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I'm running an Urban Shadows game, and two of the players came up with a prophecy that was to be announced by some NPCs. It sounded exciting, so I encouraged them and rolled with it. When it came time at the end of the session to do the scene where the prophecy was announced, I was not able to come up with a prophecy I felt was satisfactory to the plot without overconstraining players' future actions.

  1. Does anyone have tips on how to construct such a prophecy? I want it to feel real and meaningful, and maybe advance some threats, without taking agency away from my players.
  2. Does anyone have tips on coming up with such a thing in-the-moment? I ended up telling the players I'd email out about what they heard at the prophecy announcement but it killed the excitement to some extent.
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    \$\begingroup\$ Your question is tagged as system-agnostic but it seems like this is specific to Urban Shadows. \$\endgroup\$ – Rykara Apr 26 at 19:10
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Vicky That makes sense. The reason for my confusion is that, in this specific case, it seems like the prophecy that "the players came up with" is something that was forced on them via a game mechanic. If the players "came up with" the prophecy in the sense of "thought of and desired to affect" then it wouldn't be a matter of agency since making the prophecy happen would actually be granting agency. It might be worth editing the question to clarify this point if that is indeed the case. \$\endgroup\$ – Rykara Apr 26 at 19:20
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    \$\begingroup\$ I feel like this question needs more details such as more specific goals that you want the wish to meet. Right now this is asking for "tips" which will just end up generating an endless list of non-cohesive advice. \$\endgroup\$ – Rubiksmoose Apr 26 at 19:47
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    \$\begingroup\$ I'm familiar with SE. I find its insistence on very specific rules mildly frustrating and I've gotten my advice, so I don't really feel like "fixing up my question". \$\endgroup\$ – Jakob Weisblat Apr 27 at 1:35
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    \$\begingroup\$ @JakobWeisblat fixing up your question will likely result in you getting better advice, but that choice is yours I suppose. \$\endgroup\$ – Rubiksmoose Apr 29 at 14:48
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There are multiple techniques I've seen recommended for handling prophecies (precognition etc.) in RPGs. You have the option of either sticking to one of them, or combining them.

Path of No Resistance

The prophecy describes the way things would become if nobody knew the prophecy. In other words, the very act of viewing the future is likely to change it. Of course, some events may or may not be easily changeable. It's quite possible for an aversion of a prophecy to be contingent on a very difficult series of actions that have been set in motion by the discovery of the prophecy, and whose success or failure is still in flux.

This is probably the best technique to use if you want to be able to provide prophecies at a moment's notice, since you probably have a general idea of what future events are likely. Take the general idea, pick a variant thereof that is more specific and can be averted, and present that as the prophecy.

A Direct Twist

Something is predicted (usually in a verbal form, occasionally in a poetic one too), and the predicted things are set in stone. However, what exactly does the prediction mean is ambiguous enough that it's possible to achieve it in multiple ways. E.g. 'You will conquer all of the observable universe a day before you die' could mean either conquering everything, or being locked in a minuscule pocket dimension; or it could mean that the world will be so desperate to defeat you that the other powers will ward off a small part of the universe and eject it into a pocket dimension (like the Orions did with the Antarans in Master of Orion). There's a lot of space for variation.

Beware: direct word-twists can be disappointing, and feel like 'gotchas' if the players don't like word games. It also can result in reducing agency by reducing ability to make informed choices (an uninformed choice can often be as bad as no a coinflip1). Also beware that this technique doesn't play nice with sudden requests to provide a prophecy unless you knew what will be asked about.

But if your players are aboard with such a style, go for it.

Twist of Context

The facts shown (and they're usually shown, not described) are set in stone, but there's very little information on what surrounds them, which may make them not that bad, or not that good, or whatever. I've seen a similar principle offered for resolving certain time travel paradoxes (e.g. in GURPS Infinite Worlds).

This kind of twist is probably more satisfying to players who like to have a more direct, hands-on influence on what comes to pass, and it feels like less of a 'gotcha'. This works OK with sudden requests of a vision if you know for sure and in advance what set-piece scenes you'll want to present to players.

Prepare for the Worst

The prophecy will come to pass as predicted. However, knowing this will still give the PCs an opportunity to prepare for it and mitigate the consequences of it. E.g. you know about the incoming asteroid impact, and that it cannot be averted, but at least now can start building an ark-ship.

It's pretty easy to provide this one on demand if you know what major cataclysms are planned in the campaign (e.g. you plan a dino-killing asteroid for the third act of the chronicle).

Self-Fulfilling Prophecies

The prophecy sets in motion events which make the prophecy possible. This variant can be either set in stone, or the prophecy can be about a potential future. Usually this works best with positive prophecies (e.g. 'You are destined for greatness, Po!').

Keep in mind that these are often tricky to set up if they depend on PC actions, and can lead to an urge to railroad if they don't work out at first.

Overall, this type of prophecies is extremely hard to implement without a lot of planning and without knowing when and how it will be presented to the PCs and their players.


A setting can either have only one of the above prophecy types, or it can combine them freely. Perhaps there are multiple types of prophets, or perhaps each school of prophecy can only access prophecies of one of the types.


1 Related: For the same reason, vagueness (whether verbal, symbolic-visual, or insufficiently informative but concrete visual) can make a prophecy feel pointless: you can't use your knowledge of the future if you don't have actual knowledge, just a string of words.

