Creating And Using Omens
From John C. Feltz
Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #162
- You Need Fertile Ground
- The Common Folk Believe in Little Things
- Introduce Serious Omens
- Involve The Party Directly
- Play It Out
- Caution: Don’t Fall Victim To Scripting
- Wrapping Up
- Module Pet Peeves
- Principles Of Gaming Etiquette Article
- Just Got My Print Copy Of NPC Essentials
- Source of Monster Names
- Campaign Zines
- Alignment Quiz
- More Dungeon Design Tips: This Way To The Egress!
Omens, portents, signs, prophecies, miracles, superstitions: call them what you will. Ancient cultures placed great weight on these mysteries and they can be a wonderful part of a fantasy RPG as well. They add flavor, provide important clues to understanding different cultures and societies, and make fantastic adventure hooks. Here are some tips for GMs and players about how to introduce omens into your game and how to use them for exciting adventures and better role- playing.
You Need Fertile Ground
For omens to make sense they must have a well-established place in the common culture and mythos of your world–what E. D. Hirsch would call the “cultural literacy” of your fantasy society. Check out his “Dictionary of Cultural Literacy” for some excellent examples of mythical and allegorical terms that are important in our society today.
Common expressions, idioms, feasts and festivals, superstitions, and other incidental facets of life should be based in part on the momentous occurrences of ages past.
What was a serious portent generations ago might turn into a vicious curse 100 years later; by now, maybe it’s merely become a common expression of exasperation. The campaign setting needs to be full of these. The GM should use them freely as he portrays various NPCs so that players get comfortable enough with them to start throwing such expressions around themselves.
GMs: draw up a list of common expressions that don’t necessarily need to have plausible connections to ancient events, though some at least should. Employ them frequently, and don’t feel compelled to explain where they come from. Just make sure your recurring NPCs use one or more of them in every conversation.
- “I’d rather be skinned alive by Gorkronk’s army.” Refers to a ruthless invasion generations ago.
- “Not for all the iron/tea/honey in Klebonia!” Refers to a distant, even mythical, land rich in a particular commodity.
- “Praise be to Algona!” Refers to a widely-worshipped god, historical figure, or local saint.
- “Pray to Clontar for rain, but in the meanwhile dig another well.” An aphorism about being prepared, rooted in an ancient drought caused by a deity’s wrath.
- “Starlight and sea gulls!” An expression of disgust or exasperation that comes from a long-forgotten omen wherein sea birds swamped a port city at night.
Players: start to use these expressions yourselves. You’ll make your GM’s day, and more importantly, you’ll find yourself much more comfortable in immersing yourself in the fantasy world, and your role-playing should improve accordingly.
The Common Folk Believe in Little Things
Uneducated and superstitious people will see omens in every day happenings, so make these NPCs behave accordingly. Look at the superstitions that still exist in modern life: walking under a ladder, black cats, throwing salt over your shoulder. If you know anyone who’s a gambler, ask them about their superstitions. Don’t be surprised to find a dozen things they do to ward off bad luck and bring good.
Friends and neighbors from different cultural or regional backgrounds can also furnish examples of their native superstitions and good-luck rituals.GMs: generate a list of incidental occurrences, luck- bringing behaviors, and superstitious meanings. Then string them together like group menu selections at a Chinese restaurant.
Column A: What Happens
These are the triggers or signs. Things that happen in ordinary life. They don’t happen every day but will occur somewhat regularly in an otherwise uneventful life. The reason that they are often considered omens is that the human mind has selective memory and tries to form patterns. We remember what happens around an unusual occurrence but forget the details of other days.
Here are some examples:
- You find a husk in your morning porridge.
- A red-headed man is the first to enter your shop in the morning.
- A stray dog turns up outside your home.
- You crack open a double-yolked egg.
- You see the sun’s reflection in the water at the bottom of the well.
- The oldest woman in the village dies in her sleep.
- A priest slips and falls in the street.
- There’s a rainbow at sunset.
- A large wild animal (deer, boar, etc.) wanders into the village.
- Your baby’s teeth fall out.
Column B: What You Do In Response
These are actions that ward off bad luck or encourage good luck. They can be general or specific to a given situation. They may not always apply–sometimes bad luck is inevitable and can’t be shaken off.
- Crack your knuckles.
- Spit in a shady place.
- Make a sacred sign.
- Sweep the floor in a circle.
- Bury something in the ground.
- Swallow a drink in one go.
- Scuff your feet on the ground.
- Give something to a stranger.
- Close your eyes and hop on one leg.
- Pluck an eyelash and blow it off your finger.
