How do you know whether or not a narrative event will be successful? For NEOs running an event with new players, the question most often comes down to some variation of, “Do my players understand the expectations of narrative play, or will they be engaging in behavior that runs contrary to these expectations?” In short, a NEO asks themselves if their players will “get it.” We often default to speaking in said shorthand, because the nature of narrative play can be so difficult to define, especially in terms of what it is not. “What is Narrative” is absolutely a conversation worth having over hours and countless hours… but we have to be more concise with our players, especially on the day of! This article looks at how to talk to your players about narrative play to set the expectations for your event and do everything you can to help your participants “get” your event.
What is Your Message?
Do you know what to say to a player that would like to talk about how your narrative event is different from another three round tournament? The answer is about what you value in an event and what you’re prepared to run. As a first step, take a moment and examine why you’re doing this narrative event. We wrote an article about it, in fact!
Once your intentions and values are known to yourself, I recommend going to some
thought experiments to see how potential players might interact with them. In short, what is an ideal player at your event like, and what behaviors do they exhibit? Did they bring a painted and converted army that’s unique in the world? Do they have a backstory and character names that they can use to suggest and justify actions on the table that might not come up in Matched Play? Are they social and engaging with their opponent, and excited to build coalitions with the rest of the participants? Rank these attributes, as they’re going to inform your design decisions as well as what you stress to your players.
As a side note, this idea that the top tournament lists are not appropriate to the narrative keeps me up at night. I am committed to the idea that when gamers value competence in their stories, that protagonists are usually effective actors in their world. As I write this in Late January 2018, Stormcast Eternal Vanguard Wing is the talk of the town after not only winning the UK Masters but going into the tournament as a well-understood super-power. If I was to start thinking about lists that are not fun to play against, the
teleporting grandhammers that explode into extra hits on 2 or more might top the list. But isn’t this what Stormcast are like in the novels? Isn’t this a super-power, and doesn’t this fit not only a story that we could tell, but the current story of our game? We play narrative games partly because we want to try new things without worrying about balance all the time… why is imbalance so destructive here? It probably is though, and I can feel that it is, I have a limbic brain reaction to keeping this away from my event. To justify this, I might note that lists from the top tier of a tournament culture are just that, from a small tier. I want my stories to be expansive and have huge dramatis personae… I want as many different factions as I can at my tables. If I value variety, then I don’t value finely-tuned list power.
Before Your Event
When you feel that an event is a success, you’re probably noticing, among other things, that your players have a common set of expectations. Hopefully they all showed up with these similar expectations; maybe, godluvem, they had to adjust themselves on the fly. But if everyone at your event knows what is expected of them, what is permissible, what is forbidden, and what is celebrated, then there are few barriers left for them to enjoy themselves. Note that there wasn’t a need to talk narrative or competitive/matched play: any game has a set of expectations it carries with it, and communicating those expectations is a mark of a good organizer. Ours is a preparatory hobby, we spend at least three hours assembling and painting our models for every one that we play. So when our players know what to expect from our event before they show up, they never feel like they have the wrong tools for the job.
The first thing we can do is identify good key terms when talking about your event. We
pull “Narrative Play” straight from the AoS General’s Handbook, and how lucky are we to have the publisher of our game define these distinctions! There’s quite a bit written about the meaning of this term, but for the purposes of running your event, all that matters is, it’s not Matched Play. As soon as your players reach out to you and ask how it’s different, you’re in a conversation and far more likely to set the right level. Our community has also hit upon using “event” over “tournament” to show how we often promote different standards of excellence than normal competitive events, standards like painting, storytelling, or enthusiasm over success at the mechanisms of Warhammer. All of this is highly codified language, and it’s a poor substitute for a conversation, but remember that you’ll have to talk about your event in the big text at the top of a flier, or in a tweet, or in a single sentence to someone you’ve just met. That’s when meaningful phrases that unpack in just the right way start to earn their keep.
We can also encode meaning into the design of our event. In the releases for Coalescence 2017, Eric StoneMonkGamer noted that one of the key structural elements of narrative play was variable list size. If a Matched Play tournament asked players to bring 2000 points to each game, a narrative event might play with the lists… in fact, it traditionally grows those lists to match the crescendo of a story. When we play games with different lists and therefore under vastly different circumstances, we’re removing the validity of comparing generalship across rounds… and therefore communicating that strict generalship has reduced value to us. Eric notes how this value judgement is encoded in the preparation instructions, i.e. the minimum amount of information we can expect a player to consume. Other examples of this?
