The Alexandrian


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.


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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One Response to “Ptolus: Running the Campaign – Using Prophecy”

  1. Wyvern says:

    Near the beginning of Vampire: Bloodlines you run into a character who spouts a series of cryptic, stream-of-consciousness prophecies. They make no sense at first, but if you revisit them after finishing the game, you can see how almost everything she says relates to things that happen in the course of the game. This is possible because the main plot is very linear (you’re given jobs by the Prince of LA, and you *have* to carry them out in order for the game to progress). With the exception of an optional sidequest involving a serial killer (which you can choose to ask her about or not), you *will* encounter every one of the people, places and events she alludes to.

    Of course, in a non-railroaded tabletop campaign, you can’t count on that being true. Which leads me to the point of this post: it occurs to me that prophecy could be used to drop clues for the players. (“She said something about dinosaurs, didn’t she? Where would we find dinosaurs? Maybe we should check out the musuem.”) The key would be to avoid making statements about what the PCs will do, so that the players don’t feel like they’re being led by the nose.

    Instead, as you suggest, you’d want to stick to describing things that have either already happened or that are simply outside of the PCs’ control. You could also make vague references that don’t relate to specific events (“The grey man hides a dagger in his heart”), or predictions about the consequences of *possible* events (“There will be much suffering among the people of the wind if the golden temple burns”), which could provide motivation for the PCs to act in order to bring about a desired outcome or prevent an undesirable one.

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