up but is outclassed by the newcomer?

The idea is to see if the group can rise to the occasion by scaling down. Again with the irony…

Groups can scale up regardless of their actual skill. In terms of low skill and high power- this means players have skipped out on learning fundamentals in lieu of the faster reward of taking a topped out list that can play itself. As an experienced, skilled player you can still get past these ‘sledgehammer’ lists and tactics without having to resort to the same, though it will be more challenging not to go that route. A really good player-even if outclassed in terms of list- knows how to capitalize on common oversights and mistakes that a less skilled player can make with a more powerful list. In fact it is often the case that you use the speed, power, or numbers against a less skilled opponent, using their strengths to expose weaknesses. For me personally this has resulted in some rather proud moments where underpowered lists and units have stood their ground against all odds, much to the dismay of the opponent.
After a while people may start calling you or your list cheesy. Back in 4th edition (prior to the 4th edition Eldar codex) I had an inexperienced competitor tell me my list was cheesy because it had too many wraithguard (which if you remember, were hardly impressive at the time). When asked how it is I can beat them- I’d tell them it wasn’t so much the list as it was understanding the finer points of deployment, movement, and decision making. In fact they could leave the fancy-schmancy stuff at home and in fact have a better chance at winning. Some, though, still won’t get it and insist it’s the list you’re running. If this happens- this is what you can try to do:

Swap armies for a game. If your codex is so cheesy- then your friend can make his own uber cheesy list (which he will try) and you can take his topped out list and scale it down, using fundamentals to win. After he loses (which he likely will) you can help demonstrate how it isn’t flash but solid decision making and effective, not necessarily topped out units can win games (this is a particularly useful lesson in 5th ed.).

Scaling down is wonderful for players at this level because it takes the focus away from extravagant lists and static power and forces them to learn the fundamentals of player skill and sound judgement. Still- this doesn’t always work, particularly with ‘lazy powergamers’ who continue to try to do it all in the list-building.

Alternately- it could be that you joined the group specifically because the players seem to crave highly competitive matches, and in this case you can ‘funadmentalize’ the group without having to scale it down. However, all of the strategies discussed take time and patience both to do, and to learn. If for whatever reason it simply isn’t working out- you have the options of staying and just accepting that this is how games are going to be, or you can try and find or form up a new group.


Hopefully, there comes a point where the experience and identity of the group reaches a stable plateau, and most if not all games become enjoyable. The group has a fair amount of active members and activities to sustain itself, and the traditional rolekeepers within the group are looking to pass down their roles to new members.

Stability can’t last forever though, so the members of a group must maintain its health through their respective roles. This could be something like the Alpha introducing a new game to add to the activities, or a motivator encouraging people to take up new armies. It could be the brain informing the group of the latest rumors and newest upgrades, or a cornerstone adding a new gaming table to his home. Stabilization can occur even as old members are leaving, provided new members step in to pick up the slack, but it is normal in the process for the group’s perception and identity to change. Maintenance is key, and certain tools can really help, such as a message board, a calendar of events, and regular gatherings. Your gatherings don’t need to be formal, in fact- unless you are working on a specific project like a campaign, it’s best for the group to just get together, roll dice, and bash skulls. Simply getting together for the sake of playing is good enough for maintaining a healthy group, and by far it is the best thing you can do regardless of your situation (more on this later).

Dark or dormant periods

It is almost an eventuality that a gaming group will go through one or more dormant periods or disband completely. My own group went through a long dormant period of about 2-3 years after many members relocated and the cornerstones (my brother and I) walked away from the hobby for various reasons. It wasn’t until my brother decided he wanted to check out a GW one day three years later that the group started playing again, but all that remained when we started up again were me, my brother, and one other long time friend.

Resurrection or consolidation

When my brother (our true cornerstone) encountered an up and coming group of newer players and united our only three with the new group, that our gaming group was reborn, but this time it was with a new identity, and so a composite group was born. We had caught the group with members who had been scaling up, but lost out on the fundamentals. On the other side us “vets” had grown bored of the usual stuff, and getting us to teach the basics of listbuilding, deployment, movement, etc, had revived us as well. Since then the group has hosted and attended several tournies, hosted events at Games Day, and have moved into other games like Fantasy and the latest craze, Blood Bowl. Most importantly though- we’re all good friends now, and our games have become much more enjoyable for everyone. We’re constantly inspiring one another to try new strategies, build new armies or teams, and it’s all about when we can all get together next.

