Prophets and Prophecy
From Kit Reshaw
Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #277
Prophets and prophecy are wonderful GM tools if done correctly. Unfortunately, they are often neglected, used poorly, or are made to be something that make little difference in the campaign as far as the players are concerned (they see a prophecy come true or proved false, but it doesn’t affect them or their mission). These tips will hopefully help you to make effective use of prophets and prophecy in your campaign.
Problems With Prophecy And Solutions
People shy away from prophecy because it introduces certain problems to the campaign. For most, prophecy is thought to be an unshakable prediction. This can make players feel that prophecies dealing with their PCs ensure victory, so they get careless, cocky, or bored. Conversely, the GM might feel responsible for delivering some ultimate goal despite character actions to make a prophecy come true.
One possible fix is to say prophecy is just a grand plan of the gods or similar guiding force. As such, prophecies will attempt to take hold at times where it is possible for them to come true, but success is not guaranteed. If they fail, they merely fade into the background to wait for another opportunity to come to the front.
A second way is to define prophecy as being branched, like a tree. Branches hold certain prophecies and where branches split either X happens or Y. There might be many prophecies that are already ‘dead’ branches, and even if a prophecy is currently true, events that follow a certain branch might be invalidated. In this case, you could use prophecy as if it was meant to be a guide for those it is about.
Prophecy In Campaigns
How you use prophecy in a campaign depends on how you decide it will work in your world. The version where prophecy might fail many times before actually coming true is useful if you don’t want to work too much on prophecy integration. You can present one or several prophecies involving current events and/or the party. Allow the players to go along and have them start finding out about how the prophecy they are working toward has failed in the past. Many times. With dire results for the ones it is about. This approach adds a larger sense of urgency to the campaign.
For example, it has been foretold that a group of mighty warriors will topple the current evil regime and create a new kingdom in the north. This kingdom will be the shining beacon of goodness for all the lands for two millennia. The party finds out that the prophecy refers to them because a prophet tells them so. Eager to fulfill their destiny, the party sets out to topple the evil king.
As they work toward their goal, they must go through several caves to receive the blessings of the gods and pass their tests. In each cave system the PCs find the bones of another party and old journals with entries that reveal _they_ were the chosen ones in their day. As the party goes on, they realize they might indeed fail by piecing together information from the different journals and finding old parties that failed the tests.
A branching prophecy offers more possibilities because it is dynamic:
- The party might have to bring about one particular prophecy while it tries to cause another to fail.
- The party must work toward one prophecy while a second group (perhaps the villain) is working toward another. * The prophecy offers two equally dark paths and the party must find which is the lesser of two evils and make that one come true.
For example, the party has discovered a prophecy that, if fulfilled, will make them the richest beings in the world. Eagerly, they set out to make themselves wealthy. Unknown to them, however, is the villain who is working toward a different prophecy that will give him dominion over all living things.
Unfortunately for him, if the party succeeds in reaching their goal his prophecy will not come about. Suddenly, the party finds that someone is opposing them. As a result, they investigate the one who is hindering their progress while continuing toward their goal, eventually discovering the villain and his motives.
Some other interesting twists to consider:
- If you follow prophecies’ immediate apparent meaning then you will fail, but if you do what makes sense you fulfill them through a more obscure interpretation. As a result, you paradoxically invalidate and confirm each prophecy.
- Have the party work toward a ‘good’ prophecy only to find out that it is a bad one.
- Have the villain discover a spell that lets him bring a ‘dead’ prophecy back to life…but not without side effects. The party must rush to stop him before he destroys the world or succeeds in his evil goals.
Prophets, like prophecy, have much to offer. The trick is picking the right type for the setting and for the job they need to do. They make great plot hooks if used properly, and can also be used to drop hints or provide extra information.
a) Mad Prophets
My favorite type of prophet is the mad prophet. There are two classes of mad prophet. The first is truly mad. Perhaps the power of their gift was too much for their fragile mind. Perhaps they had a vision so horrible it drove them insane. They will not make much sense, aren’t logical, and might be violent.
Prophet: Who is there?
PC: I was told you could help me.
Prophet: Help? Help? Why would you need help? Dragons are red! And you are still in one piece! Return to me when all is orange!
The second type of mad prophet is one who is misunderstood. They are sane, but because they see prophecy and others do not they have problems dealing with normal people. Imagine living in a world where you were the only one who could see color, and then imagine how others would react if you tried to explain to them what color was and that something wasn’t really black, grey, or white, but red, green, or blue.
That is what these prophets are dealing with but on a grander scale. As with the insane prophets, the misunderstood are not likely to make sense, though they tend be more lucid.
Prophet: Finally, I have found you!
PC: Who are you?
Prophet: No time for that! You have been to the temple by now, right?
