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?