The Alexandrian

There are three ways to foreshadow in RPGs:

(1) Strew the foreshadowing around liberally. If the PCs might go to location A or they might go to location B, foreshadow both of them: Whichever one they go to has now been foreshadowed and they’ll think you’re brilliant. The foreshadowing for the other will simply be irrelevant trivia or, at worst, red herrings.

(2) Retroactive foreshadowing. After a few sessions, look at what the PCs have actually done / experienced. Now, take some of that stuff (particularly stuff they liked) and use it as the building blocks for prepping the next chunk of the campaign. (For example, maybe they were fascinated by the small jade statue of a knight that you included as a piece of random treasure. Make the next major villain in the campaign a knight who wears green armor.)

(3) Vague foreshadowing. Simply make statements that would be true or significant regardless of the specifics of a given event. (For example, when Gandalf says, “My heart tells me that Gollum has some part to play yet, for good or ill, before the end; and when that comes, the pity of Bilbo may rule the fate of many – yours not least.” Tolkien is very specifically foreshadowing the role he knows Gollum will play in saving Frodo’s life and completing the quest to destroy the ring. But even if Tolkien were just a GM who had no idea where the story was going at that point, he could just as easily have Gandalf say that. The statement, after all, boils down to nothing more than saying, “Gollum is going to do something and this quest is pretty important.” Which is pretty much a given since, at that point in the story, Gollum is already following them.)

If it’s all just a trick, why do it? Well, foreshadowing can be used to give a sense of cohesion and completeness to the campaign. It can also invest the players with a feeling that what their characters are doing is important. It can also be used to reinforce themes. Basically, you can use foreshadowing in a roleplaying game to achieve all (or most) of the things that it can be used for in other mediums; the only difference is that the non-linear nature of a good RPG scenario forces a different execution of the foreshadowing.

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7 Responses to “Random GM Tips – Foreshadowing in RPGs”

  1. Broozer Bear says:

    I think that you can and should avoid literary style foreshadowing in D&D. I run a sandbox campaign without much signposting, railroading or trails of crumbs, and yet, I have a definite beginning, middle and end to the whole campaign. How do I do it? The push, the pull, and contextualization of the world and of the player characters into that world. Nobody lives in vacuum, unless you are wealthy and unfortunate. To advance in level, you need teaching. You can only get equipment and learning, by belonging to various organizations and serving in them. It costs money to join the wizards guild. Do you buy the fighter the new cuirass or do you pay for the instruction for the magic user? You don’t have money for both. You can’t just go and loot a dungeon, it belongs to the nobleman. who claims the area as his fiefdom, and he demands 1/3 of all gold and al the magic items. If you try to sneak in and rob the ruin, he has his men at arms go after you, and he can probably get the local clergy and the wizards guild to help him persecute you. Within this framework you have your players pursuing their ambitions, and taking sides in the conflicts, that shape an form your campaign. That does away with both, the proverbial tavern and open the door kill the monster, count the coin bore. On the other hand, if the players do the bidding of the powers in the campaign, they get resources such as armor, NPC’s, access to spells, etc. No need for the ***balance*** I have sent 1st level characters into wilderness and 4th level dungeons with enough resources to survive it, albeit, barely, and the goal is to have fun. The campaign has been low-magic, low treasure so far, they missed a hoard or two (when you sketch out deep background, a lot of stuff is missed and overlooked), but the one that they did find, is worth a small fortune, but if they get caught with these non-precious, non-magical items, the players will be outlawed and put to death. Can you guess what that treasure is?

    That’s port of it, the other is contextualizing the environment. Let’s say your players face a band of Orcs. Orcs belong to a variety of clans and tribes in the service of the higher powers the players will oppose. You flesh out (minimally, really), the regions and places these Orcs occupy in your campaign, then make a long list of loot items that give clues to a discerning player about the Orcs whom, they just killed. lotsa coppers, some gold, darning needles, eating knives, A MAGICAL NEEDLE that never misses its thread. How is that to slip past the players? Some items of intelligence value, maps and orders, and a bit of deeply personal items that would reveal a lot and act as foreshadowing. One set of Orcs have a circle and pyramid on their shields (really a poorly rendered Moon and a Pine Tree) while the others have their shields bisected with a lighting bolt. One set of Orcs will have a chance to have a soap stone and a Dwarven smoking pipe to suggest that these Orcs were living in the mountains. The other set of Orcs will have a chance to have hoop ear-rings in one of their ears, dog eared decks of playing cards featuring nude Queens, tar stains on their hands and lash marks on their backs, to hint that these Orcs have been on the high seas. Will the players discover some or any of these clues?

    If you have a good idea of your campaign setting, then everything – events in the encounter tables, looting and treasure, exploration, even encounters, can be turned into narrative devices, to give a glimpse of your world to the players, if the players have the wherewithal to pause and examine, and I give nothing away as a DM.

  2. Neal says:

    @Broozer Bear,

    The ideas about having orcs foreshadowing and giving clues about the larger world via their painted symbols, jewelry, etc is neat.

