Oh Crap Flashbacks
Last Monday night my players were getting ready to teleport their characters over to the ice continent of Glacius when I realized I had made an error. In the session before they had been in the settlement of Dosas chatting it up at the bar. I really wanted them to get to a particular point in the story before stopping the game for the evening so I quickly montaged them through their stay at Dosas and got them back on the road to the aberrant ruin of Uvalor-Merrith which held the portal which brought them to Glacius.
Just one problem – they were about to head into Glacius, a freezing arctic continent and make a 900-mile journey across the tundra without any rations or cold weather gear. If I hadn’t sped them through town they might have thought of buying some gear for the journey ahead. It was time for an Oh Crap Flashback.
What Is an Oh Crap Flashback?
There are times when us less-than-Perkins Dungeon Masters make mistakes and we wish we could rewind the clock to better prepare the PCs for a challenge they are about to face (or in some cases currently facing). Rather than let the PCs suffer for my mistakes I take a moment and flashback in order to give them the tools they need to face the challenge properly. It might sound cheesy, but it’s an okay thing to do from time to time (and is way more fun than a TPK).
It’s our prerogative as DMs to move PCs thought time and space. Dungeons and Dragons is a storytelling game after all and aren’t flashbacks a storytelling convention? If you use this move to help out your players after you make a mistake, no one will balk. On the contrary I think you’ll find your group is more grateful, having more fun, and less frustrated than they would be had you not provided the flashback opportunity.
In the example above I told my players, “Hey, I should have given you more time in Dosas to outfit yourselves for the journey ahead. Let’s do a quick flashback so you guys can hit up the market and buy some stuff.” Crisis averted.
When to Oh Crap Flashback
So when is it right to Oh Crap Flashback? Let me be clear about this. Oh Crap Flashbacks are meant to give PCs a fair shake but not meant to turn your game on easy mode. For instance if I had given my players plenty of time in town, outlined the quest for them, and hinted that they might want supplies for their long journey and instead they ignored it all and just got on the road, we probably wouldn’t have had an Oh Crap Flashback. Oh Crap Flashbacks are meant to cover your own mistakes when they could make the game less fun and not meant to cover the mistakes of players (though you could choose to use it differently for your game.)
Below are some examples and guidelines of when I Oh Crap Flashback, but ultimately it’s up to you as the DM when to use them.
I Forgot to Allow the PCs Time To Gear Up or Get Information
Like in the example I gave above, sometimes the schedule gets the best of me. I push forward without looking at my notes because someone has a hard out or I’m excited to get to something else I have planned. It’s rare, but even a seasoned DM like me can miss something in the quest notes and forget to introduce a NPC or provide a crucial piece of information. This happens to me more often when I’m running something published and have to refer to dense blocks of text as opposed to my own notes.
Sometimes I have a non-flashback way to correct this mistake if I realize it early enough. For example the PCs could meet a fur merchant on the road with the information or supplies they need. Oh Crap Flashbacks are for times we don’t realize the mistake before it’s too late. The PCs are about to open the secret door and I forgot to give them its key or a crucial clue to help them solve its opening riddle. “Oh crap…” I say. It’s time to flashback.
I Thought of a New Story Point or Challenge Between Sessions and the PCs Need New Information to Face It
I have a confession to make. Sometimes I plop my PCs into a story or dungeon that I haven’t finished designing. This is part lazy, but also part intentional. As players make their way through the dungeon or story different factors may come up that make me want to adjust for next session. (The dungeon might be too easy or hard, the story could be too cliché, a player says something which triggers a new idea, the PCs go down a tunnel I thought they’d ignore, etc.) Anyway that’s another topic for another blog post!
If I’m tweaking things from session to session, there’s a small chance things might change enough for me to need an Oh Crap Flashback. This is the best case scenario for Oh Crap Flashbacks because I usually see the need for one as I’m preparing the game which means I can plan the flashback. In cases like these I usually kick the session off with the flashback to set the tone, remind players of what exactly they’re trying to accomplish, and provide the information or items they need to face the new challenges I added on their journey. Despite the Oh Crap-ness of it all, it seems like I’m a genius storyteller who had it planned all along.
A Player Made an Honest Mistake
If the PCs didn’t prepare or missed a piece of information I provided along the way, that’s not on me. That being said there are times people miss things for good reason. Players leave the table to use the bathroom, grab a bite, or take a personal call. They gotta do what they gotta do. So I’m not going to punish a player who was in the bathroom when the town’s soothsayer told the PCs not to drink from the raven’s head fountain. Later that player’s character jumps in the darn thing which is full of secret acid. What I am going to do is say, “Right before you leap into the pool you remember the words of Cannara the Crone, ‘Don’t touch the waters of the raven’s head fountain!’ Do you still want to jump?” I might even take a more casual route and say, “Oh before you do that just FYI – you were in the bathroom when the soothsayer warned against jumping in the fountain. You still jumping?”
So there you have it! Oh Crap Flashbacks. Let me know how (or if) you cover similar mistakes in the comments below.
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July 21, 2015 @ 10:46 am
I’m of two minds on this.
On the one hand, OCFs are a handy tool to have for the reasons you’ve listed. They’re also a great way to rehash with players if you’ve had to take a few weeks off from game, or to give newer players a chance to narratively roleplay a scene without negative consequences (since they obviously know they survived)… “As you wake up, a little hungover after your extended rest, let’s hear the story of the celebrating, bar bets, and other things you all did last night after slaying the dragon.”
On the other hand, I’ve had players who see that done once, then abuse it every time their character is unprepared for something. “Oh, I was going to go buy healing potions.” “I totally meant to prepare a different spell.” “I would’ve gone along with them if I’d realized X plot point was with that NPC.” etc. It might just be a table management thing with a few players, but with some folks it’s best to not even give them the idea that we can ret-con things and jump backwards to do things we “totally would have done.”
July 21, 2015 @ 12:04 pm
I mostly agree. I’ve found though that table management plays a bigger role with these situations than OCFs or ret-cons. If I messed up, that’s my bad and usually I can find a way for them to get the extra info/items that I forgot with resorting to those but if I do there is always a conversation beforehand about why the OCF is happening and I usually don’t hear requests for any more ret-cons or the like. I could just be really lucky with my group though!
July 22, 2015 @ 4:58 pm
The way I see it is if they had time when others bought stuff/prepared spells/etc. they could have done it then. It’s pretty easy to spot abuse like that. If it’s questionable, go with whatever makes the game more fun.
July 22, 2015 @ 7:19 am
I call those, “assuming competence”, meaning if the players don’t show much interest in roleplaying the experience of shopping for cold weather gear, we all assume they are competent adventurers and have the basic tools and gear they would need. That way they don’t need to specifically tell me that they bought snowshoes, an ice hammer, snow goggles, whatever. If there is some question about whether or not the item in question is considered “common sense”, we set a DC target and roll to see if the character would have thought of it. We generally don’t play gritty games with lots of survival elements or management of resources, but we might change it up if/when we do. Works for us!
July 22, 2015 @ 4:59 pm
Sure! I assume competence for a lot of things, but in this case I wanted them to buy the cold weather gear because I wanted them to spend the gold on it and not just HAVE it without spending the resources.