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Melia's Reach: Further Adventures in Narrative 40k

Alarmingly it was nearly 6 years ago when Charlie ran for me and Jeff a narrative 40k campaign that remains my favourite 40k gaming experience of all time.  On the blog we’ve called it the Samalut IX campaign, but internally we mostly called it Orbital Drop Fridge, which quickly became ODF for short.  For a very long time we talked on and off about running a second ODF, but the logistics involved were not insignificant and then there was this little thing called Covid.  But eventually I stopped waiting for the stars to align to make the perfect game and just decided to have a go at doing something, even if it wasn’t perfect, and trusted we would have fun.  Surprising no-one, we did.

So, shuffling things up a bit, I invited Charlie and somewhat newer player Drew to join their blue and white forces in the last alliance of Elves and Men an unholy alliance of Imperium and Xenos to see off the greater threat of Tyranid invasion on a little world called Melia’s Reach.  

The Rules

Charlie previously published the rules he created for the first ODF game on the Bunker, and you can see them here.  I took those rules and started out by tightening up the language to make things more precise.  I then added in rules for dealing with Aeldari casualties, as distinct from Astartes.  I also then added in a huge complicated section about building fortifications, worked on it for a while, then threw it in the bin.  

Finally in discussion with Charlie and Jeff we tweaked the Casualty probabilities so that whilst the likelihood of a character being taken out of the campaign was the same, the likelihood of them being permanently dead was reduced.  When Charlie first created ODF it was our first real stab at narrative 40k and most of my characters received their names and personalities specifically for that event.  They were fun, but not (yet) precious to me.  Now we’ve been playing Crusade extensively for years and are playing with characters with a lot of history and lore, we were less keen to have them die.  Remember this bit.  We’re going to circle back.

These tightened up rules are available to read here.  

This isn’t Fury Of The Swarm, these rules alone aren’t enough to run the game, they are a framework for a GM to build a campaign around.  The rest of this article will give you an idea of how I went about it, but ultimately this is something for an experienced GM to find their own way to play with a hefty dose of improvisation.

As we discussed the campaign, and talked about units and some of the foibles we have with the new(ish) 10th edition rules, we also came up with a few house rules.  If you’re going to play a GMed game against an NPC army, it’s a perfect time to play what feels right, regardless of balance.

On the Astartes side we ruled that the Gravis Apothecary would have the same special rules  as the Tacticus Apothecary.  We all like the idea of Apothecaries being scientists beyond just medics, but on an active battlefield when a Brother is in need, they should be tended to.  Charlie wrote about this here.  We also ditched the new weird combi-weapon rules and went back to the previous version where it is two guns and different combi-weapons are different.  It’s just way more satisfying.

Dr Thiccums PHD

Lt Nomates

Meanwhile over in Aeldari land, we agreed that Farseers and Warlocks can join Dire Avengers.  I get that the various Aspect Shrines have their own dedicated ways of war and all, but it seems silly that Farseers should only be able to join the peasants and since dire Avengers seem to be the shrine of “elite standard infantry warrior” it seems like “protecting the VIPs” should be part of their shrine’s discipline.  

Since the Campaign Sequence rules are highly influenced by having an Apothecary, but the rules of ODF are also very much “you only have access to whatever models you own”, we also created a datasheet for Aeldari to have a healer of their own.  Drew converted and painted a model for it.  You’ll be able to read more about this, and the datasheet we created for it, in a future article.

Dr Knife-ears MD

On the Tyranid side, I wasn’t happy with how the Trygon could no longer use its tunnels to give other units a sneaky route into battle.  So I decided to reverse that entirely.  My new rule was that when the Trygon appeared a crater would be placed on its arrival spot to represent the tunnel it had dug, and the hole would count as the Tyranids’ table edge for reserves.  Obviously unfair in matched play but a wonderful addition to GMed narrative play.

Oh, also we included the house rule we use in crusade, whereby your units may retreat off the table on your board edge and whilst they count as destroyed for the game, then don’t for any Crusade/ODF repercussions.  This came in handy in the very first game when it went to absolute shit in turn 1 and the players never even left their deployment zone, they cheesed it in short order.  

Ambushing a column of Tyranids goes poorly.

The Preparation

A key part of the ODF format is deploying units on a map.  For that we needed a map.  I was perfectly willing to make this myself, but since we have a Charlie, I asked him if he would like to make something better than whatever I could produce.  He did.  In a fit of effort after completing Fury Of The Swarm he grunted out a new world map to my specification, and a selection of unit icons for all of the units in his and Drew’s armies.  

When Charlie first proposed ODF 1 to me, he said that the units I would have available would be whatever I had built and painted.  He made it very clear that it would work with whatever I already had in my collection, and no new models would be required.  I responded to this by buying, building and painting one Storm Eagle, two Storm Hawks, two Land Speeder Storms, one converted unit of 10 Scouts with boltguns and camo cloaks and one converted unit of 10 converted Mor Deythan.  Charlie has (lovingly) teased me about this ever since.

