Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Nuts & Bolts #50 - I Foresee a Long Post

Prophecy is very probably the hardest narrative element for a GM to work with in a campaign. There is a need to have events unfold such that lesser predictions can come true and lend credence to the larger prophecy. Doing so under the weight of PC & Player choice and free will can be difficult to impossible. In what ways can you use prophecy in your games? How do you make good on the predictions laid out? Should you treat prophecy as what will be or what could be, and how does that impact the actions of NPCs and PCs alike as well as the course of the story?

Which is all just another way to say "how the heck do I deal with this in my game?" Well let's start by getting a better handle on what we're dealing with...
prophecy noun, plural prophecies.
  1. the foretelling or prediction of what is to come.
  2. something that is declared by a prophet, especially a divinely inspired prediction, instruction, or exhortation.
  3. a divinely inspired utterance or revelation: oracular prophecies.
  4. the action, function, or faculty of a prophet.

Well, that just covers it doesn't it? Predictions, declarations, and revelations oh my! Let's break this down some ...

Prediction vs. declaration

This relates back to that whole are prophecies what will happen or just what could happen? In addition though, this adds a layer of truth or fiction as well. The answer to the above is probably going to depend heavily on your setting and the story you plan to tell with your game, but just as much the way you use your prophecy will depend heavily on the answer to this question.

Prophecy tends to show up most often in the fantasy genre. That's not to say you can't have prophecy in science fiction. The Matrix had the whole thing with "the one" and whatnot, and time travel can lend the air of prophecy while really being a regurgitation of actual events by somebody sent to the past. Advanced computing allows for greater and greater capacity to model systems and predict behavior. Of course psychics, magic, spirit contact, the like can all offer predictions for the future.

Your setting choice will influence your use of prophecy accordingly. It may drive your answer to the aforementioned question of could or will, or the answer to that may drive larger themes. A fantasy world where prophecies come from the gods and are absolute truth (even if they are often couched in riddle) will yield a certain sense of fate as an inevitable force and the actions of the players as mere cogs in the working of history.

On the flip side a science fiction game where quantum AI can calculate future events may be based on probabilities and the trends of human society. When it comes down to it though free will and the introduction of unknown and unpredicatable events can skew probabilities and render predictions moot (no, not mute, moot). I such a situation the free will of humanity becomes a defining trait. Do people act as a computer has predicted based on human history, or do they manage to break away and act in some other fashion?

Either option is valid if handled correctly. Knowing that event X will happen unless you act to stop it works well in most any context as a means to galvanize and incentivize the players. It's the stuff of heroes after all, even when it isn't prophecy that is the trigger. Prophecy usually acts to give longer lead times to the heroes. There's a difference from being fated to battle (and maybe defeat) the evil Lich King from the time of your birth and finding out that the Lich King's armies will invade in a matter of days or weeks unless the hero(es) can stop him.

For prophecies that are known to be predictions instead of declarations about future events that possibility provides the motive force for the game. The heroes know that they can prevent those things coming to pass. But what about declarations of future events that Will (capital W) happen?

Flexible Language for Flexible Prophecies

There's little value to the game if NPC A tells the players that in no uncertain terms the Lich King will bring shadow and death to the land. The declaration is unavoidable and immutable. They could fight the Lich King, but he will win, in fact by being a declaration of future truth in effect the Lich King has already won. This may work in a prologue where the player's characters are to be sent away only to return after the Lich's victory to overthrow him.

Usually however prophecies of this nature are couched in metaphor and riddle. The "truth" of the prophecy is such that until the events unfold they are not truly understood. "The scion of the last great house will bring death to his father." Is pretty vague. Does it mean the last great house as in family? Or is there perhaps some architecturally significant house that will be destroyed in the process and thus prove that truth? What about adopted children? Or artificially created beings? A great artificer may create a clockwork being that brings about his own doom. Heck Frankenstein fits this prophecy; he was the last of his line and the monster is his "scion" in a metaphorical sense.

Uncertainty is the power here, especially for RPGs. One of the jobs of  the GM is to make sure everybody else at the table has fun, and part of that is to give them all a moment to shine. As such a prophecy that states one of the players to be "the hero" of the setting is probably going to go over well with one person, but maybe not with anybody else.

If you want to have vague suggestions of a singular hero the key there is to keep them vague. Any of the PCs should be able to potentially fulfill that prophecy, at least early on. As the game progresses it may come to pass that one of the players keeps "rising to the top," but hopefully by that point that is a feature and not a bug because the other players will have plenty of emotional investment in the story to keep them going. It may also work out that the entire group could theoretically lay claim to the hero role. As GM it is key to keep yourself flexible so that you can adapt to the moment. If the Evil Villain can only be defeated when he is stabbed through the eye with a feather from the golden bird of the 13th spice it really behooves the GM to keep his options open. As soon as PC makes that attack you should use it.

But that doesn't mean that action has to be the end all be all. Maybe that just makes him mortal, or removes some key protection that the group needed to overcome. The villain is not defeated in the absolute sense, but the successful termination of the prophecy enables the PC group to then kill the villain and end his "evil reign." Again being flexible and having a very vague prophecy will help here. At the end of the encounter the players will have won, and yes one of them may qualify as "the hero of prophecy" but they will see it could have been any of them and really the hero was only part of the villain's defeat.

