The Warhammer 40,000 universe is a massive place, and the “Narrative Forge” hobby articles encourage thinking outside the box (literally) when putting models together and stretching yourself out in the hobby. They aim to make hobbyists and players comfortable growing beyond imitating the models they see in their Codexes and playing the rulebook missions, and serve as a source of inspiration for anyone wanting to forge new experiences in the hobby. This week, Tyler “Coda” Moore is talking about building narrative armies.
Hello my friend!
If you go out into the greater ham social media, sub-reddits and the like you will find there is a metric ton of content about competitive gaming. Hell, here at Goonhammer we write a fair bit on that subject. We all opine, analysis and debate the merits of army lists, stratagems, all in service of the dreaded meta.
Books are dissected and rated based on their effect on the said meta. Units too. Characters? You betcha bottom dollar they are.
And that’s ok. In fact it’s pretty rad and propels the game forward. But what about the otherside of the game?
How do we build a narrative force? Why do we do it? Is it possible to build a narrative list that is still competitive at your local store?
I’m not going to pretend, even for a second, that I hold the sole answer to these questions. However hopefully this will spark a few narrative fires in the greater internet.
This article is going to be broken up into few sections which are:
- What is a narrative army?
- Why do you want a narrative army?
- Building a narrative force, that won’t get rolled over the second anything vaguely competitive looks at it
- Core vision
- How/where are you going to use it
- What do you have available
- Executing your vision
- Further Reading
- Refining your idea or why failing/losing is sometimes a good thing.
- Example in practice: The Swords of Davion
- Example in early planning: Nerikare’s Immortals
What Is A Narrative Army?
The oxford dictionary defines a narrative army as…
A narrative army is simply a force where some thought has gone into it making ‘sense’ and telling a story in the greater 40k universe. Alternative names for this would be a themed or ‘fluffy’ list. Note that this doesn’t mean you can’t make a hard, take-on-all-comers list for your narrative army, in fact we will talk about that later.
But yes, typically raw performance of units, chapter traits, meta flavour of the month-ing and soup-ing takes a backseat to the army presenting as a cohesive whole. The benefit of doing this is that you can think of it as presenting your personal take of a small slice of the 40k universe on the table top. I know that the above two statements are almost ridiculously broad and that’s because narrative armies are only truly limited by the person(s) putting them together.
The key that thing they all have in common is something that we call a ‘vision’. In my experience I’m normally building an army to something that has gestated in my brain space onto the table top and this gets ramped up to 11 when I can sink my teeth in narrative wise. So what are some ‘visions’ or types of narrative 40k armies:
- Historical Works: I.e Picking out something from a Black Library or Horus Heresy book. Examples of this would be doing a Gaunt’s Ghosts force during the events of Necropolis. Or Talos’s warband of misfit Night Lords during Void Stalker.
- Homebrew Creations: These are your custom chapters or homemade characters. This is probably the most common but hardest to execute properly. For examples I would point you towards the excellent Goonhammer article on our space marine successors. Our case study example is one of more heavily narrative of these, The Swords Of Davion.
- A Themed Army: Themed army lists generally pick a theme in the existing lore and run with it. These concepts are thankfully baked into the codexes/supplements in 8th ed. Examples of this would be a battle hardened company of Catachan Jungle vets, that is mostly infantry based with a few sentinels, with heavy jungle theme-ing on the bases. The other would be loyal human militia converted out of Genesteeler Cult units or a Night Lords army that focuses hard on the raptor cult.
- An Army Built For A Specific Narrative Event Or Game Type: I’m old enough to recall when Planetstrike dropped. People where building dedicated defender/attacker armies for this game type, like a space marine force entirely built out of deep striking assets using drop pods and the like. Another example would be a dedicated Zone Mortalis force of Deathwing Terminators built to fight your mates Genestealers on a custom ZM board. Or maybe Gee Dubs drops a new global campaign on us, like the old Armageddon/Eye of Terror campaigns and you decide to build a force specifically for that narrative event.
Let’s play with a few of those concepts. Some examples of a narrative list would be……
A player’s custom space marine chapter, which specialises in counter insurgency/insurgency warfare and jump pack assaults. Their homeworld culture is very much ‘train, live by and die by the sword’.
Think about that two sentence by line. How would you build a list that makes that theme work?
My answer was use the Whirlwind Of Rage, Hungry For Battle chapter tactics for the jump assault/sword culture elements, while the flexibility of the Ultramarines Supplement did the insurgency half. With the top level concept stuff done, I moved onto planning the list, picking out units that would enable this theme. We’ll talk more about fleshing out from there later in the article.
