The Alexandrian

IN THE SHADOW OF THE SPIRE

Session 9C: Jade

Session 9 was a momentous and very busy session. There’s a lot of stuff I should really comment on, but I’m running out of space to do so, so we’re going to tackle a number of micro-topics here.

TALES FROM THE TABLE

You may recognize the story of “Athvor Krassek”. It’s been told on the Alexandrian before, in Tales from the Table: Unexpected Successes.

Legends & Labyrinths - Justin AlexanderThis is also the session from which the introductory transcript of Legends & Labyrinths is drawn. If you compare the campaign journal to that transcript, you’ll notice that the transcript has been altered from the original version of events in a number of ways to tighten the sequence of events and create clarity.

I also made alterations in order to highlight specific mechanics, since I was using the transcript in combination with the sidebar reference system to create a seamless tutorial of how narrative, mechanic, and table conversation weaves together to form a typical RPG session. (I tried to do something similar with the Infinity RPG, but it didn’t quite work out for a variety of reasons. Which is a pity, because I think the approach is really effective at introducing new players to RPGs through the medium of text.)

THE UNEXPECTED HAMMERSONG

Ranthir, however, had been struck by a thought: Since the Hammersong Vaults was essentially the only bank in town, it seemed there was a good chance that they might have stored something here between the time they came to Ptolus and the morning they woke up with amnesia.

Holy crap.

This is literally the type of thing that I live for as a GM, but it nevertheless flabbergasted me completely. Let’s review the three key factors that led to this moment:

First, I used using Monte Cook’s Ptolus, which, as a city supplement, is insanely detailed. Its incredible depth and richness means that when the players say “I want to go to a bathhouse” or “I want to find a bank”, instead of improvising something off the cuff you can instead crack open the 650 page tome and say, “Okay, here are the bathhouses in town.”

In this case, when they went to find a bank for storing their newfound wealth, there was really only one option: The dwarven-run Hammersong Vaults.

Ptolus - Monte Cook (Malhavoc Press)Second, when designing the back story of what had happened during their amnesia I had followed the exact same thought process. Where would they go? Not the exclusive banks servicing the Merchant Houses. They’d have rented space in the Hammersong Vaults.

Third, one of the players needed to have the inspired insight to realize that their amnesiac selves might have done the exact same thing they just did.

And, in fact, they had. Which is just so unspeakably cool.

And when people ask, “Why would you want a 650 page tome detailing a city in such lavish detail?” this story is basically the answer to that question. It creates these moments of immense immersion by granting the game world a sense of concrete reality; turning it into an incredibly detailed sandbox for the players (and GM) to manipulate and experience.

So how was this “supposed” to play out? Well, as I’ve mentioned before, the investigation of their lost memories was a multi-stage process that was triggered over time by a number of different revelations that would each lead to meta-investigations. One of these triggered revelations was supposed to lead them to where they had hidden their key to the Hammersong Vaults, which they could have traced back to the vaults and used to access the vault they had rented.

Ironically, when this triggered event came along much later, they never figured it out and, thus, never found the key. Which means that if Ranthir hadn’t made this intuitive leap, they probably never would have found their old vault.

As it was, I was able to use their lack of a key to temporarily delay their access to the vault. (Although there were other options: They could have broken in, for example.) I did this primarily for reasons of balance, but it ended up paying off in the long run: The anticipation of waiting for the day when they would be able to access the vaults massively ramped up the sense of accomplishment because they were constantly being reminded of it, and, commensurately, cranked up the satisfaction of the reward they eventually received.

It was, after all, well earned.

METHUL = HELMUT

Tee had often speculated that Helmut might, in fact, be the mysterious Methul Watcher: “Methul” was an anagram of “Helmut”, and Helmut was an astronomer – a Watcher of the skies.

Here we see one of the unexpected perils of using pre-published material.

In this case, I had heavily modified the original scenario (which is found in the Ptolus corebook) and added additional layers of conspiracy and intrigue around the identity of “Methul Watcher”… all of which became completely irrelevant because, as Tee noted, “Methul” is an anagram of “Helmut”.

