by Russ Lockwood
[intro: I monthly receive the Russ Lockwood wargame newsletter, fun to read, Russ is the designer of the fun to play campaign-in-a-day Snappy Nappy rules. Avid wargamer, excellent writer. But he hates blogging, and prefers a monthly selfproduced PDF. The article below deserves to be found on the internet, however. A nice AAR-writing guide that needs a bigger audience. And watch Monty Python, if not understanding what he means with surprise, and speed, and .. what again?]
Nobody Expects the Wargaming Inquisition
The two main traits needed for a successful After Action Report (AAR) are
Surprise, Speed…and nice looking figures.
I mean, the three main traits needed for a successful After Action Report (AAR) are Surprise, Speed, Nice Looking Figures….and great looking terrain. Doh!
Among the many traits needed for a successful After Action Report (AAR) are Surprise, Speed, Nice Looking Figures, Great Looking Terrain, and Fanatical Devotion to Die Rolling…
The Viking raid in the Hawks room on Friday. Apparently, size matters for playing cards.
Now that I’ve ripped off Monty Python, I tried to emphasize the intangibles of writing an AAR — that sense of story I keep talking about. To me, it’s more than laying out a scenario and recapping who pushed troops where and which units rolled well or poorly…It’s about embedding those five aspects of gaming into a story with a beginning, middle, and end.
I likened this to a good book. Fiction or non-fiction, good authors bring you into not only the action, but the motivation for the actions. An AAR is no different. You’re going to tell a story and most stories start at the beginning.
Although not mandatory, for flashbacks are quite the staple in literature, history often relies on chronology, so, the beginning is a good place to begin an AAR.
I stressed that you should write the way you want to read. If you like a ‘just the facts, ma’am’ style, that’s great. The surprise will be in the game, maybe a lucky roll, maybe a strange move, or maybe the outcome, but the sequence of events will provide the surprise.
Me? I like to get a little more creative, so my definition of surprise extends to absurdities, embellishments, observations, and all sorts of humor — well, I hope it rates a chuckle or two.
For example, I could have set up an American Revolution scenario the way the GM did — Loyalists gather a force to crack down on Patriot (or Traitor, depending on your point of view) looting. Instead, I put it to rhyme:
Now this here's a story
about a man named Russ,
Loyal to the Crown and
never ever made a fuss.
Then one day
tendin' to his farms,
When up through
the fields came traitors bearin' arms.
"Turncoats," he sez.
"Patriots, my foot."
It continues and it’s nice rhyming, so what’s the big surprise? Well, that opening rhyme is set to the theme song of the 1960s TV show, The Beverly Hillbillies. Surprise!
Go ahead, go back and sing it. If you don’t know the tune, it’s on You Tube. I know, I checked the rhyming patterns. Now, that doesn’t have anything to do with the game, but from the e-mails I got in response, folks appreciated
an opening twist. I see these AARs as a way of not only recording the game and the participating gamers, but also as a way to try and capture the enjoyment, and occasional madness, of gaming.
I’ve done other lyric substitutions, altered and adapted pop culture references, dropped puns, inserted sight gags, and tortured the logic of rules and situations in ways silly and serious to inject fun and information into the AAR. I once wrote an entire AAR about a WWII Command Decision game in the style of a Flashman novel. And yes, I know I’m not in the league with George McDonald Fraser, but since I was playing the Brits, I sure felt like ol’ Flashy at times during the game, so that’s how I wrote it.
Say What You Mean, But Don’t Be Mean in What You Say
Humor, of course, can backfire, especially since writing must convey body language and tone or else it can be misinterpreted. Although I’m not a social scientist, or play one on TV, my guess is that emojis started as a way to
replicate such non-verbal clues.
If your gaming group is like ours, us gamers have known each other for quite some time. Sarcasm is a part of our sessions, but translating the basis for that sarcasm requires a light touch. Without emotional background, otherwise clever bon mots can often be read as demeaning. An emoji won’t help as much as passage that dances with the basis of the sarcasm.
I suppose humor is a little like art: you’ll know it when you see it. So I try and emphasize the positive in the AARs. If you have to touch on the negative, touch on the situation, not the player. And remember that a negative for one side is a positive for the other side — and that’s often easier to joke about. Either way, if you can’t help yourself, blame the dice.
So, assuming you write an AAR that generally starts at the beginning, has a middle, and then an end, how do you get through the middle? With speed.
The key here: gloss over the more typical movements and combats and concentrate on the highlights. To readers not at the game, a move-by-move and combat result-by-combat result recounting will slow down the story.
These highlights can inject additional surprise. For example, in a Napoleonic Shako game, three French Imperial Guard columns bore down on one regular Austrian unit in line. Everybody at the table knew what would happen: the Imperial Guard would roll over my quaking Austrians. Even if you weren’t at the table, you know the outcome. Or do you?
In the description, I glossed over previous Imperial Guard successes and concentrated on this particular combat … a highlight, so to speak. I quickly explained the rule that allowed me to roll volley fire — only a 6 on a d6 would save me. I rolled a 6 and the IG columns fell back disordered. OK, a clutch lucky roll, but what happened next combined the situation, the reader’s new understanding of the rules, and the good-natured jesting between gamers. Here’s what I wrote:
“Jay hemmed and hawed about what to do with his three columns. I offered my opinion. “Oh, what is the matter, Imperial donkey bottom biters? Has your la audace been passed? I wave my Viennese sausage at you, you Shrimpi Gardeners! Now, surrender the Corsican Ogre, or I shall taunt you a second time.”