Another example? Building a force of the Tanith 1st and Only, the elite light infantry from the Gaunt’s Ghost series. How would you capture the flavour of the books in the force? What unit entries would be must includes, what limitations do you have? Can you pick out a key moment in the books that you want to bring to the table and if so what sources do you need to double check? These are the questions you would need to answer for that particular narrative force.
Why Do You Want A Narrative Army?
Well. There a fair few reasons.
Also that it’s fun as hell.
Ok, ok, that first one is obvious (and subjective) but I truly believe that narrative gaming can provide something different to pure ITC/ETC games. Every rulebook, chapter approved and more has narrative missions for good reason. However it is possible to rock up with a narrative army to your local store with your themed force and have a good time. In fact for the vast majority of us, this going to be 90% of your games, so you need walk a line between:
- Making the force align with your vision.
- Having something that actually works on the tabletop.
Again. More on that ‘actually fun to play with’ point in a bit.
The second is slowly watching the ‘vision’ you had for the force slowly take form and evolve. Expanding on that, let me state straight up that I’m not you and I can’t read your mind. But I can tell you that this is a massive reason why I collect themed armies. It’s because they are mine and that’s a level of personal ownership that can’t be matched. By theming a force, coming up with it’s story, colour scheme and character has the entire project pivot away from being “Imp Fist successors with trip Repulsor Executioners, with 2 smash captains.” to “Coda’s Swords of Davion” and for me that’s more important that winning every game.
There are some strong secondary reasons too. If your gaming group is of a similar mindset this can rapidly end up with narrative campaigns, missions and weekends taking place. Which again, is extremely fun. For example I’m planning to run a narrative Zone Mortalis, Planetfall, then a large 40k final battle event over a few weekends late next year and will be doing a small dedicated force for the ZM portion. I can not wait to start writing scenarios and planning that force.
Building A Narrative Force
This is a critical step, as it will inform every other decision that comes after it. Try to come up with an elevator pitch for the force, like one or two sentences. Write it down. Jot down some notes with it. Come back to it in a day and see what pops of the page. Roughly picture the built and painted army in your head.
The next step varies from project to project but generally with Historical Works or Themed Armies this is where you would do some research on markings, characters and the like. Resources like the Forgeworld Badab War books or the recent Sabbat Worlds are pure gold dust for this kind of thing. Also don’t discount cribbing little details from real life military history. Osprey books have fantastic uniform and equipment guides that can spark a good or even great idea.
For ground up Homebrew I will normally bash out a few test schemes and bases to figure out what works and then from there retroactively justify squad markings and the like. If you have a question like “how do you figure out a homebrew colour scheme?” then oh boy stay tuned to www.goonhammer.com in the nearish future for that’s an article for another time.
Also note that I didn’t say ‘write an entire book on your dudes, rite here and now.’ The goal for this is to get something useable on the table. Wordy words that word can come later. A couple of notes jotted down, like ‘Captain Morticus has a cool hat, is an impatient bastard and likes axes” is more than enough for now.
An Army Built For A Specific Narrative Event Or Game Type then you have a slightly easier time. Take a Space Marine Zone Mortalis force. Look at the units in the codex and nix anything that you can’t picture fighting in the close quarters of a space ship. After that, lean hard in on lore appropriate units like Terminators and dreadnoughts.
How/Where are you going to use it
Ok. You got your core idea. Where are you going to use it? Do you have an event in mind or is it for general gaming at your FLGS? If you have a quick answer to this, then fantastic, you will be able to figure out how many points/restrictions you have to play with, effectively giving you a framework to graft your vision onto.
If you don’t have a specific event or goal you are building to, then I suggest you invent one, preferably something that is manageable. For instance you could plot out a quick 1000 or 2000pts draft list and start moulding it to your core vision.
Another item to muse about is the Narrative:Efficiency line. Where do you want the army to sit? 20:80? 50:50? Take a moment and think about how competitive your local scene is and if the army can work in those conditions and if not what compromises must be made to accommodate it.
Now we have the the where, a good idea at this point is to refer back to the quick notes you jotted down before and refine them. Think deep and hard about what units are the important ones (or stuff you find too cool not to include) to sell the theme? Are there any characters that are must haves? What chapter tactics (or equivalents) do you think fit the narrative you are forming?
