What is this, anyway?This is just a short article that covers some of the areas of Narrative gaming and how you can best prepare to be a part of it. Narrative gaming should be fun, but some people get anxious about whether or not they ‘narrative well enough’. Rest assured, you do and it’s not all that hard. You can jump in at any level and put as much into it as you like. Just remember, what you get out of a narrative event is proportionate to what you put in.
What is narrative gaming, and what it isn’t?
This is a relatively simple question that has no simple answer, however, you can think of it like this. A competitive game of AoS is two warlords fighting a battle to see who the better warlord is (i.e. better at pushing their plastic army men around). A Narrative game/event however, is more akin to two generals fighting a war, complete with all the problems that wars bring (conflicting objectives, politics, logistics etc.).
Naturally, a narrative event is much more like two players, telling a story together. To tell that story, the players will have to combine two concepts that have always existed in narrative gaming, the Embedded narrative and the Emergent narrative.
The Embedded narrative is all the pre-generated content that exists prior to a player’s interaction. This is basically the backstory, the setting, maybe some maps or other ‘props’. It boils down to the ‘setting’ you will be playing in. GW is creating a lot of this for us, with the Realms and their campaign settings (Malign Portents, Forbidden Power, Firestorm et al). Narrative Event Organizers (NEOs) do this for the events they create.
The Emergent narrative is what arises from the players interaction with the game world and occurs moment-by-moment. Many of us NEOs refer to it as ‘when the players start destroying the setting’. The key thing to remember about the emergent narrative is that it will vary from player to player as they push their own, and perhaps the organizer’s agendas and boundaries. The emergent part of the narrative is what makes the event fun for everyone. It is how the story evolves and takes everyone for a ride.
How to prepare for a narrative eventSo how do you get ready for a narrative event? Simple answer, however you want, but it should include at least a good backstory for your army. Once you know what the embedded narrative elements are, you should look at your existing narrative army. You need to see how you will fit your army into the existing narrative elements. (If this is your first event, maybe you have to create an army from scratch, more on this later).
For starters, ask yourself some questions;
- Why does my army exist?
- Why is it here, in this place, fighting for these goals?
- Why is my warlord here and what do they hope to accomplish?
- What is my army’s overall goal and is the same or similar to the campaign goal?
Once you know these answers, even vaguely, you can craft your backstory. For some folks, this is nothing more than a sentence or two. For others, it can be a full multi-media extravaganza with army lists published in magazine format, videos and the like (I’m pointing at you, Mr. Steve Foote, master narrativer). This is another area where the more effort you put in, the easier it will be for you to fold your army into a narrative event or campaign.
Prepare to be challenged, but never be the judge. As you enter the event or campaign and meet the like-minded folks that will be going on this narrative journey, make sure to have an open mind. Never look down on anyone else’s level of preparation, and certainly, don’t judge. Some folks may be new at this and not have your level of preparation or effort. They may also have four kids and no time to dedicate to generating a rich and multi-media backstory. It is never helpful for someone to preach at another player on ‘how to narrative better’. Of course, if you have real constructive criticism, find out if they want your input, and then freely give it. We’re all here to help others tell a story together.
How to make a listIf you don’t already have a list for your narrative, here are a few things to think about. First and foremost, you don’t have to dumb it down or make a ‘soft list’ for your narrative army. What you do need to do is try to make it make sense, given the embedded narrative. Think about the backstory you have been presented with and how your army might fit into that.
If the backstory has elements of ‘your army has been stranded in this desolate waste for years, searching for an escape’, then perhaps you may want to have more elite forces and less of the ‘ground-pounder’ troops. After all, the weak would have perished and only the strongest and hardiest would still be around, looking for a way out. Conversely, if the narrative is more like ‘your army has just arrived in the area…’ you may want a preponderance of troops, and few of the more powerful units. After all, this excursion may be nothing and those powerful forces are needed elsewhere.
The biggest thing to think about is the point limits. Try to have a decent ratio of the ‘tough as nails’ to ‘squishy objective holders’ in your list and carry it forward as you grow your army, if the campaign or event has a growth mechanism. If the system you have penalizes losses, meaning you have to spend glory/coin or some other currency for replacements, it will usually be cheaper to replace troops than elites.
