Cardboard Children – Analysis of a Session Report

Hello youse.

Last week I told you I was going to do a session report of the new Games Workshop game The Horus Heresy: Betrayal At Calth. In the process of writing that session report – the first session report I’ve ever done as part of this column – I realised that I don’t really know how to write a session report. And now I’ve said “session report” about a million times. So today, before I lay my session report upon you next week, an analysis of the mysterious beast we call the board game session report. A million and two now.

ANALYSIS OF A SESSION REPORT

What is a session report, exactly? In board gaming, we understand it as the recounting of one playthrough of a board game. It’s a once-through, from start to finish. Or maybe it’s a piece that recounts one sitting of a game’s campaign. All in all, it’s a one-and-done – one session, re-told.

Fundamentally, a session report is a story. Some of the best session reports I’ve ever read have been, fittingly, in the pages of Games Workshop’s White Dwarf magazine. There they would take a good number of pages to tell the story of one battle between their Warhammer Fantasy or Warhammer 40K armies, with photographs and illustrations and lots of box-outs adding additional detail or colour. These Games Workshop session reports are lavish affairs – often the highlight of any issue of that magazine back in the day.

Modern times bring us to websites like boardgamegeek, where board gamers come together to share reviews, strategies and complaints about Kickstarter. And on boardgamegeek you’ll find tons of session reports. It might be some guy from Germany talking about a game of Agricola he played with the rest of his family. It might be some guy going on for about fifty paragraphs about some obscure wargame that takes a month to play. Or it might be a woman keen to tell the story of her triumph in a game of Spartacus. Sometimes you’ll see comments saying things like “This isn’t a session report.” Or maybe “This is more like a review than a session report.”

So how do you properly write a session report? When is it not a session report? When does it not properly stack up?

MY PROCESS

In the process of working up my Betrayal At Calth session report, I realised that I was sometimes slipping into a lot of talk about game mechanics. And then I’d be all like “OH NO, THIS IS BECOMING A REVIEW!” and had to refocus. In truth, I was keen to keep a tight hold on story. Story, story, story. Which meant trying to clear all that fuss about mechanics and rules away and zeroing in on how I’d recount the game to someone who has no interest in that stuff.

But when talking about board games, how do you separate the rules from the story? Let’s take Cluedo/Clue as an example. (I detest Cluedo, by the way.) If I was to tell you about some game of Cluedo I played last night, I might say something like this…

“Well, this guy had been murdered. So we all started moving around the house looking for clues. I wanted to go into the kitchen, but I couldn’t reach it in my first roll of the dice. So–”

Right, that’s me in rules now. So what? Do I explain about the dice rolling for movement? Should I then explain about the secret passages? How long should I talk about the rules for? Do they matter to the story of the game?

“I went into the kitchen, and I wanted to make a couple of suggestions in there. But then someone suggested I might be the killer, and I was moved to the lounge. Because when someone makes a suggestion about you, you get moved to the room they’re in and-”

I’m back in rules. I’m BACK IN RULES AGAIN. So maybe that isn’t such a bad thing. Maybe, when talking about Cluedo, there’s so little story that a true session report for that game is very rules-heavy. Because – look at it – without those weird rules that make everything tick, Cluedo isn’t anything at all. So to tell the story, you need to tell the rules. To explain each swing and twist of the tale, you need to talk about the mechanic that causes the swing.

A game like Betrayal At Calth is different.

Once you’re inside a scenario of Betrayal At Calth, with that little bit of backstory and colour, you can easily avoid any talk about specific mechanics. Whenever I found myself talking about “activations” or “line of sight”, I pulled myself back from it. The mechanics of the game are there to enable the story. They are not the story itself. You don’t have to talk about line of sight rules to explain that a Space Marine can see his enemy. You don’t have to explain how the movement rules work to explain that a Space Marine ran and slid into cover.

This type of session report should be different. It should be all story, with any rules talk kept to very rare occasions.

So next week, for Cardboard Children’s first ever session report, you’ll be reading something that’s far more like a story. We’ll have photographs, and alternating viewpoints. It won’t be the style of session report that will work for everything, but hey – I have no plans to do a session report for Cluedo. But I do want to get this kind of thing right, because I think that when a game tells a great story, it’s only right that you recount that story respectfully.

So, what is a session report to you? What do you want to see in one? And when is it not one?

Why is life so difficult?

13 Comments

  1. Bull0 says:

    Interesting stuff. I think you’re probably right! The rules for Betrayal are fairly simple and a lot of what happens is down to which cards are drawn and used, and you’d get all of that from simply narrating the story. Outside of the cards the units have a really basic set of actions – they move, they move a little bit faster, they shoot or they fight in close combat. When units die, they die, there’s no “And then I was able to buy 2 more marines” or whatever. Go for it.

  2. thekelvingreen says:

    I like a bit of both with a new game; a strong narrative, from the players if not from the game itself, plus rules explanations where appropriate.

    When I write session summaries for my blog I tend to do them as stories featuring the player-characters; this works well for rpgs but I’ve never tried writing a report for a board game.

  3. Emeraude says:

    If you haven’t already (unlikely, but one never knows) you might want to check the Japanese practice of Replays for RPGs.

