“I Remember When…”: Using Flashbacks in Fate
by Tara Zuber
Each episode of the television series Psych begins with a recurring narrative device: a flashback to the main character’s childhood that develops defining relationships, establishes his quirky character and habits, and introduces new elements to his world. An episode about a haunted house begins with a flashback of Shawn as a child witnessing a woman falling from the same house, establishing the house as an existing part of Shawn’s life.
When used well, flashbacks are a powerful technique in any storyteller’s arsenal. They precede or interrupt story time to (re)introduce or establish new world and character elements without interrupting story progression. While most traditionally used in film, television, and print, they can also work within tabletop games.
In particular, flashbacks in Fate can provide a way to engage your players in ongoing worldbuilding and story building, develop characters and relationships, and give the PCs more opportunities to create advantages and setting aspects.
Why Use Flashbacks?
Flashbacks open up opportunities for both GMs and players. As your players delve into their character’s personal histories and the background of the world, you learn more about what they value in the game.
Fate emphasizes player involvement in the initial worldbuilding, but once the game starts players have fewer ways to affect how the world develops. They can declare story details with fate points, but such declarations often relate to immediate circumstances that may not have wider implications. Flashbacks let players focus on the bigger picture instead of immediate problems, adding elements that build the world after character creation.
For example, Arrow chronicles Green Arrow’s origin by splitting each episode between present day and Oliver Queen’s formative time on the island that forced him to grow beyond his playboy youth. This split format introduces or elaborates on elements in Oliver’s life. Before appearing in the present day narrative as an active threat, one character—Slade—appeared in the island flashbacks. The flashbacks help the audience understand Slade’s influence over Oliver in ways that would be impossible if the character just showed up in the narrative.
Imagine that Oliver Queen is one of your PCs and his player decides, long after the initial game and world creation, that he wants to add an old mentor as one of the party’s enemies. In a flashback, the player introduces the mentor and the event that sundered their relationship. This creates the character, his motivation, and a new conflict for the party…all while making the PC’s past richer and more detailed.
Shaping the Story
Introducing new facets to a world and story allows players to directly affect the direction and tone of the story. The game we start playing may not match the game we want to play as the group grows together. Perhaps a player realizes they want a darker tone with more serious issues or they want a romantic element that didn’t previously seem interesting. Players can tell the GM what they want to see, but that doesn’t mean you can snap your fingers and make it happen in the narrative.
Flashbacks give players more direct control over the narrative’s scope and tone. A player who wants a more romantic element might flashback to someone they once loved but left behind or to a former spouse and the spark they never managed to quench.
The player’s flashback contributes to the overall story with the tone or direction they’d like the story to go. They show the group what they want instead of just talking about it out-of-character. They can also decide how deeply those elements still influence their character and how the character engages when aspects of the past reappear in the present.
Developing Characters and Relationships
Flashbacks let players share their characters’ backstories, fiction that rarely makes it out of their heads or off their character sheets. Using a flashback, a player can share this backstory with the other players, potentially inspiring new ways for their characters to interact.
In a game I run, one PC formed a familial tie with an older woman she met during character creation. Since this NPC informed one of the character’s aspects, everyone at the table knew she was an important motivating force for the PC. A flashback revealed that the PC had moved in with the older woman, contrary to the PCs’ lifelong preference for solitude and mobility. The flashback showed me how deeply the NPC influenced the character—and gave me a new location the character values and wants to protect.
Flashbacks give players opportunities to share details and bits of story that don’t fit elsewhere. They also help anchor characters into the world by providing a sense of past and continuance. They aren’t just people wandering around—they’re people with a past that has affected and helped form the present day. Their characters have weight in the world and the flashbacks let them show why and how.
Creating Advantages and Setting Aspects
Players can use flashbacks to create advantages by establishing past interaction with current story elements. A player may describe how they visited this town as a young teen, long before they met their current party, and befriended the local bookshop owner (thus creating an advantage based on that friendship). Or they helped the mayor locate his lost child and the mayor owes them a favor (A Mayor in Debt) they haven’t called in yet.
Anchoring a created advantage into the past creates the sense of history the game might not otherwise have. A PC could charm the bookseller, but using the flashback creates a longstanding relationship that matters.
Each flashback also gives the GM plot and character hooks. The mayor owes the PC a favor, but also views them as a problem-solver now. What new problems might the mayor bring to them? You can also extrapolate from the flashbacks. Some people in town wanted the mayor out. How will they get revenge for their wrecked plans now that the PC is back in town?
