Alexander Nygård was part of the original team that pulled together to write the Coalescence 2017 global narrative event pack and then got involved with the team that developed the Coalescence: Desolation of Eristrat.
He agreed to answer some questions about his approach to writing rules and battleplans for AoS.
Alexander, why do you like writing gameplay rules?
Rules are the frame in which we can tell our stories. For many years now, my favourite poem has been “Terje Vigen”, an epic poem written entirely in identical verse. It’s almost a novel, told entirely in locked stanzas, which gives it a near-mythical quality. While rules for our games don’t do quite so much, they set the stage and focus our actions into specific stories. It gives context to actions, drive to players, and goals to achieve. It can be quite challenging to invent stories from nothing. In some ways, I’m actually better at imagining and writing battleplans than I am actually creating stories on the table. I read an article in an old White Dwarf about how some of GW’s rules designers were all about setting up narratives, writing scenarios and building armies, but once they’re on the table it’s all about the victory conditions. I’m like that in a lot of ways. If winning a battle also means I’ve told a great story, it’s a much better game for it.
For many narrative event organizers the prospect of writing new rules for a campaign or event may be daunting. It sounds like narrative play is more of a flavor that can work with just about any battleplan. Which needs to come first? Do you prefer creating the battleplan and then developing a narrative over the top of it, or is it better to develop a narrative structure to inspire the rules?
Writing rules can be quite daunting! You’re always wondering how people will receive them, especially if your players aren’t familiar with narrative play. But it’s not actually all that hard to get something done. The real core of a narrative battleplan is all in the story your victory condition is telling. That’s what the story of the battle is about. Get that right, and everything else flows from there. Using existing battleplans is often a good start, as GW have written many, many battleplans and the community has made many more. Whatever story you want may already be in rules form!
In this sense, figuring out the story first is usually best. There’s all sorts of ways to do it. Some may have very restrictive ideas, leaving the gameplay elements constantly trailing the story. Others may have vaguer ideas, where open-ended rules allows the story to flow more from the gameplay. This is really up to each NEO. One thing to keep in mind is that the more work each battleplan is, the closer the NEO needs to be to the action. The battleplans for Coalescence were, for the most part, quite simple. They had to be, because I couldn’t be at 20+ locations to sort out rules queries! While their results were binary (win/lose), the mechanics were deliberately open so that players and NEOs could craft as much or as little of their own stories within them.
Do you have any tips for NEOs thinking about writing their own battleplans or modifying existing battleplans to fit their event?
A couple of practical tips: Figure out what your battleplan is about, and make that your victory condition. That way players are always playing to the story, even if they’re being gamey!
Make sure your victory condition is mechanically simple and fairly intuitive. The more complex this is, the more time people will spend thinking of rules instead of story.
Always involve people’s units. If a narrative is simply happening around the players it’s less engaging than stories happening because of the players.
Have a meaningful purpose with any extra battleplan rules. Do you have a non-standard deployment, are there major gameplay changes, are there things players must or cannot use? There’s a lot you can do, but everything should have a reason that makes sense for both the gameplay and the story of the plan.
And when it comes to adapting existing battleplans, I always look for a few things. The first is whether or not this battleplan tells the same sort of story that I’m looking for. Simply put, if I just put down the story and this battleplan, would it make any sense for the players? Changing simple things like names for rules can help a lot. Eg: For The Ritual, changing the ritual to something like “aethermatic beacon” and the ritualists to “the stranded” immediately changes the feel of the battleplan without changing any rules. You now have a rescue mission with a time limit, no work required.
The next I look for is what is the smallest change I can make that will make this battleplan more thematic? Small changes are almost always better than big ones. If you need to change major parts of the plan, you may be looking for a different battleplan, after all. To use our little stranded Kharadron mission, we can change deployment so the ritual is in the center of the map and the attackers deploy around it. It’s a solid change, but simple and makes sense. And by doing so, we’ve reinforced the idea of a stranded crew being pounced on by opportunistic enemies.
Now that you have a suitable battleplan and have shifted it slightly towards your purpose, it’s time to look to the finishing touches. What does this plan need to tell the story, and what does it not? One might imagine that at the end of the countdown, the Kharadron players gets massive reinforcements, airships laden with troops swooping onto the field. But does that actually improve the story being told? I’d argue no. To use a tired adage, less is more. Likewise, there may be rules you absolutely need! If our poor Kharadron crashed on some floating isle in the sky, you may need to add a rule that only models with the Fly rule can move across it. They wouldn’t be stranded in the sky without some sort of rule like that, after all! This is a major change. Really big. It affects what sort of units people can bring and how they can use them, so only do things like this sparingly.
The reason major changes should come after minor ones is that you don’t want to go overboard. It’s easy to start changing everything, adding 4-5 rules per battleplan and really cramping that A4 page. By making small adjustments you can make it more suitable to your story. Once it’s already pretty fitting, you can make a better judgement on whether you actually need that big rule or not. You may find that nothing more actually needs to be done. Anything that’s not actually needed should be cut. I’m guilty of this myself, in Battletome: The End Times. Many of the battleplans there stick too close to the plot, drowning the purpose of the story with the minutea of its telling.