TheChirurgeon’s Road Through 2023, Part 26: The Grand Narrative Recap, Part 2

Welcome back, Dear Reader, to my ongoing hobby and competitive play journey through 2023. Last time around I talked about the first day and a half or so of the Grand Narrative – my time getting to Atlanta and the first day of games. Today I’m going to finish things off by talking about the final two days of the event.

Day 2: Saturday

I sleep like shit (I maybe get 4 hours of sleep, tops), and around 8am we – my son, Pendulin, and I – wander up toward the hotel to meet Jack Hunter for breakfast. He’s found a diner two blocks from the hotel that serves a pretty damn good breakfast. We house some pancakes before heading over for the 9am briefings.

The day 2 Briefings are a bit more interesting. Our Chaos Battlegroup leader is now sporting an impressive trophy rack, replete with the head of his former commissar. We’re informed that Chaos ate shit day one, which is bad. The good news is that Khorne doesn’t care where the skulls come from so we’re once again told to collect a bunch of skulls for the skull throne. My son gets a kick out of this. He’s pretty much ready to roll today, and he’s once again stolen my costume.

Bryce uses his water bottle as a gun until I let him play with the plasma pistol

On the Xenos side, the Pact of Resistance leader is clearly going down the Tzeentch end of things today, talking about secret paths and changing ways, and by the end of the night she’ll just be flat-out sporting the symbol of Tzeentch on her staff.

Round 3: Deepforest Dome

The Deepforest Dome room

Round 3 is in the deepforest dome, a massive underground forest that sprawls for miles with megaflora and overgrown ruins and research facilities. The room here has green lighting and the tables are covered in uh, fake plastic vines. The visuals are neat but it’s kind of a chore to play around. I’m playing against Sam, who has some lovely Dark Angels. The terrain situation on our table isn’t great but it’s much more workable, especially after we agree to treat everything as obscuring ruins, save the river.

The mission here is The Gathering Shroud, which is basically just hold one/two/more with a bonus for the opp’s deployment zone marker and some rules that can make Leadership more of a chore. I take out Sam’s scouts and Infiltrators turn 1 and put the hurt on one of his tanks but can’t finish it off. Sam’s got some lovely tanks and they’re a bit of a concern for me – chewing through two Land Raiders is difficult, and before I know it there’s a massive brawl in the middle of the table.

This is a pain in the ass. But it looks great.

Sam’s big unit of Bladeguard Veterans crash into my Terminators and thanks to some bad saves on my part and some heavy shooting volumes and fighting first, he’s eventually able to finish off my terminators – though I’ll eventually whittle them down with warpflamers from my Rubrics. This one’s pretty close until my Obliterators drop in and wipe out Sam’s backfield while the Noise Marines and Plague Marines take out the Dreadnought. Sam puts up the hardest fight of anyone I’ll play all weekend in a one-on-one game, and it’s a fun one to play – my favorite of the weekend.

During the game various Lords of War walk through, including the witch leading the Pact of Resistance. Bryce is, hilariously, afraid of her and “doesn’t trust her because she whispers.” She naturally finds this endearing (he’s quite the charmer when he wants to be). He’ll also tell this to the warlord/staff leading our room and he gets a kick out of it and spreads it to the rest of the crew. This will lead into his grand plan later on.

Bryce is into the game early and rolling dice for me but his patience runs out after an hour and a half or so and he spends the rest of the game walking around the room and playing around on his tablet. This is honestly fine – if he’s having a good time and staying out of trouble, that’s a win for me and I get to finish the game.

Bryce marvels at an incredible Ork display board

After the game we walk around and explore the other rooms, and check in with the Astros Militarum and the other Goonhammer peeps. We check out some of the other armies and display boards, then head to lunch. There’s a food court across the street from the hotel accessible via a walkway, and that’s both convenient and a good place to grab food with the boy as his palette is pretty limited. He’ll end up housing some chicken nuggets.

Round 4: The Fivefold Forge

We’re shuttled off to the Fivefold Forge for round 4, a crater-pocked plain in the planet’s northern hemisphere where five heavily fortified, equidistant gateways lead to five massive, city-sized forge complexes, each housing a pentagonal forge complex. As soon as I read about this place in the briefing I knew Vashtorr was going to be involved in the event somehow (it’s strongly hinted at in Arks of Omen that five is Vashtorr’s number).

