First Round Gaming Tournament Seeding

This post discusses the challenge of first round pairings for wargaming (and boardgaming) tournaments, and an idea for improving them in larger events. My primary interest at the moment is organizing narrative events for Warhammer 40,000 (40k), but the discussion is largely not specific to that game or style.

Clubbing Baby Seals

One of the great virtues I see of tournaments, even and perhaps especially for fairly casual game players, is that if they’re well designed and run then they more or less ensure that by the end of the event everyone will be playing competitors of similar skill and/or equipment (army list, deck, etc.). However, the opening round presents a challenge. In wargaming and similar there’s typically no information to go on, no meaningful persistent rankings from which to seed the initial matches. High level chess, checkers, go, Magic, and other tabletop gaming tournaments that can do so are by far the exception rather than the rule. In nearly all events players are just paired randomly in the first round.

Random pairings can obviously lead to highly mismatched games between a very skilled and well equipped player and a much less skilled or well equipped opponent. In scoring systems where points earned go directly toward overall rankings that’s an unfair advantage for the better player versus other potential top competitors who faced more even competition and weren’t able to run up the score. That issue can be lessened, though not eliminated, by awarding separate normalized points for major win/win/draw/loss/major loss or similar. But much more importantly, getting clobbered by a random mismatch in the opening round is a terrible first experience for newcomers and discouraging even for veterans, lessening their enjoyment of the event and potentially the hobby as a whole.

In some settings this may not matter or may be unavoidable. If the goal of the event is establishing who is actually the best player, then a pure tournament bracket or other mechanism will work fine from a random seeding. In fact, if you do have the necessary information via a qualifying run or such to properly seed the bracket, then first round pairs should be in reverse order, with the best entrants competing against the worst. The entrants for such an event should also understand that it’s quite possible they’ll be clobbered. Part of the appeal for many tournament-goers is in fact gauging exactly where they stand—though in the moment it’s always tough to lose.

Nearly all gaming events though are not this clinical. Most cannot be simply due to the time involved in running enough rounds for a mathematical tournament, let alone other factors such as randomness. The NOVA GT is one of the few exceptions in 40k especially and wargaming generally, running an actual elimination bracket over a grueling 3 days of matches for the eventual winner. Instead, most gaming tournaments approximate a bracket through variations of Swiss pairings and accumulated scores rather than straight win/loss elimination.

A single-elimination tournament bracket, which most gaming tournaments more or less try to approximate and a few implement.

A single-elimination tournament bracket, which most gaming tournaments more or less try to approximate and a few implement.

Clubbing Baby Seals… But With A Story!

More fundamentally though, most gaming events are trying to balance being a competition with also being fun. I as an event organizer am particularly interested in fun, thematic narrative tournaments and campaigns rather than pure competitions. Surprisingly to many people, these also face the mismatch problem. I argue it’s actually an even worse issue than in a straight tournament: Many casual and fluff oriented players will come out for these events that would stay well away from highly competitive events, but, conversely, many competitive players will also come out for these events. That sets up a clash of expectations and styles than must be addressed mechanically.

Unfortunately, the mechanics of many narrative oriented events actually permit players to be repeatedly clobbered by stronger competitors. For example, this is a frequent inherent design limitation of classic map-based campaigns run outside of small, reasonably matched, friendly groups: There’s no guarantee that the adjacent or encountered players are not simply much better and will win every round.

Addressing this is a big part of why my narrative events are usually fairly abstract, permitting control mechanisms to be applied. For example, most of my narrative events arrange match pairings in a strategic, team-oriented fashion such as one team puts forward a player and a mission, and the other team responds with an opponent and a board/table. By restricting that response to being within the same win/loss bracket, teams are prevented from consciously or unconsciously throwing a newbie at a hardened vet or vice versa. Otherwise teams frequently apply logic such as “Well, that opponent has a lot of tanks, so we should send this player who has anti-tank specialists,” without accounting for one player or the other simply being vastly stronger overall and dominating that logic into irrelevancy. In my events we’ve also tried to address the issue by having team commanders chosen or coached to guide the decision making to account for the whole spectrum of considerations, including player experience. But then there’s still that challenge of opening round mismatches and how to prevent them without yet having any information about the players and their relative abilities.

First round, NOVA Narrative 2014, I am about to get crushed by Eric, who just minutes before had finished competing in NOVA's GT Invitational...

First round, NOVA Narrative 2014, I am about to get crushed by Eric, who just minutes before had finished competing in NOVA’s GT Invitational…


One clear response then is to get some information about the players. Some time ago, a friend and I were talking about similar challenges in bicycle races, which I also organize, and he mentioned a scheme he’s seen in martial arts. There they have the additional challenge of many cross-discipline competitors, i.e., somebody that has a high rank or belt in one form of the sport that may or may not have real bearing in other forms. So some events begin by having a panel of experts quickly interview competitors and seed them into initial groupings based on the panel’s judgement of their experience level and skills applicable to the current event.

I have no idea how common or successful that is in martial arts. But it seems like a reasonable idea, and I’ve been thinking a fair bit about how to apply it to miniatures wargaming (and boardgaming). In particular, later this year I’m leading two (hopefully) large-ish events, the new LibertyHammer narrative event, and the popular NOVA 40k Narrative track. In both cases I will have no usable a priori knowledge of the vast majority of the players, but I’d really like to roughly seed them so that the first round pairings can be constrained and mismatches reduced.



To do so, I’m thinking of giving a short questionnaire to players as they check in. Those will then be used to roughly correlate players and constrain initial pairs.

Both events will use something like the propose/respond mechanism above. Especially for NOVA though, there are enough players (~100 total in that event if we sell out) that we can’t do that across everybody in a reasonable amount of time. So the players will be dividing into groups of about 12 and pairing up within groups simultaneously. In later rounds those groups will be determined by win/loss brackets, mitigating clubbings.

