Grab players’ attention with flashbacks, foreshadowing and dreams, Part I



By altering the flow of time for narrative purposes, a DM can make a good adventure into a great one.

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 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

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.

Encounter flashbacks

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.


6 comments on “Grab players’ attention with flashbacks, foreshadowing and dreams, Part I

  1. ClefJ says:

    Very interesting, I never thought about utilizing any of these flashbacks! The last sounds most trilling for any party; introduces something fresh and, I find importantly, a chance to experience a TPK without doing so to their beloved primary characters. I certainly feel like thinking more about this for a future adventure.

    • Alric says:

      I first started experimenting with these techniques during the 2e/Ravenloft days, and I’ve since found them to be very effective – with the right group of players. War gamer/power gamer types usually don’t care too much about cinematic stuff like this, but actor/storyteller types eat it up.

  2. vbwyrde says:

    Thanks for the thoughtful post. This is good material. I haven’t used Flashbacks much, though that is in keeping with your general advice not to over use these techniques… I point I whole heartedly agree with. These are good things to pull out of the hat once in a while, but not too often. I think of it as using spices in a soup. Just enough is wonderful… too much is, well, too much.

    As for the Encounter Flashback I forsee a potential problem, unless the GM has no interest either way with the outcome of the battle (which is to say it makes no story difference if the Elves or Orcs win or lose). The problem of course is what happens if the Elves win by chance, when the Orcs were supposed to win due to the Backstory. So that’s something to keep an eye out for. I would only use this kind of Player-Character Transference in cases where the outcome makes no difference to my back story.

    The other problem I would want to avoid is the issue of Player-Character continuity. I like the idea that the Players get engaged with the prior battle of Elves and Orcs, but I would want to cloak the Flashback in some sort of fuzzy edged mysticism to keep continuity. I think I would use a technique of Transmigration of Souls to handle that. It’s not so much that the Characters play the Elves, but that their Characters somehow enter into the bodies of the Elves during that ancient and (possibly) long forgotten battle. So I might introduce it by saying something like this:

    “As you pass over the last of the low hills and enter a wide gladed vale you have the strangest feeling that you’ve been here before, even though you know you’ve never seen this place. The sky seems to grow dim, and then the scene seems to become blurry as if under water, and you find yourselves in a dreamlike place, still in the same glade but the trees are different and there is snow on the ground now and it’s cold. You look at the party member to the right of you and you see he (or she) is dressed differently, and you realise he is a tall blond Elven warrior, as are the other members of your party. You’re all standing among a large group of Elves who are tense and waiting silently for something to happen. Suddenly, from the other side of the glade you hear a loud crack as if a branch of a tree has snapped off, and you hear a large number of yelping sounds coming from the edge of the woods. Emerging in a long dark line are twenty figures …” etc.

    That way there is continuity with the existing Characters, it fits into the story, and it has a more literary feel. At least I think so.

    I’m very much looking forward to reading Part II. Thanks!

    • Alric says:

      Good observations, and very well stated.

      The transmigration idea could constitute an adventure all by itself!

      Thanks for your visit,


  3. vbwyrde says:

    woopse – just setting the ‘notify me on new posts’… forgot that. 🙂

  4. […] This is the second 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. The first post in the series can be found here. […]

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