In this three-part series of articles we’re looking at how to design, plan, create, and run narrative events. While our examples will be primarily for Warhammer 40,000, we’ll be focusing on lessons that can be applied to any game system.
Welcome back to my series on designing the narrative event for the 2023 Goonhammer Open! Last time around I covered I covered some of the ideas I had around how set up battlefields for the event and make sure your locations are memorable. Today I’ll be finishing things off by talking about how to create missions for the event. And if you’re looking for tickets to the event, you can find them here – or sign up for the waiting list!
Making Good Narrative Missions
Alright so we’ve built our battlefields (or rather, we’re in the process of building them… I have another week or so before the need to be finished and shipped up to Maryland), now it’s time to finish the job by creating the missions players will play. It’s not enough to just have an interesting battlefield – that certainly helps, but a boring or bad mission will make it real easy for players to have a bad time and then none of it will matter.
We’ve already written a good article on how to create missions for narrative games before – you can find that one here – but it’s worth laying down some principles again here. When it comes to making good narrative missions, there are a few things we generally want to make sure we do/incorporate:
- Asymmetry. Your narrative missions don’t always have to be asymmetrical, but matched play already gives you lots of symmetry and so in narrative play we really want to take advantage of the freedom to give both sides different goals to work toward. Note that asymmetrical does not mean unbalanced.
- Narrative. This one seems like a no-brainer but it’s easy to miss. The mission should both fit into a larger story and also tell a story itself. Telling a story in a mission is difficult; It’s possible but with only five rounds in a game there’s just not a lot that can actually happen in an individual game of 40k. When you only have 5 rounds to act, doing things like requiring sequential actions in a game is next to impossible to pull off well, and that limits what we can do. Fortunately for our purposes, the narrative I’m designing treats battlefields more like 30-round missions in some ways than isolated games, allowing me to get away with more of that.
- An Interesting Hook. Similar to encounters in tabletop RPGs, every mission needs an interesting hook – some rules interaction that makes it unique or challenging to play. This can be something as simple as moving or shifting objectives, or it can involve a shifting battlefield, environmental effects, or a narrative event occurring mid-game. Hooks like this make the game memorable and the more unique they are, the better.
- A Way Forward. This is one of the toughest things – in the broader setting of the campaign, your missions have to provide some kind of way forward, even if one side loses. It’s really easy to get stuck in the trap of thinking one side will definitely win some battle, only to find them losing improbably and leaving you stuck struggling to figure out how to make that loss fit into whatever story you’re trying to tell. Figure out what success and failure looks like narratively for each side beforehand and work that into the mission’s setting and rewards.
Let’s Put it Into Practice
Alright, so let’s start by building a set of missions for one of our battlefronts, Manufactorum Ars-Lyri. The Manufactorum is set in the middle of the large desert on the eastern half of the continent, near the ruins of the crashed portion of the Ten Thousand Lies. Several roads stretch from here to the Nautilus Refinery, an offshore prometheum drilling platform, and over to Attos Hive Primus.
We’ve got six rounds to play, so we need to plan six missions to take place on the Manufactorum, and the goal here is to split them up. Here’s how I’m breaking them up:
Missions 1-3: The Attackers have to assault various convoys headed for the Manufactorum to capture ID tags which will help them bypass the Manufactorum’s Automated Defenses.
Missions 4-6: The Attackers and Defenders fight over the Manufactorum, a valuable resource for the war.
This means we really need at least two missions here. Thinking about the ID tags gives me pretty much all I need for the hook. What I’m thinking is that the Manufactorum will have a set of automated guns/turrets and possibly gates which will attack/block the team which doesn’t control the territory… unless that unit has an ID tag. This means that the first trio of missions can be about collecting ID tags while the second set are about using those tags to fight over the Manufactorum.
(Darkness, imprisoning me. Credit: Swiftblade)
Mission 1: Attack the Convoy
For the first three missions, I want something that will represent attacking a convoy of supplies headed to the Manufactorum, with opportunities to capture ID tags and other resources in the process. The Attackers are trying to smash the convoy and steal the tags while the Defenders are trying to protect the convoy and see it safely to its destination.
The Hook(s): This is an escort mission (more on that in a bit), and incorporates a Rolling Road mechanic, i.e. every round or so everything on the table is moved back 12″ while new terrain is added to the end to represent the battle being a chase. This is always a fun time and gives the board a dynamic feel while also encouraging players to bring faster units which can keep up and stay on the table.
The Escort piece is a bit tougher; it’s really, really hard to do escort missions well in 40k because it’s impossible to really defend things from shooting and once they’re dead, they’re dead. The way we keep this interesting is by making it so that the tags are the important part – when a convoy vehicle is destroyed, it drops an ID tag which can be picked up by a unit. If that unit dies, it drops the tag, and another team can pick it up. There’s a bonus for getting the convoy vehicles off the board safely, but the ID tags are the real thing you’re going for, so even if the convoy is destroyed, the mission isn’t lost.
