Home Forums General Game Design What is a narrative wargame?

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    Angel Barracks

    I guess what people take narrative to mean can vary.
    For me it is twofold.

    First the games are less games and more a way to write a story, I don’t worry what happens so much, just use the events to create a story, or indeed, a narrative.
    I am not adverse to tweaking the events if the story goes off on a tangent that I think will be uninteresting.

    Secondly it is in the reporting of the game.
    I create game reports in a comic book style as befits the genre.
    As such there are very very few mentions of the game, no dice rolls, no shots of me or the dining room table.
    It is the telling of the story that matters and how it is told.

    I am less a gamer as per se and more a world builder, in the material sense (the models) and the conceptual sense (the lore/background).

    The rules I use are geared toward this approach and would fall a million miles short of anything remotely tournament based due to the open nature of the game.
    They are a mechanism / toolbox for creating stories.

    Here is the link to my comic book style game reports:


    And here are a couple of cheeky pages.


    Ok, I am going t0 be brave, or foolish enough to take a stab at this. Firstly all games are narrative to a greater or lesser degree. It depends in large part on the players, although it would be foolish not to recognise that some game systems are better able to generate a narrative.

    So for example, a game with a solid historical basis, or a well established back story makes a narrative easier to create or sustain. A game on a smaller scale will make it easier to empathise with the protagonists. A campaign where characters have a recurring place creates narrative inflection.

    But it is the players who generate the narrative. By treating the troops as men, as actual living and breathing characters or units, not a collection of stats. It happens when players make it happen. I have had a narrative game playing DBM, I’ve had a soulless game of SAGA.

    If rules-writers want to create a narrative game, then they need to create an experience where the shared story-telling of the players is more important than the competition for a simple winner. Of course, it is a game, there is a winner and a loser, but I have enjoyed some games more when I have been on the losing side, than others where I won. So add ‘colour’ not ‘chrome’, make it clear at what level(s) the players are engaging at. Create scenario and campaign based games, not ‘equal points encounter battles’. Implement mechanisms that are unobtrusive and intuitive so players concentrate on their orders and incidents, not the mechanics.

    My tuppence worth.

    --An occasional wargames blog: http://aleadodyssey.blogspot.co.uk/ --

    Lardy Rich

    My guess is that anyone using the term narrative wargame can, in fact, be referring to whatever their own definition of that actually is.  However, as a game designer who does use that term, I would say that FOR ME (and possibly nobody else on the planet) a narrative game is one designed in such a manner to lead the players through a story over which they do not have complete control and, rather like life, are important players with the ability to influence the outcome but not totally decide what it will be.  This is not a description which I would apply to all of the games I have designed, indeed it seems to me that the approach suits some conflicts and periods of war better than others.  Once again, which periods I feel it suits is a matter of my own preference.

    So, for some examples, Sharp Practice is designed to be a narrative game.  The card driven activation system is designed to ensure that the order of unit activations is varied but not random so that the players have no influence at all over what is happening.  As an example of play, one red unit and one blue unit may be advancing towards a bridge.  In a more traditional I-go-You-go model with fixed movement rates, both sides could predict who would get to the bridge first with absolute certainty.  Red is 18″ away, Blue is 21″ away, therefore Red will be there in 3 turns, Blue will arrive too late.  With the card driven system nobody is certain which units will activate and in which order.  The card system in question does allow payers to intervene in the running order, but how they do that will depend on their priorities, so at all times the outcome of a situation is in doubt.  That is also enhanced (or at least made more pronounced) when rates of movement are variable.

    Add to that the fact that Sharp Practice focusses very much on the ability of leaders to influence a battle.  There are then the key decisions to be made during play which influence the narrative.  Whether to rally troops or get them to move or fire.  Whether to fire controlled and measured volleys, or to blaze away.  All of these decisions to be made by the player are designed to mimic the decisions required by leaders on the battlefield.  That creates more of a narrative than, for example, a commander having x number of “pips” which simply allows him/her to activate that number of units.

