As last week’s post might indicate, I’ve been playing a lot of Assassin’s Creed lately. The game itself is, of course, entirely framed as a flashback as Desmond explores ancestral memories. However, even within this framework, the game has introduced the concept that it’s glossing over certain memories until they become relevant: it will sometimes feature sequences much earlier than the current date of the main narrative (e.g., the story of what happened to Ezio’s girlfriend who was in his introductory scene then never mentioned again). This is, of course, not that unusual for fiction: TV shows, in particular, have time to periodically do long-form flashbacks to give context to the current situation (and if your show’s about immortals, they might do that every week…).

Despite their utility in other media, long-form flashbacks are really hard to do in tabletop games. A lot of games have experimented with short-form flashbacks, in the sense of player-directed 30-seconds-or-less statements to get a bonus on a roll, but asking players to spend the bulk of a session (or more!) in a flashback has a couple of hurdles:

  • If the game features exp progression, it’s often really hard to figure out how to use stats from earlier in the characters’ careers without accurate record keeping.
  • Many players aren’t going to want to play their characters earlier in their careers (i.e., with worse stats) for extended periods.

Obviously games that eschew progression are going to have an easier time of this, but my group’s never been happy without numbers that go up, and I’m sure a lot of groups are in a similar boat. And, besides, an interesting vignette about something that was previously glossed over has just as much place in D&D as it does in SotC. So here are a few ideas on how to do that in a way your players might enjoy:

  • Get in the habit of giving out and taking away cool things (powers, gadgets, etc.). Take away some of them in downtime with the explanation that you’ll eventually run the flashback explaining it. Periodically introduce cool things that have been mostly used up (such that they were much cooler at full power) with the explanation that you’ll explain how they got it in an eventual flashback. The goal here is for players to look forward to flashbacks where they’re potentially less powerful in stats for the joy of playing with toys that they don’t otherwise have access to.
  • Since you’re primarily running long-form flashbacks when they’ll provide some kind of expanded context for the current situation, include a mechanic in the flashback to provide benefit in the present based on success. For example, “Let’s flash back to the time you were trying to gain treaties from the barbarian tribes which would now be a big help against the Dark Lord.” This creates resources that the players have theoretically had access to for a while, but which weren’t relevant (and, thus, weren’t quantified) until the flashback.
  • Keep flashbacks extremely rules light and just let the players succeed without rolling on just about everything within reason that they try. After all, they clearly survived the events none the worse for wear such that it wasn’t even relevant until now, so might as well let them have unusual success. Don’t even reference stats unless you have to. The session should mostly resolve around revealing more information about something, possibly even something that the PCs didn’t realize until now that they hadn’t shared with one another (possibly because it happened before they even met; see Leverage’s The Rashomon Job).
  • Just let them use their up-to-date stats and get exp normally. Gloss over how a player is using a power he just got last session in a flashback set years ago as imperfect recollection.
  • Everyone had AMNESIA! And didn’t know it! Until NOW! (Don’t actually do that, it’s overused.)

Anyone else have tricks for running long-form flashbacks that players are happy to participate in?