How to Predict the Future
Prophecy is a really common trope in fiction. You most often see it in fantasy, but not always; case in point: this post was inspired by my thinking about the Oracle from my RPG Adaptation about The Matrix. This one presents some serious challenges when trying to run it in a roleplaying game. We’ll look at the challenges briefly and then I’ll propose some methods to mitigate them, but first, let’s talk about the trope a bit.
So How Does It Work?
Prophecy works differently in different pieces of fiction. You’ll have to decide how it works in yours. Is it all smoke and mirrors and a tendency for people to look for what they expect? Is it all written in stone and cannot be averted? Is it a glimpse of a possible future that, now with the power of forewarning, could be altered or averted?
You’ll also have to decide whether most people in the campaign know what the nature of prophecies is. If it’s written in stone, but the world is very similar to ours, most people will think that it’s all smoke-and-mirrors. If it’s all smoke-and-mirrors, then it might be that people think it’s either written in stone or something that can be (with difficulty) affected. These two decisions will have a significant impact on how prophecy plays in your game.
The first challenge that comes to mind is rather obvious: You’re not actually psychic. Stat and skill numbers can help you mimic playing someone stronger or faster than you but they help very little when trying to play someone smarter than yourself. Similarly, a die roll isn’t really going to help you know what will go on later in your game. What will the PCs plan to do? How will those plans actually fall out? No idea. So that’s hurdle number one and it’s rooted in the fact, again and as many such hurdles are, that roleplaying is an inherently cooperative medium. It means you can’t predict the other people at the table.
There’s another, somewhat related, hurdle you have as a GM. It’s entirely possible that you’ll have a player (as differentiated from the player’s character) who resents having the future told to him. He doesn’t believe in all that fate crap and is even more militant about it because it came from the GM. So you might have to deal with someone working against whatever prophesy you lay down in a meta-game sense.
Let’s make a short list. I think you have basically three main paths available if you’re wanting to use prophecy in a game: railroading, spoilers or vagueness. Railroading is, you know, the heavy-handed approach. You say something like, “The city will fall on March 13th,” and no matter what the players come up with or how well they pull it off, you keep coming up with newer, better reasons that it just wasn’t good enough and the city has to fall. This is not something I recommend. It seems like the fastest way to divert what should be an interesting discussion of free will and fate into a major case of player frustration. The PCs being frustrated and angsty that they cannot effect the world is fine. Players feeling that way is less fine.
Spoilers are not quite railroading. If you can manage a prophecy that has mostly to do with NPCs, then your predictive power goes up somewhat. So you could tell the PCs that one of the King’s closest friends will try to assassinate him on the Thursday after next. This doesn’t really force their hand or dictate their actions. And worded as it was, it doesn’t guarantee an outcome. This can be a little tricky, since you’re skirting the edge of railroading, but if you craft the wording ahead of time, you can be pretty certain of dodging that bullet.
Vagueness is the real-world fake psychic’s bread and butter. There might be “dark events” or “grave danger” or “blissful happiness” at some unspecified date in the PCs’ future. I mean–it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that the characters in an adventure story are up for some grave danger in the near future. This one seems tricky to get right in that if you’re too obvious, the Players will see that you’ve told them effectively nothing and the prophecy looses it’s oomph.
In my current campaign, my players learned some time ago of a prophecy from some NPCs. The NPCs are a religious group that believe the prophecy has to do with one of the PCs. It goes more or less like this: A killer of men will slay a white lion, will leap through rings of fire, flee from those who praise him, be chased through the streets by wolves, dance amongst the legs of titans, ascend the unassailable wall, then climb a high tower at which point the God of Death will rise and, you know, end the world. These NPC priests consider this world ending to be a Good Thing. Also, the implication is that the tower and evil god are certain ones very central to the setting.
The PC in question had, in fact, killed a white lion, fled from people who’d praised him, leaped through rings of fire, been chased through the streets by wolves and dodged and flipped through the legs of stampeding elephants all by the time they finally learned about the prophecy. According to the NPCs, he’s got a wall to climb and a tower, then everyone can die happily ever after. The PCs, however, have learned of an assassin (an NPC) who is, obviously, a killer of men. He assassinated a noble who’s crest was a white lion on a field of red. He fled the scene where he’d been posing an an entertainer and received praise.
So what’ve we got in this prophecy? First off: The players don’t know if the prophecy actually holds any power. This is a setting where such things are possible, but these NPC priests do a lot of drugs, so who knows about them. Also, if it does hold power, they aren’t sure if it’s something that can be altered or not. Because some of them read this blog, I won’t say what the answers to those questions are, but you can see how answering the “How Does It Work?” questions can have an impact on your players.
Secondly, this is a mix of spoilers and vagueness. I intentionally worked it so that it was unclear who the prophecy pertained to. This is vagueness. It’s also a little spoilerey in that the thing says explicitly that this god will rise up and destroy the world. And they know that before that happens someone, at least, will have to climb that tower. Also, if you look carefully, you can see how I avoided railroading. First off, I worded many of the lines in such a way that the outcome of an event was not foretold, just the event (he’ll be chased by wolves). In other cases, I put the PC in question in a situation where the obvious course of action was to do what I had in mind for the prophecy (like killing the white lion and fleeing from those who praised him). And just in case something went weirdly differently than I expected (as happens so often in roleplaying), I left my self an escape hatch: The PCs didn’t know about the prophecy until much of it was “fulfilled” (quotes because it’s in doubt whether the PC doing that stuff actually fulfilled it or not), so if I’d wanted, I could have altered the prophecy slightly to fit how events fell out. That’s pretty much cheating.
Now, I won’t know until after the campaign is over, when my players and I are doing post-game analysis, whether this was a successful use of the trope. I feel like it’s served the narrative so far, but then I can see all the pieces and it’s sometimes hard to guess the effect from the point of view of the players who see a less complete picture.