Monday, October 12, 2009

WYSIWYG vs. counts as vs. proxies

Warhammer and Warhammer 40,000 are games played with miniatures. Little plastic, metal or resin men, monsters and vehicles represent the forces at the players’ disposal. We spend a lot of money on gathering up the ones we want to use, and a lot of time figuring out exactly how to present them – posing, converting, painting, and so on.

Several basic concepts of imaginative play and creativity have over time taken on terms in the Warhammer community. Sometimes these ideas come into conflict, and a lot of things I’ve read online seem to confuse the terms or hold one or the other up as dominant over the others. Here’s my take on them:

• WYSIWYG – “What you see is what you get”, shorthand for the idea that if it looks like a duck, it should fight like a duck, not a crocodile.
• Counts as – substitution usually done as part of the planning for the figure/force, often to create a particular theme or do something different modeling-wise.
• Proxies – substitution usually done on a temporary basis, such as to test out alternate units/load outs before committing to a purchase or modeling job.

At first glance it would seem that WYSIWYG would indeed conflict with the others. I don’t think that has to be the case. Let’s look at each of them individually, then at their interactions.

“What you see is what you get” seems like a good basic idea for a miniatures game. You’re using the miniatures as a kind of shorthand for the abilities of the units in question, so shouldn’t they be as accurate as possible? If the person represented has a lascannon or a bolter or a power fist, shouldn’t that be shown? And shouldn’t those things be easily distinguished from an autocannon or a lasgun or a thunder hammer? With normal WYSIWYG, a player familiar with the various rules and normal miniatures for the different armies should be able to quickly look over another army and have a pretty good idea about what everything is and what it does. It saves time and helps to avoid confusion.

“Counts as” is used for when the normal official models and figures available don’t meet the needs you have for the army. Maybe there’s a particular theme you want to do, like a Harry Potter-themed Empire army, fantasy Skaven as a 40K force or Orks riding giant lobsters. Maybe there’s a particular conversion you want to do such as using wings instead of jump packs on your assault marines. Or perhaps there isn’t an official model so you need to come up with something to use for the unit, such as for a Deathstrike missile launcher. All of these are situations where “counts as” comes into play, using one visual representation to stand in for the normal Games Workshop version.

Proxies are similar to “counts as” in that they are both used to represent something else. Where counts as is a more premeditated decision trying to get a particular effect, proxies are usually temporary substitutions and may be wildly inaccurate from a WYSIWYG standpoint. Using some spare drink bottles to stand in for those drop pods you wanted to try out, using a carnifex to represent that dreadnought you forgot to pack or using that G.I. Joe tank as a Baneblade for an impromptu Apocalypse game are all examples of using proxies.

So how do these different ideas interact? Mostly it’s a matter of how counts-as and proxies interact with WYSIWYG. Some conform to a very strict interpretation of WYSIWYG, holding that if you’re going to use the rules for a particular unit, you should use the official model for that unit. Any deviation is considered confusing at best and at worst unfair.

I think that interpretation is overly strict. WYSIWYG should be about clarity, not conformity.

I’m a big fan of counts as. I think it’s a great way to see interesting conversions, “lost” armies like Squats or fun tributes to a favorite movie or video game. In my opinion counts as should be encouraged, not criticized. As long as things are consistently represented, it shouldn’t be a big problem. The flying carpets count as jump packs, the feather dusters are power weapons, the limos are Rhinos and the Cadillacs are Razorbacks? Cool, let’s play. Those guys riding lizards are assault marines, those other guys riding lizards are bikers and those other guys riding lizards are scouts? Confusing, not cool.

I’m also fine with proxies, as long as they’re reasonable. To me, using an Ork Nob with a powerklaw to stand in for a Space Marine with a power fist is an easy proxy. It’s clear that the figure with the Space Marine squad in a Space Marine army is using the stats for a marine, and not an Ork. Likewise the powerklaw and power fist have identical rules anyways so it’s easy not to confuse it with a chainsword or missile launcher. Using a dreadnought with a multimelta and saying it’s actually a twin-linked Lascannon? No problem. Using three dreadnoughts with multimeltas and saying one is a multimelta, one is a plasma cannon and one is an assault cannon? Confusing.

So the next time you see that gamer with the Star Wars, Sesame Street, or Spider-Man army ask for a game. You may even have fun. And the next time you’re planning out the conversions for your next force, take some time to look at it from a stranger’s point of view – is it easy to understand what everything is? If not, rethink some of the conversions and see if there’s another option that can still work with your theme but be more easily identified. Your opponents will thank you.

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