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I am interested in the idea of incorporating fate (via prophecy or fortunes told) in my campaign. I would like to come up with a set of rules/mechanics to make a prophecy or fortune teller's prediction more likely to happen, but not inevitable, in my pathfinder (or DnD3.5) game. I envision it as something akin to a curse, though obviously it's more complicated than that.

If we take the story of Oedipus as an example (who killed his father and married his mother), how could I mechanistically (will saves, if-then conditions, enchantments/curses?) empower his birth prophecy while still giving the PC the chance to "fight/escape his fate"? Is this a goal that inherently defies mechanics and/or demands complete railroading?

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Really interesting question! –  tex Apr 20 '13 at 16:36
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This is a bit confusing. The major theme of prophecies along the Oedipus line is that they cannot be avoided. Heroes free will in this case is not enough to escape what has been prophesied. Free will was only good for trying all their best and think they are safe but eventually, their fate did catch up and tackle them. So you may try not to railroad the path, but not the end. Is this what you are looking for? –  Xabei Apr 20 '13 at 19:19
    
@Xabei Perhaps Oedipus was the wrong case study to choose. You make a good point. I don't want an unavoidable prophecy as this limits player agency, but I'd like to be able to influence players' belief in the power of such prophesies and fortunes by making them mechanistically more likely to happen. –  Cat Apr 20 '13 at 20:05
    
It can be argued that Oedipus could have avoided his fate. He slept with his mom right after meeting her if I remember correctly. But even that aside, had he or his father turned him into a eunuch the prophecy would have been defeated. So it IS possible, it just might require a greater sacrifice –  Ben-Jamin Apr 21 '13 at 19:00
    
@Ben-Jamin Oedipus's parents did go great lengths to ensure the prophecy didn't come to pass: They had baby Oedipus left out on a hillside to die (which at the time was tried and tested method of dealing with undesirable newborns). Fate still happened. That particular prophecy is supposed to be inevitable: In that story, if mortals try to defy the gods, it does not work out. –  GMJoe Apr 22 '13 at 5:47
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5 Answers 5

up vote 9 down vote accepted

Empowering a prophecy without railroading, using mechanics, is very much possible. The "stick" is not so useful here as is luring the player with the "carrot". There are a number of more-or-less successful games that do this with great success*, to the point that some use it as a central part of character development, so there's evidence in the wild that this is possible.

Substantial bribes

All the games I've observed doing this effectively offer a significant "bribe" that tempts players to choose to act in line with their fate. Such a bribe must be large enough to give the player a true dilemma – do I act with freedom to choose the "best" course of action for my character, or do I take the big mechanical boost and do what the prophecy says I must?

The bribe has to be big, unbalancing almost, in order to make it large enough to be the equal to how much a player values their freedom of choice. The extra that they're getting must be valuable enough to really make them consider it. In D&D terms, a +5 or more to all skill and hit rolls for the duration of the time where they are facing the direct consequences of their choice (the resulting battle, the escape from the crypt, etc.) might be suitable. Another effective carrot is the game's improvement currency: a large XP bonus (perhaps 10%, or more, of what they need to level) can be very tempting for a player.

This can be tweaked as you go, to. You don't have to tell them at the outset that every such moment is worth 1000 XP — instead, when they come to a pivotal moment in their fate, you can mark it as such by saying "…and if you choose X against your better judgement, it's worth N experience." You can offer variable carrots tailored to the importance of the choice, too, so that you give bigger bribes to properly balance the sides of the dilemma.

Free choice

It must always be a free choice. You might set the dilemma, but a player hugely values their freedom to choose.

By putting the choice into your player's hands, you make it more likely that they will fulfill parts of the prophecy/curse/fate and you don't railroad it. As long as you're always prepared to accept the player's true choice (don't up the bribe after they refuse, for example), they will feel it really is their free choice, and you'll get much more buy-in for when they do choose to accept the prophecy.

