Prophetic Double-Whammy: Special Two Article Issue About Using Prophesies In Your Games
Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0165
- Article 1: The Words of The Prophets
- The Creation and Use Of Prophesy In an Ongoing Campaign
- Choose How You Will Deliver The Prophesy To The PCs
- Develop The Background And History Of A Prophesy
- Drafting The Contents Of The Prophesy
- The Importance Of Metaphor And Simile
- Sources From Which To Derive Prophetic Ideas And Language
- Prophesy Maintenance
- Article 2: Prophesies Amuck!
- The Prophesied Messiah Goes Bad
- The Prophesies Are True, But Useless Or Inconsequential
- Someone Prophesies Doom And Destruction For The PCs
- Non-Player Characters Are The Focus Of The Prophesies
- NPCs Invent A Prophesy To Hoodwink The PCs
- The PCs Could Use Prophesy For Fun And Prophet–Err, Profit
- Prophesies Have Highly Interpretable Signs
- Different Versions Of A Prophesy Exist
- Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters
Article 1: The Words of The Prophets
The Creation and Use Of Prophesy In an Ongoing Campaign
From Jay S. Willis atlaslaw
To Prophesy Or Not To Prophesy?
The use of Prophesy in any RPG is an excellent tool for GMs. However, before deciding to utilize Prophesies in your game you should answer an essential question:Does the campaign need Prophesy?
Specifically, what is the purpose of introducing Prophesy into the campaign?
- To aggravate and frustrate the PCs.
- To provide a vague outline of the story.
- To introduce a new story arc.
- To exert some form of control over an out-of-control group of PCs.
- To get a campaign back on track.
- Adventure seed. To spark creative interpretations from your players which you can use to expand your game.
Will Prophesy enhance the campaign or detract from it?Try to gauge player reaction to the introduction of Prophesy in your game:
- How will the players react?
- Will they groan upon being given a Prophesy?
- Will they be overjoyed?
- Will they devote hours of game time to interpreting the Prophesies which confront them?
- If so, is this good, or bad?
- Will this sidetrack your game?
- Know your campaign and the setting. Will the introduction to Prophesies “fit” into your world?
Choose How You Will Deliver The Prophesy To The PCs
How will your Prophesy be delivered to the group? Typically, Prophesies are presented to the players in one (or in a combination) of the following forms:
Factor in your tastes and skills when choosing form type. If you are a good writer, you might wish to convey the Prophesy as a written text, book, or scroll that’s found or given to the party.
Perhaps you speak better than you write? If so, have an NPC deliver the Prophesy verbally. Most of us aren’t talented enough to compose and sing a prophetic ballad, but if you are so inclined, go for it.
Finally, Dreams are a wonderful device for presenting a Prophesy, especially, when you have good ideas but may not be able to fully express them in writing or narrative.
Develop The Background And History Of A Prophesy
Once you figure out how your Prophesy will be delivered determine its origins. When and where did it originate, and why it is being given to the characters? The possibilities here are endless, but common sources include:
- Legends that are passed down from generation to generation.
- Religious authority: divinely inspired. Perhaps as answers to the prayers of a particular church or as revelations to a devout cleric.
- A devil or other fiend.
- Other outsiders.
- The ravings of a madman recorded by a scribe.
- An oracle or channeller of some sort.
- Governmental authority: the Prophesy is a declaration of a King or other governmental authority.
Other potential sources:
- The character’s subconscious mind.
- A character’s ancestor from beyond the grave.
- An intelligent magic item or artifact wanting to be rescued.
When did it originate?
- An ancient Prophesy delivered by the gods at creation.
- A character’s dream.
- A message from the future or an alternate timeline.
- A proclamation from the Emperor two generations ago.
In game terms, why was the Prophesy created?
- To save the world.
- To condemn or destroy the world.
- To facilitate the occurrence of a specific event.
- An NPC manipulating a character.
Drafting The Contents Of The Prophesy
After developing the history of the Prophesy you can then turn to the contents. In writing or scripting a Prophesy consider the following guidelines:
- Simple vs. detailed: The Prophesy could be something as simple as “the birth of the one who will bring balance/law/chaos/light/dark to the world”, or a detailed series of documents interwoven as pieces of a larger puzzle.Which one is better depends upon your personal taste and skill and your judgment as to how your players will react.
