Under New Management: Reviewing the LVO Team Narrative

Despite writing a lot about competitive 40K, I’m a narrative player at heart. For me, 40K is about telling cool stories with neat models, and competitive gaming is a little bit like adopting a cat hoping it will go on walks and play fetch with you, and then being disappointed when it doesn’t do that. But I still enjoy one of the core aspects of organized play – traveling to events, meeting new people, and playing armies I’ve never seen on the table before.

Enter narrative events. For the last three years I’ve been attending the Las Vegas Open’s narrative events, and I’ve been having a blast. This year, unfortunately, The Narrative Guys were unable to organize the event, so a new group stepped up – and this group seems likely to be doing it next year as well. So how’d they do?

As with many of my posts, we begin with a disclaimer: It’s extremely tempting to compare the event to the event last year run by The Narrative Guys, and indeed I was doing just that on the first day, but on reflection that’s not particularly fair. There’s really two major reasons for this. First, TNG had a full year to iterate and improve on their design. If you’ve read my previous review, you’ll know that their first year was off to a rocky start, with some mismatched expectations to it. The new organizers running the event didn’t have that, and I think it’s unfair to compare a first-time event to something that would, hypothetically, have had three years of experience to draw on. The second is rooted in that “hypothetically”. There wasn’t a choice between TNG and the new organizer, Justin Strauss. As I understand it, a TNG-style LVO Narrative Event wasn’t financially feasible. It’s easy to say you like some financially ruinous, unsustainable thing if you aren’t having to write the checks.

So I’m going to do my best to minimize those comparisons, and look at the event on it’s own, independent merits.

TL;DR Version:

A solid event with great players acting in the spirit of the event, with some self-inflicted wounds in mission and campaign design.

The Format

The format of the event was a series of games over all three days of the LVO. Two games on each of the first two days, and then an apocalypse game on the last day. The points totals were variable…players were asked to bring 500, 750, 1000, 1250 and 1500 point lists. Each.

To understand why, we first have to talk about the campaign system.

Essentially we were fighting over a world known as Vanar V. Which, like any world that is the focus of a 40K campaign, is utterly fucked. The Imperium and Chaos are squaring off over some warp-tainted nonsense that’s been found on the world that may or may not also involve secret caches of geneseed, and the other races in the game are divided into two factions, the “Advanced Xenos” – Eldar, Necrons, Tau, etc. and “Savage Xenos” – Nids, Orks, etc. with some malleability due to people wanting to play together. The Advanced Xenos were faintly worried about some webway type signatures coming from the mess of stuff in the middle, and the Savage Xenos, as far as I could tell, were there to wreck up the place.

This is the first peril of all narrative campaigns – do you try to throw everyone into the mix, and if so, how do you avoid the story becoming “The Imperium vs. Chaos, with a number of Also-Rans”? Even GW has this problem – see the Fate of Konor. Despite a solid performance by the Advanced Xenos (no thanks to me) that ended up with the final matchup being Chaos vs. them, much of the campaign felt like it remained Imperial vs. Chaos with everyone else nipping at their heels.

The way this was represented mechanically was a series of boards, dividing the planet into zones, and then missions within those zones. Each factions players then went up, ordered by who was currently winning the campaign, and could pick their mission. The factions that followed would have to fill some of those pairings, followed by picking some of their own, and so on, and so on. The missions varied both in points levels and by the number of people playing them, hence the variable lists (i.e. a 1500 point mission by a two person team means two 750pt. lists, while for a trio it’s three 500 pt. lists).

This…was overly complicated. Especially as there was also the ability to “steal” missions, essentially bumping someone off what they picked, which from experience was not the most enjoyable thing ever.

And notice I did say points. The narrative event was using both points and Matched Play rules. This was probably my biggest beef with the entire event – matched play is not the default way to play 40K, and the entire purpose of narrative gaming is to allow room for the exploration of other modes of game play. So allow them. I’m especially unsympathetic to the notion that this was done for “balance” – matched play 40K isn’t balanced, narrative lists aren’t balanced, and the missions absolutely weren’t balanced (see below). One thing that was especially frustrating, to me, is that in order to merely have to carry a 1500 point army, rather than an eclectic pick-n-mix of my collection, WYSIWYG broke down almost immediately as I had to trim options from squads to manage five different lists.

You know what doesn’t have that problem? Power levels. And for my money, “These look like they’re supposed to” beats the slight numerical inefficiency that’s introduced by using the less granular power levels.

Narrative events using the narrative ruleset may indeed be a hill I’m willing to die on.

The Missions

The event also used a custom mission pack with some fairly narrative missions – attempting to grab supplies, occupy table quarters, activate, deactivate or destroy critical strategic buildings, etc. Each mission also came with one or two mission specific stratagems. In addition to that, players could, after turn 3, withdraw their units via a table edge and place them in a shared pool, where other players could deploy them into their games for 3 CPs, essentially allowing “lost cause” games to still contribute to the overall battle.