Using uncertain terms, riddles and metaphors isn't just for prophecies of what will be. At the game table you will find you get more milage out of a little looser wording even if things only may happen. The same reasoning applies with regards to heroes as before, it keeps one player from being "the one" and ensures that everybody has a stake in the events of the story. It also allows you a little wiggle room on the NPC side as well. If free will is part of the equation then the NPCs should be allowed their own reactions to the actions of the players and timetables should be able to be accelerated, or locations changed by the villain so that things stay interesting for all involved.


"Hey, anybody know how we can defeat the seemingly unstoppable Lich King?" Prophets are occasionally used for info dumps. They are "magic research" or maybe the terminal on a "divine internet" (substitute your adjectives of choice for non-magic-y games). Rather than spouting off the old "and it shall come to pass" they are a means to learn something pertinent to the quest.

The heroes locate the Seer of the Cold Wastes because only she can tell them what needs to be done to save the world. In these instances prophecy is less about "this will happen" or "this may happen if nobody stops it" and more about "stab him under the left armpit to drain away his evil magic".  In a capacity such as this they are little different from a book, scroll, library, or other source of information. The difference is in how you get it and where it came from.

One could argue that R2D2 was a prophet of the Rebellion because it was through him that they gained the weakness of the Death Star. That is a super loose interpretation of the word, but you get my point. Usually you don't see this kind of prophecy in science fiction. Instead that same information comes from "advanced interpolation of data" and "analysis of detailed scans."

What is important here is that the key portion of prophetic quest comes before the prophecy instead of after it. The effort involved is usually tied up in finding and reaching the prophet, and the revelation that they provide provides the denouement (the end) of that story arc instead of the motivation or impetus of one.

Know the Future

Probably the hardest part as a GM when it comes to writing a prophecy (of any kind) into a story is knowing what to write so that you can keep the prophecy relevant to the story. Knowing your major plot points is key here. It's one thing to allow yourself the flexibility to adapt (and you should) but you do need to know what your major definite plot points are.

Maybe your story involves opening a tomb, the mummy escaping, the dead rising, darkness falls, the heroes retrieving a weapon, and the final fight with the mummy. There is A LOT that could happen between any of those plot points, but no matter how things go during the game you know that the dead will start to rise, that darkness will fall somehow, that a weapon will come into the possession of the heroes, and that there will be a final showdown with the mummy.

Your prophecy should be written around those points, the ones that you know with 100% certainty will come into the game. Don't include the darkness falling if that is some ritual conducted by the mummy that the players may be able to foul up in some way. Do include it if darkness falling is a natural event like an eclipse, or a magic phenomenon associated with the mummy's continued unlife free from his prison.

It is also probably prudent to avoid the why of a thing in your prophecy. You may be planning to have the darkness fall because of an eclipse, but during the game the players may lose a valuable relic to the mummy. Leave yourself the option of that relic being part of why darkness has fallen. It will help to reel the players deeper into the story and it will make the actions of the players feel even more important if they know that failure could have major consequence.

Some might take issue with what I suggested above. After all, if darkness was going to fall either way the success or failure of the PCs to secure the undefined relic really does not matter. The players do not need to know this!  A lot of a GMs work is made easier when the players have the illusion of choice.  Yes, this can lead to railroading by bad GMs, but used well and the players will never know the difference.  Let's say that the relic in question was "The Staff of Ra;" Ra being a sun god and all. Unless the players research the staff beforehand to find out what it does then the Gm can keep two (or more) options going for the staff.

  • Option 1: The players successfully keep the staff from the mummy. In this case the darkness is caused by the mummy's curse spreading over the land. 
  • Option 2: The mummy wins the staff. In this case the mummy uses his magic to corrupt the staff and create the eclipse (the very long magically caused eclipse)
The players now know that the staff is relevant to the story. In option 1 the players have this item and they realize that is has the power to push back the darkness caused by the mummy's curse (they won, they get a boon). In option 2 they realize that the mummy needed the staff to spread the darkness (they lost, they suffer a setback), but they also know that if they can destroy the staff, or purify it, they can turn back the darkness (in which case they still learn something vital even after the setback).

These two options lead to two very different situations and the game after that adventure will be entirely different. In one version the heroes have a boon from their victory to press their advantage against the mummy, in the other they have suffered a setback, and uncovered some vital information. This is not railroading. 

If the players did research the staff (successfully) ahead of time you can choose option 1 (because the darkness will spread no matter what) and the players will know that they are going after a powerful relic/weapon. This lets you ensure that darkness falls as prophesied, and instead makes the adventure's goal about mitigating the spread of the mummy's evil. If they should still fail to gain the staff they have the double setback of darkness falling on the land, and the Staff falling into the hands of the enemy, and who knows what that may lead to!

In closing I hope you can see a little clearer how prophecy can be used in your games regardless of their genre. I also hope that some of this advice helps you to see how to implement a prophecy without railroading your players or worrying about invalidating the prophecy too early.