Tuesday, 21 February 2017

Running a narrative-style game

So Dad James and I took the Imperial Fists (IF) and Flesh Tearers (FT) to war on Saturday night - a game of 3,250 points each and lasting an eye watering 5 and a half hours - I can tell you, after getting home at 02:30 on Sunday morning and rising to play with the kids at 06:00, I was experiencing a new kind of hangover for me - "I got (War)hammered last night and feel terrible" I was saying to anyone who would listen on Sunday! (not many people were listening! - James)

The game was the closest we have come to a narrative - "I don't care who wins" - kind of thing and we threw away a lot of the rule book in search of this. To get away from winning and play more of a storyline is a big deal for two players as competitive as us - James having spent much of his working life in professional sport and myself just being overly competitive at Warhammer. But as we don't get to play as much now it is more important to embrace other aspects of the game and playing out a storyline is something we are trying to develop to make our games interesting, fair and worth playing in what precious time we have free from our families.

In doing all of this, it got me thinking about what makes for a good narrative game...

Seven key features of our narrative games
You can take a look at our previous post to see the background to the mission and the set-up, but in summary, this is what a more narrative game looks like for us:

Background, context and characters, 'Fluff'
You need a thematic a reason to play. The 'plot' of the mission can take its lead from this. We used the idea of the IF trying to keep an escaped psyker out of the clutches of the FT, the psyker had been interrogated and was bleeding psychic energy which was having an effect on all of the units around him. It also seems important that there is a reason for the 2 forces to be fighting each other. Particularly to explain why 'loyalist' forces are in battle with one another. The background gives the game a bit more depth and thus means more to both players as they invest in the characters involved. The losing player never feels too bad with a backstory as a personal battle between characters can often replace losing the larger battle between the two forces.

Write up a mission briefing
Alongside a great storyline should be your mission briefing, this can be based on the style of missions in the GW or FW books, and you can detail deployment, primary objectives, mission special rules etc. Doing this ahead of time is wise so that everyone knows what they are preparing for and to pick their armies for a particular scenario (We both agreed for Rich to have no vehicles and James to only have light or fast vehicles) - it also gives you the chance to edit the set-up or battlefield to get the best game possible.

Flexibility and balance on game design
We have tried game missions of our own creation in general but the problem can be that it is easy to mess this up as we have no chance to play-test like the game designers do. When we do this, it is accepted by both of us that we may need to tweak the rules mid-game or in the case of Saturday, right before we started!

We planned for James' strike force to infiltrate the Zone Mortalis area through a secret entrance. However, he only had 500 points for doing this while I could have as many points as I wanted. At the last minute we decided to make that even - 500 points each and introduce a new rule that my 500 points could not move within the Zone Mortalis unless they had direct line of sight to James' models or 'heard' something in the bunker (a roll of 5 or 6 each turn meant that Sigismund heard a noise and could move to investigate). My units were also placed separately (as if they were patrolling the area rather than set up for a fight that they didn't know was going to happen. This turned out to be crucial later, allowing James to kill Sigismund who was caught alone and smashed by Mephiston and his terminators (after killing Mephiston though I should add!).

Keeping the flexibility in the rules for balance when you are building your own missions is crucial to have some fun - and this experience will mean when we play again (4th March) we can build this process into the next game.

Long gone are the days of using books and margarine tubs to represent the terrain. I try to fit narrative missions to the features we already own (occasionally buying more to expand on what is possible).

This time I went all out, respraying some Realm of Battle Boards and painting up a Forgeworld Bunker tile to represent the gaming area. I am a big fan of the Eye of Horus podcast and remember hearing someone on there recently saying that they had spent ages painting up their army to a high standard, and were determined that they get to play on amazing terrain too that was themed to the game.

I think this is key to the narrative game. If armies, storyline and scene all tie together the game becomes eminently ,more 'realistic' and enjoyable to play. To match our story I included a Zone Mortalis section, accessed from the bunker entrance on the forgeworld tile on the main board. I haven't got this fully painted, but simply spraying it Chaos Black, then giving it a dusting with Mechanicus Standard Grey made it look good enough to play on and didn't take much time at all.

Getting down to table height and looking across a painted table with great terrain and fully painted models really does enhance any game and give a truly cinematic experience.

Fully painted models
This is a challenge we now set more often to ourselves. It massively helps with the 'feel' of the game if everything is painted and WYSIWIG. The cinematic element of the game and story are both enhanced when the armies are fully painted. In our game most of the models were painted  which looked great (in my opinion) and has really spurred me on to get the rest done!