Naturally when I returned the favour, Charlie finally got to experience it himself and just like I did, grunted out a hilarious and borderline irresponsible number of new units (especially when you consider how much more effort he puts into painting than me).  I have no regrets.  Drew likewise felt the fires of ambition clawing at her elfen soul, although being more responsible than either of us only purchased a few more models and mostly concentrated on knocking out stuff in her backlog.

I had already farted out quite a few new Tyranid units for Charlie for Fury Of The Swarm, and when you’re the GM the motivation to produce more stuff is far less strong, but I did finish off the Tyranid terrain bits I had left to do and, because I can’t help myself, a surprise Trygon that Jeff had kindly given me so that I had at least one trick up my sleeve they didn’t know about.

How I Ran It

A lot of the charm of ODF is letting the players go wild in a sandbox, so mostly what I prepared were the starting conditions.  I created notes about the various locations and a cast of important locals.  Most importantly I created a timeline of events up to the point that the players’ armies arrived, and some rough intentions for what the Tyranids were going to do (as well as their Genestealer Cult allies).  

For anyone that might find these notes useful, they are here.  Hopefully they are pretty self explanatory, but obviously they were written for me as a reference and aide-mémoire, rather than to be a completely independent pre-packaged game module.  

I knew I needed some cover so that the players couldn’t see the whole picture and do something really clever and unexpected that would solve the whole campaign in one go.  In ODF 1 Charlie has some deep chasms occupied by an unknown number of Orks and unscannable from orbit.  For this I came up with the idea of a slowly expanding cloud of spores, concealing a few hive clusters that would be churning out new units.  If the players could send in scouts to find these locations and destroy them (either in battle or using orbital bombardment) they would be able to reduce the spore clouds.

I also wanted to be able to bring the adventure to a thrilling climax, so I conceived of a secret experimental geothermal plant underneath a volcano that could be detonated to destroy the main hive that was growing in the dormant volcano above and clear most of the spores with poisonous volcanic ash.  It wouldn’t kill every Tyranid on the planet but it could be the decisive blow.  They would only be able to learn this form the local Ad Mech once they located the main hive.

For a bit of surprise curveball I also planned out some routes I decided Trygons would be tunnelling, and threw some Genestealer Cultists into the mix (but a limited amount, I wanted this to mainly be focussed on fighting Tyranids, not cultists).  

I had a rough idea in my head of wanting to have some variety to the feel of the Tyranids depending on where and how the encounters took place.  This wasn’t something I wrote specific rules for, but I had some ideas in my head throughout the weekend.  Small encounters didn’t use Army or Detachment rules or CP, and had fairly straightforward units and simple tactics (units attack whatever is currently most threatening).  

Encounters near the spore cloud would have spore mines and flying units coming in from surprise reserves.  Large and/or important battles where the hive mind was more focussed could include full Tyranid army rules, CP and Stratagems, and smarter tactics (concentrate firepower on key targets).  I’m not sure exactly how well this all came across in the end, but I still think it was a nice idea.  In the end a Hive Tyrant only appeared in the final game we played, but sadly it was unable to get into a climactic duel with a significant enemy.  

Charlie is going to be writing up a narrative of the Crusade from his Scions' point of view, so that should give you a better idea of how the overall story went, and I think I managed to stick to my goals fairly well.

What Was Good And What Could Have Been Better

I definitely got overly focussed on the Tyranid markers being 1,000 points of Tyranids, rather than a very rough estimate.  Whilst I think it’s important for the players to have a sense of roughly what they’re facing, so they don’t send a few squads against a massive hoard to get absolutely slaughtered, I think a more relaxed approach to the size of enemy forces would have given me a bit more power as GM to come up with exciting and interesting encounters.  

In reality this translated to one battle that I thought would be really fun being skipped because the players committed more than enough forces to it to render it pointless, and another battle I felt obliged to play because it was pretty tight, even though I felt like it wasn’t very different to one we’d already played.  

Then again, counterpoint (yes I’m arguing with myself, you get used to it) if I just completely made everything up I’d be denying the players their agency, and as that is basically the point of the game, that would be silly.  I suppose overall another approach would be to have a slightly less PCs vs GM approach on the Strategic scale and collaborate a bit more about what games would be fun to play rather than have it be entirely decided by one side or the other.

Regardless, one of the things I felt I did quite well was manage to get quite a variety of different kinds of game into the six games we ended up playing.  Sadly quite a few of them ended up being fought in lightly forested plains, but we got one Boarding Action game on a space station, one city fight and the climactic battle in the ruins of a mining camp.  Unfortunately despite plenty of them having some kind of objective, in reality nearly every game was won by the players wiping out the available Tyranids.  I think that definitely could have been better.  

Another issue I think was the amount of time spent moving unit markers around the board, compared to how much it really mattered.  We played 6 games out of probably something like 30-40 possible encounters, and to start with we were manually assigning every unit in each Campaign turn.  This, unsurprisingly, took ages.  After the first few turns of this, I suggested instead that they simply assign out their points and just make an army list to that value for whichever encounters we played.  