- Units without points values, like the special custom warscroll heroes that events like RAW, Holy Wars, and NOVA have run
- Terrain that introduces gameplay “problems,” like ledges that only fliers might ever reach
- Registration of fictional data points, like names of generals or armies
As you approach your event, take every opportunity to start a dialogue with your players, and use that dialogue as an excuse to try and communicate your expectations. I generally use email as be registration: I set up a gmail account for Coalescence stuff and asked everyone to send an email to reserve a slot, even people I was talking to in the shop. About a third of my players were new to me, and I asked them about what they were bringing; just faction, not army list. This gave me an opportunity to have conversations like, “A Slaanesh-themed Slaves to Darkness army sounds super-fun, I can’t wait to meet you!” or “Oh wow, it’s still Summer 2017, so 12 Necropolis Knights sounds like a tough list!” I wasn’t critical, but I tried to communicate that we weren’t going to be running a cutthroat environment that was scraping to top of the meta. Also I slapped the experimental points on those Tomb Kings, because that fit the story I was trying to tell…
A final element that should be part of your pre-event planning is to leave space in your schedule for narrative to happen. You never have all the time you could possibly need, and there’s a temptation to look at tournament standards as you plan. If Adepticon can do a Vanguard game in one hour, maybe you can too. But I think your event will benefit from a schedule that’s more expansive, with games that can stretch out a bit and give players time to connect their ideas and riff of each other. There’s also tremendous value in scheduled non-game time with the players. That may end up looking like an 11 hour day for three games, but it can really pay off.
During the Games
You’ve planned your event and it’s a half hour away from the first dice. What are you doing now to keep this dialogue going and to deal with any problems as they arise?
First, you were hopefully able to build some cushions into your daily plan. I had an opening announcement for my event, mainly to set expectations one final time. You can do a lot with this: you can give players a chance to tell the story of their armies, you can give alliances a chance to plan and scheme, and if you schedule sessions between breaks, you can take what’s happened and start to tell stories. If you were to tell everyone about how the Ironjaw Megaboss nearly drowned in the river last game (Dangerous Terrain, how many stories are wrapped up in you?) and is now out for revenge, possibly on other rivers, you might get a laugh out of the room. But more importantly you’ll be granting them license to do just this: to look for game events, to craft stories around them, to share them with their opponent and the room, and to start thinking about how their characters (no longer just models) would react afterwards.
You can give your players license to create, but don’t forget that you have this license yourself. Once you’ve left the realm of Matched Play and concerns of “fairness” are gone, you can start to take active agency in the games. You use that license to keep things on track… if we as NEOs create games with crazy scenarios, unusual terrain, and limited playtesting, we are not amiss to fear unforeseen consequences. But we don’t have to build perfectly balanced wheels, we can rebalance on the fly, and show that balance isn’t the point anyway. As an event organizer, you can:
- Adjust warscrolls! If a 21 Skyfire list is ruining someone’s fun, you can change the model rules so that 6s no longer cause mortal wounds. Consent with the Tzeentch player is going to make that go more smoothly, of course.
- Add third parties! Was it Realmhoppers 2017 that featured a Battlemage on Griffon that appeared through realmgates all over the event, popping Arcane Bolt off? Not
only is that fun, it can be a balancing mechanism. I was lucky enough to start Coalescence with an extra player without an army. I gave him a Vampire Lord on Zombie Dragon and told him to cause chaos. I think he saved some games that would have been auto-wins for some of the armies, but critically he communicated that these would not be fair games and anything could happen, even the Marauding Countess!
- Play as the table! If you are using Time of War rules, maybe you want to increase them to help some games… it’s usually quite thematic when the blizzard strengthens, and the wind might howl more fiercely on one corner of the board where the Judicator block is hunkered down. Perhaps you’re keeping the tables rules light, and want to keep some Time of War scrolls in your back pocket.
I love the experience of being an agent in the games, and I never want to have to play in an event. You’re doing this to enhance the narrative and especially the fun; if you start
becoming a blocker, then you need to get out of the way fast and let the play find its own rhythm. Ergo, I find I am constantly reading the room. I’ll happily interfere with the table of a player that I don’t know, but I am also likely to be a passive observer on my next two or three visits to see that a fun game is still going on. I’ll also ask what I’ve missed, and help couch what has happened in terms of a story. I really think that a lot of narrative play, in interpreting what has happened into a story that immensely enhances the experience, is often locked away in players not knowing that they could do this. As NEOs we should be helping players find the fun of narrative play, and also not push too hard in instances where someone doesn’t leap onto your “yes and” cues. When we feel like we’ve made it clear how they could be playing, our job is done, and we can stop risking interference with how a player wants to relate to the game.
Finally, your event will come to an end. If you have four tables going, then four stories are closing simultaneously. Can you turn that into one story that was shared by the room? Coalescence 2017 had a scorecard system for this, tracking actions throughout the
games to bring one alliance to the top. If you were able to observe the various games in your event then you could supplement that scorecard with a story, in which the characters your players brought performed the actions they rolled for, but all in favor of a greater story. This is the denouement, a final burst of exposition that if done properly could tie the experiences of players across the room together into one whole. If this is going to happen you’ve got to plan for it though… you’ve got to keep scores being tallied so you don’t have to call a break and furiously count. You’ve got to pay attention to everything, although it will work best if enthusiastic players are recounting the stories that you missed. You’ve got to leave time in your schedule between dice down and cleanup for this storytelling to occur. Awards help with that but they take time too! It’s clearly the kind of “hard” that tells us something is worth doing.
The Next Event
If your narrative event is a success, you’ll be able to repeat it and draw from a pool of increasingly experienced veterans. You’ll have to ask less of them because this baseline is already established, and you’ll have less to fear. Every time you talk about narrative and get a receptive audience, you should expect not to have to do it again. This is one of the true joys of narrative organizing, when it’s not just the player but the community that “gets it!”