- Style vs. substance: Which is more important? The actual content of the Prophesy should be dependent largely upon why you are introducing it. It may be sufficient to tell the characters “the Church has interpreted the Prophesy as follows” without giving specific contents.Walking along a road and having a flaming tree talk to the party announcing a Prophesy is a good way to add some theatrics to the game. Or perhaps a visit from a god or avatar proclaiming that one of the characters is the “saviour” of the world would spice up a campaign with a new outlook and direction. Another option is a series of written documents or poems, each of which contain various pieces of a complete Prophesy.
The Importance Of Metaphor And Simile
When writing a prophetic verse, poem, or song metaphors and similes are the primary tools.
The Great Battle comes with haste Like the raging of a flood Death comes to the seeds of destruction As the rivers run with blood
Good prophesies use common themes and obscure references that can often have many meanings:
- “The Darkness”
- “The Dark One”
- “The Child of Light”
- “The Breaker of Shadows”
Consider the following:
A Child borne of Darkness comes hither Life in the palm of his hands Innocence shines true in his beauty As sorrow blankets the land
Vic’try of Night comes closer to hand As the Pawn comes from the womb The Dark Seed is strong with the Orb in his care Yet the Pawn must be barred from the tomb
Just who the “Child borne of Darkness” is and what “Life” in the palm of his hands means is entirely up to the GM. Similarly, who, or what the “Pawn”, or the “Dark Seed” may be are all matters for further exploration.
However, it is the GM’s responsibility to ensure there are ways for the players to decipher the code eventually. While it may seem to create more work, using Prophesies in this way can provide you with many adventure seeds and do some of the work for you. The true bonus for the GM is that references such as these tend to make players crazy as they try to piece together the meanings. And when they do hit upon a clue it’s often as good as an award of XP or a magic item for the players.
Sources From Which To Derive Prophetic Ideas And Language
If you don’t feel confident in your writing skills don’t reinvent the wheel. You know the story you want to tell– just look to other sources to derive the right words. Excellent resources for ideas and specific language to use in Prophesies can be found in various media:
- The Apocrypha
- The Old Testament
- The Quran
- The Bhagavad-Gita
- The Tao Te-Ching
- The Upanishads
- The Niebelungenlied
- The Song of Roland
- Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
- Native American Prophesy
Fantasy and Science Fiction Literature
- David Eddings: The Belgariad and The Mallorean
- Robert Jordan: The Wheel of Time
- Frank Herbert: Dune
- Isaac Asimov: Foundation Trilogy
- Raymond E. Feist: Silverthorn and A Darkness at Sethanon
- Joseph Campbell: The Hero with a Thousand Faces, The Power of Myth
- Star Wars
- Harry Potter
- Pink Floyd
- Sting/The Police
Regardless of what kind of Prophesy you integrate into your game consider a few final thoughts:
- The GM is the final arbiter of the true meaning of the Prophesy, but listen to the interpretations of your players. Sometimes they can offer interesting alternatives.
- Don’t be afraid to be flexible and change a meaning in a Prophesy to fit with the evolving needs of your campaign and your players.
- Prophesies are an excellent way to outline a story arc in your campaign and to give the PCs some focus and a list of goals. However, beware Deus Ex Machina. You may inadvertently exercise too much control over the players’ actions by introducing Prophesies.
- Keep in mind not all Prophesies are true. They might be false for a very good reason.
- As previously stated, once you introduce a Prophesy it is your responsibility to use it and to provide the players opportunities to decipher it. If you don’t use the Prophesy for its intended purpose, why introduce it in the first place?
Article 2: Prophesies Amuck!
From Heather Grove
Reprinted from the Twilight Time zine, Vol 4, Issue 1
The Prophesied Messiah Goes Bad
There’s more to the prophesy plot than high-epic “the Player Characters (PCs) must save the planet” deals. Those are fun of course, but sometimes something a little more unusual is called for. In that vein, here are some thoughts on possible prophesy plot variations. Turn them around even further, or just adapt them to your game, and give your players a surprise!According to prophesy, only one person can stop the villains. So what happens when that person goes over to the wrong side?
What happens when she decides she doesn’t want to save or help anyone? That she’d much rather kill people, rob people, make a fast buck, or just plain go on holidays?It’s up to the PCs to answer this question, and they’d better answer it fast. The prophesy was told for a reason and there’s work to be done. Maybe they need to convince the prophesied messiah to change sides again. Maybe they need to hold someone she loves hostage until she does what is necessary.
