I’ve written about flashbacks before. This time: lightning quick mini-flashbacks.
Let’s face it, some players don’t like writing backgrounds for their characters. Parents? Dead. Friends? None. Hobbies? Fighting. What if you could flesh out their backgrounds through play instead of having them write it all down at the start? Well, with mini-flashbacks you can! And they’re not just a good tool for background-phobic players. Players who are into writing pages and pages of background can still benefit from this technique. It can also help link the players into the world and the immediate situation.
Remember That Time…
How do these mini-flashbacks work? It’s pretty simple, but effective. Look for points in the story where some uncertain partially undefined element could be linked to a PC. Just make it one PC unless your have a few who have linked backgrounds (siblings for example). Mini-flashbacks work best when they are quick, and the less PCs involved, the better. Maybe the PCs hear about a priest accused of consorting with demons. Does the party’s paladin or cleric know the accused NPC? Rather than just telling the PCs “you know this guy”, initiate a mini-flashback.
Quickly set a scene full of tension. It doesn’t matter how the situation started, all that matters is what happens next. Using the above example, you could set the flashback with the party’s cleric alone late at night in the temple. During his prayers he hears muffled chanting coming from behind a bookcase. The cleric recognises some of the words as demonic and one of the voices sounds familiar.
Ask: “What do you do?” Does the PC investigate? If so, they see the NPC priest involved in a demonic ritual. You could add a twist here by having them make a perception check (more on checks and stats later). If they roll high enough perhaps they see that the priest appears to be involved under duress. If they fail, they believe he is complicit in the ritual.
From there, ask what the PC does now. Do they inform the authorities? Are they willing to testify in court? Maybe they take on the cultists themselves? Do they decide to walk away and ignore the ritual? Don’t worry about roleplaying any of this, just ask for the general direction they take.
Now, to reap the reward of the mini-flashback! Return to the present time and now the PC hasn’t just been told “you know this guy” or “you ousted him after you found him involved in a demonic ritual”. The PC has played it out and interacted with the NPC in a tense situation that would have made big changes in both the PC and NPC’s lives.
Suddenly, this isn’t a faceless NPC any more. He’s now linked to the PC and whatever actions they took in the mini-flashback will come back straight away to affect the present-day interactions with the NPC and related NPCs. If the PC dobbed the priest in, maybe he’s considered a hero to some and a snitch to others. If the PC vouched that the priest was involved against his will, maybe the cultists are after the PC or people consider the PC a liar or cultist sympathiser, while the priest feels he owes the PC a favour. One he could cash in right now.
All this from a few minutes of flashback! During this, one PC has been in the spotlight. You could have had the other players play NPCs if desired, but even if they didn’t, they probably enjoyed watching the other PC and learning about their history. You should encourage input from the other players, offering suggestions from the spotlight PC.
Quick As A Flash
You should use mini-flashbacks in moderation and always, always make them quick, a few minutes at most. Once you get into the swing of them you can rapidly frame and resolve while still adding a lot to the present-day adventure. My favourite example of this is a forest-dwelling or elven PC returning with the party to her home town as part of the current adventure. As they near the village, she spots the stables. Initiate mini-flashback! She is on her first hunt for the rare white elks of the forest. Frame it with some tense imagery. After hours of stalking the mighty elk the hunters have finally found it. The PC gets the chance to hurl her bolas and capture the creature! Have her make a roll. No damage is needed, simply a hit or miss.
Present day: if the PC hit with her shot, the majestic white elk is waiting for her in the stable (kept safe by her elders after she left the village). If she missed, she sees the empty stable and the memory of her loss that day hits her. Or even better, if she missed the shot maybe her rival captured the elk instead and she sees it there in the stable, a reminder of her loss and something for her rival to lord over her. It gives the player a big reward for a single roll if she succeeds, but if she fails, the commitment on the player’s part was small, so the loss doesn’t sting so much.
Mini-flashbacks used like this can fuel the game and provide hooks to pull players in. It also lets them make decisions on the spot about, during the mini-flashback, about how they want the current adventure to continue. They get some control over the world and NPCs and it makes them like mini-GMs for just a little while.
Better With Age
One of the snags with mini-flashbacks is that you’ll be jumping back to different parts of the PCs’ lives. Ten years ago, one year ago, two weeks ago. What were the PCs’ stats like back then? Mini-flashbacks are meant to be a quick, fun way to expand PC backgrounds. If we start writing up character sheets for each different stage of the PCs’ lives, it defeats the purpose.
Instead, just eyeball it. You’ll be skipping over a lot of things and placing the PC in the middle of the action. It shouldn’t be a combat scene or a lengthy diplomatic debate. Mini-flashbacks should contain a couple of skill checks at most. One is usually fine (see the elk example above) and three should really be all you need (sneak up on the cultists, check out what they’re doing and hmm… see, that’s only two!).
Sometimes you’ll be flashing back to before the PC became what they are: the young girl in training to be a paladin, the wizardling who has never cast a spell, the young rogue who is just a grabby urchin, the lanky blacksmith’s apprentice who will go on to become a great warrior.
In these cases, if they would not have had such high skills as they do now, just modify their roll with a penalty. You’ll have to judge these based on the situation at hand. Perhaps the young rogue was very dexterous even then and has developed a lot more in other areas as she’s grown, but not so much in her reflexes and agility. In that case, a lesser penalty could be applied.
Some skills, too, wouldn’t change very much because they aren’t often used, or training does not alter them a great deal. Perception could be one of these skills, and depending on how much your PCs use their Craft or Profession skills, they might not have gotten much better in the last fifteen years. As I said, just eyeball it, go with your gut and discuss briefly with the spotlight player what you think is fair. Agree and move on. Make the rolls, get back to the present.
Once you do decide on a fair penalty, have the player jot it down (Age 14: Agility 6) on an index card or their character sheet for later, especially if you plan to flash back to this age bracket a fair bit. Doing so is not a bad idea, actually, as you can have stories going in tandem, present and past. If you’re all into it have some more mini-flashbacks during or after you resolve the adventure that the first mini-flashback was related to. What does the PC cleric do after dobbing in the demon-worshipping priest?
This technique can end up creating the present-day adventures and stories for you, and by the end of things the characters are much more fleshed out than they might otherwise be, and the players are much more likely to remember their PCs’ backgrounds after having played through them, rather than just writing them or being told them.
If you have a shot at using this technique, I’d love to hear about it. Just remember that the mini-flashbacks should be quick, fun for everyone, create hooks into the current adventure and give a bit of info about a PC’s background. If all of these aren’t being achieved, rethink how you’re using mini-flashbacks, or maybe just use them less frequently.