A mechanism for prophecies in roleplaying games

The problem with prophecies

Prophecies don’t work as easily in roleplaying games as they do in non-interactive (or less interactive) fiction. The ‘tactical infinity’ of roleplaying games poses problems.

In non-interactive fiction (such as a book, movie or tv-show) the fiction’s creator (for ease I’ll call them all authors) can ensure that any prophecies are sufficiently fulfilled. This is easy because the author can know how the prophecy will be fulfilled before they even write the prophecy itself. The other main component is that authors maintain Absolute Control of all the events occurring in their fiction.

Game masters have no such luxury.

Suppose that in my game, one of the players eats a herb which gives them prophetic visions. If the visions are too specific then I will have to push the world hard to enable the conditions of the prophecy to be met. This can crush player agency and tactical infinity. It is the oft-feared railroad.

Conversely, if the prophecies are too vague, then, for the players, it can feel like a frustrating game of ‘guess what I’m thinking’.

Ezekiel’s vision of the Valley of Dry Bones – A biblical game of ‘guess what I’m thinking’ (hint: It’s not good)

Now this wouldn’t be a problem if prophecies didn’t have to come true, but that solution raises its own issues. If some prophecies just don’t come true, what is the point of them? They just become possible futures which may or may not happen – who cares?

One solution would be to have an unreliable source of prophecies, such as The Oracle in The Matrix. She tells Neo that he is not The One, because she has an agenda. She told him exactly what he needed to hear so that he would be able to become The One.

Alternatively, you could do the Harry Potter solution

and either must die at the hand of the other for neither can live while the other survives

and make the prophecy linguistically tricky. However, without the Absolute Control of an author, a GM can run into issues. The author can ensure that Harry doesn’t die to a random encounter(and is therefore alive to be able to fight Voldemort in a duel, which), or a lucky crit, but a GM could easily wreck their game by protecting a player character from harm like that.

Continuum, the time-travelling roleplaying game presents a different solution.

Continuum and its singular timeline

In Continuum, you roleplay as a time-traveller in a society of time-travellers. Because you are part of this timeline, it is your duty to ensure it remains as you know it to be.

For example, if you know that Abraham Lincoln was assassinated on the 14th day of April in 1864, and you find out that another time-traveller is planning to assassinate John Wilkes Booth on the 13th of April, so that he cannot assassinate Lincoln on the 14th it is imperative that you prevent this from happening.

The existence of this paradox (or as continuum calls it, the as/as-not) will fragment your timeline, potentially to the degree that you can no longer corporeally interact with the universe.

A second example: you see a re-run of 90s sit-com Friends, and notice that you are in the background of the episode, sipping coffee and ordering a bagel.

But this never happened to you. In fact, you were born after the episode aired.

Waves of nausea wash over you. The as/as-not hits your soul, fragmenting the essence of your reality.

To repair the damage, you will have to go back in time and get cast as an extra. Well, there are other solutions, I’ll list a few solutions to both problems at the bottom of the post.

We can model our prophetic visions in this format, but without the time-y wimey Jeremy Bearimy nonsense mind-screws.

The Oracle of Delphi

How to do prophecies the Continuum way

  1. The character experiences a clear, precise vision of an event that will happen, unless the character deliberately acts to prevent it from happening.
  2. If the character deliberately acts to prevent it from happening, they get a consequence.

This turns the prophecy into a forewarning of the future which you can stop, but at a cost.

It makes it specific enough to act directly upon, whilst allowing for player agency and the lack of Absolute Control that an author would enjoy.

Aim to make the visions poetic yet specific and clear. They can be lacking in specific detail, just like a dream, but the character should know what they experienced enough to act (or not act) upon it. Like when you’re dreaming of a place you’ve never been to before but in the dream you just know its your house. The character just knows certain details about the vision.

I would let players fulfill prophecies in an unintended way if it was within the scope and expectations of the game. However weasel-worming your way around the wording of ‘deliberately acts’ with some rules-lawyer shenanigans wouldn’t be allowed. The Fates will know you will face the consequences. The consequences should also be clearly telegraphed (or outright stated) for players.

Consequences should be really bad, hard-to-fix stuff. They should also be setting/tone dependent but I’ve listed a few suggestions below.

Consequences

  • You die
  • You lose your conscience
  • You are a ghost
  • You lose a mana dice
  • You can no longer cast spells
  • You are hit by level drain
  • You are cursed
  • Your deity/patron rejects and shuns you
  • You are hit with several levels of exhaustion
  • The devil claims your soul
  • Any of the above but to people the player characters care about
Continuum’s front cover

Solutions to the Continuum scenarios above

Abraham Lincoln scenario

  • Go back in time to 13th of April 1864 and kill the time traveller
  • Go to a point in time where the time traveller is younger and attack them before they can go back to 1864
  • Allow John Wilkes Booth to be killed by the time traveller, and get futuristic surgery and acting classes so you can replace Booth after he is killed and kill Abraham Lincoln yourself

We can get even fancier with the Friends scenario

  • Time travel to the set of Friends and get cast as an extra (by using more time travel to get yourself added to production notes as an extra)
  • Time travel to before a key member of the production was working on Friends, befriend that production member then travel forward and call in a favour, therein getting a scene as an extra
  • Travel back in time and find a good impersonator as you and then use time travel shenanigans to get them cast as an extra on Friends
  • Travel back in time, abduct the cast and crew of Friends, force them to film the scene with you, mind-wipe them and out them back where you found them, then when the master tapes have been edited, insert the version of the scene with you in it into the episode
  • Travel to the future and hire a special effects expert to make a master tape matching the scene you’ve just watched, then sneak (by time-travelling) into the modern broadcasting house which just aired the episode you watched and swap out the original episode for the fake version you have. So the paradox is resolved, and it turns out you never really were in Friends. This creates another paradox – one of information origin. However, Continuum isn’t concerned with that, just with as/as-not paradoxes

Most of the problems in Continuum fall into two categories

  1. Information Control: I know something, and must maintain the timeline. If I learn too much more, it will get harder to maintain the timeline (for instance, the more you know about the movements and actions of John Wilkes Booth, the more precise your movements in 1864 must be)
  2. Narcissists: Nefarious time travellers are trying to mess with the timeline

Because you can time travel, you don’t have to worry about money and skills. You can obtain large amounts of money and any number of trivial ways, and you can travel away, spend years learning a skill and then travel back to when you want to use the skill.

Your main restriction is your Age (spending years learning skills will catch up with you) and the events which you know must happen.

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