Why do we NEO? Many of the Narrative Event Organizers in the network talk about why they want to run narrative events as much as they play narrative games. Brian Orban has written an examination of his reasons why, and we wanted to share his article here. As we started updating the “How to NEO” series of articles, we also want to encourage every NEO to consider why it is worth organizing such an event. Take it away, Brian!
Starting with Why as we Organize Narrative Games
In the 2016 edition of the General’s Handbook, Games Workshop introduced Narrative Play to Age of Sigmar. Our community is more likely to remember this book as having introduced Matched Play; in fact, Narrative Play can be shorthanded as everything in the game that falls outside of strict Matched Play.
This is great for NEOs, as it shows us that there are many paths forward to designing out narrative events. There are a multitude of variations that could be taken when conceiving a narrative event, and they all can succeed if executed with passion and interest. This quickly leads to discussions about just what is the Narrative in Warhammer. This is absolutely a conversation worth having! I recommend giving that conversation time, and if you are inclined, sufficient drink to spark the limbic system something good! But don’t expect to derive a universal answer… instead, you will find a definition that shrinks from the light, becomes more and more elusive.
The meaning of narrative play, it seems, is only truthful when it is personal. We can define personal truths in terms of asking ourselves why we do this thing, and examining our answers until we have something that feels right, which we know to be true. Why, then, are we drawn to be NEOs?
Like many in the AoS community, I first heard of Simon Sinek’s “Start with Why” stuff from Tyler Emerson on his Scruby & Wells podcast. Since we’re three months from an S&W episode release at the time of this writing, I’ll take a turn at waving this banner for a bit. I’ve recently read Sinek’s “Start with Why” after it was recommended by a coworker, and of course the title carried the weight of Tyler’s championing in the first year of his podcast. I’ve started using this technique to refocus efforts when I’m faced with questions of direction. In short, Sinek asks us to be able to articulate why we want to do something, and to prioritize the communication of Why over the How and the What. Narrative play is a wide umbrella that can have multiple Whys, and finding yours helps drive a host of other decisions. It tells you how to focus your time, how you should prepare, how you should communicate with your players… and more importantly, what you should not prioritize.
The Why of Your Event
The easiest way to start with a Why question, and the way to derive the most impact from an answer, is to ask yourself why you are running your narrative event. Once you have this, you can check all of your decisions against this statement. You’re going down a pathway of designing a custom Time of War; does this fit the reasons why you’re running the event? You’re trying to decide between two spaces, one with 6 tables, one with 12; which is a better fit for you and the reasons at the core of your game? You suspect that one of your players is going to bring a netlist that won’t be fun to play against; what’s the best way of telling them quickly and concisely what you want to do here and why their plans might not work?
A Why statement is an answer to a question; in this case, “Why do you want to run your AoS narrative event?” The answer starts with “Because,” and then goes on to present your personal definition. Maybe it’s something like:
“Because I want to work with my players to tell a story about 12 armies in this corner of the Mortal Realms that I’ve built out of foam and flock.”
“Because I want to showcase the modelling and painting in my community for our common enjoyment in a special day of gaming that doesn’t feel the pressure of the current meta-game.”
“Because I want to interlink games and try a new way of playing that we’re not able to experience in a single night.”
Think about how all of those Why statements would lead to different choices as the NEO prepared for the event. Which statement would prioritize terrain? Which would design rules or rewards for army backstory? Which would create a campaign map from cartography software? Asking ourselves why, and limiting the answer to a concise sentence, forces us to discover what is important to us and design to this.
As a side-note, it should be said, a magnanimous NEO might design to their play group as well. That’s fine. That’s not for me but it’s fine. I advise to look inward and design to that. Make the event that you would want to play in. You can’t actually play, of course, not uninterrupted, but designing to your passions allows you to express passion! And your players will absolutely see and respond to this passion. Additionally, I’d note that my most rewarding experiences as a NEO are meeting and becoming friends with new people, people I could never have programmed for.
The Not of Why
If our Why statements are going to guide us, let’s talk for a bit about what we should be keeping out of them. We came this far after recognizing that the act of playing Warhammer is fun and has value. Thus we don’t respond to questions about why we run our narrative events with answers like, “Because I want to have fun, and I want all my players to have fun.” You do, of course, want all of that, and it’s worthwhile to make sure that you’ve internalized that this is all leisure, that we’re here for fun, and we make decisions that disrupt fun at our peril!
Instead we discard this level of Why because it is insufficiently instructive. I am always happy playing Warhammer, hobbying Warhammer, talking about Warhammer… I engage with it every chance I am allotted and it never ceases to be enjoyable. But we design our narrative events to be something more, an increase in the efficiency of the enjoyment of us and our players. When we ask ourselves why we run a narrative event, maybe it’s better to ask,
“Why are you running this narrative event instead of a matched play event?”
While this statement sets up a dichotomy between Matched and Narrative play, this is not meant to denigrate Matched Play or competitive tournaments. Quite the opposite: This statement acknowledges that the Matched Play competitive tournament is the default state of existence for the AoS event. If our main value is to play Warhammer, why not gather and play Warhammer in fairest way possible using the full set of guidelines from the General’s Handbook? For many, including myself, this is fun! It is challenging and fulfilling and I’ll end up telling myself a story about my army’s 3-6 great games before I’m through.
But we decide to run narrative events because we want something different. Let your Why statement reflect this, that the fun of rolling dice and pushing models isn’t enough, that this event wants to do something different.