If you get the feeling that this is a lot of moving parts, you’re correct. Some of the missions were great – the mission for gathering supplies, specifically, allowed for some tactical thinking, required lots of movement, and an army could play to the mission and still have a solid chance of winning even if they were being throttled in the actual game. Some were…less great. The mission to destroy buildings had a overly powerful stratagem that potentially could mean a loss prior to the game even beginning. In my experience, most of them tended to break toward a major win for one side or the other, rather than, is my preference for unbalanced missions, defaulting to a draw. There were also very few of them that were asymmetrical, which I always think adds an interesting narrative twist.

The Lists

Here’s where I think a narrative event is made or broken – the question of whether or not players are going with the spirit and intent of the event, and bringing lists where there is a story, and there “winning is a theme…” is not the default answer to why your army is the way it is.

For the most part, this was spot on, and I commend my fellow gamers for their commitment. I saw a single Primarch on the table for the entire event, and that was both in the Apocalypse game and he was primarily chosen because their side had six people, and the hope was that Magnus and a couple sorcerers being all one of the players brought would make things less of a headache.

There were lots of pure-Primaris Space Marine armies. Imperial Guard regiments. Tons of Harlequins. I didn’t feel like I ran into a single army that didn’t make any narrative sense, at least within the confines of the list restrictions (it’s hard to make airborne Guard feel like airborne Guard at 500 points, for example). The organizers limited teams to one Lord of War per team, and later in the event identified those armies with lords of war, so if you didn’t feel like playing against an army that had one if you didn’t, you had that option.

And pretty much everyone brought painted armies. Some of them genuinely awesome.

For my part, my brother and I both fielded part of my Corsair-themed Eldar army.

This decision was really two-fold: First, it meant I wouldn’t have to crash-paint a full army like I did last year, and second, it would let us act as a coordinated team – Farseer powers would work on both of us, auras and strategems, etc. This turned out to be really handy – and also I enjoyed the narrative space of being able to shrug and go “Pirates…” as the justification for almost anything, including not particularly focusing on the Advanced Xenos narrative, which I was finding somewhat hard to follow.

The Tables

Tables are a crucial element of any game, and especially a narrative one. Even in 8th Edition, where cover rules are…shall we say dubious at best…they bring an important visual element to the game, as well as providing line-of-sight blocking. This is also the place where it’s the most tempting to compare things to the TNG-led events, because, well…

Next level boards is kind of what they do.

In comparison, the boards are somewhat more modest. Primarily ITC MDF terrain and a truly staggering number of armored containers. At some point I flirted with the idea of counting them, and then gave up almost immediately. The table below is a reasonably representative sample:

That’s not to say there weren’t some great centerpieces. Like this bit of terrain…whatever it is…

Or a defiled and broken webway gate that was the centerpiece of our Apocalypse-sized game on the last day. Overall, they were solid tables – the kind of thing you’d expect from a decently equipped store or club, albeit on a much larger scale.

The Games Themselves

Lets talk about our actual games…

Game 1

This game, sadly, I essentially forgot to take pictures of. I was tired, and trying to get a handle on what was going on with the missions. Essentially, it was a 1500 pt. game with three players on our opponent’s side, and two on ours – a Salamander’s player, an AdMech player, and a Guard detachment with a Macharius and some psykers (this was the army that, as mentioned, has trouble fielding it’s theme at 500 points). The goal was to assassinate enemy characters. They got a rather rude awakening to the potential of a sniper-Autarch with a Reaper Launcher, who one-shot a sniper. In return, a combination of Dunestriders and Primaris Reivers bogged down most of our forces in a slogging melee combat.

When it came down to it, our opponents wisely ended up bunkering up their characters behind their tank, and we rapidly ran out of things that could hurt it. So being the cowardly pirates that we were…we withdrew, giving them a minor win.

Game 2

This game started out rough for our opponents. With another 3 v. 2 matchup, they weren’t able to break out their biggest toys, while we were able to, and we were…something of their hard counter. Ruthless Eldar shooting and a heavy contingent of flyers vs. a Sisters of Battle/Grey Knights/Space Wolves force.

We also went first.

Things got bloody for them quickly, but our opponents fought on, and despite being badly mangled, kept fighting. A strategic series of drops of both a Space Wolves Dreadnought and a pack of Wulfen meant that we had to slow down the mission, which was gathering resources from a point on the map and bringing it to our deployment zone. They, on the other hand, kept a strong caravan of high wound (and thus high resource-carrying) units running back and forth.

