6 Ways to Write a Prophecy

Behind The Screen

The next section of this blog, that will be posted weekly, is one I have titled “Behind the Screen”. If you know anything about me, perhaps you know that I have loved tabletop roleplaying games for a very long time. I have played almost every genre of game and am always willing to try new ones. My first experience was at a Boy Scout camp during the winter when I was 10 years old. Us younger boys had to go to sleep, but the older scouts were allowed to stay up. I couldn’t sleep and slipped over to where they were huddled around a table playing the original Dungeons & Dragons.

A lot of old boys would have told me to go back to bed, or even told our chaperons that I was up, the Dungeon Master didn’t. He whipped out a halfling thief and asked if I wanted to play. It was all over after that. I’ve been playing roleplaying games for the last 30 years. Of that time 25 of it has been as a Dungeon/Game Master & Storyteller. So, I have a little bit of experience.

Almost any game you play has the possibility of using a prophecy. It doesn’t matter if you’re playing a Wild West Space Opera, a High Fantasy Campaign, a Mind-bending Horror Chronicle or even a fast-paced Kill-or-be-killed gritty story, prophecies are a tool that any Game Master should be familiar with. You’ve seen them in countless books, movies and tv shows. Someone’s eyes go white, they talk in a raspy voice and they spew a string of riddle-filled words, leaving the hero of the story bewildered.

What I would like to give you are six easy ways to write and use a prophecy in your game. So, without further ado, let’s get into it, shall we?

1. Foreshadowing – Yes, I started out with the fancy English/Creative writing term. Foreshadowing can be a wonderful tool in your game mastering arsenal. What? You don’t have an arsenal? Perhaps a chest or tool box? Either way, you really need one. Foreshadowing allows you to set the mood and tone of the game. It allows you to place something dark, malignant and threatening on the horizon. Best yet, it can give your players a reason to follow the path of bread crumbs that you have laid down for them. The worst part of a game is when the players spit out every hook you’ve set in their shiny, pink jowls and wandered off to do something else… like start a bar fight and torch a tavern.

2. Player Inclusion –  Every so often you get that one player who says they are enjoying the game, and they answer questions when asked, but they don’t really do anything. They sit and listen, laugh, offer an out-of-character quip or two, but they don’t do a whole lot as part of the group. Sometimes this is because of the player, and sometimes it is because the character doesn’t fit well with everyone else. Maybe the rest of the group is gun-toting ex-Marines with a penchant for bar fights, and the character is a mousy librarian. A prophecy is one of the ways you can draw that player and character into the game. Have fate use that character to utter the prophecy. Suddenly those gun-toting ex-Marines have a reason for keeping the mousy librarian around, and protecting him.

3. Make it cryptic – Did you read the Harry Potter books? Let’s look at the prophecy that J. K. Rowling laid out through Sybill Trelawney – “The one with the power to vanquish the Dark Lord approaches… Born to those who have thrice defied him, born as the seventh month dies… and the Dark Lord will mark him as his equal, but he will have power the Dark Lord knows not… and either must die at the hand of the other for neither can live while the other survives… The one with the power to vanquish the Dark Lord will be born as the seventh month dies…” That’s some cryptic stuff right there. Phrases like “Thrice defied”, “born as the seventh month dies” and “neither can live while the other survives…” that’s some stuff that will bend your players’ brains. That’s what you want, too, prophecies, much like riddles in the game, aren’t there to confuse the character, they are there to challenge the player. If you throw a half-orc/half-giant dual wielding claymores at a character, he knows how to tackle it. However, when you slip in riddles and prophecies, the player is now challenged to unravel them and this does the one thing that we Game Masters strive for IMMERSION. We want the player to feel like they are part of the story, not just tossing dice, doing math and erasing health points. Start out with the bare bones idea: “The King will die in six months if he doesn’t get a broth made from snow lilies.” Now, take the nouns from this idea and twist them. Instead of the king, say “He who wears the laurel crown”, instead of six months say, “before the setting of the seventh moon”. Twisting these ideas, making them a bit more cryptic can help give that ominous feel and make your players think. They will have to remember that the cycle of the moon is 28 days, six months is roughly 184 days, meaning there will be almost 7 moon cycles.

4. A Way Out – Don’t just throw a prophecy at your players without having someway for them to combat at it, or thwart it, or keep it from happening. It took how many books for Harry to figure out that he had to die so that Voldemort could be killed? Players do not want to feel as if they are at the whim of fate. They want to be able to do something about it. They want to take action to stop the great evil from taking over their shiny little hamlet in the mountains. Just like any type of story there needs to be conflict, but there must be stakes as well. By providing your players with a or several routes to stop the prophecy from being fulfilled, you have enabled them and empowered them to take action.

5. Most prophecies are fulfilled on the way to… – preventing them. That’s right. One of the greatest ways a prophecy can come true is when people make an attempt to stop it. In keeping with our example, think about it. If Voldemort had never tried to combat the prophecy, he would never have killed James and Lily Potter. He would never have given part of his soul to Harry, which was the one thing that saved Harry more often than not. Use this. Not just on the side of your villains, but players as well. Watch, listen and take notes as your players plan to take action against your prophecy. Look for ways in which their actions might enable it to come to pass.

6. Fate is fickle – Yes she is. Many times gamers, readers, movie-goers, think of prophecy as being in the realm of the hero. Fate reaches out to give the protagonist a bit of cryptic information, which if they can puzzle out, will allow them to defeat the antagonist. When you are dealing with Gods and religion, this seems to be true. Don’t be so one-sided. Our world isn’t black and white, neither should your gaming world. Let your villains have prophecies too. Allow their foul, cthonic gods to reach out and bless them with information to achieving their goals. Better yet, have them reach out to your players. What better way to bring the villains’ plans to fruition than to have the players do it for you.

There you go! 6 ways to use and create prophecies that can improve your game, empower your players and make the experience more enjoyable for everyone. Cheers!

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