When you start a campaign using a prophecy as an adventure hook, you have two little dtails of uttermost importance and difficulty. First, one of the characters in the group (or all of them) need to feel the need to prevent the prophecy to come true. But if they do, and this is the second detail, then the prophecy didn’t hold that «inescapable fate» aura that most prophecies should have, right? This month’s RPG Blog Carnival’s theme is «Occult Mysteries and Magic», so I’ll take the opportunity to talk about Eberron’s unique Draconic Prophecy and self-fulfilling prophecies in general.
Probably the most difficult thing to accomplish in a campaign involving a prophecy is that such an engine for its events needs to be kept urgent somehow. As we said lines above, if the heroes manage to keep it from fulfilling, the prophecy in question loses its validity (and we’re not talking yet about the fate of whoever provided/discovered/interpreted the prophecy in the first place!). Unfortunately for us, the DMs, if they can’t stop fate, the futility of everything done may frustrate many players (not to say all of them). We know two ways to avoid this situation: both of them have to do with the perception and relativity of everything that happens in the campaign. And fortunately for us, Eberron DMs, both can be applied to the Draconic Prophecy.
«Oh, my stars and garters!»
What do we know about the Draconic Prophecy? Its origins are filled with mystery: The Draconic Prophecy is, at its essence, a record of things to come that has been playing out since creation. The dragons observe and record everything from the position of the moons and stars, to the position of the Ring of Siberys to physical manifestations of dragonmarks in the world, all of which they study looking for portents and omens of things to come. The prophecy encompasses many many volumes and is said to be as complex and unfathomable as the dragons themselves While the Prophecy illuminates the future, it rarely presents a single path. Even when it states something that can happen, it never says if it should happen. Most dragon scholars collect this knowledge but do not act upon it. Older wiser dragons just chronicle what they can decipher, younger individuals want to take action and shape the future. It is totally unknown what the draconic prophecy’s nature is. Some argue it is a revelation of the end of the world, others of a new beginning.
This gives us DMs lots of space to work the Prophecy around. We can’t know by the Prophecy if they will succeed or fail. The discovered text can be mistranslated or misinterpreted, and anyway it only is the spark of the engine to set things in motion. As the DM, you just need to select the correct detail and cast enough shadows around the text in order to keep it real and believable. Remember there is no such a thing as a compilation for the Draconic Prophecy, it continually evolves in landscape, stars and even dragonmarks in the humanoid races.
“The level of complexity is almost unfathomable to the human mind, and even for a wise and cunning dragon it takes centuries to learn to read these signs.”
Keith Baker, Dragonshards
The Prophecy is a core element of the setting as powerful forces battle both in the open and among the shadows over its outcome. No one can question its power. Outside Eberron, though, when using a powerful force as the Draconic Prophecy is, decide first its origin in order for the characters to know what it is. It can be of divine origin, a planar convergence or even the source of all things magical. Decide also if people in your world think mortals have a chance to mess up with the Prophecy. Mark your characters as destined to greatness, but be careful not to try to control their actions.
Some self-assembly required
The trick to use a prophechy in your campaign and keep it at the same time believable, dramatic, exciting and avoidable is to make it a self-fulfilling one. They may seem difficult to attain, but they are not. 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, you can see my short appendix at the end of the article to get some inspiration.
First, we need to play with the perception of the result. For example, the prophecy might have not been 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 goal 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 supremely ingrained in the Draconic Prophecy as it constantly flows and changes itself, evolving 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).
Signs and Portents
Literature and movies provide us with many examples of prophecies: George R R Martin, offers dreams and divinations in “A Song of Ice and Fire», Terry Goodkind provides us with complex riddles in “The Sword of Truth”, as does Robert Jordan in “The Wheel of Time” series. J. R. R. Tolkien takes the things a little step above in quality of prose in “The Lord of the Rings”, of course. Anyway, my favorite self-fulfilling ones are the following, though:
- Oedipus, condemned to kill his father and to marry his mother is probably the oldest of the famous ones.
- 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.
- My all-time favorite in literature and film though is 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.
If you need a cryptic text to spark your imagination, pay a visit to this link, where you can find a “Pretentious Prophecy” Generator. Until next time, may your game self-fulfill itself into glory.