The end result was actually a tie, with the result of the game coming down to whether or not a resource-carrying Fenrisian Wolf could make a stronger run move. Had the game gone on I believe things would have turned against them, but as always it was a good illustration of playing to the mission – the Imperial heroes who died to secure vital supplies to continue the battle will be remembered as the martyrs they were.

Game 3

Facing off against another Imperial army (the Corsairs were more than happy to fill in where needed, causing mayhem all over the game board while the Craftworlders actually tried to achieve things. Essentially, this mission needed both players on a team to have a unit in a table quarter at the end of a game to claim a victory point, while if any unit was in a zone 9″ from the center they’d claim a VP per turn.

The risk?

Your opponents could spend 1 CP to do d6 Mortal Wounds to anyone who strayed into that zone. Which is a nasty risk to take – and more importantly, utterly brutal if you accidentally stray into it, as we did once, and took a great many wounds.

Or opponents were a Ultramarines Primaris force, and a Cadian force along with an Imperial Knight. In this match-up, Eldar firepower and maneuverability carried the day, and the Howling Banshees in our force got to slice through a Guardsman battle line, including one-shotting a Lord Commissar. The Company Commander got his revenge though, using the ever-so flavorful Fire on My Position stratagem to kill off a wounded Wasp Assault Walker.

It was a fun game, once again (along with my brother’s first win at an LVO event), and I’ll give them full credit for playing up until the end, and for the remarkably tenacious Guard holding out as long as they did.

Game 4

Our luck was bound to run out, and this was the game that did it. The scenario was for us to defend three buildings, each with a modest pool of 12 wounds, toughness 10 and a 3+ save (which it turns out was intended to be an invulnerable save, but we treated as armored). We squared off against a Dark Eldar/Tyranids force in the Battle of Purple Armies, and immediately took it in the teeth.

They had access to a spammable (4 times per game but usable multiple times in a round) stratagem “Early Bombardment” which reads:

This Stratagem is used after all units have been deployed, but before the game begins. Roll a d6 for each Objective Structure. On a 4+ that Objective Structure takes d3+1 Mortal Wounds and all units on it or within 3” of its perimeter suffer d3 Mortal Wounds. This Stratagem may be used no more than 4 times per game.

This is utterly brutal. Each of our structures was heavily damaged, the worst being down to three wounds before the game even began, and additionally, because these structures were also the primary cover on our side and in a relatively crowded deployment zone with large Eldar vehicles, we also took heavy hits to our forces. We weren’t as careful as we should have been, and outright lost my Autarch, a Warlock, a unit of jetbikes and damage to some tanks before the game even began.

No worries though, we had the first turn, and long-table alpha strike is what this army does best…

And then we got seized on.

I’ll admit this was probably low-tide for my own sportsmanship during the event. Our opponents were great guys, and this isn’t their fault – I would have done the same thing in their place. But there’s something profoundly demoralizing about losing two of your three objectives, and the other one being down to maybe half its wounds, before you get a chance to go. Essentially it became “Can you do 8 wounds to a building in 5 turns?” and…the answer to that is pretty clear.

Still, we hit back, using a special card that one earned at the end of each game that was thematically linked to the mission, and could be traded within a team.

That, as it turns out, is really good. There was a considerable reckoning – both a Razorwing and Voidraven were torn from the sky by the Crimson Hunters, and a considerable amount of shuriken fire, along with the expenditure of many, many Serpent Shields also killed a Swarmlord and Trygon Prime, while Wasp Assault Walkers and a unit of Dark Reapers downed a Ravager. It wasn’t enough to really turn the game around – and indeed the final building went down the next turn – but it was at least cathartic.

By mutual agreement we wrapped things up, and the three Crimson Hunters pulled a hard turn to leave the battlefield on Turn 3 to go assist another game. While hard to coordinate, the reinforcement mechanic was kind of fun, being able to arrive on a closely fought battle after your own game was a foregone conclusion. The Crimson Hunters arrived, destroyed a Sicaran, and then provided fire support for some embattled Harlequins, mostly by killing Rhinos that were accumulating victory points.

Then, before what was going to be a very long Fight phase, they headed out so we could go to dinner.

Game 5: Apocalypse in Two Parts

The fifth and final game was played on an Apocalypse-sized table, with a ruined webway gate in the middle, and saw us paired with a Harlequin player and an amazingly done Squatkorps of Krieg army. Facing us was a 6-man Chaos force, featuring some very confused Primaris Ultramarines and Imperial Fists, some Tzeentch, some Khorne, some Nurgle and some Slaanesh. That was honestly pretty exciting.

 

The way the game was set up is that we’d play (up to) three rounds with the objective being to determine the objective for the second half of the game after lunch, which would be restricted to 30-minutes per side per round to add a sense of urgency to things. This…was a steep objective for us, given this would be heading into the teeth of a melee-happy army, and the portal put out a -1T debuff, which utterly destroys Eldar.

