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Cardboard Children - Betrayal At Calth Session Report

Story games.

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Sit down. Let me tell you a story.

The game on the table is The Horus Heresy: Betrayal at Calth. It is the beginning of a story. It’s a snake uncoiling. It is quick and frightening. There are two people at play, but the play is a fight, and a bloody one.

From start to finish, 34 minutes pass. There is noise – laughter, gasps, roars. There is a thump on the table. Tiny plastic warriors tremble.

This is a Cardboard Children session report.

THE HORUS HERESY: BETRAYAL AT CALTH

The players have chosen the first scenario in this game. It is called The Wrath of Veridia, and they have played it many times before. The scenario is tiny, explosive, lethal, like a bullet. These players can’t stop thumbing it back into the chamber.

The Ultramarines and the Word Bearers are on the planet Calth. They are racing towards automated blast doors, three of them in total, timed to slam shut without mercy. Every living soul needs to get underground before a solar flare burns everything in its path.

The Ultramarines and Word Bearers are deployed so very, very close to each other. Tantalisingly close. Guns could start blazing from the off. But the doors are closing, and each player knows this.

This mistake has been made before. Too much time spent fighting, and there is no chance of escape. It’s a sprint, a panic – but a controlled one. It’s chess on wheels, and the pawns are on fire.

THE DASH

The battle begins, and the Word Bearers are on the front foot. The villainous sergeant’s unit makes a dash up the right flank, heading straight for the third set of blast doors, the last ones that will close. The Ultramarine sergeant leads his men up the left – a mirror image. Experience is at play here. Both players know that the front line must keep moving or everyone – everyone – could get pinned down in a scrum of claws and plasma fire.

The Word Bearers are never slow to attack, though. And this time through, the story is no different. Their unit of three fires upon two Ultramarines, and one loyal marine falls. The survivor breaks forward, away from the Word Bearers, into some cover. But the Word Bearers are ruthless, and the lure of chaos is great. Voices from the darkness torment the surviving Ultramarine, tricking him, luring him back into the line of fire. He is torn apart, inevitably.

At the front line, there is a halt. The Ultramarine sergeant knows a step out into the mid-map clearing will leave his unit open to fire. And each sergeant is moving with a unit that carries a missile launcher.

The players look at each other. There is a laugh. Both front line units are behind cover. Both have the ability to break forward. Neither is willing to. Someone is going to be left wide open. A silent agreement is made.

Initiative might decide this. Let fate smile on me.

Both players move their front line units forward, into some rubble for additional cover, almost a mirror image again. With neither of them able to move again this round, they know that initiative will be huge in the next.

Behind, marines crash into each other, positioning themselves for what comes next.

HALLELUJAH

The Ultramarines win initiative. They fire upon the front line Word Bearers without any hesitation. A missile roars across the battlefield, but the aim could have been a little more true. Only one Word Bearer falls, and a missile is returned in retaliation. The missiles are flying. Hallelujah.

The Ultramarines take a devastating hit, and both of the Sergeant’s escorts are destroyed.
Now what? Wait? Consolidate with another unit, for support? Or continue to race forward, to get one body over the line before the first blast door closes?

The players pause for a moment. A mistake has been made here before too. Those marines at the rear? Those stragglers? Often they become vital. The slaughter begins again, at the back this time, in the dark.

The Word Bearers are under furious assault from the Ultramarines. The situation is ugly. And the Word Bearers, allied to chaos itself, are perfectly suited for an ugly fight. The Word Bearers player avoids a unit’s total destruction by playing a vital card. Every man at the back is going to be key. Every moment is key.

This lesson has been learned many times before.

FIGHT OR FLIGHT

The Ultramarines Sergeant makes his move towards those first blast doors. Consolidation might work – attaching his Sergeant to the marines behind would offer protection, but then an advance towards the second set of blast doors would be necessary. And with a Word Bearers missile launcher primed and ready to fire, from relative safety, chances look bleak.

It’s all or nothing. The Ultramarines sergeant must rely on hope. He must survive.

And as he is fired upon, hope winks an eye at fortune. The roll is entirely survivable. The Ultramarines player hoots with joy. In this story, this Wrath of Veridia, happy endings can be wrenched from moments like this.

The roll is made.

The Sergeant’s head tears loose from his neck, as the missile makes a mockery of fortune.

The first set of blast doors slam SHUT.

SACRIFICE

The story now moves towards that third set of blast doors, as it often does.

The second set of doors have closed without a marine’s foot falling anywhere near. The stench of death is in the air. Only seven living souls remain. While the front line played games of tactics and chance, the firefight at the rear twisted and roared and fell silent.

The situation? The Word Bearers Sergeant and his two escorts, right by the third set of blast doors, primed to escape. Two units of Ultramarines far behind, scattered, desperate. One Word Bearer standard bearer holding them off – in a position to pin them down if luck is on his side. He is only alive because the Word Bearers used their own soldiers as shields. He is entirely corrupt, and he is an armoured fly in the Ultramarines’ ointment.

It is tense. Experience tells the players that in this little story anything is possible. For the two Ultramarine units to consolidate and launch a final brutal attack on the Sergeant’s unit is entirely within the bounds of this game’s constant possibilities.

It has happened before. Some time ago. A brutal hand-to-hand assault behind the blast doors. The Word Bearers forced to retreat, but with nowhere to run. The Word Bearers slaughtered as they panicked, and the Ultramarines moving in on top of all that gore just as the doors went CLANG.

Not this time.

It comes down to sacrifice, in the end.

The Word Bearers Sergeant leaves his unit, and steps out from behind those blast doors. With his lightning claws, he will hold off any desperate Ultramarines advance, if it comes.

And it does.

He dies as the doors close, with two Word Bearers safe in the underground of Calth. Everything still living is burned away.

And then, everything comes alive again.

THE FOREVER WAR

The Ultramarines and the Word Bearers are on the planet Calth. They are racing towards automated blast doors, three of them in total, timed to slam shut without mercy. Every living soul needs to get underground before a solar flare burns everything in its path.

The Ultramarines and Word Bearers are deployed so very, very close to each other. Tantalisingly close. Guns could start blazing from the off. But the doors are closing, and each player knows this.

This mistake has been made before. Too much time spent fighting, and there is no chance of escape. It’s a sprint, a panic – but a controlled one. It’s chess on wheels, and the pawns are on fire.

The players make their moves, but it’s different this time. The Word Bearers press instantly into the middle ground, to pin the Ultramarines down early. The Ultramarines are only too happy to fight hand-to-hand.

This is a tiny part of a longer story, but you could tell it and tell it again. It’s constructed so beautifully that the moments rhyme like a poem. And the meaning of the story is clear.

Do you remember?
Do you remember when we made games like this?
Sit down.
Let us tell you a story.

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Robert Florence

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