Or maybe they need to find a way to get things done without her. Perhaps it’s time for them to find another prophesy…
The Prophesies Are True, But Useless Or Inconsequential
Everyone expects a prophesy to be the key to something amazing. Prophets are frequently pictured as madmen (or they’re at least touched with lunacy)–it isn’t easy to see the future, particularly in the modern world where few people believe in such things. The word “prophesy” holds connotations of power and world-changing events, but with that much insanity running around, who’s to say that every prophesy hits the mark?
The prophesy of course is couched in verse and analogy. The PCs must try to figure out what it means and presumably do something about it. But what if it’s just a cryptic menu for the next holiday feast, or a recipe for cinnamon rolls? What if it’s a note that on April the sixteenth, an oil truck will run over someone’s pet? If the prophesy has lines in it that could be misinterpreted, the PCs could end up in quite the comedy of errors.
They might find themselves getting involved in random events that have no relation to the prophesy, or which are completely unimportant.WARNING: Only try this if your players don’t mind a bit of misdirection and pointless silliness! It’s the sort of plot that works for some groups and games, and definitely not for others. Another alternative is to turn the seemingly pointless prophesy around again. So it’s a recipe for cinnamon rolls–what if it’s a recipe that someone desperately wants?
Or it’s a prediction about the death of someone’s pet–what if saving the pet will put a very powerful person into the party’s debt?
Someone Prophesies Doom And Destruction For The PCs
Most prophesy-plots require the PCs to fulfill the prophesies. They must find the item, destroy the villain, or work the pivotal magic. The PCs will not, however, want to fulfill this particular sort of prophesy!The PCs hear a prophesy that spells their doom. They have reason to believe the source of the prophesy–they know from past experience or by reputation that it’s reliable, or the prophesy involves small signs that they can verify. The point of the plot is for them to find some way to avoid the prophesy.
Sometimes this means averting a number of the smaller parts of the prophesy, with the assumption that once those have been averted, the party has changed the entire future of the prophesy. Sometimes the prophesy must be dealt with head-on. Sometimes the PCs must go through several iterations of believing they’ve dealt with their dark fate before they find the true key.
WARNING: When this variation on the prophesy-plot appears in literature and on TV, it usually centers around the idea of free will: do the PCs have free will? Can they change the future, or are they doomed to repeat it? Because of this, it’s important that you allow them to have their free will– otherwise you defeat the whole theme of the plot. Don’t decide ahead of time exactly how the plot will come out and then push the party into that end-point. Figure out what’s likely, what’s possible, and how, and then set your party loose.
(If you need more information on the free will issue, there’s a whole series of articles on our RPG resources page.)
Non-Player Characters Are The Focus Of The Prophesies
We’ve all heard of “the PC glow,” I’m sure (or some variant on it). It’s that invisible aura that results in the PCs being the focus of every plot out there. It’s the reason why everyone pulls them into their schemes. (Okay, so a lot of game masters (GMs) have found good, logical reasons why the plots center around the PCs.
But not everyone has.)What if, for once, the PCs didn’t have that glow? What if the prophesies centered around someone else for a change? Perhaps the PCs need to protect an important person who is prophesied to die. Perhaps they must stop a villain prophesied to take over the world. (For once it isn’t the good guys who are prophesied to win!) Maybe a prophesy states that a young man will lead his people to freedom, and the PCs must help him learn what he needs to know to be a good leader.
Or perhaps they must help him overcome his enemies.WARNING: Make sure you’ve left room for the PCs to have an effect on this plot! Just because the plot *centers* on someone else doesn’t mean that the PCs can’t determine how the plot comes out. You don’t want the party to turn into observers; they should still drive the events of the story.
NPCs Invent A Prophesy To Hoodwink The PCs
A group of NPCs produces a prophesy and makes a big deal out of it. They use it as “proof” that the PCs are destined to help them out of their miserable situation. But the prophesy is false! The NPCs made it up to convince the PCs to help them.Is the cause a good one, one that the PCs might be glad they’ve helped out with even once they find out they’ve been tricked? Or do the PCs realize they’ve been working for the wrong side?
Does everything work out, or do the PCs need to find a way to right the wrongs they’ve perpetrated in the name of fate?What about NPCs who use a bit of psychology? They arrange for the PCs to hear a prophesy of their own doom and destruction (we’re combining #3 and #5 here). This prophesy is false, however. The NPCs hope that the prophesy will send the PCs off on a wild goose chase, send them into hiding, or make them so nervous that they hesitate or screw up.
