The Narrative Forge: Writing Better Battle Reports

An article by    Gaming The Narrative Forge        0

Editor’s Note: This is an updated version of an article originally published in 2018.

Some battles are so great they deserved to be immortalized in writing. The ups, the downs, the thrill of victory, the agony of defeat — anyone who has ever read one of White Dwarf’s battle reports (especially the old-school ones with all the cool diagrams) has thought about making their own sweet battle reports, replete with all of the strategic and narrative details that made the game memorable.

Battle reports are a great way to talk about the game we love, show off cool models, and discuss the kinds of great moments that drive us to want to play more games. The best battle reports tell a great story and help us learn how to be better players. They get us excited about the possibilities for new games, and thinking about new ways to play.

So why are so many battle reports so incredibly boring?

Why This is So Hard

Looking I’m going to level with you: Writing good battle reports is an uphill battle. Warhammer 40,000 is not a good spectator game when you are right there watching it – serious games can take 2-3 hours, there’s a ton of “dead” time spent standing around, a lot of the action involves just rolling dice, and the core of what’s going on in each player’s head is never verbalized. So games of 40k are already kind of boring when you are watching them happen live – this is why the best video battle reports try and cut their videos down to something more like 40 minutes – how can you possibly make it interesting if you don’t even have the visual aid of the action happening in front of your reader?

 

We Can Do Better

Writing a good battle report is essentially like telling a story – the same principles matter, and some people are better at it than others. The good news is that, just like with telling a story, writing battle reports is something you can improve at over time, and with practice. In this article I’m going to talk about a few things I’ve learned about writing battle reports, and how to apply those to your writing so you can produce the kind of battle reports that have people saying things like “wow that was much more interesting than I thought it would be!”

NOTE: I’m not trying to call anyone out here. I love all of my Goonhammer co-authors, and I love your battle reports. I’m just addressing something that people have asked about before. Your battle reports are perfectly adequate, One_Wing.

One_Wing: Them’s fighting words. Which I guess is good because that’s technically this whole topic? I’m so confused now. Anyway, hi, you’re getting some of my thoughts on this too, and this is something we’ll be talking about as part of our upcoming NOVA seminar about effective 40K writing.

 

Three Questions You Need to Ask

Writing a good battle report starts with asking yourself three questions:

  1.    Who is my audience? (and why are they reading this)
  2.    What am I trying to communicate? (what’s the point)
  3.    What was interesting about the game? (why should they care)

Let’s go through these.

 

Who is my audience? (and why are they reading this)

I’ve set this up as one question, but it’s really two. The first is “who’s going to be reading this battle report?” Is it for your close friends or playgroup? Strangers on the internet? Other players in a campaign? Write for the audience who will be reading (though generally speaking, if your report isn’t interesting to strangers, it probably won’t be interesting to you friends, either). Also, think about the experience level of the reader – do they play regularly? Are they competitive players? Or are they casual players new to the game? How you talk about things and what details you need to include will change based on the audience. Something we do at Goonhammer is generally assume that players from all levels are reading, and so when we do our editing, we try to avoid common abbreviations that may be confusing to new readers, i.e. we try to say “4+ invulnerable save” instead of “4++.” Sure, most players know what the extra “+” means, but it’s more important that we be accessible to the newer player than save a few seconds of typing.

In addition to thinking about your audience you also need to think about you the author: What are you bringing to all of this? And by that I mean that you need to consider the audience’s expectations and take that into account during your writing process. Is your battle report a highly tactical piece aimed at a very competitive audience? Then you’ll need to make sure that you have the credibility to write something like that, or else establish that credibility up front. On the other hand, if audiences are looking to you for a casual game with beautiful models, think about how you can showcase those images.

This is something that we work with on Goonhammer all the time in our articles – not everyone writes every type of content. Generally, you won’t see a ton of tactical content from say, Greg or Tyler, because they aren’t super-competitive players, and we know that they don’t have that credibility. Instead when we want to do something that combines their sensibilities with a more competitive mindset, we’ll pair them with a writer like Chase “Gunum” Garber or James “One_Wing” Grover. If we’re working on a piece where we don’t have a full-time staffer who plays that faction, we may ask someone like Richard Siegler or Jon Kilcullen to consult, because not only are they great players, but they also lend immediate authority to the content itself.

