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:

Everything on your players’ character sheets is a flag.

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A flag, gaming-wise, is this (courtesy of our woefully out-of-date yet still-useful glossary):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:

  1. Get out a blank sheet of paper/open a new document
  2. Write down all the flags, character by character
  3. Look for common threads and note them
  4. Identify flags that could become adventures, story arcs, mysteries, episode campaign themes, or whatever other “Game Unit of Doing Stuff” interests you
  5. Create adventures/etc. around those themes and flags
  6. When an adventure isn’t based on one or more flags, make sure to work in a few flags
  7. As the campaign progresses and you start using up flags, magically new flags will arise; write them down, too
  8. 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.

An example

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:

  1. You have two elves in the party; elf is a flag for both of those PCs. Make the BBEG an elf.
  2. 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.
  3. The barbarian comes from a nomadic culture. He’s heard rumors of the elven BBEG.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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).
  7. 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.
  8. 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).
  9. 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.

About  Martin Ralya

A father, husband, writer, small-press publisher, former RPG industry freelancer, and lifelong geek, Martin has been gaming since 1987 and GMing since 1989. He lives in Utah with his amazing wife Alysia and their awesome daughter Lark in a house full of books and games.



26 Responses to Everything is a Flag: Use the Whole Buffalo that Your Players Provide

  1. I think the flag thinking is interesting, but most people just say “Use flags” but doesn’t tell how to use them.

    Create adventures/etc. around those themes and flags

    How?

    • Using flags is an exercise in imagination for the GM. Usually I start by brainstorming random ideas off of the “flag”.

      Some possibilities for Underwater Basketweaving:

      * The party needs information from a Sea Elf whose kelp wagon has collapsed. The PC could use it to help weave repairs and get information.
      * There is a gem in an underwater cave that disintegrates everything it touches, except for the kelp in the cave where it is stored, so the PC can make a basket out of that to carry it out.
      * Tendrils of magical energy has encased the underwater elven city in a protective weave. The PC can use his skill to determine weak points
      * The PC learned the skill from their time with the old sea elf woman who traded with the lakeside city. She passed away from old age and left the PC her home—and its curse—to them in her will.
      * The PC learned the skill while being enslaved by Kuo-toa but they turned the skill around and fashioned a woven shield to aid their escape. During that escape other slaves also got free and years later the PC runs into one of them, who says that the woven shield turned up in a nearby town.

      Then after I have my list, I think about everything else that is going on in the campaign and look at the other characters flags and start to write up plots (or even full sessions).

      • Cheers, but would you say that flags only creates situations, or do you have any ideas how to connect different flags to each other? The article said “Look for common threads and note them” but didn’t go into how to think when using two or more flags together.

        • As a GM you have to start creating those threads yourself, or work them out with the player(s). Pick a couple of things that could possibly work together and start figuring out how they do work together.

        • Common threads could be anything two or more characters have in common. The most obvious are the direct pairings: two Elves, two foreigners from the same country or planet, two former mercenaries, two people who both have skills as pilots, etc. Characters with common background elements may know each other, either by name or reputation. They may have been working as allies. They may have been rivals. They may both know the same NPC. Even better, one may know that NPC as an ally and the other as a rival. I could go on for paragraphs, as the possibilities practically write themselves.

          When you don’t find direct pairings, look for ways that being different is a commonality. For example, are two of the PCs foreigners in a mostly homogenous society? It doesn’t matter that they happen to come from two different places; a lot of what happens to them is going to be the same.

    • You’ve gotten some great responses in the comments, but you were right: I needed an example in the article. So I updated it to add one. Thanks!

  2. I love when background elements get used like this. Even better when they become issues between two characters. Say a friend of one PC is the rival/enemy of another. The GM in a Dresden Files game I played in did this well. If I had a friendly NPC who was important, chances are she disliked or hated another PC because of a backstory thing. It made everything more connected and felt like the reason the city was in danger was because we seemed to be the only people capable or working together.

  3. Thanks all for the answers (and the update of the article). They were what I was fishing for. ;)

    As the campaign progresses and you start using up flags, magically new flags will arise; write them down, too

    I would like to put some emphases on this one because it’s what makes the game dynamic. I just wonder if it’s really flags, if it’s loose ends, or if it’s the same. Like how Bilbo finds a ring and how that ring is part of something bigger. Do you count the ring as one of those flags that magically appears?

    Because that’s how I usually roll. I take what happened, and create consequences of that, or show different perspectives of it. Perhaps the elf was responsible for the dwarf’s exile, but did the elf have any choice? What was her view point?

    Another thing that I think is important with flags, is that putting them into use is a social reward. Whenever you acknowledge someone else’s contribution, they feel good. You could turn a person that a player made into an important person in your adventure, you can let the player describe the magic and have people make it into an explanation of the world, you can adopt the adventure so the players’ plans work, and that useless attempt to bluff worked because the guard could really use a bribe.

    Using flags gives the same effect: the players feels that you listened to what they wanted to contribute with. That will encourage them to wanting to contribute with more things.

  4. While I’m totally on board with the IDEA of this article, I don’t agree with a lot of the specifics. Basically, I’m just going to cite Chris Chinn (Can’t figure out how links work. Here http://bankuei.wordpress.com/2013/11/19/making-good-flags/) here. Read the section on “The Trap of Non-flags.” There is a definite danger in assuming that someone put a lot of points into something because they want it to come up a lot.

    • I think it’s a fair default assumption. I’ve never played a game where someone out a lot of points into something they weren’t excited about, and corner cases seem easily resolved by talking to your players.

      If, as a player, I invested heavily in an area so I could minimize its impact on the game, I’d tell the GM.

      • I don’t like that.