Okay so…with all the happy happy joy joy talk about my group, you might be wondering why I’m still in fact down here at “please-play-me-ville” scavenging for a game. You’re not wondering? Well- I’ll tell you anyway!

Like I said before- I lead a fairly busy life. So we know that bit. The part I didn’t tell you though- is that my gaming group resides over 40 miles away, and the little time I do have for games only gets eaten up when you add in the extra travel time.

That’s not to say I’ll have to leave the group, though. I can still attend their tournaments and large events on occasion, I just can’t play the weekly games very often.

It does, though- leave me with some time for these one-off pick up games. As you can tell though- I’m competing with all of the other gaming cliques and groups not only for a table- but for a game.

So what do we do? Or, what do I do? And of course, what should you do?

Simple. Play games. Play lots and lots of games.

Let’s say you are a member of a gaming group that is in fact healthy and isn’t 40+ miles away. Good for you! I still think you should be receptive to pick up games. Playing games with your buds is great- and of course you’ll want to do that way more than risk some irritating stranger wasting 2-4 hours of your leisure time. Still- you can get bored of playing your friends, or sometimes you do need to test something against a fresh player. There may be other times when your friends are not around and you want to play. Wouldn’t it be best if you at least had some experience playing pickup games so you know who and who not to play?

Also- actually playing a pick up game is a much better means of finding a potential new member or two. Gaming groups use other means of recruiting, such as leaving adverts at the local hobby store, hosting events, or simply getting people to check out their website. These methods are fine, but how much do you know about a perspective member if you haven’t played them in an open setting? Sure many gaming groups often ‘induct’ players by meeting up and gaming with them, but sometimes those games are more like ‘interviews’, and someone who is cool during that game may not be so cool when you start playing them without consequences. And yes- this works both ways.

One of the best ‘meets’ I’ve seen is the popular 2 vs. 2 pickup game. You and a friend encounter two other players- also sick of playing against one another, and play a 2 on 2 game. Granted- two on two games are long, and often you don’t have time to finish them, but you can split you and your friend up to team with the other two people, and try to have a good time.

If you’re going solo- one of the things I tend to do is bring multiple armies. I have a Space Marine army and a Chaos Space Marine army which are almost mirrors in terms of build, and these are great games for beginners because things are more standard and easier to follow.

I guess the key here is that gaming groups are great, it’s just that they may be robbing themselves of opportunities to meet really cool players. I’m at a point now where well over 50% of the games I play are pickup games, and I do almost as much gaming on business trips as I do at home. This means I encounter lots and lots of players. I’m going to challenge myself to foster more gaming in my closest hobby store (3 miles as opposed to the more popular ones 20 miles away), and see if I can get some more 40K , Fantasy, and Blood Bowl players.

So…anyone up for Blood Bowl?

Thanks for reading!

- Yriel

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Old 05 Sep 2008, 20:08   #3 (permalink)
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This is a very good read. Thank you for sharing your in sights on how you perceive the gaming dynamics of a game group.
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Old 05 Sep 2008, 21:17   #4 (permalink)
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As always, an insightful read.
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Old 05 Sep 2008, 21:19   #5 (permalink)
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Cough Sticky Cough Good article hope you get karma.
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Old 05 Sep 2008, 22:49   #6 (permalink)
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Great Article, and you even mentioned me, I feel special!

Next I think that you should make a test to see what kind of players these people are (theoretically) :P
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Old 06 Sep 2008, 00:04   #7 (permalink)
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Default Re: Wraithsight: Breaking the bubble- a look at gaming groups.

A most excellent and informative article. Have a cookie ;D
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Old 06 Sep 2008, 00:52   #8 (permalink)
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Default Re: Wraithsight: Breaking the bubble- a look at gaming groups.

Never thought about it this way...

Very nice work!

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Old 06 Sep 2008, 03:47   #9 (permalink)
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Default Re: Wraithsight: Breaking the bubble- a look at gaming groups.

Great read Yreil. Do you ever make a bad post?
The tests to see which kind of thing you are are hard because I will ususally want none of the above which I see as the problem.
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Old 06 Sep 2008, 07:15   #10 (permalink)
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Default Re: Wraithsight: Breaking the bubble- a look at gaming groups.

Very interesting read Yriel. How long till you become a psychologist :P

I reckon that I'm probably the brains at my store although I can sometimes be a bit of a rules lawyer (although only against the group's resident powergamer).
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