Some of the greatest stories in the history of D&D revolve around a grand prophecy. A well-written prophecy adds mystery and depth to your world. And even though players already know the prophecy will come to pass. They still wonder what the prophecy means, how it will be fulfilled, and how it will affect their characters. It is this power of prophecies to evoke questions, that draws players further into the D&D story and that makes prophecies and divination so popular among DMs.
Most DMs would like to add that feeling of mystery and depth to their D&D game. But while prophecies are a great tool for writers of fantasy novels, they can be less easy to handle for DMs. In this article, we’ll discuss some common problems with using prophecies in D&D and we’ll look at more effective ways of using them.
3 Common Problems with Using Prophecies in D&D
There are three main problems with using prophecies in D&D. These are: ‘Railroading’, ‘Player engagement’, and the ‘Single grand prophecy’. All three can seriously hamper your enjoyment of the game. But fortunately, there’s a solution to each of these problems.
The fact that prophecies MUST come to pass means that DMs limit their freedom to change the story on the fly. Players are unpredictable and might take the story in directions that make a prophecy less meaningful or obsolete. And if a DM forces a prophecy on players, they might feel railroaded.
Now there is nothing wrong with railroading as long as players still have a sense of freedom and feel that their actions matter. But if the fate of the world is already set through a prophecy, then why bother doing anything? Not all prophecies take away players’ agency, but the ones that do will kill your story. Instead of drawing players into the story, these types of prophecies push them out.
In short, using prophecies in D&D works differently from using them in books. In a book, the reader is curious about HOW the main character fulfills the prophecy. In D&D the player will feel like they’ve lost the freedom to decide their own fate.
The second problem with using prophecies in D&D is that it doesn’t challenge players. If a prophecy is destined to come true anyway, why make the effort to see it come true? There is really no reason for players to invest.
Also, if a prophecy singles out one character as being special, other players might feel left out. Having the entire story revolve around one character in the D&D party is a big mistake. All the other players will feel like they are spectators, and if that player decides to quit, you are left without a story.
A single grand prophecy
The third problem with prophecies in D&D is that the story often revolves around one singular, grand prophecy that dominates the entire narrative. But in D&D divination represents an entire school of magic! It would be incredibly odd if it only produced a single prophecy. For players, a big part of the fun is finding out what the prophecy means. It simply isn’t as much fun if there is only one prophecy in the entire game.
Using Prophecies in D&D for Character Development
One of the most powerful ways writers use prophecies is as a vehicle for character development.
(Spoiler alert) A prophecy in ‘The Lord of The Rings’ states: “Renewed shall be the blade that was broken, The crownless shall be King.” Aragorn knows that one day he’ll be King, but given his family history, he is reluctant and cautious about his fate. The prophecy defines his inner struggle.
Likewise, Harry Potter is confronted with a prophecy that says: “Either must die at the hand of the other for neither can live while the other survives.” Harry finally excepts that he must die, which is the defining theme of his character throughout the books.
Using prophecies as a means of character development isn’t used that much in D&D. And yet, D&D, being character-driven, is all about allowing player characters to grow and evolve. Even gaining experience levels is a means of evolving.
Using Prophecies in a Way That Works With D&D
DMs can get more out of their prophecies by using them in ways that work better with how D&D is set up. In order to do that we have to turn the concept of prophecies on its head. (This idea might seem a bit strange at first, but if you give it a chance you’ll soon see the many benefits.)
Instead of using a single grand prophecy that dominates your entire D&D campaign, I would like to suggest using multiple smaller prophecies. From a D&D standpoint, this makes more sense. Soothsayers, fortune tellers, and diviners can be found in every market. And characters pray for prophecies or use divination spells.
When turning the concept of prophecies on its head, it is no longer the DM’s job to decide what a prophecy means or how it should be weaved into the story. Instead, just give characters a prophecy and let them wonder about what it all means and how it applies to them. Players will spontaneously try to find personal meaning in a prophecy. (Ever opened a fortune cookie with a prophecy? You can’t help thinking about how it applies to you.)
So how does it work?
Players will start to look for events that fit their meaningful, personal interpretation of the prophecy. And if they do, they can play out how their character evolves through their actions in the game. For instance:
“Mark is playing a young half-elf named Elharil. He receives a prophecy that says: ‘In the eye of the storm, it’s best to stay centered’. Mark decides that this prophecy is a great metaphor for the mistrust between humans and elves. During the next gaming sessions, he plays out how he is internally conflicted about his double heritage. And the DM, seeing this, decides to put him on the spot by making him choose between elves and humans. Can Elharil find a way to stay at the centre of that storm? If so, his character will achieve personal growth. If not, he might take a darker more radical path.”
