Telling a Tale: Narrative in Tabletop Gaming

One of our narrative games: A Zone Mortalis style 40k game on two sets worth of Space Hulk Tiles!

Narrative gaming has been with us since the long lost days of original Warhammer Fantasy and Rogue Trader back in the 80’s, and probably longer. For as long as the human race has played with toy soldiers, many have tried to tell a story with them. But why is the concept so popular? Why do so many games push for it? And why is it so hard to “get right”?

For starters, not everyone is interested in the concept, nor should they be forced into doing so. The most important thing for a lot of people is a solid core of rules, and the game itself. For those people, the models are simply a way of expressing their creativity and an outlet to play fun games with. At the end of the day though, some gamers either tire of the constant grind of pick-up games, or games that lack a context outside of the game itself. Or, they start out the hobby from the get go wanting to play games that have some sort of impact. Those are the people we are going to talk about today. What siren call leads them down this path?

One of our players in the clubhouse has gone down the route of naming almost every character of Sergeant rank or higher, and having backstory for each and every one of them. Her army’s lore quite literally is a books worth of information!

The heart of it lies in the setting; a rich setting full of lore and interesting factoids and history will inevitably lead to some people wanting to fight out battles without the constraints of a point based system, or with some manner of progression – the idea of telling our own tale among many others, or retelling an old familiar one. The Hero’s Journey is a classic trope for a reason, and writ large with a cast of hundreds, a tabletop army in the right hands can have homemade lore that can make even blush. Or the story of valiant last stands, sieges that change history, glorious charges to death and glory; these things happen in games naturally, but when each model is a character, or if the siege in question has a real strategic value, then suddenly it goes from a “woah, neat” to “Poor Sergeant Matthias, cut down in his prime holding the gate to Hive Primus. May his sacrifice be remembered forever in the chapter.” This for some is pretty dorky. For us narrative folk, its like catnip.

“Whatever comes through that gate, you will stand your ground!”

Here is where things can get fun; context can be added to random pick up games, weaving it into your own personal lore. But the real fun lies in narrative games that actually have rules and perks that encourage growth, and even sometimes take your army or characters in a direction you don’t expect. For example; Age of Sigmar has campaign rules that allow units and heroes to acquire artifacts that enhance your character or regimental upgrades to make the unit have a distinct feel. Rolling for these makes this even better; your unit can gain an upgrade you didn’t expect, and then proceeding to kit-bash that upgrade into reinforcements for that unit down the road. The Middle Earth Strategy Battle Game has Battle Companies, where small teams of warriors gain unique skills and upgrades to make them true heroes, and the nature of the setting allows for some cool encounters, like taking your heroes into the War of the Ring (the event in the books, not the GW rules from back in the day, to be clear).

In the normal Middle Earth SBG, these two Captains may not be worth much. But with the context of Battle Companies, these two stout leaders may gain traits, broken limbs, better stats, and eventually become mighty heroes, standing with Gandalf the White at the Siege of Minas Tirith!

In games beyond the GW range, Osprey may produce some of the finest examples of games that allow you to get your narrative juices flowing. Frostgrave offers a fine example; your Wizard and Apprentice can be customized as a blank slate, and their school of magic and your own modelling and painting skills can lead to unique miniatures, and with a little effort, have a backstory to go with them. In another example, Zona Alfa, released in January to good reviews, allows players to delve into the “Exclusion Zone”, building a squad of Stalkers to delve into Post-Soviet Bloc ruins and fight radiation, mutated creatures, anomalies, and other Stalkers; all in the name of loot. Both Frostgrave and Zona Alfa have no model lines needed to play them, and this probably is its greatest strengths. Frostgrave does have customizable kits, but unlike most games, does not insist you have to use them. Allowing players to build their warbands and Stalker squads out of any 28mm miniatures that fit their own tastes, it is quite easy to build a team that suits your own narrative. And the game then forces you to adapt, as models die, making way for new stories to be told as the veterans get stronger or die out, leaving the rookies in charge.

My band of mercenaries heads into the ruins of Felstad, better known locally as Frostgrave. Led by Ibram the Soothsayer, a wizened old man better known for tricks and deception then flashy spells!

Now here lies the problems in Narrative games; this all requires a commitment to play. And keeping a groups interest long term in a campaign game takes a significant amount of effort, and most of the time, a strong “Game Master” role similar to that of a tabletop RPG. I’ve actually never completed a campaign long term; It is just far to difficult to keep the motivation going sometimes, and especially in a group like ours where the competition can be pretty fierce. Narrative games rely on a sort of honor system; an agreement not to game the the system and play to the spirit of the rules, if not the written ones. This can be hard to wrangle. All it takes is one person going a little too hard, or a sore loser in the other extreme, to make it all fall apart. Another issue is time; you simply need a lot of long term commitment, whereas pick up games of the major system is a one and done deal, you just show up and play. A campaign can drag on for weeks, and to get to that payoff you need to have a schedule. With peoples’ jobs this can be enormously difficult to do, and worse still, sometimes you need a specific person and they can’t make it.

The Commissar is displeased with your lack of motivation!

These aren’t impossible problems to overcome, however. The rules and the “gaming” of them can be fixed by strict and enforced house rulings. This requires a serious GM willing to put his/her foot down. The time problem is harder, but the answer lies in shorter campaigns or a willingness to wait it out while people make time for gaming. Again, a good group leader can help manage this. While I’ve been unfortunate enough to never experience the end of a narrative campaign personally, the “high” is too tempting to avoid trying another go. As well, one-off Narrative games avoid many of these issues entirely, simply by not being long enough to cause the issues in the first place!

One day, I will get that Pelennor Fields game in. ONE DAY!

To close things off, Narrative gaming is not for everyone, and even those that truly believe they want to play it, should consider how they will go about doing so. It is far more difficult then your casual game day at the friendly local gaming store, and requires time and effort to accomplish fully. You can dabble in it by establishing your personal armies’ lore, and customizing your models to represent your characters, and this is as close as most people, me included, get to the full experience.

But man, it is so worth it when all the pieces come together, even if it is just for a game or two. Telling a story is a classic compulsion, and some of us war-gamers are just as bad as authors for having a need to tell one. When a good idea gets in your head, it can be hard to shake. Having a narrative campaign is the nirvana for us lore-focused gamers, and our constant drive to play and finish one can give us the energy to continue, even if we fail over and over again. I know I’m certainly planning one at this very moment, acquiring models and terrain for just such a purpose. It can really bring a Club or Store together as well!

I will leave you to ponder your thoughts on this; Leave a comment if you have anything to say, and as always, Happy War-gaming, wherever you might be!

Author: tehlulzpare

"Astra Miliwhat? Your in the Guard, son!" I am the owner of the the blog and I am the "Editor" of the Badly Painted Minis website, a lofty title that I will absolutely let go to my head. I play Imperial Guard in 40k, and play almost any game that piques my interest that I run into, and proceed to paint them poorly and play badly. Enjoy!

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