Character Development: Flashbacks

September 4th, 2009

(This is a repost.  This article was originally posted on August 9, 2008.)

We’re all familiar with the use of the flashback in literature, film, and television:  The “current” narration fades out, showing us a sequence that establishes some event or events that took place in the past of the story.  This device is used to provide important backstory (and, sometimes, to retcon, changing “what really happened” in the past).

I’ve seen relatively few people use the device in roleplaying games, but it can be an excellent method of character development.  It makes a good break between the wrap-up of one major quest or story arc and the initiation of the next.  It also makes a great filler on a night when one or two members of your group can’t make the game, but the rest want to play something.

At the beginning of the typical campaign, the player characters either already know each other, or they’re being brought together for the first time by a plot thread or through sheer coincidence.  Hopefully each player already has in mind at least a basic backstory for his character, and sharing parts of these backstories may be a major aspect of the first few sessions, especially if the characters are just getting to know each other.  Meanwhile, the game master has at least a rough idea of the recent past history of the various locations from which the characters originally hail.

Well, why not occasionally have a session that focuses on a given character, and provides a glimpse of his past life?  That gives the players a chance to elaborate on their backgrounds, and the GM a chance to share some of his knowledge about the setting.

Running a flashback session allows you to direct the spotlight at a character who’s been reticent or simply overshadowed.  That character is the star of the session, obviously — it’s his past.  It also allows for everyone (perhaps even that character’s player) to gain more insight into why the character is who he is.  Everyone gets a chance to see the formative experiences that guided him along his course.

Another major benefit is that a flashback session brings to life the NPCs that are tied into the character’s backstory.  If the character’s parents inspired him, we can see them in game.  Does the character have an old flame whose parents arranged a marriage to another, driving the character to adventure so that she wouldn’t have to be constantly reminded of the fact?  In the flashback, you can flesh out both the character’s old love and his knowing or unknowing rival.  They’ll be that much more real to the players when they appear in the “present day” of the campaign.

It’s possible to share a flashback, if two characters grew up in the same village, or went to the same school, or the like.  In many ways, it’s easier to focus on one character at a time, though.  You can always give the other character his own flashback session later on.  In fact, you should — you can focus on a given character in a given session, but it’s always a good idea to share the spotlight.  Make sure everyone gets a turn.

A flashback session tends to work best, in my experience, when it’s focused heavily, if not entirely, on roleplaying.  In place of dice rolling, favor narrative resolution — remember, this is the character’s past, and he should have most of the say in how things develop.  There may be things he’s not aware of — perhaps that old flame had really fallen in love with his arranged bride, after all — but ask yourself whether these things might be better introduced as plot twists in the current-time campaign, rather than within the past.

I find most players are very reasonable about dictating their past successes and failures, and many even prefer failures, so a little free rein isn’t a bad thing.  You can still step in if something vital to your world would be damaged.

Of course, this is also a game session, and you want all of your players to be engaged, not just the one whose backstory is being explored.  How do you do this, when those players’ characters aren’t present?

You give each player temporary control over one of the important NPCs.  If you’re focusing on the arranged marriage that caused your party’s female rogue to leave town in search of adventure and forgetfulness, then one of your other players can play the bride, another the former love, another that love’s father (who arranged the marriage).  Give each player a brief summary of their desires and motivation, and let the roleplay commence.  The GM plays any incidental figures, if necessary, and steps in to resolve disputes or to keep the game moving.

A flashback session is best focused upon a single event, though that event might stretch over several game days.  Good events to focus upon include:

  • When did your character decide to become a (insert character’s class)?
  • How did your character come to leave his home and become an adventurer?
  • What are your character’s most cherished beliefs, and what motivated you to take up (character’s faith or philosophy)?
  • How did your character’s family influence his life?
  • What, if anything, is your character leaving behind?

Flashback sequences can be used to great effect to develop characters who, on the surface, appear to have few built-in hooks.  For example, it’s fairly common to come across characters whose parents were slaughtered or whose village was razed, and who is now out for vengeance.  That’s fine, as far as it goes, but it places a lot of weight onto the single hook of searching for the villain.  If you’d like to delve into some of the character’s other motivations, flashback to a time before the village was razed.  Watch the character interact with his family.  By the end of the session, the character should feel more rounded, even though nothing in the present continuity of the campaign has changed.

Exploring a character’s background in this sort of scene tends to prove very rewarding.  Players who write elaborate, detailed backgrounds are excited to see them come to life.  Players who prefer to sketch out a basic idea and fill in later are given the opportunity to develop some concrete ideas.  Players who are in it for the acting appreciate a solid roleplaying-based session.  Players who enjoy exploring the game world will gain a better sense of the setting in which the flashback takes place.

A player whose main interest is combat will probably want some dice-rolling, but this player can still be engaged by a flashback:  play out the scene where the character joined that mercenary company he was with before he became an adventurer, or the battle he fought in where his noble father was slain by orcs.  In fact, if you combine a little bit of die-rolling with a narrative focus, you can have the player largely narrate that great battle, describing how he fought by his father’s side until finally they were overcome, and how, left for dead, he awakened later to find his father and their entire retinue slain.  Don’t sweat the rules too much — remember, all of this already happened in the past.  If the character wants to have a “cool moment,” let him.

A flashback is rewarding for the GM, too.  Watch the character interact with the NPCs, especially the ones who are temporarily played by the other players.  Jot down a note or two about how those NPCs might show up again.  Even if they end up dead in the present — death isn’t necessarily an obstacle, depending on the genre of the game.  And even if it is, there might be a way for the dead to make their influence felt.  What does the police investigator think when he finds a file suggesting the mob boss he’s just busted had ties to his deceased father?

At the end of the flashback session, you might choose to award an amount of experience points to your players.  This sort of award rewards them for their participation and ensures that their character advancement will not be slowed down by having this one-shot session.  Depending on your players, you may even want to make this clear in advance; that way, they can focus entirely on the flashback session, instead of thinking about what their characters might have been doing had you run a regular session.  Many players will not need the carrot of an experience award, but I think it’s a good gesture to make anyway, and it helps ensure that the main campaign doesn’t slow down.

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Related posts:

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  4. The Making of a Villain
  5. Superhero Lessons for Fantasy Games

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