Taking the Why to How
When I know the date of my narrative event, I start getting inspired, and in short order I’ve identified more things I want to do than I ever have time for. The game I take to my event is an expression of compromise; hopefully one I can live with, but a compromise where Quality and Quantity lost out to Time. With every event I need to make choices, and my Why helps guide those choices.
A breathtaking table with unique elements will never detract from a narrative event, unless the time it takes to implement it won’t allow other necessary elements to be realized. In the Realmgate Wars, GW authors describe Parasite Engines, big metal scorpion cities that the Skaven use to, I don’t know, walk around in and screech how AoS is different from the Old World. I’ve always wanted to put one on a gameboard, and when I committed to running Coalescence 2017 for my local community, it was on my first list of boards. But a month down the line, I had deprioritized this work… I just couldn’t fit this project in and have time to accommodate five other tables. It also didn’t have any good synthesis with the theme that I arrived at, which, whether I could articulate it or not, was tied to my Why statement. I put that idea on the back burner to come back to later, but I did so with confidence that this is what had to be done.
When Sinek describes the power of this analysis in Starting from Why, one of his arguments looks into biology. Sinek notes that emotional responses come from the limbic and pre-verbal areas of our brain, and thus we can recognize ideas as good without being able to articulate why they are good. This is the “gut feeling,” the truth that we feel but cannot prove. The Why analysis bridges this gap, setting the vocabulary to discuss this feeling and then using this vocabulary to judge what is and what is not compatible with that feeling. As NEOs we know what we want to do: this is the grandeur, the recreation of White Dwarf battlegrounds from yesteryear, the fantastical that we can’t play on every day. We also know what we need to do: make 10 good tables for 20 good players and keep it going for three good games. The border in between these states is what defines us; NEOs give the best game possible in the time allowed. We feel this process out in every night of hobby; we feel what is working well enough to drive to conclusion, what isn’t working such that it needs to be abandoned, and what won’t work unless we keep at it until 3 am and go to work anyway. Our Why statements allow us to focus through this process and come out with efforts that result in an intelligible whole.
Having a statement on Why helps with communication as well. Sinek’s book is more about product marketing than anything else, and my first response as a Guy that Doesn’t Sell Anything is to look for his core message and not get distracted by the manner in which it comes to me. But there’s a part of being a NEO that is (personally) uncomfortable salesmanship, when we make fliers and post on forums and find new people to play on our lovingly crafted tables. I’m not great at that, I’ve relied on the graphic designers in the NEO community to help me limp along. But by being able to talk about Why I’m running an event, I lay my passion bare and start to convince other players that this weekend is worth their time and sacrifice.
My Personal Whys
I wasn’t a practicing Why-Stater (or whatever) when I ran my first narrative event, and I limped through somehow! But now that I’ve had some time to think about the philosophy, I want to keep applying it and seeing where it leads. Here are some times I’ve asked myself Why I Did this AoS thing, and I hope they prove instructive!
In June 2017 I ran my local part of the first Coalescence Global Narrative Event. I did this because I wanted to explore gameplay elements that would be unbalancing, unfair, or simply difficult to implement within the boundaries of normal matched play. This was my Why, and it’s not particularly story driven, although it is very different from Matched Play! It drove me towards very particular means of promoting narrative for players; namely that I made very special boards with several points of interactivity. This told the players that this was different, that this was not necessarily fair, and thus that we were looking for something besides gameplay. Finally by putting so much time into the tables I sketched scenes like an author or artist might: I signaled to players that their stories had value by providing a value-filled backdrop.
In March 2018 I will be running the Coalesence event for Malign Portents. I am doing this because it will bring the Games Workshop content to players and allow them to participate in this published storyline. This means I won’t be designing elements myself; instead I want to explore elements in the material as thoroughly as possible. But I’m hoping that by mid-March, there will be a palpable thrill when we see this content and get to interact with it en masse for the first time. We’ll use the Global nature of Coalescence to mirror wars across the Realms (or maybe just the one realm of Shyish, story’s not out yet!).
I’m still working on my Why statement for this summer’s Coalescence event in June 2018. I want to let players tinker with warscoll design in some way, and yet still be inclusive and bring in players that aren’t from my club. I want to do something crazy with the tables. And I want to work with other NEOs to see how big we can make a single Coalescence event. Once I have this as something concise and palpable, I’ll have a guidepost that gets me through June.
Maybe it’s because Sinek’s Start with Why is a treatise on sales first, and maybe it’s because the NEO acronym point us to the individual events we do, but I have had trouble finding the utility of a wider Why statement. That is, if we accept that a small Why gets us through a show, we know there’s a larger Why that takes us immediately to the next show. What does it look like when we ask ourselves why we are NEOs?
I think this is also a matter of self-discovery and self-reporting; that is, it may not have value outside of the individual. We may have NEO psychographic profiles someday, but for now we are better for knowing thyself, but only ephemerally better (whereas I feel the Why of an event is a Measurable Better). Asking ourselves Why we NEO has value because it produces a feeling in us, but it might not produce feeling in our players.
I will say, though, that I did not struggle with my personal Why statement. Why am I a NEO? Because I believe that the path to gaming excellence is most fully realized with hard work, and it is in narrative play that the maximum number of output streams for that hard work exist. Between organization, mechanical game design, artistic scenery design, and story crafting, being a NEO gives me the most items to work on, and the most simultaneous means of fulfillment.
What’s your story?