Going into the first round though we could use a questionnaire to populate the groups. If it’s a short list of yes/no answers all phrased toward a positive answer being a sign of a more competition-oriented, skillful, experienced, or better equipped player, then for each player we can count the number of “yes” answers, sort everybody by their counts, and then split that sorted list into groups and arrange pairs within them.

Probing Questions

This is a very rough first draft of such a questionnaire:

Please check off the following “yes” or “no” regarding your participation in 40k events. PLEASE NOTE: None of these are in any way to be construed as negatives and your answers will not affect your ranking or options throughout the event. They are simply a survey of our players that will be used to group like-minded and similarly experienced players together in forming the first round pairings.

  1. Are you more focused on gameplay than on hobby aspects?
  2. Do you read frequently online about tactics and army construction?
  3. Do you consider yourself a strong player?
  4. Do you play in tournaments more than once or twice a year?
  5. Have you played in any Grand Tournament (GT) or similar regional or national level competitive event at any point in the past two years?
  6. Is your primary faction Eldar, Chaos Daemons, Necrons, or Space Marines (generic codex)?
  7. Is your army comprised of more than a single detachment or formation?
  8. Does your army use more than one source (codex, campaign book, supplement, etc.)?
  9. Does your army include any single unit type more than three times?
  10. Does your army include more than one superheavy vehicle or gargantuan creature?

General Questions

The first five questions above are fairly general and get at the inclinations of the player. The intent here is that the more “yes” answers someone gives, the more likely they are to be at least more competition-oriented, if not indeed a stronger player. I don’t want the total newbie to get crushed in a bad mismatch. I also don’t want the fluff bunny who’s been playing for years but is primarily in the hobby to go pew-pew with his lovingly converted and painted toy soldiers to happen to be paired in the first round with someone fielding a barely prepared clone of the Internet’s latest and greatest all-conquering army list. I don’t though have a problem if someone regularly playing competitively or convinced they’re the Blood God’s gift to 40k goes up against a tough match, they can take it.

In addition to being ok with that outcome, it would also just be hard to ask quantifiable, objective questions about ability given hugely varied participant pools. So the questions ask more about mindset and participation rather than results. It wouldn’t mean much to ask “Have you won a tournament in the past year?” because events are so varied. But I think it does say something for someone to have played in a Grand Tournament recently.

Army Questions

The last four questions are more specific to 40k and what the player is fielding. These questions are intended to be very rough indicators of stronger armies, or at least armies coming from a similar mindset. For example, having more than one superheavy/gargantuan, detachment, or source book is by no means at all necessarily an indicator of a stronger army. But it is a good indicator that you’re not still playing from a 2nd, 3rd, 4th, or even 5th edition mentality and set of expectations as many players arguably are. There’s nothing wrong with that, but ideally as the organizer I’d like those players’ first taste of the event to not be facing someone coming from a radically different take on the game. Obviously a lot can be said on the topic of superheavies/gargantuans and their balance and appropriateness for 40k. Although we’re permitting them in this year’s NOVA Narrative (LibertyHammer’s points levels are too low), we are doing a fair bit with our mission design and rules to counter some of the issues that do exist while still allowing the freedom to play full 7th edition. Regardless, despite that inclusion, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to hedge my bets on players’ initial experience by attempting to group similar mindsets together. Potentially it would be better to ask about player’s support for those elements being in the game rather than using them theirselves, but I don’t have good wording for that at the moment.

Your weapons are useless, fleshlings!

Your weapons are useless, fleshlings!

Similarly, the question about having more than three units of a single type may not mean much at all. But I would guess that having four or more of any particular unit tends to be more common in competition-oriented lists. Here I’m not making any value judgement on that whatsoever. We set up the rules, and people should design armies under those rules to be as strong as they wish. Hopefully our rules, missions, comprehensive scoring, limited prizes, and other mechanisms mitigate against whatever issues 40k may or may not have with overpowered units and armies. However, I think it’s worthwhile in the first round pairings to try to group armies that are more likely to be designed for competition with other armies coming from a similar mindset.

The question about the specific factions is incorporating into the seeding some notion of the currently strongest factions in the game. Those particular four I think would be largely conceded as such by most players. But I cite as specific objective evidence for those four as the distinct top tier—and not also a few additional armies that might be commonly opined as such—the statistical analysis done by Variance Hammer of this year’s LVO results. Obviously this question isn’t dispositive, any given player could field a weak army for any of those codexes. There will in particular be a lot of weak Space Marine armies, just because they’re such a huge portion of the player pool. But the question is just one point among eight in what is only a very rough seeding function anyway.


An important note is that any scheme for mitigating first round mismatches has to be practical. In this case, potentially the two classes of questions should be separated in some way, to more independently gauge players’ inclination toward competitive play and their take on the current makeup of 40k. But ultimately this has to be fast to execute; we have tight time constraints between checking everybody in, preparing the data, and turning around first round pairings. The questionnaire can’t be that complex for players to fill out nor for us to tabulate and use. Any other mechanism would have to be similarly simple and fast.

Conclusion & Other Ideas?

Player mismatches are an issue that many narrative events don’t adequately address. First round mismatches in particular are a general issue that many gaming tournaments could improve. Here I’ve sketched one idea to do so: Players fill out a quick questionnaire to check in, and organizers sum up the “Yes” responses and seed the first round pairings by sorting on those counts.

Does that seem reasonable? Are there other good alternative or complementary mechanisms to reduce first round mismatches? For this questionnaire method, are there better questions to ask? This is just a rough draft and some thoughts, and my fellow organizers and I would really appreciate feedback and other ideas. Reach us in the comments below or the various forums where this has been linked. Thanks!

Update: There is now a discussion on Reddit about this that makes a bunch of additional points.

