After-Action Reviews

I decided that today & tomorrow, I’ll post up the two articles I wrote in Pyramid Magazine years ago. Since  I have the rights to reprint and they’re pretty old, I figured “hey, maybe people would like to see how I got my start here” and also see how my writing’s changed. Plus, maybe the ideas are worth merit today.

This is from February 6, 2004. And for the record, I have not edited it post-publication.

– Ryan

After-Action Reviews

Often, Special Forces and covert operations/espionage games operate with the idea that the end of the mission or getting home in one piece is the climax of the game, perhaps with a little debriefing. Most of the time that is where the game ends; gamers usually don’t want to reenact their boring real-life desk jobs by writing reports. However, writing an After-Action Review can be fun, as the players are documenting the events of a particular mission, their exploits and craftiness, as well as giving their take on how the mission went down.

The content and purpose of an After-Action Review (AAR for short) is sketched out in GURPS Special Ops, page 99. That section also includes the type of information that is generally contained in one, so you may wish to refer to it in order to learn the sort of details to include. The focus of this article is on how to use player-written AARs in a game.

Functions of an After-Action Review

An AAR has several uses: Collecting intelligence to assist with related operations, aiding in the success of similar operations in the future, and evaluating the performance of the team, both collectively and individually. These are the reasons why the characters of the game world would write them. However, when engaging your players in this activity, there are other in-game and out-of-game reasons for them:

Gives a feel for down time. The bulk of many special operations game sessions is planning before the mission or action during the mission, especially when the GM has to incorporate the various tactics the players use into the game, such as splitting up, doing recon, or performing specialty tasks (setting up a sniping position, perhaps, or wiring a bridge with explosives). Doing things like writing reports, having lengthy debriefings, and going to get some chow and shut eye are often off-camera. Writing an AAR can give more of a feel for the game world and lend a bit of realism — characters have to justify their actions, and they have a life outside of dodging explosions and gunfire.

Records a story for posterity. Players and GMs may look back fondly at the reviews from a Black Ops dinosaur hunt campaign when stumbling upon them months or years later. Perhaps they may decide to run a sequel or a spin-off, or just enjoy passing them around for old time’s sake.

Allow for subtle secret communication. If you have one person playing a character whose true identity or purpose is a secret to the rest of the party, he could write up a review for his Secret Masters after each mission. Having written reviews the player hands to his superiors can also help determine what information he feeds them, rather than relying on memory or on assumptions about what the character tells. In addition, the character can deliberately leave out information and the GM will know to not feed those facts to the NPC superiors, such as omitting the location of a party member that the operative is growing attached to.

Gives opportunity to keep secrets from superiors. If the operatives decide that they need to keep a portion of a mission a secret — such as not reporting that the Thing Lurking In The Shadows slaughtered half the team in fear that they would be locked away as murderous psychotics — then the players can roleplay that in their reviews, and the GM knows to only include any information in the reviews in his mental “what the superiors know” checklist.

Props for a later game. Written reviews can be used as props when the GM plays a superior who wants to question the characters about an inconsistent story. This can help add drama or tension if the players are trying to keep an aspect of the mission secret. What if one of the agents in the “secrets” situation decides not to hold to the pact? Alternatively, a new campaign or different game can involve a mission to rescue an operative by including parts of his reviews in the Operation Order. In this case, holding onto past AARs is good for future game fodder.

Settling disputes between characters. When a mission doesn’t go as planned, the characters and their superiors will look to see what went wrong and who, if anyone, is to blame. Rather than waiting until the debriefing, sometimes arguments will take place in the middle of a game, such as when the commander gives an order to retreat. An AAR gives the character the ability to voice his disagreement with the order to his superiors while still following orders. It also allows the character to state why he disobeyed orders if necessary. A well-written and well-reasoned AAR could affect the superiors’ judgment upon that character — the commander’s superiors could reason that the order was ill-advised, and may forgive the character for disobeying the order.

Settling disputes between players. Tactician players can sometimes get into heated arguments about the position of their characters and the situation they are in when something goes wrong. If Agent Zulu argues about Agent Rice’s poor decision to fire a snap shot at an escaped prisoner running right next to Zulu, and an argument breaks out about distances from each character, skill scores, and firing penalties, it’s up to the GM to get that resolved so the game can move on. Telling the players to remember it for the AAR (and to remember to keep it in character) can help resolve that argument for the time being without making either player feel like he has no say in the matter.

