Most advice for flashbacks in RPGs tries, unsurprisingly, to replicate how flashbacks are used in most media: as the occasional one scene that can appear whenever it’s relevant, or sometimes a whole episode devoted to explaining a crucial issue. However, pioneered by Lost (or at least that’s the first place I saw it) and now used in a slightly different way in Arrow, another option is the ongoing flashback, where up to half the time is set in the past. In Lost, this was a second story giving more background to a character whose choices were central to the episode, but each episode could have a completely different flashback and there was no particular order. Arrow, on the other hand, show something far more gamable: the flashbacks are in a linear order and are effectively a second ongoing plotline that happens to be in the past rather than another location. The past plotline tends to conveniently parallel whatever’s going on in the present thematically and introduces any facts and abilities the main character’s theoretically known all along but weren’t relevant until now.
This could be a huge having-your-cake-and-eating-it-too idea for games where the protagonists are meant to start ultra competent with minimal advancement featuring players that like to spend exp.
How I’d do this kind of thing (using Fate lingo, but could really work with anything skill-based) is:
- The players start in the present with a full pyramid of skills, but only a bare minimum of aspects, stunts, and powers. Effectively, their options are going to increase over time, but not their power level.
- The players start in the past with a greatly reduced pyramid of skills, and probably zero aspects, stunts, or powers. They’re going to learn everything in the flashbacks.
- When a player is ready to spend exp (or just get an increase on a fixed schedule), he or she tells the GM in advance of the session. Part of that session’s flashback involves picking up the new trait (it’s up to the player to justify why it never seemed relevant to use it until now).
- The characters in the flashback gain skill points at a fairly accelerated rate. If the player raises a skill in the past higher than that of the present version, it’s suggested that the player use the normal rules for flipping skill ranks to make sure they continue to match up.
- The player is free to use tricks he or she thinks will be on the final list in the present in situations where they don’t matter to the rules (e.g., to show off) to drive home the idea that the present character knows everything the character in the past knows, just hasn’t figured that it’s relevant yet.
The GM, in setting up these sessions, should do a few things:
- Plan the advancement path to parallel the course of the chronicle. Once the flashback versions of the PCs have the same skill pyramid as the present versions, it’s getting really close to time for the end of the past to become the beginning of the present, and wrap up the arc. This could be a complete finale, or just a timeskip to even more badass versions of the characters later that have new flashback moments.
- The events of the past storyline should be somewhat flexible in your mind, as they should stay thematically related to whatever is happening in the present. If the present winds up with the players going after someone that is theoretically an old foe, you want leeway to bend the flashbacks to show when they first met him. If something in the present is showcasing a failure of fatherhood, the flashbacks can call out one of the PCs’ own relationships with father figures.
- In the flashbacks, the PCs are obviously in no danger of dying (unless there’s room for a surprise reveal that one of them is a clone with the original’s memories or something). But you can raise the stakes by having a rousing cast of NPCs that the players would like to keep alive. You can even run whole flashback arcs that largely involve protecting an NPC, and if the NPC survives and the players liked her, she soon after appears in the present timeline showing up to help out and reward the players for helping her in the past. You might also build to threats in the present by having flashbacks focus on how much information they were learning in the past: a flashback failure may result in the players having less information and fewer assets in the fight against the present threat.
- Ideally, the PCs have been working together for some time (though you may start off the flashbacks with a “you all meet in a tavern” moment) so you don’t have to split the party in the flashbacks. If the story or character concepts absolutely demand that the PCs were mostly or entirely solo in the past, try flipping focal episodes. Each session, another PC’s past is what’s relevant to the present issue (and that’s the PC that gets to buy new stuff), and the other players are handed lightly sketched supporting NPCs to portray in the flashback. Make sure to give each player a roughly equal number of focal episodes.
- In an actual session, borrowing from TV act structures is a good idea. That is, be on the lookout for a surprise beat to flip between past and present scenes, particularly:
- Something that might become more potent for being drawn out (“and then a bunch of guys with guns kick in the door… and… flashback”)
- Something that is directly relevant to flashing back (“the assassin pulls off his hood to reveal… Captain Stone” “Who? Wait, the random captain who was piloting our plane? We don’t really know him.” “Flashback! On the plane to your destination, you hear over the intercom, ‘This is the captain. I’m getting some unexpected contacts on the radar. What did you people get me into!? Oh hell, missile lock, hold on…’”).
- Make sure your story is sufficiently about secrets revealed and tight-lipped protagonists that the whole mechanic continues to feel relevant. If you’re not sure it works for a whole campaign, consider just doing it for periodic one-off episodes where someone’s past is extremely relevant. This is a lot more like just the way every RPG suggests to do flashbacks, but at least alternating regularly between flashback and present between scenes preserves some of what’s different about this format.