Thursday, June 27, 2013

The Art of the Flashback

This post is about flashbacks (individual scenes shaped by a player to reveal something about their character).  Although a major element of EPOCH, since we’ve been playing the game I noticed that many of the folks I game with have been using this kind of framing in other, more traditional games, to simply and interestingly communicate character exposition.
In EPOCH the mechanic of the flashback has a specific purpose.  The character voted most interesting each challenge round, receives an outcome card back to their hand, increasing their chance of survival, while all the other characters receive a flashback card, which they can use to initiate a flashback scene during the next tension phase.  In practice this means that it is unlikely that the character who has just been voted most interesting, will do so again in the subsequent round, as the ability of other characters to ‘flashback’ to interesting scenes or moments which highlight their characters backstory will usually overshadow the character who cannot activate a flashback in the minds of the players when they vote.
Flashbacks and Backstories
Example 1: Framing a character in ‘Behind the Mask of Evil’
In ‘Behind the Mask of Evil’ (a scenario set during peacekeeping operations in the Congo) I was dealt the group relationship card “unpopular” and was given the role card “photographer”.  Drawing the shortest line between two points (an unpopular photographer), I determined the character would appear to be a sleazy paparazzi.  However, it also seemed like that might not give me enough mileage or interest value in subsequent tension phases, so I also completed my "secret" card, specifying the character was actually a secret agent – being a photographer was just his cover.   Having a generic, but significant twist – like being a secret agent twist would allow me a variety of options to engage with either the plot or the other characters as part of my characters ‘mission’.  But as I obviously had no idea about their characters or the plot of the scenario, I could let the story evolve and decide what ‘mission’ my agent had been assigned once I knew more about both.
Flashback #1
For the characters first flashback, I wanted to hint at the characters secret and help frame why he was in Africa.  So I set the scene as a Hollywood red carpet, where my character, along with dozens of other paparazzi, snapping pictures of a glamorous celebrity. At the conclusion of the scene the character left the red carpet and entered a large black SUV, where a big man in a suit was waiting.  He uploaded his pictures onto a laptop and both men considered the close-up shots of the diamonds that the celebrity was wearing.  This foreshadowed a connection to blood diamonds, which I had (by now) decided would be a major motivation for my character.
Interacting with another characters backstory
Flashback #2
We were now in the meat of the scenario, and the stakes had been raised.  I wanted to frame this flashback to provide a significant and specific reason why my character was in the movie.  As the plot we had experienced so far seemed to have little to do with blood diamonds, I decided that my role was to do with smuggling.  At this point, I thought it might be interesting to interact with another characters backstory (this may involve some negotiation, but usually creates a much stronger story) so I picked a character who had not revealed much to that point, but who had narrated their character as being sick and sweaty, and framed a scene set in at night in an African morgue where 3 living people, one of them who looked very much like his character, were being operated on to have bags of diamonds inserted in their stomachs.  My character was present and clarified with the doctors, that the drug cocktail applied to the characters would mean they had no memory of their abduction or this procedure.  In this way I linked my characters story, with another character, but also gave that character a reason to explain why he didn’t know about this particular twist, and even allowed him to opt out (by specifying the character on the slab ‘looked like’ his character – perhaps it wasn’t that character, but rather a close relative etc.)

Fortunately the player in question took this story, and ran with it – literally.  He activated his flashback and piggybacked off mine, narrating how, soon after my character had left, he had woken up and managed to stagger off in the darkness, clutching the recently stitched wound in his stomach, pursued by the doctors.  Hiding down a dark alley, he placed his hand on his stomach and spoke several words in a guttural language and the skin healed itself.  And with that twist he established both that he still had the diamonds implanted, and knew that he had been operated on, and that he had some kind of mystical power – a revelation which won him the ballot that round as most interesting character.
Example 2: Framing a vendetta in “Home Front”
In ‘Home Front’ (a scenario set during WWII in Britain), one of the players had created a character who was an eccentric doctor, who desperately wanted a commission in the Home Guard, but had been unable to secure one.  Another of the characters had revealed during flashbacks, that they had been heavily involved in the black market, and so the doctor framed a flashback where he contracted the black market character to ‘remove’ my character who he saw as the obstacle to his commission.  This was a surprise to me, as my own characters backstory had made no reference to this, but it was undeniably interesting.
I played along, and in subsequent flashbacks revealed how my character had secretly provided a poor reference, which had dashed the doctors hopes of promotion, and further revealed that I had done this because I blamed the doctor, when his nurse had rejected my characters romantic advances, citing the need to be at work with the doctor as an excuse on every occasion that my character had asked her out.  Thus the backstory filled with petty jealousies, and escalating to hatred and violence came to a gripping crescendo in a challenge round where almost every character played a Zero card on someone else, creating one of the most memorable scenes I’ve thus far experienced in EPOCH.
Keeping it fresh
Employing a flashback to increase the interest in your character can be challenging.  The initial cards and secret probably only give you enough material for one or two flashbacks (and if you are too vague or only reveal a small amount of material in order to portion this out for longer, the other players may be confused, or simply not remember the scene when voting).  So in the case of example 1, by the time I reached my 3rd flashback I had largely exhausted the interest value in this aspect of my characters backstory, so I needed something fresh.   However, coming up with something new once your character has been established, and after you’ve played in their skin for an hour or so, can be very difficult.   One obvious solution is to interact with another characters backstory, in a similar way to the examples I’ve provided.  This is best performed with the lightest touch, where you do not change the fiction the other character has already established, but rather weave your character into their story in a way they might not even have been aware of, thus allowing the other player the choice to seize on this story and continue it, or to ignore it.
Equally, if you’re just plain stumped, the complication deck is specifically designed to provide a player with some simple suggestions which may trigger great ideas for twists in your characters backstory, or at least interesting ones.

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