PC: What temple?
Prophet: The one in the north!
PC: I have no idea what you are talking about.
Prophet: Damn, I am too early…. No matter! As we both know, time is merely an illusion and easily traversed. We shall meet again in a fortnight. But surely you have the book by now?
PC: Right here.
Prophet: Excellent, hand it over! (Tries to grab the book and run off.)
Mad prophets are useful for dropping hints or clues that you do not want the players figuring out until more information is available. In addition, I like to assume that they have no control of when their visions come, so they make interesting traveling companions when they suddenly are taken by their power of prophecy and begin yelling out warnings or talking to people who are not there.
b) Sage Prophets
Another type of prophet is the old, wise sage. Unlike mad prophets, sages are clearly sane and probably have control over when prophecies take them (though not necessarily, or not all the time). They might give cryptic statements to be figured out at a later time, straightforward answers, or perhaps a mix. Sages are ideal for plot hooks or dropping clues by an authoritative source. In addition, the wise sage will probably provide better and clearer advice than mad prophets (though it could still be cryptic).
Prophet: Hello young one, I have been expecting you.
PC: You have?
Prophet: Yes, I saw your coming fifteen years ago. We have much to talk about, about what your father is doing, who you really are, and what you must do.
PC: My father is dead.
Prophet: (smiling) Is he now? Come, let us talk over tea in my chambers.
c) Amusing Prophets
Prophets can also be used for amusement factor. Make the prophet the most unlikely type of person, like a kid who loves to goof off. When he gives a prophecy always have it start with the same phrase. Something like “What if XYZ?” Shortly after the unlikely prophet says this always have it come true. It is important to use the same catch phrase when he is giving prophecies so that the party will be able to figure out what is going on and so they can tell what is a prophecy and what is not.
Once the party figures out the pattern you can have him give more important prophecies. You might even get some odd comedy, such as the party wondering if the prophet himself is somehow causing these events or the PCs trying to keep him quiet to prevent the prophecy from happening.
Prophet: What if that piano fell onto that car? Wouldn’t that be horrible?
(Piano falls on car)
A Brief Word From Johnn
Conan The Road of Kings Review
I’ve posted a review of Mongoose Publishing’s Conan Road of Kings worldbook. The book is well done with lots of GM hooks and useful campaign info. Thumbs up.
I received a few e-mails recently asking about my personal gaming. Thanks for the interest. Here’s an update, for those who are curious.
Shadowrun on HiatusWe paused the Shadowrun game I was playing in. I had an elven Face PC (a diplomatic, charismatic type). I gotta say, the rulebook ain’t so hot on organization. We found combat quite frustrating. We’re probably going to wait for the 4th edition to come out before restarting.
D&D Birthright game cruising alongWe took a break in July and August due to schedule conflicts. We’ll be on session #17 in September, and the PCs are 5th level.To date, the group has been living in their village in a wilderness area of the state of Roesone. A new lord is moving in though, and it will be interesting to see how the village reacts to authority, fealty, taxes, and other changes to their way of life.
Fortunately, the new lord seems trustworthy and has the best interests of the village at heart, even though he was born and raised elsewhere.The PCs are now travelling to the nearby city of Proudglaive – a first for the party and an exciting new experience for most of the PCs. City life will be shocking to the characters though, and I’m looking forward to their reactions and ways of dealing with it.The PCs’ village of Myste Cryk has a couple of mysteries surrounding it, which the party is in various stages of investigating. A large, apparently intelligent bipedal creature has been seen lurking around the fringes.
Witnesses saw it enter a farmer’s house, but nothing was touched and the purpose for the visit is still unclear. It’s also apparently sent a few fiendish creatures in the PCs’ direction for them to tangle with.Also, someone or something has been making owlbears. The group has defeated several of the creatures, and some of them have had Frankenstein-like stitching, indicating the bodies were pieced together. The group has found owlbears without the stitching, and slain several younglings, so it seems the creatures are in their second or third generation.In addition, a number of strange creatures have been seen (and battled with) in the area, which is unusual.
d20 Modern/Future Firefly Game StartedLast Thursday, I played in a new campaign heavily inspired by the Firefly TV show and Serenity movie coming out soon. The milieu is fascinating. I’m playing a Fast character and I have my sights set on becoming a Gun Slinger.In the first session, we did character creation and started a salvage operation on a derelict supply ship that was carrying medical equipment.
We scooted over in a shuttle and were met by rivals. We paused at that point. I’m hoping a fight doesn’t break out because getting shot ain’t fun. :)The highlight of the session was vomiting in my space suit (long story). The GM gave us each a space suit with a quirk. Mine had the smell of fear. Well, I’ve added a new quirk, and my suit now has the smell of fear and barf for the next wearer.
