First published 1/20/2003; last edited 1/13/2005
There's more to the prophecy plot than high-epic "the Player Characters (PCs) must save the planet" deals. Those are fun of course, but sometimes something a little more unusual is called for. In that vein, here are some thoughts on possible prophecy plot variations. Turn them around even further, or just adapt them to your game, and give your players a surprise!
#1. The prophesied messiah goes bad
According to prophecy, only one person can stop the villains. So what happens when that person goes over to the wrong side? What happens when she decides she doesn't want to save or help anyone? That she'd much rather kill people, rob people, make a fast buck, or just plain go on vacation?
It's up to the PCs to answer this question, and they'd better answer it fast. The prophecy was told for a reason and there's work to be done. Maybe they need to convince the prophesied messiah to change sides again. Maybe they need to find a way to get things done without her. Or perhaps it's time for them to find another prophecy...
#2. The prophecies are true, but useless or inconsequential
Everyone expects a prophecy to be the key to something amazing. Prophets are frequently pictured as madmen (or they're at least touched with lunacy)--it isn't easy to see the future, particularly in the modern world where few people believe in such things. The word "prophecy" holds connotations of power and world-changing events, but with that much insanity running around, who's to say that every prophecy hits the mark?
The prophecy of course is couched in verse and analogy. The PCs must try to figure out what it means and presumably do something about it. But what if it's just a cryptic menu for the next holiday feast, or a recipe for cinnamon rolls? What if it's a note that on April the sixteenth, an oil truck will run over someone's pet? If the prophecy has lines in it that could be misinterpreted, the PCs could end up in quite the comedy of errors. They might find themselves getting involved in random events that have no relation to the prophecy, or which are completely unimportant. Or who knows... maybe they'll accidentally stumble across something interesting yet totally unrelated that otherwise they wouldn't have found!
WARNING: Only try this if your players don't mind a bit of misdirection and pointless silliness! It's the sort of plot that works for some groups and games, and definitely not for others. Another alternative is to turn the seemingly pointless prophecy around again. So it's a recipe for cinnamon rolls--what if it's a recipe that someone desperately wants? Or it's a prediction about the death of someone's pet--what if saving the pet will put a very powerful person into the party's debt?
#3. Someone prophesies doom and destruction for the PCs
Most prophecy-plots require the PCs to fulfill the prophecies. They must find the item, destroy the villain, or work the pivotal magic. The PCs will not, however, want to fulfill this particular sort of prophecy!
The PCs hear a prophecy that spells their doom. They have reason to believe the source of the prophecy--they know from past experience or by reputation that it's reliable, or the prophecy involves small signs that they can verify. The point of the plot is for them to find some way to avoid the prophecy.
Sometimes this means averting a number of the smaller parts of the prophecy, with the assumption that once those have been averted, the party has changed the entire future of the prophecy. Sometimes the prophecy must be dealt with head-on. Sometimes the PCs must go through several iterations of believing they've dealt with their dark fate before they find the true key.
Another alternative would be to have them discover that they actually need the prophecy to come true! What if the alternative is worse? What if it's one of those situations where the good guys have to go through some sort of "trial by fire" in order to prove themselves or get to the good stuff on the other side?
WARNING: When this variation on the prophecy-plot appears in literature and on TV, it usually centers around the idea of free will: do the PCs have free will? Can they change the future, or are they enslaved to it? Because of this, it's important that you allow them to have their free will--otherwise you defeat the whole theme of the plot. Don't decide ahead of time exactly how the plot will come out and then push the party into that end-point. Figure out what's likely, what's possible, and how, and then set your party loose. (If you need more information on the free will issue, there's a whole series of articles in our RPG resources.)
#4. Non-player characters (NPCs) are the focus of the prophecies
We've all heard of "the PC glow," I'm sure (or some variant on it). It's that invisible aura that results in the PCs being the focus of every plot out there. It's the reason why everyone pulls them into their schemes. (Okay, so a lot of game masters (GMs) have found good, logical reasons why the plots center around the PCs. But not everyone has.)
What if, for once, the PCs didn't have that glow? What if the prophecies centered around someone else for a change? Perhaps the PCs need to protect an important person who is prophesied to die. Perhaps they must stop a villain prophesied to take over the world. (For once it isn't the good guys who are prophesied to win!) Maybe a prophecy states that a young man will lead his people to freedom, and the PCs must help him learn what he needs to know to be a good leader. Or perhaps they must help him overcome his enemies.
