Out of Order Telling Our Story

We’re starting to discuss what our next RPG will be–no hurry, we probably have a month or more of our current one, and then a short interlude of playtesting Four Colors al Fresco

In discussing what people wanted, I mentioned that one of the things I’ve always wanted to do was play a game out of order. That is, where a given scenario might take place before, rather than after, the previous one. Like the stories of Sherlock Holmes or some of the old pulp-era serials, where the chronology of individual stories could be just about anything. So then I started looking at my game collection to see what sort of support we have for that. It looks like I may have to write my own.

I thought: “hey, I have several hundred RPGs, spanning nearly the entire history of the medium–surely something as common as this is in literature and movies has had at least a few attempts at it in RPGs?” There’s a game all about playing multiple people shoved into one body and fighting to control it, one about amnesiacs discovering their own past, and at least a couple based on the question of what is sanity or what is reality–not to mention the many RPGs that try to specifically emulate various other literary[PDF] feels and/or story structures–some of them a bit niche.

As I started looking at likely candidates, and thinking about other games which I don’t own, I realized that, no, not so much. Now, it’s certainly true that it’s not obvious how to tackle the issue–much like certain other structures that are delightful in literature, but don’t translate well to an interactive medium. But I was still a little surprised at how little support I was finding.

The earliest examples I’m aware of are Ars Magica 3rd edition and Vampire: the Masquerade, which both included flashbacks and foreshadowing as suggested tools for the “Storyteller”–though they’re vague on the practicalities of how to do so. Particularly foreshadowing–how do you foreshadow the future when you don’t have control over the story? In any case, neither provided any real mechanical tools to support or enforce either sort of scene–it’s basically just left up to the participants to make it happen as an act of cooperative storytelling.

A little later, Legacy: War of Ages came out, which is basically Highlander: the TV Series: the RPG with the serial numbers still showing. I pulled this out to refresh my memory and found that, strangely, there’s really nothing in the rules about it. There are a couple examples of flashbacks in the examples of play, but nothing in the rules–even in the text immediately around those examples–for how to use them. They’re basically presented as a bit of flavor text that the storyguide can use as a part of scene-setting, rather than interactive scenes that involve the players’ decisions.

A couple years later, the original edition of Immortal: The Invisible War shows up. It is another game about extremely long-lived characters who have had multiple “lifetimes” throughout history, and adds to it the conceit that they have forgotten much of their past and the game starts out as they are just starting to rediscover their past. So there’s even more narrative need for scenes to discover–or experience–that past. It does only slightly better than Legacy: it gives some advice for the story guide on how and why to use flashbacks, but still doesn’t provide any actual mechanical weight to them. In Immortal, there’s at least the notion that flashback scenes will be played through, so a player could potentially gain something due to a flashback, but it leaves it up to the participants how to deal with any incongruities that are introduced in the process.

It’s a decade until the next game focusing on immortals with multiple lives trying to remember their shared pasts: Fireborn. It takes the next step in mechanical evolution, giving flashback scenes explicit mechanical weight, in addition to their narrative function. Specifically, it talks about how flashback scenes can be used to gain karma (an important resource). It also goes on at some length about how to structure flashback scenes, providing categories and some advice for when to use different sorts and what mechanical impact they might have.

On the downside, Fireborn presumes the storyguide has sole narrative control, so flashback scenes are essentially arbitrary choices to be triggered when the storyguide wishes, or when “requested” by a player and it doesn’t interfere too much with the storyguide’s plans. (Yes, there’s a section specifically about when to refuse a player’s request for a flashback scene, and it includes things like “because you had a big battle planned to close the session” [I’m paraphrasing].)

Finally, we get to current games: Leverage and Amaranthine. Unfortunately, I haven’t had a chance to read Leverage yet, and have only played it once, so I don’t know how all the mechanics work. I believe, based on 2nd-hand info, that a flashback basically boils down to an excuse to get a mechanical boost on a roll, by showing some preparation the character made for just this situation. Great for heist stories, but not a lot broader than that.

