Tuesday, 9 January 2018
Golovin III - creating a narrative campaign.
Greetings all, Triple D here to talk to you about my baby. No, not that kind of baby, I mean the narrative campaign, Golovin III - Darkest before Dawn.
First let me give you a little bit of history.
I grew up with 40k, loving the little narrative excerpts in white dwarf and various other publications that really immersed me into the stories of 40k. Often these were simply a paragraph written as an introduction to a white dwarf battle report, but they really set the scene for the game so well, and when GW decided to open up the Black Library, well, I was hooked!
For many years, I didn't actively participate in the gaming side of the hobby, but boy did I read a lot. When I got back into gaming, I found that as enjoyable as the games were, they lacked something because there was no story to them. Loads of stuff happened, loads of cool stuff that would make for an excellent story, but none of it was recorded. That was when I started writing battle reports on my personal blog, so that I could retain an element of the story from my games. And then something else happened - Rob over at 30k plus 40k did a couple of battle reports against a friend of his in a completely narrative style. I can't actually find them at the moment, but I'll try and track them down and provide a link. These reports essentially did away with the turn by turn 'report' style, and constructed a story based on the events of the game. That seemed more like it, and I decided to try out my own version.
Station 19 - The Silence of Golovin was the result, and is still one of my more successful posts and my most viewed battle report (if you take out the sequel, then it's the most viewed report by some distance).
Station 19 was just a test though, I wanted to see if that kind of report worked well and was well-received. Suffice to say that it was, so Ryan and I sat down to play some follow up games. We didn't have a storyline in mind as such at that time, the idea being that we'd play a game, then depending on the outcome we'd try to figure out what would happen next, using the narrative to keep things in order even if a particular game had been one-sided.
We played three games, with the first two getting reports on the blog. Both of those games were won by Ryan and his Alpha Legion, and then the third game I won, but it was a particularly unbalanced game after my grav devastators dropped in to murder his freshly painted daemon prince before it got a chance to move. By then, rumours were spreading about a new edition of 40k as well though, so we called a halt to the campaign until we'd got a handle on the new edition.
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So now you're up to date, and planning for Golovin III has been underway for a little while. So here's my thoughts on how we went about the process, and why we've gone down this particular route.
There are some key things that you're looking to create when you take part in a narrative campaign, and the first of those is of course the narrative. Game results/winning etc is largely secondary if you have a good narrative theme running through, and a good narrative relies on a few key points of its own.
What's the one thing that ties these stories together?
Massacre at Istvaan
2nd War for Armageddon
Battle for the Emperor's Palace
The Sabbat Worlds Crusade
The setting. The stories in most of these cases are secondary to the setting (Istvaan is the exception), the planets themselves are legendary. Now, it's fair to say that realistically, anything we as participants in the hobby create is not going to have as much resonance as something GW come up with, but that's not to say that we can't have our own in-depth bit of the galaxy. March of the Damned does this extremely well, and his in-depth setting for his games trumps pretty much anything else I've seen in terms of the effort to which he goes to locate his games. Now I'm not planning anything like as elaborate as that, but I would like to add a little more detail and flavour to the one place I'm looking to use. Golovin therefore has become my own little world, and as the narrative evolves we'll add cities and isolated research stations etc that will become the focus of the campaign games.
Of course, an important part of the setting for a narrative is also the justification for being there. Why are these particular forces clashing at this particular time in this particular place, and that is (in my opinion) one of the hardest things to create, a really good hook. So in the case of this particular narrative, I cheated. As the Imperial player and the person responsible for creating the narrative, I've made it quite clear that we don't know. The Alpha Legion have been on the planet, we know that much, but as for their reasons, that much is totally secret. I have my own plans as to what they're doing, but we'll have to see how the narrative evolves to see if the Dusk Knights can discover them. Needless to say though that the very existence of the species may be at stake...
These names ring throughout the history of the Imperium as characters of notable deeds. And yet as with the setting above, they are all creations, yes their deeds are inflated by the stories in which they feature and the realistic likelihood of them surviving that long to create such stories if they were involved in games is minimal, but then that's what makes them legend, the depth of their character, and the fact that if indeed one were killed in a game, it's likely to just be a simplification of survival subject to severe injury.
