Ongoing Flashbacks


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.


Reliving the Day

1 Comment

I’ve always been interested in the idea of running an RPG in the vein of Groundhog Day or Stargate‘s time loop episode. I recently watched Day Break (which looks like it’s now on Hulu instead of Netflix), which had a lot of cool ideas for how to actually pull it off in a way that makes sense for an RPG (some of these are minor spoilers for the show).

Elements of the Premise

Your game should feature at least a few of the following elements:

  • The PCs start the day in peril: By the time the loop starts in Day Break, the main character has already been framed for a crime. This creates immediate tension every day, as he has to keep ahead of law enforcement while investigating. The PCs shouldn’t be able to just take a day off to recuperate or train without planning and a chance of failure, or the game might lose its sense of danger. Thus, starting them off with some kind of personal and dedicated threat keeps the game from losing momentum.
  • If you keep your memories, you keep your injuries: The counterpart to not having your brain reset is not having the rest of your body reset either. You can’t just kill yourself when you get frustrated and restart the day, like in Groundhog Day, and you also can’t just try something stupidly dangerous over and over until it works out through dice luck. This also implies that you’re aging, so you don’t want to spend years stuck in this loop even if you could otherwise become a small god of the place you’re trapped. And if you actually die in the loop… well, your significant other is going to have to wake up next to your decaying corpse for quite a number of loops, and you wouldn’t want to inflict that on a loved one, would you?
  • There are multiple people aware of the loop: Obviously necessary for multiple PCs, both Day Break and Stargate‘s episode feature potential allies in others that want to escape the loop. Beyond the other PCs, there may be unpredictable factors also aware and changing things. Just when you think you’ve figured out all the angles on an event in the loop, it changes and you don’t know why, until you realize there’s another aware actor in the loop with you. Maybe the whole premise of the game is that once you’ve been trapped in a loop, you’re aware whenever other people nearby get trapped, and you have to help them solve their problems to restore time.
  • You can change the loop slightly via great effort: One of the most interesting elements of Day Break is that he can sometimes improve his situation by repairing a dysfunctional relationship: on the subsequent loops, the loved ones in question are more likely to help him, even if they don’t remember why. You could retain this kind of mechanism for a personality-focused game, or even build in more overt mechanisms based on the rationale for the loop. Effectively, though, pursuing side quests is actually rewarding. Rather than being a waste of something that will just reset again tomorrow, they can generate rewards that make the main plot easier to complete.
  • The playing field is constrained: Groundhog Day has its blizzard, Stargate traps them in the command center and world they’re traveling to that day, and Day Break has all of the local law enforcement on the lookout for a fugitive. Coming up with a similar method for your game limits the amount of tangents the players can get up to, and how much information you have to create beyond the original scope.
  • The number of iterations is limited: Either because the characters are slowly aging, because they’ll go insane from too many repetitions, or because the very process is destructive if allowed to loop for a nebulous “too long,” the players can’t just decide to sequester themselves for relative years to learn whatever skills they think are necessary. Because your players will definitely want to pull a Phil Connors and use the opportunity to max out their skills before even attempting to solve the main plot if you let them.
  • The way out of the loop is easier to identify than to solve: It may only take a couple of iterations of digging to figure out the likely source of the time loop. Day Break has to unravel the conspiracy that framed the protagonist and Stargate has to stop the machine that’s causing the loop. This creates an objective, and now the game is about figuring out how to obtain the objective. Perhaps the obvious objective wasn’t the whole story, and securing it just reveals the real core behind it all, but at least there was always an obvious goal for forward progress (and there should only be one or two princess in another castle moments anyway).

Best Practices for Running the Game

Once the elements of the premise are nailed down, there are a few tricks to make running such a thing possible:

