Narrative Forge: A History of Campaigns in the Mortal Realms

An article by    Age of Sigmar Gaming The Narrative Forge        0

Age of Sigmar was created, somewhat infamously, to allow narrative battles to occur. While the game would eventually go on to build the three game types that have become associated with Age of Sigmar and Warhammer 40k (Open, Narrative and Matched Play), Age of Sigmar initially launched as a game that had no points costs and no real metrics to measure if armies were balanced. Some players came up with different methods 0 the most popular was to add up the total wounds and see if they matched – but in those early days Games Workshop essentially asked you to look at the number of models and go “Eh, looks about right.”

AoS also had a design philosophy that there would no longer be pesky “codexes” to carry around: All the Warscrolls you needed would be published for free online and if you couldn’t get them that way, there were Grand Alliance books to give you the Warscrolls you missed collected into a single source. This left Games Workshop with a problem: How do you keep people engaged without new Army books to sink their teeth into? They decided to go with the narrative angle and publish a series of books about the ongoing wars in the Mortal Realms.

This isn’t going to be a comprehensive look at how to run a grand campaign featuring these books; they’re almost all (With one exception) pretty straightforward linear narratives which Rob covered in detail. That article was written with 40k in mind but the idea of running these sorts of campaigns is the same: Games Workshop will lay out the battlefield for you, include a few special rules, and it’s up to you to supply the models. Most of these aren’t worth revisiting as written but there are some interesting ideas worth exploring in here. Also, it’s just fun to look back at a game that faced a very rough launch and analyze how it got from there to where it stands now.

 

Mighty Battles In An Age of Unending War

This is an easy book to overlook due to its release timing (Shortly after launch, when many considered the game Dead on Arrival) but it basically functions as a substitution for a core rulebook. See, the core game rules of Age of Sigmar were free. Games Workshop had an expressed goal of keeping the rules to only 8 pages to play with no big and unwieldy rulebooks to carry. A commendable goal to be sure but one that would turn out to be misguided.

Mighty Battles in an Age of Unending War is largely narrative and functions as a substitute for a core rulebook. It includes a brief overview of the world and how the armies are involved in it. At the time Games Workshop really only acknowledged the Grand Alliances as the game’s true factions in the rules text but you can spot some specific attempts at acknowledging various factions within those alliances which would come to get their own Battletomes later. And even then, the book only really acknowledges the Order and Chaos Grand Alliances – Destruction and Death go almost entirely unmentioned and the Stormcast are pretty clearly the protagonists of the story. All of the battles contained within treat them as the protagonists, freeing the other realms from the forces of Chaos. Other Order armies are mentioned as being involved in the fighting, but the battles the book has you play occur when the Stormcast show up to clean up. After all, they were the new face of the game and it was important that you like them.

The Narrative thrust of the book is a story that takes place in the early days of the Mortal Realms, when Chaos had a firm grip on most of the realms. Sigmar made an alliance with other gods of Order, one that has since fallen apart. Sigmar sits on his throne in Azyr while the Chaos gods are still wreaking havoc everywhere else. The plot is paper thin, it’s rather clearly an excuse to get the ball rolling on the setting but the stormcast fight across three realms during the course of the book. Aqshy, the Realm of Fire is held by Khorne. Ghyran, the realm of life is held by Nurgle and Chamon, the realm of Metal is held by Tzeentch. In each case the Stormcast arrive, secure ground and kick the Chaos cultists out and move onto the next one.

I’ve been hard on the book but I don’t think it’s completely without merit. It’s difficult to write a setting book like this especially under what I imagine were pretty difficult constraints back in 2015. The actual crunch of the book has largely been superseded by later books but what I like most about it is that it tries to show how you could show a couple of different types of battles. The battle plans are written very faction-agnostic so they can be slotted in with anything, and have a lot of battles you could use in many different narrative games. Theres the tried and true assault on a keep that would be done better in later books, but here is the first time in Age of Sigmar. Pre-emptive Strike is a battle about a small advance force warping in deep behind enemy territory and has to hold out against the enemy while the rest of their forces comes through the realmgate, while the enemy will try and destroy the Realmgate if it keeps backup from arriving. The Ritual is another common motif in many narrative games, one side needs to complete a ritual while the other attempts to disrupt it. For each friendly Wizard and Priest near the ritual site, it adds to a total which when reached, will complete the ritual.

There’s also the beginning of what would become Realm Rules and Allegiance Abilities. Realm Rules are more basic here, the book has rules for fighting in the realms of Aqshy and Ghyran and they’re pre-selected rather than a table, and wizards get a bonus spell. These are probably better handled by the current Age of Sigmar rulebook, but the Triumphs listed are pretty neat and might see more use in a narrative campaign, where playing an arc over multiple games is encouraged.

