• Writing a First AAR: Ten things you can do

    Writing a first AAR: Ten things you can do
    by Alwyn

    Are you considering writing your first After Action Report (AAR) or writing it? This article aims to answer questions that first-time AAR writers ask while informing you of options which you might not know you have. There will be links to previous Critic's Quill articles which can help you to grow in confidence and achieve your potential as a writer. This article is intended for newcomers to AAR writing; if any experienced writers read this, feel free to suggest your preferred solutions to the problems discussed here in the comment section below the article.

    1. You can play use any using any game, any faction and any mod (or no mods) with any difficulty setting

    Many people start an AAR - only some of them continue beyond the first few chapters. To sustain an AAR, you will need to play a campaign you enjoy and which you enjoy writing about. Some writers might assume that every AAR writer plays on the highest difficulty setting available. Some people do that, but not everyone. It depends on what kind of AAR you want to write.

    If you would like your story to be about a faction which survived despite the relentless hostility of its foes, then the highest campaign difficult setting could be exactly what you need. But if you want a story in which diplomatic negotiations and political intrigue will feature heavily, then the highest difficulty setting could be a problem. In my experience, on the highest campaign difficulty level, other factions will be extremely reluctant to agree deals with you and will probably attack your faction, no matter what you do. If a reader knows that negotiations will almost always fail, then your story could be too predictable. Similarly, you can adjust the battle difficulty to reflect the story you want to tell. If you want to write about heroes who constantly overcome terrible odds, you might prefer a higher campaign difficulty and a lower battle difficulty - but, if the battle difficulty is too low, and your armies always win, then your story could become predictable.

    Of course, that assumes that you are writing an AAR with a Total War game. You don’t have to do that. As a visit to the Non-TW AARs section of the Writers’ Study will show you, there have been and continue to be popular non-TW AARs.

    You can play using any faction. You might visit the AAR forum for a Total War forum and find that many AARs have been written about the faction you want to play in your AAR. There might be a current AAR using the same faction. It is still okay for you to write about this faction. In On the Path to the Streets of Gold and Children of the Forest: Two Suebi AARs for TW: Rome II, Caillagh wrote a review of two AARs about the same faction and reached a remarkable conclusion:-

    .. the different styles chosen by these two authors both work well. They tell us different things about the Suebi and the world they lived in, but they both tell interesting stories, and tell them well. In fact, I would say that – at least for me – having several AARs about similar subjects, but in different styles, or from different viewpoints, is even better than having just one AAR about that subject. I find it fascinating to approach the same subject in several different ways.
    Many AAR writers use mods. You don’t have to do that, it depends on how you prefer to play the game. If you are already familiar with mods then you won’t need suggestions. If you are not used to using mods, then you might want to consider (for Total War games):-

    • A ‘zoom’ mod, for close-up screenshots
    • A textures mod, for better-looking units
    • Gameplay tweaks, to remove any features of the game which annoy you, such as a weather-removing mod if weather causes lag on your computer
    • An AI (Artificial Intelligence) mod, so that AI factions to make better choices on the campaign map and battlefield
    • A faction unlocking mod, if you would like to write about a faction which is not normally playable
    • A unit pack; if you play a faction which is not normally playable, then a unit pack might be particularly useful (unless you prefer the challenge of playing with a limited selection of units).

    As well as looking for mods which will help you to enjoy your campaign, you could look for mods which will create opportunities for an interesting story. For example, you might intend to tell the story of a war against a particular faction. Perhaps you could find a mod which adds an elite unit to that enemy faction. Maybe your antagonist will command that unit and become a recurring opponent for your main character. If the unit pack adds units to your faction and if it is saved-game compatible, you could introduce it part-way through your campaign and tell the story of how a general or political leader of your faction reformed the army (or navy). You might decide to arrange for a particular bloody or unsuccessful battle in your campaign, which causes this character to discover that reform was needed.

