Prophecy vs. Rumor

by mshrm

I was a really big fan of David Eddings’ Belgariad when I was a kid. That’s where I lay the blame.

When the time came for me to run fantasy, I leaned heavily on the prophecy as a way to kick-start the action. When I started a fantasy game, you could guarantee, you would meet a mysterious guy, likely wearing a hood, in a tavern. Half the time, he’d hire you, and half the time, he’d lay some prophecy on you.

Of course, the prophecy-driven campaign is nothing but a plot railroad. Just by having a prophecy, you’re asserting that the future is set, to some degree, and cannot be changed. If these four scruffy adventurers are destined to meet Darth Hostile on the summit of Mount Craggy on the first full moon after the Festival Of The Ice Weasel, then those four adventurers must be protected by fate until that time. Whatever happens, it can’t keep them from their date with destiny… even if they decide to ride as hard as they can in the opposite direction and take up careers as wandering mendicants.

There’s ways around it. You can phrase your prophecy so as to allow some latitude. They say that’s how the Oracle at Delphi did the trick. It’s also hard work and heavy thinking, and doesn’t solve the root problem: the players feel like their characters are going to end up on the spot marked “X”, no matter what they try to do.

If you want the drama and stage dressing of prophecy, without the railroad plot, I would recommend GURPS Power-Ups 5: Impulse Buys, where it talks about using Destiny Points to buy favors from fate.  Designate your “Chosen One”, and make up gibberish as needed. The character with the destiny gets free will, but with the little extra boost that assures that whatever the situation, that character will be extraordinary. Then again, if you don’t want the hassle, you could just give the Chosen One an appropriate level of Luck.

I think it’s all too much trouble, myself. At least in this game.

In point of fact, part of Rho’s back-story was that he was some kind of reincarnated Chosen One for a sect of the cult of Anubis. He had a couple of odd traits for a cleric, since he wasn’t so much a part of the organized temple, as he was a hero of the common folk. None of it really had much time to come out in play before he slipped and died at the bottom of a pit trap.

Dungeon Fantasy isn’t a genre where you can count on having a long time for the subtle points of a character’s personality and history to shine through.

Instead, I’ve been leaning hard on rumors as a driver of action. I was tentative to start, but since then, I’ve come around to be a believer.

See, I remembered reading a published adventure, back in the day, that had a table of rumors. Some were true, others were false. The true ones didn’t strike me as terribly helpful, but I can’t say if that’s because they weren’t, or because I was too young to put them together… but the false ones just seemed like dirty tricks. I didn’t care for that, so I ditched the entire idea of organized rumors.

Then, it seems like, for a long time, I had troubles with players who expected everything spoken by the GM to be the truth. Including the words of NPCs. If they ran across a liar, or an unreliable narrator, they became quite upset. If I had tried to use rumors then, the way I’m using them now, I would have faced a rebellion the first time they ran into a rumor that was only mostly true. (There, at least, is one way in which my current group of suspicious paranoids excels. They never expect the truth from an NPC without a really good reason.)

This time around, I was consciously trying something different. Before the DF campaign came up, I had been reading a lot of blogs and such about the Old School Renaissance, mega-dungeons, player agency, all that sort of thing. When I ran into the rules suggestions for rumors in DF, I was primed to give it a try. I put together a short list of rumors while stocking the first level of the dungeon.

Then, by pure blind luck, the events of actual play came together with one of the rumors that the PCs picked up for that same session. The party heard the rumor about the lost priest of Anubis, and then found a holy book carried by that priest in their first foray into the ruins. Since then, they’ve been really attentive towards the stories they hear in the tavern.

Thus, the players get to decide what direction they head in first, what goals they give priority, which stories to research and look in to further. The PCs become actors upon the campaign world, rather than responding to events. Paradoxically, tailoring the world to the characters might make them important to that world, but it took away their actual power… while a world that ignores the PCs entirely gives them more power to affect the flow of events.