As much as I can appreciate and respect the tournament scene, Warhammer 40k has always been a narrative game for me. I love the stories that come from every battle, whether it’s the lowly grunt who goes through hell to save the day or the titanic clash between mighty heroes or towering war machines. Good games inevitably create great moments, and when you and your opponent are on the same page and the environment supports good play the result can be beautiful. Unfortunately the same is true of the opposite; a poor opponent or a bad environment can lead to a negative experience. The Grand Narrative run by Games Workshop in Atlanta the weekend before Thanksgiving exemplified both of these extremes.
Preparations for the event consisted of me steadily reducing my painting aspirations until I was just happy to be fielding 2000 points and joining the event Discord server. Travel to Atlanta was pretty easy. Pack my 2K of Space Marines, Knights, and Imperial Agents into my army case, bring a backpack full of clothes, and take a direct flight from BWI to Atlanta. Southwest Airlines and I get along just fine so the flight was pleasant and after a bit of a meandering through a parking garage I found the rideshare pickup point. In hindsight I wish I had put a bit more effort into figuring out transportation, as the $40 Uber was definitely unnecessary when a $2 metro ride went pretty much directly from the airport to the hotel. Either way I had my room, I had my army, and I had my friends. It was going to be a good weekend.
My army was once again the Regal Skulls backed by a full Kill Team of assassins (please, GW, give us a way to field all four again) and three Armiger Helverins. The Space Marine units consisted of a Repulsor Executioner, Redemptor, 3 squads of 5 Intercessors, a Lieutenant leading 10 Hellblasters, 3 plasma Inceptors, and a punchy/shooty unit of a Gravis Captain, Apothecary Biologis, and 3 Aggressors. I used the Anvil Siege Force because I had a bunch of heavy weapons and getting +1 to hit and wound seemed fun.
The evening started with us having to find the event, which turned out to be on the bottom floor of the hotel past an educational conference full of well-dressed administrators who seemed a bit less than enthused to be rubbing shoulders with bunch of t-shirt wearing wargamers and cosplayers. The high school kids from the Model UN were a bit more receptive but equally overdressed, but sadly none of them cosplayed as the country they were representing. I found my way down to the main floor which featured the same massive Terminator and well-stocked store (run by the same incredibly friendly folks) as the NOVA Open; and just like at the NOVA Open it had already been picked clean of all of the high demand models by the competitive players. I grabbed a troll for my Blood Bowl team and waited for registration to open, which is where I had my first negative experience. While waiting for registration to open, one of the staff members (the Commissar who never broke character and did a phenomenal job) encouraged us to watch a video on a nearby screen. I did so, wasn’t able to hear a thing, and when I turned around the line for registration had already started to snake around to the door. I waited in line with all the other suckers who were just following orders, got the deluxe goody bag that I forgot I had paid for, and then after an overpriced dinner that took forever at the hotel restaurant we waited for the narrative briefing.
Spirits were high as we milled about waiting for something to happen by the Terminator. The lead coordinator, a friendly guy named Josh, stood at a podium and started to introduce everyone. At least that’s what I think he was doing; in what would become an obnoxious trend for the event the address system they used was pretty terrible and I could barely hear anything. The room coordinators and major players were introduced leading each faction. The Path of Enlightenment was lead by an Inquisitor with wonderful head tattoos (when you’re 6’9″ you notice these things). The Path of Resistance was led by a Definitely Not Evil charismatic lady who talked of freedom and free beer (that’s what I chose to hear, as I said the audio was challenging). The Path of Annihilation was led by Chris Stover, who was part of the team running the NOVA Open narrative and is an all around swell guy. All of them were having a great time but Chris was by far the most fun to watch. This is not to discount the work that Fred (Pact of Enlightenment) and Elle (Pact of Resistance) did. Everyone was fantastic. I will fully admit that I hadn’t paid the most attention to the provided lore material and was coming into things cold. Apparently there was a planet, there was something on it that was important, and we were fighting over it. Good enough for me.
