Flashbacks are known from movies and TV, where they can be used to reveal important moments in the past of the characters, can reveal the motives of the villains, and can be used to surprise the audience when a well-timed flashback reveals that our heroes already had taken care of the villain’s alarms. In roleplaying games, the flashback can be used in much the same manner and with great effect.
Far from Civilization
When the adventurers are traveling in the wilderness far from civilization, civilization and important NPCs are never more than a flashback away. If battling monsters in the wild needs variation, then flashbacks can be the right tool. Go back and play scenes, where the characters bid their farewell to their loved ones, or run out on their money-lenders, or to the moment when they were visiting the senile sage.
No Dangers Lurk in the Flashback
We know that the hero will not die during the flashback (or at least that he will be brought back to life again), and one might argue that a flashback becomes devoid of danger, but that is not true. The life of the character may not be at stake, but many other things will be at stake. A flashback may confront the hero with a monster, and if he does not deal successfully with it in the past, he may still be paralyzed with fear, when he confronts it now. A clue may be lost, a piece of equipment may spend one charge too many, or the villain may successfully dishonor our hero. Death is not the only danger.
How to do Flashbacks
In the following, I will cover four different types of flashbacks. They can be used on a regular basis in a campaign, or you can use them for a single session to underscore a theme. The flashbacks (as presented) are mainly used by me in D&D, but they are more or less a plug-in that can be applied to other games, such as Call of Cthulhu, GURPS and Storyteller.
In order to earn a bonus to a skill check, to reroll a failed roll, or to posses the right tool, the player sets a flashback-scene. The player describes where and when, who is present (the present NPCs are played by the other players), and what is happening in the scene.
The scene is then played out briefly, lasting a few minutes, but revealing an important fact or story about the character. These flashbacks are rarely (if ever) planned ahead, and the player may ask the rest of the group for assistance with setting up the the scene.
As a creative constraint, a flashback could be tied to the present situation – the character e.g. is battling an orc, and the flashback reveals how he (as a child) tricked a bully, or when lifting a rock to rescue a trapped friend, the flashback goes back to that one time when his pet was trapped under a log. Creative constraints can be tied to other elements. For example, it must reveal an embarrassing moment in the character’s past, or a moment when he failed or ran in terror, and now he has the chance to once more confront his fear. And yes, this means that flashbacks can be played out in combat-scenes too, amidst attack rolls.
The amount of flashbacks available should be tied to the kind of resource the player gets. A single modifier such as a +1 or +2 in D&D to a skill check can easily handle the player doing a flashback as often as once per skill check – this may sound like much, but the players themselves will limit the use – for even though the bonus is tempting, it is not always interesting to play a flashback. Flashbacks might also be limited to two or three times per session or adventure.
In one particular game of D&D E4, our flashbacks were to a Skill Challenge, and individual players could earn bonuses to their skill checks by playing moments from their character’s past. This allowed us to expose the character’s back-story during the game, and for one character we had learned a lot about his days as a diplomat in his youth.
Important Flashbacks – Life-Changing Moments
Some moments in a character’s life are life-changing. These are truly worth playing out, even if they happened a long time ago. When a character is created, the player chooses three such events and adds one more, when a level is gained, a fate point is earned, or it can be bought for XP.
At dramatic moments, such as when a failed roll might mean the death of the character, the player chooses one of his scenes and it is played. It might be the scene where the character confronted his parents and ran away, or when she discovered her magic talent, or when she was initiated into a secret society of assassins. For one of our players, it was the moment when his character failed a skill check jumping from one enchanted airship to another. The character would have fallen to his death, had he not spent a flashback revealing to us the very moment the character realized his call to be a paladin contrary to his parents’ wishes.
Life-changing moments are longer scenes, but otherwise directed by the player. Once the scene is over, the failed roll is turned to a success, or the character miraculously survives or some such. These moments are limited, and work much like fate-, hero- or action-points in various games, but in this case, they are tied to the character.
Game Master-Controlled Flashbacks
Some flashbacks are controlled by the GM, as they are a part of the story to be played. Such a flashback may last a whole session and may reveal the origins of the PC’s (where some or most of the other players play NPCs), or there may be several flashbacks during a session, where bits of the plot are gradually revealed for the players, changing their perception of the events (and this may be due to them regaining their memories or just a narrative trick, where they slowly remember their past by playing out the events).
These flashbacks can be a handy tool to expose parts of the plot that need exposure, such as the characters visiting the sage before leaving town – before each encounter with a monster, we skip back to the meeting with the sage, where the characters are trying to get the senile sage to remember what he knows about the monsters.
A classic type of flashback is to reveal that the newly arrived NPC is an old friend. That kind of flashback is common from movies, and it is all too easy to use.
Flashbacks can also be used to place the characters in the middle of events – in media res – battling the necromancer’s zombies and then cut back to reveal how the characters took the job, and how they ended up here. Again a classic known from TV and comic books.
In RPG’s, an extra challenge can be added. For example, informing the players that flashes can only be activated under specific circumstances (in 4E, as a part of a skill challenge to remember during the combat, or when the PC’s break the enchanted memory crystals to release the memories, or simply when they overcome certain challenges).
Plot-based Flashbacks – or The Heist Maneuver
This type of flashback is tied to a specific mission or adventure, and works very well with heists.
In movie-heists, we see the main characters meticulously plan the heist, displaying a knowledge and expertise that often can be beyond the resources of the players and the game master. It may be cool to procure blueprints of a palace and the knowledge of how a lock works, but it requires much prepping. This can be solved with flashbacks.
In this type of scenario, each player usually owns three or four flashbacks, that can be employed whenever the character is confronted with a challenge. The player then activates the flashback and either cuts back to a moment during the planning or to a moment when a certain piece of equipment or information is picked up.
A heist-scenario can begin with a short briefing, and then you skip the planning and begin the scenario at the gates of the building. The players can either confront the challenge with the immediate resources of the characters, or activate a flashback.
Each flashback is player-controlled, and can reveal several different things, Such as revealing how the character memorized the guards’ patrol schedule, stole the gatekeeper’s key and made a copy, or how they picked up meat and sedatives to handle the guard-dogs. For a group of GURPS-characters in an old campaign, this was the approach in a science fiction-scenario on infiltrating a research facility.
The heist-flashback allows you to simulate the planning of a good heist, and even though it may seem a powerful method to use flashbacks, it does not remove the dangers. The flashbacks are a resource, and the players need to carefully manage their flashbacks, or they may run out at the most dire moments, such as when the vault releases it’s poison gas.
The heist-type can be used for any type of mission, where pre-planning plays a role from infiltrating a thieves guild to stealing the treasure from a dragon’s lair. However, it is not limited to these kinds of scenarios, it can also be used for political intrigues, where flashbacks reveal the shady maneuvering performed before important meetings, where guards are bribed, and servants convinced to allow access to important files.
In the end, the flashback is simply a great tool for any roleplaying game.