40k: Alternate Maelstrom

One of the big changes to Warhammer 40,000 with 7th edition was of course the new class of official missions: Maelstrom. Upon first hearing rumors of it I was really excited, enough to pre-order the associated cards. They’ve been underutilized though because I found the final release so lackluster compared to its potential. In the tournaments and events I’ve run this year we’ve used an alternate set of Maelstrom-style tactical objectives and mission rules. They seem to work really well, addressing some of the big issues while preserving the positive aspects and adding some interesting innovations, so I thought I’d finally get around to sharing.

Into the maelstrom!

Into the maelstrom.

Just Roll Some Dice!

The heart of Maelstrom is randomized missions. In traditional 40k, players essentially compete for control over a set of objective markers placed on the board, or simply to kill all the opposing units. Maelstrom has players randomly determine smaller scoped objectives throughout the game. By drawing cards or rolling on a table, they’re directed to control specific objective markers, kill a stipulated type of unit, or even make particular actions in order to score points.

Official Maelstrom has many shortcomings. Some are easily rectified or mitigated. One such common house rule is to immediately discard impossible tactical objectives, e.g., if your opponent has no units of a necessary type. That this is so obvious an improvement only highlights how little effort GW put into their rules. It’s worth noting though what seems to be a frequently overlooked subtlety: Should tactical objectives be discarded only if they were never possible, or even if they’re impossible when drawn? The “Kill a psyker” goal highlights the difference: Can it be discarded immediately only if the opponent never had a psyker in their army, or can it also be discarded if all their psykers are merely already slain? I don’t have strong feelings either way and the two probably don’t offer vastly different experiences in practice, but this is a design decision to be made consciously.

Beyond a few such smaller problems, there are two design patterns throughout the stock Maelstrom that really gall me. Most obvious and frequently addressed in tournaments are random results. It’s absolutely deleterious to strategic play to have tactical objectives yield random amounts of victory points once achieved. A variety of reasonable house rules could address that and are frequently applied, e.g., always claim the maximum, or roll for the value when the objective is drawn. The latter actually imposes an interesting strategic evaluation of effort versus reward while maintaining the basic Maelstrom philosophy of unknown and variable objectives. That it’s such a small tweak but vastly better again highlights just how little design effort GW expends. In any event, a variety of hotfixes are possible for these objectives, but at some point you may as well just replace them.

Most upsetting to me though are the forced play tactical objectives, that award victory points simply for executing game mechanics. Instead of presenting a goal to work toward, they merely give away free points or, worse, dictate play. Many are actions you may be trivially doing anyway, such as Daemons and the “Cast a psychic power” condition. Others force you to make micro-level  moves that may not fit your army or macro-level situation at all—may the Greater Good shine on Tau that draw the “Make an assault” card! Scoring should be based on game conditions to be achieved, not making the player a puppet enacting pre-scripted actions.

Random results and forced play goals come from the same “Just roll dice & push models around!” mentality of Games Workshop that gave us random psychic powers and warlord traits. Otherwise stock Maelstrom could be solid with just a house rule or two and some card tweaks, but those aspects warrant substantial reworking.

A Games Workshop game designer shambles in to work.

A Games Workshop game designer shambles in to work.

Flexibility & Deathstars

At this point it’s worth noting what is in fact appealing about Maelstrom. The surface level attraction is just the variability of it. Sooner or later most everybody wants to play something different from the Eternal War missions that have been carried through editions under one name or another for literally decades now.

As an event organizer and game designer though, what really calls to me about that variability is the flexibility it requires of the players and their armies. To really capitalize on the Maelstrom tactical objectives, you need to be able to move all about the table, and to easily switch back and forth between killing specific units versus claiming objectives. The downside of this is that it encourages armies built around—and perhaps even spamming—small, highly mobile units. Arguably the format is imbalanced toward factions with more or better units of that style. However, given that many of the recent balance problems in 40k have revolved around deathstar units or even unstoppable single models, tipping the scales the other way is not necessarily unwelcome. In my events we mitigate the chance of going too far that way by generally also including other missions for which more “grind-em-out” style armies are perhaps better suited.

These guys are definitely here for the Maelstrom party.

These guys are definitely here for the Maelstrom party.


In developing a revised Maelstrom mission as an event organizer rather than an individual player, I also had to keep in mind some logistics. If you don’t buy GW’s cards, stock Maelstrom missions are kind of a hassle to execute. Tracking which tactical objectives are in play, discarded, and achieved isn’t a huge deal, but it’s not nothing either. Without the cards you’re left just scribbling things down. In order to keep my events on time while enabling games to play out fully, and to alleviate the burden on our more casual, less frequent players, I really wanted to structure and streamline the bookkeeping. At the same time, this alternate format was developed for and used within small, monthly shop tournaments. In that context it’s not practical for me to print and/or make and give out whole new Maelstrom card decks as some bigger events like Adepticon have done.

A New Maelstrom

The core of my revised Maelstrom is this table of tactical objectives:


[ Download as a PDF ]

Our mission packets include two copies of this for each Maelstrom mission. The players rip them out and each mark one up throughout the game for their bookkeeping. Mechanics are as follows:

  • To draw a tactical objective, roll a D66 and consult your tactical objective table. If that objective is already in play for you, has been achieved, or is scratched off, roll again. Similarly, if that objective would be provably impossible to score, e.g., your opponent has no characters remaining, roll again. Once a valid objective has been rolled, mark it as in play.
  • Targets cannot be nominated or chosen for a tactical objective marked with a † that have already been chosen for a † objective you have in play.
  • At the end of your turns, check the requirements for each tactical objective you have in play. For each fixed-value objective met, mark it as achieved and score the associated value in mission points (n.b.: not victory points). Tactical objectives with a value of X may be kept in play as long as you wish. At the end of any of your turns while in play they may be marked as achieved and scored as indicated. Once achieved, objectives are no longer considered in play and cannot be put in play or scored again.
  • Multiple objectives can be scored in a turn, caveat that you cannot achieve multiple tactical objectives with the same exact title in the same turn using the same marker(s) or unit(s). E.g., to score both Storm objectives at once, you would need to simultaneously control two separate markers in the enemy deployment zone.
  • At the end of your turn you may scratch out one of your tactical objectives in play to remove it from play.
  • Tactical objectives in play, achieved, and scratched out are not secret.