Amaranthine is the first game I’m aware of that is specifically built around flashbacks and relationships. (Lots of other games are built around relationships, or relationships and something else, of course.) Like Legacy, Immortal, and Fireborn (and, to a degree, Vampire or any other game with long-lived characters), it focuses on the consequences of relationships in past lives–in this case literal past lives, due to reincarnation rather than corporeal immortality. Unlike those games, it makes the flashbacks an integral part of the rules, not just of the story. Not only can you use a flashback to gain a mechanical boost, but you can also use them to establish shared character histories. And since every scene involving characters in a social interaction will alter the game-mechanical details of their relationship, even a scene that is “just” about interactions will change the course of the game on both a mechanical and narrative level.

So, for flashbacks, I think we have a winner. But I’m surprised we only seem to have one, maybe two (not sure about Leverage). Is there another game I’m missing?

I should also bring up one honorable mention: Story Engine, which has the same rules as Maelstrom Storytelling. It is one of the first published RPGs to use scene resolution, rather than task resolution, and provides the tool of “quick takes”, which are scenes within a scene and basically provide task resolution for something of importance to the player within the overall scene resolution. While they are explicitly intended to be a focusing on an action within a larger scene, mechanically they are a bit more flexible. By the rules, they resolve a single small thing, and provide modifier dice to the overall scene, so they could certainly be pressed into service to provide flashbacks that have mechanical weight on the current scene. Which, with the exception of Amaranthine and possibly Leverage, is probably better than anything else I’ve found for this.

Flashbacks and foreshadowing (or even flashforwards, if the setting makes such a thing make sense) are probably the simplest sort of non-linear storytelling. Like mundane memories, they don’t so much alter the order of the story, as provide extra context for the audience.

What about actually-out-of-order stories, like, say, the stories of Sherlock Holmes? The order in which they were published isn’t the order in which the events occurred. And that’s really what I’m looking for in an RPG—have been for years. I want to be able to tell the story of the heroes’ triumphant defeat of the witchking, and then tell the story of how they met and became a group, and have it make sense and be fun. Ideally, it would also feel different than if we played the scenarios in the opposite order. 

Now, to be clear, the first part of this is easy to do. Any game that gets out of your way sufficiently can make this possible, you just have to decide that’s the way you’re going to do things. Specifically, Primetime Adventures works equally well wherever and whenever and however you set scenes, and characters only die (or suffer other permanent consequences) if you decide to risk that. But, precisely because of that, the game wouldn’t play any differently than an in-order story. There are a number of other story-oriented RPGs that behave similarly, but they all leave it up to the players to make it all work together. I want the rules to actually engage with the order of the story, and thus make it feel or work differently when out of order than when in order. 

I should say that there is one RPG I’m aware of that is very specifically designed for non-linear stories: Continuum. But that is meant for extremely complex chronologies (it is a time-travel game, after all), and tracking every little detail as the story’s timeline crosses and recrosses itself, changing the past and just generally messing things up. This is overkill to just handle out-of-order self-contained serials, and is a very mechanically complex game. For free-for-all time travel? Awesome! But for anything less? Just not necessary. 

Getting back to more “normal” games, there are certainly some ways to retrofit an existing game. Frex, I could take any traditional RPG, like Iron Heroes or Werewolf or ShadowRun, and create the same characters as neophytes, skilled masters of their arts, and then influential elder statesmen. With Iron Heroes, it would be as simple, mechanically, as making the same characters at 1st, 8th, and 18th levels (or similar), and other traditional RPGs aren’t much more difficult. Then we just need to not kill them or make other irreversible changes in either of the earlier periods, and we can play through scenarios in any of those 3 ages. 

But that’s not giving me any actual support from the game. Most RPGs, in fact, would get in the way–death and lasting consequences are constantly on the line, and the game doesn’t really have any way to account for events happening out of order. We’d end up either having to do some narrative contortions to explain incongruities, or using script immunity to insure there weren’t any in the first place. And while certain mechanisms could be twisted to help (frex, using any hero points-type mechanism the game has to “fix” these issues), it would take some work, and maybe a little luck. Plus, you have to plan ahead–recreating your 10th-level Iron Heroes character at 18th level isn’t a trivial task, so just jumping to arbitrary periods in the character’s life would involve a bit of prep time.

So, does the game I want exist? Or, any ideas on how to do it?


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