Playing for time

Have any of those reading this ever played an adventure backwards?

What I mean is, your group sits down, you hand out the character sheets and then say “You are stood on the rocky ledge with a precipice falling away into darkness at your feet, opposite you the rock cliff face disappears up into the darkness above your heads. Waves of heat emanate from the depths below. The only sound is the approaching beat of leathery wings, you have found the subject of you quest, the Dragon Lord is coming. What do you do?”

Having played out the finale you can then retrospectively go back and reveal how the players got there.

To take this one step further you could just suddenly reference an NPC they have never heard of, one that didn’t feature in that first/last scene. As soon as someone notices this new NPC, you put the current scene on hold and play a flashback to how the party met that NPC and how they joined the party. Once that is played out you then pick up the previous scene exactly where you left off.

If you use miniatures then you could prepare tableaus of the key scenes and reveal them every time there is a cut in the action.

If you were playing this traditionally the session(s) may go like this.

  1. The players get given a quest to slay a dragon
  2. they adventure into the mountains
  3. they meet a hermit/ranger who can show them the way into caves
  4. battle with dragons kin/defenders
  5. hermit dies
  6. adventure further into caves
  7. dragon lord end of level boss
  8. joyous return to the starting point.
  9. Deliver whatever thing the quest giver demanded
  10. Start next adventure

To play it in an alternative manner could go like this.

<session 1>

7. dragon lord end of level boss
1. The players get given a quest to slay a dragon
2. they adventure into the mountains <cut scene>

<Session 2>
4. battle with dragons kin/defenders <cut short>
3. <flashback> they meet a hermit/ranger who can show them the way into caves
4. <concludes>battle with dragons kin/defenders
5. hermit dies

<Session 3>
8. joyous return to the starting point.
9. Deliver whatever thing the quest giver demanded
10.Start next adventure

So why even attempt this?

What I am thinking is that sometimes ending a session with the successful conclusion of the quest can seem a little contrived. It is a bit like when you know the perilous scene in a movie isn’t the end because you still have an hour to run. Ending the session at the end of a quest can sometimes rob the end scene of some of its energy, or even, if you know that your players have to leave at a particular time to catch trains or planes then you could hurry a scene up to get to a convenient stopping point. Putting the end of the quest at the front of the session means that for an action ending (point 7 above) it gets a real wow! factor. For a story ending (point 9 above) ‘the end’ is obviously not ‘the end’ and so does not bring with it a loss of energy.

So imagine again that you took your players character sheets and made multiple copies. To one you tippex out their primary weapon and replace it with “Blade of the Balrog”. As soon as your player notices you stop the scene and play a flashback where the players play out a scene that ends with the character acquiring the Blade of the Balrog. If someone dies you pass a prepared note to one character saying that “You have a vial that contains a shard of a saints soul, if someone on the point of death is anointed with it they will be restored to life.” If anyone questions where this came from then, you guessed it, cut scene back to before the character died and you have a challenge where the prize is the vial.

I have painted this very much in a hack and slash sort of way but then my main group is a hack and slash group. It actually works even better in a role play heavy session. In a hack and slash group if someone dies in the opening/quest completing battle then it doesn’t matter as they were alive and well in all the flashbacks so they are still included. You may have to keep people alive through some mechanism if they were alive at the start of the battle; they must arrive in that state. Without the hack and slash element then chopping and changing the time line is easier.

This time imagine an adventure where the players start trapped in a collapsed mine. Where you would normally describe the setting and NPCs if the players were in a normal scene, this time you do the same but you put much more emphasis on the NPCs, as if the characters know them. It soon becomes apparent that someone has triggered the mine collapse trapping the characters and NPCs here. As the characters talk to each NPC it triggers a series of flashbacks as to who they are and the players learn why they are here in the mine and what part of their back story. Think alone the lines of a TV detective in the final scene where they reveal who the killer is.

As a session format it certainly is challenging and something different. Any thoughts or experiences?

10 Replies to “Playing for time”

  1. That is a fantastic approach. the key point for me is that players are alive for the final great battle, they didn’t die from a random crit on day 1 of the adventure. If the player dies in the final battle, that’s OK, you still have all of the other roleplaying of how they got there. As stated… they obviously survived all of those adventures or they wouldn’t have been at the final battle. They’ve been given “guaranteed playing” time with their PC.

    I’ve just started an adventure this weekend with four level 1 PCs. This method has me working on what a good final battle will be for them based on the adventure outline I’ve already penciled out.