Each particular mission will then have a rule controlling the number of cards drawn, similar to the various official Maelstrom missions. Two examples we’ve used include:

  • Standing Orders. At the start of your turns, draw tactical objectives until you have a total of six in play.
  • Into the Maelstrom. At the start of your turns, draw tactical objectives until you have as many in play as the current game turn number.

Rather earning victory points directly, at game end the players are scored by comparing mission points earned via tactical objectives achieved, and awarding victory points to the higher and lower scorer according to this table:


Scoring in that indirect fashion rescales the substantial number of tactical objectives that might be achieved into the 9 VP primary objective cap around which our missions are designed (they also include secondary and tertiary objectives, for a total of 20 points available in each round). In doing so the results are also normalized a bit across matches, such that one player cannot gain an insurmountable lead in the tournament by winning with a ridiculous number of tactical objectives achieved, while another victorious player falls far behind despite also trouncing their opponent but by a less ridiculous amount. In general it’s important to normalize in some fashion like this to determine the strength of a result for a Maelstrom mission, given that the actual number of tactical objectives achieved can be so variable match to match. The specific value ranges here were determined by Sascha Edelkraut and seem to work well for our 9 VP cap.


These new tactical objectives of course eliminate random results and forced play. However, Maelstrom’s overall variability and requisite flexibility is still maintained.

Further, the X-valued objectives are a novel mechanic I haven’t seen in 40k. They enable the player to make an ongoing strategic evaluation of effort versus reward for that condition, either pushing on to try and acquire another point or to cut bait and dump it for a new, hopefully easier, objective. Objectives that require the player to nominate a target also encourage players to declare a goal and then work toward it, rather than simply hoping they draw tactical objectives for markers they’re already holding. The several variations with one player putting forward several proposals and the other choosing among them are also an interesting twist, adding a new interaction and a little bit of adversarial forward thinking.

Last but not least, these tactical objectives rightfully focus heavily on controlling objective markers. However, a number also offer opportunities to play toward pure mobility, as well as annihilation-style kill point hunting. Particularly with the X-valued mechanic enabling players to work toward them for some time or not, this gives a real, conscious strategic choice about whether or how much to focus on the various types of goals, while still staying within the overall chaotic Maelstrom framework of variable objectives and necessary flexibility. You can’t win a tough match if you can’t play for both objective markers and kill points to at least some extent, but you do have some opportunity here to strategically focus your efforts on one or the other. In general that kind of choice in both play and army construction is a major goal of the mission format for our events.


We’ve used this format in a number of small scale tournaments (8–16 players) this year, and it’s worked very well. The logistics for me as event organizer are trivial, I simply include multiple copies of the tactical objectives sheet above in each mission packet. For players the bookkeeping is fast and intuitive to execute once explained.

To game design, random results and forced play are eliminated while still maintaining the variability and requisite flexibility of Maelstrom play. Further, a number of novel mechanics offer new and ongoing strategic evaluations to the players, as well as affording meaningful selections between different strategic concentrations and army styles.

One notable downside of this setup is that it’s not as tactile as cards. However, for a large enough event or as a one-off occassion it would be easy to convert the objectives table and mechanics into cards. A related note though is that several players have been disappointed at not being able to use faction-specific tactical objectives published by Games Workshop. This is unfortunate, but given the rampant problems among those with random results and imbalanced conditions, I don’t see any acceptable approach but to disallow their use in tournaments.


Again, the tactical objectives sheet is available as a printable PDF. For an example of how this format has been incorporated into a tournament, check out the mission packet for our June event, The Tournament of Blood. These rules and the objectives table are released into the public domain, so please copy, edit, and use as you wish. We would though love to hear about any use of these, as well as suggestions or questions, in the comments below.  Good luck in the Maelstrom!

Descent into the Maelstrom!

Descent into the Maelstrom!

Narrative Tournament Design in Tabletop Wargaming

Someone asked on DakkaDakka today “What makes a good narrative tournament?” My club is very much committed to narrative play in Warhammer 40,000 (40k) and other tabletop wargaming, and has held a number of story-heavy events over the years. Among those, for the past seven months I’ve been organizing the monthly 40k events at my local shop (with which I’m not otherwise formally affiliated) as narrative tournaments.  I’ve also played in a few other such events outside our group, notably the NOVA Narrative. Suffice to say, I’m way excited about this topic and have a few thoughts. My experience and comments are mostly ground in 40k, but all of this is generic and applicable to other games.

I note up front that I reference the NOVA Narrative repeatedly below because it’s among the most prominent and widely known narrative tournament events in 40k, and therefore among the most prominent in tabletop wargames, as well as one outside my club with which I have direct experience. A few of the comments are criticisms, but they’re meant with all due respect and as hopefully constructive notes. That’s a super fun event, it’s well executed, the organizers are amazing, and I’m devastated that I cannot by any means make it this year with the rest of my crew (I’m expecting my firstborn the week before). I do though think that some aspects of its design includes pitfalls that I would guess are fairly common for narrative tournaments, including my own events.

Title page from our Caldor IV campaign tournament series packet.

Title page from our Caldor IV campaign tournament series packet.

Narrative Tournaments?  WTF?

