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


Dreams can serve an important function in a D&D game.


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.

Yesterday’s post pointed out that events in most Dungeons & Dragons adventures follow a linear timetable, and discussed methods for altering that timetable to increase the dramatic impact of such adventures. This series addresses using the literary devices of flashbacks (discussed yesterday), foreshadowing and dreams while designing adventures, effectively turning back game time, stopping game  time for dream sequences, or hinting at future events.


Our discussion continues with the literary device of foreshadowing, which is “the act of providing vague advance indications, or representing beforehand” (definition courtesy of A good example appears in the 1942 film The Adventures of Robin Hood, in a scene where the villains, Prince John and Sir Guy of Gisbourne, are toasting to the success of a plan to tax the commoners, with the intent of using the funds to buy the support of nobles for John’s bid for the throne. During the toast, a carafe of wine is knocked over, spilling it’s blood-red contents onto the floor, just as blood would be spilled later in the film.

Fiction and script writers have the luxury of maintaining complete control over their characters, so ensuring that events they foreshadow come to pass is an easy matter for them. Unfortunately for dungeon masters (DMs), the characters in an ongoing D&D adventure act independently of anything the DM has planned; how can a DM ensure that foreshadowed events happen when heroes are running amok in the adventure setting?

The answer to that question is threefold:

(1) Be exceptionally vague when foreshadowing the future, since a DM cannot control what the players will say or do. In the Robin Hood example cited above, the spilled wine is a relatively clear symbol of blood, but at the time it isn’t readily apparent whose blood it would represent. As it turns out, it is the villains who suffer the most as a result of their plot. Common examples of foreshadowing in stories include juxtapositions of light and darkness, witnessing struggles between animals representing heroic and villainous forces, images of blood, death or decay, and similar open-ended symbols.

(2) Remember that foreshadowing is only recognized as such after the foreshadowed events come to pass. Thus, if a DM’s foreshadowing is vague enough and the foreshadowed events don’t come to pass, the players may not even know that foreshadowing was attempted. And the DM can expect some unintentional help from the players, since players instinctively try to connect things in adventures, even when there is no connection. Thus, even if events the DM was trying to foreshadow don’t happen, the players will probably find a connection between the foreshadowing and something else in the adventure.

(3) It is possible to construct foreshadowing in such a way that the actions of the players dictate the foreshadowed events. Consider a campaign featuring a war between two nations. The heroes are allied with one side of the conflict, and they have been given a mission to assault an enemy tower outpost as a diversion to the main army’s assault on an enemy city, which features a tower of black marble as the seat of the enemy government. The DM may decide to inject foreshadowing into the adventure by connecting the fates of the two towers (apologies to Tolkein). If the heroes topple the outpost tower, their army will destroy the marble tower; if the outposts withstands the heroes’ assault, so too will the enemy city survive.

As is the case with flashbacks, foreshadowing can take either narrative or encounter-length form; foreshadowing sequences of encounter length should carry normal experience point awards.


Of the three literary devices discussed in this series, dreams are the easiest to employ in a D&D game, since they take place in and are only limited by constraints of the heroes’ minds. Dreams provide the DM with tremendous latitude; in dream environments, the laws of reality are malleable, a circumstance that can give rise to some of the most unique encounters imaginable.

Of course, it is helpful for the information or emotion supplied by the DM in a dream sequence to relate to the plot of the adventure, although some players may appreciate a random battle with a dozen orcs in pink dresses inside of a wine goblet, played just for fun.

While dream narratives can be supplied by DMs to provide information, dream sequences are especially appropriate for use as combat encounters or skill challenges. Player characters (PCs) might portray themselves at their current age, as children, in advanced age, or they may assume any number of animal forms. They may interact or even fight with friends, relatives, prominent non-player characters (NPCs), monsters, or any of the aforementioned wearing assumed or symbolic forms.

When constructing a dream sequence, it helps to begin by determining what purpose the dream encounter should accomplish. Usually, dreams are used to provide characters with insight about future events or about their own fears and internal struggles. Particularly devious DMs may even use dream events to sow suspicion between party members.

After deciding the dream’s purpose, the DM must decide if this dream takes place within the mind of a single character (where other PCs may appear in different clothing, carrying different equipment, with different personalities or even with different forms – for example, a particularly talkative character may appear with no mouth, to give everyone a break from his babbling), or if this is a dream all heroes have (in which case it may be best for everyone to appear as they truly are).

Next, the DM sets up the encounter, following these steps:

(1) Decide what forms the heroes will appear in, and determine any game statistics for special forms or abilities they may have for the dream sequence.

(2) Quantify the setting. It can literally be anywhere, although a dream is a unique way of letting heroes explore adventure-related locations before actually visiting them.

(3) Assign symbols. In dreams, anything can be a symbol representing something else. Assign symbols for some or all of the entities in the dream, preferably symbols that appear elsewhere in the adventure. Dungeon masters wanting to browse a list of common dream symbols can visit this site.

(4) Define the specifics of the combat encounter or the skill challenge, and quantify the appropriate experience award.

Have you had the opportunity to use flashbacks, dreams or foreshadowing in any of your D&D sessions? If you have, consider sharing your experiences in a comment to this post.


2 comments on “Grab players’ attention with flashbacks, foreshadowing and dreams, Part II

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