The use of prophecy – the ability to accurately and supernaturally foretell future events – is a time-tested literary technique that has engaged readers for millenia, ranging from the Delphic oracle of Ancient Greek literature through Denethor’s Pallantir visions presented by Tolkein, to the elaborate machinations of the Bene Gesserit of Frank Herbert’s Dune.
Unfortunately, creating an engaging, prophecy-based campaign, or even a small group of adventures centered upon a prophecy (e.g., the AD&D modules To Find a King and the Bane of Llewellyn), is more difficult for a DM than a fiction author. Fiction authors have the luxury of placing a prophetic statement early in a story and, because they have total control over the actions of all characters, they can engineer the prophecy’s fulfillment by the end of the tale. Dungeon master (DMs) running Dungeons & Dragons games may therefore think that using prophecy as a plot device in a D&D campaign would be too difficult, since DMs don’t have control over player character actions. After all, when four or more independent characters become involved in a game prophecy’s completion, how can a DM engineer its fulfillment without heavy-handedly “railroading” the campaign’s story line? From this writer’s experience, a prophecy must be created with the knowledge that, intentionally or not, the players will try to force its fulfillment or invalidate it through the actions of their characters. Knowing this in advance, a DM can begin by crafting a vague statement – with a meaning that is not completely determined – and then work through the following suggestions to help “player-proof” a prophecy before it is revealed in play:
No. 1. Remember that prophecies are ancient, and are therefore written in ancient languages. When text is translated from one language to another, all sorts of nuances and connotations are lost. Anyone in need of proof for that statement can visit Engrish.com for examples.
Since it was probably written in an ancient tongue, the prophetic statement might not be perfectly clear. Feel free to sprinkle it with abstract metaphors with meanings you haven’t yet determined. Make frequent use of words that have homophones (words that sound alike, but have different meanings, like son and sun); each time you employ such a word, you allow for two additional interpretations of the prophecy.
No. 2. Keep the meaning vague. You can always link a game prophecy to other prophetic statements, to be discovered by heroes as play continues.
At first level, the party may only know that the bearer of a legendary item will fulfill a great destiny. When the party, in possession of the item, mysteriously falls under attack by a minor religion, they hear that the item is needed to bring that religion’s god to the land in physical form. A few levels later, they learn that the religion is a modern incarnation of an ancient primoridal religion, and the only way to prevent the primoridal from returning to the world is to deposit the item in the Feywild.
Using this method allows the DM to gradually introduce the heroes to a few possible meanings to a prophetic statement, and to choose the plot line that the players seem to like best. The players don’t need to know that the prophecy’s meaning wasn’t determined in advance.
No. 3. Have a few “course corrections” ready if players find one or more inconsistencies in the prophecy. No one is perfect, and it is easy for a DM to lose track of the prophecy when dealing with all the other minutiae of running a D&D game. If players find evidence that threatens to invalidate your prophetic statement, consider the following responses:
- Inconsistencies with timing: remember that different cultures use different calendars. If the DM mistakenly tells the players that an event happened that shouldn’t have, or if the players decide to “hide out” with an item that needs to be in a certain place at an appointed time to prevent a prophecy from being fulfilled, it’s easy to say that scholars didn’t factor the difference between ancient and contemporary calendars correctly. Imagine the players’ surprise when they come out of hiding at just the right time…
- Inconsistencies with location: since prophecies are usually thousands of years old, it is safe to say that ancient cartography wasn’t as accurate, and that major geographic changes may have affected an area since these locations were detailed. In the real world, scientists recently discovered Ancient Mayan ruins that had been lost for more than 1,000 years through satellite technology, so it’s not too far fetched for the location of a legendary place to be unknown or misplaced on contemporary maps. If your prophecy seems to refer to two places at once, it could be the same place with two names, or one place name or location could have been translated wrong.
- Inconcistencies with names or bloodlines. These are the easiest mistakes to cover. Imagine that your prophecy says the fifth son of King Regenald will unleash a great evil – so the heroes kill him. That event doesn’t kill the prophecy, though, since the king has one or more illegitimate children. Or the king and queen had twins, and one child was spirited away to avoid civil war. Or the DM can decide that the reigning King Regenald isn’t the Regenald of the prophecy; that Regenald won’t be born for 250 more years, into an entirely different royal family.
Of course, the level of complexity a DM ascribes to a prophecy will vary with player interest and problem-solving ability. But at any level, designing a prophecy and going through the extra steps to develop “hero-proofing” contingencies can bring all the benefits provided by prophecy as a literary device – even if four or more independent characters are involved in the prophecy’s fulfillment.