Designing the Goonhammer Open Narrative Event, Part 1: Setting the Stage

Last year we ran the first ever Goonhammer Open series of events, with a single 40k tournament in the UK and another in the US. We set our US event on Labor Day weekend, in large part to replace the NOVA Open that had been cancelled due to COVID concerns (they’re a much bigger event and had to cancel much earlier). A big part of the event was running the 40k Narrative, one of the long-standing beloved parts of the NOVA experience.

Last year, fellow Goonhammer author and long-standing NOVA Narrative player Dan “Cha Boi” Boyd ran the event, using a modified Crusade rule system over the event’s 6 games. This year Dan is a little preoccupied with the experience of being a first-time dad, and so I’ve agreed to take on the challenge of running the Narrative.

Of course, this a huge fucking problem, because I have insane Campaign Brain. I love running and particularly designing campaigns – tabletop RPGs, 40k, whatever. I love creating custom missions and designing mechanics and setting the stage for a cool narrative. And as much as I’ll miss playing in the GT, I absolutely plan to crush the shit out of the Narrative.

What is This Series About?

Which brings me to the point of this article and the series itself – Over the next 12 or so weeks I’m going to be walking through my process designing the GHO Narrative, the thought process behind it, and talking about the mechanics that will drive it. If you’re looking for inspiration around designing you’re own campaign, then hopefully this will help you. If you’re in the narrative and looking for advance information about it, then this series will also help you. If you’re a competitive player who never saw the appeal in Narrative events but clicked on this article and now you’re committed to reading it, well I think this will have some things for you too. Hopefully there will be something for everyone.

The Basic Constraints

Building something like this starts with an acknowledgement of constraints, because ultimately those limitations are going to drive a lot of the design choices I’ll end up making. There aren’t a ton of things I need to adhere to for this, but they’re pretty much non-negotiable.

  • It has to be a two-day event. We’ve only got the space for two days, so this one is pretty rock-solid. That also caps the number of rounds we can realistically run to somewhere around 6-9, though we want to try and finish early enough on Sunday to pack up and get out of the venue at a reasonable hour.
  • It has to max out at 24 players. There’s some give here, but realistically this is the number of people we want. It’ll support a team structure, and this is both the same number of tables we had the year prior and what we’ve got terrain to cover.
  • It has to use Crusade. We’ve been working really hard on Administratum and one of the reasons is because we love the Crusade rules. So I want to make sure that we’re using those rules and also the sweet app we’ve built for managing them.
  • It should roughly line up with the GT. OK this is the least important of the rules, but one I’m setting. Some of the hardcore NOVA Narrative guys like doing night games but I like my Warhammer to run from 9 to 5, roughly. Give me games that end before dinner so I can go out with my friends and have a good time. We didn’t have the events synched up last year and it made doing a Fogo group dinner a nightmare. So this year we’re doing mostly 9 to 6 for scheduling.

Lessons Learned from Prior Events

Although I didn’t run last year’s Narrative, I helped out a bit on it and talked to Dan Boyd before and after, and there are a few lessons I took away from his event. There are also a few things I learned from the GW US Open event in Seattle earlier this year. The first thing is that our method of handling experience – doubling the XP gained – was too aggressive. People gained too much XP, too fast. We didn’t need to double it. At the same time, the Seattle event taught me that too many people found the Crusade tracking and scoring too complex, and so we need to simplify the unit tracking a bit during and between games. I like the Crusade framework but I need something that will be easier to track and also allow meaningful progression in a short period of time.

Credit: Robert “TheChirurgeon” Jones

The Big Idea

OK with those constraints, let’s talk structure. I really believe that narrative events need to have a decent narrative, to not only set the proper mood but also to help create a sense of what’s at stake (though I’ll cover stakes more later). To that end, although I’ll likely have to create a Vigilus-like “everyone is fighting over this one planet”-style narrative that always feels vaguely slapdash, I can at least create a narrative that doesn’t have Imperium fighting itself. So for this event I decided to split my 24 players up into three teams: Imperium, Chaos, and Xenos, eight players each. This means that each round I can have four Imperium vs. Chaos battles, four Imperium vs. Xenos, and four Chaos vs. Xenos battles. 2on2 battles are a possibility, but not one I’m actually going to have – I’ll likely avoid having team games in the campaign.

The Advantage of Teams

Having teams gives me a few advantages. First, it helps reinforce the narrative – having all the Imperium players working together and all the Chaos players working together taps into players’ natural tribalism with regard to those factions, and makes the story feel more plausible. There’s not a ton I can do about a ragtag Xenos coalition, but the idea is that they’re playing spoilers here – trying to stop Chaos while at the same time weakening Imperial control. It’s plausible, just less so that Tyranids and Eldar would team up in any way. I can avoid some of that mess by not having team games, making it feel more like a loose third party is in the fray, and also with only eight players there’s a good chance I don’t see every Xenos race represented.

The second upside of teams is that they help create a larger sense of purpose for the players – if they’re all working as a team it will feel like they’re part of a bigger effort in a real war rather than just a series of loosely connected one-off games. On that note, the games have to be connected – but that’s a totally different issue I’ll talk about in a future article.

Keeping Things Tactically Engaging

If there’s one thing I absolutely loathe, it’s when the Narrative event just becomes “the GT for bad players.” Look, I get it – most narrative players will typically be less skilled than the top players in a GT. but often I find that this approach does a disservice to both the narrative players who want to be part of an engaging story and the competitive players who are looking for a different kind of challenge. And that’s not to mention the many more casual players I know who are decent players but like to play with weird or off-meta units that just aren’t viable or rewarded in competitive play.

So something I want to do is make sure the narrative is at least somewhat tactically engaging and interesting to play in for more experienced players. That’s a tall order, but I can do a lot of things here that aren’t normally feasible in comp play – I can have asymmetrical missions and battlefields, and I can encourage or reward players for taking different types of units. I can have missions that force players to bring faster armies, or heavier armies, or exclude vehicles. I can create objectives that reward larger units. In short, I can create incentives for a broad swath of playstyles, and then let the teams decide which players will take on those challenges each round. I can also do some loose pairing work on my end to ensure better players match into better players and prevent some big mismatches.

This is another topic I’ll circle back on in coming weeks.

Primary and Secondary Missions

Finally the last thing I’ll touch on this week – and again, this will come up again in the future – is the notion of primary and secondary missions. Early on I knew I wanted some area where teams could choose what targets or objectives they wanted to try and pursue, but I also needed some kind of loose tree structure for the campaign. So I decided to split each round up into primary and secondary missions. Each round, a team will play 6 primary mission games – 3 against each opposing team – and 2 secondary mission games.

The Primary Mission games represent the main front of the war, where the big pushes happen. These are part of a tree campaign where each round determines what happens in the next round by changing the primary mission.

The Secondary Mission games represent smaller, but still important, engagements that determine control of key assets on the planet. Winning these games confers a bonus to your team in the long run, and helps in the final round. A lot of work went into figuring out how to make these work, and I’ll be talking about them more in the future as well.


Next Time: Creating the Backstory and Crusade Structure

That’s it for this intro. Next time I’ll talk about how I created the backstory for the narrative, how I’m planning to tie that into player backstories and Crusade rules, and how I’m going to modify the Crusade base rules to work for the campaign. Until then, if you have any questions or feedback, drop us a note in the comments below or email us at