Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Storytelling in wargaming through AoS Open War Cards and other means

Playing this scenario pack actually got me to read Shakespeare (for a great bard, he showed a decided lack of interest in featuring treemen in his tales).
True old school Warhammer requires a game master as well as (at least) two players to fight battles. Fantasy (and sci-fi) wargaming followed pen and paper roleplaying in that regard. That is not entirely surprising as Gary Gygax & friends started D&D out as a variant system to wargaming. It should be no surprise that the oldest game supplements Games Workshop released tended to be adventure like campaign packs linking mutliple battles into a story. I vaguely recall playing through The Tragedy of McDeath campaign in the eighties (sadly with cardboard counters (if only I had taken the 100 quid miniatures deal way back then)). Unfortunately I remember the long discussion between players and GM about the utter lack of balance in the missions better than the actual game itself. That and playing an Appetite for Destruction cassette so many times the tape actually wore down. Sigh, happy times, nostalgia.  Looking back through the booklet makes me want to revisit this scenario someday, AoS style of course. It has rules for buildings that beg to be made into warscrolls and scenario's with interesting special rules. Let's first finish my drawn out move to a new house, then do something with the Grudge of Drong and set McDeath AoS style to somewhere after that...

A group of Rattlebone undead take on some Seraphon for no reason at all.
Regardless of gaming system, nostalgia and worn down tapes, narrative play and the accompanying scenario's tend to require a few very dedicated players or they go off the rails ('discussing game balance' ranks somewhere below 'doing my taxes' on my 'fun things to do with spare time'-list). Also it requires a steady stream of scenario's with (preferably) ready made lists (that limit the odds of finding an opponent with the right army). Age of Sigmar at launch was supposed to stimulate narrative play by doing away with points. All it proved was that this made quick pick-up games almost impossible to organize. For regular games (narrative, matched or competitive) some sort of 'balancing system' (points, power levels) helps all involved grasp the size of the battle and the time required to play it. All nice and well but how do you stop regular games from devolving into 'slaughter the other side' exercises?

81-90 Abdul Goldberg stole your ship off you....oh Abdul you rascal!
The original Rogue Trader and the Realm of Chaos books had lots of wonderful tables to generate narrative missions. No old school gamer can forget the Rogue Trader Plot Generator with Abdul Goldberg; everyone's favorite rascal. These work rather nicely to give a sense of purpose to games. They do however require a GM to work out if there are any special rules to spice up the scenario.

I really loved this expansion to 5th edition 40K. Also: could we get plastic Vostroyans please GW?
For a wargaming world without GM's, Games Workshop offered a set of basic scenario's in the rule book. As I was on a Fantasy hiatus I have to focus on 40K for a bit. the 5th edition 40K book had six scenario's. I remember playing them so much they got boring. Each scenario consisted of objectives to claim, a (few) special rule(s) and gave some sense of purpose and story. The Battle Missions book released around 2010 (going by the stolen picture above) offered a lot more fun. This expansion featured three specific scenario's for every faction in 40K. You could fight through a typical Tyranid invasion for instance. Sixth edition 40K added Maelstrom of War missions to this palette. Maelstrom missions require six objective markers on the table and give the players cards with specific goals (for instance: claim objective marker six by the end of your turn). This makes the player's goals asymmetrical which in turn makes for more interesting battles. As goals shift it (occasionally) manages to reduce armies camping on a single objective.

I really feel the need to invest in another (few) Arcane Ruins. They serve as the basis for interesting terrain (and are cheaper then the AoS specific kits).
Back to Age of Sigmar. One of the strengths of this game is the ease with which you can spice things up. Need an unholy lodestone to take center stage? Give everyone within 3 inch with the 'wizard' keyword a +1 to casting rolls while there (and subtract 1 bravery from all others within 3"). Or maybe add a table of effects and allow priests to pray. The campaign books and battle tomes give you a lot of scenario's to try out and the (sparse) terrain warscrolls give some extra inspiration. Still I mostly play matched play scenario's. The narrative scenario's are presented as generic but tend to require specific armies to truly shine. Most scenario's also give one side a decided advantage. This doesn't matter with the right sort of opponent, but in a more general setting can quickly kill all fun. It also doesn't help that you need to plan ahead to play a scenario, making them less useful for quick pick-up games, or last minute gaming club skirmishes.

Open War cards: pull a few cards from the deck and you get a ready made scenario with an interesting twist.
To solve this GW has released Open War cards (both for AoS and for the new 40K). For Age of Sigmar the cards consist of 12 deployment cards, 12 objectives cards, 12 twist cards, 6 ruse cards and 6 sudden death cards. These cards do wonders for a quick narrative game. You take one of 12 random deployment styles and objectives. In the battle pictured above my Greenskins faced of with a Spiderfang Grot army. The objective was to kill as many enemies as possible (counting wounds from killed models). To be sure, there are a more interesting objectives in the deck but this was the one we were dealt. We deployed in triangular deployment areas with a 12 inch gap between the armies. So far this would do as a standard scenario. The beauty of Open War cards comes from the twist. You usually take one twist to spice up the game. In the game above we were fighting in the Dead of Night reducing all weapon ranges (and casting ranges) to 12 inches. There was a chance of things clearing up during the battle (this didn't happen, making my poor Greenskin artillery crews very unhappy (prior to becoming very dead)). As we were in the mood for more challenges my opponent and I decided to draw a second twist. Apparently Gork (or possibly Mork) took an interest in the battle. We both had a chance of getting wounded through the wrath of the gods every round. I have not used the ruse or sudden death cards yet. These are used to balance out a game where one army is markedly weaker then the other. Twists make the game more unpredictable, which tends to give you a lot of laughs. They also build story. This battle turned into a the story of a Greenskin army getting ambushed in the dead of night by a ravening horde of giant spider riding Grots (and my poor Orruks got utterly annihilated in the process).

As it turns out, not all spiders can be murdered with a simple rolled up newspaper.
Storywise Open Play cards may not hold a candle to playing a full on campaign of linked scenario's. Someday I will update and play Grudge of Drong, McDeath and (while I'm at it) Terror of the Lichemaster in Age of Sigmar. While looking for the time to do that, I'll use these. The cards work very nicely if you want to keep your games varied, not get stuck with a lot of preparation and still get a nice injection of story each time you fight a battle. Here's me hoping GW will release an expanded deck in the near future. Open War Cards are a truly lovely innovation that expands upon the old scenario tables.

No comments:

Post a Comment