John and I on day 3

I’m paired into John this round. He’s also here with his son, except his son is also participating in the Grand Narrative and is a full-grown adult. John hasn’t played since 5th edition or so, but he has some absolutely beautiful Ultramarines which will be in the showcase later on. He’s not really doing anything with Crusade so I jettison my Crusade rules – I only have three traits so far, but they’re doozies – Scout 9″ on my Plague Marines, +1 A/+1 Damage on one of my forgefiend Hades Autocannons, and +2″ movement on my Land Raider.

Terrain here isn’t any denser than the other tables and the mission is absolutely going to crush John. We’re playing Bio-sample Acquisition, which is hold one/two/more but carries with it an extra rider where a CHARACTER unit can do an action to extract a sample from each objective marker once per game for an extra 10 VP. I have three characters after I add in my Dark Apostle, but John only has his warlord. That’ll severely limit his ability to keep up here.

I help him out as we play but the early boost I get from extracting two objectives essentially puts the game out of reach. John makes a valiant push at midtable with his Land Raider full of terminators and his Whirlwind keeps me from ever really being safe. He’s got a decent army for an event like this but he just needed more characters to work with for scoring here.

he was so pleased with himself

About halfway through the game Bryce comes up to me asking if he can get his face painted and tells me that I have to “go tell the bad guy that it’s OK.” So I walk over to see what’s up and it’s Chris Stover, who doesn’t just want to paint some kid’s face without permission. So I give it and Bryce asks to have a trio of scratch marks painted on his face. He then demands I take a photo of him posing with the plasma pistol.

Bryce mostly played on his tablet during my second game but shifts to running around about halfway through – and this is in part helped by my wife returning from her day playing Pokemon Go with “Contemptor” Kevin Stillman. At this point a collection of children has gathered at the venue – not a ton, but like 3 or 4 around his age. It turns out fellow Goonhammer dad Andrew “Marchettus” Brennan has brought his wife and kids to the event, and his son is only a year younger than Bryce. The immediately become great friends and run around shooting each other with the plasma pistol and a lasgun borrowed from WhiteOutMouse.

After round 4 we set up for paint judging in the side hall. There are a lot of good armies on display, but I really like my chances. Craig and Jack have beautiful armies but both have left their display boards at home and on top of that the army I’m putting out is the best I’ve ever painted and easily on par with what they’ve got. There are a few armies I think stack up to mine, but hopefully I can edge them out on the strength of my conversions and “Tide of Traitors” theme.

That night the briefings ratchet things up. Bryce won’t sit for it – he’s too invested in playing with the other kids now – but it’s a fun time. The Priestess for the Pact of Resistance goes full Tzeentch heel turn, and the Inquisitor walks in and calls her “a traitorous whore,” which is a fun little moment that gives people pause like suddenly they’re thinking “oh, jeez guys the Inquisition may be a bit problematic.” The Chaos lord of War suddenly starts talking about how maybe he doesn’t want to die at the end of this and that seems where his path leads and we get the big reveal: An ancient AI is shackled deep within the planet and trying to escape.

We end up grabbing dinner upstairs at the hotel bar, which has decent food but bad service. I end up housing a burger while the boy eats chicken fingers.

If there was a low point to bringing my son on the trip it was Saturday night. When it was time to head back to the hotel, he had a meltdown, refusing to leave. Part of this is that he was just very tired, and part of it was that he refused to believe that his new friend was also leaving. We had to basically drag him out of the hotel, fighting us every step of the way. Things almost got really bad, but after we got him outside mom was able to convince him that if he calmed down things could still be OK and it wasn’t completely fucked. This worked and he calmed down and went back to the hotel with her for bath time and bedtime.

Pendulin and I stuck around a bit longer to pick up our models after judging had finished, and then did another walk around the competitive floor. I get an update on where everyone is at and find out about John Lennon’s postgame concession as he moves on to the second game in the loser bracket. I wish him luck on what’s absolutely going to be a brutal night – he’ll be playing until at least 2am to get out of that bracket.

After doing the rounds Pendulin and I dropped our armies off in Jack’s room upstairs and headed back to the apartment around 11pm.

