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, Robert “TheChirurgeon” Jones is continuing his multi-part series on creating and running campaigns. This week, he’s talking about Narrative Campaigns.
Last week we kicked off talking about how to start planning a Warhammer 40,000 campaign, and I spoke briefly about the different types of campaigns. This week I’m going to start diving into one type of campaign: Narrative Campaigns. Specifically I’m going to talk about what they are, their strengths, their weaknesses, where you can find resources to make your own, some tips and tricks for making one, and then we’ll cap things off by presenting a pair of Narrative Campaigns you can run with your friends that we’ve designed.
Linear Narrative Campaigns
Narrative Campaigns are the type you most commonly see in Games Workshop materials like campaign supplements, and tend to represent a series of pivotal battles in an ongoing campaign with a larger story. They follow a specific, set narrative, and the battles you fight represent large, pivotal battles that take place during the campaign. The narrative and mission types continue regardless of who wins and who loses each round, and typically only the final mission, or overall points/win-loss totals determine the campaign’s final outcome. Mechanically, they present a string of battles to play, usually with custom scenarios, and the winner of each round receives a small bonus in the next round, usually something that is mission-specific.
Because they’re mostly linear and mission-focused, Narrative campaigns work best when you have a small number of players (or teams), and these are the ideal campaign type for when you have just two players or two teams to work with. It’s also very easy to include additional “guest” players in one-off situations without messing anything up.
Why Run a Narrative Campaign?
There are a lot of reasons to recommend a Narrative campaign:
- Clearly defined end and goals. Narrative campaigns run a predetermined number of games, and have a condition for determining the campaign winner. That means you can tell a complete story and then move on to the next one. It’s pretty common for campaigns to not have an ending; choosing a Narrative Campaigns can help ensure yours isn’t one of them.
- Lots of existing materials to use. As we’ll see later on, there’s a lot of existing Narrative Campaign content you can pull from to either run or help build your own.
- Very easy to run. With Narrative campaigns, all the work is in set-up; Once you’ve built the story and your framework, you can sit back and let the campaign run its course without having to manage a bunch of additional campaign rules and campaign turns. This also means it’s easy for you to play in your own campaign without having to worry about staying impartial.
- Simple mechanics. Play a few games, get a bonus in each mission for winning the one before. Campaigns don’t get much easier than that.
- Easy to tie missions to a narrative. Because the story is mostly written, it’s easier to pick (or design) missions that reflect the key battles in that story, and it’s easier to understand what each battle means in the larger narrative. And that makes it easier to understand why each battle matters.
- You have two players, or two teams of players. Narrative campaigns are one the campaign types that works best when you only have two players or sides.
Consider a Narrative Campaign if: You only have two players (or you have 4 players and can split easily into sides) and you want something that’s easy to execute and keep track of. Also if it’s your first campaign, I recommend trying a Narrative campaign. It’ll help you get a feel for what works and what doesn’t in a campaign, and if you want to jump to something more complicated, you’ll have a better understanding of what you will or won’t want.
In this article, we’re going to specifically address Linear Narrative campaigns; we’ll talk about Tree campaigns in the future.
Before You Start: What’s Out There
We’re going to cover how to build your own Narrative campaign later on in this article. While building your own campaign can be very rewarding, it’s also a lot of work! Before you crack out the pencils and google docs and start planning your campaign, consider playing an existing narrative campaign, or modifying one to suit your tastes. Even if you’re dead-set on building your own from scratch, understanding what has already been done will help you get a feel for what works and what doesn’t when you’re designing your own campaign. We’ll talk in more detail about designing your own missions and campaign structures in a later article, but for now let’s focus on what you can use that’s already been published.
Here’s a list of what’s already out there for you to use, with some thoughts for the ones I’ve played.
8th Edition Narrative Campaigns
8th edition already has a few campaign resources you can turn to.
Chapter Approved 2017
Chapter Approved 2017 revamped the first two parts of the Planetary Onslaught Campaign book from 7th edition, giving us 8th edition versions of both the Planetstrike and Stronghold Assault campaigns.
In Planetstrike, one player takes the role of the Attacker, dropping forces onto a planet from above, while the other takes on the role of Defender, attempting to thwart their invasion. In each mission, the Attacker’s units arrive as reserves on top of a battlefield generally controlled by the Defender. The narrative gist is that the Attacker is establishing a foothold on an occupied world using a mix of rapid/drop forces. The Defender typically receives the benefit of free fortifications to take cover in, while the attacker gets to bombard their positions with Firestorm attacks before the battle begins. Attacker armies are largely based around fast units that can teleport or drop in (the designers clearly had drop pods in mind), and Defender forces should be based around heavy, defensive weaponry.