    Maybe I’m being a stickler for immersion, but some problems I see with having a nobleman with the long arms of church and wizard guilds to enforce his taxation of ruins, is, why doesn’t he just send his own house troops, or a few of these magicians and clerics down the rabbit hole and split the loot with them in the first place? Its a valuable resource, a literal “Gold & Magic Mine,” and its just sitting on his land, unexploited. If a lowly party can succeed, surely his men, magic, and medicine would have looted these oh so valuable gold and magic items 20 years prior?

    Also, you’d get border reivers, like they had on the Scotland/English borders from the late 13th to the early 17th centuries. Each side going back and forth looting the villages (in this case: dungeons) of the lord on the other side of the border, and hiding behind the lord, mages’ guild, and clerics of their own nation, 5 miles away.

    However, if the dungeons are deep in the wilderness, then you have an explanation as to why the lord hasn’t looted it. He doesn’t know its location, or he can’t afford to send troops he needs to protect him from other lords’ soldiery. In any case,unless the ruin is on his front lawn, or near a well-watched road, no lord is going to be able to monitor the comings and goings of small parties into a ruin with anything like precision. Nor would he wouldn’t bother spending the treasure to monitor a remote and infrequently visited ruin, on the off chance some low level party might have gotten a few coppers. It’s not cost effective.

    As far as taxing 100% of magic items, that seems steep, but maybe they can get magic items some other way, at some higher level? Why bother including them at all if you are just going to snatch them all away, again? It just creates a situation where the players have to deal with loss aversion. It doesn’t sound like it’s a safe situation to keep any of the magic, since this lord has such powerful supernatural allies with magic in your campaign. A low magic campaign can be achieved, by just not including excessive amounts of magic items in dungeons.

    I’d look at these issues as a variation on Occam’s Razor. Take the simplest, most intuitively realistic means to solve issues of excessive treasure and magic, not the most circuitous and immersion-damaging. If the players need to interact with the powers that be to get spells and items, then why not just let them do so out of financial necessity? Kind of like us wage-slaves in our world?… They need a spell, that isn’t available without teachers, who must be paid. They get treasure from adventuring, in moderate amounts, and they pay for the armor or the new spell training as need be. The guilds can further demand services for training. And there you have your interactions with the factions in the campaign. It side-steps all the issues of taxes and goodies you never get to enjoy, cause they get appropriated, and is loads simpler in the first place.

    I don’t know how you allot experience points, maybe the excessive treasure and magic is to give the PCs the experience? Gygax came up with a lot of screwy half-baked ideas, and then later counter-solutions to his poor thinking in the first place. Experience for treasure was one of those hopelessly confused ideas. I’ve heard arguments as to Gygax being horrified about players treating wandering monsters as XP piggy banks, and I’m not convinced that was ever his real reason.

    I’d just give XP for monsters slain/beaten, and multiply whatever amounts are listed in the various monster manuals by whatever number you think is appropriate. Figure how many combats you think is reasonable to gain a level, and figure how many times you’d have to fight one of those creatures to advance that far. Award that many XP for that monster. I dunno, take the monster manual and multiply the monster XP by 10, as a rough rule of thumb?

    For puzzles solved, or whatever else you want to emphasize in your campaign, award whatever XP for the difficulty of the puzzle at hand.

  3. Neal says:

    @ Broozer Bear,

    I forgot to ask: how do you manage to have a campaign without much signposting or trails of crumbs? This is an issue I’ve been asking around about – offering players meaningful choices, without telegraphing threats too heavily.

  4. Broozer Bear says:

    @ Neal,

    Who said that the dungeon is a mine of gold and magic? It was looted 75 years ago, when it was the site of the last stand by the local robber baron. Robber baron terrorized the Barony until he failed. He failed, because he was consumed by whatever dark magicks he was experimenting with, necromancy and demonology, literally possessed and consumed him. House troops and men at arms take a long time to train and are hard to come by, historically. This Baron started out as a 13 year old heir and his mother, having lost his father and all of his house troops, who ventured in search of the gold and magic mine deep in the unexplored wilderness, about four days overland if you know where you are going, and never came back. By a stroke of luck and by the virtue of his ward, the current Baron survived into adulthood and rebuilt his house troops ruling over a multi-ethnic Barony in a feudal republic, which is a buffer between an oppressive Papal empire and something alien that can swallow humanity as a whole, with which Papacy can not deal and they know it. Practice of magic is akin to modern practice of medicine – it pays handsomely and most magic users make money in peaceful ways, in day to day living, charging an arm and a leg for their services. Those magicians who learn outside the guild are dealt with severely, if only to protect their power. That is why there are no historically traditional raiders. Baron lets adventure go into the Dungeon so as to keep his men from risking demonic possession and other things, which he forgot to mention to the players. Remember, I strive for historic accuracy, but the setting is vastly different from the historic one. Answer to second question to follow.