Day 3: Sunday

I slept a little bit better but still not great, waking up around 6am. We prep for the event and walk up to the same diner, meeting Jack again for breakfast. I house a country fried steak and eggs breakfast while Bryce eats some bacon and eggs. While we’re there Mike Pestilens swings by and joins us for some breakfast. He’s not doing amazing but he’s having a great time. That’s more than I can say for Innes, who I spot on my way to a briefing looking like utter death. He was up way too late and is paying the price for it.

This morning briefing is a big shift. Now that we know about the AI, we have to figure out what to do with it, and the Lord of War puts it to us. The first couple of warlords say destroy it but I’m not about that – having an AI running around in the 40k universe makes things more interesting, so I start the calls for attempting to shackle it and use it. It is at this point that the tide turns and we go from “skulls for the skull throne” to “souls for the soul forge” and praising our new god, Vashtorr. His rules may suck but he’s still pretty cool. Anyways the lord of war agrees and we’re off to conquer.

This is the best terrain layout I played on all weekend

Round 5: The Ice-Locked Fortress

The Ice-locked fortress is housed in an extremely cold environmental dome covered in perpetual ice and snow. The room is a bit colder than the others and that makes it everyone’s favorite. I’m up against Tristan, who is running some sick Raven Guard models. The mission is Empty the Vaults, which has disappearing objectives. Tristan gets the drop on me with the first turn and my goal is to basically sit outside the range of his flamestorm aggressors, use the Dark Obscuration Stratagem to protect my units, and pick off his vehicles as he closes in.

Tristan hasn’t been playing 40k long but he has a solid game plan with a lot of units which can scout and infiltrate, giving him good early board coverage out of the gate but going second when you score at the end of the battle round is a big advantage and having him come closer works in my favor. Had he been more aggressive up front with his Infiltrators and charged my rhino with his BGVs he might have had me dead to rights but he goes inside against my land raider early instead and that works in my favor. I’m able to pick off the BGVs and while the aggressors kill my Berzerkers the Terminators teleport in and make short work of them by dumping out an assload of devastating wounds.

On top of all this, Tristan’s dice weren’t great – mine were solid on the other hand and I made some key saves to keep stuff on the table. By the time my Obliterators arrived the scores were still close but I’d end up tabling Tristan a turn later.

During all of this, Bryce is running around and having a good time. I’d later find out he tried very hard to make peace between the witch leading the Pact of Resistance and the warlord leading the Pact of Annihilation, which is just adorable. Apparently our warlord told Bryce he “couldn’t trust the witch” and she was “trying to mislead her forces,” which then prompted him to go talk to her and tell her to knock it off, and then after talking to her he returned to the Annihilation warlord telling him not to say such mean stuff about her.  She came by the table later to recruit him to her cause by tying a string around his wrist, which he then promptly removed because he didn’t care for the feeling. You gotta commit, buddy!

Bryce also had his face painted again, and I received the Mark of Vashtorr as well during the process. About this time is when Marchettus’ wife arrives with their kids, who were apparently so excited about coming back they were waiting in the car for her to bring them. My wife joins us for lunch over in the food court. I grab a gyro loaded up with vegetables because I am severely in need of some veggies in my diet this weekend.

The children convene, vibrating with excitement

Bryce spends most of round 6 running around playing with Marchettus’ kids. He’ll eventually break the plasma pistol when he drops it. It’s not broken beyond repair but it does mean his time playing with it is over. That’s largely fine, since half of the games they play are just “running around the escalator in circles” while the parents hang out and drink and chat.

James in his Necron cosplay

Round 6: The Strata Sanctoral

For round 6 we’re back in the Strata Sanctoral and I’m paired into James, who’s on his 5th game of 10th edition and is running Necrons. In addition to having a lovely army, James has some killer cosplay, with a light-up resurrection orb and a cloak. James asks if I want to play against a silver tide (all infantry) or vehicles, and I tell him to bring vehicles – my terminators and forgefiend will make quick work of the infantry.

I’m not running a super competitive list but this game is basically over before it starts. Chaos Space Marines are one of the armies best suited to killing Necron blobs and the terrain is pretty sparse, even when we agree that it should all be obscuring. James is going to have an uphill battle, and that’s even with me sandbagging it. We’re playing the mission Insurgency, where being the Defender automatically gives me first turn, and that also means I’ll get to shoot him full of holes before he can act.