For example, a Tanith 1st and Only force would definitely need Gaunt, snipers and veteran guardsmen in abundance. You would also probably look at the Tallarn regiment doctrines as they fit the Tanith style of light infantry hit and fades.
What Do You Have Available?
So you have your dream shopping list? Good. Think about what conversions do you need to do? Where are you going to get fancy hats for your squads?
Can you find or buy all the bits required? If not, what can substitute in? What bases are going to help you sell this theme? Custom transfer sheets or 3d printed pads? What freehand work are you capable of doing that will help out with the theme?
For example the Swords I wanted a ton of MKIV armour mixed in with a sprinkle of MKVII. I then decided that I had to justify why such a young chapter would have ancient suits of power armour. I did this by the almost destroyed Swords going on a desperate treasure hunt for a derelict vessel full of secrets and equipment that had been lost for 10,000 years…..
Jotting down these questions in this and the above section and answering them will start to firm up that picture of ‘this is what the army will look like’ in your head. Speaking of that…
Executing Your Vision
Got the questions done? A rough army list? Good. Now pick an achievable chunk of the goal.
Maybe a squad or two and a character. Get about modeling and painting it. While you are doing so, let the little details about the units come to you. Then take a big step back. Does the idea still hold up? If so keep going and expand on the narrative beats that are forming.
You can do this by simple things like naming squads and characters, give them titles or heraldry. Look here at the Red Terror Of Caffinax, a Swords of Davion LT that clearly likes knives a little too much.
By naming the model and converting it the tiniest amount and giving the kneepad a splash of heraldry, I’ve given myself and my friends a couple of dangling narrative hooks to play out games and generally step the army way from being ‘just another space marine army’.
At some point you are going to have a large enough force to start playing games. For the Swords this was about 1500pts. The best thing you can do at this stage in my opinion is start using the models in games because…
A: it will motivate you to paint more
B: let you know damn quickly if the army is working as intended, which brings me to:
Refine Your Idea
So your narrative force has hit the table at your local FLGS or you have started your practise games for the event you are building them for. At this point your creative juices should be pumping out content for the force as it becomes more and more ‘real’.
That said. Ask yourself if the army is working in a number of areas, namely walking the balance of showing your narrative vision on the table top to raw table top efficiency. Or to put it plainly.
Are you winning enough of your games with it to be happy?
This can be really tough, especially if you have a combination of a restrictive theme and a weaker codex. However do not despair! As our numerous Hear Me Out Cyle articles on this site prove, it isn’t a lost cause. You just need to refine your way to victory.
And that might mean making dreaded compromises. You may need to cut away units that aren’t working or find a good enough reason to shoehorn in some that are a little more efficient.
Think back to the Tanith 1st and Only example. Hypothetically let’s say you are using this massed light infantry guard army against your mate’s somewhat competitively geared Imperial Fists and you are getting bolter drilled off the table. To fix this, you decide that running a few tanks might help out, however the Tanith 1st are notoriously tank free.
So you get inventive, you decide to paint up a tank force in the mustard yellow colours of the Narmenian Armoured, allowing you to keep your narrative theme going while still stepping up how the army plays on the tabletop. “But Coda” you say, “What if I can’t find an easy fix?”
Well to that I would say do the normal things you would do if you needed to up your game. Talk to your opponent. Seek out advice. Be open with them about your objectives with the army and where you would like to improve. Take on the advice, rewrite your list and give it a whirl, hell, use proxies to get an idea of what does/doesn’t work. There is one caveat to this. Know what you need to hold onto to keep the narrative theme in place.
For the Swords of Davion, a notionally narrative army that accidently goes to ITC tourneys, it was using the Ultramarine codex supplement and sticking true to my chapter traits once I picked them as they were what I thought truly represented the army on the tabletop. I had my opponents (rightfully) suggesting that I switch them over to the Raven Guard or White Scars supplement to get the best out of the force. This was a still a no go.
What I did agree with is that I had to ‘punch’ the army up. I set about that by include a second twin lascannon contemptor, which meant I had to drop the lackluster 5 man squad with bolters in a razorback, in addition, all of my assault marines would be ran as vanguard (chalk it up to innate Davonic swordsmanship…) and threw in some rather large swords to count as thunder hammers. Couple this with a sprinkling of stalker bolt rifles and eliminators and these changes got the army to roughly where I want it. It could take on some meta-ish lists and come out ok.
Alright. We have two examples in play that are more on the narrative side of the equation. Let’ turn our gaze towards the other end of the spectrum.
