You’ve heard of “using the whole buffalo,” right? The idea that if you’re going to kill a buffalo, you should respect the buffalo by making every bit of it useful: eating the meat, tanning the hide, making stuff from its bones?
When your players hand you their character sheets, think of each of those character sheets as a buffalo. Then, mix your analogies:
A what now?
A flag, gaming-wise, is this (courtesy of our woefully out-of-date yet still-useful glossary):
Any aspect of a PC that can be used to drive the game, most often a personality trait or background hook. For example, a mercenary PC’s rivalry with an NPC merc from another unit would be considered a flag, as it provides the GM with a hook for involving that PC in adventures.
Flags and flagging are built into a lot of games, and have been for many moons. (Way back in 2005, I tossed up a one-link post on Treasure Tables that leads to a great Forge thread about flagging.) An obvious recent example: Aspects in Fate. An Aspect tells you things about a character (or group, or whatever it’s applied to), and it has mechanical weight in the system.
Flags are awesome because they tell you what your players want out of the game. And the coolest part is that while they work best when everyone at the table knows the flags are there and is explicitly using them as flags, they also work if no one ever says the word “flag” or even knows what a flag is.
But lots of games don’t feature flags in their mechanics, you’re thinking. Noooooo, this whole article is a bust!
But wait — but wait! — the good news is that yes they do.
Oh my god, it’s full of flags
Here’s some pudding in which to find the proof: Grab the first character sheet you can find — yours, a player’s, a sample character in a core book, whatever. Now look at it through your Flag-O-Vision Specs (TM):
- Are there stats? Good — those are flags. If a player put all their points into Strength, they want to do strong stuff in the game. Challenges that require strength, chances to impress NPCs with their cute muscles, monsters that can only be defeated by the power of rippling abs — you get the idea. If a player makes a character with a high Strength, you can make that player happy by putting strength stuff in the game. Boom: Flag Use 101. Let’s go deeper.
- But my game uses random stats! Playing an RPG where stats are rolled, not chosen/assigned? No problem: The same rule applies. If your players derive joy from playing whatever characters they wind up with based on the fickle dice gods, their stats are still flags.
- Crappy stats are flags too. An abysmally low Strength is just as interesting, flag-wise, as an improbably high Strength: It means the player wants chances to fail, get embarrassed by, or be shown up because of their puny Strength score. Give them those opportunities, and you introduce a different yet equally powerful kind of joy into the game.
- Backgrounds are flags. If a player writes it down as part of her character’s fictional history, she’s saying, “Put this in the game, it interests me.” My face-to-face group makes this explicit with Don Mappin’s Three Things technique, which works great for us, but it doesn’t have to be made explicit. Even a one-sentence background like “My guy has no parents, has amnesia, and just wants to kill things and take their stuff” is full of flags. How did his guy get amnesia? Does he really have no parents, or does he have parents who he’s forgotten? Do either of those things connect to his love of murder and theft? You get the idea.
- Skills are flags too. Surprise! If it’s on the character sheet, it’s a flag — you were expecting this one, right? Underwater Basketweaving 10? Put some motherfucking underwater basketweaving in the game. Acrobatics 29? Make with the tightropes and B&E.
- Species? Flag! She made a halfling for a reason; he made a half-orc, half-golem for a reason. Part of the reason, in both cases, is because of what those species are like in your setting, in the player’s imagination, or in some hybrid of the two. But it boils down to “people who make elves want to see elf stuff happen.” Make with the elf stuff.
- Just about every other damn thing: flag. If it’s important enough in the game to make it onto the character sheet…it’s almost certainly a flag.
- Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. Don’t take this too far, though. If a player buys a mace because its all he could afford, that’s not a flag. (The character’s poverty might be, though, and if the mace was purchased because of the PC’s religion that sure as hell is.) Your gut will tell you when to stop looking for flags; trust it.
Ride those flags off into the sunset
Now what? Now comes the best part:
- Get out a blank sheet of paper/open a new document
- Write down all the flags, character by character
- Look for common threads and note them
- Identify flags that could become adventures, story arcs, mysteries, episode campaign themes, or whatever other “Game Unit of Doing Stuff” interests you
- Create adventures/etc. around those themes and flags
- When an adventure isn’t based on one or more flags, make sure to work in a few flags
- As the campaign progresses and you start using up flags, magically new flags will arise; write them down, too
- Now start at the top of the list and keep stealing all of your players’ ideas and never have to prep again
It might not go quite like that for you, but even if it doesn’t the takeaway — everything on your players’ character sheets is something they want to see in the game, for good or ill — can change the way you prep and play forever.
Gnome Stew reader Rickard Elimää asked for an example, and while the comments are already buzzing with them (I love our commenters!) he’s right: This article needs one. So here it is.
You’re sitting down to plan out an adventure, and you have a party of four PCs with these flags (many fewer than the average party would have — this is just an example, after all!):
- An elven thief with mysterious dagger
- A dumb, strong human barbarian
- An elven fighter who used to be a merchant
- A dwarven musketeer who was raised among humans
You know you want to offer your players hooks that lead to some exploration, a social encounter, and a battle against a Big Bad Evil Guy. So let’s work backwards from the BBEG:
- You have two elves in the party; elf is a flag for both of those PCs. Make the BBEG an elf.
- You have a dwarf who wasn’t raised among dwarves — an exile. Decide that the elven BBEG is responsible for that. You don’t know why yet.
- The barbarian comes from a nomadic culture. He’s heard rumors of the elven BBEG.
- The mysterious dagger that the thief carries begins to glow, and the runes on its blade reform into the shape of the BBEG’s mocking face.
- One of the former merchant’s old associates chances to meet him as the party prepares to leave the city, and says that a caravan is a week overdue. The caravan was heading through the barbarian’s old stomping grounds.
- Heading there, the party runs into fleeing survivors from the caravan. Only the merchant speaks their language, and his bonafides let him calm them down and gather some intel (the social encounter).
- The attackers — they never saw them, but they fired elven arrows — took prisoners and goods into the ruins of an ancient temple out on the plains.
- The ruins can only be breached by navigating a series of treacherous traps (hitting the thief’s flag of…thief!) and then ascending a great pillar (the barbarian’s strength — think Cliffs of Insanity, from The Princess Bride).
- The BBEG is revealed to be the reason the dwarf was exiled, and is somehow related to the two elves. The big battles takes place.
That’s not going to win any awards, but it took me about five minutes to write based on just a handful of flags. Another 30 minutes and it could be a whole lot better — and with more flags, and an actual group with some adventures under their belts, better still.
Use the whole buffalo. Put on your Flag-O-Vision Specs (TM) and see flags everywhere. Steal your players’ ideas, incorporate them, reincorporate them, and put all your newfound spare prep time into drawing obscenely detailed maps, or something.
And just remember: Everything is a flag.