At this point, you may also want to start thinking about your goals. Not victory conditions, but rather, goals. Is your goal to grow this army to gargantuan size and slaughter all before you? Perhaps the goal is to escape a desolate waste or enemy controlled area. When you choose an army, try to think about what kind of units will help you achieve that goal. If you’re on the run, pursued by the enemy, then you may not want to have slow, ponderous monsters in your list. If you are the pursuers, you may want to look for fast cavalry units and speedy, hit-and-run units.
These are the sorts of things to think about. Many NEOs will tell you that you should build an army to a certain point limit, but they may also say not to worry about the ‘matched-play restrictions’. Of course, the power gamers would spam the best units in the game at this point to try to wreck face at the event. But we’re narrative players, we’re not going to do that, right?
But what if it makes sense? What if, narratively, your army should consist of all one type of unit? Talk it over with the NEO! If you have a good idea. Maybe between the two of you, you can come up with some limitations that would make the game fun for both players, and still let you have nothing but a certain unit. If it is an especially powerful unit, perhaps you are plagued by ammo or power shortages and only one quarter of your force can move or shoot in each turn. If it is a common troop type, perhaps they are exhausted and cannot run or charge during the game?
These are just ideas, but they may help to spark a thought for you. The idea is to make a fun list that you will enjoy playing, and your opponent will enjoy playing against. If your list is full of the absolutely latest, greatest beasties ramped up with excess power from previous games and won glories, are you in the right place? Are you helping to tell a story on the table, or are you trying to dictate a story to your opponent? If the latter, maybe you should have bought a ticket to the GT?
How to approach the game
So, you have your list, you have your tickets and you’re at the event. You line up for your first game. You gaze into your opponent’s steely eyes, sensing the desire to slaughter… Wait, that was the GT again. So you rock up to the table with your opponent and you look at the battleplan. If you’re really playing a narrative game, then this battleplan is a suggestion to you and your opponent on how to get things rolling.
So now is when you recall your objectives and talk about them with your opponent. The NEO has probably poured blood sweat and tears into making all these battleplans, so do try to live up to the spirit and the letter of the plan. However, with your opponent, make sure that you both can work your army into this battleplan. Maybe you need to set up some objectives, not victory conditions for this game to work between you. Maybe the battleplan looks great as it is and you can play it straight up.
Work with your opponent to make sure you can both tell a combined story and neither one of you is going to be ‘handed your butt’ because of the set-up rules or victory conditions. If it is going to be one sided, maybe make a rule that says your opponent’s first dead unit gets to re-enter without summoning points or some other mechanic.
Then there is the ‘skill equivalence’. This is always a tough nut to crack. If you know that you are a far better player than your opponent, or vice-versa, you may need to establish a handicap of some sort. Of course, if you just think you’re better, maybe it’s best to play a round or two first. But if you know the story, perhaps it’s your opponent’s first organized game ever, take that into account… nuff said.
As you play the game, play the game to win, but also play to tell the story. A fact of life is that we play games to test our skills, tell a story and have a good time. Winning the game should never be looked upon as a bad thing or something to avoid because you’re ‘a narrative player’. You should be trying to achieve two things, the victory conditions of the battleplan and the objectives that you have for your narrative army. Too many NEOs think that playing to win is a bad thing. Playing obsessively to win is a bad thing. But in every game there is a winner and a loser, it’s why we have tie-breakers and very few draws.
If you find yourself concentrating too much on the win, maybe it’s time to pump the brakes. Look at your opponents face and their body language. Are they laughing and joking with you, or laughing at your crazy ‘luck’. Are they sharing the experience or an unwilling participant trying to keep up? If you get the sense that not all is well, you’re probably right. It may be time to take a break and talk about the game going forward. Perhaps your opponent is almost tabled and it’s time to give them a path to victory that may not be in the battleplan? Maybe there is a way to have them achieve a goal or objective to salvage something out of a bad set of die rolls, or poor decisions?
Remember, you’re telling a story with two authors, don’t be the jerk that monopolizes the story completely to your narrative. Conversely, if someone is railroading you, don’t hesitate to look over and say, ‘hey this isn’t working well for me.’ Narrative games are two way streets. It’s never wrong to call over the NEO and explain that this is just not working for you.
How to find the limitsI don’t exactly mean the limits here, but I do mean you should feel free to poke around the edges and have a little fun with your story. Work with your opponent to tell the story that you both want to tell. If you cannot do that in the boundaries of the battleplan or the embedded narrative, flag down a NEO and work with them to bring your story to life.
