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Design Blog: Flashbacks

January 24, 2012

Illustrations by Emrah Elmasli

This week we’re shipping Game Mastery Plot Twist Cards: Flashbacks, a sequel to the original Plot Twist Cards deck. The point of using Plot Twist Cards is to break out of the mindset that you have to have a precise rule for everything that happened, happens, or could happen in a game. You don’t have to explain why the paladin never mentioned his days as a street thief, or how the “Abyssal bloodline” sorcerer is suddenly manifesting nagalike powers. In a world where magic is real, genetics are subservient to magic, and a spell can create or alter memories, revealing a previously unknown backstory is easy.

Designer Rob Heinsoo and I call this the “soap opera reveal” of character development—as in, “your grandfather wasn’t a powerful sorcerer—he was actually a demon!” Amnesia, secret plans for vengeance, evil twins, clones, demonic possession, dream sequences, mind control, undiscovered siblings, psychic visions, and characters coming back from the dead are all perfectly plausible elements of a Pathfinder campaign. James Jacobs used a derro lab full of clones of Wes Schneider’s character in the Shadow under Sandpoint campaign. Monte Cook used a memory-erasing witch to have his Praemal campaign PCs re-explore a lair they had already explored. Chris Perkins played identity-switching twin elf brothers in Monte’s original Ptolus campaign. I used a dream sequence orchestrated by mi-go to retcon some campaign-derailing events in my Exiles of Zirnakaynin campaign caused by “evil sibling” Rob McCreary and James’s demon-possessed bard.

Using narrative tools like this, even though there aren’t specific rules for them (What’s the saving throw DC to resist a dream sequence? What’s the Perception DC to realize your ally is actually her evil twin?) lets a GM create interesting story arcs for a campaign. Likewise, a player can use these tools to explain gaining an unusual ability, feat, spell, or even something as mundane as suddenly investing 5 skill ranks in a new skill. For gamers hesitant to go outside the bounds of the rules, Plot Twist cards give players and GMs a way to fiddle with bits of the story under agreed-upon constraints.

(As a side note: The woman in the Shadenfreude card illustration is based on Paizo Art Director Sarah Robinson. I can neither confirm nor deny that the illustration is based on an actual event.)

How have you used flashbacks, amnesia, twins/doppelgangers, and similar “soap opera reveals” in your campaign? Would you like to see more examples of doing this, or rules establishing a framework for doing so?

Sean K Reynolds
Paizo Designer

More Paizo Blog.
Tags: Emrah Elmasli GameMastery
Grand Lodge

I did a "Soap Opera" reveal in my Rise of the Runelords campaign. It was great! My players seemed to love it...

I would like to see mechanics about establishing a framework for it, rather than free-floating it like I did... I really don't even have notes for it, but it is something that I would like to see happen more in the campaigns that I am playing in...

Liberty's Edge

Wouldn't Flashback cards be the prequel to plot twist cards?

The original plot twist deck plays a major part of my current campaign. The PCs are altering the history of the continent they are stranded on, and every time they push history in the right direction they are rewarded with a plot twist card to show how they are gaining power over the destiny of the continent.

That nightmare card is actually surprisngly creepy, and the more I look at it the moreso it becomes. Especially when juxtaposed with Dream. Kudos to the artist.

"How have you used flashbacks, amnesia, twins/doppelgangers, and similar “soap opera reveals” in your campaign?"


1. I started a campaign with the PCs buried alive. They had to first figure out how to escape using nothing but their skills, abilities, and intellect. Then they had to figure out who did that to them and why.

2. When running Savage Tide, while the players were on-board the Sea Wyvern headed for the Isle of Dread, I had them play some drinking games with a few of the crew. The drink they were using was a powerful and slightly magical form of Absinthe. Once the drinking game was over I had a massive kraken attack the ship and eventually destroy it (after an actual combat sequence of course) leaving the crew and some of the PCs dead and the rest drifting in the ocean. Only then did I reveal it was all a hallucination caused by the "Green Man" as they woke up drooling below decks on the intact ship.

"Would you like to see more examples of doing this, or rules establishing a framework for doing so?"

Nope. This is exactly the kind of stuff that works best without hard coded rules.

Dark Archive

Talk about coincidence, I was just on the products page for these very set five hours before the blog went up. I am very excited about this new deck and can't wait to use them in play.

While I would use these very sparingly, about six cards to a campaign, roughly one per player, each card can represent a significant twist or furthering of the overall story arc.

I would love to see another set in the future, perhaps one covering avenues and ideas (perhaps even light mechanics) not already covered in this and the previous Plot Twist deck.

And any rules attached to these decks should remain more intuitive and definitely story driven -"free form" if you will. Reining in some of the story potential by hamstringing these decks with a strict rule set would diminish the full potential of this type of game accessory.

And yes, the Dream card next to it's Nightmare sibling just added to the creepiness factor, I may have to plant those two the next time we run an AP.

Liberty's Edge

I used a flashback session once where the one player played his character (Lanthe) at the start of his career, whilst the other 4 players played other characters who were sent on a mission to abduct the child of the local lord. Most of the party, excluding Lanthe, were playing evil characters.

The characters all had back story plots which I gave them before the session - call this D&D Meets Paranoia. Anyway, most of the other players died, except for one who managed to escape with the child leaving Lanthe empty handed.

What wasn't revealed until later was that the child who was abducted was one of the other player characters, and that Lanthe had tracked her down, but rather than revealing this to her, he befriended her to keep an eye on her, and an eye out for others who might be looking for her. After all, she was one of only 6 children ever to be born with the mark of the dragon. Buts that's another story...

Liberty's Edge

I have also used the soap opera cliche to great effect when one of the player's characters died during a heroic fight. The player wasn't quite happy with what he was playing, so during the funeral for that PC, a burning effigy of Sarenrae appeared to raise the Child of Sarenrae back from the dead as a Paladin (and of the same character but an older version of himself - pulled from another reality - and don't you think that's going to have some ramifications). The player wrote and presented the scene to the other players which was friggin' awesome.

The longest running campaign i ever played in was very soap opera-y. The whole campaign was in one city, with a huge cast of recurring NPCs that we got to know pretty well. There was some evil clones, some crime bosses that refused to stay dead, a jilted lover who turned her anger into a huge inter-noble-houses conflict, and once an identity stealing sorcerer with an obsession with a pc

Sovereign Court

Pathfinder Adventure Path, Modules, Starfinder Adventure Path Subscriber; Pathfinder Comics Subscriber

If you use enough plot twist cards, does it turn into Pathfinder Twin Peaks?

Liberty's Edge

Twinfinder Peaks...


I just added these to my game, rewarding Plot Twist cards for furthering the campaign along, and Flashback cards for building upon character background. The Phobia card from the Flashback set has already saved the group once, I can't wait to see what other fun things they'll have me do with them. :D

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