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World Building 101: Signs and Portents

posted Thursday, March 18th 2010 by Brandan Landgraff
Dungeon Mastering Advice

Prophecy can lend a sense of great purpose to a campaign. It can provide direction when PCs are struggling to decide what to do next, create tension when they must race to prevent a condition of prophecy being fulfilled. Signs and portents can provide foreshadowing, and ultimately shape the entire world of your campaign.

It is, however, a difficult tool to use effectively, precisely because it is so full of potential to warp everything around it. Used carelessly, prophecy can put your campaign on rails and remove any semblance of player choice. Therefore, while prophecy can be an effective and rewarding addition to a campaign, it must be used with caution and consideration, if at all.

Deciding whether to use prophecy at all depends greatly on your campaign style and personal preference.

  • Episodic campaigns – Largely consisting of one-shot adventures connected only by the participating player characters, episodic campaigns may not benefit enough from the additional work required to create a prophecy, especially if the group meets only irregularly.
  • Sandbox campaigns – Largely player-directed, a sandbox style campaign might make use of some elements of prophecy without becoming too bogged down, but it may also be viewed as an imposition onto the party’s freedom to explore what and where they will.
  • Narrative campaigns – Campaigns with a strong story often benefit the most obviously from elements of prophecy, but must also take the most care to ensure that the ability of the players to choose their own course is not removed, either in appearance or fact.
  • Published campaigns – A major benefit of a pre-written campaign such as an adventure path or the like is that it’s fairly easy to determine the course of the future as far as the storyline is concerned and plant visions of the future or hints at the events to come with a good degree of confidence that the players will end up in the appropriate place at the appropriate time.

The main danger of using prophecy as a campaign element is that it can lessen the amount of control that the players feel they have over the fate of their characters, or worse, give them the perception that they have no control at all. It is therefore important to ensure that you do not present the future as inevitable and immutable. There are several ways to present prophecy to your players with this in mind:

Ambiguity is key to avoiding the sense that the path is already laid out. Use double meanings or vague references whenever possible, and avoid outright statements. “Hulkgar the Bad will die in his tent of a case of apparent indigestion actually caused by poison fed to him by his advisor Snivelious the Unsurprisingly Untrustworthy” lacks any sense of mystery or magic, and furthermore leaves no doubt of the outcome. “The Great Terror will be brought low, not by glory or battle, but by the bite of a Serpent”, on the other hand, may cause Hulkgar to become paranoid about snakes, but might not allow him to spot the traitor in his camp until it’s too late. Try to leave enough room in phrasing prophecy that it can be read to apply to several possible outcomes, and be clear in hindsight what was being referred to.

Symbolism is all but essential when presenting prophecy. Clever use of symbols can foreshadow events without clearly defining an expected outcome; it can also present a sense of mystery and magic where a clearly defined statement might present frustration and boredom. It is helpful to associate certain symbols with people, places, and groups in your campaign early on, so that you can hint at events without outright stating what they mean until later. Signs and portents can be given through symbols in dreams, visions, or even in events directly experienced by your players.

Timing is something that must be approached with care. Being too specific with the timing can create a sense of futility, but being too vague can remove any sense of urgency. It’s best to leave the events of your prophecy just clear enough to provide a concrete deadline without giving any leeway to your characters. Be careful to avoid too many moments where the players arrive just in the nick of time or mere moments too late. The former can lead to situations where the players will begin to assume that they do not have to rush, since they always reach the destination just in time to stop whatever nastiness is about to happen, and the latter can lead to incredible frustration as they begin to feel that their efforts are meaningless and doomed to failure.

Dreams are a classic way to give prescient visions. You can give a single character a recurring dream of some future event or a location they have not yet visited, or have the entire party share the same dream of doom. Dreams are often vague or mutable—specific details may change from night to night while the main idea remains the same. They are also often rife with subconscious symbolism, which can be played up to great effect. It is important to avoid overusing dream sequences that the players believe to be reality, however, as it may lead to the players feeling cheated or frustrated by the “it was all a dream” trick.

Signs and Portents can be extremely useful in dreams, visions, or even as events experienced by the players. In my own campaign, the players brought down a magnificent stag while hunting for food, only to discover it to be infested with writhing maggots when they went to prepare it for dinner. Later on they discovered that a nearby kingdom, whose king used a stag as his personal device, had become overrun with a deadly plague. The meaning was not initially clear, but it was obvious even at the time that something supernatural was at work, and the payoff when they discovered the plague was excellent.

No matter how you involve prophecy in your campaign, it’s important to remember that your player characters are the driving force of your campaign. Always give them room to change the future through their actions, and remember that heroes write their own destinies.

Comments

  1. Jenny Snyder

    March 19th, 2010

    Nice. We started out my game with a grand prophecy, but I also left ways in there for the players to break it. Now one of the party isn’t mentioned in the prophecy, and he’s decided that means its because he’s stronger than it. Lots of ways to deliver prophecy in game without using it like a gun to the noggin’

  2. Gerald

    December 15th, 2010

    A couple of suggestions which you didn’t mention is the idea of conflicting prophecies or forked prophecies. Both of these have been used in fantasy novels to good effect and would be suitable for an RPG game.

    Conflicting prophecies would provide two opposing outcomes each tied to the same main players. The PCs can become the “tipping point” with their actions determining which of the two prophecies comes to pass. This leaves ultimate control in the hands of the PCs while still providing foreshadowing and the mysticism of prophecy. The use of multiple “precedent prophecies” (for lack of a better term) means there could be a series of prophecies which must come to pass, each having two opposing possibilities. Then the final prophecy may be related to how many of the prophecies on each side came to pass. This type of opposing prophecy system can be found in the Belgariad series.

    Forked prophecies have a specific series of prophecies but at certain times a “forked” prophecy arrives where one of two prophecy paths is chosen and any of the prophecies which would have followed the other path become false. This would allow the GM to pick a pivotal moment where the PCs will have to make a decision, and identify several prophecies which arise from that event – however only half of them will be valid and which ones are valid depends entirely on what choice the PCs make. This type of prophecy system can be found in the Sword of Truth series.

    Which actually brings up another point – false prophecy. If you decide to use prophecy in your game, it might be a good idea to introduce the idea of false prophecy when the concepts of prophecy are initially being examined. It would be best to use this rarely so as to give meaning to the prophecies you are introducing (unless you are using one of the two systems previously mentioned where there are rules for which prophecies are false). However, used sparingly, the idea of false prophecy can get you out of a jam if one of your prophecies goes horribly wrong!

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