As much as we would like to pretend, we of the Dungeon Master ranks are not quite as omnipotent as our *cough* imposing stature may lead others to believe. The truth of the matter is, anyone who has ever had players in a game knows that the best laid plans are quickly and at times violently crumpled into a ball of spent paper and frustration once dice start rolling.
This can make Prophecy, one of the most classic fantasy and sci-fi tropes of all time, into one of the single most frustrating and difficult to successfully navigate. Many a good-intentioned DM has fallen prey to the pitfalls of trying to control fate only to realize that while their all-powerful sages and gods-on-high may be able to see the future, the dice render it invisible to the humble eyes of the DM.
Wait! Don’t toss your blind prophet into the wastebasket just yet!
The Prophecy trope can add depth and story to your campaign and give your players a real sense of value and importance, if you take the time to craft your prophecies correctly. Here are a few hard-learned bits of advice for sailing the murky waters of destiny.
1) Avoid Specific Numbers
I know, you want to add that bit of gravity to your campaign, where low and behold, the ancient prophecy of doom calls for 4-6 warriors to arise from the ashes to stop the tide of darkness. And oh! What a coincidence! That number matches exactly that of your party. While this can add a sense of destiny to the campaign, it is a fast path to Headache-ville. Players come and go. Real life pulls the party away from the table, and suddenly your prophecy is not quite so prophetic. Not to mention PC death. Nothing takes the wind out of your Sails of DestinyTM faster than the “chosen one” biting it from some punk Kobold on a lucky dice streak.
Instead, try to keep numbers out of the game, or if numbers are a must, keep them vague. Simply saying “A band of warriors” is just as effective and creates a more open-ended experience. Juggling the “sacred number” is most likely going to lead to weak fixes or heavy railroading. I’m not saying it can’t be done, but if you seek to keep the teeth-clenching to a minimum, leave your options open.
2) Keep To Omens You Can Control
If you are going to rely on the actions of your players to play out your Prophecy, your campaign will most likely end up less King Arthur and more Monty Python. While I love me some chaos, most of us are not looking to conclude our epic campaigns in the same vein as the end of Holy Grail.
Omens can be a powerful tool for setting mood, tension, and foreshadowing the dire events that can really raise a campaign to the next level. The trick is to stick to events that you can control. Your players may be able to slay a hundred orcs, but can they stop a storm of blood? Can they keep a town of villagers from pulling a Rapture and vanishing off to domain of their god of choice? You can let the players actions go in the direction of their choice but using mysterious happenings and natural disasters allows you the power to keep your story moving forward, while still giving your players the freedom of choice they deserve.
3) Imagery, Metaphor, And Symbolism
Let’s face it, if you really could predict the future, would you be filling out character sheets or lottery tickets? Okay fine, first the lottery tickets, then the character sheets. We cannot predict the future without wielding the Club of MetagamingTM. But that doesn’t mean we can’t set the stage. Classic literary devices to the rescue! Using imagery, metaphor, and symbolism allows you to present clues and hooks for your players without establishing a set series of events. Using images, especially in dream sequences or prophetic works of art, allow your character to see hints and omens that perhaps you didn’t even plan for. If when “the blue tides flood the fields of steel” is implied as symbolic, then your omen could be anything from a field of soldiers controlled by the blue-blooded aristocrats to just a flooded swimming pool. If you can leave the omens locked in imagery, you can sit back and simply be alert for the omens to present themselves in the roleplay. If you are lucky, it will be with the players actions that these omens come to fruition.
4) Hindsight Is A Natural 20/20
There is no rule that says players have to know the prophecy beforehand. Many a classic story arc has involved the daring heroes chasing down the relics of the past, with each riddle or scrapped of ruined parchment offering just a hint of the events that will befall the world. Keeping the pieces of the prophecy one step ahead of the players allows the Storyteller to fill in the gaps after the fact, so instead of the Storyteller jamming events down the players throats, they can simply fill in the prophecy with the actions the players have already taken. While you have a thin line to walk between a chilling sense of doom and an angry mob of players who feel as if they can do nothing right, this allows approach keeps your hands off from players actions and away from the pains of keeping your campaign motivation alive. One way to circumnavigate the “nothing we do matters” anguish is to let a few of the prophecies they find actually be wrong. This will help throw them a curveball to keep the game interesting, and also help the players feel as if they are making a difference.
5) It Was All A Lie?!
Perhaps one of my favorite ways to handle prophecy is to have it all turn out to be false. Ancient texts can be manufactured. Dreams can be faked. Revelations can actually just be the rantings of a madman. The influence of religious or prophetic dogma can be an incredible tool of mass manipulation, and your villains can wield it like a rogue abusing his backstab stab with a ballista, because nothing keeps the peasants in-line like the threat of God’s angry wrath! Or maybe the prophecy was just a means to give hope to the hopeless? The Matrix teaches us many lessons about being a “the ONE,” and by turning prophecy on its head, we are presented with bold new avenues of storytelling and adventure to explore.
6) When All Else Fails…
Let the prophecy be thwarted. Nothing will make your players high-five across the table in a chorus of “Woots!” more than giving Fate itself the ol’ one-finger salute. What you as the storyteller must realize is that this does not mean the story ends. Your players have thwarted fate. They have thrown the cosmic wheel into a tailspin, as what should have happened has not. There is a wealth of potential here that could be exploited for an even greater story, making your prophecy just the prelude to a grander adventure. Maybe by stopping the prophecy, a new world cannot be reborn. Maybe chaos begins to unravel all of reality. Or maybe the contradiction of the gods’ will undoes the powers that be, leaving the world without a divine hand of guidance? All of these are excellent story-fodder, so don’t throw your game in the trash just because your original idea didn’t follow your script.
Above all though, listen to the pulse of your game. By being organic with your approach to prophecy, and letting your players guide you instead of you guiding them, you might be amazed at what you can create.
Michael Lee Bross a contributing editor for D10Again.com and an avid lifetime gamer. He been a game master, player, world-builder, and designer for nearly 30 years. He is also a graduate of the MFA in Poetry program at Drew University, and is an active writer of both poetry and speculative fiction. His work has been published in such periodicals as Lifeboat, Mobius Poetry Magazine, and Let’s talk Philadelphia. His poetry chapbook, “Meditations on an Empty Stomach” also won the 2015 Arts by the People Chapbook Award. Michael currently teaches English at the University of Scranton and East Stroudsburg University.
Picture Reference: https://shamanicstudies.co.uk/courses/divination/
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