I’d like to see this updated a bit more for modern Age of Sigmar. I think being a grab bag of different narrative rules and just asking players to make their own fun isn’t necessarily a bad idea, especially for players who want to write their own stories without relying on major narratives like the later books would end up doing.

 

The Realmgate Wars

Graphic Design is My Passion

The first real narrative campaign for Age of Sigmar, The Realmgate Wars was treated as a big deal. Stretched out over 4 game books and 10 novels, the structure follows the usual standard for Games Workshop campaigns: Create an excuse for every faction to be involved so everyone gets to take part in the action. It also suffers from the usual shortcomings as a result – the plot is contrived, there are really only 2 factions who matter (in this case Stormcast and Chaos), and every one else feels like they’re just kind of there for whatever reason, without anything major at stake.

Despite the ostensible attempt at giving more of an overarching theme, the Realmgate Wars are structured very similarly to Mighty Battles. The battle plans are less about specifying which armies are fighting and more about giving you tools to design new structures to mix up your battles. At this point, there still wasn’t really any point values or balancing agents in play so narrative was the focus for GW

Book 1, The Quest of Ghal Maraz, focuses on Sigmar’s attempt at getting back his Titular hammer (He lost it, don’t ask – it’s very embarrassing for him). It really has 2 plots though: The quest to find Ghal Maraz takes place in Chamon, so it involves Stormcast fighting Tzeentch daemons and cultists. Meanwhile, back in Ghyran, a detachment of Stormcast have remained as allies to the Sylvaneth. Nurgle is attempting to push back after his defeat in Mighty Battles and the Skaven are now here to assist him. So to their credit, we’re starting to see the expansion of other factions that aren’t Stormcast. The Book itself suffers from being the first in a quadrilogy where there’s a lot of meandering around and none of it feels particularly important. Unfortunately, that will become a running theme.

Book 2, The Balance of Power is at least somewhat interesting if more scattered in its narrative. Finally we start to follow another Grand Alliance and another realm. The Grand Alliance of Death is fighting Stormcast and Slaanesh in a three-way battle over a temple in Shyish. This is a bit of a distraction from the main fight though. The book’s focus is still largely on Stormcast (this time assisted by Seraphon) fighting Chaos. Archaon wakes up, and the book ends.

Book 3, Godbeasts escalated the conflict. Archaon is now a major player and seeks to capture the Zodiacal beasts, continent sized monsters who could destroy the mortal realms again. The story is still focusing on the battles established earlier, in Chamon and Ghyran and climaxes with Archaon attempting to awaken Behemat, the father of Giants. Though, rather than allow him to awaken, Sigmar kills Behemet instead. It does set the stage for The Sons of Behemet to be announced later. However needless to say, Archaon fails to accomplish any of this otherwise we wouldn’t still have a setting to be playing games in. Archaon is pretty much left where he is.

Book 4, All-Gates, is a bit of a mess, in terms of structure. It’s basically all out war with the factions established thus far and adds even more to the mix. Now the Orruks want to fight Khorne in Ghur, the realm of beasts (Who moved in after getting kicked out of Aqshy in Mighty Battles) and each chapter is essentially a standalone chapter about the forces of Order fighting whichever enemy happens to occupy a given realm. Sigmar hopes to capture the titular “All-Gates”, which is an island at the center of the realms with access to realmgates for all of the Mortal Realms. He fails to do so, and Archaon remains in hold of it.

If it seems like I glossed over these books story it’s because there’s just not a lot here. The narrative itself just isn’t that interesting and I think it sums up everything everyone hated about Age of Sigmar circa 2015-2016. The Stormcast get to be the protagonist, and nothing ever changes. Despite seemingly world shaking events, things are introduced in one book and then end in a status quo by the time you get to the back cover.

If you want to salvage the battleplans though, there’s a lot of good ones here. With all for books combined there are 42 different battleplans which can be easily adapted to fit your narrative campaign. Some of the noteworthy ones I found were Noble Sacrifice in Book 3 which details a stalwart army attempting to activate a mechanism against impossible odds, while the attacking army endlessly spawns in, Path of Retreat in book 2 which allows one player to win by escaping rather than fighting. The most unique one to me has to be A Deadly Hunt in Book 4, which puts both players on the same side, attempting to hunt a beast hidden somewhere on the board. While they can’t attack each other, they can nominate the beast in the combat phase to attack instead of their own units, sabotaging their “friend”. It’s a unique co-operative game type, something we don’t see a lot of.

I’d recommend these books only if you’re a real junkie for Age of Sigmar Lore, in which case you probably already own these. Otherwise, the battleplans are worth stealing for your own use.

