How To Get Your Players To Roleplay More (The Flashback Method)

From John Large

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0655

A Brief Word From Johnn

Mythic Gods & Monsters Launches Tomorrow

My new GM utility book offers fast and easy creation recipes for gods, pantheons, religions, and monsters.

After a bit of a delay it’s nearly ready.

My dream was to bring meddling gods down to the tabletop. Drive gameplay with unique religions, deities, and legendary monsters. Drive story with those pivotal details that make players’ eyes go wide. And drive roleplaying by designing non-combat options and dilemmas into encounters with foes.

The recipes in this book will do that for you.

The book is also filled with tables to solve writers’ block or bail you out when your brain freezes in the middle of a session. It’s got lots of examples so you can see the recipes in action or just yoink stuff for your game right now.

And it’s a teaching book, so you learn how to fish and improve your GMing.

The book goes on sale tomorrow and I’m pretty excited. You can never have enough meddling gods to make life interesting for the PCs!

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What Is Your Favourite Must-Have GMing Accessory?

I used to have a ten pound GM screen. It was awesome. And it scared the crap out of my players.

I was about 12 and into woodworking. I had a bunch of three-quarter inch plywood lying around. So I cut one sheet into three 18 inch by 12 inch panels. That’s right, the screen was three feet wide and a foot-and-a-half tall.

I didn’t use power tools, so all the edges from hand-cutting were rough and uneven. Laying the screen on the table, large gaps peered through the bottom from bad cuts.

Then I went to the hardware store and bought these heavy and large metal hinges. I figured the thick board needed strong hinges.

Unfortunately, I bought one inch screws. So after putting the hinges on I had 12 screws poking a quarter inch out the players’ side ready to inflict injury.

But hey, back then that was a not a bug, it was a feature! Players get too close and it’s first aid kit time.

So I put this monstrous thing together and did not realize how heavy the thing was going to be. Way too heavy to carry around. But we played a lot at my place, so that was ok.

But the thing was so big I couldn’t see over it. I had to stand. Walking around it felt like I was actually venturing beyond a wall.

And man, the charts it could hold. I didn’t need clips or inserts. This thing took all the AD&D charts and tables I could find and photocopy, and I still had room for more.

Eventually I broke the thing because even those thick hinges I put on couldn’t stand the encumbrance. I wish I’d taken pictures.

Nowadays I have doffed the GM screen. I tried the D&D 5E screen, but it’s terrible. And I found when I put it aside I preferred rolling in the open. Last session the players were getting ready to lynch me because I was rolling so well.

So a GM screen is off my essential GM accessories list now.

How about you? What’s on your essentials list?


How To Get Your Players To Roleplay More (The Flashback Method)

How do you deal with bad players? How do you encourage your players to role-play more? If you’ve got players who won’t role-play then I have good news for you. Today’s tips tell you how to use rewards to encourage the good behaviour you want to see at your gaming table.

There are many rewards a GM can offer as incentives for good role-playing. XP, for example. However, such rewards become bland or familiar and cease being currency as a reward.

However, there’s one technique I’ve found effective I think you should consider – flashbacks. Today’s article focuses on using flashbacks and giving players more time in the spotlight to reward and encourage good role-playing.

What should players be awarded for?

Draw up a list of the behaviours players will earn rewards for and have this handy during the game. Give players copies, because showing players what they will be rewarded for prevents arguments and helps direct their behaviour.

Here’s a list of behaviours you would expect to see from a good role-player.

Good Role-Playing Behaviours

  • Giving an interesting in-character speech
  • Having a spirited in-character discussion
  • Helping out a less experienced role-player
  • Describing combat actions in a vivid way (only award one token per combat)
  • Emotionally reacting to an intense moment in-game
  • Following genre conventions
  • Accepting or getting involved in plot that complicates the character’s life

Keep a stack of tokens handy.

When you see a player behaving in such a manner give them a token straight away. This helps cement in their mind the link between the behaviour and the reward, whereas leaving it until the end of the session means the player may not make the connection.

For tokens I’ve used poker chips, small plastic Cthulhu statues, and dice. Dice are particularly good since the player can also roll them in the game. Make sure they are a different colour so they don’t get mixed up with the normal dice.

What use are rewards?

Player can cash in three tokens to create a flashback or cutaway scene involving their character. The player should consult with the GM and use the following template to create the rough outline for their flashback scene.

I remember when I [encounter] while [actors] and [result], but [consequence].