Sarah Connor Chronicles has an example of just how frustrating a vague omen can be: Sarah is convinced that a triangular pattern (three points, three lights etc. in a vaguely-triangular configuration, which is most configurations three dots can be in) has a deep meaning, and starts seeking said deep meanings in anything that matches the pattern. Most or all of it is a wild goose chase and she's beginning to doubt her ability to find meaning in this hunt. This is what players are likely to feel like if presented with a pattern that can be applied to anything or nothing. (Also, humans are notorious for seeing patterns where none exist, leading to many false positives in all the wrong places.)

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Write foretellings as vague cause and effect statements.

E.g. "When the Sword of Seven Stars falls in battle on the summer solstice, the seeds of evil in the sewers of the capital will grow."

This informs the characters what happens if the predicate comes to pass without constraining how or even when.

Provide Hooks

Give characters reasons to explore times, places, or people. The noun in the predicate is "Sword of Seven Stars". What or who is that? Maybe the summer solstice mentioned has already come to pass, onto the sewers of the capital to figure out what evil seeds are.

Provide Motivation

If the outcomes that depend on the predicate are good, the characters may want to ensure that it happens. In the cases where it's bad, it can motivate them to prevent it or then mitigate the predicted effect somehow.

Doing it on the fly

Using nicknames or descriptions of things that can be discovered later is a neat trick for story writing. While the "Sword of Seven Starts" might not be immediately identifiable, perhaps you incorporate a banner for the next army or noble encountered to prominently feature seven stars or a seven pointed star. Giving players the chance at an "ah ha!" moment when they figure out who or what the subject is can be very gratifying for everyone involved.

Begin with clues that you think are overly apparent. No clues are too obvious when starting out

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Don't worry about it

The thing about a prophecy is that it doesn't have to come true. So, come up with something suitably dramatic, and possibly vague, and then start building events to push the world in that direction. You might feel like you're limiting your players' agency like this, but - trust me - if your players really want to, they will find a way to stop it from happening! At least, that has been my own personal experience.

If you really want to make them feel engaged by it, add in some cryptic warning or hint about how to avert IMPENDING DOOM. They'll probably either ignore it (letting the prophecy come to pass) or frantically latch on to it (practically writing the next story arc for you).

Of course, you could always make it a self-fulfilling prophecy, and try to set things up so the players inadvertently make it happen when it otherwise wouldn't have. This would (probably) be incredibly difficult, but the payoff would be fantastic if you pull it off! Just imagine your players realizing that the prophecy was only fulfilled precisely because of the actions they took trying to stop it!

Of course, don't do that if you think they wouldn't enjoy it.

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Exploit your prep.

Urban Shadows provides an excellent framework to create useful prophecies in, if you've been playing it like the book says. Additionally, very little about the style is specific to any mechanics of Urban Shadows, so if you GM other games in this style, you'll be able to spit out prophecies there, too. So here's what I hope you have prepped.

(A foreword - I'm not sure from your description if this is a PC Oracle who advanced to grab a Sanctum and did the project you gave her to see the future, or if this is an NPC seer who the players have provided with the necessary tools. I don't think a lot is going to change either way.)

Threats - The Doom That Came At Midnight

So if you've started constructing your storm post-first-session, you've likely built some threats, some eyes, some impulses, and, most important for prophecy purposes, some countdown clocks. The doom that comes at midnight is often an excellent thing to give out as part of a prophecy for a few key reasons:

  • it's something that somebody in the city is planning right now, so you can frame it either as a future event that will need to be changed or the simple fact that someone's planning to do it
  • you can reveal the doom without necessarily revealing the steps it will take to get there, giving the PCs some ready-made motivations to go investigate
  • it will change the city forever so it's likely to be of interest to most listeners

I'll be talking about three sample countdown dooms from the storms chapter - werewolf gang takes vampire gang, winter queen kills summer queen, arcane library closes its doors to the public.

Of course, whatever seer you've got probably isn't going to speak about things that plainly. I mean, maybe they are! Maybe they're a no-nonsense type and they'll just say it straight! But fortunately, you've prepped for that, too:

The City Displayed - Barfing Forth the Urban Fantastic

All your threats involve things the players already know and care about, otherwise they wouldn't really be threats. And when you introduced those things you've displayed the city - introduced details which weren't necessarily relevant to what the PCs were after but which were distinctive and memorable.

So if your seer is inclined to speak metaphorically, you've got some ammunition. I mean, you don't need to speak about particular city features in some cases, but they can help.

  • "frost spreads to kill the sun" is good for the winter/summer thing, but you can throw in something about a particular door to Arcadia you may have established
  • "a hunting pack pours from a burnt spoon" is likewise wolf gang/vamp gang, assuming you've at least established that vamp gang and surrounding mortal gangs deal heroin, but you can add detail about the projects
  • "the door of lion and briar shall shut forever" for the library closing would only work if you'd already established it in one of them classico libraries with fancy briar patterns on the doors and stone guardian lions

But you're not saying these things to hide them from your PCs. They've earned this prophecy, so they should know what you're talking about - you're just presenting it in a manner consistent with the person giving the information.

And it's actually convenient that you wrapped this up on the end of the session, because that opens a whole new element of your toolbox:

Love Letters - Moves To Move Time By

So when you're advancing time, such as between one session and the next, you have the option of writing a move to wrap that up to give somebody some interesting choices.

PC Oracle did the reading? Let them roll Spirit and pick what things they want portents about. (on a miss, tell them you'll lie once and they'll need to do more legwork to confirm)

The prophecy involves some factions nobody's marked yet? Give someone a chance to roll their session-opening faction move at +1 to represent the extra prophetic information.

Heck, you can even make the prophecy about interesting points of faction conflict and less about doom, if you do it that way.

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