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.

Remember, remember the 5th of November

Remember, remember the 5th of November.
Gunpowder, Treason and Plot
I know of no reason
Why gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot

Guy Fawkes Night

In the UK, Guy Fawkes Night is a pretty big deal. Random fireworks will go off every night for about a week beforehand. On the 5th, Brits gather at bonfires to eat, chat and bask in the warmth of the flames (whilst their back-half freezes in the autumn chill). An effigy of Guy is often burnt and a shower of fireworks will crack and sparkle overhead before the crowd slumps off home.

It gets very serious in some places, the bonfire night at Lewes (Bonfire Night and Guy Fawkes Night are the same thing) is a particularly big deal. A procession is made through the town with various burning objects and effigies of various wellknown persons are set aflame.

Pictured: two panels from Alan Moore’s Graphic Novel: V for Vendetta, wherein V blows up the Parliament.

If you’re not British (or Commonwealth) and you know Guy Fawkes Night from anywhere, you probably know it from V for Vendetta. The traditional intent of Guy Fawkes Night is to remember/commemorate a failed attempt by Catholic rebels to blow up the Houses of Parliament, blowing up the protestant King James VI and I (he was the 6th King James of Scotland and the 1st King James of England and Ireland) and the majority of the upper crust of British politicians in the process. The intent of V in V for Vendetta is to remind the people of the UK that they should strike out against tyrannical rule and rebel on-mass against the facist party which rules the UK in the story.

Ed Balls Day

On the 28th of April, 2011, prominent Labour politician Ed Balls accidentally posted ‘Ed Balls’ on twitter.

Ten years later, some British people still celebrate Ed Balls Day, wherein adherents greet each-other by saying some variation on ‘Happy Ed Balls Day‘ or remind others of that great day by typing those immortal words into their social media and hitting enter.

So apparently Brits will turn anything into a tradition.

I’ve played through startlingly few day-specific festivals in roleplaying-games. Maybe its due to the slow progression of real-time relative to the in-fiction calendar year (which can be fixed by truncating the calendar year as I’ve previously suggested). Or maybe it’s because it’s one of those things that we forget to put into games which could really add to the verisimilitude.

Tables with which one can generate annual village festivals

d3Type of festival
1worship
2commemoration
3ironic commemoration
d6 twiceDeity to be worshippedHow it is worshipped
1fertility frog-god, bloated, four-eyeda sacrifice is burnt alive
2the guiding twin-stars of the nightsweet goods are baked and shared on the village green
3a laughing baby, personifying fortunea full-contact race to the peak of the nearest hill and back
4the great lidless eye of foresightfloating animal effigies are cast down-river
5Grom the destroyer, the foe-slayera sun-up to sun-down day of silence with a big shindig at the end
6the lady of the dead, clad in white robesa candle-light chanting procession around the village
d6 twiceEvent to be commemoratedHow it is remembered
1a local battlea barn dance
2a notable birtha great communal feast
3the death of a local heroa good old-fashioned apple-harvest
4the founding of the villagea march or parade
5the defeat of a local monstera story-telling competition
6the completion of the village churcha midnight bonfire
d6 Event to be ironically commemorated and how it is commemorated
1a miserably romantic marriage proposal – a bad-poetry competition
2the time an annoying lord came to visit – a parade of animals dressed in human clothes
3the time someone got stuck in a rabbit-hole – the village gathers for a rabbit-themed-feast
4the time someone fell of their stool – kicking seating out from under others
5when the local priest said ‘dow do you who’ instead of ‘how do you do’ – ‘dow do you who’ is the greeting of the day
6an absolutely dreadful pie Old Mrs Higgins once made – the villagers take turns knocking on Mrs Higgins door begging for pie

Too much/not enough player knowledge and pre-existing settings

Mood Music

Suppose I want to run a game set in the Warhammer 40k universe (inspired by the Gaunt’s Ghosts series) set around a platoon or company of guardsman. They are sent to all sorts of hell-holes, battlefields and all-too-quiet patrol routes. They fight aliens, mutants, heretics and the bureaucracy of the Adeptus Administratum. It’s going to be grim, dark and grim-dark.

I ask some friends if they want to play and I get the following responses:

Cool I really liked the ghosts books, have you read the all guardsman party? Is it going to be like that? I’ve never really read the deep lore though, will that matter?