Column C: What It Means
This describes what’s going to happen in the future as the result of the omen.
- Good or bad luck, either general or particular.
- A particular kind of weather or other natural event.
- Good or bad harvests or livestock health.
- Unexpected guests.
- Something will break or be spoiled.
- Injury, illness, or death.
When you put them together, you get superstitions like this:
- “If a red-headed man is the first to visit your shop, you’ll have a profitable day.” Obviously, this is pure superstition.
- “If you find a husk in your porridge, your chickens won’t lay eggs. But if you bury the husk in the chicken yard you’ll get twice as many eggs tomorrow.” There’s a germ of truth to this; a flock of chickens who skip a day often lay extra the next few days; maybe not double, but certainly noticeable.
- “If there’s a rainbow at sunset, you’ll have unexpected guests within a week.” Pure superstition, again.
Make sure that the common folk players meet behave this way. If one of the party members has an unusual appearance or mannerism, make sure that that’s one of the “triggers”. This is an especially useful trick if the party has traveled to an unfamiliar land: describe everyone who sees the blond gnome as starting to jump on one foot and mutter strange phrases, and let the hilarity commence.
Players: come up with ways to turn these situations to your advantage. Whether it’s because you’re more sophisticated and educated than the peasants or just because you’re merely unscrupulous, you can use your wits, illusions, and special abilities to make these superstitions beneficial:
- Buy supplies and services at a discount.
- Get privileged information.
- Improve your reputation.
- Fool the unsuspecting simpletons just for a laugh.
Read Mark Twain’s “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court” for some wonderful examples of how to take advantage of the superstitions of others.
Introduce Serious Omens
GMs: start describing omens that happen somewhere else to get the players used to the idea that big things are afoot in the world.Use every means at your disposal:
- Town criers, heralds, and traveling bards.
- Clerics and sages who communicate with a network of far- flung correspondents.
- Neighborhood gossips and busybodies: you can usually find these in the market or hanging out near the town well.
- Bartenders and innkeepers: yes it’s a stereotype, but it works.
- Street-wise urchins and scamps who have to survive by their wits.
- Caravan masters, nomads, wandering tinkers, and other travelers.
- The old men who sit in the town square all day long.
- Castle servants: see the old Masterpiece Theater TV production of “Upstairs, Downstairs” or the book and movie “Remains of the Day” for some great examples of this.
- Thieves’ organizations with intelligence networks.
- A campaign gazette. Roleplaying Tips Issue #159 has some good resources on this. https://www.roleplayingtips.com/issue159.html
- Gather information checks, reading lips, pilfering private documents, and other direct methods undertaken by the players.
You can distort and exaggerate, of course, but the basic message to get across is that omens have serious consequences and are not to be ignored. You’ve already established that peasants respond to little omens, now make it clear that kings and dukes deal with big omens.
Make sure the party overhears conversations like this:
— Did you hear what happened at the summer tournament, Galina? You remember my cousin Fridblog, who works at an inn on the road to the capital, right? Well he said everyone who came home was talking about it.”
— Talking about what, Marita?
— Well, it seems that when young Princess Aldamina went to give a wreath as a favor to one of the knights, his horse reared up and knocked the poor girl onto her back.
— Oh my! That’s terrible! Why haven’t we heard anything about this before?
— Pah, you haven’t heard anything because she’s perfectly fine, praise Zintoc. It was nothing but a wee bump on her chin. But here’s the interesting part–when she stood up, there it was, clear as daylight. The straw tangled up in her braids formed the Mark of Glamtor.
— No! Really?
— Yes, yes, ’tis true. We’ll soon have an heir! Queen Elnama has had naught but daughters in twelve years of marriage, but by next Midsummer she’ll have a son.
In one conversation, which shouldn’t take more than 3 minutes to play out, you’ve done an awful lot:
- Referred to a new NPC in another locale, who’s well-placed to get more information from in the future (Fridblog at the inn).
- Mentioned two members of the royal family (Queen Elnama and Princess Aldamina)
- Used a common oath (“praise Zintoc”).
- Introduced an omen (“the mark of Glamtor”).
- Defined what the outcome of that omen will be (birth of a son).
Of course, make sure you follow this up by actually having a Prince born to the royal family a year later. The players might laugh at common superstitions, but when they see that the omens affecting the high and mighty come true, they’ll start to believe. You don’t need to prepare lots of these; just add them to the mix of ordinary NPC conversations, rumor-mongering, and adventure hooks that you should already be using. Make sure you keep records!