Tee’s logic here is, in fact, so unassailable that I have to believe that this was deliberately done by Monte Cook. Unfortunately, Cook neglected to mention this in the published adventure and I, unlike Tee, didn’t notice it.

So here, too, I was caught completely flat-footed by the cunning insights of my players.

I could use more “problems” like this.

Ptolus - In the Shadow of the Spire

IN THE SHADOW OF THE SPIRE

SESSION 9C: JADE

October 21st, 2007
The 27th Day of Amseyl in the 790th Year of the Seyrunian Dynasty

RANTHIR REVEALS THE COMPASS

On the way back to the Ghostly Minstrel, Ranthir finally had a chance to discuss the appearance of the Iron Mage and the compass he had given to him. Ranthir had checked the compass at several intervals throughout the day, and found it pointing in different directions depending on when he looked at it. His first inclination had been to suspect that the compass was pointing towards some specific location… but this was quickly dashed when he realized it had been pointing north when he had been given the compass in Oldtown and, later, pointing south when he had been almost directly east in Midtown.

The others had little insight to give on the compass itself, but Elestra and Tee were both aware of the Iron Mage. He was something of a legendary figure in Ptolus. He would appear at random – just as he had for Ranthir – give seemingly nonsensical instructions and then disappear again. The purpose behind some of these random actions would become clear days or weeks or even years later, but others were without any true explanation. What his true goals and aims were no one could say for certain, but those who helped him were usually rewarded.

ELESTRA AND THE DREAMING APOTHECARY, PART 3

That night, Elestra placed the purple token of the Dreaming Apothecary under her pillow.

In the middle of the night she was awakened to discover a woman with long blond hair floating in the middle of her room. She was sitting in the lotus position and surrounded by a softly glowing halo of light.

In the brief conversation that followed, the woman explained to Elestra that the Dreaming Apothecary could provide her with any magic item she might desire… for the right price. Elestra discussed the enchantment she wanted placed upon her sword, but it became clear that – at least for the moment – it was beyond Elestra’s ability to afford.

The woman smiled, and assured Elestra that – when she had the money – she had only to place the token beneath her pillow again and the Dreaming Apothecary would fulfill her needs. Then she slowly faded from sight, and Elestra found herself slipping back into a deep slumber…

RETURN TO GREYSON HOUSE

(08/28/790)

The next morning, with no pressing crises to distract them, the group resolved to return to the passageways beneath Greyson House.

It had been nearly a week since they were last at the house. The boards on the door had been replaced, but Agnarr simply ripped them loose again. Reaching the pit of chaos was a walk of nearly twenty minutes, and the subterranean passages seemed as empty and deserted as they had before.

Beyond the pit of chaos they moved carefully back into the complex of rooms in which they had been assaulted by the strange creatures they were now referring to as bloodwights.

Moving through the large entry chamber, they carefully moved into the warren of small rooms that they had been attempting to explore before being overcome. There didn’t appear to be any creatures left in the open, so Tee and Agnarr moved methodically from one door to the next, slamming them open and instantly attacking anything that lay within.

A handful of the desiccated corpses were quickly eradicated in this way, with Agnarr’s flaming greatsword reducing them to dust before they had a chance to shed their cocoons of dead skin.

With the complex of small rooms secured, the rest of the party kept watch in the outer chamber while Tee spent more than an hour scouring the area for anything of interest. She quickly discovered, mired in the dusty remnants of one of the rooms, a small hexagonal emblem of jade. A strange rune was carved into one side of the emblem, but none of them recognized it (at least, not immediately).

Tee also discovered a small cache hidden under a false flagstone. It contained a diamond ring, a few random coins, and a small portrait of a black-haired girl badly worn with age.

Once Tee was satisfied, the group moved across the outer chamber to the opposite door. After doing a cursory check for traps and other dangers, Tee prudently waited on the opposite side of the room while Agnarr opened the door and revealed a short hallway ending in another door.

Beyond this door lay a room filled with a massive contraption of brass, copper, and worm-eaten wood. Great hoops of metal were suspended about a central sphere, with various lumps, pulleys, cranks, and levers protruding here and there in an apparently chaotic and incomprehensible jumble.

