Why Flashbacks?

So, why should we- when should we- have flashbacks in our hacks?

I’m working on my game and I’m leaning strongly towards skipping them because while flashbacks seem appropriate for scoundrels in an heist scenario, they don’t feel appropriate for a high fantasy exploration scenario.

To me, flashbacks are good for a situation where the characters are confronting a static challenge. You can discover the obstacles, identify locations and routines, and plan for them. The big challenges in heist movies are when things go wrong, but they’re also challenging when things get dynamic, and the protagonists have to think on their feet.

That doesn’t seem like it would fit when you can’t research a scenario, and you have to go in blind, is things are inherently dynamic from the start. The closest you can really get is what gear you carry- but Forged already covers that with the Load system.

So when is it appropriate to include flashbacks, to you, and why?

1 Like

Flashbacks are also really useful for exploring emergent character background. This potentially includes important bits of information, (the burial place of a hero, a book detailing an important ritual, etc).

1 Like

Can you expand on that a bit?

My gut response to that is, ‘but why do we need a rule for that,’ and that suggests to me that I’m not understanding what you mean.

Sure! So the stress cost of a flashback represents serendipity; it’s cost rated by the GM based on how likely a thing is to have occurred on a metagame level.

Even if your just establishing basing facts about a character by cutting to the past you are engaging the flashback mechanic. Usually this will be at zero cost but occasionally a GM might feel that, say, flashing back to the mage’s library arcanum that you just made up in order to use information gained there in the present will cost you a few stress.

This is something that, in other games, might be GM fiated. In Blades systems, it’s always allowed so long as you 1. Pay the cost and 2. Do the work (by engaging in action rolls as necessary, etc.

In a high fantasy game, I think it’s still cool for us to see that engage in that stuff. Think of a thief who just HAPPENED to steal the item the party needs RIGHT NOW before they all headed out to the dungeon. You could say “yeah you did that” but without a cost at some point it enters into weasel territory.

I think that’s a point where I’d have difficulty with the flashback mechanic- where it goes from, “I planned for this possibility, and did this,” to, “there’s absolutely no reason for my character to know about or anticipate this, so it’s just coincidence.”

That may just be me; I’ve certainly seen games where the ability to rewrite reality is built into the mechanics, and you can basically edit the scenario to be more in your character’s favor. And I think to some degree I wouldn’t mind that as much as the mountain of luck. It’s not that you by sheer coincidence stole a bagful of ball bearings from that merchant who passed silently through camp in the middle of the night on your watch without anyone knowing about it- it’s that there does in fact happen to be a chandelier in this ballroom, directly above the Cardinal’s advancing thugs, now that you look for it.

But again, that’s me- and my personal preferences. One of the things that I am trying to keep in mind as I create is that people who are not me are going to be playing, and may find things cool that I don’t. So it’d be a good idea to think about things beyond the basic question of ‘do I think this is cool?’

I’m all about serendipity and coincidence in my media and in my games as well. I feel it’s an important story telling tool.

I think in this conversation it’s important to remember the emotional weight/impact the flashback might carry, since we’re talking design here, not just play for blades.

In Blades it lets the scoundrel be clever, and elides the need for the players to actually be that clever, or foresighted, but still -feel- clever. It’s terribly important, I think, as an element to let the players feel awesome, which is essential to the fun of the game.

Similarly in a fantasy game, we might want to use flashbacks, but just for a different emotional hit, or it might vary more with character type, if we’re leaning on Tolkein. (It’s an easy frame of reference for me to draw examples, I’m certainly not saying all fantasy stuff is Tolkein, though a lot is.)

So say, Aragorn has a flashback to learning some elf stuff, or to being an edgy woodsman loner type for decades, and therefore has some knowledge or relevant info. This all reinforces Aragorn’s identity, and for the player it helps the character feel authentic, even though in a practical sense, like, c’mon bud, you just pulled that ancient elven lore out of your ass.
Gandalf, similarly, could flash back to hours spent in study in the library of Gondor, or to a confrontation with a dangerous wizard.
As for the hobbits, they might flash back to their quaint hobbit homes, the smell of the river, and all those lovely pastoral elements that give them hope in the face of their impossible task. Again it reinforces character, and is equally powerful, naratively, as the edgy elf lore crap that Aragorn pulls.

It might not be as essential a thing to the genre, but I think there’s certainly room for it. I would just find a way to structure and shape it to suit the needs of your game, and the kinds of fiction you are trying to generate.

Planning is annoying in TTRPGs regardless of genre, in my opinion, because it forces the players to know everything their characters could know, wastes tonnes of time at the table, and is rarely exciting as an activity in itself. Just watch anyone trying to kit out their DnD character with like,s teel mirriors and caltrops and a lantern and…wait how much was the lantern, and oh I need flasks of oil, which are… and I have 6 silver left?
Spare me.


One other thing (on top of the excellent points that have already been brought up) is the idea of game flow. Flashbacks allows a player to keep going even when they’ve written themselves into a narrative corner, to keep the game moving forward even if they’re stuck.

Flashbacks’ importance as a pacing mechanic should not be understated.


In my middle fantasy game that is frontier oriented (though not full on exploration) I have left flashbacks in the rules, but they are rarely used.
One use I have found for them is letting my players flashback to learn a Special Ability that suites their current situation (rather than picking it immediately) this can significantly cut down on downtime where one player is agonizing over how to develop their character.


Ha, I was sure that was a rule (hold an advance and spend it later) but it’s not actually in the book, it seems. :slight_smile:


In the hack I’m working on, players actually can decide on all their advancement (action dice and Special Abilities) in play, which was a necessary compromise for a game designed for relatively frequent character changes and free player drop-in and drop-out. Definitely saves time at the table!