First published 2/27/2003; last edited 3/6/2004
Prophecies confuse. For whatever reason, they're almost never straightforward. They're couched in verse, metaphor and analogy. They must be puzzled out and interpreted. There's plenty of room for misinterpretation and mistake.
But why? Why don't visions come with manuals or translation keys? Why aren't prophecies straightforward and easy? Why do prophets only get glimpses of events to come rather than detailed instructions?
The simple answer is that the game master (GM) or writer needs things to happen that way, in order to keep the plot difficult or mysterious rather than simple and straightforward. Another reason is atmosphere and mood--there's a certain tradition to the muddled prophecy, in literature and in history. It isn't necessary for all of your prophecies and visions to be confusing, but sometimes it's just the right way to do things.
However, these shouldn't be your only reasons for putting an ambiguous prophecy into a roleplaying game (RPG) or story--there should be a good plot reason as well as your own rationale. It helps to have an explanation ready, to keep your muddled prophecies from seeming just a little too conveniently muddled. Besides, if you know why a prophecy is unclear, it will help you to figure out how to make it confusing.
This article is a companion piece to a Twilight Time article: Prophecies Amuck!
Reasons for Confusion
#1. The prophet has no idea how to interpret what he's seeing, particularly if he's seeing into another time or place. How would someone from 2,000 years ago describe a plane or a parking garage? Let alone a computer?
Using this in your game or story: This works best when the prophecy has been around for a long time, or when the prophet was seeing something totally alien to him. It might also work if he's seeing his vision from a vantage point so unusual that it causes him to make incorrect assumptions about what he's seeing.
#2a. If the power providing the vision is too powerful, the prophet could be overwhelmed. He doesn't remember a perfectly clear message--he simply babbles whatever he can get out and someone writes it down. Then he has to try to puzzle it out afterward.
#2b. If the method of prophecy involves ingesting, injecting, or inhaling drugs of some sort, then the prophet could similarly end up babbling out his prophecies. The drugs might open up the prophet's mind, but they also make it impossible for him to relate the prophecy in a coherent manner.
Using these in your game or story: You can create almost any sort of confused or confusing prophecy using these methods, either with visions or with words. For bonus points, take the time to think about the psyche of the prophet (or his source) and try to filter the prophecies through his fears, dreams, memories, and world-view.
#3. If the message comes in a dream, the prophet shouldn't remember it clearly. Dreams are hallucinatory, weird and confusing. And dreams tend to fade the moment we wake up. Perhaps the sleeping brain is simply unable to view things in a logical manner. The dreaming prophet not only must pick information out of something that's been filtered through the weirdness of a dream-state, but he must also try to remember it.
Using this in your game or story: Figure out the entire dream first, and write it down. Then figure out what it would be like after the character wakes up and can only remember bits and pieces of it. Give this latter part to the character to start with. As the character goes through his day and sees elements of his dream in the waking world, allow him to remember more and more until finally he remembers all or most of the dream. This also allows the characters to deliberately try to provoke memory by trying to figure out from the dream snippets they have what might be in the rest of the dream--and thus, what else might provoke recall.
The dream should be a bit hallucinatory and weird, but you can tailor the level of strangeness and translation difficulty to your game or story pretty easily. You might also allow a character who regularly receives prophecies in dreams to start a dream journal, gradually enabling him to remember more of his dreams.
#4. The power that relates the vision might not think in the way a human does. If someone tried to relate something to you in a language you didn't know, you'd probably get an imperfect picture of the situation at best. It's like playing a game of Charades or trying to read hieroglyphics.
Using this in your game or story: If you know anything about the power granting the vision or prophecy and how it thinks, then use that. Is it intelligent but fundamentally alien? Then maybe it would try to communicate in metaphor or through the prophet's own memories. It might concentrate on images rather than words. Or perhaps it would try to find a way to teach the prophet its own language, so that they might communicate more clearly. Maybe its idea of what's important and needs to be conveyed would be different than the prophet's idea of the same.