    We combine that with a game system which generates small randomised effects which can influence but not dominate the game so as to increase the narrative feel.  So, a unit firing may, if a random event is generated, see a pall of smoke fall across the front of the unit making firing less accurate; the unit may fire a volley and the, inspired by their own results, surge forward to close the range; a stray bullet may wound an enemy leader; a building may be set on fire; a leader may see his news acquired hat blown from his head and decide to retrieve it.  All of these events are small enough to add colour and story to the game, but not to imbalance it.  Of course, the number of these generates is small, maybe one, two or three per game, but that is sufficient to add to the narrative.

    All of these factors, and probably some more that I am forgetting, act like salt in cooking where a small amount seasons the story so that the gamers feel that they are immersed in a story over which they must wrestle with the vagaries of the battlefield to exert their influence.  That influence will be significant so that they can influence the outcome of the overall story, but will undoubtedly be less than a game with fixed and predictable movement rates, no command system other than possibly command pips and a predictable and formal I-go-You-go game sequence where.

    Other games where we have used a similar (but different) approach would be Dux Britanniarum where the hand management system means that the cards represent the warlord preparing his men for the fight before shield-walls meet.  That preparation is  a much about the psychology of battle as anything else and the game results in both sides attempting to get their men tee’d up for action as best as possible before the battle begins.   Calling on the Gods, combat of champions, even passing round the mead can influence the way the troops subsequently fight.

    Personally I like to have a degree of unpredictability in all games, so I favour variable movement rates as they reflect both how fast your own troops respond to your commands, how the terrain effects the movement (as in not all terrain is as flat and solid as your wargames table) but also how fast the enemy respond to your actions.  So, for example, when my infantry unit rolls 11″ for its movement this determines all of the affecting factors which determine how far they move before the enemy reacts.  As such, each move is its own tactical bound, in game terms, from the point where I make a decision to do X to the point where the enemy can respond to that action.  That does take some influence from the concept of the variable length bound of the early 1980s, but is no worse for that. The idea had much merit but was often rather strangely applied.

    That’s my take on what is, of course a very fluid phrase that can be all things to all men.  However, as  do use it a fair bit I thought it may be of some interest.



    Playing the period, not the rules, since 2002

    Sam Mustafa

    I largely (lardly?) agree with Rich, although I’d point out that for many gamers, knowing exactly on which phase of which turn Unit X will reach the bridge is a key part of the “narrative” for them, and they’re very disappointed if the game throws something unpredictable into that, because it messes with their understanding of what the narrative ought to be. Even guys who read a lot of history and know how unpredictable war can be, nonetheless often get upset when game units don’t behave as they expect and desire. For many people, the narrative is “wrong’ if you don’t like it.  (Which means, probably, that it never really was “narrative” they were looking for. It was a more particular experience centered upon their own imaginations and desires.)

    Everybody who plays a game is looking for a story of some sort. That’s just how human imagination works. When I was a boy, we played “soldiers” in the woods, using rocks for grenades and screaming “Kaboom!” when they landed. Inevitably, another boy jumped up and “shot” at me, despite having just been killed by one of my grenades. That was irritating; he obviously wasn’t following my narrative. But obviously we all were having enough fun that we got over these disappointments (i.e., grenades that weren’t as lethal as we wanted them to be!) and there was a general consensus that – whatever the narrative in each of our heads – collectively we were doing the same game with the same basic story.




    Well, I have rather been enjoying playing Lardie rules almost exclusively over the last couple of years, so I very much had them in mind when I posted my comment.

    But one of the things I am finding, (and this may be age), is that I am very much less competitive than I used to be. Having been a keen competition gamer in the past, I now treat gaming as much more of a social and collaborative exercise in story telling. I still prefer to win than lose, but it’s almost irrelevant to my enjoyment of the game.

    The other thing I will note is that the quality of the games we think of as ‘narrative’ have improved over the years, so that where it was once considered ok for a narrative game to be a bit of fun and not perhaps well enough explained, play-tested, or have some gaping holes, more recent efforts have been much tighter and leave less of the ‘well how does that all work out then’ moments of puzzlement for players. (I know I had some difficulties persuading my local players in Canberra to try rules written by the same writer(s) as an earlier set that they had tried, and felt deeply unsatisfied as it had gaping holes in.)