There is nothing like a game deadline to push you on to getting some models painted. We allow some wriggle room at times, especially if the points value is exceeding the norm for us (this one did).

Setting yourself up to take some nice images, makes sure you play a little more 'cinematically'. As I relaxed into the game, I often found myself setting up my squads so they looked 'cool' as well as serving some tactical purpose which all feeds the narrative of the story.

Some time ago I bought a lightbox to improve my model photography - it made a huge difference as I could properly share what I was doing and make the models look as awesome as they should. I have an app on my phone Photo+ which allows some serious editing of images, but I would recommend an even better camera with a tripod if you want to get really good gaming photos. I also used a backdrop (an old black curtain) as I was sick of seeing photos of crotches and swirly carpets in our battle reports. I am really pleased with the result, a big improvement (unless you like crotch shots I guess?!) but I think that the next level will be to get some kind of battle-scape background on thick card to hold up and most importantly to get some better lighting. I totally forgot this on the night and the lighting was poor because of the shadow cast by the curtain at times, gonna have to think about that one for next time...

Battle report
Take plenty of photos, even a couple of shots of your mates terrible dice rolling (Thanks Rich! - James) make some notes, whatever. Then you can finish that storyline off with a battle report. I enjoy all the different styles of these, if you were uber-narrative inclined it could be written in story mode, leaving out all the dice rolls and rules and just describing it from the combatants perspective. Whichever way you choose a good battle report can really inspire you and other people to play and paint more which can only be a good thing.

The future of our narrative games....
There are plenty of things that will improve all of this, I think the pinnacle of which may be getting a non-player along to 'DungeonMaster' (DM) in the same way a D'n'D DM runs the story of a roleplaying game. Short of this though, I think the next steps for us may be to run a campaign over a few of these games and to make a few of the heroes in our armies characters that recur. More situational rules will be good and also set a few surprises for ourselves such as keeping the contents of transports secret until their passengers get out etc. Really there is no limit for a narrative game as long as you always remember that there are two people playing, and for fun too!

That's it for now, happy gaming!

fourdadsoftheapocalypse.blogspot.co.uk – A blog about Warhammer 40k and the Horus Heresy by four Dads


  1. "if you were uber-narrative inclined it could be written in story mode" You mean like this?

    Congrats though - that looks like an awesome game to have played in, I particularly like the idea of the surface part of the battlefield leading into the zone mortalis pieces!

  2. Sounds like some awesome gaming done right there. Bravo.

    I can understand how people like both sides of this sort of thing. Always nice to be able to relax and go with the flow though.

  3. @ Nick Thrower - thanks for link and the kind words about our blog! I noticed you had reviewed us recently. I would like to do the same at some point so will start working my way through your content. The battle report was indeed just as I had imagined an 'uber-narrative' approach would look - thanks for that!

    1. My pleasure!

      I also noticed one of the dads was looking for a club around Nottingham way - I'm one of the committee at a club in Asfordby just outside Melton if that's any use to him, just get him to drop me a line and I'll send details.

  4. Cheers Nick, I'll pass on the message - he has been making us all jealous by playing with some of the GW and Black library royalty recently, but I know he is after a more regular game, kind of you to offer. Keep up the good work on the blog 😉

  5. @Rory, thanks for the comment Rory - it's taken a few years, but we are slowly weaning ourselves away from "must play competitively and win" mode - it's a hard habit to kick but well worth it in the end!

  6. Narrative games are the best. Sometimes one of the tricks is just to make it unfair for one of the players (points or position wise, you kinda of did this). But then give them something cool, like a apocalypse barrage on turn 3. Stuff that you can't really control, so it removes the drive to win some what!

  7. That's a great thought Greg, if you can create an 'underdog' vibe then having the odds stacked against is kind of appealing - I may try that, now I just need to convince one of these guys to be the underdog.....

    1. At the 40k narrative, they also pass out "power cards" which effect the game in various ways. Everything from "this unit has stealth for a turn" to "Single shot, Str D" to make your opponent put the unit that just came on from reserves, back into reserves.

      I think the gathering storm had a bunch of cards like this that would be very fun for narrative play.

    2. I did exactly this at hero for a day last year - one player with 1250 pts took on a pair with 1750 between them - was a great game type and though all the singles lost, it wasn't as one sided as you might think, I kept up till pretty much the last turn in my game.

  8. Cheers Nick and Rory, the four dads are meeting in battle next weekend, so look out for an update on the carnage!