WARNING: Make sure you've left room for the PCs to have an effect on this plot! Just because the plot theoretically centers on someone else doesn't mean that the PCs can't determine how the plot comes out. You don't want the party to turn into observers; they should still drive the events of the story.
#5. NPCs invent a prophecy to hoodwink the PCs
A group of NPCs produces a prophecy and makes a big deal out of it. They use it as "proof" that the PCs are destined to help them out of their miserable situation. But the prophecy is false! The NPCs made it up to convince the PCs to help them.
Is the cause a good one, one that the PCs might be glad they've helped out with even once they find out they've been tricked? Or do the PCs realize they've been working for the wrong side? Does everything work out, or do the PCs need to find a way to right the wrongs they've perpetrated in the name of fate?
What about NPCs who use a bit of psychology? They arrange for the PCs to hear a prophecy of their own doom and destruction (we're combining #3 and #5 here). This prophecy is false, however. The NPCs hope that the prophecy will send the PCs off on a wild goose chase, send them into hiding, or make them so nervous that they hesitate or screw up. The NPCs might even arrange for a few "signs" to convince the PCs of the validity of the prophecy. If the NPCs are feeling particularly motivated, they might even try to bring about the circumstances of the prophecy, hoping to use the PCs' fear to destroy them.
CAVEAT: There must always be a way for the PCs to figure out that they're being fooled, otherwise the players are likely to feel used and frustrated!
#6. The PCs could use prophecy for fun and prophet--err, profit
Who says the PCs themselves can't have a little prophecy fun? Perhaps an NPC friend suggests that he could dress himself up as a mad prophet. This man arrives in a town a couple of days before the rest of the party and, with a little shrewd timing (or perhaps a little magical help of one kind or another) establishes a reputation as a true prophet with a knack for helping people. Just before the PCs arrive, he produces a prophecy about great heroes who are destined to help the town against an unknown enemy.
Then the "prophet" can give himself a makeover and rejoin the party, or stick around in his disguise. The PCs could probably live off of the town's generosity for at least a week before anyone became too suspicious. If they were particularly clever and arranged for an "unknown enemy" for them to fight (or found one), they might be able to fool the town for even longer. If they had an enemy already in the area, they could use this gambit to get the town to support them in their fight.
But what's in it for the friend? He must have had some reason for setting all this up. Perhaps he has his own reasons for wanting to establish a reputation as a skilled prophet. Or perhaps he isn't such a good friend after all, and he thinks he can fleece the townspeople while he's there, leaving the party to take the blame. Or perhaps there's someone in the town he wants to hurt, and he's going to set that person up as the "unknown enemy" once his reputation has been established.
#7. Prophecies have highly interpretable signs
The verse or analogy in which many prophecies are written just screams for misinterpretation. What if a prophecy means one thing, but could be read as meaning something entirely different?
The GM could write up some "prophecies" ahead of time. He tries to write them so that the PCs will misinterpret them in a certain way; this is difficult, but possible. Better yet, the GM can listen to the players as they try to interpret the verse themselves. If they come up with interesting ideas, he can turn some of them into false leads.
WARNING: Don't push the players too hard or too far in the wrong direction. Use contextual clues to cause them to steer themselves in the wrong direction. As always, make sure there's a way for them to figure out what's really going on. And, of course, this has the usual "not every group of players will be happy with this kind of plot" caveat. Know your players and their preferences before trying out a plot that involves misleading them.
#8. Different versions of a prophecy exist
The PCs get their hands on an old prophecy about a coming catastrophe. It details the signs that will lead up to the disaster, how it will come about, and how it may be stopped. The PCs set off to do their duty. On the way they get their hands on another prophecy about the same event. This one also details the preceding signs, the catastrophe, and how to stop it. Too bad the verses are wildly different!
Most likely, a little bit of each verse is correct. Each prophet had some idea of what was to come, but he didn't want to say that he just didn't know the rest so he made it up. Or perhaps one prophet heard that another had prophesied this horrible thing, and he figured his reputation would be ruined if he didn't also produce a prophecy. Maybe someone spread false versions to distract people from the correct one. At any rate, the PCs must figure out what's really happening, and deal with it, before it's too late.
As always, make sure the PCs have a way to figure out the truth of the matter!
Many of these ideas can be mixed and matched to good end. The multiple prophecies in #8 could all be highly interpretable as in #7. Just remember that prophecy-plots don't have to be straightforward and normal. They can be as twisted and confusing as any other plot!