This was much quicker, but it lost some of the charm and nuance.  Moving markers around on the map is surprisingly fun.  I think a third option would be better, but I haven’t quite worked out what that option should be.  Maybe something with pre-set Detachments to reduce the choices?  I’m not sure that would work as often you want each force to be balanced but it’s also really fun to occasionally bring together one focussed lump of something for a special mission.

How It Went Overall

It was great fun!  And really that’s all that matters.  But in more general terms, accepting the “could have been better” above, I do think it went very well.  The holy trinity of ODF is getting to roleplay as your 40k characters, making thematic choices to represent how your army works beyond the battlefield, and adding some memorable events to the storied history to your forces.  Solid three ticks for ODF 2.  

There was plenty of roleplaying, both between army warlords as they planned out their strategy and with the various NPCs I had created.  As for playing in character, I made sure to include plenty of options.  The Eldar’s secret agenda came out pretty quickly, without much drama (the Astartes at that point not even remotely surprised) and the Cobalt Scions invested a lot of effort in protecting the PDF rather than aggressively prosecuting the enemy as some other chapters might have.  

Indeed if I was to consider how well the players did strategically, their only obvious failing was keeping a few small detachments of PDF out in the field.  In theory this was to have some forces in a flexible position to react, but in reality they simply had to repeatedly divert their own forces to rescue them from waves of Tyranids when they could have retreated back to bolster the defences of a settlement (which did happen eventually).  But it was very heroic.  

As for memorable events.  Well.  Remember those character death adjustments I mentioned before?  Yeah.  Towards the end of the campaign, Captain Lucullus led a small force to block up some Tyranid tunnels that threatened to cost them the capital city and the millions of souls within.  On my army list for that game was a Lictor, but I didn’t show it to the players at the start of the game.  As a GM I can of course do what I please, but in a tournament that would be Very Naughty.  

Captain Lucullus wandered quite close to the Tyranid’s table edge in an attempt to get to and close the tunnels.  Then the Lictor appeared.  Shocked pikachu face.jpg.  But with fall back moves and overwatch and such bullshit, even getting into combat was far from guaranteed.  And even if it did, Space Marine Captains are tough as shit, right?  And the Lictor isn’t that potent.  It should average out at around 2 wounds damage, without rerolls or any other bullshit.  

Yeah, no.  When he failed his crucial final CP reroll of his save, there was more than a bit of shouting.  Not from Charlie, he was very stoic, but Drew and I were quite animated.

Nom time.

If you didn’t already know, Captain Lucullus is a beautifully converted and painted model, with dozens of hours of effort put into it.  On top of that Charlie has written tons of lore for the protagonist of his custom Chapter and built up a wealth of history.  I had just possibly killed him forever, with some arguably unsportsmanlike behaviour.  

Of course we had to finish out the battle before we would know, and in particular determine if his Apothecary would survive to give a bonus to his rolls.  He did, and Charlie got rolling.  First up the Casualty Check.  Anything but a 1 Charlie.  Picard Facepalm.gif  Ok, so he’s out of the campaign, but is he Dead dead or just resting.  Will I be able to live with the guilt?  Just roll a 3+ on 1d10 Charlie.  Please…

I think the neighbours may have called the police, but Lucullus lives, so that’s the important thing.  Nevertheless Lieutenant Nerva took command for the rest of the campaign.  I maintain that real lasting consequences are the spice of roleplaying, and without them it would be quite bland, but I admit I prefer things a little more Tikka Masala and a little less Vindaloo.  

Between the mental effort, lack of sleep, and stress, ODF2 aged me about 5 years; but I think those 4 days of gaming were worth the trade.


  1. They're all blue, it's FINE, perfectly natural common cause.

    Entirely in accord with making all apothecaries qualified field medics. The drive to make every SKU a discrete datasheet with its own unique rule has created some rather silly divisions and lacunae.

    I am concerned about the process of "grunting out" Astartes, and about Drew's sanity after the great shelf slip – MORTIFYING when that happens. My power move of choice was always stacking my backpack cases and then watching them gently topple over backwards JUST as the zip was about to be zipped.

    As regards the learnings, this is always the curse of the campaign map. Too many operations on the map and it becomes the game; too few and the map is pure illustration, not what you're going for here at all.

    If it was Crusade I'd be tempted to have a big Order of Battle, feed units into flags representing detachments once at the start, and then have a Requisition for posting units from one area of operations to another. Make it a thing players can do, rather than must do, and give it a cost because making it free will tempt everyone into doing it too much and being back at square one.

    And finally: I was going to say something about bell curve probability and character injuries, but then I thought of using my Vampire dice for that: die on a fail (1:10), full recovery on a success (2:10), gain an upgrade on a critical (1:10), anything else is a Battle Scar/missed game. And now I really want to do that.

    1. Yeah we have subsequently talked about having set detachments moving around on the map, and that would definitely be a big time saver, it just takes away that Astartes feel of being the hypermobile, hyperflexible emergency responders. I think a detachment system would be perfect when marines are stuck groundside with no air supremacy, or if the players are guard/orks/etc.

      Speaking of mortification, my baggy jeans once snagged a guy's open case full of lovingly converted and painted hybrid metal/plastic minis. He was a gent, possibly because he could see how close to seppuku I was.


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