    Of course, you can often get several or all of these changes in ‘compilation’ or ‘overhaul’ mods. If you have not used a mod or combination of mods before, then it is a good idea to play a 'test' campaign to see whether a mod or combinations of mods produces a stable campaign. Despite the best efforts of mod designers, sometimes players experience crashes (and crashes occur with unmodified games, of course). Such problems, especially if the saved game is corrupted, have stopped AARs from continuing – however, see the next tip for a solution.

    2. You can re-start your campaign

    Perhaps you keep winning easy victories and are concerned that this is will make your story less exciting. You might be becoming a more confident commander and want to increase the difficulty so that you will enjoy the campaign. Possibly the game crashed and your saved game has become corrupted or your computer had a meltdown and your campaign was lost. You might write your story based on the assumption that your faction will fight a difficult defensive war against faction X, only for faction X to be eliminated by faction Y. Alternatively, maybe you wanted to tell the story of how your faction allied with faction Y to fight against faction X, only for faction Y to refuse every offer of alliance. In that situation, you might want to re-start with a lower campaign difficulty so that AI factions are more likely to agree to your diplomatic offers; other options include changing your story or using a different campaign difficulty setting or a mod to achieve your goal.

    In all of these cases, you can re-start your campaign and continue your AAR where you left off. As well as enabling you to change difficulty settings which might not be adjustable during a campaign, re-starting enables you to try different strategies. Even if you don't experience problems, you might want to play the first 20 turns or so of several different campaigns, using different strategies, to see which provides the best set-up for your story.

    3. You can post long or short updates

    Sometimes writers apologize for short updates. You don’t have to do that. Short updates can make it easy for new readers to get into your story. Short updates can enable you to have several chapters written, but not published, during the course of posting your chapters. If you suddenly have a great idea for making chapter 5 better - and, to make this idea work, you need to add a new chapter in between chapters 1 and 2, then this is a lot easier to do if you haven't posted chapter 2 yet. Writing an AAR can take up a lot of time - you can choose to make it more manageable. If you write 4,000 words and divide it into several short updates, then you can keep posting updates for longer than if you had included it all in one chapter.

    4. You can write a story about your campaign or play a campaign to suit your story

    AAR writers traditionally play a campaign and use whatever happens to provide the basis for a story. That's one way of writing an AAR, a 'campaign-led AAR'. Another way is to work out what story you want to write and play the campaign that will cause that story to happen - a 'narrative-led AAR'. You don't have to choose between these approaches, you use both in the same AAR.

    Events which happen in-game which don't fit your story can be ignored, up to a point. If you want another faction to attack your faction in your story, you can declare war on the other faction in-game while, in your story, the other faction declares war on your side. Custom battles can create events which happen in your story but not in the game. Perhaps the other faction didn't declare war until after they had treacherously attacked a lightly defended city, causing many civilian casualties and enraging the people of your faction - perhaps this attack can be created with a custom battle. It might also help to form an idea of one or more 'story arcs' - what story/whose stories are you telling? Some AARs focus more on the faction and its choices, as if the faction was the main character, while other AARs focus on individual characters.

    5. You can use pictures or write a story without pictures

    Some AARs rely heavily on images. Other AARs use text exclusively or almost exclusively. A good examples of the former is Trapstila Vandalarius: The Fall of the Romano-Gothic Empire by Lugotorix. A good example of the latter is What is best in life? A Hojo AAR by McScottish. Some AARs use campaign map images and pictures about characters, such as At the Limes by SeniorBatavianHorse, the AAR which won the first ever MAARC (Monthly AAR Competition). Not all of the pictures have to come from your campaign (or from the same campaign). In some early chapters of At the Limes, SeniorBatavianHorse uses a more traditional style of screenshots. In some later chapters of this AAR - and in his later, legendary AAR The Nowhere Legion/Quinta Macedonia Legio - you'll find historical maps instead of campaign maps. You'll also find a cinematic style of screenshots, showing armies moving across landscapes.

    Writers often use custom battles to generate images. You can also use images which are not from the game, such as public domain images of historical portraits or places. Of course, we need to be mindful of the terms of service which say that substantial use of copyright material without permission is not allowed.