What this means when writing a battle report is to just make sure that your content is either in-line with your readers’ expectations of you, or that you’re properly setting expectations up front if it’s not.

One_Wing: Absolutely agreed on this – a lot of the decisions you need to make about style and content flow down from your audience. This isn’t restricted to just battle reports, but they can be where the divide in expectations between different audiences (e.g. narrative and competitive players) can be starkest, so it’s especially relevant.

 

What is the purpose of this battle report? (what’s the point)

The next question you need to ask yourself is why you’re writing this report in the first place. Generally, battle reports need to do one or both of the following: Inform and entertain. Ideally, your report will do both, but that need not be the case: If your game was a casual affair between friends with no real strategy, then your report needs to be entertaining, laced with humor and good storytelling and pictures of pretty models. On the other hand if your games weren’t particularly entertaining, then the report needs to be informative, giving the reader new insight into how to play. If your report is neither, then it shouldn’t have been written in the first place. If you haven’t written it yet, then now is a good time to stop. Not every game needs a battle report. Sad, but true.

Battle reports are like stories. Good stories have meaning. One of the easiest ways to teach someone something is to tell them a story that communicates a lesson. Aesop’s fables are wonderful classical examples of this. Aesop never wrote any of them down – they weren’t collected and written until three hundred years after the dude died, but people still remembered them because stories stick with us. It’s why you can’t remember what you had for lunch last week, but you’ve memorized every stupid (false) urban legend you’ve ever heard. So when you write your battle report, think about it like a story. What’s the meaning of the story – the moral, or key takeaway – and how do you communicate that?

Another thing to think about in this vein is “what do I want someone to take away from my report?” Are you showing off a new game type? relaying key events in a campaign game? Talking about your tournament experience? Whatever you want the reader to take away from your report, make sure you address that first and foremost, and understand that everything else is extraneous.

One_Wing: My angle on this is slightly different, because often my battle reports sit within tournament reports, so I generally need to write something about every game I played. In addition, competitive players are much more likely to be interested in a report on a battle that, bluntly, sucked, because there might still be some useful tactical information to take away from it. They also form a part of a bigger story (that of a tournament) so skipping on one entirely would be weird

With that in mind, my version of this heading (and for me it overlaps with the next one) would be to make sure that your reader has the context they need to get the most out of a report, and any key information is highlighted. In my tournament reports, that’s the purpose behind the pre- and post-game sections covering a plan and takeaway lessons in each match. Including a plan means that when I start talking about what happened on the first turn, a reader has a framework within which to understand it. Writing “I shot at a Leman Russ and missed” isn’t super interesting in the abstract, but if your reader has come straight on from a planning section where you talk about how the Russ must die on turn one, it suddenly infuses those events with a sense of urgency and importance. Once again bleeding into the next section, wrapping up with a conclusion section at the end can help a reader distinguish which events in the game really mattered, and which ones were maybe just random twists of fate that can probably be discounted.

Finally, all the framing around the write-ups for individual games is partially there to empower people to skip over one of them if they need to. As mentioned, the games form a part of a greater whole, but if someone doesn’t want to read about mean Space Elves bullying some Imperial Guard for the 5th time, they can just check the mission, result and maybe conclusion then move on to the match-ups that interest them. It may sound weird to deliberately format my writing in a way where sections of it can skipped, and I’d obviously rather my readers read each and every one of my precious words, but it makes the articles a better informative tool, and circling round to the point of this section, helps smooth over the fact that I sometimes end up having to write about battles that basically aren’t interesting.

 

What was interesting about the game?