    Part of the social contract thing between players is that you try to make sure you are both playing the same rules – having to make it up as you go along trying for mutual agreement can be less than fun.

    Narrative games need to be written to at least as high a standard as ‘competitive’ sets. More so in many ways, as the structure is inherently less rigid. For example, if you can react to an opponent’s actions, you’ve stepped out of the IGO-U-GO cycle, so now you need to write for that. If you have variable move lengths, you need to add in additional rules and perhaps some narrative explanation.  Writing a professional standard rule-set for a narrative game is hard. (I know, I’ve tried a few times, almost inevitably being incredibly derivative, and eventually deciding that there were rules out there that were better, albeit different, from the ones I wanted to write.)

    Personally, I think between Sam’s larger scale games, and the Lardies efforts, we are pretty well served..  and on the rare occasion when I get an ultra-competitive urge, I can always play DBMM.

    --An occasional wargames blog: http://aleadodyssey.blogspot.co.uk/ --


    I probably couldn’t explicitly define my idea of narrative wargaming in every particular – the whole point is to move away from systematic rules structures and explicit detail – but this much I know: In my vision of a strongly narrative wargame, there’s a heavy dose of gamesmastering involved. This may take the form of one or more participants acting solely as gamesmasters and umpires, leaving the actual “playing” of the game to the remaining participants. In more everyday situations though, the players would just agree to step out of their competitive selves and gamesmaster the game together, collectively and collaboratively, at the same time that they remain players. When I play solo I see myself as gamesmaster first and foremost. I don’t need to step in and roleplay Kugnar the Barbarian or Calypsiana the Lasergunslinger, internalising their motivations, fears and personalities, all that much. I’d sooner hover above them as a storytelling puppetmaster of sorts. There’s also something to be said for “programming” the rules to act as gamesmaster. The Two Hour Games “Reaction System” of rules design leans in this general direction. So do the old Rattrap Productions games with their focus on highly specific scenarios where players are effectively triggering different, randomised bits of pre-written “script” while they play. Perhaps the Sword and the Flame system also leans in this direction judging from my limited understanding of it. Still, I’d rather not leave it to the ruleset alone to be gamesmaster in a narrative game.

    An example of this kind of gamesmastering would be something like: “I want Kugnar to perform an improvised attack by swinging from this tree branch and slamming into the enemy pirate feet first. The rules don’t account for the possibility of such an action, but as the tree branch is there, and Kugnar and the pirate are suitably aligned with it, it seems like the kind of thing that could happen, so I/we rule that it can happen. However, being an improvised attack, it’s chancy, so I/we will roll a die to account for the risk of failure. Possible outcomes are complete success (Kugnar slams into the pirate feet first, constituting a powerful hit with a strength bonus against the pirate), partial success/failure (Kugnar slams into the pirate chest first, constituting a middling-strength hit against both parties, and if neither party is knocked out or killed they will grapple on the ground next turn), complete failure (Kugnar faceplants in the mud) and catastrophic failure (Kugnar impales himself on the pirate’s sword, the pirate can’t believe his luck and/or Kugnar’s stupidity). Kugnar’s backstory defines him as fairly acrobatic, which is obviously in his favour when performing actions of an acrobatic nature, so I/we will account for that in the die roll.”

    I’m considering adapting my solo RPG ruleset of choice (Mythic) for miniatures gaming. Different modifications of it would hopefully let me handle everything from sub-skirmish adventuring through skirmishing and vehicular combat/dogfighting to massed battles and even outright fleet engagements. This probably wouldn’t be my “ultimate” ruleset (I like the idea of testing different wargaming rulesets, experiencing the comparative advantages of each one), but it would be a fun alternative to keep in the toolbox.

    Brian Handley

    Its an interesting thread.   As I am writing it I recall imperfectly whare I think it was Zenathon noted the Athenians were beter at directing wars in areas they understood than areas they had little understanding of.


    I should declare I am a wargames writer (Maneouvre Group) so you are aware and can ajust if you see fit.