An important opening point is establishing just what we’re talking about here. There’s definitely a valid viewpoint that “narrative tournament” is a contradiction in terms. This is aptly expressed by the first comment to the Dakka thread as to what makes a good narrative tournament: “Not being a tournament.”

Much as in wargaming  overall, there’s a spectrum of organized events. On the one end are competition focused events, with more or less mathematical tournament structures, more or less tight mission design, limited or sidetrack painting & hobby components, and zero concern about fluff and story. At the opposite end is totally narrative play, with the only thing distinguishing it from casual pick-up play being that there’s a story being built or utilized, and some kind of minimal organization of players and matches. Obviously there’s a space for both. Though I’m not myself engaged at any kind of serious competitive level in 40k or any other game, I’d argue strongly that a vibrant competitive tournament scene is a good and critical thing for most games’ long term longevity and, if properly utilized by the designers/manufacturers (*cough*), actually adds a lot of value to the game even for those not interested in participating directly. But fluffy play is also great; our club has gotten immense value out of events we’ve organized purely to drive narrative. I’d also argue that most 40k tournaments at least actually aren’t very far on the spectrum toward pure competition, especially smaller, regularly scheduled shop or club events: Missions might have some wacky elements, tournament scoring often isn’t well published, there might be more or less arbitrary army composition restrictions or rules modifiers, painting and/or sportsmanship components might be significant, and so on.

I don’t think it’s a huge stretch then to fit some narrative elements alongside tournament aspects and fall somewhere in the middle of that spectrum, and there are good reasons to do so. With the monthly 40k events at our local shop, I’ve been specifically trying to see if we can get both the fluffy and the competition-oriented players engaged in organized play. Our tournament crowd is fairly well established and dedicated, but somewhat small. We do though have another contingent that’s much more motivated by narrative and team-based play. It would be great if we could run at least some events that were appealing to both and get everybody out at once. Emphasizing narrative and hobby components also tends to push against poor behavior and win-at-all-costs play.

The two event types can also bring a lot to each other. I’ll touch on this more later, but one aspect of tournaments frequently overlooked by less competition-minded players is that a typical, proper tournament pairing mechanism works toward players competing against opponents of similar skill level. That’s a great feature to incorporate into an event and try to ensure people are having fun games. In contrast, many campaign structures can unfortunately lead to devastating matchups, often repeatedly. For example, it can be tough as a new player competing in a classical map-based campaign if a neighboring opponent on your borders is a hardened, competitive veteran.

So, over the years and especially recently, I’ve been experimenting with different approaches, from riding light narrative overtop standard tournaments, to embedding tournaments and prizes inside campaigns and narrative.

We all just want to roll dice.  But sometimes there's dramatic narrative!

We all just want to roll dice. But sometimes there’s dramatic narrative!


“Narrative” is, of course, an imprecise term, with several dimensions: Detailed or abstract, storyline or vignette, and so on. Many of my battle reports feature a paragraph here or there with a short, isolated vignette about a particular event or character in the game, and I personally frequently consciously field lists and play with a style emphasizing dramatic, story-oriented actions in line with and developing my army’s character. Over time all those separate, simple bits of story have yielded an elaborate emergent narrative. Everybody in my club is at least vaguely aware of different major storylines of my chapter of Space Marines and its major characters. In a more top-down and a priori fashion, right now a group of 40k players in my community are running a campaign league (that I’m not in) featuring elaborate creative fiction about the armies, their commanders, and the battleground, with everything being written over time into a long-running, detailed narrative. The NOVA Narrative storyline is fairly extensive and lengthy, has emerged from the overall outcomes over the years, and for both better and worse is essentially entirely unrelated to the official 40k universe.

As a narrative tournament organizer and designer, I mostly try to keep the story fairly light, providing some theme and background while letting the outcomes themselves drive the story. The explicit narrative is usually just a few paragraphs of background text, and a short, marginally dramatized accounting in my campaign reports relating the progression of events. A good example is the report from our most recent event.

In general, I don’t spend a ton of time crafting and writing explicit narrative. Most of it’s coming from the players and exists in their head and the community gestalt, and is all the more powerful for it. My goal is just to provide basic structures enabling that better than straight tournament or pick-up play. For example, in our current campaign there’s a touch of backstory about the planet and what’s going on, but it’s very short and light. There is though a map, and on it is a Starport, which one player decided he particularly cares about, even though it doesn’t help him in-game at all and offers only modest benefits to his alliance. At some point he just came out with a short narrative that his army really wants to ensure they can get off this Emperor-forsaken rock once this war’s over and is terrified they’re going to get stuck there, so they’re fighting like hell to take and hold the Starport. He’s made that a vocal priority in the strategic discussions within his alliance, and the other players know he’s fighting for it and talk about it. That’s a great emergent narrative. At the same time, he’s also one of our better players and has been able to pursue that personal story and motivation while competing for the tournament prizes.

The map for our Solypsus 9 campaign, featuring the major installations.

The map for our Solypsus 9 campaign, featuring the major installations.

Tournament Structures

The structures enabling that and what “narrative tournament” actually entails in practice then fall on that same spectrum above of being more or less oriented toward fluff or competition. The key things are that there’s a narrative—a story being built and/or motivating gameplay—alongside a tournament. In this context the latter is a flexible term and not necessarily a mathematical tournament structure, though it might be. I take the minimal requirement as being that there are points being awarded to individuals, standings, and prizes of some sort.

For a competition-oriented example, years ago I ran a Combat Patrol tournament league for 40k skirmishing. One of the gimmicks was that the small games (750 points) permitted the missions to be asymmetric, with matches actually consisting of two games with opponents alternating roles. Those matches though went into a pure tournament structure. Players earned individual points, pairings were straight Swiss across everybody, and there was a final single ranking of all players and prizes awarded based on that. But those asymmetric game results fed into an abstract narrative about a planet being invaded, and the Attackers and Defenders respectively fighting to advance on or defend a critical site. It wasn’t detailed at all, but it was a real story and collective narrative progression that people who cared could follow and talk about, while others could just play the tournament.

