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Bag o' Nifties: Tricks for GMs

Prophesy, Precognition, and Portents - Running Characters Who Can See the Future

by Dan Pond
June 20, 2001  

The Problem

Characters who can predict the future are a staple of both fantasy and science-fiction literature, yet they are relatively rare in role-playing games. The reason is simple: We, as players and GMs, don't know what's going to happen. Even the most prepared, prolific GM can't plan everything ahead of time, and even if they could, players are notoriously skilled at scattering those plans to the wind.

Buck up, though, lads and lasses! You don't have to let the petty rules of linear time stand in your way forever! There are a number of tricks you can pull with your players to fit these time-honored genre conventions into your games. Three techniques are presented below as skills or powers you can offer players in whatever game(s) you happen to be running.

Solution One: Prophesy

Since the unpredictability of player actions is our biggest problem, our first solution will be to make them more predictable. Prophets can see into the future at will, but must make sure what they see comes to pass. The reason is that their power is founded on the sanctity of their predictions. If something they prophesize doesn't happen, then they didn't accurately see the future, did they? They just made a guess. Anybody can do that. The challenge for the player is to strike a balance between protecting the accuracy of their prophesies and finding ways to use their foreknowledge to further their own goals.

When a prophetic character wants to make a prediction, feed them a vision or cryptic clue about something coming up in the game. It then becomes the player's responsibility to make their prediction come true. If they don't, then they've undermined their own powers. You should feel free to lower their skill level, impose penalties on future Prophesy attempts, or take any other action that reduces their power.

The fun comes in the interpretation of the prophesy. Say, for example, that a prophet saw himself being hauled away from a building by a team of security guards... with a grisly bullet hole in his head. Avoiding that building for fear of his own death would nullify his prophetic powers (because then the vision would never come to pass). On the other hand, using stage make-up to fake a bullet wound and lure security away from the building entrance (so the other PCs can sneak inside, perhaps) would not. Prophesy can be a great way to challenge players, drop hints, or just mess with their minds.

Solution Two: Precognition

Most often associated with psychics and science-fiction, precognition allows characters to literally see the future. A "precog" has trained their subconscious mind to assimilate information from countless sources (via their normal senses, clairvoyance, etc.) and use that data to predict the most likely course of events. These predictions are then conveyed to the character's conscious awareness as "visions."

This power cannot be controlled by the character; it's completely involuntary. In game terms, the GM just lets the game progress as normal. When something bad happens, the player asks the GM if they can make a check against their precognition skill (or their Willpower, or whatever). If the GM allows it, and if the check is successful, the GM "rewinds" the game to an earlier point and the events in between become the precog's "vision."

Of course, the GM might only rewind the game a few seconds, letting the precog warn the other PCs of a trap or ambush just in time to duck, for example. In fact, rewinds should be kept as short as possible to prevent the players from getting bored replaying the same scenes. If you think your players would abuse this kind of game mechanic, remove the option of a check and keep the visions entirely under GM control. However, basing the power on a check strikes a nice balance between putting the player in control and letting precognition remove the threat of uncertainty from your game.

Solution Three: Portents

The last technique is drawn directly from fortune-telling in history and folk lore. The GM assigns symbols (animals, sounds, weather conditions, etc.) to represent important NPCs, types of events, or anything else. Then, just drop those symbols into the background of scenes leading up to those events, involving those NPCs, and so forth. To make things skill-based, either 1) let the fortune-telling character make a check to interpret the signs, or 2) only describe the symbols in a scene after a successful check.

This system is really just glorified hint-dropping. However, it also makes a perfect tool for instilling paranoia into a game; when used judiciously, players will quickly learn to view even the most insignificant details as vital clues or dire warnings. Portents can also mimic the renown art of Tarot reading... just use Tarot cards as your symbols. (There are plenty of Tarot references online, if you'd like to use some authentic meanings to assign cards to NPCs, events, etc. Just make sure you're using the same reference as your players.)

For example, your intrepid adventurers are about to walk into a trap prepared for them by a warlord known as "The Dragon." As they approach, the fortune-telling character is bitten on the foot by a lizard. The entire party may begin finding lizards in unexpected places: in their boots in the morning, climbing in the rafters above their dinner tables, and so forth. A Tarot-reading character might draw the Tower (indicating disaster) in a position indicating the near future... next to the King of Swords or an inverted Moon (meaning lies or deception).

A Note on Astral Benefactors

Another history-inspired wrinkle you can toss into the mix is an intelligent origin for the PCs' visions. Ancestor spirits, demons, and deities are all well-known for giving their pet mortals glimpses of the future. The wrinkle comes in when the character's patron(s) ask for favors in return for their divine wisdom. Even a half-witted GM will have no trouble milking that angle for all it's worth.

Furthermore, intelligent beings tend to have private agendas... and lying is often a useful tool in the pursuit of those agendas. Staging an entire scene as a fake precognitive vision will certainly make for a memorable game. Of course, the easiest way to get the PCs running errands for a supernatural NPC is via a false prophesy. Deceptive Ouija boards and Tarot decks are similarly easy to do, but the greater degree of player interpretation makes them less effective means of manipulation.

A Note on LARPs

Though it's certainly possible to insert Portents into a live-action game, the only one of the above techniques that will work easily is Prophesy. In fact, prophetic characters can be a source of endless LARP fun as they scramble to fulfill the letter of whatever cryptic verse of vague image you want to feed them. (The "rewind" effect of Precognition is just plain unusable in a LARP context.)

Next Time: Getting net-hacking characters directly involved in the action via Glass Room security interfaces!

All Worldz: A Game of Interdimensional Civilization by ImEG Games

--Dan Pond

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Bag o' Nifties by Dan Pond