    Seems to me that a matrix game would be at its best when the arguments ate put forward by experts in the field so the irrational or impossible are screened immediately.  Aguing your horse drawn column moves 100 miles in a day is fine its just not credible.  That may not seem so to one who’s experience is to watch horse racing and understands little of logistics.   Perhaps why my limited experience of matrix games is not terribly positive.

    The cards vs die and tables is purely personal preference, it must be, cards seem a waste of time to me.  However it may also be how you play.  I play regularly one game so I know the rules by heartmore or lerss so the data on a cards is uneccessary.  As for event cards they are often ill thought out, the excellent worn out rifles quote epitomises the failures off the author to be even vaugely logical.  Many envent cards are inappropriate at times and the card would often need seceral paragraphs to ensure they wer applied logicaly so again they do not in my opion add to the game narrative or not.  There also occours the “too often”  X gets brave, VC medals are offerd to very few.  1 card every ten games seems more appropriate in most cases, that a rate not worth the time.


    As to narrtive, I long ago abandeoned equal points systems as boring and unrealistic.


    ALL my games have a brief that ma,y but not all the time contain.  The brief to both parties, who get an Overall SIT rep,   specific tasking for the protagonoists,  objectives, timescales and allocated forces.    This sets thre scene for the stories.  Personally I do not give name to my leading characters as it adds nothing to the game for me.

    To be honest the best games I play are long complex things that are a cross between a campaign in thre more generally accepted standard and a super long game, imagine a board (virtual in my case) 16 ft long and 6 ft wide at 1mm-1m groundscale.  Within that there are multiple routes.  This adds uncertaintay in a logical way.   For instance an enemy takes a crossroads, only he knows which way he will go and if he is clever his rece will have been in all directions so as to give which way he will go, again no card/event system can come close to this level of credible and exciting uncertainty.  Such systems create a riveting story.   In other cases such a game gives a hold untill relieved situation a credibility no written narative could ever achive, if you know the campaign hangs in the balance it adds massively to the excitement.  It also allows for massive missjugements again impossible to refect is a simple narative.


    So to me narrative is a boundary condition of a game not anything to do with the game mechanisms.


    I does oiccour to me that the only other “narative” game I have played and “lost” with great entertainment was with a an ex cold war soldier who not knowing the ruules simply told us what he wanted to do and we implemeted it as best we could.  This worked perfectly but it relied on him having a good understanding of the real world situation and a rule set that models reality in a passibly credible way.   Such even this needed 3 folk, my co-autor as the protagonoist and me as the “military advisor” and the player.  It would never make a credible multi player game where the protagoists did not have an clear understanding of the period.

    craig cartmell

    I really need to spend more time on this sub-forum… my bad.

    When Charles and I began writing our first skirmish game (In Her Majesty’s Name) we had several discussions regarding the nature of the game we were creating. The term “narrative wargame” had not yet come over the event horizon, but we both agreed that the game should be both story and character led.

    By the time the Ministry was formed we had encountered the term and adopted it into our design philosophy, especially as we had built a workable campaign system by then.

    In our view, if after a game the players talked about the daring deeds of the characters and the story they had created, rather than die rolls and military tactics, then we had succeeded in producing a narrative skirmish game.

    Looking at the tales, often illustrated with photos, by our players on our FB page, I’d say that we mostly succeeded.

    Narrative wargaming has carved its own niche into the cathedral of the wargaming hobby. The success of games by authors such as Dan Mersey, Joseph McCullough and, dare I say, us, would indicate that this is true.

    Footnote: Charles and I are lifelong roleplayers first and wargamers second. I suspect that this influenced our love of a shared story over historically-accurate reenactment.


    The Ministry of Gentlemanly Warfare

    Brian Handley

    Craig Cartmell,

    proably gives one of the best definitions too me of a Narative wargame in some cases.  However in our own games, most of the talk is about where where one or othereof us went wrong.   That is about tactics, identifying or not doing so key terrain or failing to bring reserves in in a timely manner.  However is that realy just a narative game? or is it that some miniatures games have less flexibility to do anything novel.  My own experience is that may games once deployed fail desperately to allow any individualism in play.  The classic 6″ infantry 12″ horse/tank does this.  There are better examples DBM with the book level of points and regular armies does allow for tactical surprise by both parties.