In order to help make the scenario work and spice things up, Planetstrike offers its own set of Attacker and Defender detachments, at least one of which has to be taken in the Attacker/Defender armies, plus a set of custom Attacker/Defender Warlord Traits and a set of Attacker/Defender stratagems that only work in the Planetstrike missions. The linear campaign for Planetstrike sees players running through all six missions with bonuses to the winning player of each game.
Overall, Planetstrike is pretty cool, but it needs a little bit of adjustment from a balancing standpoint to make missions play well. More on that below.
In Stronghold Assault, players take on similar roles, with the Attacker laying siege to the Defender’s fortified positions. Each mission sees the Defender holding fortified positions that feature a number of free fortifications, and the Attacker is attempt to either smash them or break past them. Similar to Planetstrike, Stronghold Assault has its own detachments, warlord traits, and stratagems. Unlike with Planetstrike, the Attacker needs lots of heavy weapons to take down fortifications, the destruction of which may be a mission objective, so the detachments favor a completely different type of army. The Stronghold Assault campaign sees players running through all six missions in order, again with bonuses to the winning player each round. As with Planetstrike, the defender in Stronghold Assault gets free fortifications, while the Attacker should have larger forces.
Notes on Running These
Each campaign lasts 6 missions, and both have custom warlord traits, force organization charts, and stratagems. You can also string both both together into a “super-campaign,” and they have bonuses for going from one to the next. You can combine both of them into one larger linear campaign, representing an Attacker achieving planetfall and then moving inward, trying to smash through the defender’s fortifications as part of a larger planetary conquest campaign.
Overall, I like these missions. I liked them in Planetary Onslaught, and I like them here. Firestorm attacks, introduced in Planetstrike, are a little more fun that the Preliminary Bombardments used in Stronghold Assault, and less brutal. That said, the only thing I don’t love about them is that they can get a bit stale after 3 or 4 missions. While each mission is different and most are pretty interesting, having every mission being a variation of siege or drop assault can be a bit much.
Some Notes: If you’re going to play these, consider the following as tips to make sure you get a balanced experience:
- Be sure to follow the rules for defenders setting up terrain however they want and getting free buildings. The defender needs the advantage of building the table as a killing field.
- When trying to balance free buildings vs. points (most missions dictate that one player have more points while the other gets free buildings), give the points player about one third the value of the buildings in additional points.
- For some missions, the Attacker is tasked with moving units off the far edge of the battlefield.
- Read and use the custom stratagems! Some of them are really cool, and they help elevate the experience.
Cities of Death (Chapter Approved 2018)
Similar to Chapter Approved 2017, the 2018 edition added (very good!) new rules to cover playing in urban environments, along with six missions for those environments and some rules for an experience system for use in campaigns with leveling up and new abilities units can gain.
Cities of Death
Cities of Death are a pretty cool set of rules for playing in urban battlescapes. The rules add new penalties for firing at obscured targets, hard and soft cover, and firing from higher elevation. Chapter Approved also adds rules for 6 Narrative missions and a host of Stratagems for use in Cities of Death missions. Sadly, there’s no linear narrative campaign in this book — Cities of Death would get a campaign in the Urban Conquest supplement, which we’ll talk about when we discuss map campaigns in a future article.
If you were looking for some suggestions on running the Cities of Death missions as a linear narrative campaign however, we’ve got you covered. We recommend the following structure and bonuses, to represent a series of battles taking place across an urban battlescape connected to each other as part of a larger narrative. We generally recommend picking an Attacker and Defender at the start of the campaign and sticking to that throughout the course of the campaign.
Cities of Death Linear Campaign and Bonuses
If you want something bigger, you should consider replicating the Planetary Onslaught campaign from 7th edition and combine these with the Planetstrike and Stronghold Assault Linear campaigns, working everything into one massive linear campaign. The Chapter Approved 2017 book has rules for running the first two together. If you want to combine all three, I recommend adding Cities of Death as the third part, representing an attacking force making planetfall, pushing through the defender’s defensive positions, and then battling their way into the planet’s cities where the defenders make their last stand. If you do this, I recommend the following bonus for the first mission (Thunder Run):
Attacker Bonus: If the Attacker won the Stronghold Assault campaign, then they can launch a Preliminary Bombardment once both sides have been set up.
Defender Bonus: If the Defender won the Stronghold Assault campaign, when rolling for first turn, the Defender takes the first turn on a D6 roll of 2+.
