Posted in Tools & Techniques

Using Flashbacks for Exposition

When the PCs eventually encounter a monologue-spewing villain or a weighty Tome of Exposition, instead of them sitting there listening to you – the all-knowing GM – reading it, why not have them play out the events through flashbacks? It’s not something you want to be doing all the time, but every once in a while it can really make an impact, highlight the importance of the information, and even give players a chance to play a different character. It gives a different perspective and allows for unusual outcomes and situations.

Living the Past

GMs often use journals and other written texts in the game world for exposition. Everything isn’t always clear to the PCs, even if it is for the GM, so you need to give them enough information to satisfy them. Flashbacks allow the PCs to play as the characters mentioned in the text. If your PCs discover a tome that tells them all about a doomed expedition, you can let one of them be the expedition leader slowly going insane, another a prisoner with information the explorers need, another a witch to be sacrificed at the end of the expedition, and another the researcher in love with the witch.

You can hand out pre-gen character sheets with these characters on them and let the players decide amongst themselves which characters they want to play. It can be fun for the player who normally plays the paladin to play as an insane leader, dark mage or murderous thief every so often. Vice versa, too – maybe the guy who normally plays roguish characters all the time would have a blast playing a chivalrous knight for one game (and if he doesn’t, he hasn’t really lost anything).

When planning and running these flashbacks, it’s important to get things moving and frame scenes well when one of the goals is exposition. I usually run flashbacks like this as one-shots, so you’ve got limited time too. It’s often a good idea to give a little bit of information at the start of the flashback and start in the middle of the action. Seeing as you’ve created the pre-gen characters, you can give them strong motivations for completing whatever goals you wish them to and also give them strong interconnected relations with each other (and NPCs, if you like). Main point is: set things up to get the action going quickly and building to a satisfying and memorable conclusion.

If you want to show the formula for a dark ritual, have the players play as some unfortunate souls uncovering these ingredients in a series of grisly rituals and discoveries after years of research then attempting the ritual (possibly failing; more on this later). This works well too, for other deadly experiments – like a doomsday device with a far too complicated panel of buttons, or two big levers (giving a 50% chance of ultimate failure). Giving the PCs a chance to find out in a flashback how other people have previously succeeded or failed gives them the answer in the present.

If you want to show them the correct path through a deadly jungle, have the flashback characters make the expedition with a handful of red shirts and have them make decisions at crossroads and puzzles as they go, dishing out brutal death for incorrect choices. When the PCs make the same journey in the present day, they will encounter the same puzzles and crossroads but will know the solutions. Throw a curve ball in there too, just to make it interesting (and to show that time has past, other creatures have set traps, and so on).

If your goal is instead to show them the setting up of the villain’s plan, maybe you can have a series of flashbacks. One player gets the dubious honour of playing the villain, another his best friend, another his lover and another his rival. Play through various stages of the villain’s life, any characters that die can be replaced by other characters in later stages. By the end of the flashback the PCs will have seen – and, in some way, lived – the events of the villain’s life and may even have developed sympathy for him. It will make the final encounter much more memorable.

All of these methods also have the added benefit of making your world seem more believable. It shows that the PCs aren’t the only people in the world who have adventures and get involved in dangerous events. If some of the PCs from the flashback manage to survive, too, then they can be brought back into the ongoing game in the present as NPCs. It can be very interesting to see what’s happened to them since the flashback and how they’ve changed. It also gives the players a kick to see the character they played come back as an ally or threat.

Flashback Example

Here’s an example of the above from my ongoing Pathfinder game. We played a series of flashbacks each starring one of the PCs. In the paladin’s flashback we played an important, formative scene from her childhood – the zombie invasion of her home town. The paladin was a beautiful noble girl, fifteen years of age. The other characters in the flashback were a squat young boy obsessed with the paladin, and a street-sweeper urchin who looked down on the nobles – ‘nobs’ as he called them.

By the end of the flashback the paladin-to-be and the two boys had saved the town. The paladin’s family manor was trashed and her parents were missing. In the present day of the campaign the paladin has still not truly discovered what happened to her parents. Now though, we’re back in her home town – which she hasn’t visited since that fateful day.

The street-sweeper urchin is now running for mayor. The obsessed little boy, on the other hand, has grown up to be an obsessed stalker. He still holds a disturbing flame for the paladin and it looks like he has been living in her mansion, stringing up preserved dead bodies on the ceiling and basically making the place so spooky as to scare off the kids who like to trash the place. He seems to be living in her room and doing creepy things like grooming the dolls in the paladin’s old room to look like her. He is a suspected serial killer.

This has a lot more impact when you’ve seen this person as a child and know that he has saved the paladin’s life. It also shows that people react differently to bad situations: some end up like him, some become paladins.

Wrapping Up

Failure in flashbacks can be really fun. Hearing about a sacrifice to a summon an ancient god is cool, playing through that sacrifice is even better, but being the sacrifice for the ritual isn’t something awesome you don’t get to do every day! Equally, if the ritual doesn’t succeed and goes horribly wrong, it can be cool to fight against a massively overpowered foe, like an accidentally freed demon, and shows the players just how tough a situation they’re getting involved with.

Just try to make sure when planning the flashback that failure will make sense, if it occurs – for example, if the flashback is in the recent past and is being played in a town the PCs have recently visited, put a bit of thought into it. Be careful about the flashback PCs destroying a building or killing a person the PCs have interacted with in the present. It could make things interesting – was the person resurrected or the building rebuilt? – but it could create a lot of trouble, too.

I’m not done with this topic yet, so look out for further articles about flashbacks (including using mini-flashbacks), alternate realities and even time travel! As you can see, there is a lot of potential for this sort of thing. Stay tuned!



I live in Canberra, Australia. I love games and stories.

One thought on “Using Flashbacks for Exposition

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