 

Firestorm

This was covered by Rob over in last week’s Map campaigns narrative forge. It’s out of print and that’s unfortunate because it could really use an update to fix some of the rough edges. Its the only campaign that isn’t based on a pre-defined narrative as outlined by Games Workshop. It has a map and territories to conquer, and challenges four players to fight each other for them. It’s where we start to really see the allegiances form more narrow than the grand alliances, with many cities of Sigmar being introduced years before they’d get a proper battletome, leading me to believe this was a major starting point for that book.

The books hard to recommend on the basis that it’s out of print so a boxed copy is expensive. If you can get your hands on it though it’s got some neat ideas for doing a map campaign. Even if the exact mechanics aren’t the best in design and snowball effects were very common and its a nice change of pace from Games Workshop’s idea of playing out a static storyline you can’t actually change. The actual narrative stuff included is very bare bones and doesn’t shift the storyline any. For that we need to look forward a bit.

 

Malign Portents

Malign Portents is considered a watershed moment in Age of Sigmar, and with good reason. For a little over a year before the book came out, Age of Sigmar had slowly been building up steam. GW added points back in and started creating regular Battletomes for each army to give them unique flavor. One of the remaining issues that seemed to have many people down though was the lore: Most of Age of Sigmar’s lore seemed non-existent, a virtually empty playground to create stories in but nothing of tangible substance to make those stories feel meaningful. It also tended to drift toward High Fantasy, a significant tonal shift from the grimmer takes of the Old World and 40k. Malign Portents added a welcome shift in tone.

The book itself is quite small – only 80 pages but it is much better designed than the books that came before it. The Realmgate Wars books are unwieldy and poorly laid out, Malign Portents knows what it’s doing and focuses where it matters. The book is built entirely around campaigns in Shyish and doesn’t concern itself with what is going on in other realms, which is probably for the best considering how ridiculously out of scope Realmgate Wars were. Although the overarching story is that the Chaos Gods receive a vision of foreboding things to come, a future where every realm is controlled by Nagash, the Great Necromancer and they send messages to individuals of all races and creeds the rules are pretty flexible.

The first special rule was the Realm Rules for Shyish, which more closely resemble their modern incarnation. Second, there are the titular “malign portents” which are like a precursor to the modern concept of Command Points. Each player chooses one of 6 signs to be guiding them, and gain “Portent Points” each round to spend on command ability like boons. These are definitely still useable today and can be utilized in a narrative campaign to represent some sort of boon from a god or other such force. There are 3 narrative and 2 matched play battle plans, which might seem lean but can be easily mixed in with other battleplans from other books.

There’s a lot here and unlike the other stuff I’ve covered so far, it’s a pretty solid uptick in quality for the writing. I actually enjoyed Malign Portents just as a piece of fiction, let alone for the extra rules it can give to flesh out narrative campaigns. Although technically outdated, it came out a few months before Age of Sigmar 2.0, nothing in it is unusable in the current game and I’d recommend it highly for someone new to AOS and figuring out how far back they should go to understand the lore. It sets the stage for Soul Wars which is what most consider “modern” AOS.

 

Wrath of the Everchosen

I’ve already reviewed Wrath of the Everchosen for Goonhammer. It’s another pre-set narrative book but the toolkit they’ve provided is much more vast, giving you a lot more options. An entire section is dedicated to siege game play, which is a often tread idea that while I think doesn’t quite reach its full potential, is the best representation of the concept to date. It also includes rules for wandering spells and monsters that don’t belong to either side, so they can be slotted into any campaign battles where that sort of rule would be appropriate, and 8 new narrative battleplans to add to the mix.

Although outside the scope of this article and covered more in-depth in the  review, it’s one of the only books that Matched players can enjoy too, as it contains several Pitched Battle rules that can be used as well.

 

Conclusion

The Narrative Forge was created in order to empower players design their own narrative campaigns, to help create stories in our favorite games so we have more emotional investment. So far we’ve focused a lot on the 41st millenium in Narrative Forge but the Mortal Realms are also tailor made for narrative play. Possibly moreso, since that was the initial thrust of the game’s design. I highly recommend taking these books as a toolkit. Outside of Wrath of the Everchosen many of them are outdated in fluff and rules, but most of the narrative battleplans and realm rules can still be repurposed for your own campaigns to make interesting stories. Combine them with some of the new mechanical pieces from Wrath of the Everchosen to make a campaign that’s all your own.

Age of Sigmar so far has chosen to focus on strict linear narratives for their campaigns rather than branching paths. Territory control was tried and then scrapped. So to truly make something that allows for adaptability and flexibility many would expect from a narrative campaign I recommend reading some of the other articles in The Narrative Forge by some of of the other fine authors at Goonhammer. Many of the ideas presented within those articles are system-agnostic and would work just as well in Age of Sigmar. If you’ve done your own narrative campaigns in Age of Sigmar we really want to hear about it! Let us know on social media or email us at contact@goonhammer.com.

 

 

 

 

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.