Dark Imperium (Space Marines vs. Death Guard)
Forgebane (Necrons vs. Admech)
Wake the Dead (Imperial vs. Eldar)
These are both shorter campaigns designed for play with the armies included in the box sets. They have some neat concepts, but they aren’t particularly balanced for different armies or factions and are generally only intended to work with the army forces that come in the boxes they were packaged with.
Other Inspiration: 7th Edition Campaign Books
There were also quite a few narrative campaigns in some of the 7th edition books. These are also based around specific factions, but there’s something for almost everyone in these and if nothing else, they can provide good inspiration for building your own narrative campaigns. You can use them for games of 8th, but you’ll probably have to do some modification work to update things for the new edition.
Sanctus Reach: The Red Waaagh!
This 11-game narrative campaign has Astra Militarum and Imperial Knights. As an added wrinkle, many of the missions are Planetstrike missions, and several call for specific units or combinations, such as having an Ork Stompa or a trio of Imperial knights.
Sanctus Reach: Hour of the Wolf
The sequel to The Red Waaagh! Is a 10-game campaign that includes 8 standard missions involving Space Wolves, Knights, and Astra Militarum taking on Orks, with 2 bonus missions involving Khorne Daemons. Some of these are also Planetstrike missions, and in total you can easily string these together with the Red Waaagh! Missions to recreate the entire historical campaign. My favorite mission of these is the one where Imperial players must rescue a Shadowsword positioned on a cliff’s edge while Orks bear down on their position.
Shield of Baal: Leviathan
This 6-mission campaign sees Tyranids taking on Militarum Tempestus, Adepta Sororitas, and Astra MIlitarum. There are no win bonuses, and the book introduces rules for both Cities of Death and Death from the Skies (most notably, Fighter Aces), the latter of which are used in its missions. These are also notable for including the “Skywar” rules, which specify a battle taking place high above the ground, and a mission where Imperial players have to evacuate civilians.
Shield of Baal: Exterminatus
This 8-mission follow-up to Leviathan adds Blood Angels, Flesh Tearers, and Necrons to the mix, and specifies both specific formations and units (such as Burning One C’Tan shard). This is also the one time in the fluff everyone talks about where Necrons allied with Blood Angels.
War Zone Damocles: Mont’ka
This book contains an 8-mission narrative campaign (with a full bonus map) that sees Astra Militarum, Imperial Knights, Adeptus Mechanicus, Raven Guard, White Scars, and Assassins taking on Tau (and Farsight). One of the more notable missions in this set is “Death in the Void,” which takes place in space and sees Imperial forces trying to destroy a satellite network.
War Zone Damocles: Kauyon
This 8-mission follow-up to Mont’ka focuses more on Raven Guard and White Scars against Tau. There’s a cool mission called Blood and Vengeance, that’s focused primarily on killing characters.
Warzone Fenris: Curse of the Wulfen
This 6-mission campaign pits Space Wolves, Dark Angels, and Grey Knights against Chaos Daemons and Chaos Space Marines and requires Wulfen to play. Its best mission is a cool canyon race where Dark Angel and Space Wolf units have to break through daemon forces racing along a narrow ravine, though generally I thought all the missions in this book were pretty fun.
If you want to play through the fall of Cadia, these books each have missions for the fall, including 3 for The Fall itself, 4 for the Eldar, and 4 for Guilliman’s forcesin Rise of the Primarch. These are all meant to be played with the Empyric Storm missions, and the third book also introduces Cataclysm of War missions, which are basically proto-8th edition rules in some ways.
Building Your Linear Narrative Campaign
Ok, so you aren’t a fan of any of those and you want to build your own narrative campaign. Cool! Here are some steps to help you get started:
- Step 1: Figure out who’s playing
Think about how many players you’ll have, and what factions they’ll be playing. Remember that these campaigns work best for smaller numbers of players, or when you can split players into two teams. Determine which side will be the Attacker and which side will be the Defender.
- Step 2: Plan the overall plot
Create a rough outline of the plot of your campaign. Who are the key players? What are they fighting over? What are the key twists? What’s at stake. Don’t go too crazy–the goal here is to go broad strokes and fill in the gaps as you play.
- Step 3: Determine how many missions/Rounds to play
Based on your outline, you’ll be able to determine how many missions you need to string together. My advice is to stick to somewhere between 5 and 7, and to have no more than 11. Also, odd numbers work better than even, as you can use the number of overall missions won as the tiebreaker if you need.