Players: every time you’re in town, it behooves you to use those resources listed above. If you spread your efforts, a few days can yield an awful lot of information in only about 30 minutes of real time. Of course, it’s up to you to separate the wheat from the chaff. Only some of what you learn will pertain to your current mission, and only a fraction of the rest will be deliberate adventure hooks planted by the GM. But try to remember it all (take notes!). You never know when you might turn the tables on your GM with some obscure bit of lore.
Involve The Party Directly
There are many ways that you can get the players involved in a major omen. These should be planned out like any other adventure hook:
- Have a backup plan in case they ignore it.
- Have the next steps of the adventure planned in detail.
- Be ready with supporting resources so that they can investigate the omen before they strike out into the wilderness.
Once they are in the thick of things, it’s important to let them make their own decisions (see Tip 6 below), but a major omen is usually a pretty irresistible adventure hook. Below are some ways that omens can directly involve the party, and some of the resultant adventure hooks.
They Are Key Witnesses To The Omen
- The ecclesiastical court orders them to testify at an inquiry to determine whether the omen was real or not. This leads to all sorts of possibilities for getting involved in internal church politics as well as being sent on missions by members of the church hierarchy.
- They can use their first-hand knowledge to get a jump on others who are interested in the omen. After all, if they can find the artifact that’s been foretold by the omen and present it to the king, they’ll be rich and famous. Check out the movies “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World” or “Rat Race” for some ways to present challenges and rivals in this kind of race.
- The omen presages a disaster and now everyone’s turning the unlucky witnesses into scapegoats. Lynch mobs, religious inquisitors, opportunistic nobles, ambitious sheriffs, and other enemies seem to spring up wherever they turn.
They Are Actually Part Of The Omen
- The law of the land is clear: if you’ve been chosen as a divine champion, you have no choice but to fight the enemy in single combat.
- A mild compulsion, political coercion, or their own honor prompts the party on a holy quest – see the Eddie Murphy movie “The Golden Child” for a good representation of a reluctant hero in this situation.
- The local ruler offers them a valuable reward if they complete the quest that’s been revealed by the omen.
They Are In The Presence Of A Prophet Or Oracle Who Pronounces The Omen
- They are the only ones who realize the gravity of the prophet’s latest vision and have to race against time to convince the authorities to act in order to forestall a disaster.
- The prophet comes to trust the party exclusively and they are entrusted by him with a message to a distant land. After many dangers along the way, they reach their destination and have to convince the locals of the importance of the prophecy.
- They realize that the oracle has been making fraudulent pronouncements as a way to build up her reputation and extort donations. They risk popular wrath and get tangled in church politics if they reveal her to be a fraud.
One Or More Party Members Experiences Personal Omens, Dreams, Or Visions
(See https://www.roleplayingtips.com/issue154.html for some other great tips about using dreams.)
- The dream reveals a secret about the character’s background, prompting him to find a long-lost brother or avenge his father’s death.
- The vision reveals a personal quest.
- The same omen occurs to several party members separately. When they compare notes they realize that a villain, which they had previously defeated, is somehow still alive and plotting his revenge.
Play It Out
Before planting an omen-based adventure hook you need to plot out the adventure! Give the players additional information, build out false leads and dead-end investigations, and always have multiple options for them to explore.If your players enjoy mystery scenarios then prophecies are a perfect fit for them. A good prophecy should be metaphoric, allegoric, and muddled. It’s a great way to exercise problem-solving skills and to get them to “think outside the box”.
It takes a lot of GM preparation, but it can be worth it in the long run because resolving the prophecy can be a long-term ambition that can take months or years to resolve.Otherwise, you can run virtually any sort of adventure using an omen as a hook. The middle part of the adventure can be a mix of whatever challenges you want: combat, investigation, diplomacy, riddle-solving, exploration, wilderness survival, etc.
Caution: Don’t Fall Victim To Scripting
It’s very important that omens don’t lead to predestination. Everyone should have the choice/chance to control, or at least affect, their destiny. This can’t be stressed enough.In game terms, avoid railroading the players into a GM- controlled script. Don’t use an omen as a means to control the players’ actions, force them down a path that you’ve rigidly plotted out, or take away their possessions or powers.
This is one of the worst sins a GM can commit, and it’s especially easy to fall into when dealing with omens. After all, an omen is supposed to foretell the future, isn’t it? But remember, your players will be terribly frustrated when they realize that nothing they do matters.So make sure you always have alternatives available. And really listen to what your players are saying and then respond accordingly.