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Key in Lock

GM: It’s a pretty cheap lock, so it only takes you about fifteen seconds to pick it. You hear the satisfying click.

Rachael: Great. I’ll slide my picks back into the hidden lining on my belt before opening the door and slipping through.

GM: You find yourself in the office of Sir Sebastian. An imposing, mahogany desk with a flared plinth dominates the center of the room. Heavy, velvet curtains with gold appliqué seem to swallow the light from the windows. Vivid, arsenic-green wallpaper render kaleidoscopic patterns on the walls. Give me a Search check.

Rachael: 25.

GM: Okay, you find a hidden compartment on the wall, which you open by tracing the patterns in the wallpaper. Inside you find a small, metal ball with black, acid-etched symbols covering its surface. Give me a Spot check.

Rachael: 18.

GM: You notice that there’s a thin seam running around the center of the ball. Give me an Idea roll.

Rachael: 16.

GM: Okay, that just good enough. You realize that the ball can be rotated to form different patterns with the symbols. You experiment for a minute, and find a sequence that causes the ball to pop open. Inside you find Marie Artaud’s ring.

Rachael: Great. I’ll take the ring, close the ball, and get back to the party before I’m missed, making sure to lock the door behind me.

Hopefully the problem here is immediately apparent to you: The GM is cutting off the player’s investigation of the scene by preemptively calling for skill checks. The PC effectively ends up in a kind of “autopilot mode” during which the game ceases to be truly interactive and the player is rendered into a passive audience that can only watch the character’s actions playing out.

It’s rare (although, unfortunately, not unheard of) for this error to be carried out in quite so egregious a fashion, but I’ve found that its less pronounced variants are shockingly common.

THREE-TIERED PERCEPTION

Probably the most common version of this problem that I’ve seen is when the GM preemptively calls for a Search check or similar mechanic. At a minimum, however, a good GM needs to be able to distinguish between three different levels of character perception:

  1. Automatic Perception
  2. Spot-type Perception
  3. Search-type Perception

Pathfinder - PaizoI’m using skill names from 3rd Edition D&D, but this remains true even in games which don’t mechanically distinguish between these categories. (Pathfinder, for example, is 3rd Edition’s kissing cousin, but lumps both Spot-type and Search-type perception into a single skill.)

If you’re familiar with the Art of Rulings, you may notice how these fall into its three core principles:

  1. Passive Observation is automatically triggered
  2. Player Expertise activates Character Expertise
  3. Player Expertise can trump Character Expertise

Automatic Perception and Spot-type Perception both fall into the category of Passive Observation: Automatic Perception is the stuff that literally anyone standing there will observe. (If you want to think about it in purely mechanical terms, it’s the stuff that requires a DC 0 Spot check to notice. [LINK: http://thealexandrian.net/wordpress/38039/roleplaying-games/art-of-rulings-part-5-skill-and-difficulty]) Spot-type Perception is the stuff that people can notice while just standing there, but might not. (Spot checks are an example of this, but so are Knowledge checks: Anyone can see the large flag hanging on the wall, but only some people will recognize what nation the flag belongs to.)

Search-type Perception falls into the second category, being an example of Player Expertise activating Character Expertise: This is the stuff you can’t see by just standing there. You need to go do something in order to see it / learn it.

Beyond this basic core, there are a few advanced techniques to consider.

Matryoshka Search Technique: This is something I’ve discussed in a dedicated post as a Random GM Tip, but beyond the threshold of the basic Search-type Perception, you can begin to see the game space as nested layers of interaction.

You can actually see this in the example above: Rachael needs to search the room to find the hidden panel. She needs to figure out how to open it. Then she needs to examine the ball inside and figure out how to open that. There’s not one threshold of interactivity; there are many, each nested inside the other.

Superman’s X-Ray Vision: Special abilities (particularly always-on special abilities) can cause some items to swap between the different perception type categories for specific characters. This can result in Rachael and Teresa having different perceptual relationships with a given game space.

