Narrative gaming. It’s the pinnacle of the hobby, so say many. Others say its for those crying into their wet palette in a fit of melancholy and forlorn hopes after having their hobby crushed by Eldar up to their eyes in D-weapons. An article by Jervis Johnson did the rounds when Age of Sigmar hit the shelves without anything that looked like a balancing mechanic, i.e. points. He talked about how the tournament scene drove the hobby in another direction – a direction of competition instead of narrative.
I’m non-competitive when it comes to tabletop gaming. By that I mean I don’t do tournaments. The arena lends itself to rules abuse and cheesy combos which takes away what I like to see in a game: theme and narrative. Nothing against competitive play, or people who like it, but it’s not what I want from a game. For people with a similar outlook, there are narrative gaming events. This post should give you an idea of what to expect at such events, recounting my experience as a first-timer.
When Warhammer World announced a narrative campaign weekend for Warhammer 40k, I snapped up a ticket. The focus was on story, having a great game and forging a narrative with your opponent, not winning. It’s the way I aspire to play, or at least try to despite having a natural competitive streak a mile long.
That’s the theory. The practice? Sort of.
Two inquisitors were having a bit of a tiff about the disappearance of an Imperial martyr who had a history of surviving against all odds, being the only survivor of his squad whenever he went to battle. The sort of thing that screams heresy in a universe where coincidence and luck draw the eagle eyes of the Inquisition. One inquisitor, Coteaz, heralds the disappearance as a miracle, that the Imperial martyr/saint is returning. The other, Karamazov, has a healthy dose of paranoia befitting the Inquisition, and cries heresy, witchery and general skulduggery. You build an army of 2000 points and pledge your support to one of the factions.
The Mechanics and Narrative Experience
The event consisted of five games over two days. Before each game your faction mustered for a briefing, beautifully role played by one of the events team. To further immerse you into the action, the warlord for your army gained experience over the campaign based on how many objectives you achieved to simulate experience and advancement in his career, giving it that RPG feel.
After your briefing, you receive your mission which details the scenario, who goes first, what your secret objective is, that sort of thing. You also draw a table number at random which defines where you’re playing and who against. You don’t know your opponent’s objective and your opponent does not know yours. That adds to the feel of rival inquisitors working, in secret, to their own ends, furthering the immersion.
The first mission represented the aftermath of a space battle where the rival inquisitors’ fleets fired upon one another. The flagships were destroyed and your army is plummeting to a planet’s surface in saviour pods. This meant that you deployed units one at a time, alternating with your opponent. There were no deployment zones – you had the whole battlefield and your units scattered. This meant that your armies were split and not necessarily where you wanted them. Tough. You just survived your spaceship exploding – be thankful.
Missions differed in each game, following the narrative played out by the events team. Other missions of note were covering up evidence (sounds like Inquisition work to me) and an ambush. The narrative culminated in an epic game where the traitor Coteaz faction (I knew it!) attempt to summon a daemon known as the Ebonclaw. The events team provided unique mechanics for this on the battlefield to turn the game on its head once more.
So the narrative event takes you out of the comfort zone of a pitched battle. It gives you a reason to fight. It builds comradeship with your faction and draws you into the story. You are playing your part.
The Gaming Experience
Experiences differed greatly on the day. You don’t know what you’ll be facing in terms of opposing army and, most importantly, player. My personal experience was good, as four out of my five games were against great guys. The other game required a sharp eye due to the player rerolling dice, inventing some rules and even putting casualties back on the table! That one was exhausting, but outweighed by the others.
Two games stood out for me. This had nothing to do with the mechanics and everything to do with the opponent. When playing a “destroying evidence” mission, I found that my opponent was a kindred spirit, there for the narrative and passionate about the hobby, in addition to being an excellent painter. Our game went right to the wire and ended up a draw in every sense. I’d never met the guy before, but it’s one of the best games of 40k I’ve ever had.
The other outstanding game was the ambush. My opponent and I agreed to give it a cinematic feel so arranged terrain accordingly. As the defender, my opponent set up as though his convoy had just been alerted to the ambush with his tanks making a corral around the infantry. We both played that one right to the narrative. He needed to escape, I needed to leave no trace of his passing.
One the whole, I faced only one army that resembled a power list and that was by no means horrific. We had a very close and enjoyable game. The rest were strong, but balanced, with minimal cheesy shenanigans.
Others did not fare so well in their opponents. I make the caveat based on my understanding of a narrative event: mercilessly crushing your opponent (Win At All Costs) is not the goal but to forge a narrative with your opponent. Play to your mission but ensure you both enjoy the game. A friend at the event must have played every power list out there, thus our experiences differed greatly.
My experience was very positive. I had a weekend immersed in the story, played five good games and met some like-minded people. Had I faced the power lists, I would have had a more frustrating weekend. If you’re considering one of these events, remember that not everyone will have the same perspective as to what constitutes the spirit of the game.