The NPCs might even arrange for a few “signs” to convince the PCs of the validity of the prophesy. If the NPCs are feeling particularly motivated, they might even try to bring about the circumstances of the prophesy, hoping to use the PCs’ fear to destroy them.CAVEAT: There must always be a way for the PCs to figure out that they’re being fooled, otherwise the players are likely to feel used and frustrated!
The PCs Could Use Prophesy For Fun And Prophet–Err, Profit
Who says the PCs themselves can’t have a little prophesy fun? Perhaps an NPC friend suggests that he could dress himself up as a mad prophet. This man arrives in a town a couple of days before the rest of the party and, with a little shrewd timing (or perhaps a little magical help of one kind or another) establishes a reputation as a true prophet with a knack for helping people. Just before the PCs arrive, he produces a prophesy about great heroes who are destined to help the town against an unknown enemy.
Then the “prophet” can give himself a makeover and rejoin the party, or stick around in his disguise. The PCs could probably live off of the town’s generosity for at least a week before anyone became too suspicious. If they were particularly clever and arranged for an “unknown enemy” for them to fight (or found one), they might be able to fool the town for even longer. If they had an enemy already in the area, they could use this gambit to get the town to support them in their fight.
But what’s in it for the friend? He must have had some reason for setting all this up. Perhaps he has his own reasons for wanting to establish a reputation as a skilled prophet. Or perhaps he isn’t such a good friend after all, and he thinks he can fleece the townspeople while he’s there, leaving the party to take the blame. Or perhaps there’s someone in the town he wants to hurt, and he’s going to set that person up as the “unknown enemy” once his reputation has been established.
Prophesies Have Highly Interpretable Signs
The verse or analogy in which many prophesies are written just screams for misinterpretation. What if a prophesy means one thing, but could be read as meaning something entirely different?The GM could write up some “prophesies” ahead of time. He tries to write them so that the PCs will misinterpret them in a certain way; this is difficult, but possible. Better yet, the GM can listen to the players as they try to interpret the verse themselves. If they come up with interesting ideas, he can turn some of them into false leads.
WARNING: Don’t push the players too far in the wrong direction. Use contextual clues to cause them to steer *themselves* in the wrong direction. As always, make sure there’s a way for them to figure out what’s really going on. And, of course, this has the usual “not every group of players will be happy with this kind of plot” caveat. Know your players and their preferences before trying out a plot that involves misleading them.
Different Versions Of A Prophesy Exist
The PCs get their hands on an old prophesy about a coming catastrophe. It details the signs that will lead up to the disaster, how it will come about, and how it may be stopped. The PCs set off to do their duty. On the way they get their hands on another prophesy about the same event. This one also details the preceding signs, the catastrophe, and how to stop it.
Too bad the verses are wildly different!Most likely, a little bit of each verse is correct. Each prophet had some idea of what was to come, but he didn’t want to say that he just didn’t know the rest so he made it up. Or perhaps one prophet heard that another had prophesied this horrible thing, and he figured his reputation would be ruined if he didn’t also produce a prophesy. Maybe someone spread false versions to distract people from the correct one. At any rate, the PCs must figure out what’s really happening, and deal with it, before it’s too late.
As always, make sure the PCs have a way to figure out the truth of the matter!Many of these ideas can be mixed and matched to good end. Just remember that prophesy-plots don’t have to be straightforward and normal. They can be as twisted and confusing as any other plot!
Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters
Have a roleplaying tip you’d like to share? E-mail it to [email protected] – thanks!
Finding Names Tip
From Mike B
One of the most time-consuming and stressful things I have to do as a GM is come up with believable place and character names for my campaign. I have developed a few tips and techniques over the years but I would welcome even more.
The Babelfish translator at Altavista is a great resource for everything from realistic modern-day place names (Moscas Delnegro–Mexican city of the black flies; Rotter Lowe–the Red Lion club in Munich) to exotic fantasy names (Chauve Aigle could be a castle named for the lord’s bald eagle crest; Schlechter Geruch is obviously a most foul and rancid place). This is also a great site for when the characters take a trip to Paris or Brazil to add in some local spice. http://babelfish.altavista.com
I have a copy of the Olympic Almanac which I picked up in 2000 from a local thrift store. It lists off the names of every gold, silver, and bronze medal sport winner in the history of the Olympics. Need the name of a Japanese assassin, or a Belgian waiter, or an American cowboy? Pick up almost any almanac.
