Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Telling the Future in RPGs

Historically, many forms of magic are based on attempts to tell the future. This presents a problem when adapting them to RPGs, because in many or most cases the referee does not know exactly what the future will bring. RPGs have, for most of the last two decades, made it very clear that "railroad" plots where the basics are predetermined are not desirable. I think that's right, but at the same time I want to adapt ideas of divination into an RPG-compatible form.

There are two types of divination that I think work well with RPGs. One is what I'll call the "Magic 8-Ball" technique: the method of forecasting the future provides only general answers to yes/no questions, which is often the case with actual divination techniques; the answer is as often as not a "maybe," giving the referee flexibility to opt out if a question is truly in doubt. ("Will we get rich?" "Outlook not so good.")

A second type is to think of the Delphic oracle. Prophesies given at Delphi were so elaborate and open-ended in their phrasing that there were always several potential interpretations. Many famous myths such as Oedipus begin with oracular utterances where attempts to avoid the disastrous consequences actually cause them to come true; the myth of Oedipus is a famous example of this.

Beyond this, we should ask: what is fortune-telling actually useful for in RPGs? In a dungeon crawl or sandbox, it may seem odd or even superfluous to actually predict the future. But I think the two types of fortune telling have several good roles in an RPG context.

First, there is the use of fortune-telling to drop clues and ideas about what is in a dungeon or sandbox type of environment. For instance, a character consulting a fortune teller might get a cryptic hint that "the green-eyed gems are jealous and plot destruction" if there is a trap involving emeralds at some level of a dungeon; knowing the nature of players there will be some inevitable back-and-forth before they actually settle on what to do about the green-eyed gems of destruction, perhaps looking for a statue with green eyes or some such.

Second, there is the instant adventure seed. This is probably richer for sandbox play, but a hint in divination about what lies beyond the Black Mountains is bound to drive curiosity wild. It's one of the relatively few places where it doesn't seem out of place to just stick an arrow on the map and say "Go there!" - since after all, the characters are literally asking for it. Combining this with the Magic 8-Ball method would also do a fine job of livening up a game that has gotten a bit flat and stale from the GM's side - using the question-and-answer format as a place to make some decisions on your feet, as it were.

Third, there are the prophesies that deal with the "big" things in the game. If a megadungeon has an ultimate goal, like finding Zagyg Yragerne in Castle Greyhawk, then a good cryptic prophecy should be just the thing for it. In general such divination should be the most general type, since after all the actual outcome of the final encounter should never be a certain thing. This is one way to give a campaign some shape and depth beyond "The Quest for More Money."

So I do see a strong role for divination magic in D&D and I think it'll be interesting to get a bit more into the systems for it in Demon-Haunted Lands. I'd like to hear more about how folks have used fortune telling in RPGs before - both good and bad, if there are horror stories that can serve as cautionary tales.


  1. One pragmatic approach to take is the one in Fantasy Wargaming, which listed a series of general questions that could be easily divined, and which were all variations of "detect [whatever]". So, there was "detect the nature/the cure for a particular illness", "detect the whereabouts of the caster/other creatures, plants, places, objects, etc", and so on. Then, those would be applied to the actual question asked. The example given (as with so many in the game, it's 12-year old humor) is "Can I do what I want to do without getting VD?", and it is noted that the question could be partly answered by a "detect disease". If the question can't be easily fit into one of the standard categories, the game suggests rolling a d% for a 60/40 yes/no, and using that to determine a modifier to be applied to all appropriate rolls (both by and against the questioner), noting that "the stars incline, but do not compel". In this way, divination becomes either a matter of detecting things, or of altering game probabilities to lead generally toward the result.

  2. I read an interesting idea somewhere (I don't have a link handy I'm afraid) for using divination to explore the future in a more direct way.

    Suppose you are faced with two paths through the dungeon. You first perform your divination ritual, and get only vague answers. so, you all decide on the left-hand route, and wander off to have a look around. A few rooms later, when half the party is dead and the rest are being patiently chewed on by a tentacle-plant, someone says "I wish we hadn't come this way!".

    And THAT's when the diviner snaps out of his ritual trance and says "Uh guys, I think we should take the right-hand route."

    Basically it's divination as a "save point". The catch is that you can only go back to the most recent divination (no nested visions), and only within a certain length of time after the ritual (more powerful divinations allow looking further into the future).

    1. Of course, the vision was misty and unclear, so the second time around you mix things up a little. The broad thrust of the predicted future is correct, but the details may differ (e.g. The second room down really does have a puzzle, but its solution is different. There really is a monster lying in wait around the corner, but it's a hobgoblin rather than an orc.)

  3. I'm a firm believer in two campaign practices that make oracles and prophesies fairly easy - developing a future calendar, and populating with some potential campaign changing events (using our tried and true OSR tech, the random table). Then, when a prophetic opportunity arises, you have future material ready at hand.

    Here are some of my older posts on the techniques, and even some game reports how they worked out:

    Calendar Techniques

    Sample Campaign Events (specialized for my Black City game)

    In game, one of the characters was abducted by Dokkalvir (dark faeries) and spent some time in the Fairy Otherworld; along the way he was given visions by the Queen of Air and Darkness:

    First would come the fish men, men wearing large scales like the sides of a fish; the player's ship, the Isgerd's Fury, would burn to the ground. A great king would die, dark clouds would obscure the horizon, and then a massive fleet of viking raiders from a far off land would arrive on the island.

    An example of how these are unfolding was recapped a few months ago: Time Flies in the Black City. Byzantine explorers arrived (the fish men), and the tragic fire occurred. The king of Gotland died. Now the players are worried about storms and invaders.

    Upcoming events are good on their own, too; we've had food shortages on the island, kidnapped NPC's, all sorts of things that provide background color and sometimes lead to plot hooks for the sandbox.

    Apologies for all the linkage - prophecy is something I've done well in the campaign, so I'm glad to soapbox my techniques a bit. Been enjoying your blog since you've returned to posting a few months ago (esp. the planets-as-planes bits).

  4. I actually used "I Ching" for divination in a game in Ancient China. This would fall under the "vague answer", though, and of course, who's to say all oracles are right all the time?
    I actually like a lot the solution in the Legends of the Wulin, where a successful prophesy makes it more likely the outcome would happen, by giving bonuses where it's followed, and penalties wherever it's opposed.

  5. The thing in Vornheim is what I do:
    Make a prophecy ("the weather will destroy a passageway"), The GM or player can make it come true. Whoever does it first, does it.


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