The way the Narrative works is that every player is allocated to a Battle Group, and inside that Battle Group every player gets a tarot card which tells them what table to play on at their assigned battle zone. The staff primarily used the Discord server to communicate assignments, and when you arrived at the battle zone you looked for the right card and met your opponent. The attackers had the option to switch tarot cards if the battle looked like it wouldn’t be fun, and everyone had the same primary mission. The factions also had a nebulous secondary objective like “Preserve Command Integrity” or “Deploy the Beacons” and there was also some kind of Fame/Infamy mechanic that apparently involved the Warlords hiding or moving forward. Or something. I honestly don’t know because the explanations were nebulous at best or were communicated through a medium that I wasn’t paying attention to.
I strongly feel that, if you’re going to have a mechanic that players are going to play to, then it’s frustrating to hide what that mechanic actually is. For example I thought I was Preserving Command Integrity by keeping my Warlord alive but still having him do stuff, but because I lost a specific number of characters I apparently failed that objective. Similarly I kept on hearing third-hand about how Fame or Infamy mechanics were being updated, but it never really made sense. It also seemed like the way the objectives were handled varied based on the Vox Localum (the event staff handling each region). Some had a more narrative interpretation, others it seemed like they were checking a box, and in the end I stopped caring. I think my Warlord tried to be Famous but wasn’t cool enough.
My first opponent was Benson and his Orks on a table full of Manufactorum terrain. The table had a solid amount of terrain that blocked line of sight and gave both sides amble opportunity to move, but the table was covered with patches of actual iron dust on it that got everywhere and made life hell for anyone with magnets on their models. The mission involved capturing objective markers and transporting them into the opponent’s deployment zone, and it immediately became obvious that Benson’s complement of Very Large and Very Angry Orks was going to get into my face as quickly as possible.
Benson began the start of what would be the defining theme in the Grand Narrative; awesome players fielding awesome armies. In Benson’s case the Orks were modeled in the theme of Tuska the “Daemon-killa” who ventured into the Eye of Terror and has been having a wonderful time ever since. Benson’s Ghaz, with a huge Daemon axe, is as wonderful as it is terrifying. Several units of trukk boyz and beastsnaggas combined with Ghaz, Mega Nobz, a unit of artillery, and several other brutal characters made a list that was destined to cause carnage. And carnage definitely ensued.
The game started fast and brutal, with the Armigers and Hellblasters hitting hard only to see my Vindicare and the unit of Hellblasters wiped out in the first turn. Benson pushed hard on all flanks, disregarding the objectives in favor of simply punching Space Marines in the face over and over again. I took a more tactical approach, grabbing and holding objectives while other units shielded them from the onslaught. The true MVP was the Callidus, who was able to grab an objective and then disappear with it only to return at the end of the battle in the backfield. That, combined with the actions of the Captain and the heroic sacrifice of nearly all of my Marines, led to a pyrrhic victory where the day was one but Command Integrity was apparently lost.
There was a bit of confusion before the second game, with our Battle Group ending up in one room before fighting in the city streets. Our task was apparently to Deploy the Beacons in addition to defend our objectives from attackers who only needed to hold them for a single turn to win. My opponent was Josh with his delightfully well painted Necrons. I’m not exactly an expert on xenos, but his force featured a balance of Skorpekhs and Lychguard to move forward while a Doom Stalker and a pair of Annihilation Barges formed an extremely potent fire base.
The table was suitably thematic, with a ruin in the center to block line of sight but several streets providing fire lanes which would help both sides. I positioned my army in a defensive position, with the Hellblasters located in a prominent position on a checkpoint above the city streets which I promptly named “Fort Awesome”. It was definitely awesome and the Hellblasters would do some real work this game.