- Step 4: Pick the missions for each round
Now the fun part. You need to pick what mission will be played each round. Try to find something that will be relevant to the plot you’ve laid out and choose a mission or ruleset that represents that. Are the attackers making planetfall? Consider a Planetstrike mission. Are both armies fighting through a volcanic wasteland? Consider using running a more standard Matched Play mission, but using the Geothermal Eruption Battlezone from Vigilus Defiant to change things up. We’ll talk about making your own missions in a future Narrative Forge but for now, recognize that an easy way to create your own unique missions is to take a standard Maelstrom of War or Eternal War mission and add either a Battlezone or one unique “Twist” to it, either using special rules from a Narrative Mission or the Twist cards from the Open War deck.
- Step 5: Create bonuses
If you’re going to have bonuses for winning, this is the time to make them. They should be relatively small, thematically appropriate, and ideally tied to the following mission’s rules. Avoid making penalties for the losing players–rewards are always more fun and they help avoid the problem of kicking players who are down. When I create bonuses, I usually start by looking at the mission the players are about to play and determining what mission-specific rules can be tweaked to one player’s advantage without completely ruining things. The easiest bonuses you can give are CP bonuses, deployment choice, or first turn, but be mindful that first turn is very powerful in 40k and if you just give these every time, it’ll get old — they hardly feel tailored to the mission.
An Example Linear Narrative Campaign: The Battle for Brimlock
Ok, let’s run through this process and I’ll create a linear narrative campaign from scratch to show some of the thought processes I use. Feel free to use this one as you like, or to modify it to suit your own needs.
Step 1: Figure out who’s playing
For the purposes of this example, the principle players are me, playing my Chaos Space Marines, my friend Thomas, playing his Orks, my friend Eric, who plays AdMech, and our friend Patrick, who plays Space Wolves. That makes it pretty easy to draw battle lines as Chaos and Orks vs. AdMech and Space Wolves, and gives us some inter-team tensions we can plot out during the campaign.
Step 2: Plan the Overall Plot
I like to use existing fluff when I create campaigns, so I typically start by just looking at old Imperial star maps from codexes (you can Google Image Search “galaxy map 40k” to get started) and pick a planet or system. Hmmm… “Brimlock” is a promising name. I’m looking for a planet that might have one or two mentions in the fluff, but isn’t well-known, so I can make up whatever I want about it.
I need to figure out who the attackers and defenders are, but once that’s done it basically writes itself. There are two obvious ways to go with this:
Scenario 1: Chaos/Orks as Attackers
Chaos are after a mcguffin. Maybe it’s an artifact, maybe it’s a weapon, maybe it’s gene-seed. Maybe they just want to burn an Imperial world. Orks are after a good time. Chaos can use Orks to get what they want, so a tenuous alliance is formed. The Imperial forces are defending their planets from invaders.
Scenario 2: AdMech/Space Wolves as Attackers
Brimlock has been besieged by Orks and Chaos forces for some time, and Imperial forces are hellbent on recapturing the planet. Although locked in bitter combat, Ork and Chaos forces put aside their fighting to repel incoming Imperial forces. They can go back to killing each other later.
For this scenario I’ll go with Chaos/Orks as Attackers, because story-wise, they’re more aggressive, and because I want to play Night Lords in this fantasy scenario. Next, I’ll write a quick blurb to share with the players. The goal here is to establish the key players, establish the battleground, and set the stakes. If my players have warlords with names, this will be a good time to include them.
“Brimlock is a remote planet in the Ultima Segmentum, oft-forgotten by Imperial record-keepers and ship routes. Its most notable feature is classified–an Adeptus Mechanicus installation housing considerable weaponry. Having come into the information of its existence by way of torture, a Night Lords warband has made its way to the planet, only to find it coming under attack by Ork forces. Seeing an opportunity to use the dim-witted greenskins to their advantage, a deal was struck. Unfortunately for both of them, a nearby Space Wolves battle cruiser responded to the Mechanicus’ distress signal, and has arrived to help them defend the valuable archaeotech and weapons beneath Brimlock’s surface.”
Great. That might actually be wordier than I needed. But if you’re this far into the article, you already know that I write too much. For this campaign, we’ll need missions that cover planetfall, fighting over some secure locations, and probably something that takes place in a facility. The general flow will be “Chaos and Orks land > They search for the admech installation > they lay siege to it > they infiltrate the installation > they fight over the tech inside.” That allows us to get some variety in the missions and play some games we might not normally play.
Step 3: Determine How Many Missions/Rounds to Play
I don’t want this to go too long, so we’ll plan on playing 5 rounds. Some of them will be 2-on-2 games, and some will involve separate games.
