Prophecy is one of those things that seem like an excellent plot device; in books they work great, often being sufficiently obscure that the protagonists don’t even realize they’re fulfilling them until much too late. The problem at the table is that the players tend to be more clever than book protagonists and GMs can’t herd PCs the way authors can herd characters. So how would one go about using prophecy as part of a tabletop game?
There are three man ways to use a prophecy as part of a tabletop campaign: prophecy as warning and roadmap, prophecy as guide, and prophecy as destiny. In the first, prophecy exists as a warning from a seer in the past to those in the future, providing signs and portents of coming danger and a way to try to avert that danger. The second is a way to provide characters with clues and hints as to the way forward; they want to fulfill the prophecy, and actively work toward it. The last is where the prophecy is going to happen, and the characters are along for the ride, hoping to subvert it if they can and deal with the fallout if they can’t.
So how do you go about integrating these into your games?
Prophecy as a warning. This is the best and easiest method of integrating prophetic situations into your games; you simply come up with a somewhat cryptic prophecy that describes the endgame of your BBEV and let the players work to foil it. The best part here is that the players will talk about it and come up with ideas for what the prophecy could mean that will eclipse your own ideas; you can and should cheerfully steal these, since having it be correct will not only give the players the chance to thwart parts of the prophecy but also let them feel accomplished at having worked out the grand design ahead of time.
Particularly good GMs can get tricky with this and let the party have a warning prophecy, only to have them find themselves fulfilling the prophecy as they try to thwart it. Don’t try this unless you know your players will be cool with it, because it’s a form of railroading and can ruffle feathers easily. Be very careful with it and be ready to abandon it at a moment’s notice if the players start to chafe at it.
Prophecy as a guidebook. This is honestly a good one to aim for if you have proactive players; you can throw in a warning aspect about what will come to pass if no one fulfills this prophecy and set your group loose to chase the leads down. This should be reasonably cryptic-sounding, and once again you should be listening to your players speculating about the prophecy to see if there are any ideas you want to steal. Be sure to have rewards near the end of each section of the prophecy for your group to enjoy and savor. Make it so the challenge is hard to overcome, but easier if they pay attention to the prophecy itself and prepare accordingly.
Don’t let this absolve you of doing some serious work, however! You still need to work out what the steps mean in the absence of clever player ideas, come up with challenges for them to overcome, and work out what the ultimate threat they’re preparing to overcome actually is. This is a hard one to mess up, though, as long as you have a group that’s on board with the idea of going out and doing things in the world without being spoon-fed the plot.
Prophecy as destiny. This one, right now, I will tell you is a hard one to pull off. It’s a predestination plot, with the major points unavoidable. This can and will rub a lot of players the wrong way; one way to do this is to write the prophecy in a sufficiently vague fashion that players will be able to interpret it the way that the NPCs do, but it can be read slightly differently and have a completely different outcome and meaning.
Another method is to make the prophecy itself vast and world-engulfing, but allow the players to impact the local world much more deeply. A prophecy may speak of the End Times, but the players may be building a colony or time capsule that will rescue the people of their homeland from the apocalypse and see them through to the new world beyond doomsday. You’ll need the players on board for this, of course, with everyone agreed on the goal and working toward that rather than haring off to try to stop the world from ending.
Prophecy as red herring. I didn’t include this above because it isn’t really a prophecy situation; much like the nonsense of the real world, prophecies like this are vague, complicated, and easy to misinterpret to represent whatever a person wants. While it can be fun to introduce them, do so as a side aspect; a cult that relies on faulty prophecies written by a founder who was convinced their drug-driven hallucinations were visions of the future, dire predictions by street preachers, and so on. Let the players sweat a little, but be quick to show them wrong. Don’t let the players chase after them in search of a real result, unless discovering it to be false gives them the lead that they need and a reward for uncovering it.
Ultimately, using prophecies in your game can be exciting and lend a new kind of fun to the experience, but they’re best off in the hands of GMs with a bit of experience and solid familiarity with their players.
Tomorrow, I’ll look at what we’ve settled on for the solo play campaign: the setting of Ptolus, City by the Spire!