Turn 1 was primarily about maneuvering, with one of my Armigers getting destroyed from some long range firepower but the terrain otherwise keeping the shooting gallery at bay. The mission required Josh to aggressively move forward, and in Turn 2 he blasted another Armiger before exposing his Warlord and retinue in an attempt to get closer to the objective. The responding salvo was brutal and annihilated the Skorpekh Lord and retinue through a comibination of Hellblaster and Aggressor fire. This was followed up by Repulsor Executioner finishing off the Warlord after Josh resurrected it. Josh returned the favor, blasting the Repulsor Executioner and remaining Armiger. This wasn’t enough and in the ensuing back and forth I focused fire on the forces moving forward and kept them at bay. The game ended with Josh infiltrating a character into the backfield who started to claim an objective, but it couldn’t survive long enough to win. Meanwhile the Callidus popped up into the backfield, deployed a Teleport Homer into the enemy deployment zone, and disappeared.
Dinner was at a local brewery called Max Lager’s, which was fantastic. After a bit of rest we went downstairs to follow the briefing. Sadly the audio issues that plagued us from the day before continued, and even in the front row I had trouble understanding everything. It seems like everybody was really excited about this Command Entity thingy, and the various Pacts were doing their best to contain, free, kill it, or maybe buy it breakfast. I got the impression that the Imperium was losing, especially since the Pact of Resistance leader was now sporting a DEFINITELY NOT SUSPICIOUS staff featuring a huge eye. The Pact of Annihilation leader was also pretty chipper, having received his quota of skulls from the skull factory. The Inquisitor in charge of the Pact of Enlightenment was happy he had gotten his wargear, but was apparently hearing voices. Seemed safe.
The next morning the Pact of Enlightenment leader was bedecked in an absolutely gorgeous set of power armour. Once again it was a challenge to hear him, but I got the impression that there was Room for Improvement and that we needed to push forward through enemy lines. Clear enough! Our Battle Group ended up in a desert room, and I found myself facing Jon and his Thousand Sons allied with Tzeentch Daemons as we battled around the remnants of a crashed Ork ship. Once again the table featured scattered dust, in this case sand instead of iron filings.
Jon is an amazing opponent and is a content creator for The Hobby Collab, which is a fantastic channel you should definitely check out. I don’t think it’s possible to convey exactly how awesome an opponent Jon is. His army is gorgeous, his attitude is fantastic, and he’s damn good at playing his army. I was on the defensive, trying to prevent his forces from burning too many objective markers. Jon’s army was well suited with this, with a combination of nasty threat units which had to be dealt with and cultists to do the actual work. I’m not super familiar with Tzeentch but his army features two massive beasts which I immediately knew needed to die, a large block of Terminators that needed to be exterminated, and several sorcerers that needed to be assassinated.
As is tradition, my Hellblasters took a key position to get as many lines of fire as possible while the Helverins, Redemptor, and Repulsor Executioner were positioned to respond to emergent threats. Jon pushed hard on my right flank, forcing me to reposition my Helverin and Redemptor as the cultists started to burn objectives. By Turn 3 it became a race between his Terminators and Horrors against my entire army, with model after model falling to autocannon, plasma, and bolter fire. Some positioning errors on my part led to one tiny blue horror getting just close enough to the final objective to burn it down before getting torn apart. Jon’s army paid for this effort by being slaughtered down to a single sorcerer, with many of his characters enjoying superfluous holes in their head courtesy of the Vindicare. I assume Tzeentch was pleased, because I sure as hell was… especially when Josh swung by and said that my army (and Jon’s!) were to be showcased.
Game four had me going to the ice biome and facing Jordan from SLAM SECTOR with Genestealer Cultists. I was on the attack this time while my secondary objective was to hold my deployment zone. I immediately felt bad for Jordan because this was roughly the worst possible situation for his army. In contrast to previous tables, the ice one was sparsely covered with very little in the way of site blockers. In hindsight I wish we had taken the time to reposition the terrain so that the ruins were positioned in the middle and formed a natural barrier, because the combination of Anvil Siege Force bonuses, heavy weapons, and long range made this game a turkey shoot.