  • Establish the prototypical day in great detail: You need to know exactly what happens if the PCs stay out of the way, down to the minute if necessary. For major characters, you may even want to map out their movements during the day both on an area map and on a relationship map. The former lets you have serendipitous events where the PCs happen to encounter an NPC unexpectedly just by virtue of being in the right place at the right time. The latter allows you to note when NPCs cross over and think about what happens if the PCs have interacted with one NPC (e.g., if NPC X gets delayed meeting with NPC Y, what will NPC Y do instead of his normal actions? If NPC A encounters the PCs, will she tell NPC B about it at their meeting?).
  • Create lots of intersections that may only become apparent on repeat viewings: That relationship map is especially important because peeling back the layers of relationships is one of the key elements of interest in a game like this. How many iterations will it take before the PCs realize that the guy they keep saving from a building fire was actually a key member of the conspiracy that someone is trying to kill via arson? How long until they realize the day regularly ends on a parent being held hostage because that parent was how the conspiracy got interested in the PCs in the first place?
  • Have a good map of the area with an easy way to determine the time it takes to move around: This is especially useful if you can put major NPC routes on it without making it too busy to read, but at the very least you want to be able to give the PCs reasonable travel time notes between locations. A lot of the game may boil down to figuring out a sequence of things they do to give themselves an advantage or just save innocent lives, and it’s important to know how long that takes. When the PCs finally figure something out that involves another location, can they get there in time from the last thing they wanted to do?
  • Always keep track of the time: Maybe obvious, but you should be able to make it clear to the PCs what time it is, and if they get separated you should flip between them in as much of a real time manner as makes sense for your scenes. Having a fake clock you can make constantly visible would be a big help, even if it’s just something you’ve made out of card stock and brads like in kindergarten.
  • Take copious notes: The only way to do this thing in any way at all that feels like the TV shows or movies that include it is to feel free to improvise, but make detailed notes of what you did. If the players want to go somewhere at 10:45 AM that they’ve never gone and you had no plans for, feel free to invent some local color, but you have to write it down so the players will see the same thing if they go there again. When the players change something, and you decide how that affects the rest of the day, it should generally do the same thing over and over until they change something else.
  • Don’t be afraid to end a session early: Sometimes, the changes that the PCs have started to make regularly should have some pretty detailed follow-on effects. Don’t be afraid to stop the session so you can prepare a revised relationship map for the next time that assumes the common changes the PCs tend to make. You can only be in the moment for improvising this kind of thing so far before you need time to really look at the various permutations and make sure you’re not forgetting a logical consequence or changed movement of an NPC in the new possibility space.

Alignment Archetypes


This is inspired by the discussion on Harbinger’s recent post about alignment. They’re more specific codes to differentiate ways of playing an alignment, including specific prohibitions and prescriptions.

You can use these in several ways including:

  • Player-directed XP, action points, or some other reward for notable fulfillment of your tenets.
  • More specific ways to tell if a player is upholding an alignment.
  • Award some kind of persistent bonus that goes away temporarily if any of the tenets are violated.
  • Attach classes that normally have an alignment requirement to a set of archetypes instead.

Example Archetypes are:

Champion (LG)

  • Always have an objective in mind that will improve the world.
  • Never act without considering the potential consequences.
  • Never break a law unless there are literally no other options to save an innocent.
  • Never fight without honor unless doing so would clearly jeopardize the objective.
  • Never break your word.

Justicar (LG)

  • Always know the laws of the societies you visit.
  • Always stay within the letter of the law, and within the spirit of just laws.
  • Always pursue villains that have followed the law through legal channels.
  • Always help the innocent, even if you must temporarily find a loophole in the law.
  • Always work to remove unjust laws.

Hero (NG)

  • Always have an objective in mind that will improve the world.
  • Never stand idly while an innocent suffers, even if the suffering is allowed by the law.
  • Always offer the villainous an opportunity, explicit or implicit, to repent.
  • Always follow the law unless it clearly interferes with your objective and there is no easy alternative.
  • Never allow fear for your own safety prevent you from pursuing your objective.

Healer (NG)

  • Never harm those that have not, themselves, caused unjust harm.
  • Always help those you can, however you can, unless it would keep you from succeeding at a greater mission.
  • Never accept payment from those that have less than you.
  • Always follow laws designed for the greater good.
  • Never let an unjust law prevent you from doing good.

Trickster (CG)

  • Always learn the self-imposed limits and foibles of those around you.
  • Never allow a friend to avoid a necessary task out of fear or self-doubt.
  • Never grant anyone respect, but grant those that deserve it aid and loyalty.
  • Always take advantage of opportunities to force those around you to improve themselves.
  • Always turn your best efforts on those that have no sense of humor and refuse to become better people.

Outlaw (CG)

  • Always break unjust laws whenever doing so won’t endanger your mission.
  • Never stand idly while an innocent suffers, even if the suffering is allowed by the law.
  • Always steal everything you can from villains.
  • Always donate whatever you can to the good and innocent.
  • Always repay both loyalty and betrayal.

Ascetic (LN)

  • Never antagonize the legitimate authority of the land or refuse their requests without a conflicting obligation.
  • Never act without considering the potential consequences.
  • Never own more than you require to perform your duties.
  • Never fight dishonorably.
  • Never break your word.