Replace each category with choices from the lists below.


The first part of the description defines the overall theme of the flashback scene and should at least partially relate to the situation at hand. Some notes are provided below showing which options suit what objectives.

  • Visited these lands before to justify knowledge of foreign lands
  • Encountered a creature before to have some knowledge of its weakness
  • Last crossed swords with this villain so they have knowledge of his habits
  • Saw one of these objects before to recall salient facts about it
  • Recollection of the ancient legend to shed light on a present situation

For example, in the present day of the setting, the players are on the trail of a creature who leaves salt water footprints and the blood of its victims as the only sign of its passing. One of the players decides she needs information on the creature and trades in three of her reward tokens for a flashback scene. She starts defining it by saying, “I remember when I first heard the ancient legends about the creature.” This indicates to the GM the goal for this flashback is to shed some light on the creature’s habits and behaviours.


This choice determines whether the PC faced the encounter alone, had allies, or were dogged by irksome foes. These roles can be parcelled out to other players during the flashback scene so they do not get bored while someone else is in the spotlight. Consider awarding anyone who portrays an NPC particularly well in a flashback with a token.

In the company of friends

The PC was either travelling with their current party members (a good way to get other players into the flashback) or with previous associates.

If the player is in the company of previous colleagues then it is worth also thinking about why they are not together in the present day. These NPCs can be a rich source of future plot and complication.

Travelling alone

The player is travelling alone when they had their encounter. This doesn’t mean they encounter no-one during the session, but simply that they didn’t form long-term attachments.

Part of a mercenary venture

The PC was travelling as part of a group of paid professionals, perhaps mercenaries or merchants. Other players can play different members of the group, but the atmosphere and their motives are just business rather than due to bonds of friendship or comradeship.

For example, our player whose character is on the trail of the monster with the water footprints decides she wants to bring some more NPCs into her character background. These may show up later and expands her definition.

She says, “I remember when I first heard the ancient legends about the creature while in the company of friends.” She decides, in this case, the friends in question are her character’s family and that she heard the tale from an aunt who always used to scare the children with her stories.

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This describes what the PC discovered in the flashback that relates to the present day situation.

Learned something about their behaviour

During the flashback the player either learns something about the customs and people of the place they are exploring or something about the habits and character of the creature or villain they are pursuing.

This entry might seem inappropriate if the flashback concerns an item. However it can still be used to justify learning something about the behaviour of the item’s previous owner or its current guardians.

Learned about its power

This choice normally only applies to items and means the flashback reveals some form of ability or power. However, it could also be used to refer to monstrous abilities, an NPC with a specialist skill, or perhaps even a place with a magical aura.

Learned about its weaknesses

Some fundamental flaw or weakness is revealed through the course of the scene.

Although the player may choose that a weakness has been revealed, it is up to the GM to determine what that weakness is and reveal it during the scene.

For example, our player decides she learned about one of the creature’s weak spots from the old fairy tale told by her aunt.

“I remember when I first heard the ancient legends about the creature while in the company of friends and learnt about its weaknesses.”


Flashbacks are always more interesting if they introduce additional facets of the game world or create extra complications in the life of the characters. This could be the introduction of a new enemy or an unfortunate discovery. Consequences are the unforeseen side-effects of a flashback scene.

Someone close to me paid the price

During the course of the flashback someone who is close to the PC will either die or pay a heavy price and the blame will be laid at the feet of the PC. This can be useful for introducing future enemies that have a history with the PC or for having elements of a character’s background turn up in the present to haunt them.

I sustained a serious injury

The PC is heavily injured during the scene. Although they have obviously recovered by present day, perhaps they still have a niggling injury or weakness as a permanent reminder of their past adventures. Scars and slight flaws can be great for adding character to PCs, especially if they have a backstory.

I never took the rumours seriously until now

Although the PC discovers something in the scene, they never really believed it and so didn’t really pay attention to it at the time. You could represent this by giving the PC a dice penalty when they act on the information. However, a far more interesting way I have found to represent it is to have the information in the flashback vary slightly from what is actually the truth in your campaign world. This represents the PC’s faulty memory but still gives them something in the right ballpark.

The knowledge cursed me

The PC was somehow cursed or afflicted by their discovery in a way that still affects them to the present day. The extent and effect of the curse should be decided between the GM and the player based on what occurred during the flashback scene.

