There are a lot of interesting ways to handle time and history in your game. Most of us default into straightforward linear time as characters wander from event to event, like we do in our own lives. Sometimes it’s good to mix that up; visiting the character’s past can be a great chance to reveal information that puts the present in a new light. Or, like a novel writer, you want to explore the characters in more depth now that you’ve hooked the audience.
Like a novelist, sometimes you want to show events that occurred before the game began or that you skipped over to get to the next adventure. As a player, I often begin with a somewhat vague character concept that gets more solid as I play on. A flashback can be a great way to later explore the history that I’m finally ready to investigate. [Similarly, have you noticed the way that super hero origin stories or the story of how two characters met on a TV show tend to come long after the first issue/episode?] Flashbacks share some of the same limitations as preludes– everyone knows the PCs have to survive to have the other game make sense. They’re a great way to add more detail to characters, or put a spin on current events.
If the characters knew each other for a while prior to adventuring, it can be rewarding to play out some early stories. How the PCs met can be a fun flashback to play out, and can help players who were annoyed that you had everyone start “as a team” or as “established friends”. This flashback (whether a full session or just a few minutes) can do a good job of putting the later relationships of the characters in context. (It can also raise some interesting questions… like, if my PC was best friends with Minerva in the flashback, why do they hate each other now? I wonder what happened in between… some kind of betrayal?)
Group flashbacks can be the easiest to play out– everyone has a familiar character to play and has hopefully thought more about their character’s past– their interactions might have even have mentioned this event that you’re returning to play. (“I remember how silly you looked the first time we met, with that bowl of soup streaming down your shirt.”)
If your Superheroes all have a common origin, flashing back to that event can really show how the characters have changed and developed since they got their powers. Similarly, if one players is missing this week, maybe it’s a good time to run a flashback to that one time Sir Bartholomew couldn’t join you for that dangerous quest.
Solo Flashbacks, outside of the normal session
Much like a prelude, the player and GM (or with the GM’s permission, even two players on their own) play through an earlier time. Since you’re playing one on one, you don’t have to worry about the event being interesting to anyone else. These flashbacks can be a great time for you to show why your character wound up the way she did. These events rarely change the character’s current opinions, but can provide an additional layer of complexity. Maybe this flashback can explain what caused your Ranger to study the slaying of Elves. Or how Magma Man became your archnemesis– and why his magma minions keep showing up to burn down the town you defend.
A great thing about these flashbacks is that you can take the time the event deserves to play out, and that no one else is waiting while you’re hogging the spotlight. Committing to playing out the flashback via email, or writing it up in the character’s diary, can be a good way to explore interesting issues apart from the game session. [Note: Writing an in character diary about past events can have the same drawbacks about not fitting in with GM plans or not fitting the world as writing character background before play. However, the odds of being off base are less, since you’ve been playing together and have more common ground established.]
Solo Flashbacks, during the game session
Sometimes you want to revisit a character’s past and it’s something that the whole group would enjoy. Or sometimes there’s a part of the PC’s history that puts a twist on the current adventure. If it’s very brief (plays out in five minutes or less) you might get away with roleplaying it at the table while everyone watches.
If the flashback is longer, you should look for a way to involve everyone else at the table. One good way is to have the players of PCs who won’t appear in this flashback play NPCs. If flashbacks are going to be a frequent part of your game, having the same player run the same character in successive flashbacks can work very well for continuity. It also gives the player a chance to play another character without having to GM. (One character, playing the Mage, might run the Dojo’s Master during the Cleric and Monk’s flashbacks.)
Parallel Flashbacks, during the game session
Depending of the structure of your game, you might want to have all of the characters flashback to the same time or a similar event. Even though they’re not in each other’s scenes, you can proceed around the table, making sure each time slice is short to keep everyone from getting distracted waiting for their turn to come up. Much like playing out simultaneous battles when the PCs separate, you want to keep everyone involved– either by building in relationships between the flashbacks (Your father also had one arm?) or making the flashbacks reflect each other (the contrast in origins might reveal why the characters approach their super powers so differently today).
Choosing the theme of the flashbacks will have a strong impact on play when the flashbacks end. If you flashed back to each character’s largest setback (and how they overcame it), you’re setting up a big setback that they’ll eventually overcome.
If you like to provide character questionnaires as the game goes on, playing the answers out as flashbacks might help you get away from that “pop quiz” feel.
Other Game Structures
Unordered short stories are an interesting structure for your game. You’re basically running a series of one shots or short scenarios, but some of the characters recur. If you don’t get together too often, you might enjoy a game with characters just leaving their farm, hop forward to when one of them rules the country as queen, then hop back to the awesome battle that made their reputation. Sorcerer and Sword has good advice about running this style of game in any system. In a Wicked Age is a game that’s all about building this style of game with characters and situations to match.
Playing out of order can lead to strange events. If you played the reigning Queen in session 2, but in session 3 she dies to an arrow ten years earlier… how did that happen? Super hero stories have lots of solutions for this: the queen in session two was an impostor, the character only looks dead in session 3– or maybe there was some resurrection magic or another cool thing going on. You can use the apparent contradiction to create the fourth episode– her companions questing to return her to the land of the living, so that one day she will take up her rightful crown!