The armies of your narrative therefore need to have inspirational leaders and warriors. Not all of them of course, there's no point writing a force of heroes where any one of them falling would be unfathomable, but equally a good force needs a good leader, and there's no point having an in-depth character background if you then play completely differently. The important depth of each character in a narrative absolutely has to be backed up by their actions in any games you report on. Your battle scarred hero of a space marine commander who's well known for aggressively plunging headlong into a fight isn't going to be standing at the back of your army pointing out targets for your devastators, is he? Equally any background you create for your characters must be proportionate to be believable, it's no good creating a space marine chapter master for example who's served longer than Dante - stick within the bounds of the established narrative.
Not only the most difficult element to describe but also probably the most difficult to achieve, getting your audience involved in the setting you create, and making it sufficiently gripping and engaging that they want to keep reading and keep finding out what's happening. When we pick up a novel we expect to be entertained and for the storyline to be good, that's one element of what authorship is about, so when creating your narrative you need to have something that grabs hold of your audience. That's where you start to tie together the elements of the narrative so far, the setting, the characters, and something irrefutably 40k too - if you start introducing elements of traditional sci fi for example, that hurts the immersion of the narrative you're creating.
The golden thread that runs through all of the above elements is creativity. Sure, I can set up a narrative campaign on a planet, give it a simple name, pick two forces to fight each other and have at it. But that's not particularly exciting. Equally, I could have the best constructed narrative in the world but if there's no creativity in how I go about reporting it, and I simply write a long list of things that happened in the games and what that meant for the narrative, it wouldn't be interesting. The creativity of something is what makes it interesting, it's what gets people coming back (within the boundaries set by suspension of disbelief).
There's no substitute for sitting down and hammering out the above details unfortunately, and no shortcut either, you might set out a few things and throw them away when you look back at them, start afresh etc, but the narrative setting has to be right before you go any further.
Once you have that straight, the big question is how you want the actual campaign to progress, and there are several options here.
The first, is how I went about the second Golovin campaign. Pick a mission, play the game, see what happens and then try to weave a story around the events. The problem here is that you will always be a slave to the actual game results, and whilst you can get away with introducing subplots and hidden objectives occasionally, if you do that too much then your readers will figure out that the games are largely irrelevant anyway because you're not following the results too closely.
The second is the type of campaign undertaken by Code 40k and their Cypra Incident. This is a tree-style campaign, where the outcome of each game feeds into a mission to play next. That's how I ran the games at Hero For a Day back in 2016, though as you can imagine, writing missions for all the potential combinations from 8 games was a little on the complex side (in the end I broke it down into three different types with mini-trees for each).
For me, the problem with a tree campaign is similar to the freeform style above, to a point. You have pre-written or pre-selected the missions, and whilst the outcome of the game does clearly influence the progression of the story, you still run the risk of the campaign becoming too rigid. As noted above too, if you try and write too much of the campaign structure in advance then you end up with a very unwieldy mission structure trying to represent all the potential options.
The third type of campaign therefore is one that is actually noted in the 40k rulebook, and is described as a matrix campaign. This really seemed to fit the bill for what I was hoping to do, so I set out to get the matrix figured out.
A matrix campaign works in a fairly simple fashion. After each game, each player picks an action type for their force - that could be holding ground, reconnoitering etc. These two actions chosen by the players are then revealed, and when you cross reference them on the campaign matrix, they tell you which mission to play next. That's great, because your actions can be completely dictated by your narrative, the missions are then influenced by the particular actions, but you're still free to set the particular mission wherever in your setting is best.
I didn't want to use the basic matrix set out in the 40k rulebook though, so I created my own set of reactions and trawled through all the potential missions, assigning them to appropriate combinations of actions. Of course, with Chapter Approved we now have even more missions to choose from so before the campaign gets underway I'll be revising the matrix to remove some duplication of missions.
I also decided to add one more thing to the matrix that wasn't in the main rulebook, and that's a tactical benefit for winning the previous game. This meant that if the winner of the game doesn't particularly fancy the mission type then they can modify it by one place within the matrix (essentially modifying their response) at the cost of a command point for the next game.
So there you have it, I'll publish the matrix once I've re-drafted it to include more of the chapter approved missions, and I'll set up a Golovin Campaign page where you can track all the relevant information for the campaign (rather than cycling through pages of posts sorted by labels). Equally, if you have any questions about any of the above (except why the Alpha Legion are on Golovin at all!) then please just post them in the comment section and I'll do my best to answer you.