Rule Zero and Narrative Miniature Wargaming

When I took a break from playing roleplaying games in the middle of 2020, I began to play a lot more miniature wargames in the time that was available. I was lucky enough to have a small group of friends who were willing, and trusted each other’s safety practices, to still get together in person. While the gaming was a blast, it hadn’t been more than a month or so before I began missing one of my favorite parts of playing RPGs. This being narrative, building a collaborative story with other people. So in September of 2020 I decided that I was going to give running a narrative wargaming campaign in Warhammer 40,000: Kill Team.

I’ve played in wargaming campaigns in the past, but this was going to be a narrative wargaming campaign. Your typical wargaming campaign, like you would find with Warhammer 40,000’s Crusade rules, are structured so that you and your group of friends build an army that you’ll play against each other with which you could, through some kind of an advancement system, earn perks for further army customization. The goal with these campaigns is that you end the campaign with an army that’s different to the one which you started with. While possible, these rules don’t typically incentivize building some kind of narrative. You still play competitive style games against each of your fellow opponents. You may set your games on the same world you make up, or even come up with a cool tale for why you’re fighting each battle, but I would argue that those aren’t really narrative games.

What I think is needed for a game to be a true narrative wargame is a Rule Zero. The Rule Zero, or sometimes known as the Rule of Cool, is a concept that “games are entertainment; your goal as a group is to make your games as entertaining as possible. If that means breaking the rules temporarily, or permanently as a house-rule, then so be it.” It can be found explicitly stated in many RPGs, including the 1980’s Basic Dungeons and Dragons where it states:

Anything in this booklet (and other D&D booklets) should be thought of as changeable – anything, that is, that the DM thinks should be changed… The purpose of these ‘rules’ is to provide guidelines that enable you to play and have fun, so don’t feel absolutely bound to them.

The Rule Zero is intended to give the power to the players to create (or remove) whatever is needed to suit whatever they are having fun with.

While in many RPGS, you can sometimes also find a version of the Rule Zero in board games and miniature wargames. In the board game and wargaming ecosystems, these Rule Zeroes typically revolve around confusion in game mechanisms or intent and are often seen as a mea culpa to poor game design or rules writing. As an example, here is the Rule Zero from the core rulebook of Warhammer 40,000 (Eighth Edition):

In a game as detailed and wide-ranging as Warhammer 40,000, there may be times when you are not sure exactly how to resolve a situation that has come up during play. When this happens, have a quick chat with your opponent and apply the solution that make the most sense to both of you (or seems the most fun!). If no single solution presents itself, you and your opponent should roll off, and whoever rolls highest gets to choose what happens. Then you can get on with the fighting!

This Rule Zero gives power to the players to make rules decisions, but doesn’t explicitly give the players power to make the game their own. Without that power, players feel locked into running what’s in the book and every game will feel like every other. With that power, the players will now be able to add or break what is necessary for a game to feel different and flavorful.

To make a proper, power granting Rule Zero for a narrative campaign I believe it needs three things. First, when I decided I wanted to run a narrative wargaming campaign, I made sure my opponent knew what they were getting into. I told them that I was going to run it like a Dungeon Master runs a game, and that I will add, change, and break any rules necessary to make the overall story as engaging as possible, and that they had the same ability to take power of any narrative bits when the need arose.

Second, I needed to make clear that I wasn’t running a game to win, but rather tell an epic story. In the case of this campaign, it was to tell a story of a small elite squad of soldiers and the discovery and recovery of an ancient artifact. My friend had just bought a Chaos Renegade Knight for their Warhammer 40,000 Death Guard army and I wanted to make a cool story about how it was acquired into the army. They weren’t just going to be given that Renegade Knight, they were going to earn it. I built and printed cool terrain, painted up some thematic enemy models, and made a big show about the whole thing.

Lastly, for a Rule Zero to work well there needs to be a understanding of what makes the game the game. If you use a Rule Zero to change 75% of the rules in the game, are you still playing the same game that you started with? Changing only what you need to for a narrative to come together will help keep the players focused on the cool bits, rather than having to worry about all the changes that were made. Also, keeping the general themes and intents of the game will help the players remember what their goals are. You don’t want to take a game like Warhammer 40,000, a game about fighting in a grim dark future, and turn it into a political intrigue game. You’ll want to keep the focus of bashing heads in as your main modus operandi.

There will always be a place for competitive wargaming. A game of skill and chance has its own worth in the thrill of the challenge. With an epic story and an understood Rule Zero at the table you can start opening yourself up to the narrative fun wargaming. However, with a greater understanding of what makes both types of games fun, you can choose to play a game anywhere on that spectrum now.