Playing with Fate has its own pros and cons
Many fantasy stories revolve around some other prophecy of relative importance. There are stories for which this prophecy is transcendental to understand certain aspects of history, or to solve the mystery that the plot has woven around the protagonists. There are also stories for which this prophecy is nothing more than a McGuffin whose only function is to propitiate the events that happen one after another. The real problem of using prophecies as a campaign’s axis is to establish its degree of inevitability. If the prophecy in question may not be fulfilled, its prophetic value is questioned; and if it can not be avoided, free will is the one who gets the axe.
The Catholic Encyclopaedia defines a prophecy as the advance knowledge of future events, although it can also refer to past ones that are not known or present that can not be perceived naturally. A little away from the prophets linked to any religion, the name of Nostradamus is the most widely recognized. At best, the associations between their works and historical events are the product of forced translations (sometimes even deliberate) or are so ambiguous that they are totally useless until the event had already happened and their details were known. For effects of D&D and other games in which fantasy is very real, we will work with very different types of diviners. We’ve all used some trance-like oracle or a mysterious old woman with a crystal ball. A good DM pushes the boundaries, always supported by a little knowledge.
When you need a creative way of launching a prophecy, I recommend to use one of these: an omen (nothing better than the sudden flying of crows to indicate that something bad is about to happen), extispicy (even more so when the entrails come from domesticated animals) or lithomancy (nothing better than gems in a crown to keep a familiar curse). More traditional methods, such as astrology, necromancy or scrying will always be effective. Eberron also offers us the ultimate source of prophetic endeavours, which manifests itself in as many different forms as one can imagine: the Draconic Prophecy.
The methods, however, are actually secondary to two other aspects of a prophecy. First, we will try to analyze the objectives of divination, then we will stop at how to make it self-contained so that it does not simply fall into the background of the campaign.
Something for everyone
Individuals will give greater accuracy to descriptions that are supposed to have been made directly to them, even though in fact the adjectives used are vague enough to fit a large number of people. This is known as the Forer effect, which explains (at least in part) why horoscopes or personality tests are often right for those who use them. The Forer effect obviously does not work for everyone in the same way. The subjective validation that each individual makes depends on some factors, which will help us to make our players accept the prophecy and even feel directly involved. These are the variables that will help us find higher levels of acceptance:
- The subject believes that the analysis applies only to him: The fact that we are about 1 in 12 beings on earth makes us feel different from the other 11. Focusing on our subject, if any part of the prophecy seems to fit with one or more of the players (the seventh son of a seventh son, for example), they will feel identified quickly, so much the better if we take the detail in question of the background that the player has made for his character.
- The subject relies on the authority of the person applying the analysis: Those evaluated in psychological tests tend to perceive that their interviewers are able to perceive what they think (although this is not true). If the prophecy in question comes from a gypsy who wanders in a wagon across the borders, it is possible that the characters do not perceive it as real (that is, if she can see the future, what does she not take advantage of it?). It is much more suggestive when the vision of the future comes from a virgin locked in a tower precisely because its terrible predictions are always fulfilled, or that enigmatic sphinx that has made you guess 13 riddles before telling you what you want to know in the form of a riddle too.
The analysis includes mostly positive aspects: No one likes to read in their horoscope that one is selfish, frivolous or hedonistic. That is why we read things like “we know how to defend what is ours”, “we appreciate appearances for the image it projects” and “we like to live every day to make the most of everything”. The prophecies, however, do not work at all in this way, mainly because of its negative approach: players will believe it if something terrible is about to happen, or at least they will feel urged to try to stop it. The metaphors of astrological events (“the night when the moon bathes in blood”, “when neither day nor night overcomes the other in their eternal battle”) help us to subtly send that sense of urgency that makes the prophecies work as the engine of a campaign.
So be it
The most difficult thing to accomplish in a campaign involving a prophecy as the engine of such a campaign events is precisely that prophecy. As we said at the beginning of the article, if the heroes manage to keep it from fulfilling, the prophecy in question loses its validity (what about the demands that will come to the one who provided it in the first place!); but if they can’t, the futility of everything done may frustrate many players. We know two ways to avoid this situation: both have to do with the perception and relativity of everything that happens in the campaign.
Self-fulfilling prophecies seem difficult to attain, but they are not so. When someone believes that something is going to happen, their behavior towards it is precisely what causes it to happen. Examples in literature and fantasy are all around: Oedipus, condemned to kill his father and to marry his mother is probably the oldest of the famous ones. Another one of the most striking are the plot of the third episode of Star Wars, “Revenge of the Sith”, in which the visions that Anakin has about Padmé’s death are the ones that end up taking him to the dark side, and that’s exactly why he ends up killing Padmé. And of course, we have one of my favorites in literature and film: the prophecy that Cassandra Trelawney gives us a few days after the birth of the son of James and Lily, seen in retrospect in “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.” Voldemort tries to assassinate him as a baby, but the curse bounces, transferring some of his powers to the infant (“marking him as his equal” in the Prophecy text). Dumbledore tells Harry several times that the prophecy is only certain precisely because Voldemort believes in it. Harry might well have ignored it, but the fact that Voldemort did not is what inevitably forces them to face each other. In all sense, if the prophecy had not been believed, Voldemort would never have given Harry the power to defeat him.
Thus, our first resource is to play with the perception of the result. The prophecy was not avoided, because a war started anyway, but somehow, if it were not for the heroes, it could have been much worse. Or the end of the world came, but it was not what the heroes believed at first. The second is to play with the perception of the premise. The prophecy was not fulfilled now because we could avoid it, but we must warn future generations to do the same (eventually in some other part of the world, a seventh son of a seventh son may be born). These two tools are greatly facilitated for the DM in Eberron, since the Draconic Prophecy flows constantly, changing its conditions and results.
Whatever tool we use, we must always take care to implant in the players the idea that it is not only their perception that was wrong, but also that of all involved, and that if we had not thought that way, possibly the result would have been a thousand times worse. Soon the players will wonder, with a degree of satisfaction, if they had broken the vase even though they had not been told they were going to do it (and you, reader, will get 100 XP if you recognize the reference).