Sometimes, it’s hard to come up with names on the fly. A neat trick I use is to steal the names of professional athletes and sneak them into games. Even if you have sports fans in your group, if you just mention the names Even, Adrian, Raef and Dirk, no one needs to know that these are players for the NBA’s Dallas Mavericks. (If you are not a sports fan, or if your players wise up to this technique, you can just borrow names from anywhere.
Co-workers, college dormmates, comic book characters, etc. Just use one category per encounter, and then it will be easy to keep up with.) Also, most American professional sports sites, NBA.com, NFL.com, NHL.com, etc. also include photographs of their players, which is a great way to have a database of available NPCs.
I have run several games set in the Wild West. After struggling to come up with convincing town names, I discovered that you can use the names of race horses as great Western sounding names. Just throw the name of a Western US state at the end, like Tom Fool, Nevada; or Kelso, Wyoming; or Gallorette, Utah. A partial list can be found at: http://www.bloodhorse.com/tb_champions/top_100_list.html
Using Dual Monitors (Windows)
Here’s an idea for those GMs who use laptops. Most laptops have dual-monitor abilities. By plugging in an external monitor the computer can display two seperate desktops. This could be useful for spreading information (or misinformation).
Set up the laptop so it’s facing you (the GM) then plug in the second monitor where everyone can see it. To set up the dual monitor, right-click on the desktop, choose Properties, then go to the Settings tab. Select the second monitor if it appears greyed-out, then check Extend Windows Desktop to this Monitor. Then drag it to wherever you want Windows to think it is. I have mine to the right of my default desktop. It may take some fiddling to get it how you like it.
You can take notes, read a script for a scene, etc., on your laptop screen and no one will see it. If you want to show your players something, such as a picture of the town they just entered, a map, a character, etc., just open it and drag it to the second monitor. You can set the desktop to some picture to give the game some mood, visually. And while you have the laptop out, get some ambient music from mp3.com and set the mood musically.
Tip For Finding New Players
From Mike H.
I discovered a very effective tip for finding new players: make a community page on MSN or Yahoo (not sure about AOL) for your group and tell what is about and how people can join. When they view page and find out everything about it they are more inclined to join. Here is an example of my group community page.
GM Tips From A Player’s Perspective
I had a bad experience during my last session as a player, so I wanted to contribute some tips for DMs.
Session Background: In order to enter the tomb of Mr. X we had to put a magical sword into a slit in the side of statue. My PC was the only one with a magic sword, so I did it. I had to leave my only magic weapon outside the tomb (because my DM told me the sword was stuck) and then our DM had us fight against a flesh golem and 4 mummies! I was the only fighter in the group! I didn’t lament and instead started to think about what I could do.
The Problem: In the middle of the tomb was a deep hole so I took my 50? silk rope and threw it over the hole to catch one of the mummies and pull him (from the other side) into the hole! I was not proficient with the weapon (lasso) and the hit roll was hard–but I made it! Then my DM told me that it was a called shot and I had to take another -4 penalty to the roll. DARN!
We had also been “slowed” at the beginning of the encounter and our priest was not allowed to rebuke the mummies. Great. The fight was only won because we had a high level Fighter NPC with us! And two of the PCs died (my fighter among them).
The Solution: If you (as a DM) confront your players with a really hard challenge, make sure they will have resources to survive the encounter! When they come up with some cool, great idea let them do it, even if you might think it would make it too easy to overcome the problem. Good thinking should be rewarded. Your players will feel as if they have accomplished something with a good idea rather than with weapons!
And *never* let the party win a fight because a high level NPC is with the group. The players will feel like they are nothing but “Push-Arounds”.
Tip For Preventing Player Kills
From John G.
Regarding problem players who attack each other: if the GM opts to pull players aside and talk to them OOC, it might be a good idea to remind them that they aren’t playing EVERQUEST or any of the other online “kill-the-newbies-get- their-stuff” campaigns. Remind them that, in your game, they get no benefits from this kind of behavior and will actually earn themselves penalties (stiff XP penalties–hit them where they live).
Adding Flavor To Magic Items
From James B.
For relevant/unique magic items for PCs I have found that nothing beats the system developed by FASA for Earthdawn. In essence, each magic item is powerful, but research must be done into the item to determine the extent of its powers. This research takes time, XP, and greatly increases the value of the item. As more research into the weapon is completed, greater powers of the weapon become available to the PC.
For example, a +1 longsword of Smiting becomes The Longsword of Garth Orcbane, Slayer of Orcs, Saviour of Humbletown. Last used by Garth in the battle of Crushed Horns, it is said that this sword enabled Garth to slice through three orc’s as if they were so much butter.