This is the first in a two-part series about how a dungeon master (DM) can make Dungeons & Dragons adventures more memorable by using the literary devices of flashbacks, foreshadowing and dreams to alter the flow of game time.
Most D&D adventures are conducted in the present tense – the players are involved in story events occurring at the present moment in game time, which proceeds to the next moment in a linear fashion, just as time does in the real world. Of course, there is nothing inherently wrong with this, since the passage of time is something everyone understands and (hopefully) accepts as reality. But the banal nature of linear story progression provides a ripe opportunity for a DM to manipulate how time flows through a D&D adventure, turning a commonplace adventure into a memorable one by occasionally telling parts of the story in non-linear fashion.
Like any dungeon mastering technique, it is important not to overuse the suggestions presented in the following paragraphs; doing so will make the plot of a D&D adventure much more difficult to follow, rather like a poorly-made Avant-Garde film. The goal of using this technique is to tell more interesting stories, not to confuse players.
Altering time flow for story purposes
Storytellers are omniscient with respect to their tales, and a DM is a type of storyteller. This post discusses three devices used by another type of storyteller – fiction writers – to provide audiences with information outside the linear flow of time in a story: flashbacks, foreshadowing and dream sequences. Essentially, each of these devices involves moving the narrative backward or forward from the present time in the story or, in the case of dreams, temporarily stopping the flow of time in a story entirely, so that the audience has a richer understanding of story events. For a DM running a D&D adventure, the audience is the players, and they can have a richer experience with an adventure if the DM decides to exercise his or her temporal omniscience.
Before playing out a flashback, foreshadowing or dream episode of an adventure, it is important to notify the players of the change in time, and to notify them when the adventure plot returns to the present in game time. It is equally important for episodes long enough to be considered fully-developed encounters to carry experience awards for the combat or skill challenges they contain.
Flashbacks: turning back the clock
Strictly speaking, a flashback is “a literary or cinematic device, in which an earlier event is inserted into the normal chronological order of a narrative” (definition courtesy of thefreedictionary.com). Typically, flashbacks relate to the personal backgrounds or memories of prominent characters in a story.
For the purposes of this post series, we’ll differentiate between two types of flashbacks: those we’ll call narrative flashbacks and encounter flashbacks. As their name implies, narrative flashbacks carry narrative value only; they serve to set the scene for role-playing or evoking emotion in players, but don’t usually impact the characters from a game mechanics standpoint. Encounter flashbacks are of sufficient length or complexity that they merit an experience award, even if the unfolding events in the episode technically happened earlier than the present moment in game time.
Narrative flashbacks create an emotional connection between something that happened in the past and events currently transpiring. For example, consider a heroine who, in a prior battle with an evil cleric, was brought below zero hit points and only survived because her allies were able to stabilize her wounds and nurse her back to health. When she faces that same cleric again, the DM might read a short description about the heroine’s last moments as a rush of memories flooding the heroine’s mind, including such details as the evil priest’s laughter echoing in her ears as the creeping chill of death began to consume her. Such flashbacks could also relate to events from a hero’s childhood; imagine an arachnophobic fighter who was attacked by a large spider as a child, who is preparing to face a half-dozen giant spiders in the current adventure. By reading a short description or engaging the fighter’s player in a brief role-play about that event before the fight with the giant spiders, the audience (i.e., all assembled players) will be reminded of the fighter’s fear, and the fighter’s success in that combat will be compounded by overcoming that fear.
By definition, flashbacks replay events that have already transpired, which implies that they must remain unchanged. It is still possible, though, to combine the flashback literary device with the open-ended outcomes of combat or skill challenge encounters; this is done by flashing back to a history other than what the players already know. For example, imagine an adventuring party exploring a stretch of desolate broken lands, the geographic result of rampaging orcs defiling a former elven kingdom. When the party comes across the site of a desperate battle between elves and orcs – as evidenced by bleached skeletons and corroded weaponry laying about – the DM might announce a flashback encounter. Producing a stack of pre-generated elven warriors at the player characters’ current level and preparing a battle map of the site as it existed at the time of the battle, the DM explains that the party will assume the roles of the doomed elves during their historic last stand at this very site, and that, while the outcome is inevitable, the player characters will receive experience for every orc their elf characters send back to Gruumsh. Doing so will enable the players to try something different, provide a refreshing change of pace in the game, and give the players a greater respect for what happened during the battle – especially when the animated skeletons of those elves rise to defend their homeland against more intruders: the heroes.
The next and final post in this series will describe how a DM can use the devices of foreshadowing and dreams to impact D&D adventures in similar fashion.