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I have several flashbacks planned that introduce the characters to a backstory that is too complex for a typical plot dump. The problem is that the flashbacks are triggered in the context of the story a la PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) rather than being organized as independent play sessions, and in the one and only time I've tried this it took an incredibly long time for the player to catch on to what was happening.

I'm reluctant to explicitly clue the player in with a "Hey, it's time for a flashback!" because they're meant to be immersive, disturbing experiences and, well, PTSD doesn't exactly set friendly little boundaries around its episodes.

Is there a good way to introduce a flashback effect that makes sense in a dark, realistic period piece? Or should I just throw the character into it and hope that the confusion adds to the effect?

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Some answers here might be of use to you: – dlras2 Apr 21 '12 at 16:48
up vote 21 down vote accepted

One thing you can do is to introduce an element out of game when you start doing one. Play music, change the lighting, whatever you can do that will be noticeable but not disruptive.

Don't explain what you're doing, instead make the first flashback using this method really obvious. As you continue to do it every time they are in a flashback, people will start noticing the cues without you explicitly going "This is a flashback!". For bonus points, make it something you can gradually change, so they don't notice it happening at first. That way you can still have your confusion going into it, yet have it clarified as time goes on by the changing stimuli without breaking the mood.

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I absolutely love the idea of setting them off with music. It seems so obvious now! – ladenedge Apr 27 '12 at 17:00

Well, the thing about a flashback is that you've been there before; it's not a new experience it's a vividly encountered old experience. It has a sense of familiarity, and on a certain level you know what's about to happen next. It's not a completely novel dream sequence.

So what I would do is play it straight, but say things like "your eyes shift over to the door on the right and your heart fills with dread; you know what's going to step through it a moment before it does, a foul creature from the depths of Hell..." Or "when you open the freezer, you see a hideously decayed corpse! Its grin greets you like an old friend and you drop the lid. When you open it again, it's gone." "You see a man in a black shirt walk towards you; you just know he's going to raise his hand to strike you..." Obviously tailored to whatever the event/live situation was that caused the PTSD and whether this is a half second flashback, a short spell, or a long involved scene (which even with PTSD is usually only in dreams or the like).

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".. you've been there before" - important point! – ladenedge Apr 27 '12 at 17:00

One recommendation is to have details change. "You notice the scar that should be on your left wrist is no longer there." Indicating a time at latest for the character's backstory. "Where Robert was standing a moment ago, you see your old business partner Jacob." Which of course takes some of the vertigo out of the flashback but it's clear without hitting you over the face. Deja Vu could be a huge element as well.

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Flashbacks should be something that at the moment looks and feels real and vivid, but at the end of the flashbacks you realize what happened (more or less). So I'd suggest you move smoothly to the flashback and, only after, the players realize it was a flashback (i.e. you tell them: "you realize it was a flashback..."

It can happen that the players will ask you to do some action during the flashback, but in your description of what happens, you'll state that the character is doing or saying this and that, even if it's different from what the player asked... after a few flashbacks they'll know what's going on, anyway...

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