No matter what kind of adventures result from the omen, make sure you have a clear resolution of some kind at the end, even if you have to do a little deus ex machina manipulation. Omens are momentous and mysterious; you shouldn’t end the adventure by announcing “OK, you’ve killed all the ogres, then you sell the jewelry in town and the Duke gives you a reward.”Wrap the adventure up with something majestic and use your best story-telling skills to describe the fantastic and impressive nature of the climax:
- A formal audience with the King in front of all of his courtiers and the grateful public.
- A grand religious parade with lots of pomp and circumstance.
- Over-the-top Hollywood special effects describing how the prophetic doom is defeated. The evil god shouts that he will have his revenge and then disappears with a scream into a cosmic wormhole as winds rage and the sun turns an odd shade of purple.
But that doesn’t mean that the players should always get a clear-cut victory! Consider these ways to wrap up the adventure:
- The omen comes true and the players can’t stop the tidal wave from hitting, but they do successfully evacuate the village.
- The ecclesiastical court sequesters the prophecy as an official church secret because it’s too dangerous for the public to know about, and the party is ordered to keep quiet –or else.
- The King receives the artifact from the party and is on the verge of granting them a boon when a divine messenger or extraplanar ambassador swoops in and destroys the device, telling everyone that it’s for their own good.
In fact, you may prefer these kinds of endings, because they give the GM latitude to come back later with a further adventure that ties in to the original omen.
A Final Note: Adding To The Legends
Now that the omen has been played out, go back to the top. Make sure that these events make their way into the culture. Oaths, curses, songs, and tales should feature the key players and events of the concluded adventure. And don’t hesitate to introduce distortion and exaggeration, too. When your players see that their deeds have really become a part of the campaign world, they’ll only want to come back for more.
A Brief Word From Johnn
Module Pet Peeves
I’ve GM’d using modules for years and years. I love making up my own encounters and adventures and often do; but I also enjoy using modules because they let me focus on other parts of my GMing. I can stop worrying about the plot, encounters, and NPC/monster stats during the game because I know the module’s taking care of that for me. I’m able to re-deploy my freed up brain cycles to work on better NPC roleplaying, session organization, character spotlighting, etc.
Anyway, I’ve been browsing some D&D 3E supplements and it bugs me how many of them are organized. For example, in a book of mini-encounters that I’m looking at right now, there’s a table of contents in the front with encounter name and page number, and then at the back there are two appendices:
- The encounters listed along with their difficulty level.
- The encounters listed along with their terrain type.
It drives me nuts that I have to flip back and forth from the front of the book to the back in order to get difficulty level and page number, or terrain type and page number. It would have been so easy to create a table of contents with four columns: encounter name, difficulty, terrain, and page number.
Do you have any pet peeves with modules and/or supplements? Vent to me at [email protected] I’m co-writing a module and want produce a well-organized, GM-friendly game aid!
Principles Of Gaming Etiquette Article
Would the person who sent me the article about “The Principles of Gaming Etiquette” please email me. Thanks.
*** NEW ARRIVALS FROM www.TheHeroFactory.com ***
Some new arrivals this week include Q1-7 and T1-4 Supermodules, Flames of the Falcon (uncut!), and lots of rare MERP materials.
Save $$ — Check out our new offer for in-print materials!
SHAMELESS SELF PROMOTION
Just Got My Print Copy Of NPC Essentials
I just received my author’s copies of the NPC Essentials book and I am very pleased and satisfied with the final product (if I do say so myself ;).
It’s the perfect size and format for the “how-to” advice type of content it contains and has a nice weight when you hold it without being bulky or awkward to pack around. The tables, charts, and module look great. And the other 122 pages of jam-packed NPC tips and advice read well without making your eyes cross.
Another cool thing I learned was that the publisher, RPGObjects, has contacted everyone who purchased the eBook and offered them a 40% discount on the print version. I thought that was a wonderful gesture!
How to order NPC Essentials (Print):
Online at my RPGShop.com store ($13.46):
Through your Friendly Local Game Store (International):
Title: NPC Essentials
SKU: IMP RPO2001
How to order NPC Essentials (eBook):
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The Talent Operations Command Intelligence Bulletin will teach you everything you need to know! From training to tactics to the latest weapons in the Nazi arsenal, it contains vital information for every fighting Talent.
Requisition your copy today!http://www.godlikerpg.com
Tips Request: Links For 20th Century And Modern Games
I have a Supplemental issue queued up that has links to World War II RPG online sites and resources. I thought I’d expand the topic a bit though and include links to good 20th century and modern day RPG resources as well.
So, send me any links you have from your bookmarks or web travels that you think would be of interest to modern genre game masters.