        A) Assumption
        B) “I’ve never done it, so why would anyone?”
        C) “You should just talk to your players” (Good advice) followed by “But they’ll come to you” (Bad advice)

        Seriously. You’ve never imagined a person putting lots of points into “fighting” because they were afraid they would die if they didn’t?

        • You seem to want to argue, which I’m not interested in doing.

          Yes, I made an assumption; I called it out as such. I believe that the majority of the time players invest in things they’re interested in.

          Neither of the other two items you put in quotes are what I said. I get that just because I wouldn’t do it that doesn’t mean no one else would, and I said that if I did it I’d talk to my GM. Maybe not everyone would, hence the point about talking to your players.

          I can imagine scenarios where a player puts points (or whatnot) into something as a buffer or avoidance mechanism. There are examples of that in this very comment thread.

          It would be difficult for me to run a game if I second-guessed everything my players put on their character sheets. Assumptions can be problematic — absolutely! — but in my experience the vast majority of stuff players fold into their characters is stuff they want to see/do and are jazzed about.

    • This is a worthy issue to discuss more deeply. Two thoughts on it:

      1. With respect to Chris Chinn’s examples in “The Trap of Non-Flags”, just because a player creates a skilled sword fighter who hates sword fighting, doesn’t mean that character should never have to fight with swords. Creating a character like that is an open invitation. It’s the classic trope of a warrior-hero of yore who can’t hide from his reputation. It’s silly to write that kind of history, and invest in those skills, and then insist that it not be relevant to the story.

      2. Sometimes players choose a character aspect without really expecting there to be consequences for it. In my experience this is especially true for people picking demihuman races like Elves. Most of these players pick a race for its ability tweaks and for the sake of “being different” but then expect to play like humans in funny suits. Hey, alien races are… alien! They think differently, act differently, and are usually treated differently. Not ready to handle any of that? Then you’re just a kid dressed up for Halloween.

      • Your first example reminds me of a character I had in a superpowers game. She had an awful power that could and had ruined lives when she used it, so she rarely ever, ever used it. Yet she was leader of her team and would fight tooth and nail for the rights of other supers in the game’s setting.

        I loved playing that dynamic, and luckily it was one the GM got, so he knew what to do with it. If he hadn’t of ‘got it’, the character would have been a lot less fun.

      • Your second point is killer! That alone is a fantastic reason for talking about characters in more depth before the game.

        I hadn’t considered the “casual choice” at all. Good stuff.

      • There’s a difference between a CHARACTER who hates swordfighting and a PLAYER who isn’t really interested in swordfighting though. Sure, you can create a character who hates using their strengths – that’s a flag that should be explicitly called out in some way – but just looking at a character with lots of points in stabbing things doesn’t mean that’s necessarily a point of interest for the player.

        I think a lot of glossing over is happening here – the idea that someone might take skills/races/whatever because they are appropriate to the concept rather than something they want to focus on seems like a really obvious one.

        I think what people need to take away from this is that explicit flags are EXPLICIT and you don’t need to discuss them with people. If my character has “Terrified of his own power” written on his sheet somewhere, that pretty clearly tells the GM that I want to engage with that. It’s probably safe to call backgrounds explicit flags (Though I’ve heard tales of people who write backgrounds and then DON’T expect them to come up, but that’s baffling) Stats/Skills/mechanics/whatever are NOT necessarily flags. They CAN be, but it’s not by any stretch of the imagination guaranteed, so these need to be DISCUSSED.

        Explicit flags don’t need to be talked about beforehand.
        Flag guesswork like stats absolutely does.

  5. So much THIS article.

    As a player, I have experienced TONS of frustration by putting plot hooks and seeds into my character’s build and background and then just had them ignored or overlooked by the GM. I don’t expect everything to get used, but the number of times the ‘flags’ got used is far, far outnumbered by the number of times they were ignored.

    That’s probably the reason that, as a GM, I do my damndest to try and work in the little hooks and plot seeds that players work into their backgrounds. There’s nothing like watching a player’s face light up when you pull in a bit of their background into the game. :)

  6. I just saw that Chris Chinn, who coined the term “flag” for gaming, called out this article as a critical and common misunderstanding of flags: http://bankuei.wordpress.com/2014/07/31/flags-a-critical-misunderstanding/.

    He’s a lot smarter about this stuff than I am, and he makes excellent points — right in line with some of the things Airk brought up in the comments here. I recommend checking it out.

  7. It’s probably not a good sign for this article when the person who invented the term makes a posting more-or-less explicitly for the purpose of saying “No, that’s not what a flag is.” =/

    • I can only write articles based on my own understanding of things. I appreciate Chris taking the time to break things down, even if it reveals gaps in my knowledge and flaws in my understanding.

      • Honestly, if you just changed the word “flags” to “cues”, the idea would stand and the idea of flags being reserved for explicit elements could be preserved.

        Your take on building adventures out of the cues on a character’s sheet is still a vital insight; while Chris’s discussion points out the value of having unambiguous cues called flags.

        • I still feel like that’s fundamentally missing the point though. Saying “Take the stuff on the character sheets and then build adventures around it!” is simultaneously obvious and dangerous.

          It’s obvious because pretty much every article ever on how to write adventures tells you to look at who the PCs are, rather than writing for some generic party.

          It’s dangerous because nowhere in the article is it suggested that you do what we’ve determined in these comments is critical here – discussing with players whether these “cues” are actually flags, or whether they appear on the character sheet for other reasons. Just telling GMs to go look at the character sheet for cues/flags/whatever puts us right back in the same trap of not actually having any idea what the players want (If I make The Waco Kid, and you put me into a whole bunch of gunfights because I have lots of points Gunfighting, that’s not what I want). Flags are a solution to this because they are explicit. If it were as simple as treating the whole character sheet as a collection of flags, we wouldn’t have needed explicit flags in the first place.

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