    6. You can ignore things which did happen in your campaign

    A Critic’s Quill article which I often recommend to new writers is When Life Gives You Lemons by Shankbot de Bodemloze. Shankbot presents options for writers when a character who is essential to our plot is killed. One of the options, which might surprise some new AAR writers, is this one:-

    Pretend it never happened - "Ignorance is bliss"
    Yes, you are hearing me right - continue the game as you would even though your character is dead. The readers don't have to know, and you don't have to include pictures of him/her, heck you could use older ones but remove the traits/age section. This is, surprisingly, the least disruptive in terms of the writing, as you can just keep moving it forward until a more convenient place of death - of course you could be really clever and save the death notification pic that appears until a time when you need it. Some of the more crazy of you may indeed go for keeping him alive in the story until the end, ignoring the death completely! Whilst in the short-run this may seem the best course of action, you may find it difficult to keep getting inspiration for the rest of the story.
    7. You can write about characters and events which did not exist in your campaign

    Perhaps you would like to write about several generations of a Roman family. Suppose the game you are using is Total War: Rome II, which does not have family trees. Of course, you could use a different game which does have family trees instead. Alternatively, you could play Rome II and invent your own family tree(s), based on the characters who appear in your game.

    You do not have to restrict yourself to characters who exist in your campaign. If you look around the AARs in the Writers’ Study, you will come across AARs which tell the stories of ordinary foot-soldiers as well as generals and monarchs. Your character could be an ordinary soldier in any of the units belonging to your faction. You could tell the story of a battle from the perspectives of foot-soldiers on opposing sides in the same battle. As Merchant of Venice showed in It's just a matter of Perspective: writing in the views of different characters this can cause readers to think differently about events which they have already read about from one character's viewpoint:-

    ... an epic battle may involve three of the most important characters, all of whom may be at different locations during the battle or on opposite sides. The first chapter with the battle may follow Character A as the battle commences. The next chapter then switches sides and focuses on Character B, who may be losing or winning the battle and details his or hers emotions and thoughts. The following chapter then switches back to Character A and focuses on their part in the battle. Then the next chapter may introduce Character C into the battle, as maybe reinforcements or maybe they were there the whole time. Here, instead of detailing the battle from the view of simply one character, the readers get to read about the battle from three different points of view, possible changing the reader's opinions on the battle or even on the characters themselves.
    You could go further than that: your character does not have to be represented in your game at all, or whose existence is only indicated indirectly. For example, one of your characters could be a merchant trader who is travelling along one of your trade routes, a diplomat or the governor of one of your provinces. Your characters could include the husbands, wives and children of people who do appear in your game.

    Your inspiration does not have to come from the game itself. Your story could include elements inspired by your own experiences, as McScottish explained in Inspiration, Part One:-

    Inspiration can come in any form and strike at any time, you just need to be able to use it. I personally have a 'catalyst system' that I use; once I find something or someone that inspires me I shall use it as a crucible or driving force of inspiration, for example, presently I am doing my world tour of New Zealand and the amount of things which I have found through the scenery and countryside alone is quite astounding. Matched with the rich heritage of the Maori people there is simply an abundance of sources wherever you go. From these you can create any number of scenarios or storylines; tales of shipwrecked sailors, stories of aliens with elements of Maori culture (Te moko-style facial tattoos, a mainly tribal lifestyle, and more), or any number of others.
    8. You can write in a history-book, soft-narrative or hard-narrative style

    In Writing the Game, Ariovistus Maximus advised writers to strive for a balance between focusing your story on events in the game and focusing on events created by your imagination:

    If you ignore the game entirely, you will lose an important element. Like I said, people enjoy the connection between your story and the game they like so well. However, if everything is a reference to the game, or a simple report on your campaign progress, the AAR will lack depth; there won’t be any story to keep people coming back for more.
    More recent critics such as Hitai de Bodemloze reported that AAR writers were moving towards AARs which reflected the imagination of their writers, using images from custom battles to provide screenshots. In such AARs, there might not even be a campaign!
    In Narrative Trends in Shogun II AARtistry, Hitai explained how the history of Shogun II AARs illustrates the development from history-book AARs to soft narrative and then hard narrative. Hopefully the following example will illustrate the differences between these styles:-

    - In a traditional history-book AAR, the writer aims to provide a clear impression of their experiences of the campaign. They might tell the reader that they have improved the road network, developed farmland and recruited a unit of militia infantry, for example.

