The Las Vegas Open Narrative Event: Surprise Apocalypse

Simulating the occasional tournament is about as close as I’ll ever come to the top tables at an event like the Las Vegas Open. When it comes down to it, I’m not a competitive player. That’s not to say that I don’t really like events. I just prefer them a little…rounded off at the edges. After my experience with last year’s 40K Friendly, I was very interested to hear that this year, there was going to be a multi-day narrative event, hosted by The Narrative Guys.

So my brother and I signed up. What follows is our experiences, our thoughts, and our lessons learned.

Day One: “Kill Team and Cocktails”

The first day of the narrative event was “Kill Team and Cocktails”, or more accurately, “Kill Team and There’s An Over Priced Bar in the Back of the Hall.”

Given that the rest of the event was organized into several mutually exclusive groups of players, it was nice to be able to mix and mingle with people you otherwise wouldn’t see over the weekend. Kill Team is light, and fun, and set a good tone for the rest of the event – namely that this was for fun, and that when it came down to it, the outcome really doesn’t matter.

The tables available to play on were absolutely stunning – combining Tablewar & Frontline’s FAT Mats with some amazing terrain sets.

Beautiful stuff.

The afternoon was quite fun – good for meeting some people, having some fun games with small unit actions, etc. I’ll confess there was a good bit of awkwardness at the beginning, with trying to find a partner out of a mass of people, but everyone seemed to settle into groups in time. At the very least, people were getting games in and rolling dice.

The highlight, for me, was a Kill Team game matching up against my brother, with Skitarii defending an Adeptus Mechanicus station from Eldar Corsairs on a beautiful Forge World Zone Mortalis tables.

Days Two and Three: Surprise Apocalypse

The main event was on the 2nd and 3rd day of the LVO, and came in an unexpected form. Namely, that people were sorted into fairly large teams of three to four people per side, and given a mission briefing. Rather than playing a bunch of separate games and trying to integrate those outcomes, everyone was tossed together in a much larger 3×3 or 4×4 style game. Beginning with a simple recon mission, with a small number of points per side, but just about a full game when all told, this first game was intended to set the stage – determine deployment zones, some bonuses, etc.

In my case, this was a small force of Eldar trying to gather information on an Imperial prison camp where it was believed a Farseer was being held.

In another, elements of the Dark Angels Deathwing were trying to secure an abandoned airbase.

These missions were fun, but not terribly well balanced. Some armies need a good portion of their forces to be effective, while to be blunt, a fluffy Eldar recon force can be made up of Hornets and Windriders, which is simply a brutally effective set of units. The organizers did their best at keeping the game going by allowing a steady stream of units onto the board, but I could tell there were some frustrations mounting in my game.

Then came the true Surprise Apocalypse games – in my case, an 16,000 combined points narrative game, a Webway assault on said prison camp.

These games seemed to cause the most mixed feelings. A lot of people weren’t expecting an all-day Apocalypse game, and would have designed their armies differently if they had. Personally, I lament that Apocalypse so often devolves into “Your Superheavies vs. My Superheavies”, and I’ve always been a fan of the idea of a very troops-heavy Apocalypse game, where whole companies of Space Marines are dropping down to counter assaults from massive Ork Waaaghs. This…gets pretty close to that, and while I’d like to believe people would keep to the spirit of those games if they had been told…to be frank, I don’t.

As I said, mixed feelings. A little bit ambushed, but also a little bit grateful.

The second day, which wrapped up the results of the first day, followed much the same pattern. This time – as my table had liberated the Seer but the other Eldar table hadn’t definitively secured our escape – the scenario was trying to stop Imperial supply drops that would let them continue the fight and complete the encirclement of the Eldar rear guard. This time, a 3×3 game, but similarly massive.

Similar missions were had by other groups – supply drops, securing bases, preventing something from getting sucked into the warp – standard 40K fare. So how did this work out?

Good, but far from perfect.

There Are No Winners, But There Are Losers

As opposed to last year, which was essentially “A Tournament, But Nicer”, this year’s narrative event was a complete departure from any sort of competitive format. One of the central concepts behind that is that it’s not about winning, it’s about the game itself. Those cool moments, etc.

