Tantalize your players with a well-crafted prophecy

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

One way to "player-proof" a prophecy involves capitalizing on nuances lost in translation, like this sign photographed in China.

One way to "player-proof" a prophecy involves capitalizing on nuances lost in translation, like this sign photographed in China.

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.

the-folk-museumSince 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.

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8 comments on “Tantalize your players with a well-crafted prophecy

  1. Ameron says:

    The draconic prophecies are of huge importance in the Eberron campaign setting. The creators of the setting have offered many of the same pieces of advice you outlined above. The most important thing to remember is that the PCs should never feel that their actions are limited because of a prophecy (which you also mentioned).

    I’ve found that throwing in just enough to get the PCs interested, but not enough to be too specific gives me the plot hooks I need and provides the players with additional motivation beyond the accumulation of wealth and magic (unless of course that’s what the prophecy eludes to).

    • Alric says:

      Hi again, Ameron.

      I never got into Eberron – the whole warforged thing is too Sci-Fi for my tastes – but it sounds like there may be information in some Eberron material that may be useful for me. I’ll have to get some for review.

      Alric

  2. j_king says:

    I also like toying with the meaning of prophecies: will it actually come to pass, or was it set in motion to dictate some outcome of future events?

    One idea I’ve been musing over is a prophecy that will lead the adventurers to attempt to over-throw a tyrant of a king, but along the way realize that there are two sides to the prophecy and that the king is not as clearly “evil” as they had perceived through the prophecy… perhaps finding that they are just pawns of an ancient blood feud and the story becomes one of how to escape the prophecy.

    Your idea of staying vague would allow this sort of play to come into the story. Players don’t have to rail-road through: they can over-throw the king, join him, or slaughter innocents mercilessly to fulfill what they think is right; but the prophecy gives them a framework for a moral drama.

    Nice post. 🙂

    • Alric says:

      Thanks, J, for visiting my blog and taking the time to comment.

      The “two-sided” prophecy is something I hadn’t considered; it’s very inventive. Please let us know how it turns out…

      Alric

      • j_king says:

        Will do. 🙂

        Another idea is to use a more David Eddings style to a prophecy-based story: one where there are opposing factions with their own prophecies. I think this kind of prophecy play can not only set the stage for a good moral drama, but also play out well into the epic tiers as the “prophecies” in Eddings’ world were actual competing entities.

        Anyway, great post. I caught it through the rpg bloggers network. I like posts that have ideas for plot hooks and such.

        Take it easy. 🙂

      • Alric says:

        Dueling prophecies… that is a very cool idea. Thank you for contributing that suggestion; I may try that one myself.

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  4. […] personal background, or having the heroes hear bards and minstrels sing of legends or prophecies related to the site. If the heroes don’t know what happened at a battlefield, it’s […]

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