Golden Age Superman

I’m Just That Good: What if you’re really, really, really good at spotting stuff? So good, for example, that you might be able to notice the hidden panel in the wall from across the room whereas other characters would need to physically interact with the wall to notice it.

In some ways, you can actually think of this as a variant of the character possessing a particular special ability (it’s just that their “special ability” in this case is being really, really good at noticing hidden things).

I actually mechanically instantiated this into 3rd Edition: In my house rules, if you beat the Search DC by +20 while making a Spot check, you’ll notice the hidden feature as if you had actively searched for it (either directly, if possible, or through some form of tertiary indication if not; you may note that the latter is effectively introducing a Matryoshka technique). You can do similar stuff with, for example, exceptional successes in Eclipse Phase or point spends in Trail of Cthulhu.

You might be wondering why this is “okay”. Why is this any better than the example of the GM preempting them? Aren’t you still skipping interactive steps?

You are, in fact, still “skipping” steps. But you’re doing so as a reward for character ability. It’s similar to a wizard “skipping” sections of the dungeon by using a passwall spell: You, you’re bypassing the “intended” or “natural” path of progress, and there are things you’re losing or missing out on as a result. But you’re gaining a different (and important!) benefit.

That’s why this is an advanced technique: You need to understand the rule in order to know when you can (and should!) break it.

ASSUMING ACTION

The preemptive Search check, however, is just one specific example of the GM making an anticipatory ruling; a ruling in which they assume that the player will make a particular choice and, therefore, skip past the step where the player actually makes that choice.

In this context, you can actually interpret the problem as a scene-framing issue. As described in the Art of Pacing, the GM needs to identify empty time – i.e., time in which the player is neither making interesting choices nor experiencing the consequences of those choices – and frame past that empty time to the next meaningful choice. What’s happening here is that the GM is incorrectly skipping past meaningful choices.

The problems with this are manifold:

  • It hurts immersion as the player loses control of their character.
  • It prevents the player from actually playing the game as the loss of control results in a loss of interactivity. In this it’s similar to alpha-quarterbacking in co-op board games.
  • It prevents the player from making a different and unanticipated choice. The GM is not omniscient, so even when they assume that there’s only one “good” choice to be made, it doesn’t follow that this is the choice which will be made.
  • On the other hand, the GM is a little too omniscient. They are biased by their design of the encounter and the wider knowledge of the scenario, which may blind them to the actual thought process the player/character is experiencing.

In this, you can see a pattern of problems similar to run-time choose your own adventure (as seen in GM Don’t List #6).

It is, perhaps, unsurprising that so many errors in GMing technique share common roots. And, conversely, that the solution to those errors are all rooted in a similar ideology.

Go to Part 1

IMPROVISATION

One thing that I should perhaps make explicitly clear here is that, generally speaking, the only thing I’m prepping is the actual information itself (and that’s assuming I anticipated that the PCs would be interested in researching a particular topic). Everything else — the approach, the key moment, the specific contextualization of the information – is being improvised.

Like all forms of improvisation, of course, coming up with this stuff on-the-fly is a skill which can be learned, practiced, and perfected. It helps that the entire technique I’m describing here is not only an effective technique for narrating the outcome of gathering information, it’s also a very effective method of improvising that content (moving from the general to the more specific).

Improvising Approaches: The biggest improvement you can make in terms of improvising approaches is to do some research into how information gathering can be done. This can be very genre/setting-dependent, but studying real-world tradecraft for spies and detectives can be useful. For RPG specific resources, check out:

  • Night’s Black Agents, which Night's Black Agents - Kenneth Hite (Pelgrane Press)includes a fantastic section summarizing game-oriented approaches to gleaning information
  • Spookshow, a somewhat obscure RPG in which you play a ghost recruited by the government to work as a spy (and also includes an absolutely fabulous discussion of real world spy techniques)
  • GURPS Espionage, specifically its detailed tradecraft section

But the other thing you can do is work backwards from the source: Look at the information you need to impart, think about how/where that information can be found, and then create the appropriate approach that will get you to that information.

