Steampunk as a setting is one that occupies a strange place in my heart. On the one hand, I love the aesthetic, the fantastical worlds, and the goofy inventions. On the other hand, I rarely play it, don’t really read it, and for the most part dislike a lot of the ‘steampunk-but-X’ settings and stories. For the longest time I could quite place why I disliked a lot of steampunk. Thankfully, late last year, I came to the realisation that I hated the stories about gallivanting nobles and rich adventurer explorers. Sure, it can be interesting for a story or two but I wanted to hear about the harder parts of steampunk living. The displaced factory workers, the downtrodden masses. Once that clicked, the genre opened up to me and I came across a ‘steampunk-but-X’ game that actually interested me: Flashback.
Set in a steampunk world where corporations and guilds control everything, where dangerous spore sickness creeps in from the swamps and jungles, where falling stars are worth risking everything for, and where strange titans walk the earth. Flashback is a fantasy-steampunk world that grounds itself in the conflict between the rich and the poor in a decidedly turn of the century fashion. As the grip of the rich tightens on the cities and the countryside, people flock to the frontier for a new life, even if it means facing the nigh-indestructible titans.
Flashback isn’t just an interesting setting with the usual mechanics slapped lazily on top. Instead of the usual physical skills you instead pick between opposing personality traits like Cautious V Curious, Dynamic V Stubborn which help to remind you what you’re character is like. A dynamic person may find it easier to conduct diplomacy by adapting to the other person’s needs for example. Each of these decisions determine how many D10 you roll for an action with bonuses for major successes and penalties for misses. The GM may declare jumping over a creek a difficulty 4, so you roll three dice and get 7, 5, 5. Normally a 5 would be a success, and the 7 is a major success, but if you get a double, it counts as a miss. Meaning more dice/ more effort can still lead to failure. Which is a system I don’t think I’ve come across before.
The other core mechanic, and where it gets its name, is the flashback system. By spending advancement points players can generate a flashback at the moment its needed to explain why they have a certain skill. Players are encouraged to tell the story and build the world which GMs can later call back to. Introduce a childhood friend who taught you how to pickpocket, the GM now has a character they can bring into the story and weave the narrative around. It’s an interesting narrative mechanic and while I didn’t get to spend a lot of time with it during our game, it will be interesting to see how it develops.
Lastly, the mechanic that got me interested in Flashback, the titan climbing. Citing games like Monster Hunter and Shadow of the Collosus, designer Alex Jarkey explained that he didn’t want it to be a case of just standing in front of these huge beasts, hacking at their toes. Which is something I can appreciate and the main reason I dropped D&D. Each titan has a difficulty rating for running, climbing, jumping, and balancing on its different spots and easy to read information on where’s best for melee/ranged/ or special abilities. During our livestreamed game, I got the chance to run my way up a swamp titan’s arm, climb to its shoulder, leap onto its neck, hold my ground atop its head, and reach in and rip out the fallen star that created it. It was pretty damn cool and, having watched another player fall from its shoulder and get stomped, pretty tense as well.
Thankfully players aren’t as fleshy in Flashback as other RPGs. After getting his toughness stat reduced to a terrifying -12, we assumed he was dead and gone but each time your toughness reaches 0, you in fact take a wound. A randomly generated skill point loss to a random skill which has strong narrative and roleplaying tie-ins. The same goes for the unique confidence stat which is used for the social combat system. Similar to a regular fight, players will use their social stats to insult, deride, convince, praise, and lie to NPCs with the goal of lowering their confidence stat to 0. However, have your own reduced to 0 and you take social wounds. Stat loss just the same as a physical wound but with a different manifestation and this really interests me as it gives such a great mechanical reason for role-playing, growth, and development.
We’ll be doing a full review of Flashback once it releases.
Flashback is on Kickstarter now with just over £1000 to go as of time of writing. You can find it HERE