I made a new enemy that day

While finding out about something, the PC made an enemy of an NPC or small group of NPCs. This can be played out in the flashback, and is a great way of introducing a new antagonist or organisation into the setting without it feeling like they’ve just magically appeared.

For example, our player decides she made an enemy during the flashback. “I remember when I first heard the ancient legends about the creature while in the company of friends and learnt about its weaknesses, but I made a new enemy that day.”

The GM decides that, in the PC’s village, there was a young blacksmith’s boy who teased the character for listening to the crazy stories of her aunt. One day the two of them got into a fight after the PC heard the tale of the water-footed menace and she soundly beat the apprentice, shaming him in front of the townsfolk. He swore revenge and fled the town never to be seen again.

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Flashback Tips

The player has already chosen from the list above, and this should give an idea for what sort of things you need to include in your flashback scene. In our example, we know we need to include a family member telling the story, what weakness the story reveals, and an NPC the PC fights who may show up in the future as an enemy.

Below are some pointers to help a GM run a flashback.

Keep the flashback short and to the point

Flashbacks should not replace the main action in your game. They are there to fill in some interesting information and add an additional layer of background before you return to the present day. Keeping your flashback scenes to the point will prevent them from sprawling and losing focus.

Get other players involved if possible

No-one likes sitting around doing nothing for ages while another player gets all the spotlight. Try to get other players involved in the flashback, even if they are not playing their own characters. Give them a simple NPC sheet with some goals and consider rewarding them for contributing to the scene.

Don’t worry too much about rail-roading a flashback

Normally, players don’t like to feel railroaded. However, given the player has defined the outcome of the scene before it actually begins (and because the events of a flashback have already happened in the timeline of your game) if you need to lead a PC in a particular direction, do not be afraid to do so.

Don’t use dice

As we’ve already discussed, the purpose of a flashback isn’t to see whether your PCs can triumph against their enemies and survive. Since they obviously survived until present day there’s no point making dice rolls in the scene. If a player succeeding or failing at a task would result in a better scene then have them succeed or fail. Use whatever brings the flashback closer to the desired resolution.

Give your NPCs simple stats

Since you won’t be using dice, don’t worry about your NPCs’ numerical abilities. Instead, just note down a brief description and their goal for the scene along with a few things they are good at. If you have other players portraying the NPCs, then this should be more than enough information for them to be played for a single scene.

Wrapping Up

Choosing from the options above should give you enough guidelines needed to run an interesting and relevant flashback scene before cutting back to present-day action.

The goal here is to reward and encourage role-playing. If you reward a person for something, they’ll be inclined to try doing it again. By rewarding role-play, you encourage players to do more of it. And while numerical and character-mechanic rewards like XP and hero points are great, they can get stale. Use flashbacks to not only encourage role-play, but as a fresh reward to stir your group up a bit.

Give it a try and let us know how it goes.

GM Tip Exchange

Dungeons With a Purpose

From Allan Sitte

I design my delves so all my cave and dungeon systems seem to have a natural purpose or existence. I am not a fan of randomly generated delves.

So here are three examples of realistic dungeons. Maybe your readers can offer more ideas?

  • A mine has many long runs that come to a rather abrupt end. Sometimes a mine shaft will have multiple levels that may be flooded. Bad air is also a risk in particularly deep complexes.
  • An underground fortress is a tough nut to crack overtly. The security posts near the entrances are likely be well guarded and organized. Stealth or trickery is the better formula for success unless you bring a large and powerful assault force. Such environments also have main shaft hallways that allow for efficient movement of personnel and materiel.
  • A natural cave will have risks such as deep shafts that can be missed unless traveling carefully, and uneven flooring that is slippery. Water will likely be everywhere unless it is a volcanic environment.

Games Within Games

Dominick Riesland, aka Rabbitball, Creator of the Cosmversal Grimoire

Here are some ideas for modeling games within RPGs and modeling the game world itself.

Characters Who Play

For modeling games, it helps to break them into three general categories

  • Physical
  • Mental
  • Social

The physical aspects include the dexterity needed to catch and throw balls, the strength to lift and carry objects, and possibly the toughness to withstand injury. Not all games will have these, or they’ll have them to such a limited extent they become negligible, such as chess. For any that are involved, determine what skills or attributes are appropriate and make opposed checks on them.

Do the same for the mental aspects (coaching, studying positions and plays, reading defenses) and social aspects (intimidation, team play, leadership).

I use the idea that the side that wins most of these wins that aspect of the game, with ties going to the side that won their rolls by the most. This will usually give a majority of aspects to one side, who then wins. If not, either end the game in a tie, or contest it again.