Alternatively, look at the special abilities a character has and extrapolate unique ways they might use them to gain information: A druid who can speak with the rats of the city. Superman flies high into the air and eavesdrops with super-hearing. A luck dragon closes his eyes and follows his heart. Et cetera.

Improvising Key Moments: At a basic level, improvising the key moment flows pretty naturally out of the approach. You look at what sources of information the approach would be likely to find, and then you create a specific instance of such.

If you find it difficult to improvise this stuff off the cuff, though, there’s ways you can cheat through smart prep. A fairly generic way of accomplishing this is to prep two or three contacts for each PC. (Or have the players prep them for you.) You don’t need a lot here: Just a name and one sentence describing them. Something like, “One-Eyed Pete: Grit addict that the PC used to sail with on the Abandoned Mermaid.” Regardless of what information they’re looking for, you can just reach for the most likely (or, for greater interest, the most improbable) contact they have and figure out how they would know (or could point them towards) that information.

Depending on the nature of the campaign you might find something other than the PCs themselves to hang this prep off of. For example, in an urban campaign you might create two or three contracts per district and use them appropriately.

This sort of thing can also be genre-dependent: In a Trail of Cthulhu game, for example, you might prep a set of evocative Mythos tomes that you can slot information into as necessary. In Eclipse Phase you might want to come up with a list of reputation subnets. For Delta Green maybe you just need a list of cool code names for old operations.

On that note, also look for opportunities to reincorporate sources of information that have already been tapped: That’s basically what H.P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard did with the Necronomicon and Nameless Cults, respectively, lending those fictional tomes a weight and meaning that would be absent if they had instead elected to use a different tome every time. (On the other hand, notice how the Mythos benefits from having BOTH the Necronomicon and Nameless Cults, each with a unique history and slightly different connotation for the knowledge it contains. And it can become kitschy if every single obscure fact just happens to be in the same book. So there’s a balancing act.) The same principles apply to NPC contacts, darknet bulletin boards, or any other source of information, allowing your players (and their PCs) to develop long-term relationships and associations with these elements of the campaign (which will, of course, often elevate them to a level importance above and beyond merely being a receptacle for data drops).

Improvising Contextualization: The specific contextualization of the information the PCs are seeking is so specific to the information and the key moment you’ve created that it’s really difficult to cheat that specific moment of creativity. But there are a few things to keep in mind:

  • How do they know the information
  • What’s their opinion of the information
  • What’s their motivation for giving the information
  • What’s their relationship to the information (and to the PCs)

(Note that most of these can apply to both people and inanimate sources of intel.)

Prepping It All: “What if I just prep all of this stuff in advance?” If you’re a new GM and you’re really struggling, this can be an option. But I generally advise against it because it becomes a trap: You’re not practicing your improvisational skills, so you’re not getting any better at it. And the prep is fragile (leading to lots of wasted prep) because it can be so trivially disrupted by the players choosing an incompatible approach. (You prep One-Eyed Pete, for example, but the players decided to hit up the newssheet archives at the Old Library looking for information on the Vladaams instead.)

You’ll generally be better off prepping the tools that make your improv better rather than that trying to avoid improv entirely. At least in my experience.

TIERED INFORMATION

One last thing to briefly consider here are research and canvassing tests that can gain multiple pieces of information, particularly those checks where the information is tiered (so that better results yield more difficult or detailed intel).

Here’s a typical example of a tiered Gather Information check from D&D:

DC 10: The Republicans are a fringe political group. They want independence for Ptolus or something like that.

DC 12: The Republicans specifically want to abolish the mercantile system of government and replace it with a “deot for all”, with the Trade Circle being popularly elected. As part of this effort, they desire independence from the central authority of Salesia and the Merchant Council.

DC 15: The Republicans have been more active of a late. They’ve delivered several petitions to the Commissar and have been organizing small rallies here and there throughout the city.

DC 18: No one’s sure how the Republicans are organized, if they are. Recently their public face has been Helmut Itlestein – he’s appeared at several rallies as a speaker, issued petitions, and the like.