Player with the correct amount and type of 40k knowledge

Nice idea! is this going to be set before or after the indomitus crusade cos I heckin hate the way they treated cadia, cos that place was like the fortress world i mean if anyone could’ve stood up to AbAdOn ThE DeSpOiLeR then-

Player with too much 40k knowledge (cut for brevity and sanity)

40k? Is that the one with those green skeleton guys and lizard people?

Player with too little 40k knowledge

Oh cool, yeah I’ve played dark crusade, I love playing chaos FOR THE DARK GODS loved their big red demon fellas

Player with the wrong sort of 40k knowledge
A 17th century russian warhammer

The Problem

Player 1 will understand how authoritarian, uncaring and zealous the Imperium of Man can be. They don’t know all the secrets and unsanctioned knowledge which means that: Player knowledge = character knowledge. This makes it easy to roleplay.

Player 2 might notice me contradicting established elements of the setting, which could break their willing suspension of disbelief. They also know too much about all the bad guys, all the ‘deep lore’, maybe even all the backstory from the Horus Heresy. They might be able to roleplay well but when player knowledge ≠ character knowledge, it can be an uphill battle.

Player 3 has no clue, which will be fine if we make their character be from some total backwater. It might be an effort to make the grim-dark tone really clear though.

Player 4 might have the wrong tonal expectations, which is more challenging than having no tonal expectations like Player 3. I’ll need to make it clear to them that we’ll be playing a guard-focused game, and that guardsmen are even weaker in the lore than they are in Dawn of War: Dark Crusade.

All of these problems are solvable, and this game could totally work. However it’s going to be an uphill struggle. Getting the tone and knowledge of the setting over in the first few sessions without lore-dumping, whilst reining in the people who know too much might be hard. As time goes on, these issues will be lessened, but many campaigns don’t last more than a few sessions, so the better the opening few sessions are, the better our chances of a campaign with some longevity.

I can see a few solutions to these problems. Solution 3 is the most interesting.

Not actually 40k. Just imagine they all have lasguns, zealotry and even shorter life expectancies.

Everyone is Not From Around Here

In this instance, all the player characters are from some backwater. Player knowledge ≠ character knowledge but having everyone’s characters start on the same page will smooth things over somewhat.

This solution is better the less knowledge the players have of the setting.

The Mixed Knowledge Party

We could deviate from our plan and have the party be a special operations group. This way, the player who knows too much could be a scholar who has been seconded and attached to the unit. This is our best chance of player knowledge = character knowledge. We might still have trouble with the very knowledgeable player knowing more than the GM about little details.

The Reboot/Reimagining

What about if we spend Session 0 doing a reboot?

We take the core ideas of 40k and rework them so that the tone (grimdark) is retained, but the specifics are changed.

Keep the big uncaring human empire in space. Keep the FTL travel through another realm.

Yes there are dark gods, but they are not the four from 40K, and the GM will decide about them separately.

Then collaboratively redesign the power structure of the imperium (in a basic sense) and choose a naming convention for imperial weapons and vehicles.

We create three types of alien to oppose us which everyone knows exists. A truly alien species. A humanoid alien species based on a fantasy race. A twist on the humanoid alien.

We create a splinter faction relating to the dark gods and decide why people might choose to join them.

Et cetera.

There are several advantages to this method.

  • No lore dump is needed because we are creating the lore together
  • Everyone has the same knowledge of the setting (nobody knows too much or too little)
  • Player knowledge = character knowledge
  • Tonal expectations have been discussed during session 0 through the process of creating the reboot
  • Investment should be high because the players will want to see the things they created in play
  • The GM has freedom, with constraints, to use in their planning.

I can see some downsides too, mostly to do with game prep. Some GMs like to prep a lot of stuff in advance, which can be hard this way around. However, if the main thing which is prepped in advance is imperial NPCs and scenarios/problems then it should still be a goer.

All the problems I’ve raised about player knowledge can be overcome in games. But why not evade them entirely instead?

I’d love to hear any other solutions.

Eradicate external canon

Internal canon is concerned with matters in the fictional world.

External canon is concerned with how the fictional world relates to other stories.

An example of internal/external canon

As a kid I had a toybox with a mix of toys. There were some superheroes, lots of freebies from McDonalds, some wrestling federation action figures and a lot of random assorted figures.

I had a very clear and internally consistent canon. Characters changed their attitudes and views in line with the events that I played out. Action -> Consequence.

