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Tuesday, January 10, 2017

RPG Blog Carnival: Prophecies & Omens

Here we are in 2017 and it is time for another month of RPG Blog Carnival entries! I have missed the past few months, but given the topic of January I thought it might be a auspicious time to rejoin. The topic is that of prophecy and omen, a great story telling device that can be a bit complex when you are not the only one telling the story. To aid in that endeavor, I want to share the ways in which I have learned to utilize prophecy.

The Future
Whenever you are playing a role-playing game, there is virtually no predictability in what is to come. Unless you are the worst kind of railroader or your players have no desire to propel the plot themselves, you will inevitably hit some sort of speed bump, turn in the road, or sudden cliff. That's OK and is one of the main reasons we play these games with each other. Anything can happen!

But some of the greatest tales include glimpses of the future and you may be driven to do the same. This may be through signs, omens, written prophecies, visions, or some other divination. Regardless of what form this insight comes in, you have a limited amount of control in whether or not it comes to fruition. There are a couple ways to make sure, however, that these premonitions of the future are not only true, but don't require you to take away player agency.

Setting It Up
The first thing you need to make sure occurs is that you have control over the point of prophecy. When it happens, how it happens, and what it pertains to. This is fairly simple, as most events come from your narration of the world or your control over discovered secrets and NPCs. Second, you must have the prophecy prepared ahead of time. Making it up on the fly could put you in a sticky situation later. "What about this part of the prophecy?" a player might say when you completely forgot that was a thing, or that it was completely avoided by the party. The less meaning a prophecy has as it comes to fruition, the less implication a party might put on future ones.

Be Late, Be Vague
The easiest way to have a prophecy be meaningful is to have whatever insight the PCs gain be incredibly vague. If you are too specific the prophecy might be too easily avoided or, if you force it to occur, the players may feel something has been taken away from them (agency). Use general phrases and words. Utilize things that have more than one meaning. Name things via description and not directly. Think of a misdirect to include that may be easy to latch onto so that the true meaning is ignored. Use titles, names, or descriptions that fit multiple things, people, places, or times.

Of course none of this will matter if the players forget or ignore the prophecy. That's where being late comes in. Do not give them a prophecy before anything happens. There is no sense of urgency then, and nothing to keep it in memory. Instead, include something that has already happened at the beginning of the premonition. Follow up with something that can happen at the time of the prophecy or immediately thereafter. This will make it real and give them a good starting point. From there they can realize that things are happening right now, figure out what has already happened, and have some clues or context for what might happen next.

Prophesize Guaranteed Events
OK, this might sound like railroading, but there's a distinction to be made. Instead of including parts of a vision that relate to a PC, relate the PC to parts of the vision later. That way they are taking on the prophecy themselves, rather than it being thrust upon them. In a way, parts of the prophecy might become self fulfilling or more simply, the PC takes up an important role in the prophecy without being the only one who could.

When you design the prophecy make sure the events that happen are things that cannot be avoided. An eclipse, the full moon, summer, fall. Times are always could indicators, as are unique events (a red full moon). The events that occur should be something that needs to be responded to rather than stopped from happening. Make the prophecy a race to mitigate evil / disaster. You may not be able to stop the waking of the tarrasque but you can be prepared to put it right back to sleep. This gives the players some agency in the story without a prophecy losing its meaning, and allows more parts of the prophecy to remain a danger. Of course providing context like "or else" gives two outcomes prophesized and may give you, the GM, more breathing room.

Using A Vision
This is my favorite form of omen or prophecy. A vision can be presented in numerous ways and can take numerous forms. I have used magic, dreams, oracles, and some good old fashioned seer reading to reveal visions to players. These allow me to prepare them ahead of time and narrate the experience. The vision can be written on paper and handed to the player so they may choose to keep its contents secret.

Visions are dream-like and mutable so they are automatically vague, even in their specifics. Something in the vision may be true, or it may be influenced by personal feelings. One thing may represent another. Nevertheless, you can include scenes related to that which has happened, that which the players hope to happen, and that which is guaranteed to happen. Every bit is left to be dissected by the person or people who receive it.

In The End
At the end of it all the vision serves three purposes: to inform, to drive, and to confuse. Prophecies always reveal information that is, more often than not, confusing right up until it occurs and then it becomes blatantly obvious. The information provided sits on a fulcrum of uselessness and imperativeness. This handful of information and not knowing what to do with it can be a drive in itself. When that isn't enough knowing you are caught up in prophesized events coming true and leading to disaster, well that is generally enough for heroes. The vagueness and confusion is also a drive and tool you can use. You can draw characters back into a storyline or introduce NPCs to help them as a result of the prophecy.

With a little thought, you should have no trouble using prophecy to help propel your game. Your players will get a glimpse of what is to come and have something to look back to when they are losing their way. You too will have a tool to draw on and drive the story as you see fit, letting the PCs know the world moves around without them. Maybe they should do something about it. Regardless, prophecies can be short term and long term fun for any campaign.


  1. Hi John,

    Thank you for contributing to the January Blog Carnival, hosted at Tales of a GM:


    You highlight many important posts about prophecies in RPGs, not least the importance of maintaining Player agency. Do you have any examples of suitable prophecies?

    Many thanks

    1. Without spoilers for my players, I have recently had doomsayer spit out a poem prophecy during a festival. He barely knew he was doing it. Each line alludes to an event. The first 2 (if I remember correctly) had already happened and the 3rd happened moments after the prophecy was spoken. Each of the lines in the prophecy that are left mark a specific event of some kind, though it may be difficult to decipher what those events could be. They use enough key words to relate to things the players know about, but don't lay out exactly what is entailed.

      Depending on what happens the players will learn clues to different parts of the prophecy and discover the bigger picture and may be able to mitigate or stop what happens. Or at least steer the wagon into a tree instead of off a cliff. :P

    2. Hi John,

      That sounds very cool. Have the Players taken on board the prophecy? Do they seem to want to interact with the prophecy?

      Would you be able to share the text of the prophecy? That would make an excellent follow-up article for the Carnival.

      I am currently compiling the second of my weekly roundups of the Carnival, which will include a link to this essay. Hopefully, this will bring more traffic to your blog.

      All the best

    3. Phil,

      The players have been quite willing to be heroes and at least one of them has a history tied to these events. Things are a little hectic for them, but they will no doubt be trying to figure out the prophecy when their current mission completes.

      As for the text, I will have to hold off on sharing it until that episode of the actual play is released to avoid any spoilers. Don't worry though! I think I will write a follow up when we get there, it will be good to do so especially with some time between now and then to continue thinking / learning.