    - In a soft narrative AAR, the writer aims to tell a story based on their campaign. In the previous example, we might read about a general as he travels with his bodyguards along the new road. The general observes the militia as they attempt to present their unfamiliar weapons in a fierce, warlike manner, causing a young farm-worker to snigger at this unimpressive display. This could lead to the general personally involving himself in training this unit and leading them to victory.

    - In a hard narrative AAR, the story simply uses the world of the game as a setting, without following the story of a campaign. In the previous example, we could see the encounter between the general and the unskilled militia through the eyes of the young farm-worker. Some men from the militia unit, humiliated by being laughed at by a boy or girl in front of their general, return to the farm and frighten the farm-worker into leaving the farm. The farm-worker could go on to have a series of adventures in (for example) the time of the fall of the Roman Empire or the Napoleonic Wars. Any warfare could be in the background, as the story would focus on the experiences of the main character.

    The development of AARs from history-book to soft narrative and then hard narrative might cause some writers to feel that you must write a narrative AAR and that you have to include elements of hard narrative. That is not true - you can write in any style you like.

    You can stick to one approach if you prefer that, as Hitai de Bodemloze does in in the magical hard narrative tale Yōkai . Do AARs always fit neatly into one or other of these categories? In Picture Books: Contesting the story/screenshot dichotomy, Hitai summarised the distinction between the three styles in this way:-

    traditional after action reports focus solely on presenting gameplay, with no story or narrative immersion whatsoever; history book after action reports present gameplay with an overarching and immersive narrative, but no character-driven story; soft narrative after action reports use a character-drive story to retell in-game events, whilst finally hard narrative after action reports tell a story with no attachment to any gameplay.
    Perhaps your history book AAR has elements of story-telling, or your soft-narrative tale of your campaign contains characters and story-lines which you invented and which don’t exist in the game? AARs often cross over these categories, for example there are history-book AARs with elements of narrative, such as IneptCmdr’s inspiring For King and Country. Robin de Bodemloze’s epic Takeda started as soft narrative and ended as hard narrative. Perhaps you will find a way to write an AAR which will cause readers to rethink their categories, because your writing defies the classifications which existed before. While Total War games tend to focus on men, using characters who aren't in the game (or who only appear in the game in a marginal way) enables us to give greater attention to women characters. Some male writers might be unsure about how to write great women characters. How can we do this? As Lortano showed in The fairer side of life: writing women in CW and AARs, the same way as we write any good characters:

    You need the qualities and moments that make a character memorable, dilemmas that twist a character sideways, longways, slantways and any other way you can think of, not to mention epic rage moments
    9. You can write a historical, alternative-historical or unhistorical story

    People sometimes wonder what to put in the opening post of a new AAR. You will probably want to include a prelude or ‘teaser trailer’ to interest readers in your story. If you are using mods, you might want to list them. You could add a list of characters and, when you have written more, a list of chapters.

    Your opening post can also be a way to tell your readers what to expect in your story. Are you aiming for a realistic campaign and, if so, what does ‘realism’ mean to you for this game and this time period? Do you want to use art, culture, language, historical characters or events? If you are interested in historical research in AARs, then The Role of Historical Research in Writing by Maximinus Thrax is a good place to start.

    Do you want to follow what happened historically or change it? You could focus on a particular event which could have turned history in a different direction - perhaps your story will explore what would have happened if a king who survived a battle actually died; I used that as the starting point for my Ireland AAR Éirí Amach: Irish Rising. What if a younger brother or sister rather than an older one inherited the throne of your faction or another faction, causing a different policy than was followed historically, or what if a vital message didn't get through in time? For example, suppose the 300 Spartans didn't reach the narrow valley where they fought so effectively against the vast Persian army at Thermopylae because the messenger summoning them was late. History could have turned out differently. Perhaps in school, when studying ancient European history, people would have studied the history of Ancient Persia and Ancient Rome rather than Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome. In Alternative History at a Glance, m_1512 advised AAR writers to consider what information we need about the historical period, whether our information is reliable and what makes our alternative history interesting for our readers as well as ourselves.

