Y Is for Yanking Time’s Leash

In my ongoing quest to give my players more narrative control over the game, I’ve been researching RPGs that include more story-based mechanics, rules, et cetera. I’ve bought, read, and played a bit with Ben Robbins’s Microscope (the link goes to a playtest report). I also recently played InSpectres, during which I got to show off my occult Tibetan dancing skills (see yesterday’s post for video of me in all my terpsichorean glory). In both Microscope and InSpectres, players have wide-ranging ability to determine the narrative of the game, to include metaphorically going back in time to modify the current reality via flashbacks.

I like this idea, and I want to use it with my upcoming Stars Without Number campaign. I read a brief explanation from Cam Banks about how the Leverage RPG handles flashbacks, and it sounds like what I’m looking for. Mr. Banks noted that there are two types of flashbacks: establishment flashbacks and wrap-up flashbacks. Let’s quote Mr. Banks:

“Establishment flashbacks, by which you establish some part of the story that up until then hasn’t really been revealed (good for back stories, recollections of childhood, etc) and which create Assets you can use in a future scene, and…

“Wrap-up flashbacks, which are coordinated by the Mastermind and allow all the players to introduce some unrevealed retroactive story element from the Job itself and provide the Mastermind with his necessary dice for the final resolution against the Mark.”

Now, let’s take these descriptions, and expand/modify them for Stars Without Number:

Establishment Flashbacks

Once per game session, each player can involve a character in an establishment flashback. This lets the player narrate in first person a brief event from an earlier time and explain how that event affects the game’s current action.

For example, a pack of vicious xenobeasts pursue the characters through the rugged jungle. Kurt realizes they cannot hope to outrun the ravening predators. Kurt’s player Eric invokes a flashback. “I, Kurt, am very familiar with this particular stretch of jungle. I’ve often retreated from the work-a-day world of our research facility. Just up ahead, there’s a well-hidden cave in a low hill, the entrance obscured by flowering trillian orchids. If we duck into the cave, the xenobeasts won’t be able to track us by scent anymore.”

Or another animal-related flashback as the characters ponder how avoid the well-trained guard dogs patrolling the grounds around a building they must access. Christopher has an idea, and invokes a flashback: “Before we came here, while we were getting our gear ready and what not, Chuck and Rob bought some Yummee Treets dog snacks and laced them with tranquilizers from the infirmary. We figured there’d be guard dogs, and that the drugged Yummee Treets would make avoiding them easier.”

Wrap-Up Flashback

A wrap-up flashback can be invoked once per adventure. In a wrap-up flashback, the players collectively decide on one modification to the current situation that each of their characters could have performed. Each modification is intended to give the group an advantage in the current situation. The threat or obstacle must still be dealt with, but the cumulative effects of the characters’ preparations make the outcome in the characters’ favor much more certain.

For example: The characters face a band of ruthless kidnappers. The victims are tied up and rigged with explosives. The villainous leader holds a dead-man’s switch. His henchvillains have their weapons trained on the characters. The situation looks grim. The players decide to invoke a wrap-up flashback.

Wes: “I figured the cad might rig up some remote-detonated explosives. That’s why I rigged up a small but powerful transmitter that blankets an area with electronic ‘white noise’, temporarily stopping radio signals and what not.”

Terry: “That’s good. Earlier, when the scarred thug got the drop on us and shoved me, I managed to lift his elevator control key without him realizing it.”

Christopher: “Wow, I was nowhere near the foresightful. Before we left headquarters, I called a cop buddy of mine. He gave me a small radioisotope pellet that I inserted into the weave of my belt. The police have been tracking the pellet all this while, and probably have this so-called secret location surrounded by now.”

Eric: “Impressive, Chuck. I too engaged in a bit of sleight of hand on one of the guards when we were being escorted in here. I placed a small but potent psitech grenade in the cargo pouch of his pants. I can detonate the grenade with a telepathic signal. It’s not a large explosion, but it’ll probably take his legs off.”

Needless to say, the villains are quite surprised by how the tables end up being turned!


A flashback cannot outright contradict something that is already established as a fact in the game. In the wrap-up flashback example, Wes couldn’t simply declare that he had grabbed the dead-man’s switch. The device is right there in the bad guy’s hand. A flashback also can’t be used to simply solve a major plot point. Christopher, for example, couldn’t claim he had snuck in and freed the hostags with no one noticing.

Also, a flashback doesn’t necessarily result in automatic success. In Christopher’s establishment flashback example, the GM could require a skill check to ensure the proper dosage of tranquilizers are used. The dogs could also get some sort of saving throw against the drug’s effects.

A player can involve another player’s character in a flashback, but the character’s actual player can veto or modify details as they relate to his character specifically.

And, of course, the GM remains the final arbiter of what these caveats look like in the game. This isn’t to say a GM can simply

Undefined Bits

You might be wondering, “Um, where did that radioisotope come from? Where did Kurt get that psitech grenade? How about those tranquilizers, and did Chuck even have any medical training?”

Flashbacks may require that certain character assets be undefined until they are used. It’s perhaps difficult to come up with a hard-fast rule for how this should work. Can a character use a flashback to call in a warship strike against an enemy stronghold? Probably not. This sort of asset is unlikely to be within the reach of most characters. As a general rule, a character cannot use a flashback to create any asset that the character cannot afford with his available resources. Thus, a character can have a pool of credits, for example, that he can define on-the-fly as having been spent to the purchase assets used in a flashback.

Likewise, a character may leave a skill undefined. This permits a character to reveal via flashback that he has always knew a particular skill, but that he hasn’t revealed this hidden talent until the appropriate time. For example, a 1st-level character may have Vehicle/Any as both a background and a training package skill. As such, the character could start with Vehicle/Space +1 at 1st-level. Instead, the player could decide to leave his Vehicle/Any choices undefined. Then, during an adventure, when the need to pilot a gravcar pops up, the player can use a flashback to explain that his character was once a delivery specialist in a busy urban center who used his gravcar to get packages to his clients.

April 29th, 2013  in RPG 1 Comment »

One Response to “Y Is for Yanking Time’s Leash”

  • travis mccrory gardner says:

    hrm…that wrap-up seems over-powered. but important for that kind of story. …and helps to solve a problem of “time to think about it”
    If you were going into a hostage situation in real life, you’d take hours to deliberate, strategize and research before busting in. but in a game session, most players aren’t going to want to spend 5 hours thinking about “what if” scenarios and plotting them out. OR the player’s don’t think of things that their characters *would*.

    I really like being able to leave skill points un-allocated until you need them in-game, or until you figure out more about your character. I tried to do that as a player and got berated for it, so as a game designer I support it, for both character-building and it helps PCs fill in holes in their party.

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