Jordan’s army consisted of a large block of heavy infantry, several cultist blobs, a pack of genestealers, and a few light vehicles. The objective required me to push forward aggressively and capture everything before they spawned some kind of unspeakable horror, so I moved the walkers while the Hellblasters and Repulsor Executioner dealt with the Aberrant block. It took a LOT longer than I thought it would, but the Emperor was with me and I knocked them out in one turn. It turns out that light infantry and converted pickups do not handle anti-tank weaponry and massed firepower very well, and the GSC shenanigans were blocked through Inceptors and the Callidus. I want to commend Jordan for being such an incredible opponent even though the game was over quickly.
The evening briefing featured more bad news for the Imperium, with the Command Entity apparently being an Abominable Intelligence. The Inquisitor was apparently less than pleased by the actions of his subordinates, while the Resistance leader was looking more and more feathery and the Annihilation leader was really happy with his trophy collection. The highlight of the evening was the Inquisitor shouting “SILENCE WHORE!” across the entire room, which is particularly funny since Fred and Elle are married. The next morning the Inquisitor’s briefing was basically him yelling at us about how his authority was unquestionable, followed by the Valhallan leader… questioning his authority. Apparently the Pact of Enlightenment discord server featured some interesting happenings in the lore channel which ultimately affected the outcome of the narrative. I had no idea.
Game 5 was against Andrew and his Creations of Bile army. Our Battlegroup was once again in the forge area, which meant more ferrous dust but also a table that did not feature a central site blocking feature. In hindsight I wish I had re-arranged the terrain so that the ruins did a better job of blocking things, because Andrew’s primarily foot-slogging force was unlikely to have a good time against plasma and heavy laser destroyers. Andrew’s army consisted of a Rhino with Bile and several unholy creations, a large block of Chosen supported by his Warlord, and a several units of Chaos Space Marines and Daemons. The primary mission was to hold objectives that I believe would disappear over time. I don’t remember because the game didn’t last long enough for it to matter.
This game was brutal. In a single turn Andrew’s primary block of infantry was annihilated, and aside from losing my Repulsor Executioner my force was mostly intact. In spite of all of this Andrew remained in very high spirits, but I could tell that this was wearing on him. It’s simply not fun to bring a narrative army to a table where the environment is going to make it impossible to have much agency. Andrew conceded on Turn 2 when it was clear he didn’t have much of an army left to fight, and after reporting our results I asked the Vox Localum to note how amazing a sportsman Andrew was in case GW was doing awards or in some way would recognize it. In response the coordinator got Andrew’s entire group together, commended him for being such a great player, and gave him a full deck of the Tarot cards. Andrew definitely deserved it, and I really appreciate the Vox Localum for doing it.
At this stage things weren’t looking really good for the Pact of Enlightenment. The Commissar was leading a complete revolt, the Inquisitor was threatening to orbitally bombard his own troops, and civil war broke out. Imperial fought Imperial as the loyalist forces (me) faced the heretics who were clearly tainted by the Ruinous Powers (them). Nobody asked me but I remained a true supporter of the Inquisitor; the authority of the Rosette is unquestionable.
My final opponent, and what would become the best game in a weekend full of amazing experiences, was against Corbin and his Black Templars. It’s a shame to see such a noble scion of the Emperor fall to heresy, but these are dark times. Chris wandered by and encouraged our leaders to fight for glory in the center of our table, and being cheerful sports who know the Emperor is with them we agreed. My Warlord fell, and the cowardly Black Templar chaplain teleported away before I could shoot him with a heavy laser destroyer. Thus began what would be the highlight of my weekend, which got even better when Mike from our Discord brought me a beer. Thanks Mike! Inspired by this generosity, I put a drink ticket in the middle of the battlefield for us to fight over. Corbin and I agreed that the stakes couldn’t be higher.
My army was the attacker, and my job was to set fuzes across the battlefield and destroy several objectives. We fought in the Sanctum Santorum amidst candlelight and ruins, and having learned the lesson of the previous game I made sure to position the terrain to feature line of sight blockers. Corbin’s army featured a Land Raider, Gladiator Lancer, Redemptor, and plenty of supporting troops. He pushed forward and killed my Repulsor Executioner with a single shot while his Redemptor unloaded plasma fire into my Hellblasters without overcharging. This clear declaration of heresy would not go unnoticed.