Using prophecies as a means of character development allows for a much more personal experience for players.
3 Problems With Prophecies in D&D Solved
Using multiple personal prophecies in your D&D game takes care of the three major problems with prophecies in one fell swoop:
Solving the railroading problem
First, it takes care of the railroading problem. Players will look for signs in the current story to see if the prophecy has meaning. And if they take the D&D story in a different direction, they’ll still be looking at how their prophecy is relevant. I cannot begin to tell you how much easier this makes your job.
Solving the player engagement problem
Second, players will be more engaged to find out what the prophecy in their life means. The prophecy is less about the fate of the world and more about them. And if there’s one thing people are always interested in, it is themselves. They’ll also try to work more with the DM to find meaning in their personal prophecy. D&D is a cooperative game and the mindset of working together to create a better story is one of the most important lessons any player or DM can learn.
Solving the single grant prophecy problem
Third, with multiple prophecies, you can fill your D&D world with divination and fortune-tellers. There is just so much more to discover with this setup. You want your players asking questions and wondering what it all means.
The Deck of 101 Prophecies
While the idea of having a great many prophecies in your D&D world is much more effective. You still have to come up with those prophecies. To make this a whole lot easier I created the Deck of 101 Prophecies. It’s a printable card deck for tabletop or virtual tabletop use.
The Deck of 101 Prophecies lets players draw one card from the deck. It is up to the player to make the prophecy relevant to their character and story. The better and more meaningful a player manages to do so, the bigger the reward a DM gives.
It is best to give bonuses that are somehow tied to the development of the character. So Elharil might gain a +1 to charisma when dealing with humans and elves. Pick whatever boon seems appropriate to you.
Players cannot have more than one prophecy card at any time. They must successfully weave the prophecy into the story before they can attempt to gain a new prophecy. Of course, a party could also draw a card together and grow as a team.
Having a deck to draw from, makes discovering a prophecy a special event in your D&D game. And players get to hold on to their card until the prophecy is resolved. Instead of a vague impersonal thing, the prophecy becomes a game object they can hold onto and think about. Seeking out soothsayers, diviners, and fortune tellers to gain new prophecies.
Using Tarot Cards for Prophecies in D&D
The deck of 101 prophecies isn’t the only tool you can use to make divination more interesting in your D&D world. You can also use a tarot deck to tell your players’ fortune.
I use the Fortuneteller Tarot, illustrated by Della Rocca in 1835. It is one of the most famous examples of Italian tarot cards design. Easy rules for doing tarot readings and different spreads are included in the pack.
Here’s how it works:
When you are using tarot readings in D&D try to tie the outcome to existing storylines. Outcomes can also serve as great sources of inspiration. For players. it is nice if the outcome of a reading is somehow resembled in future events. But this puts the burden of tying in events on the DM’s shoulders
Of course, you could shift the responsibility of readings coming true to the players (like I illustrated with the Deck of 101 Prophecies). If they manage to influence future events in a way that matches the cards, reward them. If they fail to heed the warning in the cards, things may take a turn for the worse.
Using Tarot Cards to Generate Story Ideas
Alternatively, you can use the tarot for quickly generating new story ideas. Let’s say you draw the fool, the hermit, and the moon. By loosely associating the cards’ meanings, you might come up with:
“In a remote (hermit) sanctuary an order of monks have taken a vow of silence, seeking wisdom within themselves. But when the moon is full all wisdom is cast aside and they act on their base impulses. The following month is used to reflect and learn from their mistakes. Nearby villagers, who do not understand the monks and their ways fear they have been cursed with lycanthropy and are planning to burn the sanctuary to the ground.”
Just create a couple of these possible ideas and pick the one that speaks to you. Finally, you can use these cards to give your NPCs a personality and inner conflict. Most cards in the tarot are tied to some point of personal development. Drawing one or two cards when you introduce a new NPC will quickly help you create a well-rounded character. Of course, players can also draw cards during character creation.
I hope this article gave you some ideas on how to use prophecies in your D&D world. If you are interested in any of my products, be sure to check out the Vault Bundle. It contains all the products mentioned in this article and a ton of other useful stuff at a drastically reduced price. Be sure to check it out here.
And as always, have fun!
By Paul Camp
Image credit: WotC, Lord of the Rings