Mapping the Game

As for mapping out a game world, Iron Crown’s Gamemaster Law for Rolemaster is an invaluable resource. The first section is devoted to gamemastering in general, while the second is specific to Rolemaster. But buried within the second section is a 2.5 page section on geography that gives a detailed means of starting from a particular area and generating realistic terrain for surrounding areas.

Another idea for those with Sid Meier’s Civilization video game is to generate world maps and copy them. One of my games is based on a copy of Earth coastlines with a few modifications, so I have taken an Earth map from Civilization V and put it into the editor to make the changes I needed. From here I can generate maps for the game in whatever form I want.

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From Guy Goddard

The first thing to remember is k.i.s.s. (keep it simple stupid). Don’t over-complicate things.

If using maps, keep them as general as possible. You only need details of the current location of the players. Players don’t need to know the location of the tables over at the Drooling Dragon Inn across town unless they are meeting someone at a specific table and time.

Give names only to major geographical places (land masses, major cities, mountain ranges, large rivers), well-known people (local royalty, kings or leaders of nearby lands, major heroes of legion (and why they are legions), and other people and items characters will need in the near future. You can fill in the names of the rest later as needed.

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Player Do-Over Opportunities

From Dustin M Scott

First let me say thanks for having such a great resource for GMs and players. I have just begun looking through your articles and thought I would share my solution to RPT#2 The Time Bomb Solution. In my games, I always struggled with the devastating effect of killing or KO-ing a character versus instilling a feel of realism into a campaign. Do I roast the idiot third level fighter who tries to kill the elder dragon, instead of running for his life as he should have?

I used to subscribe to the “I guess he will learn on his next character” approach. Then I went to redirecting stupidity with a clear statement of fact, like, “Give me an intelligence check (other than a 1, the result did not matter). You can tell this is an elder dragon and any attempt to fight it would lead to your inevitable death.” This is a bad solution as the character feels out of control of their actions. I finally came across a cool solution to this problem.

The Cool Solution (So Far…)

I was playing Vampire, but it can work for any type of game. In Vampire one of the most useful abilities is willpower. My players use it like crack and have numerous tricks, which I allow them to use, to alter a situation to their benefit. I therefore developed this trick for them to solve this problem. I play everything totally accurate. If a player sets off a trap or fights an NPC who should mop the floor with them, that event would play out as it should, killing them or knocking them out. I then pause the game and move the game clock back 5 minutes, no more no less. The affected player, alone, retains all information as to what is going to occur and has 5 (in-game) minutes to alter their bad mistake. I charge them (not an optional payment) one permanent willpower point (for them a huge deal) for the rewind service. This allows a screw-up player to instead alter events and, in effect, be the hero.

This has proven to almost completely offset the sting of defeat and redirect the character to not take so many risks, so they do not cause the death of their character and thus lose more permanent willpower. If they have been reduced to 1 willpower point, the last blow is, sadly, final death.

I also allow them, through campaigning, to regain lost willpower, though it is a questing thing and thus rare and difficult.

I usually justify the reason for this retcon power to an artifact the players carry. Thus, if it is stolen it forces an imperative plot hook and leads to a nice paranoid gaming session where the players, without the usual security blanket, experience worry for their beloved characters.

As a GM I love it. It allows me to take a no holds barred approach to a game and mercilessly punish stupidity without fear of screwing over a friend or alienating new or inexperienced players. Also, players love that they are not instantly screwed by one mistake.

I have adapted this power, allowing my players to purchase with xp some added benefits that more directly affect a time bomb scenario. I allow them to willingly spend a permanent willpower to revert back 5 in-game minutes to alter a choice they made. It works as described above. With more xp cost I allow them to think ahead and spend a willpower to set a point. If, within the next 5 minutes of gameplay, they feel they need it, they can reset to that point and try again. Whether they use it or not, the cost stands.

I sometimes throw in an innocuous scene that almost always forces them to spend a willpower point, sometimes to no avail. For example, “You see a lever in the side of the machine. Though the words above the lever are indecipherable, the bold red lettering gives you pause (players set a point and pull). There is a whirring sound and a hissing from the machine and the locked door comes open with a click.”

You would think this would be over-used or abused, but I have found it to be very rewarding and makes players critically think about what they are going to do and how they will spend their willpower. In my games it has been a blessing and turned devil-may-care players into critical thinkers.

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