Campaign map from the 2010 Combat Patrol Tournament League.

Campaign map from the 2010 Combat Patrol Tournament League.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, Saturday we’re running a 40k Apocalypse mega-battle to conclude our Solypsus 9 sequence, an all-in battle royale of all the players in a single all-day game. Although my club’s Apocalypse battles are much more structured and organized than nearly any I’m aware of, that’s basically necessarily a heavily narrative-oriented event rather than a competitive one. We are though collecting entry fees and awarding store credit prizes. In part that’s to give something to the shop for hosting us, but it’ll also add some excitement and motivation. Clearly though there’s no recognizable standard tournament structure since it’s just one big match with everybody playing as teams. Instead, the match component of our scoring (we also include painting and sportsmanship) and the eventual player rankings will be based on personal in-game achievements designed to emphasize narrative play. Declare an opposing warlord your sworn enemy and then personally ensure their demise? Earn some points. Hold the site of one of your fallen characters? Earn some points.  So, it’s all fluffy and loose, but it does incorporate some competitive aspects alongside very much narrative play.


In between those two extremes are the majority of the events we’ve been running the past half year. A defining feature of these has been that players are organized into alliances and make collective strategic decisions. I specifically use “alliance” to differentiate from team-based play as in doubles tournaments, which we love and also run, including inside the narrative frameworks.

Players within those alliances don’t play against each other, caveat some significant exception, and the alliances have substantial input on the tournament pairings. In our setup they alternate putting forward a player toward some narrative action and the other alliance(s) responding with an opponent and a specific board to play on. Thus the attacker declare a campaign objective, and the defenders choose the specific physical terrain for the battle. The NOVA Narrative works very similarly, and I would guess this is somewhat common and a major feature of what most people identify with “narrative tournaments.” Notably, this arrangement is derived from some of the major team tournaments, another instance of serious competitive play contributing a more generally useful structure.

On the one hand, this is a huge draw for a lot of participants. The games themselves remain standard and players field their full armies, but they also get to enjoy teamwork and cooperative strategizing. Depending on the complexity of the narrative framework, alliances might have a ton of discussion about campaign level strategy and decision making. Certainly there’s typically a lot of discussion about which armies are the best to put forward to take on any defender, or which should be held back to try and respond to specific attacking armies, and so on. Lots of people really love and are excited by those discussions, and to a large extent those that aren’t can just ride along.

Kramer Doyle, humanity's commander, sends the Kingbreakers off to space to do battle against unimaginable enemies and impossible odds. A Humanity Commanders' strategy session at last year's NOVA Narrative.

Kramer Doyle, humanity’s commander, sends the Kingbreakers off to space to do battle against unimaginable enemies and impossible odds. A Humanity Commanders’ strategy session at last year’s NOVA Narrative.

That said, this is a huge tradeoff in narrative versus competition. As soon as players are divided into alliances, it’s difficult to have a single set of final individual rankings. In particular, the top players may not face each other and will be difficult to compare. But in many settings that’s ok. Toward that, we keep our prizes small and spread them around, so that they’re spice and a fun side thing rather than serious objectives and something to be aggressively competitive about. Our prizes are generally organized as follows, depending on the number of players:

  • Equal prizes go to the top player in each alliance based on match points + hobby scores + sportsmanship;
  • Next prize goes to painting and craftsmanship based on player voting;
  • Next prize goes to the player from any alliance with the highest match points;
  • Next prize goes to a raffle of nominated dramatic moments or great plays;
  • And start back over at lesser value.

That’s worked out well in our environment. Once or twice the top prizes haven’t gone to players who had the actual highest scores (i.e., the 2nd highest scoring player was on the same alliance as the 1st), but usually they actually do, and the prizes are small and spread around anyway so it’s no big deal. Similarly, although the NOVA Narrative has a variety of prizes, individual standings, and is actually a tournament, that’s all downplayed enough in favor of just playing the campaign that I actually had to consider for a moment whether or not that was the case. Besides accommodating narrative mechanics, this diffusion of prizes and the small stakes tends to work against overly aggressive and poor behavior and is an approach we had previously adopted in non-narrative tournaments.

Of more concern to me is that organizing into fluffy alliances according the allegiances and relationships inside the game’s fiction universe tends to result in roughly the same groups of players and game factions facing off against each other all the time. At some point Necrons should themselves have to fight against their own hateful Decurions, which they never will if they’re always together in the same alliance. Players in this scheme also may not get to play against particular friends if they’re in the same alliance, there might be intrinsic imbalances across the alliances based on their available forces, and so on. Our events this summer are not going to be implemented this way, so that we break up the alliances for a while and players face a larger set of opponents and factions.

Alliance tokens for the Solypsus 9 map.

Alliance tokens for the Solypsus 9 map.

The biggest concern about this style though is that it doesn’t intrinsically balance players like proper, Swiss-pairs styled and bracketed tournament pairings eventually do. It’s very easy for alliances to generate a lot of theories about who might be best to put forward based purely on factions or lists, and not at all take into account player skill and results, something I’ve seen at both NOVA and our events. That can be unfortunate if newer or weaker players wind up repeatedly set against much better opponents or armies. To some extent we’ve worked to mitigate that by having alliance commanders guiding the discussions and explicitly coached to keep fair pairings in mind, accounting for actual skill and results rather than just theoryhammer.

Recently we’ve also attempted to explicitly address this mechanically by scoping the set of players that may be put forward as a response, i.e., only opponents with similar scores/results/bracket can be matched against an attacker. That way a baby seal can’t be just thrown into a clubbing. This year’s NOVA Narrative is enacting very similar controls by breaking the pairing process up into battle groups determined by rankings within each alliance, with comparable groups coordinating matches. If an event is relatively large these mechanisms can entail significant logistical effort to work out the valid possibilities and present them to the alliances, particularly as they don’t fit within essentially any tournament scoring software, but are worth it.

