Stupid DM Tricks: Flashbacks and narative disorder

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(Oh hey, I have this gaming blog! Totally forgot! Good thing Rob and John are around to bring the awesome  when I flake out for a week.)

I’m planning my 4e session for this week and I think it’s time to bring in the flashbacks. We’ve had 2 sessions to establish the plot and a couple of glimpses of character but now that the foundation is established I really like using flashbacks and other wacky narrative tricks to flesh out character backgrounds and motivations.

Also, just to get this out of the way: “if this is anybody but Rob MacDougall, you’re stealing my bit!” Yes, Rob really rocked this kind of stuff in his Unknown Armies game many years back (and again in his Sorcerer game). I’d done occasional dream sequences/visions of the future sorts of things on occasion but kicking the narrative order doors wide open? He’s the one who showed me how well it could work, so hats off to Rob.

That said, I don’t think flashbacks are necessarily super innovative and OMG nobody out there has ever used them before, this is such a revelation!  I’m just going to drop a couple of words about how I use them and how that works for me.

1) Retroactive foreshadowing. This must have a better name, but that will do for now. When I was running my “Omega War” Mutants and Masterminds game I started each session off with a flashback for one of the players. In that I usually dropped some bit of information or setting backstory that would be important in the session itself.  This way I didn’t have to plan everything out in painful detail at the start of the campaign or make everyone memorize a huge setting bible for bits that would come in handy 5 sessions from now. I think that gave the game more of a comic book-issue feel – you knew the gun on the mantelpiece was going to be fired by the end of the issue.

2) Expand involvement. The only real problem with doing the flashbacks is that it’s spotlight time on one player and runs the risk of the other players getting bored or feeling neglected. In the last  Star Wars game I ran I prepared one-sentence “kickers” and handed them out to the other players for them to be NPCs in the spotlight player’s flashback. A Jedi character’s flashback involved standing on the wall of a city watching her master get slaughtered by the Sith. So the other 4 players were other padawans in the Jedi enclave. To make things interesting the little kickers gave the players a starting point to work from (“I’m scared – the Sith are going to kill us all,” “Why did the master leave [the PC] in charge ofthe enclave? I’m older and more experienced,” “We should have been down there with the master – we could hve made a difference”) and just let the scene play out. The jump start let the other players get going without floundering for “what’s my motivation here” and allowed me to set the emotional conflict up to mirror the situation that was going on “now.”

3) Player narrative control. Those 2 things I said up there? So far they’re in the GM’s hands to initiate, but what if we let the players call for the flashback? This is ripping a page out of Primetime Adventures but once you’ve done a flashback or two, why not let the player drive? Maybe the PCs are at the end of a box canyon and there’s a band of brigands closing in on them. One of the players calls for a flashback to a time when he and another young boy became fast friends at, I don’t know, summer camp and lo and behold that other boy is the brigand leader. Or that the PC grew up in this area and once got lost in a cave right around here somewhere. Lots of games have resource tracking systems where you can spend hero points or some such to do this kind of dramatic editing, but if it makes reasonable sense within the established setting and the other players buy into it, why not? In either of those cases I’d still call for a skill challenge (assuming this was 4e) or some other mechanical tension builder but why not allow it? I’d also in this case jot down one-liners on index cardsa and give them out to the other players for the flashback, to keep everyone involved. I don’t really like tying this sort of thing to hero points or rescource expenditure because it can stifle creativity – what if the player has a great idea but is out of points? Can this be abused? Sure, in the hands of some players but I think those types of players are going to abuse whatever system you put in front of them anyway so either a) find different players or b) you may as well make this “abuse” work out for everyone around the table – judo-throw it from one player or character getting the spotlight and hogging all the awesome to everybody having a share of the awesome pie. Or something.

4) Flash Forwards. These are tricky and may work better in scripted media than around the table but when they click they bring a lot to the party. The trick here is the same as with any kind of precog abilities – you never quite know where the game is actually going to go.  Drop in too much detail and your players may feel railroaded. Leave it too vague and what’s the point? But if you can  walk that line it can be pure narrative gold.  Bryant once started a pulp game with a reunion of the old team and a revelation that the group leader wasn’t actually dead. Then the whole rest of the game was essentially in flashback as he characters recounted their adventures. The whole time you’re waiting for the “death” of the leader. You know it’s going to happen, so any conflict or cliff hanger could be the one. I had a flash forward in one game where two PCs were at the funeral of someone I established they knew well but who wasn’t an existing NPC in the game. A couple of sessions later, they met that NPC and some groundwork for the relationship had already been laid out.  A little temporal fiddling and you get a ton of emotional buy-in from the players. Very satisfying, when it works.

So I think I’m going to go read some Christopher Priest comics and watch some Lost and a Christopher Nolan film or two to get myself properly worked up for soem non-linear storytelling this week.

What kinds of tricks like this do you use in your games? If you incorporate flashbacks/flashforwards (or even scenes with entirely different characters, maybe running parallel to the main action) how do they come off? Do they work as intended or do they ever surprise you?

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9 Responses to “Stupid DM Tricks: Flashbacks and narative disorder”

  1. Jeffwik Says:

    I remember doing something clever with a flashback, or maybe a flashforward, once, but I forget what it was.

    • Moth Says:

      Did it involve a giant statue with only four toes?

      “Today is the tomorrow you worried about yesterday”

  2. John O'Brien Says:

    One question about doing flashforwards/flashbacks in d20 or 4e (and granted, this isn’t an issue with your group of players)… but in general, since D&D is all about the kewl powerz, how would you deal with the mechanics of the character sheet? Since so much of the satisfaction of gameplay is about levelling up, would you hand the players extra levels for the flashforward? Or would you just make sure the flashback doesn’t have any combat, and keep it all about role playing and setting/info reveal?

    • Christopher Tatro Says:

      For me, it’s all about the roleplaying and not about doing it for a combat thing. But with the 4e character builder it would be easy to mock up different sheets as necessary.

  3. Rob MacD Says:

    It’s nice of you to give me so much credit, since the only thing on this list I think I did (at least well) was #1. The main purpose of the UA flashbacks was, as you say, exposition and focusing: in this session, so-and-so’s mysterious past will be important.

    In some systems, like Dogs or HeroQuest, you can slip a short flashback into an extended contest. Could you do that in a 4e skill challenge?

    There’s a nice discussion in Sorcerer & Sword about how, in epic sword & sorcery stories, you really can jump around in time. ie, knowing that Conan eventually becomes King need not ruin your enjoyment of a story about Conan’s early life – it need not even mean that Conan won’t die in that story. Not true for all genres but definitely for some.

  4. foxtown Says:

    I’ve been doing a fair amount of pre-cog stuff with my Scion game, since one of the players has mad Prophecy.

    I decided I didn’t like the current rules and decided to morph them into a more narrative tool. I take a song and use that as the basis of the adventure, then play it as the openning theme song of the session. Also I give the player a copy of the lyrics (because of higher dots in Prophecy). It really has shapped the two adventure I ran.

    I’d love to use more of these tools for a game though, they definiately would add a lot! Thanks for the list.

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