Using Prophecies in RPGs

Some of the greatest fantasy stories in history revolve around a grand prophecy. A well written prophecy adds mystery and depth. But while prophecies are a great tool for writers, using prophecies in RPGs is a lot harder for GM’s. In this article we’ll explore why prophecies don’t work in RPGs and how to fix it.

Problems with using prophecies in RPGs

There are three main problems with using prophecies in RPGs; railroading, player engagement, and the single, grand prophecy.

  • Railroading

The fact that prophecies must come to pass means that GM’s limit their freedom to change the story on the fly. Players are unpredictable and might take the story in directions that make a prophecy less meaningful or obsolete. And if a GM forces a prophecy on players, they might feel railroaded. Instead of drawing players into the story, it pushes them out. In short, using prophecies in RPGs works different from using them in books.

  • Player engagement

Using prophecies doesn’t challenge players. If a prophecy is destined to come true anyway, why make the effort to see it come true? Unless a prophecy aligns with a character’s motivation, there is really no reason for players to invest. Also, if a prophecy singles out one character as being special, other players might feel left out.

  • A single grand prophecy

Many stories revolve around one singular, grand prophecy that dominates the entire narrative. But in many RPGs divination represents an entire school of magic. It would be odd if it only produced a single prophecy. For players, a big part of the fun is finding out what the prophecy means. It simply isn’t as much fun if there is only one prophecy in the game.

How to use prophecies in RPGs

using prophecies in rpgs

GM’s can get more out of their prophecies by using them in ways that work better with their gaming system. In order to do that we have to turn the concept of prophecies on its head.

Instead of using a single grand prophecy that dominates your entire campaign, I would like to suggest using multiple smaller prophecies. From a RPG standpoint this makes more sense. Soothsayers, fortune tellers, and diviners can be found in every market. And characters pray for prophecies or use divination spells.

When turning the concept of prophecies on its head, it is no longer the GM’s job to decide what a prophecy means or how it should be weaved into the story. That would be railroading. Instead, just give characters a prophecy and let them wonder about what it all means and how it applies to them. This ensures player engagement, because players will spontaneously try to find personal meaning in a prophecy. (Ever opened a fortune cookie with a vague prophecy? You can’t help thinking about how it applies to you.)

Prophecies in RPGs as character development

Players will start to look for events that fit their meaningful, personal interpretation of the prophecy. And if they do, they can play out how their character evolves through their actions in the game. For instance:

“Mark is playing a young half-elf named Elharil. He receives a prophecy that says: ‘In the eye of the storm, it’s best to stay centered’. Mark decides that this prophecy is a great metaphor for the mistrust between humans and elves. During the next gaming sessions he plays out how he is internally conflicted about his double heritage. And the GM, seeing this, decides to put him on the spot by making him choose between elves and humans. Can Elharil find a way to stay at the centre of that storm? If so, his character will achieve personal growth. If not, he might take a darker more radical path.”

Using prophecies as a means of character development allows for a much more personal experience for players. Because players get to decide how they wish to incorporate the prophecy into the story, they will never feel railroaded.

Also, much of the responsibly for making the prophecy come true is shifted from the GM to the players. If they want their prophecies to mean something, players must bring them to the GM’s attention through role playing. It is no longer the GM’s job to keep the players focused on the prophecy.

The Tarot & Prophecy Bundle

This bundle contains two card decks that both use prophecies as a means of character development.

The Fortuneteller Tarot is a traditional Tarot Deck of 78 cards for VTT only. It comes with a guide on how to use the Tarot. You can use this deck to give a reading. The interpretation of what is revealed, is left up to the player.

The Deck of 101 Prophecies lets players draw one card from the deck. It is up to the player to make the prophecy relevant to their character and story. The better and more meaningful a player manages to do so, the bigger the reward a GM gives. Players cannot have more than one prophecy card at any time. They must successfully weave the prophecy into the story before they can attempt to gain a new prophecy. Of course, a party could also draw a card together and grow as a team.

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