I've decided that this year I want to try to participate in the RPG Blog Carnival. With luck this may introduce some new readers and help expand the blog some. Welcome to any newcomers, and thanks for sticking around to my current readers.
The RPG Blog Carnival is a roundtable of sorts sponsored (if such a term is appropriate) by +Johnn Four via his Roleplaying Tips website. Each month there's a topic hosted by a blog and other bloggers can post about it and link back to the source blog and in return at the end of the month the source blog will make a roundup post sharing links to all participating blogs.
But I digress... January's topic is "Prophecies & Omens." I tackled prophecy previously on the blog (#50 I Foresee a Long Post) so I don't much feel like tackling that side of things a second time. Omens, on the other hand, I haven't really dealt with. So let's take a look at the prompt:
For the Carnival: What are the omens for good and bad luck in your setting? Is there a form of augury not dependent upon birds? How do omens work in your game? Are there any mechanical benefits to spotting or fulfilling an omen?Hmm... kinda setting specific, but I think I can take those and speak generally to them. Let's give this a whirl.
Kinds of Augury
Let's start with the many form of augury one could use in a game. Given that we're not talking prophecy I'll focus instead on augury in the form of signs and portents that one might observe. More specifically these are the kind you don't go looking for like rolling bones, reading entrails, or looking at tea leavings. Omens of this kind are either specifically referenced from earlier prophecy ("When the sun goes black the witch king's bane will come to the world...") or are more commonly known (if the groundhog sees its shadow there will be four more weeks of winter). These omens can take on nearly any form.
Common knowledge omens may be as mundane as predicting weather or good or bad fortune, or as esoteric as to determine a child's potential (the 7th son of a 7th son). These omens will also be culturally dependent, it's unlikely that a dwarf would know of or care about weather related omens. Conversely they may find omens that predict earthquakes helpful, and they may read bad fortune in a beer that quickly loses its head. Suck culturally aligned omens will help to deepen the immersion into your world as well.
Prophecy is, of course, a tricky business. Omens from prophecy tend to take on the characteristic vagueness that prophecy is often known for. "When the sun goes black the witch king's bane will come to the world..." probably indicates an eclipse, but it doesn't really tell more than that. Is this a traveler to the kingdom? A child born that day? That hour? That moment? Or does it indicate something else. Perhaps a magical device will change under the light of such an eclipse and become capable of harming the witch king.
Consider how much information you are giving away, and also how specific the information is, the less detailed and less specific the greater use to your game such prophecies, and their attendant omens, will be.
Good & Bad Omens
Omens can foretell both good and bad events and fortune, and good omens need not stem from good sources. It may well be that in your game the death by drowning of a sibling is a portent of fame to come. Such omens are still bad in their own way, the death of a loved one is a terrible thing, but a culture that sees such an event as a good omen may have some strange notions of death. Most often omens are innocuous, a groundhog seeing its shadow, a black cat crossing your path, until you are aware of the omen they bring. Think again to the idea of dwarves, they may take omens from a drought with a long lasting head, or an axe that shatters while being forged.
The scale of the omen sign to the omen prediction need to be equal, but the rarity should be. Having a black cat cross your path isn't terribly uncommon (unless black cats are themselves uncommon), and so whatever bad luck it brings would not be great. The flip is that a 7th son of a 7th son is likely to be a rare event and such a child may well have a great destiny befitting such an omen.
The Pros and Cons of Omens
And what of those omens and their meanings? In the parlance of a game an omen of good, or bad fortune may simply mean an advantage, or disadvantage, on a player's next roll, either a specific roll or a just the next to occur. A more potent omen may indicate extending such a boon or bane for a longer period, hours, days, possibly longer. Bonuses on damage rolls or even defense may also be appropriate. Likewise an automatic shift in disposition for the better or worse in the next person you meet may be appropriate.
Obviously, meeting the prediction of a prophecy will have results that were spelled out, or hinted at, in the prophecy. Where the conditions of prophecy tend toward obscurity, the results tend to be clear: the defeat of a great evil, the coming of a great good, the end of an age, the next king, and so forth. I find that these are best used as the kickoff to a campaign (a PC is able to use "the king's weapon" or some such and that kicks off the whole story) or as a roadmap toward the end of the campaign (The PC's do something in game that signifies them as the one to end a great evil kicking off their journey to the eventual vanquishing of the villain).
Signs & Portents
Using these in game can be as simple or as complex as you want. I personally go for simple in most game things because I have found that complicated rarely makes things better in proportion to the increase in difficulty. For prophecy you may want to write that ahead and have it found by the PCs early in the game, but you could easily have it be something that you write hastily after the scene has ended so as to better craft a triggering condition unique to the players' actions. For omens and signs I would start by having the PCs notice these things during play. A successful check with the right skill would reveal the nature of the omen. You can also use this without checks if you know the PCs have a tough (or easy) encounter and you want to buff (or debuff) them prior. Once they know that a white bird in summer means the death of an NPCs they like then the next time you have them see the same portent it will have a greater impact on the game. "Play it forward," if you will.
That's all I got this month. Hopefully this goes well and I'll continue participating throughout the year.