Saturday, June 9, 2012

3 Ways to Forsee

Like a lot of fantasy elements, how to implement foretelling the future in an rpg is complicated by the fact that there are multiple conflicting archetypes at play.  Let's try to tease those apart and work towards some simple but distinct mechanics.

In this case the origin of the competing archetypes is pretty easy to see.  Because we can't know the future any attempt to predict things will fall into two categories: becoming vague enough to make sure the prediction fits what actually happens or presenting predictions as possibilities which give you an out when things go completely differently.  We humans have actually established two different metaphors of time and the future that correspond to these tactics.

Future as Fate
One way of understanding the future is as an inescapable fate.  The fortune teller reads the cards, the seer the entrails, and no matter what you do the fate will happen.  In fact, your struggling against it will often ironically bring your fate about.

To reach this level of certitude, though, requires turning the dial down on specificity.  One way to do this is to be cryptic about actors.  You never make a prediction about someone-- King John, Tom, your sister Kate--  but about friends, shepherds, or important men.   These can be interpreted whichever direction you need: literal, symbolic, or even as a riddle for someone named Shepherd.  Another way to be less specific is to tap into universals that are likely to happen because they happen to all humans.  Romance, misfortune, sickness-- it happens all around us everyday.  Newspaper-horoscope-vague: "your efforts will be noticed," "a friendship is tested," etc.

If you give humans these two features in a prediction 1) common life occurrences happening to 2) no specific "who," it turns out our natural pattern matching software does a great job of making those predictions fit life.

A Mechanic
So how do we utilize this in-game?  Turns out Mr. Zak Smith has offered a way to do it in Vornheim.   A random fortune is rolled for on a chart.  These fortunes are all vague but intriguing.  Then players decide when to apply the fortune in play.  the DM can also decide to apply the fortune.  So it is presumably in the best interest for players to get the fortunes out of the way before the DM does because it will go easier on them.
Example: "A crown will roll across a stone floor."

The players find themselves in a 10'x10' room with an orc guarding a crown.  The player remembers the fortune, invokes it, and the DM decides the surprised orc drops the crown.  It rolls toward the party, who snatch it up and retreat without needing to engage in combat.

Now, if the player hadn't invoked the fortune then-- let's say the party gets the crown the old fashioned way, by killing the orc -- the fortune is still free for the DM to invoke.  The party is leaving the dungeon, running along a chasm pursued by trolls and the DM invokes the fortune.  The crown slips free from the character holding it and roll toward the chasm as the trolls close . . .
I think giving players the task of making predictions fit is brilliant for a lot of reasons.  It gives them agency, it keeps them engaged and paying attention looking for opportunities, and it gets them involved creatively.  And, like I mentioned above, this kind of pattern matching is something we humans are pretty good at, even new players should be familiar with horoscopes.

Some Concerns
I do have a few concerns with it as a mechanic, though, primarily that it sets the DM up to be an adversary.  I'm happy to make connections as DM, to tie coincidences together, but I'm uncomfortable with a mechanic that requires the tension of me being on the look out to apply the worst possible meaning of a fortune to players.

Another concern is that I've got enough stuff to remember without having to constantly be thinking about when to apply various players' fortunes.

Last and least, it uses a chart that is consumed in play-- I know most people prefer these, and that you can really have a list of fabulous results this way-- but I'm more interested in giving DMs a tool to create their own charts.  Especially because then you can also bring players in to the creative act at the table if you want to.

Addressing Concerns
Zak largely avoids my first concern, that of pitting DM vs.player, by making most of the fortunes in his table more complex than simple binaries, not clearly advantageous or disadvantageous.  So not, "a good friend dies" and it's between you and the DM to decide which of your friends is meant. In this way the fortunes become toys that invite both player and DM to get involved in the creative act.

But I wonder if the very act of making them less dangerous for the DM to enact makes them less interesting toys for the players to want to play with.  In other words, as a player would you pay someone to tell you "a crown rolls across a floor"?