Not everyone likes talking mechanics

The one caveat is that some players who go for deep immersion will really dislike baldly discussing mechanics when they're trying to choose according to their character. There's no real good way around this without seriously annoying the player and undermining their buy-in. The compromise application of this idea is to not tell them that they have the choice – but when they do choose the path of prophecy, narrate how their sword swings truer (as you start appling a hit bonus to their rolls) or how a great weight of foreboding settles in their chest (as you give them bonus XP as an aside). This will create the association between bonuses and accepting their fate, without interrupting their internal narration and breaking their suspension of disbelief.


* One example is The Riddle of Steel. When you're acting in line with your Fate during a pivotal moment in the prophecy, you get a very large bonus to all your rolls during the fallout of the choice. Another is Dungeon World, where you can get into situations where if you do a thing that you normally wouldn't choose, you get to mark XP.

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+1 for a great answer. I guess it says something about my "stick" approach to GMing that I didn't think of the obvious XP approach to the problem ;) –  Cat Apr 20 '13 at 17:06
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I must say I don't like very much the concept of bribing. I would feel as still trying to enforce the players actions, only that "economically" instead of "militarily". Players still feels the GM push, that goes against the suspension of disbelief. –  Flamma Apr 22 '13 at 8:36
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Be vague. Seriously, be delphic in your predictions. One of the classic tropes of fantasy is that any prophecy that comes to pass will come to pass in some way that no-one expected it to: Sure, "The King shall fall as the Necromancer rises" might mean that a new and terrible dark lord shall topple the kingdom, but it could equally mean that said monarch will be startled off his horse when the court wizard rests on a thistle during a hunt.

Smart players will realize this. More to the point, they'll realize that if the prophecy really is unavoidable, it might be more productive to try and make it come true in a way that is favourable, rather than just railing against it blindly. This brings me to the second part of my answer: Let your players try and bring about other possible interpretations of the prophecy, and thereby avert the nastier ones. Sometimes, this might mean that your party sneaks up behind the court wizard with a balloon and a sharp pin, other times it might mean that they need to pick just the right moment to startle the royal destrier - the important thing is that you make sure they realize that fulfilling the prophecy is a valid solution to the problem.

This turns prophecy from a railroading method into an open-ended puzzle which requires creative thinking to solve. As a plus, it can be handed without any out-of-character metagaming.

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Come to think of it, I could run an entire campaign around this concept... –  GMJoe Apr 22 '13 at 6:23
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"You cannot alter your fate, my prince. However, you can rise to meet it if you choose." -- Princess Mononoke

That film has some excellent fate vs. free will discussion, and is rich in lots of other nutrients healthy GMs need.

I suggest clarifying in your mind what you really want the player experience to feel like. Do you want characters to clearly know that some force seems to be influencing events, or do you want things to be more mysterious? Are there actual agents or entities that cause this, like the Norns? Considering these questions will help you at the gaming table.

I'll give an example of how I'd GM a subtle, mysterious fate:

  • Mostly, let everybody do what they want to. Assign bonuses & penalties to key rolls when the time is right; PCs can "notice" the bonus/penalty with an appropriate check (probably straight Wisdom, with a bonus if Detect Magic is running at the time).

  • When it comes to influencing character decisions and choices, make the fates pull the right strings. The PCs have motivations and can be called to action in all sorts of ways, and typically they have a pattern of behavior. This is tantamount to a Batman Gambit (caution: TV Tropes) and can be tricky to pull off, so take another page from Batman's playbook and make contingency plans.

  • But do sometimes have random things somehow end up pointing in the direction the fates choose, and make the fates gently persistent. For example, sometimes people get lost in the woods, and you'll roll a random direction for the way they'll walk. Later, have it turn out that they ended up walking South, which is the direction somebody else told them to go before they decided to avoid the road and strike out West in the woods. Then, once they figure it out, let them go whatever direction they like. Gently persistent.