In smaller groups though it can be infeasible to both apply such restrictions and have enough pairings. After all, even two alliances cuts in half the number of possible opponents. Mechanics and plausible narrative justifications for pairing players within alliances if necessary are certainly feasible, but can be tricky and work against the fluffy narrative. Ultimately these alliance-controlled, deliberate pairings are a major design tradeoff with pros and cons. They’re a major positive feature of many narrative events, but organizers should be aware of these downsides.

The Legions of Discord stare into the abyss after a rough first round in the opening event of our Caldor IV campaign tournament series.

The Legions of Discord stare into the abyss after a rough first round in the opening event of our Caldor IV campaign tournament series.

Narrative Effects

Another big design point is how the narrative or campaign interacts with actual gameplay and tournament execution. Alliances are a big tradeoff on the latter. But many non-tournament campaigns and narratives employ asymmetric missions, award army or model buffs, and have other impacts on the games themselves.

That’s difficult to work into a narrative tournament setting because they’re quite likely to impinge on the integrity of the competition, and these features unavoidably skew the event more toward narrative versus tournament. Depending on the group and the event’s goals that might be perfectly acceptable, but generally needs to be very carefully designed and balanced. The more clearly an event is advertised toward narrative play the more that can be done in this direction. However, unless they’re very committed to a campaign or narrative, it’s ultimately hard over time for any players to accept and be excited about meaningful advantages being given to opponents in actual games, which is a detriment to the success, popularity, and longevity of any event.

Related, any gameplay effects generally need to be as simple as possible. Much tabletop wargaming and 40k in particular is already so varied and complex that many players struggle to play quickly, let alone keep up with all the opposing factions. That’s exacerbated by time constraints typical of a single-day tournament, though a league format might be more amenable. Additional boutique gameplay modifications will only slow down games, press time bounds, and potentially frustrate players.

Banner for the Solypsus 9 campaign.

Banner for the Solypsus 9 campaign.

As an example, the NOVA Narrative features extensive gameplay changes which probably took a lot of effort to develop and have some positive features, but for some players can also detract from the overall experience. One part is a series of optional supplemental rules and army composition tweaks for each game faction. In some cases they do actually make weaker factions more competitive, but in others they arguably buff already very strong armies. Worse, these new rules add to the whirlwind of faction rules and exceptions in 40k. Our club already had a confusing discussion about army list construction for this year’s NOVA when it became difficult to track what rules were in the official books, and what were from the event’s narrative supplements. NOVA Narrative also has extensive terrain rules and other board effects contingent on choices made by the alliances and what theater the battle is representing. A positive aspect of these are that they add a lot of alliance strategy, e.g., determining which army is most likely to survive the meteors falling on some boards. On the other hand, these are a whole new set of mechanics to be remembered and then applied in-game, in some cases with fairly substantial random effect.

From my own events, recently I tried to add essentially warp rifts and ghosts to a few missions in order to tie in some of the overall story elements into the gameplay. Some people were interested, some were not, one was terrified because the leadership effects were going to be a huge problem for his Ork army. In the end though nearly everyone forgot to apply them consistently or at all, and my effort toward these was wasted and that narrative-to-gameplay tie-in failed.

Even the core 40k rules demonstrate this, in the Mysterious Objectives rules that apply different random effects when units first claim ground objectives. In my experience, many if not the majority of players consciously or unconsciously forget about these entirely even when tournament organizers include them in missions, because they can be unbalancing, though generally minimally, but are always unpredictable and yet another, in this case non-critical, mechanic to be remembered and processed.

In contrast, everyone loved and remembered to apply a recent mission scenario of ours featuring two large guns placed at board center which they could fight to control and turn on their opponent’s army using more or less standard shooting mechanics from the fundamental core of the game. Those gun emplacements combined five critical conditions for successful narrative game effects:

  • Simplicity: The mechanics were simple and straight from the standard game, fast and intuitive for everybody to execute;
  • Predictability: Players knew what the guns would do well enough to strategize around them;
  • Control: The players themselves took concrete actions to enact and target the guns, rather than just rolling out random effects automatically;
  • Balance: Both players had an equal opportunity to utilize the effects, and they had about equal potential impact on a variety of different army types;
  • Advantage: Big guns offered a clear incentive for the players to both remember to utilize them, and to take efforts to do so—nobody forgot about those guys.

Because of the issues above I’ve by and large been restricting narrative effects to the campaign or story itself, isolated from actual gameplay. That way if they’re imbalanced people are still winning and losing their personal games fairly, games are kept straightforward, and people not interested in those aspects don’t have to deal with it.

But limited mechanics that meet those five characteristics can tie narrative and campaign structures into actual gameplay even within a tournament. A very successful example of this from the NOVA Narrative that we’ve adopted into our events are Covert Missions. These are simple additional objectives given in secret to the players of the trailing alliance. Their primary effect is to help keep the sides roughly even and maintain the campaign tension. But they also give players with little hope of winning their match something else to achieve even in the face of defeat. The rewards though only apply to the narrative or campaign and the alliances’ standing, so they don’t unbalance either particular matches or individual rankings. As such, they meet all of the criteria: Written correctly they’re simple and straightforward to apply; they’re a known effect the player can actively play toward; they don’t in any way imbalance the games or tournament; and they offer a real, tangible award to the player. All told, they offer a strong narrative aspect while also being totally ignorable. In practice though, hardly anyone will set them aside. Many players I’ve seen at both NOVA and our events have felt more than redeemed to get crushed in a match but secure the covert objective for their alliance, while other competitive players have been disappointed to win a match mighitly but not achieve their covert mission.

