Make an Exciting Warhammer 40k Narrative Force 5 Easy Steps

For many people, Warhammer 40K is the matched play / competitive scene. And there’s nothing wrong with that! I love a rousing game of plastic mans vs a skilled opponent. I also love the narrative mode of play, called Crusade. What I love most of all is that it’s possible to get the best of both worlds by using a Narrative Force.

What is a Narrative Force?

A narrative force in Warhammer 40K is any group of units with a story attached. If you have a cool story about who your units are and why they’re fighting, it’s a narrative force. You don’t need to be playing a crusade to have a narrative force, although you can. The crusade rules in Warhammer 40K are often well-suited to telling cool stories.

Having a narrative force doesn’t stop you from playing matched play, or open play. You don’t have to roll for battle scars or spend requisition points. All you need is your imagination and the desire to add a little context around the battles your army is fighting.

Why Develop a Narrative Force?

Let’s face it. If you’re playing Warhammer 40K you’re a nerd. You might also be a geek or a dork. It’s okay, though. Nerds are cool now! All the things that used to get us laughed at in high school are Popular Culture these days. Henry Cavill likes Warhammer, and he’s hot, so it must be cool.

I can’t speak for all nerds, but I’m going to anyway. Nerds, geeks, and dorks love story. Especially stories that make sense within the context of fantastical settings.

Don’t believe me? Take the old Star Wars Extended Universe.

The authors in that sandbox got up to some ridiculous shenanigans. They dropped a planet on Chewie. A planet. But people loved it! When Disney came along and said, “nah, none of that” the people revolted. Why? Because they were invested in the story.

Warhammer 40K is a grim, dark (some might say grimdark) satire. It uses exaggeration as a commentary on the worst of humanity’s excesses. The stories you can tell in the 40K sandbox are human and easy to connect with. Striving against insurmountable odds or failing gloriously in the attempt, your force marches ever on. Even if they’re not human. Even if they’re Tyrannids. The bugs are hungry for biomass. As the youths would say: “mood.”

How to Develop a Narrative Force

Now that I’ve convinced you that fielding a narrative force in Warhammer 40K is awesome, here’s how to do it.

Step 1: What Are They?

This might seem a bit silly to point out, but you have to know which kind of force you’re building before you can do the rest. Are they space marines? Are they Aeldari? What about T’au? I like to start by building a list. If you’re trying to be competitive in the meta, you’ll definitely want to start with building a list.

Let the units you want to pick, for whatever reason you want to pick them, inform the rest of the process.

It’s a lot more fun if you’re excited about the units you’ll field than if you’re taking something you don’t like. Don’t worry about “it makes sense in the story.” It’s your story. You get to make it up. Start with units that spark joy.

Step 2: Where Are They?

The galaxy is a big place. Warhammer divides it into roughly four quadrants called Segmentums. I say roughly because there’s also the center bit. So, technically, there are five Segmentums.

The center bit is the Segmentum Solar, home to holy Terra. Obscurus is to the North, Ultima the East, Tempestus the South, and Pacificus the West.

Games Workshop has focused the story in different Segmentums at different times. Much of the current focus has been on the Segmentum Ultima, home of both Charadon and Octarius. The next season of Warhammer 40K focuses on the Vigilus system in the Segmentum Obscurus.

Consider whether and to what extent you want your narrative force to take part in the official story. Will you be running the most recent crusade mission packs? If so, then it makes sense to be nearby. If not, the galaxy is your oyster.

Is your force based on a single planet? Are they fleet-based? Consider how they will come to be where the battles you will fight take place. Perhaps they’re lost on a planet far from home, trying to survive. All that stands between them and a warm meal by the fire are the 52 weekly games you’re hoping to play next year.

Step 3: When Are They?

This question could apply to the difference between 30K and 40K. For the sake of argument I assume you’re running a 40K army. Most of the official story of Warhammer 40K takes place on the “eve of midnight” of the 41st millennium. And I do mean most. Almost everything from 3rd edition to 8th edition occurred in a span of less than fifty “in game” years.

9th edition was notable for finally ticking the clock forward to the 42nd millennium. Personally I think they should have rebranded Warhammer 41k. I get why they didn’t. You don’t give up the kind of marketing cachet that 40K has. It’d be cool, and 41K 1st edition has a sort of ring to it that could have done well.

So when do your stories take place? If you’re running the most recent narrative crusade missions, then the answer is “now.” You’re “now.” But you don’t have to be. Do you want to tell a story about the Fall of Cadia? What about the Night of a Thousand Rebellions? There are thousands of interesting plot hooks that Games Workshop has left dangling, ready for you to explore. So pick one and explore it! Pick your favorite Codex, find a noun that doesn’t get a lot of elucidation and then start lucidating.

You might find that once you know when your army is, you’ll need to know when your army was. How did they get there? If you’ve used your Codex to create a custom subfaction, where did it come from? Take a look at the lore for the region or location where they’re located. Work backwards looking for interesting events they would have been there for. How were they involved? Play in the sandbox!

Step 4: Who Are They?

You’ve got your list. You know where they are, you know when they are. Now we need to know who they are.

The characters, specifically. If your list includes faction named characters, then that part’s done for you. We already know who Roboute Guillaman is. But if you have a Space Marine Captain in Gravis Armor, that’s a blank slate. His name is Kevin now. Where did Kevin come from? What what his life before the Space Marines? How did he rise to the rank of Captain?

I don’t usually go through the trouble to name individual troops. A unit of 10 Battle Sisters haven’t earned individual names, but a Palatine has risen for a reason. Her name is Sarah now. How did Sarah distinguish herself to become a Palatine?

Give them names, personalities, backstories. How did they come to be exactly where they are now? This is the weave that gives a narrative force life. These are the characters that will strive and struggle. With a little luck they’ll even surmount the insurmountable.

Step 5: Who Will They?

Project forward 10, 20 games. What is the trajectory you hope your narrative force will follow? If you’re using the crusade rules in your codex there might be a story they’re designed to tell. The Adepta Sororitas have rules for the rise of a living saint. Genestealer Cults are working toward Ascension. Thousand Sons want to become daemon princes, and by George, the crusade rules want that too.

You don’t have to tell that kind of story. The rules are there to support you if you want to. And often they introduce an element of uncertainty. Your living saint could become a martyr. The ascension might start a little earlier than planned. Embrace the idea that your story’s conclusion isn’t preordained. Some battles you’ll win, some you’ll lose, and you’ll get to find out when it happens. It’s the joy of discovery in a story you’re writing at the same time you’re reading it.

Knowing which direction you want to drive the story isn’t knowing which route the story will take. Having an idea of the final destination is the framework to drape the narrative over. The actual narrative happens in the twists and turns you didn’t expect.

After all, maybe the real treasure was the friends we murdered along the way.

#Warhammer #40k #Narrative #Worldbuilding