I had absolutely no external canon. I never explained how the bad guy from Mulan, Superman, WWE wrestlers, dinosaurs and three batmen were all in the same location. It didn’t matter.

Maintaining internal canon is crucial

If internal canon is inconsistent then the game can lose verisimilitude, players can lose their willing suspension of disbelief and trust in the game-masters ability to model the world can plummet.

We want to maintain internal canon. The one big exception is that when safety tools and internal canon clash, the safety tools always win.

How can I eradicate external canon?

During your session zero say the following:

This game’s canon will be internally consistent, but it will not be externally consistent.

Make sure the players understand what you mean by this. Make it clear that characters and locations from other canons may show up in this game.

Why should I eradicate external canon?

  • You can insert pop culture characters like Batman, James Bond, Buffy, Walter White, Dracula and Lara Croft into your game. You might need to modify them to fit the world.
  • You can insert objects like Excalibur, Sting, Death’s invisibility cloak, Mjolnir, The Golden Fleece and the Staff of Moses.
  • You can insert locations like The Shrieking Shack, Yggdrasil, the first Halo ring, The Emerald City and the Garden of Eden.
  • You can even remix across genres.

Have the player’s knowledge approximately match the character knowledge – the characters have heard rumours, myths and folk tales. They have a decent general idea of the character/object/location, but don’t know the specifics. Different players might even know contradictory versions of a story. Good. That means their characters have heard different versions of the tale.

Now player knowledge = character knowledge.

You have characters debating which myth is the real story.

You have lore-dumped by just dropping a name.

Your game prep has become lighter.

Canon ≠ Cannon

Design Notes

If you’re publishing your stuff, make sure you aren’t breaking copyright.

Superhero comics and movies (and Star Trek) break external canon all the time.

So do other shared universes like the kong vs godzilla one.

Reboots like the 2004 Battlestar Galactica series, or adaptations from book to tv/movie often break external canon.

Myths do this a lot – does King Arthur get his sword from a stone or from a lady in a lake?

If we can accept big franchises killing their external canon, we should let ourselves do it too.

Character progression in games III: The Flag system of development

In part 1 I discussed some things I do and don’t like about character progression in games.

In part 2 I wrote a criteria to examine character progression with: Is it appreciable, qualitative and distinctive?

Character progression often comes out of the blue.

You suddenly know countercharm because you are a 6th level bard.

We generally just handwave this away as the character having gained experience, but the experience generally doesn’t match the new progression.

Below are three ways of improving on this.

Critical Role’s system

In lower-level episodes of Critical Role, when the players level up and are in a city, they often spend part of the next session playing out downtime vignettes showing how they obtained their new features and abilities.

For instance, the wizard and the arcane trickster might play out a scene where the wizard teaches the trickster how to cast their new spell.

Or the Monk goes to a monastery in the city, spars with her superiors and can now do a punch which stuns opponents.

I like how the progression is represented in world, it’s preferable to suddenly getting new features, because the events in the fiction are matching the changes in the mechanics.

But its a bit cart before horse.

The mechanical changes have primacy, and the fiction is played out to explain them.

An Eastern Han pottery horse and cart, in the correct order

The Montage System

One of the first games I ever played in was an excellent homebrew mess set in Ravnica. When we leveled up we told the GM what sort of new feature we wanted the character to get. There would then be some collaborative discussion to make sure the feature was not too over/under-powered. Then we played out as a montage a series of short narrations representing how we had gained that feature.

The GM gave us prompts and we would improv off of them.

For instance, if I wanted my character to get a new poison attack we might spend a couple of minutes describing:

  • Chasing a lizard around the laboratory with a giant net
  • Swirling a purple chemical in a flask as I pour some green goo into it
  • Using a pipette to drop the poison onto a slab of meat, which sizzles and deteriorates at its touch

and at the end I have a new ability.

You can also put a short 2 minute song on in the background to act as a timer, it will make things more frantic.

This is better than the critical role system because it is quicker, more fun, and the progression is player directed. I don’t get a new feature because “the rules say that when I get to 6th level I now know countercharm”. Rather I get a new feature because that is what the GM and I both agree fits the character at this point in time.

I think we can still do better though.

The progression here is not flagged in advance. It doesn’t necessarily flow logically from the recent actions of the character.

A montage of various coins from the Novgorod Republic in the 1400s

The Flag System

Put a piece of paper in the middle of the table with all the player character names on it. Write Development Goals at the top.