Plus, there was the matter of a Charybdis full of Berzerkers and Kharne dropping right in front of our lines. They promptly failed a staggering number of charges, leaving Kharne out all on his own as he charged our lines.

The next turn the boys in red paid for their temerity, as 1000 pts. of Chaos vs. 6000 points of Xenos is going to be a bad day. But the cadence of the game was being established – with fairly fragile melee units vs. tough opponents, and 3000 points of Eldar that have never been great at “meet in the middle” missions, it appeared we would take a massive toll on the enemy as they approached, but we would likely lose the objective. While I was fine with – my approach to large games is primarily blowing things up, and being blown up in return.

There was the potential for some desperate, Turn 3 advance-onto-the-objective hovertank antics, but we ended on Turn 2 due to time.

After lunch, Chaos rolled for their new objective, and promptly had their own demoralizing moment: their new objective was to get off the board via our deployment zone – basically needing to wade through our entire army. If I could change one thing about the event, it would be to have gotten this objective in writing. Depending on who explained it to me, it was either impossible for them to win, or impossible for us to win, but it was certainly one of those.

What ended up happening was they just charged into our teeth, killed lots of Space Elves, and got savaged in return. That’s definitely what it devolved into, which was a blast – including when my Guardians managed to kill Magnus and stand up in close combat to a Plague Drone. Guardian heroics are always fun.

In the end, we concluded that they had won, though a dire cost had been extracted in terms of fallen traitors and banished demons. It was seriously one of the best games I’ve played, against some really great guys I’d play again in a heartbeat.

In Summary

Was the narrative event fun? Hell yes.

Was it perfect? Nope.

My critique comes from two major sources – the missions, and the narrative itself.

Custom missions are always risky. Even if they’ve been play tested with a group, a large even will always figure out a way to break things. And with most of the missions seeming to break for a strong victory for one side or the other, I think there’s some considerable evidence that many of the missions aren’t balanced, or are very hard for particular armies – for example, asking a shooting-based army to advance, etc. For a narrative event that’s hard, because themed armies – I suspect – have a harder time also covering all the possible bases for missions. This was compounded by the mission pack not being available until well after armies needed to be painted, packed, etc. being emailed out literally an hour after I boarded the plane going to the event.

When it comes down to it, I think they just had too many moving parts – novel missions, and lots of them (10 total) all with custom mission-specific stratagems.

That was true of the narrative itself as well. Honestly, it took until the last game to really feel connected to the narrative. Part of that was because the faction-level results were an amalgam of results from different games, a function of how many games were played in which sub-sectors, etc. Things…sort of just happened. This is one place where I’d consider outright changing the format, and instead of having a single, massive, multi-faction campaign, potentially breaking the event into a set of a couple narrative “tracks” with only a fraction of the group could potentially be useful to connect people more.

But those are both manageable, addressable problems that can be ironed out with another year of prep work (though seriously guys, my kingdom for Power Levels…). And at it’s core, the narrative event delivered what I really go for – the ability to meet new people, playing the game the way I’d prefer, with fun, thematic armies that aren’t necessarily optimal, and play games with them in a casual environment, where the occasional error, etc. aren’t things that are immediately pounced on.

When it comes down to it, I had great games with great opponents, and I have every intention of returning next year. And that, to me, is the best indicator of an event’s quality – if you’d be sad if you missed it.

Overall Rating: 8/10. Some promising ideas and great games, but the expected growing pains of a first year event.

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3 Comments


  1. Fascinating and superbly written as always. Despite the few negative points it sounds like a blast. And yes it sounded complex with many moving parts but you did a good job of communicating how it turned out.

    Now to find a similar event closer to home for me.

    Reply

  2. Honestly, most of the issues I’ve run into with first-time events (including the couple I’ve run myself) comes down to making stuff overly complicated and adding in too many unique rules and abilities and objectives and conditions. Sometimes less really is more, and it’s best to just keep it simple and figure out what one tweak would change things to get the feel you want.

    And yeah, this event was screaming for Power Level list building.

    Reply

  3. Excellent article Eric! I loved it to death… I’m in the middle of an awesome campaign with my brother… and its making me re-think some of my unit choices.

    About PL… I’m practically begging my brother to do it (even though I think it favors his IG army way more than my Eldar) but he just doesnt want to. He doesnt play often and is trying to get accustomed to get more familiar with list building and such…. But I run into this a lot. I dont care one wit for PL over Points but it seems really contentious for people.

    Also I agree with you 100% on the missions. Whenever I help run a campaign (which has always been a major headache) I’m always trying to get the organizers to simplify and its like pulling teeth.

    Missions and simplified scenario rules are key to narrative events/campaigns. Anyway great stuff and your army looks fantastic. Thanks Eric!

    Reply

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