Modular Gaming Components 10 - Flashbacks

 So I was hit by COVID again over the last week... not pleasant at all.

Last night was meant to have been the third night of our local "Medieval Tavern Nights", and I've been throwing together something a bit different to the first couple of games I ran. The first couple of games I ran have been character driven affairs, with lots of exploration of environment forming feedback loops with exploration of who the characters are and how they relate to one another. It's been fun, it's been deep, it's shown players that there can be a lot more to RPGs than just a combat session with strategic use of equipment and spells to face off against monsters and other adversaries. This time I'm actually planing to run a 3-4 hour combat session, and tell the story through that.

Both ideas use the concept of flashbacks.

The idea here is one that can be applied into virtually any game, but it probably works best with one-shots or short campaigns of no more than a half dozen sessions. These are the types of games where we don't traditionally get much chance to explore the backstories of characters or build the lore of the world in depth as play unfolds. This is the type of component that breaks open that stereotype and flips it on it's head...Tarantino style.

Everyone gets the chance to insert a flashback into the narrative at least once a session.

There's a few limitations on the flashback...

  1. The events of the flashback need to be relevant to the current events unfolding in the main story
  2. The events of the flashback should do at least one of the following:
    • Provide some kind of explanation for why a character has recently acted "out-of-character".
    • Explain how a character has acquired a piece of gear that is now somehow relevant to the story.
    • Show how two characters are related to one another.
    • Demonstrate the reason why a character is so familiar with a certain location.
    • Provide new twists on flashbacks that have already been recalled. 
  3. No-one may die during the event of the flashback, and if something happens that may cause a death or serious injury that seems to run counter to the events of the main storyline, there will need to be another flashback that re-contextualises the flashback so that it now makes sense in the narrative. 
  4. The events of the flashback become an established part of the ongoing narrative.      

This kind of component relies on the concept that the predefined events of the game are expected to take up less than three-quarters of the expected session length. This leaves roughly a quarter (or maybe a bit more) time to get those background events happening.

Flashbacks will always follow the concept of "Yes, and...", they should always provide something positive to the story, something that adds depth to the events, and something that makes proceediongs more fun, more sinister, or just generally enhance the expected genre expectations of the story being told. It's also good to think of this as a "show don't tell" technique for collaborative storytelling.

In my first "Medieval Tavern Night" we had an elf character, and rather than simply saying that the elf has lived for centuries, we were exploring a town overgrown by decades of wild growth, and falling to ruin. So the elf's flashback added to the story by showing how she had visited the city back when it was a thriving hub of trade and business. In her flashback, the current ruined mounds covered in grass and dust were still buildings, the scrap timber and pieces of debris on the ground were still viable frameworks for houses, tools, and well used pieces of society. It helped us establish her age, while also helping to describe the kind of location that the characters were in, and the types of things they might find if they started digging around in the rubble.

In the second night, it was a heist. Characters used their flashback scene to show how they understood traps (because they'd seen them go off in the past), or showed how they had prepared for the mission by bringing certain useful col stuff... but we also had a researcher who had left their flashback scene until later in the game. We had gotten to a point where I said, "you've now reached further in the abandoned guild workshop-stronghold than you had ever reached before". It didn't feel fair to have the researcher miss out on the same opportunities that other characters had been given, so we negotiated that the flashback scene would go back to a period of research in their home library, and specific arcane sigils that were now being seen in workshop-stronghold were indicated in arcane textbooks from the past. This helped instantly open up an element of the storyline that was blocking the characters, and allowed things to progress more smoothly again.

I like to allow the players to have a bit more say in describing the events of the flashback than they might normally have in the main storyline, because the flashbacks are their character's memories. If things go too wildly divergent in the flashback, then we can always have a character appear in someone else's flashback, describing the scene from another perspective, or showing the original character under the influence of magic/illusions/drugs, while they're memories were occuring.

As I indicated at the beginning of the post, I'm intending to run this coming game as a combat. However, combat games bore the crap out of me. So I'm giving everyone two flashbacks with the added limitation that each flashback will need to include at least one other character in it. The opening line of the game will be "Roll initiative" (because it's a D&D night), but I'm subversively trying to break these players out of their D&D comfort zone. I'm basically pushing this idea toward the brilliant game "A Penny for my Thoughts" (also see here, I don't know if this game is still available). 

The first flashback will explain what life was like in the village before the monsters invaded, the second flashback will explain the invasion and how the characters lost the honour that they are now struggling to reclaim. I'm entitling the game "The Ronin's Vengeance" and I'm aiming for a serious "samurai movie / anime" vibe to the whole affair. We'll see how it goes.


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