- Brief blurb about why the site/resource is of value
Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters
Have a roleplaying tip you’d like to share? E-mail it to [email protected] – thanks!
Source of Monster Names
From Gavin Hoffman
I’ve frequently wondered how to come up with good names for monstrous villains in my games; particularly for such monsters as Mind Flayers, Beholders, and even Dragons (not to mention evil alien races!). Until now, it’s been a hit-or-miss kind of thing. But I recently stumbled on the perfect idea for these kinds of bizarre-sounding names.
Have you checked out the names of prescription drugs? Some of them are the strangest I’ve ever heard. I’ve even remarked to friends in the past about “villainous-sounding names” for certain drugs. Why not make use of this?
Not all of them will work, but a great many are so weird your players will think you stayed up all night thinking up such great names. And with a little tweaking nearly all of the names make a great way to identify your next weird villain!
From Joe Kelly
These campaign zines feature in-game, in-character info:
Fantasy News Network: FNN Main
The Black Company Page (Events in the Realms):
Here is the Ultima Online circular: Britania News Network:
Go to the bottom of each to check out each district’s bit of news!
Here is the Spiritwoods News archive:
A Gorland News and Rumors:
The Spiritwood Town Pages:
Here is the Avalon’s Adventurer news:
Here is the Raven’s Bluff Trumpeter:
This is Tavin’s Nuggets of Joy index (again scroll down):
And finally, here is one for Waterdeep the city: The Waterdeep Herald:
From Dallas M.
In Gary T?s tips on alignment in #161 there were some great ideas on what has long been my pet subject in RPG’s, alignment. I think too may RPG systems, AD&D particularly, think of ethics in terms of “good” and “evil” from a modern western viewpoint. This lack of perspective leads to using loaded words that do little to describe the characters’ attitudes and outlook in a way the feels believable.
Based on Gary T’s tips, I organized some information from Palladium into a bubble sheet. I have each player fill in a bubble for each of the 10 questions and put the sheet in their character folder. At a glance I can get a realistic, unpolarized feel for a character’s sense of ethics. A printable version can be found at [ http://www.dreadangel.com/ethics.html ]. I hope it can help some gamers increase the character realism in their games.
Thanks to Gary T for his great tips and Johnn for making a wealth of information available.
More Dungeon Design Tips: This Way To The Egress!
From Carey M.
Another tip I’ve used in Dungeons: This Way to the Egress!
Generally, players expect to go out of the dungeon the same way they came in. Fortunately (for us GMs, anyway) that need not be the case. Of course, too many exits means you don’t really have a dungeon. But there’s nothing that says you can’t have options in this area as in any other. When I’m designing a dungeon, here are some of the options I keep in mind.
- The Obvious Access. If you’re making a classic fantasy dungeon, then the obvious way into it is the stairway down from the castle that stood or once stood above it. That’s how the party will usually enter. Whether it’s how they exit or not depends on many things…
- The Inobvious Access. This is an exit which is not necessarily hidden or secret (inside the dungeon, that is– it’s a secret from the outside world or everyone would use it), but is not expected. A good example is in the 1990’s Disney version of “The Three Musketeers”. Richelieu’s dungeon was accessible not only from the palace, but also via an underground river.
- The “Secret” Access. “Secret” is in quotes because this is the kind of access that is not obvious but could reasonably be discovered by the party. How easily it’s discovered is determined by various factors, such as location. Any group of crawlers knows to check the walls for secret doors; a diligent group will check the floor; but how many will check the ceiling? Something like this was in “Raiders of the Lost Ark”. Indy is able to get out of the vault of snakes because he notices that snakes are coming into the room in one particular place.
- The REALLY Secret Access. This is an access that NOBODY would find unless, well, unless the GM decides they need to. The classic example is in “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.” Lots of people looked into that wardrobe, but when Lucy Pevensie entered it, it turned out to Lead Somewhere–more on this in a moment.
- The Undesigned Access. All of the above are products of deliberate forethought. There may be, however (especially in really old dungeons), the possibility of an access that the designers didn’t include. This can work in a setting that was originally created by nature but discovered by man. In “Tom Sawyer”, the townspeople had put a door at the entrance of the caves and mapped much of the caverns. But erosion had opened a tiny hole in a bluff miles away from the entrance (fortunately for Tom and Becky).
This last point brings up why the party would not go back the way they came in. The portcullis that slams down across the entrance, the cave-in, the chasing enemy, or even (as #5 above) supply problems that force a party out a different way, but you can let them choose, too. This is even more fun if the choice they make determines where they come out in a much more dramatic fashion than they could ever imagine (as #4).