Friday, February 12, 2016

Dungeon Master Techniques: The Flashback Adventure

Hello, Dungeon Masters, and welcome to Pact of the Tome! Today, I'd like to discuss a technique that helps your players get more invested in the game. This technique, the flashback adventure, is especially appropriate for longer campaigns where you need to convey a lot of information to your players all at once.

To start off, imagine this situation:

It's game night. You've spent hours concocting the perfect backstory to tonight's adventure, and your players have just fought through an orc warband to rescue the sage who will tell them all about it. As the sage, you begin the tale of the secret history of the fall of the Golden Kingdom five hundred years ago.

Halfway through, you look around. One of your players covers his mouth in a deep yawn. Another is playing Temple Run on her phone. The rest are stacking dice towers, doodling on their character sheets, and generally acting like they're bored out of their minds. Where did you go wrong?

If you've been a Dungeon Master for a while, you've probably been in a situation like this one before. It's a lot of fun to create your own world and story, but getting your players to care about it can be a huge challenge.

Instead, picture this:

"After that, there were no dwarves left inside,
and he took all their wealth for himself.
Probably, for that is the dragon's way, he
has piled it all up in a great heap far inside,
and sleeps on it for a bed."
- J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit
It's game night. Your players have just fought their way through an orc warband to rescue a sage, who begins to tell them the secret history of the Golden Kingdom. "Put away your character sheets," you tell your players. "Now choose one of these characters to play."

As the night goes on, you discover the tale of the Golden Kingdom together. One of your players assumes the role of the Queen of Gold, another her master shipwright - and lover - who turns traitor. A third plays the general who desperately struggles to hold back the encroaching orc hordes from across the sea, only to fail when he is brought low by his own hubris. It ends, climactically, with the final battle against the orc fleets. When you return to the game, not only does everyone know the story of the Golden Kingdom, but they helped create it.

When your campaign features an important bit of backstory, sometimes it isn't enough to simply tell your players about it. Instead, consider showing them!

A flashback adventure is essentially a short ordinary adventure that exposits a chapter in your campaign's history. Your players will take on the roles of historical heroes and villains, playing out the epic struggles that shaped the face of your campaign world.

You can introduce a flashback adventure in a number of ways. The most basic is framing the adventure as a story told to your party, perhaps by an old sage or tavern bard. You could also have the adventure take place as a dream sequence or magical vision, giving the characters a first-hand view of the action. You could even use a flashback sequence as the opening to a larger adventure or campaign, like the opening sequence of The Lord of the Rings.

Here are some tips on creating flashback adventures:
Flashback adventures in the mythic past
can take advantage of magic that shouldn't
be possible in the present age.
  • Use pregenerated characters. Flashbacks shouldn't last longer than a session or so, and building new characters takes time. Additionally, building the characters yourself give you the opportunity to set the tone of your flashback adventure.
  • Get player buy-in ahead of time. In the example above, the Golden Kingdom has already fallen. Nothing the players do can change that. This means the outcome of your flashback adventure is essentially predetermined. Before you begin, explain this to your group, but make sure to emphasize that their actions will have an impact.
  • Set up a situation that gives your players choices. Playing through an adventure "on rails" can be frustrating, so make sure to give your players choices and challenges that can impact the adventure. Can the Queen of Gold convince her elven allies to lend aid against the orcs, slowing their advance and buying time to bring her family to safety? When faced with overwhelming odds, does the general surrender and try to save his soldiers, or fight to the bitter end?
  • Be prepared to be flexible. Players tend to throw a wrench into your best laid plans. If they zig where you expected them to zag, consider running with it. Maybe history happened a little differently than you had planned. Your group will love it!
  • Don't get wrapped up in the mechanics. If your players are picking up characters they've never played before, they'll have a hard time playing them optimally in battle. Instead, find challenges that they can solve through player traits like roleplaying scenes and puzzles. Also consider giving them low-level characters whose abilities are easy to master or toning down the challenge of your combats.
  • Shake up your mode of play. If you normally run a dungeon-crawl game, make your flashback a mystery adventure. If your players have been stuck playing politics for the last five sessions, give them a swashbuckling pirate story. Flashbacks are excellent opportunities to try an adventure that wouldn't fit into your current campaign.
  • Highlight information your players will find useful. To quote the Angry GM, "Give out only the most important information, and give it out only when it is needed." The trade politics of the Golden Kingdom are all well and good, but if they aren't going to come up later on, then don't focus on them too much! Maybe you instead choose to feature the orcs' alliance with demons and how it helped them win the war. This tells the players to expect to fight demons and shows them what orcs are like in your world, which they can use when they interact with the orcs later. Or maybe your flashback session takes place in one of the Golden Kingdom's coastal fortresses - and the ruins of that fortress make up your next dungeon.
  • Don't take too much time. If a flashback goes on too long, your group will lose interest. Try to keep your flashback no longer than one session or a few hours. If they start asking, "When do we get to go back to our current characters?" it's time to wrap it up.
  • Offer in-game rewards for flashback adventures. Keep rewards concurrent with what your group would expect for a non-flashback session. If your group uses XP, then make sure to offer them XP comparable to what they'd gain for a regular session. You could offer story rewards in the flashback as well (one of your PCs learns she is the direct descendent of the Queen of Gold), or give the players an opportunity to gain treasure (in the flashback, they learn the location of the legendary Shield of the Angels).
In my D&D experience, I've used flashbacks to better establish villains, reveal important truths about my player characters, and foreshadow the final showdown. I hope that this technique will be useful for you the next time you need to showcase your campaign's epic backstory. Thank you for reading; I'll see you next time on Pact of the Tome!


  1. Japanese RPGs have been doing this for a long time, but this may be the first time I've heard or read about using it for pen and paper games. You, sir, are a genius!

  2. I've done this for individuals when the rest of the party can't show up. I'll run a backstory/flashback one shot. I usually reward them with some small trinket as a link to their past. It's usually very well received.

  3. This is just a fantastic idea! Thanks for sharing!

  4. This is just a fantastic idea! Thanks for sharing!