Each flashback fills the world with new places to explore that have narrative weight for one of the PCs. When a player shares how their character once got thrown out of a bar, they’ve created a bar for the PCs to visit during regular story time—complete with ideas for aspects based on the PC’s flashback. When they visit the bar, who remembers the PC? How do they react? Each location is no longer just a handful of aspects and some description—it’s a place with history for at least one of your PCs. And, likewise, each character is someone a PC knows and has a relationship with. The places and people matter. And the PC has an advantage to prove it.
Using Flashbacks in Fate
Setting up a flashback in Fate is easy. The player sets the time and place, framing the situation, and then you—the GM—run the scene, determining if any rolls are needed and narrating the overall outcome. Finally, the player describes how the flashback affected their character, helping the group understand how the elements shape their backstory.
Step 1: Setting Time and Place
Most longer flashbacks in film or on television include a caption like “Five Years Ago” or “2000: Washington DC” to let the viewers know when the scene is taking place. Others may use more subtle cues like background decorations or the apparent ages of the characters.
Before your player describes their flashback, ask them where and when it’s taking place. Try to be specific enough that the other players can place the flashback in the timeline, but leave things vague when it works for the story, e.g., “This happened before I lost my hand to a rival swordswoman.”
Step 2: Framing the Situation
The player whose character has the flashback frames the scene; they say what happened as they might describe any scene from the past. Encourage the players to pull in sensory information, such as what they heard, smelled, and felt.
For example, a player might say, “I came through this town about three years ago and helped the mayor find his missing child.” If the player has trouble, ask prompting questions like “What happened?”, “What did the other people there do?”, and “How did you do it?” Try to get a sense of how the scene will play out before you start, but leave it up to the player to detail the situation.
Step 3: Running the Scene
After the player frames the flashback, you still need to run the scene to get the full effect. Fate Core System describes two ways of manipulating story time that also work well in running flashbacks: “Story Time and the Scope of an Action” and “Zoom In, Zoom Out” (pages 198-201).
Scope of an Action
“Story Time and the Scope of an Action” describes using a single contest, challenge, conflict, or skill roll to represent a large span of time to determine the overall outcome. This technique compresses the amount of actual time a series of story actions takes. Since flashbacks should be brief interruptions rather than long scenes, representing the scene with a single roll or set of rolls helps keep the memory contained.
Incorporating at least one roll into the flashback introduces a degree of chance. Since flashbacks are set in the past, the ultimate outcome is clear—the PCs are alive and doing their work, plus the player may have included a final result in their framing. The way the outcome came about, however, is more up in the air. If a player frames a scene at a high school dance with an NPC that ends with a sweet kiss and the memory of the NPC as the one who got away, set up a quick challenge with overcome actions like inviting the date, finding the right outfit, and impressing their date with their dance moves. The PC remembers the kiss at the end of the night, but the challenge describes how they reached that point and whether the NPC remembers more than how they did the lawnmower on the dance floor.
Zoom In, Zoom Out
“Zoom In, Zoom Out” gives another way to include chance in the flashback while condensing the amount of time the scene takes. The flashback begins with a broad description, then zooms in on a specific incident that could have gone either way, then zooms back out for the wrap-up. For example, a player may flashback to the year their character spent doing transport for a shady company. As they describe the kind of work they did and their run-ins with the law, zoom in on one of those run-ins and how they convinced the lawmen to let them go. Then zoom back out and ask the player to explain how their run-in affected the rest of their tenure with the company.
As the player describes the memory, listen for points that could be summarized into a roll or series of rolls or for areas where you can zoom in on the action. Remember, the ultimate outcome is already known, but the method is fuzzy. Use rolls to decide how something happened, rather than whether or not it did. And remember that success at a major cost is always on the table.
Step 4: Finishing the Scene
After the rolls are completed, narrate the outcome as usual. Then let the player briefly describe how the outcome affected the PC and contributed to the personality, skills, motivations, or other areas of their character. Flashbacks help build both the world and the characters.
Take notes on the people, places, things, and ideas the player mentions or encounters during their flashback and reincorporate as many as possible into future scenes. Merge an upcoming NPC with someone from a flashback. Keep track of places so PCs can visit them. Items may always pop up again and ideas may affect how people act or define themselves. Try to create at least one or two strong connections between the past and present.
