How To Use Prophecy And Divination To Tell The Story

by Wimwick (Neil Ellis) on March 18, 2011

Ash nazg durbatulûk, ash nazg gimbatul,
ash nazg thrakatulûk, agh burzum-ishi krimpatul.

One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them,
One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them.

- J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings

With these lines a quest was born unlike any known before or since.

Developing a prophecy or using divination to assist in the story telling of your campaign can be as simple as two lines or as complex as you want it to be. Of course you’ll need an overarching quest to tie everything to, the prophecy simply provides motivation or guidance to your players. The prophecy can be a detailed guide to the adventure or a mysterious code that provides occasional direction.

This week at Dungeon’s Master we’ve been discussing aid from divine and otherworldly sources in detail. Ameron started the discussion off with Divinations – Is Some Magic Just Too Powerful for PCs and then continued with a piece on Divine Intervention.  The discussion was continued by Callin and his post at Big Ball of No FunHow to Handle Divinations.  In other words there has been no shortage or articles about divination in the 4e blog community this week. I would also encourage people to read Prophecy Points as a Reward for Roleplaying from The Big Red Box Blog.

I felt it was only appropriate that we cap the week off with an article not about reacting to the use of divinations in game by players, but to the active use of divination and prophecy by the DM as a storytelling tool.

Using prophecy or divination as an active tool in your storytelling can be tricky. I once ran a game that had an element of prophecy and time travel worked into the story. Continuity started to erode with one character dying and another being retired. As players we can set aside our disbelief and work with the new circumstance, but it might require some tweaking to your story. Especially if the dead character had begun to play a central role in your story. Fair warning having been provided let’s take a deeper look.

Fiction

If you are considering using prophecy or divination in your game I would encourage you to look at how these devices are handled in fiction. Two recommendations are The Draconic Prophecies by James Wyatt and The Belgariad by David Eddings. Both series use prophecy to drive the story forward. Tying key events in the story to the prophecy. Both also have elements of mystery being that prophecy can be misinterpreted.

Of course I would be remiss if I didn’t once again mention The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien and how the prophecy about the One Ring could enslave the races of men, Elves and Dwarves spawned a quest to destroy that very ring. In Tolkien’s case the prophecy didn’t change, in fact you might argue it wasn’t a prophecy but a poem describing the power of the ring. Either way the simple knowledge of the prophecy and possession of the ring created a powerful argument about what to do with the ring as was evident at the Council of Elrond.

In The Draconic Prophecies set in Eberron we are introduced to a prophecy that is living. The prophecy seems to be constantly changing and being rewritten. The Draconic Prophecy is also very vague in its wording easily allowing for multiple interpretations.

Writing A Prophecy

If you are going to use prophecy in your campaign you had best write it down. The length and level of detail in your prophecy is entirely up to you. I would recommend going one of two ways. First a simple prophecy that relates directly to the campaign and the actions of the party. This would be similar to what Tolkien created in The Lord of the Rings. It’s short, sweet and directly to the point. It provides direction or describes why the party should be undertaking their current quest. Add in a few side quests, like the Mines of Moira or Helm’s Deep, and your work is done.

The second option is a more elaborate prophecy. In this instance you are writing several verses of prophecy that may or may not pertain to the actions of the party. The Draconic Prophecy fits into this category.

In terms of actually writing the prophecy I would start large and then scale things down. Determine what the main storyline of your adventure is. The break that down into workable chapters, each with its own climax. Then pick one element from each climax and work that into a sentence, don’t worry about fancy language or rhyming at this point. Just write it down. The element could be the location of the battle, the season, a description of the villain or a sound that is heard during the battle.

Arrange each of these sentences in order. At this point you may even want to designate a separate sheet of paper or even use cue cards to keep each line apart. Next surround the lines you have written with three more lines, these lines can be throw away text. You may even want to liberally borrow from fiction for this section. Consider Shakespeare, Chaucer or Dante as interesting source to pilfer a line or two from. Of course if you are into writing then use some original works.

Once you’ve written out your prophecy pop open a thesaurus. Select the key descriptive and action words and look for interesting substitutes to dress up your mundane words. You may even want to jot several possible words to determine the best flow for your prophecy. Adding a rhyming element isn’t necessary, and is certainly more work, it may also come off a little bit corny.

Remember that what you write can be as specific or general as you desire. However, if things start out specific and your players begin to rely on the prophecy for direction they could soon start floundering if your prophecy suddenly takes a very vague tone. If you have a larger prophecy you may want to introduce an NPC who is an expert in the prophecy to guide the players along the way.

Let’s Throw Some Divination Into The Mix

Divination is a harder element to plan for. The main reason is because the use of divination is largely player driven. Unless a player tells you upfront that they plan to play a character who has a heavy reliance on divination magic you are going to get blindsided on occasion. However, if you are running a game that uses a prophecy it’s fair to expect your players to try to divine what may come.

The first rule is don’t let divination magic get out of hand. Emphasize that it is powerful magic and that the forces who provide the answers don’t take lightly to being bothered by the requests of mortals. If you don’t do this you end up dealing with characters like Merric the Cleric who liked to use divine magic. He once asked if danger would result if he were to get on the Lightning Rail. The response was yes, danger would result. The reason being upon arriving at the destination the party would be involved in combat, which is dangerous. Merric refused to get on the lightning rail and was left behind by the other players who scoffed at his notions of danger and divine providence. Merric stuck to his guns and he missed the next combat encounter as a result. To this day we reference Merric and his refusal to get on train whenever a player tries to derail a situation.

Divinations can be as generic or specific as you desire. As long as you aren’t lying to the players its fine, it really all depends on the mood of the gods on that particular day. The subject of being vague or leading is covered nicely by the How to Handle Divinations article at Big Ball of No Fun; as a result I’m not going to elaborate much further as I don’t have anything new to add to the conversation at this time.

Divination and prophecy can make for some very interesting storytelling tools for you as the DM. They can also create some headaches if you execute them incorrectly.

What experience have you had using prophecy in your campaigns? Have you had player attempt to abuse the power of divination magic?

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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Tourq March 18, 2011 at 11:49 am

The last real campaign I ran was led by a prophecy, abused by Asmodeus. It was quite interesting and exhilarating – I’ve never done anything like that and it was certainly on a grand scale.

However, I think on my next campaign involving a prophecy I’ll make it on a smaller scale, one that didn’t involve so many elementals, gods, and devils.

2 DarkTouch March 18, 2011 at 12:52 pm

Oh I love this. I remember playing Quest for Glory where each of the chapters had a prophesy attached to it open to interpretation but all fitting how you could win the game. I like the idea of writing up a prophesy… a long one.. and every time the PCs use some sort of divination or they consult a sage they get a piece of it. It is a lot of work up front but if you make it general enough you could get a lot of mileage out of it.

3 Wimwick March 19, 2011 at 7:27 am

@ Tourq
I think that is one of the dangers of using a prophecy in a game. The prophecy can almost take on a life of its own. Though they are great for allowing you to use elementals, gods, devils and angels as opponents which is something I enjoy doing.

@ DarkTouch
Thanks for mentioning the amount of up front work. If you have a prophecy in your game and it reflects major plot points along the entire campaign, you need to have everything worked out ahead of time. Not necessarily have the encounters designed, but certainly you need to know that they will happen. As you say, a lot of work before the first die is even rolled.

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