It has been just over a year since I started GMing our optimized-for-play campaign of 13th Age, and it’s time that I take a look back at what has worked and what hasn’t, and what I’ve changed in the process. I’ve already talked about Cold Opens and why you want to start in the middle of the action. Now let’s look at how you jump back before that start by incorporating flashbacks.
The traditional role playing session is linear: it moves forward in time and only forward. Flashbacks let you break that mold and act like almost every other medium used for storytelling.
If we take a moment to examine why all those other media use flashbacks, it will quickly become apparent why you want to use then, too. Without flashbacks your story reveals new information to the audience by revealing it to the characters in the story. There might be some characters caught out of the loop, but the audience always has the upper hand: they see it all as it happens. Flashbacks allow us to break that rule: now you can reveal new information to the audience that the characters already know.
In role playing terms, the audience is the players at the table, plus any lucky Obsidian Portal followers you’ve got. If you’re optimizing for play, the audience of your story also includes the GM, who gets to be surprised by stuff just like everyone else.
So a flashback lets the characters tell the players stuff, inverting the normal relationship. This is extraordinarily powerful: now you can recontextualize character actions in the same way that classic GM plot twists allow you to recontextualize NPC actions. Suddenly it makes sense why the dwarf hates this orc more than most: the orc killed his own sister to stop her from marrying the dwarf! I see now why you made that crit: these bandits burned down your village! Now I understand why you want the Starbox: your soul is trapped inside!
This trick is important if you’re trying to mimic a television show like us, and want the feel that flashbacks give you: of a story so large it runs deep in the bones of the world, connecting mythic past with epic present. But even in smaller games, flashbacks allow you to give the characters backstories as they need them, instead of all at once in a quickly-forgotten Bluebook before the first session1.
So flashbacks and great and wonderful and you what to use them right away. How do you do so?
We enter a flashback only when someone at the table calls for one. That’s often my job as the GM, asking for a flashback to explain something just said (“I never wanted to return to the Queen’s Wood.” / “Flashback! Show us what happened when you last left the Queen’s Wood and why you avoid it now.”), or to shed light on something implied (“I drop the chest and run to help!” “Okay, as the chest hits the floor we hit a flashback: why is this so important to you?”). But we have certainly had players call out each other (and themselves!) as well.
The best flashbacks work in a purely narrative sense: they help the table to tell a story by giving the audience new information. Flashbacks should be short (a few actions long) and punchy (something interesting and/or exciting should be happening), and at the end it should be obvious why the flashback ties into the present. If the player doesn’t make that connection, I step in as GM and do so, not always in the most flattering way (“You failed at this kind of thing before, and your thoughts dwell on that. Roll with a -2.”).
Since we are playing 13th Age, our flashbacks have no mechanical weight: there is no quota to hit, and you earn nothing for telling us the flashback, unless you do so well that you earn fan mail, our all-purpose Bennie that players give to each other to reward excellent (or hilarious) play. If I were designing a game around flashbacks those deficiencies would be a problem, but in practice we see a lot of good flashbacks without addressing them.
My favorite time to use flashbacks is during combat. Before the PC rolls to hit with their basic attack yet again, ask them about the last time they fought this foe. Or when they got that axe. Or when they stole that axe from the corpse of the soldier whose animated corpse they’re about to swing it into now. The more detail you set them up with, the better the flashback will be.
And like any new gaming technology, as you get used to the flow of flashbacks, you’ll find a few ways to make them even more interesting.
Try making the flashbacks tie together into a past adventure. Each time you jump back, deliver your new information (“that’s when I learned the Crusader’s marching song”), but also progress the story of the past (“when First Conquest was established”), and leave some unanswered question (“how did we escape the Crusader’s army that time?”). This gives you a great point to come back in a scene or two and continue the flashback story, often with simple but epic “off-screen” events (“they hid in the dwarf fortress, of course!”).
But keep flashbacks—especially cliffhangers— super simple. The purpose of the flashback is to give some new information, but it is easy to mix in new questions (“Unbeknowst to the other characters but now known to the players, I am working for the Prince of Shadows, so that he will ‘return what he stole’, whatever that is.”) Even this can be fun if you’re fishing for ideas, but if you aren’t careful it quickly leads into Lost territory, where you keep asking new questions and never answering them. The example is actually pretty close to the worst way to do this, as it means that no one at the table knows why a certain PC is acting how they are acting, which means that no one can engage that PC to help tell the story.
Don’t ever flashback from a flashback, as it’s just confusing. Reframe it as a flashback with a time-jump in the middle: the character did setup action, and then much later they did concluding action. If you really want to tell the story in the opposite order, split it into two flashbacks at two different times.
Speaking of time jumps, jump way way back. You can show the childhood of the PCs just as easily as last Tuesday. Don’t be afraid do do so. The formative years are called that for a reason, and exploring the origin of a character’s skills and attitudes is a perfect flashback.
While you’re at it, lose the PCs occasionally. Not every flashback has to be from their point of view. Think of the start of Return of the Jedi: none of the protagonists are present or even nearby when Vader goes to the new Death Star, but it gives us the framework we’ll be working in: the Emperor is coming to a place that would make a great series-finale climax.
Flashbacks are a great way to allow yourself to tell better stories by filling in the details as you need them and as soon as they are relevant. They make the narrative flow better and let you be surprised by what happens. If you use them right, they allow you to tell multiple intertwined stories at once, transforming even simple fights into memorable character-building moments. They are easy to try out, and I’m sure you’ll find fun ways to use them in your campaign.
And I’d love to hear all about it! Regale me with your stories on Twitter at @TALlama!
Incidentally, flashbacks have absolutely killed Bluebooking at our table: there’s no need to write a bit of fanfic when you do it every week at the table in the excitement of the moment. ↩