That’s exactly what happens, and I pick up most of James’ Lychguard on turn 1. On turn 2 he has little choice but to walk forward into the ruins and make himself visible, and then on turn 2 I wipe his lychguard and a full unit of warriors off the table. There’s pretty much no recovering from this for James, who needed to play super aggressively and do more damage turn 1 – something his army just wasn’t really capable of. Had he brought in the Heavy Destroyers turn 1 and used them to kill one of my vehicles and pressured me with the C’Tan things might have been different, but ultimately he’d have still needed some luck to make it through this mission, which requires planting bombs on three of the five objectives.

This is the one game I felt bad about because James clearly didn’t have a great time. There wasn’t much he could do with nowhere to hide and as a result we didn’t get to play a full game. I think this game underlines one of the biggest problems with the narrative – the terrain just isn’t that good. Some of it looks great, and some tables have OK amounts, but too many tables are sparse or completely open, and very few of the tables have bases on the terrain which make it easier to block line of sight.

Midway through the game the Inquisitor calls in an exterminatus. After we’ve finished and we’re talking about what could have been done, he comes back by and drops an orbital strike with a random die drop and it lands on James’ Necron Warriors, dealing them mortal wounds and pouring salt in the fresh wound. Brutal

We wrapped up our game early and so I joined the missus and the boy. We hang out waiting for the awards ceremony and grab a group photo.

We ended up eating at the hotel bar again and watching football while we waited for the final briefing and ceremony.

The Results

On the whole, the Pact of Resistance (the Xenos faction) won, again. This is kind of lame, as they’re not really a faction but a coalition of unrelated factions and it’s never really clear what it actually means for them to “win.” The priestess comes out in a bird mask and talks about her ascension to daemon prince and helping her team escape the planet. Despite this, Chaos captured the AI and our fearless leader sacrificed us all to the soul forges to curry favor with Vashtorr. This is treated as a loss but as Chaos followers it’s pretty much par for the course. The clear loser here is the Pact of Enlightenment (Imperial), and we’re treated to a scene of their Inquisitor leader being executed for his failure to secure victory.

Chase showing off his new trophy

The Awards Ceremony sees Chase once again win the Most Infamous award, something he’s proud to walk off with two years running now. He’s already got plans on how to work all of this into his Necron army for next year’s event.

I ended up just missing Best Painted, finishing second to a Dark Angels army with an impressive display board. I was surprised to later find out that I was running for best painted and not best theme, but that’s fine by me. I talk with Zach after the event and I think what killed me was staging one or two older models on my display which ultimately made the difference when they ended up being the worst models in the army visually. That’s disappointing but I get it. It’s a lot of work to not win but with only one winner that was always something I was prepared to accept. I’ll have to do better next year!

We hang out for drinks for a while while the missus takes Bryce back to the apartment and then we head back before it gets too late, armies in tow this time. The flight back to Atlanta goes very smoothly, and we’re home by lunchtime.

Final Thoughts on the Narrative

Overall I had a pretty good time at the Narrative. The highlight is always seeing my friends and hanging out with people I don’t get to see very often, and the more lax pace of games makes it easier to have a good time and do things like bring my son along. On that note, I was pleasantly surprised by how bringing him went. He had a good time and outside of the Saturday night meltdown was pretty good.

On the whole I’d say this year’s narrative was better than last year’s. There were things I liked more about the venue last year – it was a nicer resort hotel – but being in the actual downtown was a big plus and Atlanta is much easier (and cheaper) to get to. Here’s my rundown of the ups and downs of the event.

What Worked

  • The Late Day 2 and Day 3 Briefings. Once they got some of the A/V issues figured out and you could actually hear the briefings, they were pretty good, and a big improvement over last year. There was clearly more going on, and the twists around Tzeentch and Vashtorr were interesting and fun because you could see them coming if you had spent time with the lore.
  • The schedule. Doing 6 games over 3 days continues to be my preferred way to handle an event like this, and having the option for extra games at night is nice. It’s a nice, leisurely pace that helps me avoid feeling like it’s a grind.
  • Having the World Championships there. Having the championships going on simultaneously was also pretty cool, ensuring there was a ton going on between games and also giving players from both groups cool shit to see between games.
  • The location. Atlanta is pretty easy to get to and not having to rent a car was a big improvement.
  • Improved communication around goals. They listened to feedback and made the communication around our faction goals much easier to understand and the goals more readily possible to accomplish. No more “kill enemy psykers,” and instead orders like “cut off the head” or “break through their lines” were pretty easy to understand. Likewise for fame and infamy. It made the whole thing much more fun to plan around and tell a story without breaking much of the immersion.

