Prophecies and prophetic visions are a staple of just about every game genre (even in Western Campaigns, the Indian Medicine Men might have them).
GMs like using prophecies for a number of reasons:
- They impart a sense of wonder to the campaign
- They confer the impression of a wider universe around the PCs
- They show the players that the GM has been doing his homework
- They can drive plots forward and act as a binding agent, tying seemingly unrelated plots together into a bigger picture
- They can be used to manipulate the PCs and mess with the player’s headspace, as famously spoofed a while back in KODT [issue 81]
- They give the players clues as to the direction in which the GM is driving the campaign
- Players can use them to develop new lines of investigation/action when they are stumped by the immediate problem
- And, done properly, they can be a lot of fun.
But there are some serious downsides. And the biggest is the players feeling that once a prophecy is articulated, the GM will twist events and outcomes to ensure that the prophecy comes true, or seems to be about to come true – in other words, to lay the tracks for a plot locomotive that threatens to railroad the game.
If attempts to thwart a prophecy always fail, it can engender frustration and dissatisfaction.
This article is intended to offer alternative means of handling prophecies and prophetic visions that are not so damaging to the campaign.
Know Thine Campaign
Often, the best start you can make to the whole business of prophecies is to avoid making them up out of whole cloth. Base them on the campaign that’s already in place, and the trends and directions that it is already going. Then redress them in slightly vague and flowery language.
And don’t make the mistake of making all your prophecies about the campaign to come – a fair percentage will be old prophecies that may have already have come to pass. If you are going to use prophecies in your campaign at all (or even if you just want the players to thing you’re going to use them!), take advantage of them to add some extra colour and depth to your campaign background.
When it comes to your prophecies, a slightly more advanced technique is to write the prophecy from the perspective of a historical culture in the campaign world, stressing the things that were important to that culture; this expands the campaign background’s foundations and makes them relevant. Unwary players can fail to make proper allowance for the bias or “spin” that the ancient culture put on the prophecy, but more switched-on players will eventually use these to inform themselves about both the prophecy and the culture that made it.
What Might Be, not What Will Me
Prophecy immediatly brings into sharp relief the whole question of free will vs destiny. Before I let a prophecy loose in the campaign, I always get my players to jot down a quick note on where their PC stands on the issue, which I have found to be very helpful as a guide to roleplaying.
Of course, if you wait until you’re about to spring a prophecy on the characters, this telegraphs your move rather badly. A better approach is to ask the question (and get the answer) LONG before a prophecy rears it’s ugly head. I have gotten some mileage from time to time by roleplaying a campfire arguement between two NPCs on the subject and then lobbing the question at one of the PCs. Whatever the PC responds, one of the NPCs can then disagree without changing their perspective, permitting them to prod another of the PCs; maintaining this tactic, you can draw out each PC’s opinions entirely in-character.
From the metagame perspective of allowing the PCs to have free will, you have but two alternatives: either you incorporate some reason within the campaign for the PCs being the only individuals with free will (one of the unique attributes that collectively comprise the difference between a PC and an NPC), or you take a philosophical cue from Babylon-5 and determine that within the campaign, a prophecy is what might be, not what will be. “A vision may be prophecy or it may be metaphor. A metaphor is just a prophecy that doesn’t come true.”
In other words, a prophecy is a forecast of what Might be, not what Will be.
The Nostrodamus Approach
Nostrodamus’ prophecies are famous – first, because there are so many of them, so vaguelly worded and using poetic allusions rather than actual names. Some have been accounted to have come true on three seperate occasions, depending on how you interpret the language.
One of the reasons for this vagueness is that he wrote them in his native language, translated them into another language in which he was only semi-literate, translated that into code, and then randomly broke them up and changed their order. By the time you combine the poetic allusions factor, this imbues the meaning with so much vagueness that the prophecies have no practical value, but can still be considered “fair warning” to the players.
The big downside to this approach is that to make it work properly, you need to create dozens of prophecies – most of which you intend to ignore. The corrosponding upside is that you can wait until the PCs decide what they want to do and then pick a prophecy that can be hammered and filed to fit, making them story seeds and sources of inspiration. Using prophecies in this way means that they start being completely meaningless, and have whatever meaning you want assigned as opportunity permits.
The “Meanwhile…” Alternative
One of the best ways to avoid the railroading problem is to use prophecy to articulate what NPC villains are already doing within the campaign. Just cloak them in a bit of flowery language, obscure the meaning a little, and hey presto! You have an instant prophecy that has already come true. This technique can help the players place the events that they are experiencing into the broader campaign context.
