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Keeping Kosher

Prophecy and Change

by Walt Ciechanowski
Feb 26,2004

 

Keeping Kosher

By Walt Ciechanowski

Prophecy and Change

Prophecy tends to crop up quite a bit in my campaigns. I am foreshadowing many future events in my Babylon 5 campaign. I have an NPC who claims to have come from the near future in my Victoriana game. My previous Witchcraft campaign included many psychics (including a PC) who could see into the future. One of my best Call of Cthulhu adventures revolved around a time loop. I feel that prophecy (defined here as "predicting the future") is an invaluable storytelling tool that not only aids me in scenario design, but also helps motivate my players.

I've also come across many problems with prophecies over my many moons of gaming. If you permit me to wax philosophical for a moment, when it comes to predetermination vs. free will players definitely prefer the latter. Why bother to have rules if the story is already predetermined? Why bother to participate if your actions won't affect the outcome? I actually did play in a session where the GM basically told us a story for an evening. I kid you not; the old "choose your own adventure" books asked me for more input than he did. Players enjoy being in control of their own destinies, and they often equate "prophecy" with "railroad" (for those of you who may be unfamiliar with the term, "railroad" is a type of adventure where the GM leads the players from scene to scene, and forcefully pulls the players back on track if they stray).

There are mechanical problems as well. If a traveling gypsy predicts that only Throg the Mighty will be able to topple Evil Overlord #5 from his throne, what happens if Throg is killed in a kobold encounter due to particularly bad dice rolls (or, even worse, Happy the Halfling kills Evil Overlord #5 with a potent backstab before Throg gets a chance to unsheathe his sword)? Do you fudge the dice rolls to rescue Throg from his fate or rob Happy of his kill? If you do, you risk angering the players. If you don't, you just diminished prophecy in your game.

Let's explore some common challenges with prophecies, drawn from my own experiences on both sides of the screen.

"Look, here comes Throg, destined to fight Evil Overlord #5 to determine the fate of the border kingdoms! Oh, and there are three other guys with him."

Prophecy is a popular device in literature, but often it revolves around a single hero. This individual also gets the lion's share of the focus and "screen time," with her friends and companions often taking a back seat. Players, on the other hand, tend to be proponents of "equal time." For each player, her own character is the most important person in the story, and it will be difficult for her to get invested in a character whose been relegated to the B-list. Even the most passive player doesn't like feeling that his character's contribution is unimportant or distracting from the main story.

The best advice I can offer here is try to make prophecies applicable to the entire group, rather than a single character. If you feel you must focus on a single character, it's better to use an NPC (and downplay the importance of the NPC's contribution) than an actual player character. The best example I can think of is the movie Willow, where the heroes found themselves protecting a baby that was destined to cause a key event. If you've seen the movie, you know what I'm talking about. If you haven't, rent it. It's worth watching.

Timed prophesies are a good device. Have an NPC read the tea leaves and tell the players that "Evil Overlord #5 will be most vulnerable during the next new moon. If he isn't stopped by then, the border kingdoms will fall." This will motivate the entire group to watch the clock as they approach the Evil Overlord's stronghold, and look for the key tactical advantage to exploit (and you'd better provide one).

Finally, watch out for prophecies about items. If a magic sword is needed to kill the Evil Overlord, and Throg is the only warrior in the group, he's probably going to wield it. The other players will still feel just as put out as if the prophecy were about Throg himself.

"And He has given me these Fifteen...{smash}...Ten Commandments!"

With apologies to Mel Brooks, this paraphrase from History of the World, Part One illustrates the problem when the dice work against you. Players can sense when you didn't expect something to happen, and they'll recognize when you start spinning damage control. In some cases, your attempts to keep the prophecy on track will smell of railroading. The GM's knee-jerk reaction is to immediately fix the problem, rather than let it ride and look for a natural return to the prophecy later on in the adventure.

The biggest problem here is the "prophetic save." A "prophetic save" is when the GM rescues a PC or NPC from certain death because it would ruin the prophecy. In some cases, the GM may fudge damage rolls; in other cases, he may ensure that a villain escapes no matter how clever and successful the PCs are in nabbing him. These methods feel like (and often are) cheats and players will not react well to them.

I'm not much of a poet, but I'll try: the more greatly detailed, the more likely derailed. In other words, the more you spell out the elements of a prophecy, the greater the chance that something will happen in the game to derail it. The best way to spin damage control is to not have to in the first place. Try to make your prophecies intentionally vague, and get in the habit of troubleshooting your prophecies so that you can build in back doors. If you have a back-up plan already in place when the inevitable happens, the players will take note of your sinister grin rather than your deer-in-the-headlights look.

"You are destined to become High King of the Four Kingdoms! Long will your line rule!" "Huh? I wanted to sell all my worldly goods and become a wandering monk."

