Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Flashback Mechanics and Why They Suck

A moderately up and coming genre of game is the Heist. Heist games, in general, represent an Ocean's Eleven style attack on some target - be it some cyberpunk corporate sabotage or be it a Mission Impossible infiltration of a military complex. A component of Heist games is the concept of a Flashback - a sort of cut-scene wherein, like the films belonging to the genre represented, the players flash back to their own past to the point where they were planning the adventure: lending cinematic dynamism to the otherwise "boring" planning phase.

Flashbacks work for Heist games.
Flashbacks belong in Heist games.
Flashbacks do not belong in your game.

What is a Flashback?

As previously mentioned, a Flashback is a cut-scene wherein the party plans their caper or adventure. More technically, the party moves in to the target zone, begins execution of their "plan," and at points in the game where a pre-planned activity or item would be necessary for the plan to continue, the players declare a Flashback (typically paid in some meta currency: be it a limited number of uses per adventure or be it to the detriment of a stat). During the Flashback, assumed to have taken place in days or weeks prior, the players have the opportunity to "plan" for that pre-planned necessity.

Although I am surely grossly over-simplifying, the Flashback creates an in-game representation of the planning step: the point where the party in a typical fantasy adventure game meets in a tavern, goes over the map, and then buys supplies and recruits hirelings. It parallels the scene arrangement in a typical Heist movie - which taps into my main beef with it: the scene.

Why don't Flashbacks belong in my game?

Flashbacks Subvert Player Skill

When I am playing a dungeon crawler, I am doing just that: playing a dungeon crawler - not watching a movie. In a Heist movie, the protagonist is a skilled criminal or operative who knows just what to do from previous experience. In that regard, the mechanic does not fit into an OSR game because you are the experienced operative: not your character. Part of player skill is the ability to plan ahead; and part of the game is managing the pre-planning activities.

Why is it more fun to retroactively role play out bribing the security guard instead of ... role playing out bribing the security guard the day before? Danny Ocean is an experienced crook; by the time you've played as many games as he fictitiously has executed heists, you too will be as good as he is at planning.

Flashbacks Damage Close Doors for the Game

Part of the fun of being a GM in an OSR style game is that you don't know what's going to happen; similarly, part of the fun of being a player is finding out how to use what you have in ways that they were not intended to be used to overcome a situation that you didn't think of before. If you have the power of ret-con, it takes this aspect of the game away and replaces it with a well oiled machine: a scene wherein the master planner forethought the scenario.

This hearkens back to earlier, I mention I have a beef with the scene. A scene doesn't work without a script - and, as mentioned, the fun part of RPGs is that there is explicitly no script. The story emerges, one you can tell at Waffle House to other gamers at 2 AM: whether it's a success or a failure doesn't matter - the game is what the game created.

Playing the game is the process of writing your script. When your GM writes his horrible fantasy novel that he keeps promising to write based on your adventures, he can write the planning scene asynchronously with the timeline to imbue motility into the narrative... sans play mechanic.

Flashbacks Cheapen Character Niches

Lastly, Flashbacks provide a get-out-of-jail free card. This is not unheard of - MUs do it all the time: it's kind of their thing - however, the MU is a limited resource, whereas the Flashback provides much more leeway and scope. This is moderately offset by imposing limitations - e.g. providing a cost to invoke a Flashback or scaling the effect of a Flashback by how much it would alter the timeline for the present - but it introduces a mechanic at the party level that normally would belong to a party member.

The MU might have memorized Knock... or the Flashback might have forged keys.
The Thief might climb up the sheer wall to access a lever de-activating a trap... or the Flashback might have seen our caller acquiring a Scroll of Spider-Climb.

And don't get me started on hirelings. Suffice to say, part of the game is building a team - which, in a way, a Flashback could simulate by hiring someone external to the physical party, which would maintain continuity - but again: why is it more fun to do that after the fact than simply role play it up front? Build those relationships rather than force them in?

In Conclusion,

Flashbacks are used to simulate something your character can do that your player cannot - to mimic an expertise that the player may not possess. But at the end of the day, by the time your character reaches a level where Flashback planning makes sense, you as a player will have already figured out how to do it - that is, to bring the right party members, to buy the right equipment, and to have established while leveling the contacts you'd need to make it happen.

Thanks for reading.

(Next time I run a game, I'll try a Flashback out. See how it goes...)

Red Tree Hollow

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