A Long Long Time From Now
Another technique for avoiding the issue is the deliberately intend the prophecies to be fulfilled after the campaign concludes. This makes them a bit of colour that can otherwise be ignored. However, I personally don’t recommend this technique; it implies that whatever the PCs do is not important enough in the long run to be the subject of prophecy, because if this was not the case, then someone else would have made prophecies regarding their actions.
The only way in which this solution can work without deflating the campaign over the long term is something I call “The Wild Card Approach”.
The Wild Card Approach
For some reason – time and place of birth, the aspect of the moon, an ancient gypsy blessing, whatever – the PCs are Wild Cards, not subject to the vagarities and limitations of prophecy. If they are in the right place at the right time, and work hard enough, they can change the outcome of any prophecy, because their actions cannot be foretold, and hence cannot be allowed for.
This is one of my favorite techniques – even though it’s a variation on an approach that (as I’ve already stated) I don’t recommend – because it gives the campaign the best of all possible worlds. The only caveat is that you need some plausible reason for the PCs being Wild Cards, and that this reason should (in contrast to the flippancy I used when introducing the technique) should be central to the campaign concept. The entire plausibility of the campaign rests on this justification, so it’s essential that you get it right. That also means carefully integrating the uniqueness of the characters into their personal backgrounds, so the GM will also need to work closely with the players during character creation. When and How was their uniqueness discovered? How did it affect their upbrining? Does each think that he’s the only one? Might there be a Wild Card amongst the PCs enemies? These are vital questions, and the GM needs to think carefully about the answers and implications.
The Mundane and Trivial – significance by implication
Another technique that can be very useful is to show scenes of mundane and trivial events, where it is an element of the background that is more significant, and not the action itself.
This technique is more appropriate for prophetic visions than for full-blown prophecies.
There’s always a strong temptation to focus on the melodramatic when dealing with such prophecies, but it can often be more rewarding to undersell the drama. The first hypes the forthcoming events like a used-car salesman extoling the virtues of last year’s model, but it releases the drama of the scene in the same breath, leading to anticlimax; the second builds tension and drama because it saves the best action for actual play, when the PCs can be participants, not onlookers.
A vision of a King trimming his toenails, a stack of signed royal warrants on the desk before him, and a row of gibbets as long as the eye can see visible through the window behind him, is both more easily conveyed and more evocative than showing the hangings themselves, or the scene in which the same king pronounces death for high treason against an assembled throng. The very mundanity of the scene highlights a sense of callousness that may or may not be warranted – the king may or may not be justified in his actions, the seer cannot tell, as the all-important context is missing.
Another favorite of mine is duelling prophecies – not so much in the sense of the Belgariad by David Eddings (which were really complimentary prophecies in many respects) but in the sense that only one of the two can come true. Until they get used to the idea, players will invest a lot of effort into trying to reconcile the irreconcileable, providing great entertainment to all concerned and a slightly different background flavour to that which would exist without this additional context.
Allow for this historical impact of prophecies
I’ve touched on this already, but it’s important enough to bring to the centre of discussion for a moment or two. In a world in which prophecies are real and can be used as a guide to future events, they would and should have been used for this purpose in the past. If prophecies always come true (NOT reccomended), there should be stories of characters railing against the inevitable, akin to those of Don Quixote tilting at windmills. If prophecies do NOT always come true, there will be epic sagas showing the lengths that one has to go to in order to avoid the future that was foretold, and perhaps a cautionary tale or two of misjudgements and pyrrhic victories. All this should be brought front and centre to the player’s consciousness prior to the start of play (if possible) but later is better than never.
The Last Word
Prophecies and prophetic visions are so much a part of the context and landscape of virtually every genre – whether by computer simulation and development of tactical responses to scenarios, or by mystic visions of some sort, or simply drug-induced fantasies – that deciding how much truth is in them and how they will be handled is practically manditory, but is often overlooked nevertheless because it can be a lot of prep work.
Writing prophecies down before play starts, drawing on any and every source of stimulation of the imagination available to you, and then ignoring most, is by far the best approach. After all, some have already come true, some will relate to events long after the campaign ends, some may have failed, and some may be distortions or lies (whether the originator knows this or not); that doesn’t leave much room left for those that are both relevant and true.
Most important is to ensure that the probitive value of prophecy as a guide to actions is established within the campaign background, or (at the very least) in the form of folk tales that can be reiterated to the PCs the first time they encounter a prophecy “in the field”.
Some GMs fear the power of prophecies to wreak havoc on their campaigns, others revel in them (to the frustration of the players). Neither is the most productive approach; prophecies can add awe and wonder, and don’t have to be a straightjacket – if they are used correctly. There are multiple middle grounds; choose the one that best suits you and your campaign, and let’s blow a few player’s minds with some deep, DEEP, philosophy – with larger-than-life ramifications.