On that note, I’m limiting the tags to an effect per unit, and putting three on the board per game (or rather, having three up for grabs from destroyed vehicles). This will create some tension as the tags will belong to the player who captured them and not the team, allowing them to either share or be a bit of a dick. This also creates a smaller advantage for winning – only one unit gets protection – preventing too big an advantage.
The Scenario: The Defender deploys half of their army with the convoy in the middle of the table and puts the rest of their units in reserves. We’re using a 9’x4′ table for this one, giving us lots of room to move around. The Attacker puts all of their units in reserves, and gets the first turn – they’ll arrive on the table starting turn 1 and both teams will use delayed reserves rules, so units arrive on a 3+ during round 1 and 2.
Designing the Convoy Trucks: The Convoy is basically going to be three trucks with a trailer or two behind them. We need stats for these that make sense, and the best place to go for stats for standard Imperial Vehicles is the Genestealer Cults index. The Goliath Truck is a T9, 10W vehicle with a 3+ save, and so we’ll make the truck portions of our convoy T9, 15W, 3+ save and the trailer portions T9, 10W, 3+ save. We’ll also give them each a 5+ invulnerable save to add just a hint of durability, reckoning that these convoys are defended against some kind of attack. They’re not super durable but then the mission should be as much about grabbing the ID tags as it is about destroying them.
Victory Conditions: Victory kind of doesn’t matter here in the first three missions – the Attacker can’t capture the Manufactorum until round 4 as things are laid out. That’s a flaw we’ll probably address by giving the Attacker a territory they can’t lose hold of until round 4 – likely the crashed ship. That said, the attacker “wins” by getting ID tags while the defender “wins” by holding on to them and getting the convoy trucks off the table. Each convoy truck that makes it home is worth 15 VP for the Defenders, while each retained ID tag is worth 5. Meanwhile each ID tag the attackers hold is worth 15 VP and each destroyed convoy will be worth 5 VP. The Attackers can still win by destroying all three convoys and having no one hold an ID tag at the end of the game and it’s a draw if they destroy all three but the defenders control all the tags, which feels right.
Mission 2: Assault on the Manufactorum
The other half of the missions will focus on capturing and retaining control of the Manufactorum, with the Attacker/Defender role for the mission switching off based on who currently holds the territory.
The Scenario: The Attackers are trying to capture the Manufactorum. The Defenders have a favorable, forward deployment which gets them nearer, but not on the middle. The Attackers have a bit of a “surrounding” style deployment to work with. The table is a jumble of pipes and mechanicum terrain with lots of blocked line of sight. No objective marker is visible from any other.
Victory Conditions: This one is straight-up about holding territory to represent taking control of the base. There will be a semi-central objective the defenders can deploy around, with 4 additional nodes located around the battlefield. This will mostly depend on endgame scoring, as holding an objective early only to lose it later doesn’t seem to mean much narratively here. We’ll also incorporate some Linebreaker and Slay the Warlord bonuses to mix things up a bit and provide additional incentives for pushing forward.
The Hook: As mentioned earlier, there are a number of gates and automated defenses which will oppose the Attackers in this mission. The gates will block movement for any Attacker unit without an ID tag, and the automated guns will fire on any Attacker unit without an ID tag. Units which die drop their tags, to be picked up by other units or the winning team.
Additionally, we want to add some environmental effects, so we’ll take a page out of the older editions’ playbooks and add a mechanic for the prometheum and plasma conduit pipes, making them both a bit deadly to stand near and helpful for boosting weapons. There’s going to be a lot of pipes, may as well make them interesting.
Designing the Defenses: We’ll use the sector fronteris walls as gates which open/close for ID tag holders. The defenses are a bit more of a challenge, but fortunately the new Legends datasheets for Unaligned Units help us out a ton there- we can basically use the new datasheet for the Vengeance Weapon Battery for these, and add a bunch of weapon batteries to the battlefield. These aren’t amazing, but they’re good enough to be really annoying if you don’t have an ID tag. Again, minor advantages – winning should feel like it helps, but not like it makes the next win inevitable.
I think that gives us a really nice pair of missions to work with here and should keep things interesting, even for a player who wants to spend all six games fighting over the same territory – though I wouldn’t recommend that.
Wrapping Things Up
That wraps up this look at writing missions for our event. While we’ve only scratched the surface, I’ll have more after the event itself, when I can share more content without necessarily spoiling the surprise for my players. So until then, if you have any questions or feedback, drop us a note in the comments below or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.