How to use After-Action Reviews in your game

First, decide if you want the reviews to be optional or mandatory. In general, optional is the best way to go if you want to introduce the idea to your group and don’t want to penalize anyone who might not be interested or feels daunted by the idea. Mandatory is appropriate if you want to heavily involve players in the downtime of a character or if you have a behind-the-scenes plot you want the players to report about, such as the existence of an alien conspiracy.

If you use AARs as an optional part of the game, you might entice players with a small reward, such as a character point or two to spend on skills. This will initially motivate players to write reviews, and then seeing the AAR’s effects in action might continue that motivation. If a player does not write one, then assume his character wrote one, but give it no special benefit or penalty.

If you are planning to have AARs as a mandatory part of the game, you will want to talk to your group and make sure they are comfortable with the idea. Many gamers use gaming as a retreat from school or work, and adding a “homework” factor into the gaming experience could be unpleasant for some people, so you should make sure their reports have an impact on the game that they can feel, above and beyond character point awards.

Once you incorporate AARs into your gaming, you must decide what to do with them. There are a few things to consider:

What format do you want the reviews in? You should decide whether or not you want to set a strict format for the documents. A simple narrative essay is easy for some people to write, particularly those who are not used to writing under strict guidelines. Others will prefer to follow a template and insert information accordingly. If you decide on a required format, you should provide the players with a blank copy and maybe an example AAR to help them.

How much access do the other players and characters have to another operative’s review? In some cases, especially if you are involving your players in secret subplots, you will not want to show the reviews to the other players — both they and their characters are in the dark, unless a player specifically shows the others, either in or out of character. In cases like this, it is quite possible that the character would distribute false AARs to other team members, to sow confusion or to cover up something.

At other times, you may wish to show the players what everyone has written, to give them ideas for future reviews and to let them know how others viewed the adventure. You should make it clear whether this is in-character knowledge or not. If you decide it is not in-character knowledge, be sure you aren’t putting a burden on your group by feeding them too much information they aren’t able to act on.

How will you reward your players? A small character point or experience point award can be a fun enticement, especially to get things started. Other possible rewards include promotions or decorations for characters who have their exploits written about (especially by other characters), or add to the group’s reputation with colleagues and favor with superiors. Such advancement could be used to activate subplots, such as special high-profile missions or access to experimental gear. (“Did you hear about how Team Six handled that operation in Brazil? They might be able to help test out the X-220!”) Good individual and team rewards make the experience worthwhile, and may cause the players to put more effort into future reviews.

One thing to keep in mind when rewarding players is the content of the review, not the player’s writing skill. Unless you want to treat it as such, this is not an English class. Many people may be able to play characters well but lack strong writing skills. While it is fine to reward players who go over the top in reviews, just as they do in the actual game session, remember to not discount those who are making serious efforts to also play along.

Other ways to do AARs

The idea of an After-Action Review can be easily molded to fit other campaigns. In a World War II infantry campaign, characters could be writing letters home to family and friends, instead of or in addition to AARs. In this case, they wouldn’t be rewarded by superiors for what they write, but it would further their character immersion, and they may be able to get special rewards such as Mom’s Homemade Cookies (which could be useful for bartering) or just a good feeling hearing that your brother is alive and well after his plane was shot down in the Pacific (which could give the character +1 to Will rolls for morale).

A horror or mystery game could involve people writing in journals, sharing the information and trying to uncover a crime. This is especially useful for tying together two or more separate groups running in one meta-campaign — such as tracking down a mysterious cult and sharing the information with each other from different parts of the world.

Another idea is to change the format of the After-Action Review into a news article. In a pulp-era UFO chasing campaign, players could be from a fringe press that publishes articles on strange phenomena. Players could write articles after their adventure, and there would be a definite reward in the form of payment if the article is published. The opportunity to play a grizzled scheming editor like Spider-Man-nemesis J. J. Jameson can be fun for players or GMs. This sort of format lends itself to immersing the player in the character’s day-to-day professional life, rather than just a series of adventures they are called to go on. Having articles published could lead to fame and fortune, or the wrong king of attention from the wrong kind of people.

An After-Action Review is not suited for every campaign, such as epic fantasy games, where the heroes continue from one day to the next on their quest rather than returning home and writing reports for their superiors (especially when some of those characters may not even be literate). Nor is it suited for every group. However, there is a lot of fun to be had with this additional layer of gaming, and a campaign can be greatly enriched with After-Action Reviews.