DC 30: It’s said that the Republican movement is, in fact, secretly run by an organization known as the Knights of Enlightenment. Nobody seems to know much of anything about the Knights of Enlightenment. In fact, the name means absolutely nothing to pretty much everyone you talk to.

When constructing a tier of information like this it’s important that the information actually is tiered. I’ve seen a number of published adventures where they have five or six bullet points worth of information they want to convey, so they just string them onto an escalating DC table, resulting in nonsensical things like a telephone directory look-up requiring a DC 40 test or the like.

An alternative approach here is to randomly choose X pieces of information from a list of available results on a successful test. When using this approach, however, I think it’s important to communicate that if they spend more time — i.e., make additional checks — there’s more information for them to find. This can be very effective in handling the rumor table for a location or region, for example.

In either case, when you have many different pieces of information which can be obtained, you need to figure out whether you want to have one key moment or several different key moments. In doing so, you need to primarily consider two factors:

  • The drag on pace created by framing multiple key moments; vs.
  • The potentially increased interest created by multiple key moments

There’s no “right answer” to this. You’re going to have to gauge your player’s interest and engagement with the information being sought; the overall pace of the scenario; and the amount of interest you feel the players will have in interacting with the key moments.

If I have any rules of thumb to offer here, it’s that:

  • The more interactive the key moment is, the more likely the players are to sustain interest through several of them (as opposed to listening to the GM drone through flat narration).
  • If the group split up to find the information, giving everyone a different chunk of the information custom-tailored to the approach they take is generally well-received.
  • Players are generally more interested if there’s a clear build to the information they’re receiving (so multiple key moments can work better with tiered information than with an undifferentiated exposition dump).
  • Handouts are a great way of mixing up information delivery.

On the other hand, big exposition dumps aren’t really the most interesting way to convey information. So in your prep, you may want to look at other ways of structuring this information into your scenario than through a single skill check. (Framing heists is one way of doing that, although obviously that’s a technique which can also be overused. You may also want to check out Getting the Players to Care.)

Something else you can experiment with here is to actually ditch all of the advice I’ve just given you for a bunch of the information and then only frame to key moments for one or two of your bullet points.

For example, if someone rolled a DC 30 success on that Gather Information table above, I might say, “Asking around town you quickly figure out that the Republicans are some kind of fringe political group that want to abolish the mercantile system of government replace it with a ‘deot for all’, featuring a popularly elected Trade Circle and independence from Salesia.” Then I might hand them a list of recent and upcoming rallies along with a flyer featuring a speech by Helmut Itlestein, and then frame to a scene where they chat with the Commissar’s personal assistant who can reveal the rumors that they’re being secretly run by the Knights of Enlightenment.

IN THE SHADOW OF THE SPIRE

Session 9B: In the House of Helmut

The key is found. The lost shall be found. The night of dissolution comes when the barbarians arrive.

In this session, the PCs found two different sets of prophecies, both prepared by Helmut Itlestein.

Prophecy is, of course, a mainstay of fantasy fiction (and in mythology before them). They’re great storytelling devices because they can (a) inherently imbue events with a sense of importance and (b) serve as puzzles which foreshadow future events, thus building anticipation for them and a satisfying sense of payoff when they occur (particularly if there’s some unexpected twist to how they’re fulfilled).

NostradamusThe things about these prophecies, though, is that they generally exist either because the author knows what they’re planning to write or, in the case of mythological history, because they’ve been retroactively created to fit events which have already happened. (Really easy to pick winners and losers a couple centuries after the fact.)

The non-linear and unpredictable nature of RPGs obviously makes it more difficult to use prophecies effectively. You could railroad the outcome, of course, but you really shouldn’t, and the act of forcing the outcome onto the players tends to negate the “magic” which makes a prophecy so satisfying in the first place.

I think the core thing to understand is that fiction and mythology should NOT be your primary infelunces when designing RPG prophecies. RPG prophecies should instead model themselves on how successful real world prophets — i.e., bullshit artists — operate. The prophecies of Nostradamus, for example, continue to possess an enormous amount of cult cachet centuries after he wrote them.