The current hotness metawise (at time of writing) is Space Marines running the Imperial Fist or Iron Hands codex supplements. Picture a hypothetical Imperial Fist force, armed to the teeth with stalker bolt rifles backed up by Thunderfire Cannons and Whirlwinds raining down death from behind a convenient ruin. This is a hard as nails army that also narrative as hell for Imperial Fists. If you are using this this in a tourney, keep going as it’s probably what you want in the first place. If you are using it for only narrative events/games you may want to pair it down a little. Follow the same process about talking it out that we outlined above. Maybe swap out one of your eliminator units for something less efficient or take something that is seen as a bit ‘meh’ like a land raider or some assault marines.
Dave Taylor was one of my hobby heroes growing up. His book Armies Legion and Hordes is probably *the* book on how to plan, build and execute an army project. Well worth a pick up if building armies is more your jam than high level tourney play. You can find where to pick up the book in your region here.
*note: there are examples after this wrap up if you need further inspiration/ideas.*
I hope if you have read this that you have a better idea or some inspiration for a narrative armies. In fact if it does please contact me with pictures as I would love to see them!
If you have other questions/ideas, why not drop me a line! You can leave a message in the comments below, or shoot us an email at email@example.com. Or, you can find me around the internets and the rest of my goonhammer articles here:
CODA AND OUT
Alrighty. With the main article out of the way that out of the way, let’s look at some working examples:
Example In Practice: The Swords of Davion and Kill Team Agravain
A relatively new space marine chapter, which specialises in counter insurgency/insurgency warfare and jump pack assaults. Their homeworld culture is very much ‘train, live by and die by the sword’. Before the great rift they where currently rebuilding the chapter to full strength. Post great rift they find themselves desperately questing to protect their home. Names and inspiration are from Arthurian legend.
How/where are you going to use it
This an army that mostly gets it’s games at a FLGS and occanionaly travels to a tourney. In other words it’s a bit of an everything force. I intend to have a fairly solid 2k list for ITC/ETC work and then season it as required with fun stuff for less competitive events. I’ve also expanded the force to have a themed Kill Team.
If I had to put a number on it, the Swords are about 40:60 on the Narrative:Efficiency chart.
What do you have available
I intended this army to be my ‘dream’ force, so no expensive would be spared. I realised early on I needed a ton of Mk IV armour, swords and jump packs. The only roadblock I’ve found so far is keeping a good supply of the Black Templar crusader helm on hand, as well as the Dark Angels storm shield that I use. In the future I’m going to have a harder time getting non jumpy boy MKIV resin marines as I prefer them to the current plastics.
Executing your vision
I’ve been collecting this variation of the army for about 3 years now and it’s tale has been evolving as it’s built. With the release of more and more primaris, the OG marines have been reduced to a few characters and the jump pack squads. Painting wise the idea of heraldry on the knee pads, the use of honour/shame markings came as I painted the moldes up and found fun things to do. Over time my core vision has shifted to:
Defending the extremely cut off Imperial Davonic Republics from a Chaos invasion due to the great rift, The Swords of Davion seek to make the worlds safe enough for the Davion Primus refugee fleet to return home. To do this, they carry out missions, curry favour and use any means to achieve that goal, with most of the chapter fleet bound or defending Davion Secondus, the homebase of the Davion Resists movement.
I also started writing little stories for each of my squads, you can find them and more about the force’s narrative at my army showcase.
Refining your idea
I started playing games with this force at around the 1000 to 1500pts mark. I found out a few things rapidly:
- 5 man tactical squads with bolters where very ordinary.
- 1 dreadnought with a twin lascannon is *not* enough anti tank in a world where Knights exist.
- Normal assault marines are lackluster.
- I needed more command points, badly as I was spending 3 to 4 of my 9 before the game started.
- Oh god the 1st space marine codex in 8th ed was bad.
I’ve mentioned it further up in the article that I’ve had to change a few things about the list, namely dropping the Chapter Exile, Squad Telio and my razorback from the list in order to give it more table top punch.
- I dropped the Chapter Exile, tactical squad, razorback, contemptors and vindicator from the list and…
- Dropped in two twin lascannon contemptors, 2 infiltrator squads a phobos captain and 3 units of eliminators. This gave me a hardy firebase to pivot my two vanguard units and deep striking smash cap/lt off. The goal of the firebase is to be able to snuff out a knight a turn.
- Anytime a unit of more than 1 dude hits the table with a jump pack you better believe it’s using the Vanguard Datasheet over the assault marine one.
- I expanded the force at 2000pts from a single battalion and vanguard detachment to a double battalion netting me the extra CP to make the army work.