That’s very easy to say when you’re winning.

It’s much less easy when you’re losing. Especially if you’re losing models while you do it. In my track, smaller, elite armies seemed to be a source of frustration. Many are designed to get in your face, and trying to get in the face of several thousand points of Eldar, across a 48″ span, is a good way to end up taking models off the table.

As with most games, the groups that had closer games seemed to have a better time – losing decisively is never fun, and losing decisively in a big game that’s supposed to be about narrative coolness is…certainly frustrating.

Keeping Up With the Crowd

The next issue, and one that I think is unavoidable, is pacing. Apocalypse games are slow, they just are. While some downtime is alright, this does mean there are a limited number of turns available. And with extremely tight tables, this means much of your army is kept in reserve (the basic rule of thumb being half on the table, 25% coming on in Turn 2 and the remainder in Turn 3). In one game, the “core” of my army, in the form of three troop-laden Wave Serpents, didn’t appear until the end of the game, and one not at all. Similarly, the most active and dynamic part of my army, a Crimson Death formation, usually only had a turn or two to do its work. This also exacerbates the problems elite armies seemed to have – a Grey Knight army is scary because of target saturation. It’s less scary if you can deal with it in nice, bite-sized chunks. If you came to a narrative event, odds are its because you wanted to play with your toys.

Zero Sum

I don’t normally play Eternal War missions, and the reason for this is they often feel like, in the end, they turn into “Operation Table Your Opponent”. I noticed the same issue in many of the custom scenarios used – there is a single, massive objective that will determine the winner, and for one side or the other, that objective is predicated on essentially crushing your opponent. I feel like a little more playtesting, and a larger supply of secondary objectives might have helped with this, or at the very least, helped the losing side feel like they were actually doing something.

Overall Impressions:

So, with those caveats in mind, was the event a success? In my mind, the answer to that is an unqualified “Yes”. I had a great time, played on beautiful tables, and the event reminded me what it is I love about 40K. It’s a fun game and all, but there are lots of games that are fun, and arguably better games. But 40K, especially when you’re playing with people who use “Forge the Narrative” unironically, has a certain je ne sais quoi to it.

My frustrations are things that can be attributed to growing pains and this being the first time the LVO has had an event like this – more tables with more space would have been helpful for letting people get more of their toys on the board. And while Surprise Apocalypse seemed to upset some people, I rather liked it.

And seriously, playing on beautiful, thematic terrain is just 10x better than not.

Now is it necessary? I like having some form of friendly, 40K-focused event at the LVO, under the official aegis of the organization. “We’ll just have open pickup gaming” sounds like my very own personal nightmare, and a good way to introduce the stray ultra-competitive player into the mix. I will say though that the quality of the narrative that emerged from it wasn’t, in my experience, any better than that that comes from any arbitrary game with someone else who wants to know why we’re fighting. Those stories, and those cool moments of gameplay, are emergent within games, they can’t actually be forced. Though I believe with perhaps a more dynamic set of scenarios, and some slightly more elaborate storytelling based on results, that The Narrative Guys could take a step in that direction. So while the experience of the event could definitely be assembled at home as well as the LVO, and acknowledging that narrative gaming can take place at basically any time, I still think it was well worth it.

And the bottom line? If they said they were doing the same thing next year, I’d gladly sign up to do it again.

Overall Rating: 8/10. Beautiful tables, some great ideas, but with some growing pains.

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  1. A pitfall many narrative events fall into is relying on good intentions and best behavior. As you note: “While I’d like to believe people would keep to the spirit of those games if they had been told…to be frank, I don’t.” I’ve had similar experiences at other events (notably the NOVA 40k Narrative), where it was clear a good chunk of people’s idea of “narrative” was classic army matchups and Captain-to-Warboss powerfist slugfests, while a whole other group’s notion of “narrative” was invisible Revenants…

    It’s the same problem as frustrating tournaments that discourage “cheese” but don’t actually have any rules or mechanisms against it. Inevitably people will have different notions of where the line is, different willingness to walk right up to and even over it, and you can’t actually blame people for trying to win within whatever rules are presented. Simply declaring an event “Narrative” isn’t going to ensure everyone’s expectations are aligned, nor enable enforcement to guarantee they’re met.