On the other hand, a GM does enjoy a lot more control over their campaign world than Nostradamus or Hildegard von Bingen did over the real world, so they don’t need to completely abandon literary principles. I’ve touched on a similar topic in the past when I’ve discussed Foreshadowing in RPGs, and a lot of the same advice applies to prophecies.

FLEXIBLE PROPHECY

The core technique for using prophecies in RPGs is creating flexibility in their outcome: You aren’t sure what direction the campaign is going to go, so you’ll need the prophecy to have a usable pay-off regardless of which direction the campaign goes.

Imperfect Prophecies: Deliver prophecies through questionable translations, multiple translations, or have different versions passed down via different lines of transmission from elder days. Figuring out the “true” version of the prophecy can become a puzzle in itself, or require a quest to find the “original” version of the prophecy (delaying the point at which you, as the GM, need to nail down the prophecy’s specific meaning).

Multiple Intrepretations: The Delphic Oracle was famous for these. “If you make war upon the Persians, you will destroy a great empire.” (Hyuck, hyuck, turns out it was yours! … but it could just as easily been theirs.) To quote Shakespeare, “There’s a double meaning in that.”

Conflicting Prophecies: Instead of having just one prophecy, invoke multiple prophecies. The question isn’t necessarily which one is “right”; it’s which one can you make right. This invokes another useful maxim: Simply seeing a prophecy fulfilled isn’t inherently interesting. It’s what people do with the prophecy that creates interest: Do you try to fight it? Work within it? Hide it? Destroy it? Deny it? Embrace it?

False/Broken Prophecy: Even without a conflicting set of prophecies, it can be okay for a prophecy to just… not be true. Straight up false prophecies can work if they’re set up right, but it can be more effective if you can frame it as, “The prophecy has been broken!” (Which can be the result of either the actions of the PCs or the actions of the bad guys.) This can either heighten the reward of success, or be used as an “oh shit” moment where the PCs realize the comfortable safety net of their prophecy has been stripped away.

In the world there will be made a king who will have little peace and a short life. At this time the ship of the Novarch will be lost, governed to its greatest detriment.

Evocative Imagery: Another angle of approach is to use prophecies which are, for lack of a better word, vague to the point where they could mean anything… or nothing at all. This is a pretty common tack for “prophets” in the real world. St. Hildegard, for example, once predicted, “Before the Comet comes, many nations, the good excepted, will be scoured by want and famine. The great nation in the ocean that is inhabited by people of different tribes and descent by an earthquake, storm, and tidal waves will be devastated.” Or, in other words, a coastal nation with a lot of different immigrants or native clans (i.e., every coastal nation in the history of forever) will have a bad year… or maybe several years, since no specific time frame is defined.

Prophecies That Have Already Happened: These can be particularly effective if the PCs don’t know that they’ve already happened. It can be very useful to couple these to useful divinatory facts. For example:

S shall find the golden statue while it still breathes. But the Idol of Ravvan brings doom. His lair lies beneath a vacant lot of brandywine.

When the prophecy was made (within the context of the game world), these things had not happened. As we’ll see in upcoming campaign journals, when the PCs read it, they already had (but the PCs didn’t know it): Shilukar (S) had already found the golden statue (Lord Abbercombe), already had his lair under a vacant lot in Brandywine Street, and he already possessed the Idol of Ravvan. (Although there’s a double meaning there, since “brings doom” doesn’t specify the doom nor who it will befall.)

Prophecies Beyond the PCs’ Control: Natural disasters are a good example here. Can’t really stop an earthquake, right? But this can also apply to events which are simply outside the PCs’ immediate sphere of influence or interest. Such prophecies can be a nice way of establishing the bonafides of a prophetic document: By presenting a list of things that the PCs can receive news of coming true over time, you’re investing the key prophetic statements that apply to the PCs with extra weight and a sense of inevitability.

A Multitude of Prophecies: On that note, providing a multitude of prophecies (of varying character and specificity), as seen with Helmut Itlestein’s papers, can be a very effective technique in and of itself. When you’re presented with a target-rich environment, the lucky picks will get remembers and the misses get tossed in the dustbin.

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