  • Don't force anything, eg no Will save vs. the Norns' compulsion. The fates are subtle; they manipulate and don't seem to command. When it doubt, go with the flow. Relatedly, don't force the prophecy or doom to be fulfilled; if the PCs beat destiny at its own game, well, that's awesome! Let it happen, and let the PCs figure out what they accomplished.

  • Be incomplete but not unreliable with narration. Don't lie to the players unless it's an NPC doing the lying! Don't tell them everything, but do give them clues, perhaps adding a theme that keeps turning up, say the color yellow if the Norns spin golden thread. "It's the weirdest thing. You were bringing your sword around to his neck, but you slipped on a loose stone. It's the only yellow one on the ground."

  • Make the clues lead somewhere. Let the players discover the prophecy in an old dusty tome after they start to feel the influence and start to want to know what it is and what it may want. Make them go looking for it, hidden in a dungeon perhaps.

Also I'd bring it in gradually so that way you can back off if your players don't like it. Some players dislike things that only vaguely resemble railroading. And it'll "feel" unfair to some, so I'd consider what your players can handle too.

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I think, the optional Hero Point system for Pathfinder can be used for great effect for this purpose.

Basically, this system rewards heroic players, by giving them a resource that can be used for some very potent effects (bonuses, rerolls, what have you). By handing out points, heroism becomes very tangible, and players will soon learn to enjoy receiving the bennies and crave for more. Also, spending Hero Points will enable much greater acts of heroism, so the whole game may become truly epic very soon. Heroism begets heroism.

Now I am aware that it is destiny and not heroism you are looking for. But by tweaking the system a bit, it can fit the prophecy theme fine. You just have to adjust the criteria for awarding and spending the points a bit. Say, characters will get Hero Points (or rather Fate Points?) for embracing their destinies, and can spend them on acts that foster the fulfillment of the prophecies (or just one these two options). Also, if they are going directly against their destinies, you, the GM, will get points to spend on some important NPCs' actions (against the characters, of course). And if the points you get come from the PC's pool of hard-earned points, they'll soon learn that Fate is a jealous lover.

For the awarding of such resource points, you may also check the Drama Dice and Background systems in the 7th Sea RPG as well as the Fate Chips system in the original Deadlands (or Bennies in Savage Worlds).

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One thing I've always looked at for dealing with fate is to make it something that is accomplished for a benefit. For instance, what I'd do with my groups is if a character has a fate (and I'd either discuss this with a player, or give all the players one, potentially without their knowledge), but give them certain benefits.

In 3.5 D&D, one way you can model this is as a Feat, simply give them one when they discover their destiny that pushes them that way, then a second once they realize it. These feats can be both positive and negative-a character who is fated to kill a friend in anger will perhaps take a penalty to will saves (in Shadowrun, I'd make this handle like the Bestial Nature trait for Shapeshifters, or simply Berserk, but I don't think 3.5 includes rules for losing it and attacking allies without relying on specific magic or powers).

Another thing that I feel is important for tabletop games is to make these fortune-teller prophecies, vague enough that they can be broadly interpreted-mind you, you can make certain events not count (for instance "you will kill your friend" doesn't count if the player immediately offs a teammate to get a feat).

Destiny can also drive characters in interesting directions, notwithstanding the fact that it's hard to mechanically model. One thing I've always wanted to do in a campaign is give each character a destiny like "Betrayer" or "Kingmaker", and when they complete steps on this destiny they get bonus XP, a special feat, or the like. Pathfinder Society giving special missions to people of different factions is like this, but perhaps less so since I'm talking about campaign-scale motivations.

For instance, here's how I'd model the feat for Betrayer:

Betrayer: This character is destined to betray his friends and loved ones. Every time he kills, permanently maims, or otherwise significantly betrays a close friend (model this how you will, I'd say that they have to have been around a certain number of sessions for PC's) such that they will never be forgiven, they gain a +2 Favored Enemy bonus against that ally's race.

It's perhaps a little munchkin-able, but it also encourages certain things in players-Betrayers may be cutthroat, but they could also be the honorable man out of the group who betrays his evil compatriots.

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