Prosecutor (LN)

  • Always know the laws of the societies you visit.
  • Always stay within the letter if not the spirit of the law.
  • Always make best use of loopholes or little known rules to accomplish your goals anyway.
  • Always ensure you’re in position to punish lawbreakers.
  • Always know what laws your enemies have broken.

Pragmatist (TN)

  • Always have an objective in mind.
  • Never cause harm to another thinking being, particularly those that haven’t harmed you, unless absolutely required to achieve your objective.
  • Never let sentiment prevent you from doing what needs to be done to achieve your objective.
  • Never break a law or otherwise antagonize the powers that be if you can achieve your objective without so doing.
  • Never let predictability or conservative behaviors endanger your objective.

Guardian (TN)

  • If you don’t have a ward (person, place, ideal, etc.) you must find one as soon as possible.
  • Always punish, without regard for law or morality, those that threaten or harm your ward.
  • Never harm your ward or allow your inaction to enable harm to your ward.
  • Never break laws or harm the innocent if doing so would not serve your ward.
  • Always help and reward those who are acting in service to your ward.

Scoundrel (CN)

  • Never give your word but always repay loyalty in kind.
  • Never allow long-term objectives to stand in the way of short-term goals.
  • Always do whatever is necessary to stay free.
  • Always take a risk if the chance of profit outweighs the chance of danger.
  • Always break the law if doing so wouldn’t hurt anyone and improves your situation.

Visionary (CN)

  • Always embellish the truth to make it more interesting.
  • Never do something conventional if the unconventional choice is just as good.
  • Never avoid doing something just because it’s “illegal” or “immoral.”
  • Never hurt your friends unless it’s absolutely necessary for your own safety.
  • Always return gifts and insults in kind.

Schemer (LE)

  • Never get caught in a lie.
  • Never tell more of the truth than is absolutely required.
  • Always have one or more goals.
  • Never take an action that you couldn’t argue contributes toward one of your goals (unless given favors or money).
  • Never avoid doing something to forward your goal if it’s immoral but legal.

Enforcer (LE)

  • If you don’t have a boss, you must find one as soon as possible.
  • Never contradict your boss in public.
  • Never betray your boss unless you were betrayed first.
  • Always carry out your boss’ orders to the letter and spirit as far as you are able.
  • Never allow disrespect and betrayal to go unpunished.

Assassin (NE)

  • Never kill without a contract unless it’s for self defense.
  • Never give up on a contract as long as the situation remains what you agreed to.
  • Never betray your employer except in self-defense.
  • A misrepresented contract or failure to pay for a successful contract must be punished.
  • Never show mercy to the target.

Slaver (NE)

  • You do not have peers, merely pawns, obstacles, and targets.
  • Always give targets and obstacles a chance (at least an implicit one) to become pawns before you kill them.
  • Always attempt to eliminate pawns you can no longer control.
  • Never forget a slight, and never forgive unless it puts the target in your debt.
  • Never do anything illegal yourself if you can get someone else to do it instead.

Pirate (CE)

  • Never spend more than a week in the same place.
  • Always take anything you want if you can get it without consequences.
  • Never hesitate to kill if that gets you closer to your goals.
  • Always place your personal comfort above all other concerns.
  • Always answer threats to your power with overwhelming force.

Beast (CE)

  • Always challenge your superior as soon as you think you can win.
  • Never leave a challenger capable of challenging you again.
  • Never permit an insult to stand unpunished.
  • Never make an oath unless you think you’ll gain an advantage from breaking it at the right time.
  • Always choose the option that makes you scariest to your enemies and followers.

Pathfinder Character Creation Aids

Comments Off on Pathfinder Character Creation Aids

I’m prepping for another adventure path run, so here are a couple of game aids I put together this weekend.

Pathfinder Character Creation Worksheet

I always find I want blank paper to figure out ability scores when making a character anyway, and that it’s hard to hand a player new to this edition a regular sheet without it being overwhelming. This is a one page sheet that has just the stuff that a new player will need to decide during character creation (except languages, I always forget to add a space for languages…). It leaves off almost all calculated totals and other things that are necessary in play but distracting during character creation (particularly for newer players). Once you’re done, the GM or the player can transfer the information to a more robust sheet of your choice.

Party Member Relationship Cards

These are heavily based on the setup for Fiasco, albeit without making a group designed to immediately self destruct. Before full character creation, each pair of adjacent players at the table selects a card they’d like from the set (or you can randomize them to your preference), bases their characters around the relationships so created to their right and left, and each pair answers some questions about the relationship (including naming an NPC for the GM that is important to both). This is intended to produce heavily-linked parties that knew one another well before beginning adventuring (rather than just meeting in a tavern or guild).