Jay charged. It was the same three columns, only they were a tad more shot up than last time. Once again, Dave charged a cavalry unit.
I rolled against Jay’s infantry. My die bounced and tumbled across the tabletop.
Lo and behold! A 6!
The Allies cheered anew, with Phil pummeling my arm in glee and Sam roaring with laughter. Jay turned away, disgusted and disgraced by my clutch roll. Dave slapped the edge of the table and threw up his hands. Mike groaned and moaned as the French plans unraveled before their very eyes.”
This happened during the game, although in the write up, as you probably guessed, I embellished the Monty Python adaptation. A little embellishment is OK in an AAR if it conveys the cameraderie of the players.
Although 99% of you were not at the game, I suspect such a wacky die-rolling coup has happened in some game you’ve played. Without getting too
clinical, a combination of situation, humor, surprise, and emotional response made for a better recap of this one combat highlight than a straightforward “I rolled another six and sent them packing” or “They came in the same way and I chased them away the same way” or some such encapsulated recap.
I snapped a photo (at right) of the big attack and repulse, which provided the visual cues to supplement the written explanations. And I also suspect you might want to know what Jay did next…
It’s the middle of a story, and hopefully a compelling highlight that makes the reader want to read on.
Rules On Rules
Like the recap, a rules explanation should be enough to grasp a situation and not copy the rulebook. Most gamers are familiar with the 4Ms: movement, missile (firing), melee, and morale and most rules use them. Preferably, your explanation will blend the situation with the rules and the tension of possible results.
In the case of the Imperial Guard recoil, readers had to know the volley and stagger components of the melee sequence. It was only one short paragraph:
“ Then came the melee against the Imperial Guard. I had one chance, or should I say, one chance in six, of surviving. If I rolled a 6, I’d put two hits total on his troops, disorganize them (stagger in Shako parlance), and halt the mass an inch away — no melee. Only a 6 would stop the charge. ” My first time roll was a 6, which made the second charge of the Guard all the more tension filled.
Now, if you disagree with a rule, or your logic finds something absurd, it is perfectly OK to say so as long as you provide some rational for your disagreement and an example.
Personally, I find rolling for movement the worst mechanic you can ever stick in a game. A bad roll takes the player out of a game — and I come to game, not sit around. The longer the time frame that a turn represents, the more reprehensible I find such a mechanic. Yet, as I always point out, the logic conundrum is mine and mine alone – although you will often find me embellishing such interludes as troops setting up an impromptu picnic, sightseeing, or debating post-modernistic architecture.
Oftentimes, rules will be a mix of the good, bad, and ugly. I like Chain of Command’s die-rolling command and control mechanic, but find the grenade prep-and-toss rules ridiculous — not that I minded altering the Monty Python Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch sketch in the AAR. My point is to summarize only rules that impact the game while providing an example of a rule in the course of a game highlight.
Nice-Looking Figures and Great-Looking Terrain
Most phones take photos and most can be e-mailed to yourself, allowing you to include them in the AAR. Don’t be intimidated if your photos aren’t going to be included in the National Geographic Wargaming Edition. Taking multiple photos helps — one of ’em’s bound to be useable, right? A little cropping goes a long way, too. In my case, it’s a lot of cropping.
Also, don’t be intimidated that the figures and terrain aren’t museum quality. I’m happy to game, so I’m fine with a tabletop of carpet and felt. As the years go by, the goodies get a little fancier and the tabletop gets a little better looking.
Don’t get me wrong, I like to game with nice-looking figures and great-looking terrain. We’re a visual and tactile hobby, but most important of all to me, we are a social hobby. I take photos of the tabletop and also the people around the tabletop. I may not know everyone’s name if it’s a convention photo, but that’s OK, you probably don’t know them either. Gamers gaming is good enough for me.
Beginning, Middle, and End
As I’ve stated, a story has a beginning, a middle, and an end. And in general, following that chronology may help you to recap your game. It’s not a hard and fast rule, but we history buffs appreciate an order of events that leads from start to finish. Hey, don’t just take it from me…Image from web.
Yet, don’t fear putting anecdotes and images out of order, but understand you’ll need a deft touch to lead off an AAR with the end result and work backwards to the initial deployment. I have on occasion boosted the middle part of a game up top and then eased into deployments — call it a flashback — but not that often. I might foreshadow a situation, much like a peak into the future, but generally I stick to the beginning, middle, and end. Speaking of Endings:
Fanatical Devotion to Die Rolling
I like AARs with analysis mixed with the recap and fun. I balance, or at least try to balance, rules explanations while hitting the highlights of a game. Like the best histories, the conclusion leaves the readers with the moral of the story, or at least some wrap up remarks on the positive aspects of the game. AARs get easier and better with practice. You don’t have to create the great Wargaming AAR each time.
Sometimes it’s just enough to put down an overview and impression. Above all, be comfortable with what you want to do and how you do it. This hobby’s about fun, not work…or so I like to believe.
I hope some of the above offers some encouragement for you to write AARs of your games. I only wish I had started my own much earlier.