What Didn’t Work

  • The Terrain. The terrain situation was just not great. Too many tables were empty or sparse, and some were just straight-up planet bowling ball situations. Warhammer plays best when lines of sight are kept closer to 18-24″, tops, and when you can’t see more than one other objective while standing on one. I’m all for great-looking terrain but the terrain has to be functional first or else “wow I want to play on that table” quickly turns into “oh man this sucks to play on.”
  • The Missions. The Tyrannic War Crusade missions are on the whole pretty lousy. They often give the player going first a big advantage, and the terrain just made that problem worse.
  • Crusade, generally. I like Crusade, but it’s just not working well for these short events. A full third of the players at the event didn’t even sign into Administratum, and I reckon most of those never tracked any upgrades or XP.
  • The Team Structure. I get what they’re going for having three teams, and it was certainly better than last year’s Imperium/Chaos/Xenos split but it once again felt like the Xenos team weren’t narratively cohesive, with a hodgepodge of Orks, Eldar, Necrons, T’au, and whatever else. Also if you weren’t really big on Tzeentch, the reveal probably didn’t feel great. Surprise! you’ve been duped.
  • Pairings. The card-based pairing system was OK. It made things quick and easy and was flavorful, but it also meant we weren’t pairing on ability or record at any point. I had fun in my games but ultimately none of them were particularly challenging. Yeah, I lost the first game to Ryolnir, but that would have been a reverse blowout had we gone first and it was a team game besides. Mostly I spent the weekend teaching six people how to play Warhammer 40k and while they were all good people, that’s not necessarily the experience I’m looking for.

How it Could Improve

So what do I want to see at future Narratives? Well I have some ideas:

  • Better Player Matching and Segmentation. I had a decent time, but didn’t really feel challenged in my games, and I think my opponents would have preferred closer games as well. I’ve likewise got friends who went and had an OK time, but didn’t feel like they’d want to go back and spend $300 on a ticket to stomp six people still learning the game. What I’d really like to see next year is to have Elite or Spec Ops battlegroups for more experienced players. These can match into other elite groups or play missions at a handicap, representing taking on tougher challenges and more dangerous missions (this is also a fluffy way to implement this). I also wouldn’t mind seeing something more like win paths pairings to help keep players of similar skill levels playing each other. It works great at tournaments, why not use it here?
  • Better/Custom Missions. One of the weakest aspects of the event. The Tyrannic War Crusade Missions are, on the whole, terrible. I’d like to see missions with a little more thought and care put into them being used.
  • More Narrative Goals/Context. I liked having more clarity on our goals – things like “cut off the head” were pretty straightforward – but they also felt super samey and generic. The locations are great, but they feel a bit underused. What I really want is to understand what we’re fighting for each round, and what the stakes are – maybe we’re trying to destroy a particular enemy outpost, or destabilize the enemy command structure in this area, or disrupt supply lines. Give us more context for the games, and then ideally match those contexts to the tables and terrain we’re playing on. Speaking of which…
  • Better terrain. Man the terrain was bad. Some of it looked great but most of it was barely functional and too many tables were wide open. More bases for the terrain to create legitimate area terrain, and more large, line-of-sight blocking pieces and fewer tables where every objective can see every other one.
  • More stuff for kids. The Grand Narrative is a unique experience which offers more of the kinds of stuff that non-gamers can get into. You’ve already got facepainting, why not bring back paint classes and some other stuff for kids and SOs? Give people a reason to bring their families!
  • More Awards. Look I’m fine with second place – the Dark Angels I lost to looked great – but I wanted a silver chainsword hand trophy.

What’s Next

Honestly? I’m not sure. I may try my hand at a GT in two weeks, but I’m also just as liable to sit that one out and chill the rest of the year. Either way, expect some kind of end-of-year wrap-up soon.

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