I recently ran an encounter with oracles in my D&D 5e game that went wild. It turned into a great experience of plot hooks, clue dispensing, and character development. I wanted to share the mechanics I used with you and also give my advice on using prophecies and oracles in your games.
Using prophecy in an RPG is a tricky business. When you’re writing a story, you can make changes in later edits to make sure your prophecies come true and make sense. That doesn’t work in a roleplaying game: when you tell players the prophecy it’s locked in place and editing later can be an awkward business if it’s even possible. Still, you can do it and the four bits of advice below are my best guides to make it go well.
- Focus on Points and Not the Whole. In TV shows and movies you often see a prophecy as a cut-scene. They might have a vision of a friend lying dead and bloody in an alleyway and they can to stop it. Don’t try to create these visually-dense scenes in your game, it just makes more things that you have to orchestrate. Describe the friend’s face, fill the description with emotion and some clues to follow. Don’t describe the weapon or other people in the room because then you have to ensure that’s how it happens. Of course, some of this can be adjusted by the next point.
- Decide on Inevitability. In addition to figuring out what the prophecy will be (unless you’re wining it), decide how inevitable the prophecy will be. Is the friend in the vision definitely going to end up in an alley covered in blood or can it be avoided? If the players can do something to change it, maybe they can only change where it happens but the friend is going to be attacked and it’s going to be bad. Make sure the players know this too so that they can be part of the narrative fun of dealing with prophecy.
- What’s the Catch? There’s always a price to be paid for prophecy. In stories like Cassandra the catch is simply the knowledge of living with the inevitable. This isn’t as satisfying in roleplaying games, though, since many players don’t respond well to a lack of agency. Instead, have there be a price to pay for the prophecy, and it’s better if it isn’t monetary (since they can game the system that way). Do they only have three questions so they need to agonize over which ones? Does asking a question cost them something painful? When they ask a question, do their enemies also get a question? Make it something that is dramatic instead of transactional.
- How Is It Shown? Lastly, think about how the prophecy comes to the characters. Do they see visions in a smoky haze? Do they watch what’s happening in a pool of water? Is it given to them as a scroll, book, or computer file? Have this description read to go so that you can focus on the vision rather than the delivery.
For the Price of a Memory
Below is the system I used for my game a few weeks ago. It’s just an example, not everyone will use the same approach, but it gives you an idea of how to use the guidelines I mentioned above.
To get answers from these oracles, you offer them payment in the form of a memory. The more important and influential that memory, the more answers you will get from them when they prophesize. Mechanically, this determines the DC of the check you make, the juicier the memory the better.
|Weight of Memory||Strong but not very important.||Formative moment from your past.||Core to your identity.|
|Example||The first time I saw the ocean.||First date with your spouse.||My mother’s voice.|
When you roll to see how well you express your question to the oracles, you roll depending on what type of memory you gave to them. Experiences result in a Wisdom check, personal memories result in a Charisma check, and knowledge results in an Intelligence check. You roll against the DC determined by the weight of your memory and how well you roll determines what answers you get.
- Failing the roll means you can ask a number of questions equal to the attribute modifier that you rolled with (minimum 1) but one of the answers will be misleading, vague, or outright untrue.
- Succeeding the roll means you can ask a number of questions equal to the attribute modifier that you rolled with (minimum 1).
- Succeeding by 5 or more means that you can ask questions as indicated above, but you can ask a follow-up question to one of your questions.
When the price is paid, the oracles pull the memories from their heads in small motes of light like fireflies. Then they grip the sides of the character’s head and shove them headfirst into a pool of water beneath the Tree of Truth. For the rest of the party they seem to dunk under and come right back up but the character can experience minutes or even hours of swirling bits of vision and strong emotion down in the pool. These visions show possibility, often several different destinies which depend on the characters’ action after they leave this place.