In addition to what I've written above, the problem with personal prophecies is that the player might not wish to go in the direction you've laid out, especially if there is no greater reason for it. Sometimes, the GM anticipates what the player wants, and devises a prophecy accordingly. When this anticipation is in error, the prophecy can backfire. Players would rather not be shoehorned into something they never wanted in the first place.

One way to combat this is to get in the regular habit of asking your players where they want to take their characters. This is useful for crafting future campaigns as well as setting up prophecies. In d20 campaigns, most players are aspiring to a prestige class. Crafting the prophecy toward that class will increase your chances of keeping them happy. In other campaigns, you'll probably need to probe a little deeper. Just remember to ask these questions on a regular basis, as players have a tendency to change their minds.

Don't forget that prophecies can include choice. "To fulfill your dreams you must look to the dove in the red sky," might not sound like much of a prophecy, but when the PC who dreams of ruling a kingdom comes across a few knights in a tavern bearing red shields with a white bird painted on them, he may realize that this kingdom is his chance (and if he doesn't take it, the GM never need give him another opportunity to rule). How the PC takes over the kingdom can be left to whatever works at the time.

"So what can you see, Fiona?" "This room is filled with brutal, negative energies. I can feel him . . . if he isn't stopped, three more victims will fall before the next new moon."

A fun twist on prophesies, especially when carried out by a PC, is to give them a window on what the GM has total control over: what will happen if the players fail to act. Not all prophecies need to tell the PCs what needs to be done; sometimes it's enough to motivate them by what will happen if they fail.

This foreknowledge can be used by the players proactively. If a prophet PC foresees the death of Mr. X, the PCs might decide to shadow Mr. X around the clock, hoping to catch the assassin before the event occurs. Perhaps the PCs will be able to discover a relationship between Mr. X and the previous victims that may shed some light on new clues. Finally, if Mr. X is already taking precautions to save his own life, the PCs may determine that the assassin is someone already close to him.

The danger of this technique is that the PC may feel cheated of her power if you simply give her prophecies that restate the obvious. Learning that Evil Overlord #5 will conquer the Kingdom of Milquetoast if the PCs fail to intervene is hardly a helpful prophecy. Learning that Evil Overlord #5 will conquer the Kingdom of Strongheart because he was able to forge an alliance with the Thunderbird of Blue Mountain, however, gives the PCs something to work with, especially if the Thunderbird has traditionally been the protector of Strongheart.

I've touched on the application of prophet PCs in previous articles. I want to reiterate here that if a PC purchased prophetic powers, she will feel cheated if they aren't useful, especially if she could've spent her points somewhere else.

The Consequences of False Prophecies

A false prophecy, especially if revealed to the public or an NPC in a powerful position, can have serious repercussions. This can provide future plot threads for the GM, and can be especially fun if it was the PC's own actions that proved the prophecy false. The prophet may be branded a heretic, his relatives could be slaughtered, or an entire priesthood may be persecuted. I'll give an example:

The people of Strongheart have long endured the suffering of Evil Overlord #5 because the Blue Mountain priests have taught that only the Thunderbird can defeat him, and the Thunderbird is the chief deity of the people of Strongheart. Many people have lost their lives trying to climb Blue Mountain to awaken the Thunderbird. For four decades, all have failed. The priests of other gods have been stigmatized as rabble-rousers and heretics, for their insistence on trying to overthrow the Overlord without the Thunderbird would only lead to increased persecution.

Enter the PCs. They wander into one of Strongheart's taverns and learn of the prophecy. Being PCs, they troubleshoot the problem and realize that if they use PC magic item #4 in conjunction with PC magic item #7 and PC Wizard spell #18, they can take down Evil Overlord #5 without climbing any mountain or awakening the Thunderbird. In short order they dispatch the Overlord without much fuss and proclaim to the people of Strongheart that they are free to pursue their own destiny.

Much to their surprise, Strongheart falls into chaos. Blue Mountain priests are stabbed to death in the streets. Their temples are looted and burned. Those citizens of Strongheart who kept the peace under the Overlord's rule are lynched as sympathizers. Other religions start to compete with each other to fill the vacuum, and to the PCs' horror they realize that the Blue Mountain faith was a peaceful, orderly system, and the new competitors are bringing in archaic practices such as blood sacrifice and necromancy. Strongheart breaks apart into several squabbling mini-states. Finally, there is a rumble in the mountain. The Thunderbird has awakened, and she is not happy with the developments.

Many adventures can be spun from this, especially if your players feel some sort of responsibility for their actions (or merely seize the opportunities now available to them). Dealing with the consequences of a botched prophecy can sometimes be more fun than following the original prophecy.

Keeping Kosher

Tread carefully with prophecies. While they are great tools to help shape the direction of your adventures, they can also make the players feel railroaded or unimportant. Try to craft your prophecies in ways that support group play and still allow the players freedom of action. If a prophecy is botched, use it to spin out new plot threads rather than try to rein in the players.

Good Gaming!

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