Prophecies, Omens, and Time Travel

The January 2017 topic for RPG Blog Carnival was “Prophecies and Omens”. Hosted by Tales of a GM it asked how the art of predicting the future can be incorporated into your campaign.

It’s a hard topic for me because we’ve haven’t used prophecies and omens much in our campaigns. I’m not entirely sure why, but I have my suspicions. It may be because our campaigns tend be open-ended; a prophesy would imply a consistent direction, and we’re more likely to go where the winds and the characters motivations take us. It may also be that more than a few of us are survivors of extreme railroading, and bristle at the idea of being forced down a particular path. That’s not to say that we don’t have storylines, but we’re disinclined to do the classic epic fantasy “the One shall rise and lead us to victory” sort of multi-year quests.

Krovis the Sleeper

There are a few exceptions to that and they’re typically related to subplots. Long ago in our World of Greyhawk we took a bit of lore about the sleeping hero god Krovis from the Dragon Magazine article “See the Pomarj and Die!”. The prophesy suggested the Krovis’ crypt was hidden somewhere on the Pomarj peninsula — where our homegrown city of Obsidain Bay was located — and he would sleep until he was needed to defeat a great evil.

At the time that snippet of legend lore fit in nicely with the overarching “War for the Pomarj” theme that drove our Greyhawk campaign for nearly a decade. The heroes did eventually find Krovis’ tomb and awaken him to assist in their noble quest.

And then demons invaded Obsidian Bay through the abyssal portal in the heroes’ basement and things went kind of sideways for a while, leaving Krovis to go off and his own things while our heroes contemplated how to, ahem, close the basement door.

In my current Obsidian Frontier campaign, there’s a vague prophecy/plot hook about the undead doom that will come to the world when the Shattered Crystal Skull of Charax is re-assembled and used to open the gateway to the Fading Land of Necros. It’s really more lore than prophecy, but it was enough to launch the player characters on their current quest.

Consider Ravenloft

That having been said, I really like how The Curse of Strahd handles this. Like the original Castle Ravenloft before it, key story elements in the game are randomly generated based on card draws. Key elements associated with vampire lord Stahd’s life, death, and unlife are scattered around his domain, and I don’t think it’s too much of a spoiler to say that learning more about Strahd’s history can help the heroes defeat them.

Early in the game the heroes meet up with a fortune teller who gives them prophetic hints about the locations of these bits of lore. These foretellings provide the player characters with direction, but don’t obligate them to go there — they could, if they really wanted to, charge Castle Ravenloft and confront Strahd directly. That might not be the wisest course of action … but they could do it.

Time’s Splinter

All this having been said both of our D&D 5th Edition campaigns are approaching their ends (or if not their ends, then at least a lengthy pause point). Running a shorter-duration fantasy or science fiction. campaign steeped in prophecy could be fun … if everyone gets on board with it.

Years ago I used to love playing around with time travel in role-playing games. I ran a convention game that trapped the players in a recurring time loop a la Star Trek: The Next Generation’s “Cause and Effect” and Stargate SG-1’s “Window of Opportunity”. I also played around with temporal combat, creating time elementals that could toss their opponents forward and backward in time. I created Time’s Splinter, and artifact that could manipulate manipulate and shatter timelines, relying heavily on TSR’s Chronomancer supplement (DMs Guild) for rules and inspiration.

It drove a few of our World of Greyhawk storylines, but I could tell my group had only so much patience for time travel shenanigans and wisely moved on to other stories.

For a Time’s Splinter campaign, I’d use the artifact to drive the prophesies, focusing less on time travel and more on conveying information about future events so that the players could change them. I’d sprinkle the wreckage of previous timelines through the campaign, creating encounters that show the timeline could be changed … and setting up conflict with others trying to bring about the “right” future.

Depending on how tolerant the group is of the idea, I’d play with some time-jumping scenes — e.g. a flash forward showing the higher level characters at some pivotal scene, a jump sideways to play with an alternative timeline, or even a trip to the past to re-do a prior encounter). I think the key in this is not to get to gimmicky; the campaign would still need to be focused on the story, but I think it’d be fun to play around with the intersections of time travel and prophesy. The Sarah Connor Chronicles, the too-short TV series set in the Terminator universe, did an excellent job of this by maintaining the core “prophetic” events — Judgement Day, the Rise of the Skynet, John Connor and the Rebellion, but rotated the series’ narrative around it as time changed.

It’s a cool concept, and I think it’d be fun to play with in a short-to-medium duration (3-6 month) campaign — just long enough to play with the gimmick, but not so long that you get tired of it.

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