As long as you and your opponent agree to a change you propose, you should feel relatively free to vary from the printed battleplans. If you both think there needs to be an extra objective on the board, feel free to add it. If you think a separate deployment plan is needed, try it.
Do keep in mind, in those battleplans or events that have a growth mechanism (i.e. the award of coin/glory or any currency used to enhance your army during the campaign.) you may need to involve the NEO. The battleplans may be balanced in a certain way to prevent an overabundance of currency.
In short, you should feel free to ask your opponent, or the NEO to do anything. Even to the point of transferring a unit from one game table to another. The NEO may decide to attach some strings, make a die roll or even charge currency, but asking never hurts. All they can do is say no. But most NEOs will be willing to at least discuss any ideas you have, and if you and your opponent agree on it, then they will most likely approve anything. Push the boundaries!
How to end the gameSo, the game is finally over, there was much shenanigans, hooting and hollering and general mayhem. You lost by one lousy victory point, but the game was a smashing success. Everyone had fun. But, life is what it is. The other guy won and gets more points/currency/loot etc. So how do you snatch victory from the Beastclaw Raider jaws of failure?
Well, did you achieve any of your army’s objectives? Remember those from a while back? Maybe you set an objective to explore all four corners of the board. If you were able to do that, you can say you lost the battle but you’re achieving the primary goals of your army.
So, why am I telling you to lie to yourself to feel better about losing? Well, this is where you have to involve the NEO and maybe even your opponent. Did you let the NEO know you had a list of side objectives before the event? Did you have a backstory that narratively told the NEO what you were REALLY after in this event? If you did, maybe you’ll get some real currency for it. Maybe you’ll just get a smile and a nod, but remember, this is your story to tell. Your army is your story to craft, the game is just a single chapter of your army history that the other guy helped write!
Maybe the victory conditions for the battleplan didn’t even apply to your story. I’m not saying you should play with your own set of victory conditions, but if the result of the battle can be made to tell a better story for your army, who cares about the victory? For instance, we’ll say your General died in the battle, a glorious last stand but eventual death of a beloved war-leader. Well, now it’s time to groom the next guy in line to be the new beloved general. If there is currency in your event, maybe toss a few coins at your ‘new’ General to make him a little better, give him a better chance in the next battle, since he learned what killed the last general.
So, if there is growth potential in the event, you now have a roadmap to getting stronger. Sure, you took your lumps in this battle, but you’re going to be all the stronger going forward.
How to keep it goingSo, you’ve played a few narrative games, your army has gone through some changes, names have changed. What will your army do now? Well, if you’re in the middle of an event or campaign, you have to, most likely, keep going with them. But now is the time to start thinking about where this army will end up.
Does the event have a mechanic where you have to use currency to replace losses or bring on replacements? Maybe you start to change the complexion of your force. If you were not fast enough in the last game, maybe some cavalry is in order. If perhaps you were too fast for your opponent(s), maybe you move that elite cavalry unit to another front in this great war and take a unit of slower foot soldiers. Remember, the idea is for everyone to have fun, if you are 3-0 and have smashed all your opponents leaving them with sad faces, drop from the event and join the GT, you’re not here for the right reasons.
If you have the resources, and find that your winning too much, or too easily, maybe part of your army needs to be recalled to attend the victory parade. Maybe even your general has to go receive the laurel wreath of victory from the king. You’ll need to promote another hero from your army to take over I his stead?
If you find yourself on the short end of the victory slider, maybe you need to flag down the NEO and negotiate a handicap, or perhaps an edge to help you out. Maybe discuss with your next opponent some mechanic to even things out. So, monsters cannot take objectives in this battleplan, maybe one of yours can for a while, the possibilities are endless. Remember, the story is the thing, not the win/loss column.
To sum it all up, remember these things about a narrative event/game.
- You’re there to tell a great tale of adventure, heroism and world shaping events, as well as having fun!
- Make sure you and your opponent are sharing the fun. Watch their body language and attitudes. If they are just going through the motions, take a break and talk it out.
- Engage with the NEO and your opponent to break some rules, push some boundaries and take the story to new places. Most NEOs are more than willing to kill their darlings if it will enhance the storyline for everyone.
- Win if you can, lose if you must, but always make it fun!