Each player writes by their character’s name the next bit of development they want for their character. Like this:

Development Goals

  • Dillon, Sorcerer Supreme: Magic which will allow me to infiltrate the halls of the Archmage Candlestick
  • Jango the fighter: A magic axe
  • Thrasos the Biomancer: A way to hear better that will synergise with the screeching ability I already have to allow echolocation
  • Jessop: An audience with the Mayor
  • Sally: Access to the restricted section of the town library

By writing down development goals you are flagging for the other players, and for the GM, content that you want to appear in the game.

As a GM, this is useful because it makes prep easier – just look at the Development Goals and see if there is a way to work them in.

It also makes improv easier for the GM – have the development goals on your GM screen and use it for inspiration.

It also gives the party five self-made quests/goals.

When you complete the goal, you get the progression.

You can be very precise or a little vague. The more vague, the quicker you might complete the goal but the less precise the result. You get a magic axe, but you don’t get that particular one with that particular ability.

The fiction has primacy, and the rules and mechanics follow them. The horse is before the cart.

The Flag of Mercia, or as close as it got to having a flag

Design notes

This system could be used on top of a comprehensive rule system like 5e. That wouldn’t stop the features you get from character advancement in the rules just appearing. However, it would still be useful for other progression. You could use it in tandem with the montage system.

This could also be used wholesale as a character progression system in a rules light game.

I’ve used the word development here instead of the word progression. There was a post by Dreaming Dragonslayer about development, wherein the terms development vs advancement were discussed. I think development fits the flag system better than the progression I was using before. Progression gives me an image of a continuous march towards an overriding goal. This is more haphazard than that. I’ve been thinking about this flag system for a while but reading that post gave me the push to write it up.

Modify idioms, swears and curses to increase unfamiliarity

If the idioms and swears are unfamiliar to the players, then they will feel unfamiliar to the characters. Use weird ones when the players are in a new or foreign region to make it feel more like they are elsewhere. Otherwise, use them in sci-fi and fantasy to remind the players of the world and its lore.

Idioms for unfamiliar regions

Heavy RainDeathAnger (ironic)Not very much
cats and dogskicked the bucketcalm as a laketwo shakes of a lamb’s tail
tables and chairssharpened the wrong knifehappy as honeyquick as birth (ironic)
axes are droppingbrushed it oversweet as applesbee’s feet
wheelbarrowssneezed the lotskipping twice overlight-by-thunder
stream of malletsbounced it twicepounds incount to one twice
raining frogshad half againflute, fiddle and freea cricket’s fart
ghost rainslept over and underclear as nightingales a life’s taxes (ironic)
old ladies and sticksmoved asidethirsty, hungry and sleepingladder’s down
poured from a bucketred and yellowhoneymooningthree pints gone
boats and barrelsdropped it allbunny eyed and bunny earedtop to top and half over

If challenged on the origin of these idioms, the locals don’t know why they say them, they’ve just always been said like that. Just like in real life.

Swears

Unproved theory: most swears relate to poop, willies, sex or gods

Extension of unproved theory: most poop, willy and sex swears are ‘four-letter-words’ and most ‘four-letter-words’ are poop, willy or sex swears.

In Farscape they say frell.

In Gaunt’s Ghosts they say feth.

In Battlestar Galactica (2004) they say frak.

Some of those are five letters long but they fit the format of a four-letter-word

Four-letter-word generator

Roll 3d8 to get a random start, vowel and end of a four-letter-word.

d8startvowelend
1fack
2ceth
3kriss
4prozz
5shut
6treep
7choost
8zaill

Some results might be real words but you could just reroll them with little effort.

You might want to roll to decide what the word represents, or you could choose based on how it sounds.

d4Type of swear
1poop
2willy
3sex
4something else

Swears relating to gods and such

If a swear invokes a name, I’m going to call it a curse from here on.

Curses in English are mostly about invoking the christian god’s name.

Cursing by literally saying/shouting the name can be replaced with the names of gods in your setting. If your setting is devoid of gods you can use a legendary figure.

Sometimes curses call upon an aspect or item of a character.

In Harry Potter some characters say Merlin’s Beard!

Marvel’s Thor similarly sometimes says Odin’s Beard!

An Arthurian character might exclaim By Excalibur!

I can’t really give you a random table that will work for your setting. You just need to spend 2 minutes listing a few possible curses and stick them somewhere in your notes.