    I talk about this at some length in a post on narrative event design, here:

    To the surprise Apocalypse and team games, there are a lot of issues in doing that in this kind of setting. I wasn’t there, but last year’s NOVA Narrative had a number of similar surprise team games (mostly to deal with logistical issues of team size) and the feedback was fairly negative. Besides the slow play, cramped tables, and other issues, another major issue is that doing it randomly can lead to just bad teaming, pairs/trios/whatever that don’t complement each other at all in army or player strengths or styles. Team games with any kind of serious time or other commitment behind them (i.e., almost all outside of Combat Patrol or something) should only be done with planned teams, so players can strategize pairs/etc. that synergize well.

    In any event, I am the lead organizer for this year’s NOVA 40k Narrative. We hope to address or prevent a lot of these issues that you bring up, and the fundamental question you raise of “Why is this better than just a couple of good pickup games?” I don’t know where you’re located, but I invite you to come join us if you can!

    Lastly, for some years now my club has run an annual Apocalypse battle that is fairly large (52,000pts on the table this year), and very balanced between grunts and the big toys. If anything, in the future we might have to switch it up to deemphasize Troops a bit. This year’s battle report discusses some of the mechanisms enabling that, as well as some other fun bits like double blind deployment:

    Thanks for the good post, as usual!


    1. A year ago, the answer would have been “A Metro ride away”. Sadly now it’s “Across the Country”.


    2. As someone who is already signed up for the 40k Nova Narrative, this is somewhat comforting to read after seeing that superheavies were allowed this year. I’ll admit, that addition made me nervous. I got ruined twice last year by a cent-star that was a bit more aggressive than I was expecting out of the narrative. Still had a blast though, and I’m interested to see how things play out this year.

      Oh, and all hail the Virtue.


      1. My co-leads and I are definitely cognizant of those kinds of issues. My 2014 NOVA Narrative went something like this:

        – Round 1: My opponent picks up his army from the GT Invitational table he had just finished playing on, and plops it straight down into our match.

        – Round 3: Steamrolled by an Adamantine Lance (re-rollable 3++ Knights) backed up by Crimson Hunters.

        – Round 6: Invisible Revenant… … …

        Needless to say, I had a good time overall but was not 100% stoked about 40k coming out of that.

        I was very against Escalation when it came out, and posted a whole ~2000 word essay on 3++ about all the things wrong with it. But at this point my basic take on superheavies & gargantuans is that they’re simply part of the game. There’s two corollaries from that:

        – I don’t want to tell some player they can’t use their beloved, awesomely crafted models just because everybody else thinks that entire class of unit is overpowered.

        – Every time you ban something, you distort the game one way or another. In this case, banning supers removes a major counter to deathstars exactly like the cent-star you faced. Especially with amended Invisibility, large melta or D blasts and stomps help to keep those in line.

        In addition, a lot of supers just aren’t that crazy. While I still think they’re a bit undercosted, there’s little reason to ban my lone Imperial Knight, he gets blown up almost every game! Worse goes for the Lord of Skulls. There’s definitely correctly notorious models, like Wraithknights. But ultimately some of the really really tough armies out there are actually pretty classic and fluffy in composition, like Seer Council scat-bike hordes and such.

        So, especially with more armies outside the Imperium starting to get supers and gargants, I just don’t think it’s feasible to keep them out anymore.

        That said, there will be mechanisms in the NOVA Narrative working to keep them in check. It’s not completely set yet, but in my other events the past year or so we’ve had four things related to that:

        – Mission rules give a +1 to your roll for deployment order for every super/gargant in the opposing army.
        – Mission rules give 1 VP for every 2 wounds/hull stripped from an enemy super/gargant.
        – Missions frequently have a lot of objectives, working against armies reliant on points-costly models.
        – Sportsmanship scores based on a clear rubric, with points docked for overly competition-oriented armies and players.

        Long story short, we’re definitely thinking about these issues. Ideas you have or comments as we continue to post the final rules, missions, etc., would be more than welcome; you can reach me via I look forward to meeting in September!


