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Gaming Flashbacks

I don’t mean having flashbacks of gaming and I don’t mean dealing with PCs who have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder; I mean having scenes every once in a while that have happened in the past. This idea came out of a discussion Stewart and I had about campaign ideas (as is so common with posts here). We were riffing on the themes from The Usual Suspects, which, without too many spoilers, is effectively told through a series of flashbacks. That wasn’t the aspect we were interested in, but we got sidetracked onto it. It’s not an uncommon trope in fiction and so I spent some time thinking about it and arguing with Stewart about it. This idea is still very embryonic and I haven’t quite figured out how to use it or whether it would even be fun.

I’m envisioning scenes where the PCs are all doing whatever, learning about the plot and trying to uncover What’s Really Going On and they unearth some clue. It seems to be an arms cache of some kind with lots of laser rifles and explosives. They open a Batman-style armor closet and you describe it, then kick everyone but the pilot out. You play a flashback scene with him which, in the end, features a bounty hunter dressed in just such a suit of armor which ruined spectacularly some job. Then you cut back in to the present and move on. You could use this method to disseminate additional clues, tie in PCs more tightly to the story, present new questions that need answering. I’m sure there are more things.

What Purpose Do Flashbacks Serve in the Narrative?

I’m not overly enthralled with the show as a whole, but I do have to admit that the folks working on Lost (over)use flashbacks pretty effectively. I’ve got the idea that it would be really cool to do something like that in a game. You’d have to get a lot of information about your PCs… maybe ask your players things like, “Tell me about a time a job went bad.” or “Describe the way your last relationship ended.” or something. The idea would be to get vague stories that you could work into the plot. If you can do it right, you make the story of the campaign about stuff that has already happened to the PCs, sort of. Like when, in season… I think it’s 2 of Lost when we meet Desmond we also learn that one of the other main characters had met him before ever coming to the Island.

What I’m getting at, here, is the idea that a flashback is generally a way for a storyteller to tell the audience (in our case the player, considering the Circular 4th Wall) that something they’ve just seen or something they’re about to see is important. In our medium, I think it’s important to include player authorship in it, hence my invocation of asking them lots of questions. Spoiler warning, but consider the episode of Firefly where the crew goes to pick up their mail. That episodes flashes back at the start to the Unification War in order to introduce the young guy and show his relationship with Mal and Zoe. That way, when he shows up a few scenes later (back in the main timeline), his presence and the characters’ reactions to him make sense to us. If the flashed back scenes are from a PC’s history, it seems like you could increase their buy-in dramatically.

Problems

There are some problems I have, or, if you want to be more optimistic, hurdles I haven’t yet figured out how to address. Chiefly, if you set things in the past, you’re getting into railroading country. You can’t have the character die or lose an arm or anything. You’ve also probably already talked over the scene with the player so they know how it ends, which is sort of the player self-railroading. I’m thinking maybe you just keep it short short short. If they (in the past) were breaking into the office building to steal files and things got hairy so they had to escape down the garbage chute, well, they know the ending is they escape down the garbage chute. I’m thinking you end before then, then. Maybe you just cut in while they’re dodging security and breaking into the secure room so they can see the corporate logo (which just “reminded” them of the flashback events in the main stream) and you end with them being discovered, which they then know goes on to the garbage chute. I’m not sure.

Also, there’s the question of how, how much and when to start tying the PCs’ histories into the main plot. Do you try to get them all to tell you about events that might have to do with your mafia plot idea or do you just try to get them to tell you stories and then piece something together given what they told you? This one, I don’t even have a clue on. You could end up with something that isn’t linked strongly enough to the PCs, with something that plays like a Mad Libs RPG or just plain tipping your hand by being too suggestive asking for stories.

Lastly, there’s balance. Not game balance of the TPK-worried sort, but in that you have to try to make sure all the players feel that their flashbacks are roughly as relevant as everyone else’s. Especially if your campaign (as is my thought) were to make flashbacks a central theme or rhetorical style, if you will, you have to spread it around evenly. Which comes back to how many stories do you get from each player and how leading are you in asking for them. Because the content of those stories is entirely player-based and necessarily when they’re least familiar with your campaign world, you might get nothing useful from one player and all gems from another.

This is, as I said at the outset, a hare-brained, early-stage idea. I’d love to hear some thoughts from readers on the topic. Have you done anything like this? Have I missed some obvious and fatal flaw with this idea? Can you even envision a way this would be fun? Let us know in the comments.

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