  5. Broozer Bear says:

    @ Neal,
    My campaign grew out of the desire to run the kind of a D&D game I wish I played in. I love exploration, truly alien and weird/ mystical. I wanted to be able to go anywhere I want and explore whereas I was railroaded by the DM to another randomly generated underground looting expedition. Initially I was driven by the desire to give the players a world to explore, and then my players started talking about the “awesome” detail of the campaign. I also wanted to create a genuine wilderness adventuring experience. I do a lot of hiking and road trips and it is never “you are walking through the forest” for the four hours, there is always the awesome scenery, topography and detail. There are great writings on dungeon design, but nothing equivalent to wilderness experience.

    To have a directed sandbox campaign without trails of crumbs, you figure out the lay of the land, outline the developments to the conclusion, provide for the push and the pull, and outline adventuring based on where characters are going. Then you let players end up where they may.

    As a good example, let’s say you set your campaign in Japan during WW2 starting in 1938 in the city of Hiroshima. You have your timeline from the beginning to the End Game. For your campaign you can pick a war, an exploratory boom, a collapse or a period of instability, that will inevitably end and will change the way people live, which will be the campaign’s end. Next, the push and the pull. Push is events that characters must react to, and pull is the characters acting on the campaign setting. In my campaign, the character development is the pull and events as they unfold is the push. In my current setting, characters start in a safe town of Ryeland,a local agricultural center and a shipping port on the river. Characters are comfortable and safe, but they are not content. The fighter will never learn his trade, because he is not of noble birth and he can not be a squire or own land and he does not want to toil in the field. The Magic User is learning Magic on the sly and will never have enough gold to join the guild. The thief is about to get caught and outlawed and needs to run. Along the dark frontier, there is gold and powerful ancient magic, a man can become a baron if he can hold his land and there is plenty of opportunities for fighting men. Plenty of loot. Now you got characters planning an expedition. When they are doing this, they are telegraphing you, the DM, what they are planning to do. Via role-play, you let them know something of your world, then they act on your information and you have enough to design an adventure. That’s Pull. Characters stay in the village and it gets raided. Raiders try to get the players to surrender and iron collars around the players necks. The ship the players sail on gets shipwrecked, caravan attacked by bandits. That’s Push. The fighter joins the city watch, the magic user becomes a wizard’s apprentice, the thief joins a guild (all done in role playing sessions, some one on one). That’s Pull. They come together and to missions they like. Pull. They are in service. They ride together on DM’s (Via NPC’s Orders). that’s Push. Events happen on a grander scale and they resonate on the player characters level as well. Through their choices (over the course of the campaign)they end up on one or the other side of events. Hopefully, the players will rise to the level, where they can influence the outcome of the events and alter the course of history, in that case, you can write the end-game. If they never get there, you can still create adventures on their level, with the player characters playing out their end game as the steerage passengers on the sinking Titanic, I which case, the Total Party Kill is he inevitable end of the campaign in the frigid waters.

  6. Neal says:

    @ Broozer Bear,

    The push-pull thing I’ve read of, but never really used it as a specific tool to get a campaign going without bread crumbs or sign posts. Sure, events happen, and characters have their own effects back on the world, but the idea to use it as a more focused tool is interesting.

    I do a lot of hiking, too, and use scenery I’ve experienced to describe the environment (colors, views, textures, sights, smells, elevation changes, shade, dampness, etc). Places I’ve come across do a lot to inspire locales for an adventure.

    I thought that since you mentioned the local lord was taxing the players of 1/3 of the gold they found in the dungeon on his land, and 100% of the magic items, that the dungeon still had valuables in it, and wasn’t looted previously. And if you didn’t pay him, he and his men at arms would come after you, it wasn’t clear how they’d know when someone was in his dungeon, who they were, what they owed, or where they had gone. Or the magic users and clerics possibly at his service for persecutions, would enforce his taxation regime – would be affordable to the lord, since their fees are so high. I thought that he wouldn’t likely be able to afford using them to go after low level characters that hadn’t actually earned enough to be worth the enforcement costs of paying the clerics, magic users for their enforcement services. Sort of like paying the Internal Revenue Service every time it came up, a few million dollars to hire a staff to pursue and prosecute each person who was delinquent in paying fifty cents in back taxes.

  7. Neal says:

    That was weird, I had a longer post, but got told that it was over 2000 characters and had to delete half of it, or not get to post anything. Is that a glitch, or a new requirement?

    I also do hiking, and put the elevations, scenes, scents, textures, colors, shades, fog, etc into the treks the PCs make on the way to any dungeon, town, etc.

    I’ve never had a campaign with anything like an end date that things wrapped up by. Maybe it’s an old-school approach, not sure, since it’s just how I play things. Some of the ideas in your campaign sound pretty involved and baroque, but cool. You mentioned that you created the type of campaign you wished you’d been able to play – I agree with that approach. I’ve been working on rules and a campaign for a low-tech, low treasure, low- epic feeling game in a setting several thousand years after an apocalypse. No glowing blue deserts with impossible mutations, and PCs with insane amounts of hit points, it’s too realistic for that. But, it’s the kind of thing I always wanted to play in, and none of the products on the market ever seemed to address the issues I thought were important.

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