Other players can consider how the flashback affects their character. Perhaps they’ve been to the same area or heard of the same special items. Remind your players that their characters may not know about the events of the flashback and so shouldn’t suddenly change their behavior until they have in-character knowledge and reason for doing so.
Setting Flashback Parameters
At their best, flashbacks enrich the story and world without breaking the present time or game momentum. At their worst, they confuse story time, add bloat to the game, and contradict what we already know about the story. To get the most out of your flashbacks, set parameters with your players before you start using them in your game.
When Do We Flashback?
With your group, decide when flashbacks are appropriate and how they can be brought up during play. While flashbacks in the middle of a game session reflect the spontaneity of the game, they also pose a greater disruption to the existing story. It’s often better to either start or end the game with a flashback. Since many Fate sessions tend to run overtime, starting the game with one is probably easiest!
Starting with a flashback also gets the game session going with action that’s less intensive and may not require all players be present. This is useful if a player is running late or you don’t want to get into the meat of the game until after a food delivery arrives. If you start each session with a flashback, it creates a ritual that signals that the game has begun, easing the players back into the game world and getting everyone focused for the next scene in present time.
How Many Flashbacks Do You Get?
The next decision is how many flashbacks happen per game and who gets each one. Fewer flashbacks per game means fewer disruptions and ensures that the majority of game action is set in the present timeline.
Players can take turns with their flashbacks or you can offer them a set number of flashbacks, such as three per scenario, adjusting that number by the projected length of the story. If you expect it to be short, offer fewer flashbacks. Give more flashbacks for longer tales.
In the game I run, each session has one flashback at the beginning and the players take turns narrating. Each flashback is set during the year between the end of the character creation scene and the start of the first session. Prior to the game, the players usually give me a heads up about what they have planned, but otherwise the flashback is their show.
Rules for Flashbacks
Flashbacks make your players time travelers who can affect the present time of the game by visiting their characters’ pasts. As with time travel, we need some rules to avoid breaking the game, either by creating paradoxes within the story or by making the game uncomfortable for other players. Flashbacks can be extremely powerful, so we must use them responsibly.
Rule #1: Don’t Contradict the Present!
The first rule is that discoveries in the flashback cannot break the ongoing continuity of the story. While the players travel through time in the narrative, their characters are not time traveling: the actions and outcomes of the past don’t change the present because they created the present. You can’t reveal in a flashback that dragons actually exist when the group has agreed they never did.
While players can’t contradict the present, they can add new elements to it based on what they learn in the flashback. If your group hasn’t said that dragons don’t exist (and dragons are appropriate to the setting), a player can introduce dragons by remembering a childhood encounter with one. Nothing’s broken when a gap is filled.
Rule #2: The Past Happened!
The second rule is that the past happened; you can’t rewrite an old flashback with a new flashback. Once a flashback is set and described, it happened. The past should be apparent in the present and you can’t ignore what was revealed. Make sure your players know that whatever they introduce during a flashback is fair game for later incorporation into the game, even if it changes the direction of the story.
After a character has a flashback about a dragon, the players might encounter someone selling dragon scales on the black market. Or maybe they peel back a layer of advertisements on a wall to reveal a faded dragon mural. Some PCs may have thought dragons were a myth, but now they’re unsure. This might set up a question for the PCs to investigate: what happened to all the dragons?
Rule #3: Honor Player Boundaries!
The third rule is that players cannot use a flashback to introduce an element that discomforts other players. If the players decided that rape wouldn’t be part of any of their storylines, no one can later introduce rape through a flashback. The flashback is still part of the story, even if the event occurred before the current events began.
If a flashback starts to move toward a topic that your group decided against or that you know makes another player uncomfortable, stop game play to discuss. Ask the player narrating the flashback why they’ve pulled in this element and brainstorm as a group how to achieve the desired effect in a way that everyone is comfortable with. Such situations are easier to avoid if players run their flashback ideas past the group prior to the game.
Flashbacks are a powerful tool for any gaming group. They let players spotlight their characters while giving them an opportunity to contribute to the ongoing development of the world. They also give the GM some feedback on what players want to see in their game. Used well, they can enrich the world and more firmly tie the current setting to each character’s backstory, increasing the players’ investment in the world and building new and exciting revelations without disrupting the ongoing flow of the story.