Gamemaster’s Guidepost: FLASH…ahhhhh…backs?

I am by far no expert on Game-Mastering a RPG, but I’ve been  doing it for about 18 years having running my first game in Forgotten Realms with my best friend and (future) girlfriend when I was only 11. It was terrible, and that’s being fairly nice to myself. Since then I’ve learned a thing or two, and I figured that others might like to know a few of the tips and tricks I’ve learned (usually the hard way).

In this particular post I’d like to talk about something that is used quite often in television and the movies, but is hard to emulate in a game: the Flashback. Properly used it can be a powerful storytelling device, the only problem with this that in a movie or a television show the script writer controls all the characters actions and dialogue, this is not even remotely true of role-playing games. I like to think of role-playing games as sort of ‘collaborative storytelling’, the GM directs the game in a general sort of way letting the players build the road which their characters walk down. As I’m sure you can see, the problems of a flashback are pretty obvious: you need to (as the GM) be in control of the flashback so that you can clue in your players on what it is you’re trying to tell them (which is in my opinion the raison d’être of the flashback to begin with). Another problem is in the movies and on television flashbacks tend to be all about one particular character, this isn’t always the case but it is the most common. This might cause some friction within a given gaming group, but I’ll assume that you (as the GM) are not an adversarial one and that your players are mature enough to share the spotlight. The best way I’ve found to do a flashback is to simply take aside the player it involves, give them a basic outline of what you want and then just let them run with it. You’d be surprised at what a player will get his character into if you allow them to pick the ‘mess’. Recompense the player some way for allowing you to dictate his actions, this can be any sort of in-game reward from extra XP to money. GURPS actually has a handy built-in system like this that is mentioned in GURPS Powers in a box on p. 199, and this happens to be what I use in my games when I need to ‘bribe’ a player. Another way to achieve a flashback (and involve all the players) is to start the game session in the middle (or even the end) of a given story arc and then slowly reveal what had happened before by having the players act out the flashback and adjust the outcome of the ‘ending’ by those actions. These options could potentially lead to outcomes the GM is unprepared for or would find undesirable but I like to think that most long-term players in their perspective gaming groups know enough about each other that this would be a fairly rare occurrence.

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