There's not much I can think to do about the concern of requiring the DM to remember these.  Either limit the number of unresolved fortunes possible in play or make them solely the player's responsibility and provide some other method of tension so the player will want to resolve them.

Lastly, any vague generative tool could be adapted to make you more fortunes including Tarot, LoterĂ­a cards, Hanafuda decks, dominoes or regular playing cards. Here is the simplest chart I can think of, knowing full well it won't give the flavor of Zak's fortunes, but might require more collaborative creativity from Players and DM.  Roll 2 differently colored d6:
I think my next step for a more detailed fortune creator would actually list universals that would apply to rpgs, like "will fumble," "will fail when least expected (fail save)."

More about a Fated Future
Let me recap a little based on what I've learned from Zak's solution and my thinking about Future as Fate in play: 
  • Inescapable negative fates are really just curses, so there is no reason for players to seek them out in play.  Why should I ever talk to a fortune teller if it always leads to a hireling dying?  Why cast future predicting spells if it means you'll have to face more dangers?
  • So some predictions must be really good, to make players even interested it getting involved.
  • But predictions can't all be good, or they just becomes a fate point system where the player changes occurrences in the game to their advantage.
  • There must be some kind of tension to get these fortunes resolved--to say they have happened-- or pretty soon you'll have hundreds of fortunes hanging around.
  • One source of tension (besides an adversarial DM) could be a limit on fortunes: one fortune must be resolved before any further aspects of the future can be seen.  The fortune teller keeps rambling on and on about the rolling crown.
  • Again, this would mean some predictions must be really good, or the first negative fortune would mean players would just leave things on hold, never invoking that fortune, and not messing with fortunes again at all.
  • Fortunes should probably be owned by specific players, that way there is some interesting tension as they decide which friends and hirelings to apply negative fates to.
  • Perhaps you could give players a small XP reward for resolving fortunes.
  • If the knowledge of future events is coming from dreams there could be negative repercussions from lack of restful sleep until they are resolved.
These inescapable fates can be colorful for things gypsies scream at adventurers, recurring dreams, or drug induced visions but, in the end, because the future holds both good and bad for us, Future as Fate will always have the problem of whether players will want to get involved at all.  I think we need to look to the other views of the future for something more attractive to players.

This post got longer than I thought it would be.  I'll give you Future as Possible Paths next time.


  1. agreed. Although I think the fun of fortunes might be metagame: once a prediction is made it affects how people think, including making them wonder if the DM is going to "cheat" (please don't derail the thread here - you all know what I mean) to make that fortune come true. You can get a lot of Barnum-type value out of the uncertainty - about the truth or intent or origin of the fortune, if it constitutes valuable information for the PCs or others.

    I know this is beside your point, just brainstorming -

    What if your fortune telling machine, in place of the one reliable cookie, spits out 3 unrelated results for the PCs? Unheard of! What could it mean? Is only one true? Does the path of fate stand divided? Is the machine acting up? Anyway, you've got 3 adventure hooks.

  2. Thanks very much.

    @Zak: Thanks, your mechanic, as you probably know, is the kind of mechanic I love-- simple and flavorful. I think the concerns are unavoidable if Time as Fate is used as the view of the future.

    @Legion: Hey, thanks. I'll blab a little more on a different way to think of time next.

    @richard: It could be confusing for players if the DM switches back and forth between the two views of the Future. I mean if these multiple fortunes were supposed to be fates but were contradictory.

    But if you were going to stick to Future as Fate you've introduced a cool idea. Require those multiple fortunes to be resolved together. So, "the crown rolls across the stone floor" "a red head surprises you," and "misfortune for a close friend" all have to happen at the same time. The players have to be alert for the perfect opportunity. For that much work I might want to give them some kind of reward though.

    1. ...but what you say here makes sense: if the circumstances are difficult to arrange it becomes like making a ritual happen - and bad guys might be doing the same thing.

  3. I was thinking the players and characters could be in doubt about how it works, and willing or unwilling to place faith in the oracle. To tie this into the assoc/dissociated argument, how would they know if fate is real, as players or characters? Should they?