Ok, you’ve got the audience in mind. You know what you want to tell them. Now it’s time to talk about the game. Your audience doesn’t need all the details. Tell us what was interesting about the game. Don’t give us the turn-by-turn, tell us what was notable. Don’t tell us what you did, tell us why you did it, help us understand the strategy behind your decisions and what you learned. Like any good story, a good battle report needs forward momentum and a beginning, middle, and end. Figure out what your story’s narrative is going to be and which interesting moments feed into that narrative, then highlight those.

One_Wing: Once again the style has to change a bit for competitive reports, because the turn cycle has such a big impact on scoring, though unlike some writers out there I don’t split up my battle write-ups with turn sections because I basically do agree with all the points here. I generally do talk about at least the first three turns as distinct entities, only smoothing things out into an overall summary once the armies are depleted enough that you can wrap up the rest of the goings on in a few paragraphs.

However, you can apply the same principles Rob outlines to smaller units of time, and within a turn I’ll generally play slightly fast and loose with making the narrative strictly linear if I think it makes a better story. I might, for example, talk about what the units on one flank achieved in both the shooting and fight phases, then switch over to the other flank and tell their whole story rather than jumping back and forth. You can also do this with emotional beats – talk about all the good stuff that happened for an army during their turn, but then move on to the disasters or big misses.

I’m 100% on the same page with Rob about the importance of not overloading the audience with details, and I think it’s a big mistake a lot of writers make. A huge amount of stuff happens in every game of 40K on a technical level, but the vast majority of it doesn’t actually matter – focus on the meaningful results and the big decisions.

 

Additional Tips and Tricks

If you just start your reports thinking about (and answering) those questions, you’ll be well on your way to writing better reports. But to give you some additional help, here’s my step-by-step process for writing a battle report.

these fuckin idiots did nothing

Look at these fucking Night Lord idiots, about to fail in every conceivable way and a few that haven’t even been conceived yet

TheChirurgeon’s Step-by-Step process for writing a Battle Report:

  1. Establish the Narrative
    Writing a battle report is basically telling a story (or doing a journalism, if you prefer). And like telling a good story, you’re going to need to establish a narrative, with clear reference points, imagery, stakes, conflict, and pacing. Before you start writing your report, establish the narrative of your story. Is this a come-from-behind victory where you snatched victory from the jaws of defeat? Was it a tough defeat, where you learned a valuable lesson about your army? Was it a fiasco of disastrous rolls where nothing went right? Whatever you decide, lean into it – emphasize the details that play into that narrative, and don’t dwell on the ones that don’t. Don’t lie, (or lie if you want, whatever), but don’t go out of your way to tell us things that don’t fit the narrative unless they’re important. And if you have a bunch of key details that don’t fit the narrative, maybe you should consider a different narrative?
  2. Define the armies
    The armies are important. We get it. But they’re also boring. If you’re gonna go through several games or tel us about your tournament list, then yes, give us the full list (or better yet, link to it – you’ve got google docs. On Goonhammer, we often use expandable text for the lists). Otherwise, give us the broad strokes about your army and your opponent’s. Note the structure and the important stuff. Spare us from going through every points value and equipment choice unless you’re recapping a tournament and you think readers will want to copy one of the lists.
  3. Set up the game
    Spend a sentence or two setting up the game. Give us the quick recap of the mission and deployment, but don’t spend any more time on this than you have to. If it’s a special mission or game with cool rules, sure, tell us about that. If it’s Cleanse and Control with Dawn of War deployment and you went first, that’s literally all you need to say. This is also a good time to establish stakes as well – why does this game matter? It’s OK if all you’re doing is proving once again to ANAmal.net that he and his mans belong in a dumpster, because that’s something we can all relate to.
    If the tactics of the game are important talk about your plan – what did you want to accomplish going into this game? How were you going to win? What did you expect the opponent to do? This will set up an interesting beat to hit later, where you’ll talk about whether your plan did or did not work, and what you did when you were forced to change plans.
  4. Highlight the struggle
    Good stories have conflict. Try to set up some kind of suspense mid-report if you can.
  5. Give the highlights / lowlights
    Now you gotta tell the story. Don’t focus on the play-by-play. Instead, give us the highlights and lowlights. Tell us about your warlord punching a dreadnought to death. Tell us about the big gamble that paid off. Tell us about your opponent wiping an entire unit off the table with a lucky volley of fire, or when your meltagun raptor literally missed the building he was fucking standing on like some kind of chump bitch stormtrooper doing the rounds on his first day on Bespin.
    For tactically-focused battle reports, here’s where you talk about the army plan. Did it work? Why or why not? What did the opponent do to disrupt it? What mistakes did they make? Again, the goal here is not to be incredibly comprehensive, but to relay the important bits.
  6. Add some cool photos if you have them
    If you’ve got cool photos to add, put them in here. Again, we don’t need the play-by-play. Give us a shot of the table at the start for context, then show us some cool moments that you can put next to your descriptions. A couple of striking photos with close-ups of models mid-game are better than dozens of shots of the full table. Get photos that communicate the narrative you’re building.
  7. Give the outcome
    Tell us how the game ended. Who won, and what was the final score. If you were playing a tournament, give us your ongoing record after each game.
  8. Point out learning moments / insight
    Similar to the highlights/lowlights, point out what you learned and how your expectations shifted during the game. What worked, what didn’t. If you’re planning to change up your strategy in the future because of this game, tell us why and how. This may be the most important part of many reports.
  9. Simplify
    Go back, read what you wrote, and trim it down. Take out the unnecessary sentences. I guarantee you, your reports could stand to be shorter. Unless you’ve got a truly epic game to describe and word counts to fill, your reports should cap out at five paragraphs: 1 to set up the game, 3 to describe the early, middle, and late-game action, and 1 to give us the final results.