The Land Raider detonated under concentrated firepower while the Sword Brethren inside charged and died to Overwatch and a Primaris Lieutenant. The Redemptor died to a single pistol shot, a fitting end for a coward. My Callidus appeared from the shadows and killed Corbin’s Warlord before being overwhelmed with power fists and bolter fire. Without warning the Vox Localum wandered over and casually dropped a D6 on the table, representing an orbital bombardment from the overhead ship. It failed to hit anyone but the mechanic was cool, and it landed closer to Corbin’s forces than mine so clearly the Emperor was on my side.
The game ends in a final, glorious turn. Two objective markers have already been destroyed, and two are within range of my army. The Vindicare moved towards the first, but the Lancer Overwatched and successfully turned the assassin into a drifting pile of ash from the laser destroyer. The Lieutenant that was formerly leading the now destroyed Hellblasters ran for the final marker, and after Corbin’s Terminators fail to make the charge he was able to set the final fuze at the final moment. Victory to the loyalists!
The final debrief confirmed that I had, indeed, made every bad choice possible. The Pact of Annihilation discovered that their leader had claimed the Abominable Intelligence and escaped with it in service of Vashtorr. Curiously the leader had started to shout “BLOOD FOR THE BLOOD GOD, SOULS FOR THE SOUL FORGE!” about halfway through the event and had marked players with the sigil of Vashtorr. It turns out those who had Vashtorr’s mark were the souls to be consumed in question. The Pact of Resistance leader had ascended to full daemonhood and took her pact with her. The Inquisitor? Executed by the Valhallan. I suppose heresy is in the eye of the bolt holder.
- The Vox Localum were fantastic. Not only from a narrative perspective, but also in terms of helping ensure the gameplay experience was top notch. The gentleman running the Five Fold Forge in particular should be commended.
- I had six wonderful opponents who made the event unforgettable.
- The Lords of War really did a great job when we interacted with them. I loved the orbital bombardment, a vignette next to my battle, and being encouraged to have our Lords of War do a fun thunderdome event.
- You can tell the staff put a ton of effort into the event, and it shows. From the cards and briefing, to the themes of the venue, to the cosplay and narrative progression. This is a labor of love and they did a great job.
- The venue was really good. Lots of room, access to good food, and getting to the airport was easy.
- The tarot card system worked very well to help find our location.
- It was difficult to follow the faction objectives and Fame/Infamy mechanic. I feel like it’s better to have clear objectives, ideally written down on briefing packets or cards, instead of expecting people to guess at what they’re supposed to do. If you don’t want it spelled out, then encourage people to have a narrative element and provide a compelling story about what they did.
- I felt like the Path of Enlightenment got somewhat screwed in terms of “fun things to do.” The Annihilation players were running around counting skulls, the Resistance players had a cool moment where the Battle Group needed to set exactly 9 teleport homers, and I don’t recall anything like that happening for Enlightenment.
- Terrain will make or break a game. Hopefully we’ll see more sight blockers next year, but I also think it’s important for the event to encourage players to arrange the terrain so that it’s as fun as possible.
- I think the Crusade system isn’t needed. It’s a layer of complexity on top of a complicated game, and the bookkeeping made it almost mandatory to use Administratum. I would much rather see a more casual and accessible narrative system, maybe one where only the Warlord (representing the player) progresses through cards or some other kind of special reward.
- It’s minor, but if the tables had featured two tarot cards back-to-back on the holder it would have been easier to see.
- Rather than throw away stuff like the candles, let people know they can take them. Seems rather wasteful.
- Encourage the cosplayers to avoid costumes that cover their faces, as it made it difficult to understand them and many were overheating by the end.
- Encourage the Vox Localum to speak out of character when people need their help.
Overall I had a ton of fun, and I definitely want to come back. I already have plans for a new army for next year, and my goal is to bring a display board and really dive into the cosplay and thematic element. These events are best when you truly embrace the roleplay, and I want to go all-in next year.
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