Flashbacks & Prequels: Opportunities for a Campaign

Most gamers are probably familiar with what the holiday season (and its subsequent hangover period) can do to a campaign. In our group, it became difficult to guarantee that all the players would be in attendance for a given gaming night, let alone ensure that any scenes planned would reasonably account for the absence of any one character. Yes, I know, my girlfriend is a DM natural, but she’s only been at this thing for a few games. This is where we came up with the idea of using flashback/prequel adventures. Granted, the concept of allowing players to run their characters through scenes that take place prior to the events of the main campaign is not an entirely new one.

However, I think it is during those weeks when attendance is spotty that they can be used best. For one thing, not all points in the campaign’s past can guarantee that the characters are working together. Many blogs have noted that rationalizing why adventurers are even together at all is pretty difficult, sometimes hand-waved away. As such, it’s safe to presume that any point before the main campaign is when the PCs are not adventuring together. Furthermore, flashbacks allow available players to enjoy a good game, without detracting from the storyline of the campaign’s “present day,” and in the case of one such game we had, allow guest PCs to be inserted in a non-intrusive fashion.

Of course, some DMs argue that spotty attendance is the opportunity to try out new games or run one-off adventures such as dungeon delves: “Introduce your players to Savage Worlds! Dust off that Star Wars d6 book!” However, I’m of the school of thought that cherished campaigns should be sustained and nourished. I hate sitting around watching everyone spend hours generating their characters – and under 4e, it can take a while especially for the 2e/3e grognards that constitute my group – because it makes me think of the time that could be spent adventuring. Simply put, there are only so many days and so many hours one can possibly game within a year, so you might as well spend it enriching your character’s backgrounds.

In the case of one game, our artificer and my warden worked together to ensure the safety of a cargo airship, while assisting a fugitive sorceress, played by a one-night guest to the table. Our guest developed a clearly defined personality for the character which later allowed her to act as an NPC contact in the next game. In the case of another game, I guest-DMed a flashback to a time prior to the end of The Last War (our campaign is loosely set in Eberron) which allowed us to establish how two PCs knew one another, where they were when the Day of Mourning transpired and develop a NPC who had heretofore been only known by name but not by face.

Many bloggers have talked about different strategies to adjust for the challenges of scheduling a game or enforcing rules to bring spotty attendance in line. I’m not opposed to playing new systems and new characters, but gaming groups can reduce time spent on the clerical tasks of rolling up new characters and choosing new settings by developing ideas that keep their current campaign going. I’m especially interested in what you people out there think about flashbacks and prequels or what ideas you have that keep your campaign going.

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