CRB is a repository of all the creative things that float through my mind about the RPG Pathfinder. Two major features are random character generation and building characters based on the god they worship. Anything that seems like it adds to the creative aspects of the game will pop up from time to time, including location descriptions, adventure ideas and even short stories. CRB won't just be my own creativity, it will open the floor to anyone who has an idea sparked by what I present to you.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Back to the Past

Musings on Flashbacks in the Gaming Narrative

Lately, I’ve been thinking about narratives that work in books which could be used in RPGs. Most games tend to be pretty straightforward with play being in the moment. Things like cutscenes, flashbacks, and dream sequences can often seem more like the GM talking to himself, or like one player getting the spotlight for a longer period of time than anyone else. And you certainly don’t a want to use cutscenes to shift to the villain’s point in the plot like you might in a book or a movie, because you don’t want to give things away to your players. For the past few days, I’ve been thinking about flashbacks and the ways they can be used in games to strengthen the narrative.

One of the things I like about flashbacks is it allows character growth for players who may not be the best at writing backstories. Not everyone is like me and has a five-page character background, and although some GMs might not like that, I understand that not everyone is a writer. Flashbacks can help draw out portions of a character’s past during play which can give the player a deeper connection to the game and the GM some things for the player to use as hooks later.

There’s a game I played once that had an awesome mechanic to draw out these narratives from the players; I played it at a one-day gaming event and it left a lasting impression on me. 3:16 Carnage Amongst the Stars is basically Starship Troopers the game, but what got me was the flashback mechanic. You could use a flashback twice each session; once to have a critical success and once to flee and not take damage.

This mechanic worked by telling the GM that you wanted to cash in on the ability to do either of these things during the battle. I think there were poker chips or another token that represented each use. Once you did this you had to narrate a brief flashback that explained why you’d be good at doing the thing that you were about to do. For my critical success, I narrated being a standout basketball player in high school known for my jump shot, and that was why throwing my grenade directly into the mouth of the bug-alien would succeed.

I’m not sure how this method could transfer over to games like my current game of choice, Pathfinder, but having players narrate their critical hits or critical failures in terms of a flashback could work. The difficulty then becomes monopolizing time. The problem with flashbacks is they often only include one person’s character. This can leave other players out in the cold if they aren’t short narratives like in 3:16. So how do we bring the whole party into that moment?

One way requires quite a bit of work on behalf of the GM. The flashback must be prepared ahead of time. NPCs that represent people that the player having the flashback might meet need to be premade so they can be handed out to the other players. This should allow the GM to include the entire group in the cutscene, but as mentioned it is far more work.

You could attempt a more fluid version of this, and as the player mentions people he interacts with during the flashback hand those sheets out to the other players. This requires some trust in the person telling their character’s history. They need to be able to come up with enough peripheral characters to allow the whole group to play along. And both methods require the player flashing-back to trust the other players won’t mess with their “moment.”

I haven’t personally used a lot of flashbacks in my games. Pathfinder isn’t really geared toward the way more narrative games are. It is something I’m looking to incorporate more into my play, though, and I hope my thoughts on it might allow you to do so as well.

In what ways have you used flashbacks or other cutscenes in your games? How have you incorporated these narratives into games that aren’t specifically designed with them in mind? In what ways do you keep all your players engrossed when one person’s character currently has the spotlight?

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  1. This is an interesting idea you present. My first instinct is to shy away from "Let's stop combat (which is already cumbersome) to swap out character sheets and play a cutscene" but I like the first idea.
    The first thing that comes to mind is, in the vein of D&D 5e's Inspiration dice, award a Flashback token whenever a Nat 1 (Red Token) or Nat 20 (Green Token)is rolled (Max 1 each per PC per session. No rollover tokens.)
    PCs can cash in the Green token to auto succeed/hit/save, and the Red token to "unfail" (ex. A non-crit hit barely misses, a failed acrobatics check catches the rope on the way down, etc). Both, obviously, accompanied with a brief Flashback narrative appropriate to the situation.
    I personally have my players trained to be descriptive on Crits, and the minute or two that a Player is in the spotlight not only Doesn't leave the others in the cold, but actually increases the verisimilitude as the others are drawn into not just the DM's narrative, but their own.

    1. I like the idea of the tokens to represent having the ability and then using them to take advantage or survive. And yes I wouldn't stop for a full fledged flashback mid combat. The full playing other characters flashback would be a game session of its own.