    Pretty interesting.

    As for keeping log, really depends on the game, when I’m logging Netrunner, I’m interested in the statistical data. So it’s mostly just a record of moves (but then when we collectively remember games, it tends to be the stories born of game interactions).

    But for RPGs I have several old notebooks that are half narrative, event recollection with a side of prospective notes, and half hard data about the rules.

    Makes for great reading actually after a few years.

  4. Baines says:

    I like the references to rules. I tend to read session reports to get an idea of how games play, and intentionally erasing anything related to the rules defeats that.

    Besides, without the reference to rules, it just feels like I’m reading fan-fiction.

    • gwathdring says:

      I like fan fiction.

    • wraithgr says:

      This.
      My rule of thumb would be that it’s perfectly fine to mention rules and mechanics, less fine to discuss them outside the context where they appear… So it’s fine (and needed) to say you couldn’t go to the dining room in cluedo because you didn’t roll high enough, less fine to mention you got moved to the dining room because there is a rule that forces that*, not very fine to have a two-paragraph rant about how dice rolls for movement suck and they should do it with movement stats like that other game…

      *:This doesn’t seem hard to convey in a natural, non-review way: “I was accused, so I was forced to move to the dining room to face my accuser” implies there is a rule that made you do it. You don’t have to say “I did xyz because rule 54 on page 30 of the manual allowed me to” every time something happens!

      • wraithgr says:

        Also, the WD batreps had a LOT of this, since they were basically meant to showcase new armies/units. The writer would go into a good amount of detail about how he liked that he could charge with xyz unit because they now had this new attribute that made them more resilient, or felt that he was really unlucky that his other unit couldn’t kill anything despite the fact that they could reroll misses etc…

        • unacom says:

          Actually the early reports in White Dwarf were more like fan-fic and rather less showcase-reports. In my opinion these worked best when the report told a good story as well as relating part of the drama the players experienced while playing it.
          I think the way you have to devise a report has much to do with how the game itself works. In roleplaying-games I couldn´t care less about relating rules and mechanics. In board-games, telling how those work, might actually be more interesting than the story. Tabletops are a hybrid, so they benefit from both.
          By the way Rab, if you hate Cluedo -try Kill Dr. Lucky, if you haven´t already. I liked it much better than Cluedo.

  5. Shiloh says:

    I’ve never written one down, but me and my mate often go back over our games of Eldritch Horror, laughing at the horrible misfortunes which befell our plucky investigators at the hands of the merciless Old Ones.

    EH is a game which lends itself very well to this sort of thing – “Poor Diana Stanley. She had a tenuous grip on reality at the best of times, and these were definitely *not* the best of times… ended her days staring at a wall in an asylum in Buenos Aires after witnessing sanity-shredding terror in the Amazon. O the horror!”

  6. Bob In A Bottle says:

    You could always have it both ways, by telling the story as you’ve described, but interspersed with a telling of the game.
    Mechanical happenings in terms of rules and rolls could be in an italic font or some such to distinguish them. Sort of like an extended image caption.

    eg.
    Sergeant Corvus and his men unleashed a salvo of bolter fire upon upon their traitorous brethren. The very notion of such folly, such ingratitude, such spite, blew his mind. In return, he blew theirs.
    Two of three minds now decorated the stone columns behind, their armoured bodies lay twitching. Their squadmate flashed a look of determination, and then smirked as if he’d just solved a puzzle…

    [IMAGE]

    Robert’s 3-man tile engaged the 3-man squad emerging from behind cover. He rolled 2 critical hits complete with celebratory “whoop-whoop”. John rolled for morale and passed.

    {note I have no idea what the rules actually are}

  7. slumcat says:

    I think rules exposition is far more appropriate in a session report than it is in a review. It doesn’t have to be all story all the time; lots of things that happen in a game session are purely rules-driven. As far as reviews go, most game reviews on BGG these days rely too heavily on explaining the rules, and less on actually explaining why the game is or isn’t good/fun/noteworthy/etc. The occasional reference to a rule or mechanic that is fun or interesting (or frustrating or broken) is useful, of course, as is a very general overview of how the game plays out, but too many these days spend several paragraphs simply paraphrasing the rulebook from start to finish and close out with “I liked it!”.

    • rmsgrey says:

      I don’t have a problem with rules explanation in a review as such – my problem is with a review that just gives the rules without then developing from there. It’s entirely legitimate to provide a suitable context so that the meat of your review can be understood – but the rules summary is just the background, not the content.

      The same applies to a session report – when understanding of the rules is relevant, it’s valid to include rules and game-mechanical descriptions rather than pure story, but a rule that covers something that doesn’t come up in the session report otherwise shouldn’t be included.

  8. zipdrive says:

    Rab, don’t sweat the “rules talk” issue – it’s quite easy to solve: Imagine you’re writing the session report to someone who’s familiar with the rules. That way, the concepts are there, but not belabored, and you only go into them if it’s part of the drama (“Even though I was in mid-move, had no hope tokens left and had to roll five danger dice… I managed to crit the flamer-holding bugger and win the scenario!”).