  2. I would not do this with a group of inexperienced players (the character’s level is immaterial) but it is demanding of your players. It also comes with a bit of a Wow! factor if you do it once in a blue moon with experienced players.

    Maybe your players are a bit more mentally agile than mine! As you say, they are guaranteed to reach the big boss and to get to play with the BFG9000 or whatever you tempt them with but after that the gloves are off.

  3. I haven’t played anything like this, but I have read a book that was written backwards – The October List by Jeffrey Deaver. It started at chapter 36 I think and counted down until chapter 1. I didn’t think it was actually going to work until the very end.

    1. With my group we only meet a few times a year so getting people to remember clues and more subtle events that happened months ago is nigh on impossible but playing out the key scene ‘on demand’ brings those key scenes to the fore as they are required.

      It also wakes people up who are used to sleep walking their way through adventures waiting for something to hit.

  4. I’ve been giving this some deep thought all day long and I have a really big question: What stat values being used?

    What level are the PCs at the “end” of the campaign?
    What stats am I using?
    When we have the flashbacks… where are those stats derived from?

    In our gaming group, we start players at level 5, so this method would be awesome to “explain” where they got all their goodies. Recently, I started everyone at level one, gave them one “mission”, maybe an hour of playing time, poof 10K xp, level2. Repeat… poof, level 3. Saturday morning, everyone was level 5 and ready for the campaign proper.

    1. OK, there are three fairly common genres of levelling up. 1, you level up when the GM says so; 2, You gain experience from meeting personal or story goals; 3, you gain experience from do, killing, casting, solving and all that stuff.

      In your case you can to some extent reverse engineer the stages. If it was you intention that they are 5th level when they fight the big boss then you can make assumptions about where ranks will be bought so the warrior would have apprentice + 2xlevel ranks weapons and probably body dev. To all intents and purposes because you know the challenges they will face whether they bought 2 ranks in poison lore makes no difference if there is no poison in the group or the adventure. So you ‘guestimate’ the important skills. It does mean that your players will not be playing with a full deck (of skills) but to be honest my players rarely seem to be playing with a full deck anyway so you may not notice. 🙂

      I imagined this as a smaller instalment rather than a four levels worth of attainment so levels and skills are not an issue.

      Thinking about this on the hoof I am thinking that you could easily use it as a model of what you expect from a PC. They create the Level 1 PC and then you quickly extrapolate the intermediate levels taking the skills you think they should have, possibly spending 80% of their DPs, to complete your adventure. If in play the player says that their character was going to learn to play the harp then you can just give them the skill and sort it all out afterwards.

      Spell lists could be harder. If you build the character with lists on their record just as List 1, List 2 and so on the player can fill them in with the actual names in the first big scene. You know which list they had at apprentice and 1st and what was being learned ready for 2nd. So you only need extrapolate for 3rd, 4th and 5th.

      Actually, it is level less work than I think. If they achieve 5th level at the end of the big battle scene, you know 0th, 1st and what is being learned for 2nd. You only have to guestimate 3rd and 4th. They can spend the 5th level DPs themselves.

      Does that make sense?

      1. Perfectly explained! I was thinking “big boss battle at the end of the campaign” not the battle that ultimately gets them from Level 1 to Level 2. That makes a ton more sense now. I was thinking too far ahead.

        In this sense (level by level) it is a great idea and I may actually do this as an experiment with the latest batch of players I have. We’ve only done one session, and they have from 1600-2400 XP so far. This is good, really good. I went from having a headache trying to figure out the stats in between levels to being really excited to give this a go.

        1. When I have a gaming weekend we tend to all arrive at about 5pm on the Friday. That is when I would launch them into the big finale, assuming that battle is done and dusted then they are back to adventuring for the rest of the evening. Saturday morning may pick up where they left off or I start with a flashback to introduce an NPC or key piece of information that will be important in the afternoon. It doesn’t matter how much beer was consumed on Friday the key fact is now right there for the players when they need that clue later in the day.

          This is a technique that I don’t think needs to be over used or it loses that unique-ness.

          What I have not done yet but would love to try is time jumping forwards when people use high level Anticipations or Astrologer’s Time’s Bridge spells. Possibly that would work better in a game with one PC and one GM or even in a PBP game?

    1. Hi,
      the problem was not that you were not logged in, it was that I was pretty much AWOL all day and I didn’t click the ‘approve comment’ button.

      I am here now and I will answer your questions.

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