Two sample covert missions from our Solypsus 9 campaign.

Two sample covert missions from our Solypsus 9 campaign.

Expectations and Comp

The last major aspect to touch on is setting expectations and controlling the tournament environment. Again, “narrative” means a lot of things to a lot of people. It could mean bringing a fluffy army scrupulously designed to match creative personal fiction or canonical game universe details even at the cost of effectiveness. Or it could mean throwing all your biggest, most expensive and rare and powerful models on the table because they’re the most dramatic units in your faction’s background and damn that’s good narrative! In many cases those two approaches don’t exactly line up well, to say the least, and the clash of expectations can easily frustrate players.

This is the only real negative I and others in my club have with the NOVA Narrative, that it doesn’t control for this mismatch (unless we’ve missed some update for this year’s event). For example, it looks like the very much competition-oriented Grand Tournament track of the convention will actually impose greater restrictions and debuffs to (arguably) overpowered units currently in 40k than the Narrative will. That’s asking for trouble if one player understands the latter event as a relaxed, casual, story oriented event, and another reads it as anything goes because it’s “not a real tournament” or simply has a different idea of what’s overpowered or not.

In our events we have been fortunate that there’s a fairly solid community consensus on what’s appropriate, most people are prioritizing mutual fun, and we have some favorable basic demographics—the older and better resourced players are largely narrative oriented and relaxed, while the more competitive players are mostly too young and too restricted financially to readily whip out the latest face stomping units.

Yep. Trouble ahead.

Yep. Trouble ahead.

We have though worked to systematically address these kinds of potential problems in a few ways, for both our narrative and more traditional competitive events, and through the few relatively minor troubles encountered have seen them to have effect in encouraging a more positive environment:

  • Reintroducing basic hobby scores, via a straightforward and objective 5 line metric (all models assembled; all models painted; all models based; some models advanced painting; some models advanced basing).
  • Reintroducing two-factor sportsmanship scores (scores per match, and then ranking  enjoyable games).
  • Incorporating a variety of awards and having more rather than larger prizes.
  • Significantly debuffing classes of units deemed problematic by the community through mission scenarios and scoring, rather than actual gameplay rules changes or outright bans.

None of these problems or solution approaches are unique to narrative tournaments, but the issues are potentially exacerbated by trying to straddle both story-oriented and competitive play. Organizers of these events should be especially carefully that event advertisements and mechanics are properly aligning and enforcing expectations.

To the larger picture, emphasizing narrative and team oriented structures is itself in part a useful tactic to preemptively discourage hostile play and poor sportsmanship. Narrative play also offers opportunities for less skilled players or those fielding intrinsically disadvantaged factions to attain achievements, contribute to a team, or simply develop a good story and have a good time even while losing matches overall. These are major motivations for adopting these kinds of events and elements.


To conclude, we have online some examples and mechanics writeups from our 40k events that may be of interest or use to potential narrative tournament organizers.

Our current campaign is Solypsus 9, which featured four months of campaign tournaments fighting over a map, and concludes this weekend with an Apocalypse game. Campaign reports have all been posted including some implementation overviews, and a draft of a more formal writeup of the map mechanics is also posted. The map campaign is essentially an entire boardgame in and of itself, much like Diplomacy or Game of Thrones. It enables the alliances to make real strategic decisions in their campaign over the map, but without requiring significant player commitment.  They can easily drop in and out of the campaign as they show up for different events or not, change alliances to play a different army, etc., without penalizing themselves or their alliance. The map also ties strongly into the concluding Apocalypse scenario.

The bugs make planetfall on Solypsus 9.

The bugs make planetfall on Solypsus 9.

Previous to that was our Caldor IV campaign. The first round was a campaign tournament using some simple mechanics to develop a solid narrative tracking the alliances’ search for a specific relic and a missing VIP. Next was a 40k Kill Team styled skirmish campaign using our improved in-house Recon Squad variant. In that players work to achieve specific legacies, e.g., Sentinels were trying to defend installations, while Assassins were trying to assassinate leaders. That sequence concluded with a mini-Apocalypse team battle.  Campaign reports for each were posted, and a draft polished writeup of the mechanics is also available. Some of the text is not complete, but the search mechanics are written up, along with all the cards needed for that as well as the skirmish legacies and missions.  A notable aspect of the search mechanics are that each alliance has a definite, randomized story and progression, but it’s perfectly secret.  Even the TO can play and not know the outcome or any special information.

As mentioned early in this post, some years back we ran a Combat Patrol tournament league that had a very slight narrative, but was an unadulterated tournament with true pairings and standings. Each mission featured asymmetric setup and goals, with matches consisting of two games with players alternating sides. The results then fed into a very simple narrative about the success or failure of a planetary invasion and quest for a specific site, wholly abstracted from specific players and even alliances. Those missions and a few details are still online.

Although not a tournament, for years our club has also had a series of annual Apocalypse matches that have developed an important shared club narrative over the years. Most of that has been developed with few mechanical connections and instead mostly through forum discussions, telling tall tales, and the shared experience. However, there have been some connections, such as specifically crafting this year’s scenario as the final siege at the end of an epic campaign. The battle report talks a little bit about bringing those narrative elements and balance into a fairly large Apocalypse battle.

Recap of this year's Apocalypse grudge match, The Fall of Kimball Prime.

Recap of this year’s Apocalypse grudge match, The Fall of Kimball Prime.

Forge the Narrative!!!

All in all, our experience has been that although not without its challenges and certainly including some tradeoffs, “narrative tournament” is by no means a contradiction in terms. Such events can actually be highly rewarding and enjoyable for a large swath of players, as well as working toward larger community goals. We’d love to talk about it more, and if you’re in the Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (USA) area you should come out and join us!