If you do these things, your battle reports will be more fun to read. If you can make them funny as well, then do that too. If you can’t, don’t try and force it. Just focus on telling better stories. Even if you’re recapping a tournament, there’s no reason your battle reports need to be dry.

 

Some Good Battle Reports on Goonhammer

We don’t do nearly as many of these as we used to — a lot of them are tournament reports now, and in this time of the Coronavirus pandemic no one is writing those. Though for my money, the best battle reports on the site are the Hear Me Out series, which combine interesting ideas (trying to make a weird unit/army work) with some fun back-and-forth. The stakes for the game are always clear: Winning means that you have successfully proved that your idea has legs, and we should all pay attention to it as a real contender. Lose, and we know that despite our best efforts, it just wasn’t meant to be.

Hear Me Out, Rob: Lockdown C’Tan
Hear Me Out Rob, Part 2: Elves vs. Robots

Hear Me Out, Cyle: Make a Viable Army Out of My Painted Crap
Hear Me Out, Wings: World Eaters

Gunum Presents: Hear Me Out, Cyle
Hear Me Out, Cyle: A Hog Initiation

Over the last few months, I’ve tried to experiment with more dynamic formats for battle reports. I think these do a decent job of summarizing the games, but there’s still some work to do formatting-wise and they’re probably a bit too long and dense.

Schemes of War – Black Legion vs. Custodes
Filthy Casual Battle Report: World Eaters vs. Nurgle

Here are some older battle reports that I still think are fun to read and showcase some interesting game types.

That Time my Night Lords Got Shithoused by Campbell’s Ultramarines – This is one of my favorites, and showcases how you can make a casual loss more interesting by building up the narrative elements around it. It’s not “I rolled a 1 for my raptors,” but rather “my dipshit raptors missed the building they were literally standing on.”

The Road to NoVA, Part 5: Big Dipshit Energy – I love Greg’s writing. Here he walks through several games played during his prep for NOVA and showcases how a decent battle report doesn’t really have to go into that much detail about the game. What’s important about these games isn’t how the games themselves went, but what those outcomes meant for his event prep, and how he coped with that.

Road to LVO: Editor Showdown Battle Report! – (Wings) obviously there are a million and one of my tournament reports you can go read too, but this game between me and Liam is worth reading because, thanks to it being played between two editors, we could get thoughts from inside the head of both players.

Have any questions or feedback? Tips and tricks you want to share? Drop us a note in the comments below or email us at contact@goonhammer.com.

 

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