        1. Yeah, a reading of my blog will reveal that I really dislike the banning of things. It tends, IMO, to throw the baby out with the bathwater, and as you mentioned, distort balance in unexpected ways. “No D” = Hello Deathstars is the canonical example of this, IMO.

          The problem is that I can come up with “Narrative” for almost anything. I have a full-on story as to how my Corsairs got their hands on a Revenant titan (it involves Ulthwé, the 2nd War for Armageddon, and a notorious band of jetbikers known to the Orks as the ‘Teef Snatchas’). But that still doesn’t make that fun to play against.

          I’m a pretty strong advocate for pre-event list approvals, so if you see something that looks actively terrible, you can say “Hey…any chance we can done this down a little?”


          1. I actually haven’t written anything myself about banning distorting the game because I just point people to the posts here when it comes up.

            There’s two big issues with pre-event approval:

            1. Just like old-school comp that’s just the TO’s whims, it’s really hard to make it objective. If I had my buddy Sascha help out with review, he’d think everything was totally fine… but he won the NOVA GT Overall last year. Meanwhile, tons of other players and TOs seem to basically think any unit created after 5th edition is obviously way too crazily overpowered.

            2. The time involved. Doing a good job at pre-event review just takes a lot of people-hours and logistical effort. Plus, the people doing it need to be pretty knowledgeable about a huge swath of armies and the current state of the game.

            My current best thought on it would be to essentially crowd source the reviews. Either require lists be posted in advance, or give a small bonus to players that do so. Then post them all somewhere and let people comment away on individual lists. Doesn’t really deal with the objectivity problem, but hopefully at least ameliorates it through collective consensus.

        2. I can fully agree with the sentiment against banning. I’m also not a big fan of telling people, “You can play with your toys because reasons”, but I do worry about the effect those toys can have. The thing I value most in a game, is player agency and counter play, that feeling of “if I can swing this, I can steal the win” or “If i can just hit X with Y, I think I can bring that down”. Unfortunately, certain superheavies and their compatriots the deathstars, can sometimes leave players feeling like they have no option for counterplay and therefore no agency in the game. With my local guys, the “best” option I’ve come up with is letting non-superheavy players have a secondary list for “superheavy hunting” they can choose to use if they feel the need. All of that said, based on what you’ve written, I’m still quite pumped for the narrative, and I have confidence you guys will handle things well. Best of luck with the planning.


  2. Excellent post! Having played with you, my opinions are very closely aligned to you own. I would definitely play again… I will definitely send my feedback to The Narrative Guys on things to improve.

    Last note… Those beautiful tables on the Frontline Gaming mats were actually the TABLEWAR(TM) and Frontline Gaming F.A.T. Mats. Everyone always seems to forget about the developer and manufactuer of those beauties. 😉


    1. You need to yell “TABLEWAR” more.


  3. I was on the city high rise table next to you, and I felt that the immense saturation of line-of-sight blocking terrain was crutial to maintaining the balance of the game. We ended the game tied on both the primary and secondary objectives. As the Eldar force that had some questionably OP units for the event (2 Lynx tanks/flyers and 2 units of d-scyth wraitguard units deep striking without scatter due to the web way portal archons) the game would have been an abslute saluter without the board being so broken up.

    This segregation of the board is also what lended best to the development of “those moments”. All 24 square feet of the table we covered in INDIVIDUAL confrontations. There was a incessant brawl in our deployment zone that, in a normal game, would have encompassed all of the action, but the fact that the different areas of the board were so isolated meant we could effectively create individual narratives in each part of the city.

    I think in addition to expanding on the line of sight blocking terrain to further break up the boards, some firmer criteria should be put up for what is an acceptable list for a narrative event. On the last day I played against a seer council on bikes with Baharrath, 4 scatpacks, a wraith knight and a voidshield generator. While his teammate brought a perfectly fluffy Iyanden list the overall game was frustrating. Apperantly he came into the event last minute so they did not get to review what was his tournament list. In retrospect I would have preferred to put my highlander, foot-dar list against the Iyanden in a heads up game. My teammate was so frustrated that he almost walked away from the game in round 2. I know that they want as much participation as possible but they should have some hard lines that shouldn’t be allowed to cross.

    Those critiques aside, I had an amazing time and I look forward to joining The Narrative Guys group again next year.


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