- Thankfully a new codex dropped. I also switched from Black Templar chapter tactics to a Ultramarine Hungry for Battle and Whirlwind of Rage successor. This change let the reckless overly brave Davion elements come though but also showed that for every sword raised for an honour duel there is also a knife aimed at the kidneys….
I’ve also expanded the narrative of the force, coming up with how the chapter dealt with primaris marines, the return of Bobby G and how evolved their tactics post great rift. The concept of Davion Primus falling to chaos early generated some really cool ideas for a narrative campaigns as it gives the Swords an immensely important goal to chase. I also expanded the concept of Davion to include an entire sector known as the Imperial Davonic Republics, which will be the playground of the events I run next year.
Example In Early Planning/Execution: Nerikare’s Immortals
The Swords of Davion are a force well and truly underway. Let’s have a look at my new army which is a force of “The Pure” from Aaron Dembski-Bowden’s Spears of the Emperor book. I wanted to challenge myself to a few things with this army, namely painting metallic trim, white and taking a outside force and inserting it into the Imperial Davonic Republics setting.
I need someone for the Swords to beat up! I kid. Real talk:
A Chaos Warband of The Pure ravages the shattered Davonic Republics, seeking out ancient blade forging secrets in order to not only reforge a broken blade but to reclaim a stolen one. They are to act as a dark mirror to the Swords of Davion.
So I have a who and a why. This gives me a good spring point to plot out characters and concepts I want to show in the force. I also want to make this force have a ton of psykers and terminators as they are two things not present in my current army. Also it still has to have jump packs because they are extremely cool and good.
I re-read the parts of Spear of the Emperor featuring The Pure as research and picked up on a slightly Egyptian element. I decided that getting some Tsons bits involved could be a cool and good idea. A friend of mine supplied me with some swords from the terminator box. In addition I’ve picked up some Emperor’s Children Horus Heresy heads for future use.
How/where are you going to use it
I don’t see this travelling the world and going to events as much as the Swords. It’s mostly going to be used in pick up games and to fight other imperials during campaigns, like against Mckee’s chaos cult of the Emperor.. sorry, Sisters of Battle.
Going back to the totally real and not made up Narrative:Efficiency chart, I would put these guys at 75:25.
What do you have available
I intend to make most of this army out of plastic and thankfully the new chaos marines and terminators give me a hell of a base to build from. I also want to show that they are a renegade chapter over a full blown chaos legion, so a few normal marine kit parts from my bitz box making an appearance should lean into that nicely.
Executing your vision
This project is pretty young and it’s current models where built over a 18 hour long twitch slog with my friend Mckee. Still a few things have cropped up as narrative beats/ideas as I’ve gone.
As I went I let some of the narrative evolve with the models as I built them. I have a hardened former Deathwatch Veteran leading one of the squads, his shoulder pad still proudly displayed. The chaos icon on Nerikare’s jump pack will be painted up as slowly draining the luster out of the Imperial Eagle, mirroring the hollowing out of Nerikare’s soul.
Rule’s wise my first instinct was to go with the Flawless Host, however with the release of Faith and Fury I think The Emperor’s Children rules will cover them off suitably well while also giving the army a good table top punch.
I’ve come up with a rough build idea for the army, with the Chaos Marine squads, Havocs, one of the termie squads and 75% HQ units done and ready for painting. My next goal for the army is getting this core force painted.
In the future I’m going to need a boat load of cultists and will be reusing my BSF guard scheme. Also totally going to use those models because they frankly own.
Refining your idea
It’s still early days but I’ve played a few games with the models I have built. It ah, needs some work. Going from the Space Marine codex to the spikey lad version is whiplash inducing.
Still I think my core concept is ok and I’m going to press on for now. The list posted above incorporates some of the lessons learned from the first few games.
Example In Early Draft: Swords of Davion Zone Mortalis Force, The 3rd Company Of <name> <title>
This is so, so in draft that I don’t have any names for it other than “cool Swords of Davion ZM force”. I do have a few models tucked away for it though….
The Swords of Davion 3rd Company are renowned close quarter ship to ship fighters. They and the precious few terminator armoured elements of the 1st Company form Tiberius Rex’s ship to ship door kickers.
That vision sentence and the rough 1500pts list all I have at the moment. This is going to be my Zone Mortalis army, compete with ship bases and conversions. The painting challenge I’m putting on myself for this army is going to be weathering so I can show how the 3rd differs from the 2nd.