    10. You can put your AAR ‘on hold’ or to stop it and write something else instead

    If you aren’t enjoying your campaign and writing your AAR, then feel free to stop and write something else instead. I recommend My Ten Rules for Writing an AAR by Skantarios, author of the legendary AAR I am Skantarios. Skantarios recommends that we choose a character, faction or story which we are passionate about. Skantarios also recommended setting realistic goals. You don't have to post updates every week. You don't have to post long chapters. You don't have to write the story of your whole campaign; you could write the story of a particular war or the life of a character. When I start a new AAR, I think of a couple of possible 'exit points' where the story could end - an earlier one and a later one.

    Thank you for reading! This article was meant to help new and inexperienced writers. Perhaps it did not answer questions which you have - please comment with any questions about writing AARs or creative writing which you would like Critic's Quill writers to discuss in future articles. Feedback and comments are welcome.
    Comments 13 Comments
    1. McScottish's Avatar
      McScottish -
      An exceptional guide to a sometimes difficult subject; my commendations to you, Alwyn, for another quality CQ article.
    1. Hitai de Bodemloze's Avatar
      Hitai de Bodemloze -
      Great to see you delving into the archives and bringing older articles and stories into the mix. Great article~
    1. The Good's Avatar
      The Good -
      I just found out about this AAR guide, and I'm impressed. Thank you!
    1. SeniorBatavianHorse's Avatar
      SeniorBatavianHorse -
      Great article, Alwyn - and it covers most of the rich AAR territory. Well done in terms of the research and time spent in writing this. The only thing to add which springs to my mind is the fantastic AAR penned by that legendary AARtist, knonfoda. His use of music and video deepened the AAR format and raised it to a multi-media level. There was something magical about reading his prose to the music he had chosen! Apart from that, you have penned a fantastic article which should help those starting their first AARs.

      I wish there had been something like this when I started back in 2007 - all I did was make up some House Rules and fumble my way through my first AAR!
    1. Alwyn's Avatar
      Alwyn -
      McScottish, Hitai, The Good and SeniorBatavianHorse, thank you! Thank you SeniorBatavianHorse for the tip about Knonfeda's AAR; for readers who would like to discover this multi-award winning AAR, here's a link: Julian, The Saviour of Rome?
    1. Shankbot de Bodemloze's Avatar
      Shankbot de Bodemloze -
      Great article Alwyn, honoured to have a mention.
    1. SanyuXV's Avatar
      SanyuXV -
      I wish I had this resource when I plunged in headfirst into the AAR pool. Great content Alwyn
    1. Flinn's Avatar
      Flinn -
      Great piece; very informative and an enjoyable reading too

      I guess that talent (as a writer I mean) plays its role too, but as a matter of fact AAR is a really flexible field; as long as one is able to keep the readers' interest high, any "trick" is well welcomed!
    1. Lugotorix's Avatar
      Lugotorix -
      A great introduction to our niche art form. A very well written article with great source articles, quotations and references. Well done!
    1. Alwyn's Avatar
      Alwyn -
      Wow, thank you Shankbot, SanyuXV, Flinn and Lugotorix!
    1. Wulfburk's Avatar
      Wulfburk -
      Thanks for this article!
    1. RandomPerson2000's Avatar
      RandomPerson2000 -
      Had to repost my idea since the forum updated itself which deleted my posts
      Use battle from a total war game in conjuction with a paradox game in an aar
    1. Alwyn's Avatar
      Alwyn -
      Thanks, Wulfburk!

      Thanks for re-posting your idea, RandomPerson2000 - have you seen that Zeion has started an AAR which uses both Total War: Attila and Crusader Kings 2, the AAR is Blood Red Eagle (link). It would be great to see more people experimenting with new ideas for AARs.