    I see no real reason more randomness or event cards are needed to make a narrative game  IF the game allows credible flexibility to the opponents to write there own creativity into the play.

    I see no reason whatsoever why rules really feature in the definition of narrative play provided.

    1. the rules allow credible decision making and a credible scenario.  Two sides lined up seems the most boring and no amount of story telling or event cards can substitute for an interesting and challenging scenario with lots of credible solutions.  These complex and stories allow the threading of not just a story but a Saga for which the skilled among us could torn into a saga
    2. The players have a credible understanding of the period (real or fantasy) and the rules so that they can concentrate on what they need too, the management of the strategy and not on die rolling and daft often un-representative events.  Beginners are never going to cope initially with truly interesting games they do not have the experience.



    Beginners are never going to cope initially with truly interesting games they do not have the experience.

    I found my first few games more interesting as I was learning and having fun.
    Now I ‘just’ have fun.


    As Bandit originally asked this: “Others use it and I’d like to understand from their point of view what it is and how it is unique.” I’ll give my 2p even though Rich pretty much nailed it with his first sentence.

    From my POV it is simply a game – or series of games – that goes beyond the usual 1.5k pointer bashes and involve a growing storyline where characters – be they individuals, generals, units, ships etc. – work their way through a campaign, war or event.

    I don’t think you need any specific mechanism for this but you do need players with the imagination to carry it through. Hence it will be unique because people are. For ex, I took part in an ECW campaign where we all indulged in silly names and back stories for the commanders. Only one relented because he ‘didn’t approve of silly names’. He likewise could not understand the incident where one officer charged into a formed pike block alone rather than be taken prisoner. It wasn’t in his make up to follow the narrative where the opposing commander had morphed into a Jacobean version of Uncle Monty from Withnail and I, complete with wagon-mounted man-cage…. We had no rules for this, it didn’t need any. It just developed from banter. The chap who didn’t get it was a competition player and it just wasn’t his thing.

    All my fondly-remembered games have involved a narrative of some kind. Without it games just seem that much colder.

    More nonsense on my blog: http://battle77.blogspot.com/

    Brian Handley

    Seems to me the narrative games here are really just RPG’s played with more figures.  The larger real games with lifelike  commanders with say a western background (e.g wwII or cold war) fight as part of a big war and most often do not have the sort of story that is being defined here.  The story is about the commander, his briefing and how he defeates his enemy or loses slowly (he hopes).  There is no need of the extra rules, the senario is defined in no more or lesser way than the real world.  Similarly the background for the protagonist needs no more than the real world briefing to do so results in an implusible scenario which in being so loses its appeal instantly, nothing worse than playing an implusible scenario.  The story unfolds as the game progresses.  Any decent rules have fog of war so why extra rules.

    What is being described in much of this thread  is a very “Hollywooesque” approach that does not cover certain types of wargame with a greater affinity to the real world.

    Stephen Holmes

    Relatively new member, and late to this conversation.

    I have seen “narrative” used in a different context where it is often used interchangeably with “cinematic”.


    Games of this type tend to draw from a few common features, which help players follow the developing story.

    The scale of the game is frequently “Large skirmish” with around half a dozen smallish units.

    One or more officers, often with specific traits, are represented, and can add their traits to units they accompany.

    Turn sequence tends to interleave, opposing units may alternate, or there may be an activate until failure mechanism.

    Rather than formal phases for movement, shooting and melee; units have a choice of actions when activating. They tend to do their thing, and sometimes trigger responses for the enemy units they interact with.

    Combat results are applied immediately, and are often more decisive than actual history would indicate.


    The result is a game where the “story” follows the activated units, and events occur in a clear sequence.

    Some games are designed to have this quality (Several of the Osprey Blue Books), others have different design objectives, but also embody a narrative play sequence (Arty Conliffe’s Crossfire).

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