Step 4: Choose the Missions
Next I have to choose the missions. I’m going to start with the Orks and Chaos Marines making planetfall, then probably do 1-2 open area missions to represent engagements out in the open as Chaos looks for the facility and Orks just bust heads. Then I’ll want a mission that represents the attackers laying siege to the facility, and finally a mission where the alliance breaks down and the three sides fight over the archaeotech.
Round 1: Planetstrike – Planetfall
Orks and Chaos Space Marines make planetfall, taking on AdMech and Space Wolves in their defensive positions as they rain fury from the skies.
Round 2: Eternal War – Roving Patrol
In this round, we split the teams up into two separate 1-on-1 games. The winner of the round is the team that scores more total VPs. If both teams are tied, the Defenders win a minor victory, but claim no bonus in the following round.
Mission 3: Eternal War – Scorched Earth
Chaos and Ork forces continue to pursue Imperial forces across the wastes, having picked up the scent of their real target.
Mission 4: Stronghold Assault – Bunker Assault
Having discovered the Installation holding the archaeotech cache, Chaos and Ork forces lay siege to the fortress’ defenses.
Mission 5: The Relic (3-player), Sector Mechanicus Battlezone
In the final round, Ork, Chaos, and Imperial forces fight a 3-way battle over an important archeotech weapon. In this game, teams use blind bids to determine turn order.
Step 5: Create Bonuses
Now that we have the missions, we need to create bonuses for winning each round. Remember, we’re creating bonuses, not penalties, and they should be small.
Round 1 Win:
Either the defenders know that the attackers are coming, having successfully fought off the planetfall action and warned their allies, or the attackers secured a landing zone and did so without raising the alarm. It’s fitting that the winners get first turn in round 2.
Round 2 Win:
Whoever wins had the successful scouting action, so they now have the upper hand from an intel standpoint and can use Concealed Deployment when deploying in round 3.
Round 3 Win:
Round 4 is a Stronghold Assault mission where Chaos and Ork forces are laying siege to an imperial stronghold, so I want bonuses that reflect that. If the Attackers are coming in hot, they’re bombarding the enemy out the gate, weakening their defenses. If the Defenders won, they had a chance to dig in and prepare, so let’s give them a free use of the Prepared Positions Stratagem.
- Attacker Win: After deployment, the Attackers nominate a single enemy BUILDING. Decrease that building’s Toughness by 1 for the remainder of the game.
- Defender Win: During the first battle round, any Defender units that haven’t moved since deployment, other than TITANIC units receive the benefit of cover, even if they are not wholly on a terrain feature.
Round 4 Win:
Whoever’s been winning big so far is going to be able to taste victory, and will be pressing forward with all they’ve got. They automatically pass morale tests in Round 5. Given that this is a 3-way game, two sides could have this bonus (Orks and Chaos).
If the Imperial side has scored more wins overall, they win, and force the invaders back (though potentially having lost some valuable archaeotech assets–something you can resolve in a future campaign!). If the Chaos/Ork sides have scored more wins overall, then they win, taking the planet and the assets. If one of the Chaos/Ork players won Round 5, that player is the winner overall, and makes off with the valuable cache of ancient weapons while also holding the planet.
Let’s plot this out real quick:
And that gives us a quick 5-round campaign, with lots of mission variety. We’ll want to vary game size as well as we play, according to how players want to manage their time and what’s available army-wise. Resource-wise, this campaign requires the Chapter Approved 2017 book for the missions; although Planetfall and Bunker Assault are in the main rulebook, we’re using the Sector Mechanicus battlezone and some Chapter Approved Eternal War missions. You’ll also need some bunkers and buildings to set up defenses for the Planetstrike and Stronghold Assault missions.
As you design campaigns, think about how you can make use of these extra narrative mission rules–there’s a ton of them and they’re all way under-used in my opinion. That said, don’t overdo it on combining them. Too many rules for one game and you’ll end up ignoring key rules. My advice is to stick to one big Twist per mission.
Next Time: Tree Narrative Campaigns
That wraps up our look at Linear Narrative campaigns. Hopefully you’ve got a good idea of how to build and design one of these if you want to make your own, and a good idea of what the available materials are. Next time we’ll cover Tree Narrative Campaigns, the more complex siblings of the Linear Narrative Campaign variety, and design a few of those of our own for Warhammer 40,000 and Kill Team. In the meantime, if you have any questions, comment, or feedback, feel free to drop us a note in the comments below, or shoot us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. We’re always in the mood to hear stories about cool campaigns and narrative gameplay ideas!