Have a great week – try to get a game in!
Monte Cook – Iron Heroes: d20
Monte Cook Presents: Iron Heroes, suitable for characters of all levels, offers a collection of new classes, feats, equipment, variant rules, and creative subsystems to make high-octane roleplaying more exciting than ever before. Players can integrate this material into their d20 roleplaying games or use it as a stand-alone open-gaming system.
Dungeon Stamp Starter Set #1: Foliage
This 3 stamp piece starter set includes everything you need to get started stamping out cool terrain features on any vinyl game mat or dry-erase surface: Bottle of Green Dungeon Stamp Ink, Un-inked Ink Pad, 3 Foliage Stamps: Large Evergreen Tree Small Oak Tree Bushes.
Readers’ Tips Of The Week
D&D 3.5/d20 Fair Random Attributes
From Jon Thompson
My tip has to do with attribute value generation. Usually, I tend to lean towards using a buypoint system rather than using some sort of random attribute generation. I like this because all characters (and thus players) are on equal footing. No one feels gipped because they rolled poorly. However, the big drawback to buypoint is that players always max their important attribute, and the characters created tend to be more one-dimensional.
So, I came up with a system that brings together the best of both words. The fair random method. It’s not rocket science, but I find it to be a far more rewarding character generation method than any provided in D&D or other systems I’ve dabbled with. Here it is, for D&D, but it should be obvious how to convert it to any other system that has buypoint based attribute creation.
- Start with six values (which will later be assigned to attributes). Set each value to 3 and give yourself 55 points (the standard 25, plus the 30 gained from dropping each attribute to 3).
- Roll 1d6. if you roll a 1, increase the first value by one, if you roll a 2 the second, etc.
- Pay the cost of increasing the attribute by one (if you can’t afford it, or the attribute is already maxed out, then ignore the roll and proceed)
- Repeat until all points are spent. Assign the six values to attributes
As you can see, this method is basically just buypoint, except what is bought is randomly selected. This means that all characters are on equal footing when it comes to attributes but high scores are still special. The player has some control (assigning the values) but some things are determined randomly as well.
Remember Terrain When Designing Creatures
Sometimes, when designing a monster, the terrain the creature inhabits is the driving design factor. A monster at home in a cave is unlikely to be found in a swamp. Their physical makeup is different and so might be their abilities. Designing creatures in a non-fantasy environment is hard enough with the amazing array of creatures that inhabit the world. Working out why they have certain abilities can be a nightmare. Factor in your standard magic infused fantasy setting and you may as well give up designing realistic monsters altogether.
If you want to give it a go, the magic that might infuse a certain terrain must be considered along with such things as temperature, predators, and food supply. It is logical that plants could utilize magic as a source of energy or to aid in repelling those that would eat the plants. If a human can produce a fireball with no ill effects, plants can surely imitate this in some way. An underwater plant could use electric attacks to ward of predators that, over time, lead to a fish with Electrical Resistance or something similar.
Before introducing your newly created monster, give the players a view of a typical plant or basic creature that your monster is designed to eat. You will have created a consistent environment that is more believable than running into a giant magical creature with no explanation.
In reply to Character Growth, Evolution, and Retirement
From Strider Starslayer
The idea of role-playing becomes better when you stop thinking of a character as a list of statistics and more as an entity. Levels and proficiencies should grow into attitudes and style or you’re selling yourself short as a gamer. When a character’s life has him surpassing the physical skills of more than half the population on the planet, monsters included, it should grow into a story of intrigues and empire building. Just as real people turn their lives from skill building to nesting and security, so should the PC.
Stockpiles of money are being made for a reason. A roaming band of monster slayers should grow into an established company for hire or royal dispatch. They should buy land and open shops. They can be gifted land and granted title by expanding the borders. They will make children, sometimes by mistake. That can cause an entire adventure or four. Royal or political intrigues and insecurities will come. Competitors pop up from the past. Then one day your character will gather up the old gang and say, “Let’s go bash on a dragon like old times!”
When it looks like all the characters should retire, it’s fair game to move on to the next generation or play somebody else affected by the changes the previous characters have made. This allows for cameos and mentioning them as kings, deities, street names, and so on.
Dungeon Master’s Guide II
From Steve Kozak
I’ve been a longtime reader of your newsletter and onetime contributor. I strongly recommend you mention, review, or recommend the new D&D book, Dungeon Master’s Guide II. It’s basically a WotC-made approximation of what your e-zine is all about: frank, honest, and insanely helpful tips to really get you going. The whole thing reads like one long Roleplaying Tip, both in content and tonality. Definitely something to mention.
Lego Castle Floorplans
From Joachim de Ravenbel
Here is a link to loads of castle floorplans – lego form, but quite usable I think.