#5. The power granting the vision has a secret agenda. If the characters don't entirely understand the meaning of the vision, after all, then the giver of that vision might be able to trick them into doing something they might not otherwise be thrilled about doing. Using ambiguous or confusing visions could be the perfect way to do this.
Using this in your RPG: Be careful about this one. Not all players enjoy plots in which they get tricked. There needs to be a fair way for them to figure out what's really going on, and/or perhaps they're being tricked into doing something that will, in the end, benefit them or people they care about.
Using this in your story: Also be careful about this in fiction; you don't want the reader to feel cheated either. Again, make sure there are hints. Foreshadow what's really going on. Make the deception an interesting plot development rather than a "trick" ending.
#6. The prophecy is a message meant only for one or two people. The confusing aspects of it are a sort of code that the giver of the prophecy has reason to believe the intended recipients will be able to decipher. There must be a reason, of course, why he doesn't want anyone else to know what the prophecy means.
Using this in your game or story: This is a great way to deal with prophecies or information that is so sensitive that the wrong people could do a lot of damage with it. Are the main characters the intended recipients or the enemies? If they aren't the people the prophecy was meant for, then come up with a reasonable way for them to gain the means to decipher it.
#7. The prophet doesn't want to share the information, but he is compelled to. He may have no choice but to blurt out the information in his vision as he sees it, but he might be able to garble it or couch it in non-literal terms.
Using this in your game or story: (In an RPG, clearly this one is meant for a prophet who isn't a player character (PC), unless the PCs in your game are on different sides.) Remember that the prophet will only have a few seconds in which to garble the message, so this can't be a carefully thought-out confusion. It should probably hinge on one major "translation issue" or ambiguity, something that the prophet could think up quickly.
#8. The prophecy is designed with a time-delay in mind. The power handing out the prophecy has to hand it out on day 1 (make sure there's a good reason why), but it doesn't want the characters getting to the end-goal before a certain time (again, why?). So it makes the prophecy ambiguous or confusing such that the meaning shouldn't become clear until something else happens at some specific time. That event acts as a translation key (think of all of the stories in which a prophecy didn't make sense until the characters noticed that there was an eclipse going on, which the ambiguous prophecy, in retrospect, had described).
Using this in your story: The power handing out the prophecy must have some agenda that is served by the delay. This is a particularly good confusion method for fiction, because it sets up a later "revelation" that can turn the story on its head.
Using this in your RPG: Try to set things up such that the characters' inability to solve the riddle in the meantime won't frustrate the players too much--make them think the prophecy isn't urgent, or give them other important things to work on as well. Most importantly, figure out ahead of time what will happen if, despite your best efforts, your PCs manage to correctly interpret the prophecy before they're supposed to--after all, PCs do surprising things!
#9. The prophet is being deliberately ambiguous because the prophecy is false. This is a favorite trick of con men, who make their predictions vague and suggestive, so that no matter what happens it seems as though they were right.
Using this in your game or story: Read "real-world" predictions from various psychics and such. See how it is that they keep things ambiguous while tossing in enough information to sound like they know what they're talking about. One favorite method is to throw in enough varied information that some of it must turn out to be right. Then use that to shape the prophecies in your story or game.
#10. The prophecy is a test. The source of the prophecy is using the test to gauge the competence, ability, resourcefulness, or worthiness of the characters. An over-used variation on this is the source that muddles prophecies simply because it thinks that the characters should do some of the work themselves.
Using this in your story or game: Make sure that this isn't simply an excuse to keep around an overly-powerful being who, for no good reason, is refusing to provide the characters with the fruits of his knowledge. Too many games and stories have over-used this, and with rare exception it just doesn't make sense. If the prophecy is a test, then the characters should either pass or fail and then move on to something else.
A good twist on this, however, could be the being or group that uses a confusing prophecy as a "test" for the characters. But really the mysterious benefactors have no idea what the prophecy means themselves and want the characters to solve it for them.
Not all prophecies need to be muddled, confusing, or ambiguous. But when you need such a prophecy, you should also know why it isn't straightforward. This helps to keep things from feeling arbitrary and turns confusions into interesting plots and details in their own right. If how and why are known quantities, then the rest tends to follow naturally!