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Musings from an Empty Tankard: Omens, Prophecy, and Foreshadowing

Musings from an Empty Tankard: Omens, Prophecy, and Foreshadowing

Being an odd collection of random optional rules for your game…

A favorite fantasy trope is the use of omens and prophecy to foreshadow future events. Still, it’s kind of tough to use prophecy while attempting to create a narrative through collective storytelling. Anyone who’s ever played an RPG will tell you the cast rarely follows a “script,” and any GM foisting a script upon the players must ultimately face charges of railroading. So how does a GM trigger the unfolding of a prophecy without artificially controlling the story?

First, pick a mood or theme that suits the flow of the game. After describing that mood, use it for the basis of your prophecy. A prophecy that accurately describes the game feels more organic. It feels as if it has always been unfolding, and the PCs are only now beginning to see it. It creates that “ah-ha” moment that reveals they have always been part of something greater, and the greater thing has always been at work.

Next, base the prophecy’s key elements on identifying important NPCs. Prophecies should offer clues to their personalities and their intentions, rather than predicting events to come. Players are also storytellers and will eagerly fill in the blanks. Many players enjoy being clever and will want to decipher your most cryptic prophecies, and in their attempts, they will voice inferences and predictions. GMs can use the players’ predictions to create future events and revelations. If you build outcomes based on the players’ inferences, their in-game actions unfold as they predicted. This makes your “prophecy” seem uncanny.

Lastly, know what motivates the PCs. Scour their backstories for events they are trying to prevent, know what they fear and where they place their faith. Hint at these story elements when presenting the prophecy. Again, players predetermine the importance of these themes, so whenever one surfaces, players might respond, “I knew it!” and eagerly attempt to explain the meaning of the prophecy to the rest of the group.

When introducing a prophecy, let the PCs discover it themselves, so they can see it coming, feeling the future’s presence, and actively seek it out. While you can create an encounter with an oracle or fortuneteller and have PCs stumble in for a reading, another option is for PCs to experience omens, weird and ominous signs that seem to hint or warn of future events. Unnatural events can make PCs question the nature of things and either attempt to solve the problem themselves or seek the aid of a seer or a mystic.

Below are a few tropes you can use to create prophecy in group storytelling.

Circle of Birds

A murder of crows or maybe ravens, owls, ravens, or a similarly ominous birds circle overhead or perch along the trees or ledges. Seemingly, the birds spend their time watching the PCs. Then when satisfied, they suddenly fly off en masse.

Example. Looking out of the inn’s bedroom window, you spot a nearby tree filled with owls. Eerily they seem to watch your every move.

Ominous Effects.A few moments after the birds depart, the PC hears news of someone’s death.

Crossed Paths

The PCs experience an unusual encounter with a small animal, such as a cat or serpent, that either crosses or blocks their path or follows them around. The animal might have peculiar markings, patterns, or unusual eyes that hint at something supernatural. After a few minutes, the animal walks off, rounds a corner, and seemingly disappears, leaving no trace of its passing.

Example. From an alley, a black goat walks into the middle of the street. Stubbornly blocking the path, it stares silently, refusing to break its gaze.

Ominous Effects. For the next few minutes, the GM asks random PCs to make Perception checks. If a PC succeeds on a DC 15 check, they glimpse movement out of the corner of their eye. Unfortunately, whenever they turn to look, they see nothing.

Death Tide

While traveling along the edge of a body of water, such as a lake, river, or ocean, the PCs discover a section of shore littered with the corpses of fish, frogs, or insects. However, the cause of death isn’t apparent, and the adjacent body of water appears calm and nearly still.

Example. Hundreds of dead fish litter the shoreline, their eyes bulging as gulls descend to pick at their flesh.

Ominous Effects. For the next few hours, the PCs can smell the scent of the decaying animals and have a −2 penalty to any Wisdom (Perception) checks based on scent.

The Long Night

Dawn doesn’t arrive as expected, and the sun rises several hours or even days late. During this time, PCs clearly see the moon and therefore cannot account for the phenomenon resulting from an eclipse. PCs can attempt ability checks to recall tales concerning a similar event called the Long Night, which some stories claim lasts for decades.

Example. The last watch seems to drag on. It feels as if an eternity has passed, and still, the sun fails to break over the horizon.

Ominous Effects. Each hour the sun fails to show itself increases the odds that NPCs panic. As the hours pass in darkness, all NPCs must make a DC 12 Wisdom saving throws to avoid becoming frightened. Those that fail, grab nearby supplies and flee. For each additional hour of darkness, increase the DC for the Wisdom save by +1.

Lunar Shift

Something odd happens to the moon, such as an unexpected change in color or shift in alignment. Perhaps the moon suddenly vanishes and reappears a few minutes later, or perhaps strange shadows drift past and then disperse into darkness.

Example. The moon hangs low and full. Its normal silver glow now awash in a mysterious crimson, as if dipped in blood.

Ominous Effects. Anyone with darkvision experiences a dimming in their range of sight, decreasing to 10 feet for about a minute, before returning to normal.

Shooting Star

The PCs witness a celestial event, such as a meteor shower, the passing of a comet, or the explosion of a distant sun. The event takes place in a section of the sky directly above an important location, like a temple, crypt, or a PC’s homeland. Similarly, the event might occur in the constellation associated with a PC’s birth sign.

Example. The night sky ignites as a bright white burst streaks downward for a fleeting second. Then slowly, the darkness seeps back across the horizon.

Ominous Effects.A random time the next day, a voice seems to whisper in a PC’s ear: “It was in the heavens… I know you saw it too.”

Weird Weather

The PCs experience an unseasonal change in the weather, such as a searing blast of desiccating wind, a hailstorm, or an early snowfall.

Example. The temperature drastically drops during the night, leaving everything covered in a thin rime, silvery and jagged.

Ominous Effects.The PC seems to recall a similar event happening once during their childhood but cannot remember any details of the incident, including where and when it took place.

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