Ides of March

It’s your own fault your PC got stabbed in the back…

Today is the “Ides of March.” That infamous date that Caesar was warned of by a soothsayer in Shakespeare’s dramatization of the assassination. So I thought that we’d talk a bit about foreknowledge and prophecy in the realm of tabletop RPGs.

There are games with built-in mechanics to foretell your potential doom such as having a Destiny trait or an ability to get “Visions” from the GM. In other games the GM might have you write into your character background some recurring conflicts and former adversaries so they can use it as foreshadowing. At times, its just as easy as having a stereotypical “Old Crone” appear from the woods and mist to tell you that your death awaits at the castle… which inevitably emboldens your characters players to cheat death to break what they think is you trying to railroad them.

The following are some methods I’ve seen employed at the tables I’ve played at over the years:

Prophetic Dreams

Strange dreamscape, ethereal denizens and phophetic dreams.

Copyright belongs to Cease5 –

I’ve seen this used sparingly to great effect and I’ve seen it overused by players to their detriment. Prophetic Dreams offer an interesting way to feed your players the information they need… especially if they don’t talk to the right people, screw up rolls, or decide to never leave the underground complex for supplies out of fear that monsters will swarm all the rooms they’ve cleared.

It could be a simple bit of fluff text where one character dreams of their dead father or a shared group dream where they can interact with the dreamscape and ethereal denizens answering questions.

Some of my friends had been in a long running World of Darkness Werewolf: The Forsaken game in which one player had either a gift or some talent which gave her visions of the future. During character downtime she would make her rolls (pretty much always succeeding spectacularly) and the GM would start to hand her info.

The GM intelligently used this to give her vague images and half answers that would drive the table to follow a pre-destined path. One issue can be over-reliance of players on  the dreams and abilities. You can run into issues where the players are never sure of what to do until they tap into the dreamscape and have the GM practically tell them what to do.

The Old Crone… or something like it

A witch in the woods, a gypsy fortuneteller at the roadside, the kind stranger in the night, a court mystic, a young girl with a clairvoyant talent, an elderly shaman… and so forth.

Sometimes we use these archetypes to help lead the group in the right direction, keep them following the correct path, move the story along or as a bit of filler when you didn’t fully prepare for that session. They allow the GM to impart wisdom and knowledge without breaking the fourth wall.

Occasionally its something as simple as just having a recurring NPC pop his head in and go “Oh, you mean the dark castle to the east on the other side of the Blood Forest?” But at times its a bit hard to shoehorn that guy in or there’s no way they could have just happened along the correct trail when you left them three days ago traveling in opposite directions.

Like the Prophetic Dream, this can be dropped right in the players’ laps in the middle of night or during downtime. Its especially useful when in-game geography states no safe or civilized towns nearby. Sure, your players may try to indiscriminately slaughter the stranger but its easy to munchkin them up, make them untouchable or freeze your players in place for the duration of the prophecy, future-sight or clairvoyant act.

A good D&D example is “The Old Man with the Canaries”… essentially he’s the god Bahamut in disguise as an elderly man with seven canaries. Here’s a bit straight from the fluff text:

One folk tale in particular is told with a hundred variations: The sage with the canaries shares a campfire with roadside travelers, offering mysterious advice that borders on prophecy. Still, the travelers would have regarded the old man as nothing more than a curiosity if it weren’t for the monsters that attacked the camp. Were they ever surprised when the old man started throwing around unfathomably powerful magic and turning his canaries into gold dragons.
 Immortal Old Sage spouting prophecy and decimating enemies.

TPK into “It Was All a Dream”

I’m sure we’ve all heard the cliche TV and Movie line: “It was all just a dream!” And a few years ago I read an approach like this to save your table. Essentially its a means to retcon a total party kill in mid stride with a wave of the hand that none of it really happened.

You’ve set up a boss battle scenario that you think is the perfect blend of difficulty for your table so they’ll come out (mostly) alive but pretty beat up. And then, come game day, the Dice Gods choose to favor you over the players. Even switching to your “unlucky” dice somehow yields earth-shattering damage. Your players have rolled more 1s than you’ve ever seen, blew through their abilities too fast, wasted items & potions too early and generally can’t get a break.

At this point, I’ve seen GMs scale back enemy abilities, cut hit points in half, and had multiple NPCs arrive to lend a hand. But this isn’t always the table’s saving grace. Soon you see your party dead, your game is over and all that planning for campaign and story is wasted. That’s when you employ this tactic: The party comes to their sense and realize the are in the tent of a fortuneteller or around a campfire days or weeks prior to the deaths they just experience. The Old Mystic tells them that what they saw is just one possible future that awaits them. They should heed his warnings if they expect to live long enough to save the world.

You then give your table the time to stock up and prepare for the battle. Meanwhile you tweak the encounter between sessions. Maybe the Big Bad Evil Guy has a few different minions with him, they’re in different positions than the players had originally experienced, or in a completely different room… all because the players took extra time to prepare instead of rushing in or arriving as early as they would have without foreknowledge. Maybe those NPC helpers show up later or earlier because timing is off. Perhaps some more obstructions have appeared to use as cover because the minions had been moving supplies that they hadn’t gotten to in the earlier (imaginary) battle.

Now you still have your planned battle, the players had the fear of death instilled in them, and the game gets to continue onward.

Hope a little prophecy helped

If you have some tried and true methods you’d like to share or have critiques on the ones I’ve mentioned, we’d love to hear about them in the comments. Hopefully you’ve picked up a new trick or a spin on an old one thanks to this post. As members of the gaming culture, we need to teach and enhance each other. I learn something new practically every time I sit down at a table with a character sheet and some dice.

Thanks for stopping by…

Don’t forget you can also find us on Facebook, follow us via email and/or subscribe to our RSS feed. If you don’t want to leave your specific comment, question or ideas below then you can email us at whenever you’d like. Here’s to hoping your Ides of March is free from knives in your back, asps in your bed and prophecy of your demise.

To die to sleep,
To sleep, perchance to Dream; Aye, there’s the rub,
For in that sleep of death, what dreams may come,
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause.

One comment

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