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The Deeper Well

Forewarned Is Forearmed

by James Bierly
Nov 19,2004

 

The Deeper Well

Forewarned Is Forearmed

By James Bierly

Welcome back to The Deeper Well, the column that tries to provide ways for roleplaying groups to develop stronger stories in their gaming sessions. In my last column, I talked about incorporating themes into your games. In this column I will discuss several ways to use foreshadowing to provide greater narrative structure resonance to your campaign.

Foreshadowing is when future events in a story are heralded by those that come before.

Foreshadowing with prophecy

In a campaign that involves magic of some sort prophecy can be an excellent way to provide meaningful foreshadowing. There are two main types of prophecy used in RPGs.

The first are the amorphous prophecies that can be easily fulfilled in any number of ways. "One shall come and two shall fall" could be fulfilled in a combat encounter in which someone arrives part way through and kills two opponents. A servant entering a banquet and dropping two glasses of wine on the floor would work excellently as well.

Vague prophecies are fun, because players will begin seeing their fulfillment even in situations that you didn't intend to have anything to do with the prophecy. Vague prophecies are the foreshadowing tool that keeps on giving.

One of the most interesting uses of a vague prophecy in a game I've run was when my players encountered an old crone who prophesied that one member of their group would perish. She said that she saw some of the other characters standing over his/her grave. She didn't specify when this would occur. Hence, barring a TPK, the prophecy would have been fulfilled, even if the characters all retired to a pleasant halfling village and died of old age. Before a major mission, I reminded them of this prophecy. At the conclusion of the mission, one of the PCs was alone with two guards. He kneeled down and allowed them to kill him, in order to fulfill the prophecy and save one of his fellows from a similar fate. It was one of the most touching moments I've experienced in an RPG, and it all came from players taking a vague prophecy and running with it.

The second type of prophecy is more concrete and much more difficult to do in an RPG. "Yithrit shall be slain by his son" leaves little room for deviation. What if the PCs kill Yithrit? Or what if Yithrit's son dies before he can do any killing? A clever GM could have one of the PCs who killed Yithrit turn out to be his son, or bring the son back from the dead, but both these actions would seem a bit heavy-handed and overly devoted to a rigid plot.

One way, however, to deal with this is to simply state that all concrete prophecies will come true by hook or by crook. This gives a definite structure to your game and can help you prepare for sessions, but many players will resent it.

My advice would be to avoid these kinds of prophecies in an RPG, except in cases where a prophecy provides the key to overcoming an obstacle. For instance, the oracle states: "The hands must be joined for fruit to be given". This means that a magical clock in a dungeon must have the hour, minute and second hands lined up together in order to open a door leading to a magical tree. If the players decide not to go into that dungeon, or find another way to get past the clock, the credibility of the oracle has not been harmed.

On the flip side, false prophets can make for an interesting and realistic plot element...

Foreshadowing with Themes

If you structure your story arcs around themes instead of specific NPCs and plot ideas, then you can avoid railroading and still provide meaningful foreshadowing.

For example, let's say that you plan to have a trusted NPC (who we will call Joe) betray the party down the road, which will lead to the awakening of a great evil. In order to foreshadow this, have an adventure about betrayal that doesn't involve that NPC.

Later on in the campaign, perhaps the heroes overhear a minstrel telling a tale about a king cheating on his bride.

Why is Joe so keen on destroying the world? Perhaps he had an abusive childhood. So an adventure involving the theme of child abuse could be employed as foreshadowing.

But then there is a problem. The players pick up on your hints, and knife poor Joe before he can bring forth the Big Bad. No problem! Joe can become just another piece of foreshadowing, leading up to a betrayal of some sort that causes a great catastrophe.

Perhaps another trusted ally betrays the party, or one of the PCs has his alignment magically changed, and does the dark deed. The players will think that there was ample foreshadowing (including that adventure with Joe getting his throat slit), and will feel that the entire story-arc held together well.

Foreshadowing The Easy Way

Let's say that in the first session of your campaign Billy kills seven orcs. Three sessions down the road, Billy is faced with seven orcs looking for revenge.

Billy's youngest sister died in his arms when he was young. During the campaign, the villains kill his girlfriend and she dies in his arms as well.

In these examples, the GM has taken an event that has already occurred. He then said to himself 'what could this foreshadow?' and then designed future encounters accordingly. This approach allows for infinite amounts of foreshadowing while increasing the player's role in creating the story immensely. Be on the lookout for things in the campaign which you can use as foreshadowing. You'll be amazed at the new level to which your individual sessions become connected.

I hope these ideas for using foreshadowing in an RPG have been useful to you.

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