Towards the end of 2018, my home game was wrapping up Storm King’s Thunder when I noticed a precipice before me. My players were in love with their characters, and they wanted to go the distance. They wanted their characters to reach epic levels and, as a result, tell appropriately epic stories. To battle waves of giants without NPC assistance. To wield legendary magic items with names and history from adventurers’ past. To travel beyond the material plane in defense of the entire realms.

This was uncharted territory for me as a Dungeon Master. I was going to have to write and run a high-level game, rather than spice up the existing framework in a published adventure.

During a few weeks of real-world downtime between sessions, I solicited feedback from my players with a Campaign Refresher survey. I analyzed the results of the survey while stringing together a campaign outline spanning levels 12-20. The final confrontation would pit the characters against the ancient kraken Slarkathrel in the depths of the elemental plane of water!

A week later, I trashed that outline and started a new one. Why? Well, thanks to the survey, I finally knew what my players wanted. They liked the elements of the campaign that I’d added. They enjoyed the Norse mythology I’d mixed in, and they enjoyed one of the side villains in particular: Cantu, the Pale Sorcerer, a goliath trying to unite the tribes of the Frozenfar. Most importantly, they wanted to have choices, and they wanted those choices to matter.

In an effort to give weight to the choices they’d made, I flipped back through my notes, thinking about the consequences of their actions (or inaction).

  • What changed while the characters were off fighting the BBEG from Storm King’s Thunder?
  • What happened to towns that the characters saved after they left? What about the ones that they ignored?
  • How would the fire giant kingdom respond to characters killing a member of the royal family?
  • Where was Cantu, and how much had he achieved after nearly three months without the character’s heroic interruptions?

It all started coming together. I knew what Cantu had accomplished. I decided how King Snurre Ironbelly would react in the Hall of the Fire Giants. I filled my notes with possible dramatic scenes. However, without a book to guide me, I wanted something constant to keep the party from going off the rails, something they could reference as the campaign unfolded before them.

I decided to write a prophecy.

Are Prophecies Railroading?

Before we talk about prophecies, we should talk about railroading. In movies and television, prophecies are often depicted as a pre-determined pathway of events that will befall a character. I think of the three hags (aka the Fates) in Disney’s Hercules, predicting the alignment of the planets “in precisely eighteen years’ time.” All of the events come to pass, including Hades’ failure when Hercules intervenes. How do you work this into the table without railroading?

Fates: What's the Matter with Everything? | Disney hercules ...

It’s no surprise that some players grimace at the thought of a prophecy driving their campaign. In some stories, prophecies are quite literally set in stone. This is in direct conflict with the underlying philosophy of TTRPGs. We want to have choices, and we want those choices to matter. Wouldn’t this be a bad fantasy trope to implement in tabletop RPGs?

You’re Probably Already Railroading Your Players

While I certainly believe that some group out there is doing it, I have never seen a completely improvisational campaign. To some extent, every D&D campaign is on rails, and there’s nothing wrong with that. When I sit down to prepare for a session, I’m making assumptions about future events, trying to anticipate the characters’ actions and frame possible events around them. The tracks might diverge, or the players may get off at one stop and board an entirely different train, but I’m always planning.

Published adventures have rails. Session outlines have rails. My campaigns certainly have rails. In fact, when I made an attempt to provide a completely sandbox game, my players told me they didn’t like it as much because they weren’t sure what to do — there was too much choice!

Good Railroading

Dungeon Masters must strike a balance between narrative and agency. On the one hand, a game that is entirely plot-driven deprives players of agency. On the other hand, putting all of narrative on the players can lead to aimless wandering in an endless sandbox. With devoted and creative players, the latter could be rewarding (if you like this, you might check out the collaborative storytelling system in the Apocalypse World RPG), but every table is different. Ultimately, your game depends on the experience desired by your players.

I believe that Chris Perkins, the lead adventure designer for D&D, said it best in his “The Invisible Railroad” article for his DM Experience column at Wizards of the Coast:

Although I think it’s possible to run a campaign that is 100 percent driven by the players, I’m not the kind of Dungeon Master who can relinquish narrative control to the point where I’m simply reacting to the players’ desires and “winging it” week after week. I like coming up with adventure ideas and stringing them together to form a cohesive arc that unfolds over multiple levels. When I plan out an adventure, I usually have a good idea where, when, and how it will end—assuming the heroes don’t get sidetracked or TPK’ed en route. I like to call it my invisible railroad.

– Chris Perkins, The DM Experience (9/22/2011)

The goal of the invisible railroad is not to assert control over players. It’s to guide them to moments you’ve worked to make more rewarding than those imagined on the fly. Dungeon Masters create NPCs with secret connections who might betray the PCs in a future session. We try to line up pivotal moments of the campaign in fantastic locations rather than having the villain stabbed in the back while on a grocery run. We place the legendary item in the most interesting room of the dungeon instead of in the grasp of a skeleton near the entrance. We steer the players back to point B because we hope that it will be fun and memorable than the alternative.

Bad Railroading

Bad railroading confines player choice without subtlety. The players are in a story-train on a set of tracks built by the DM, who’s planned all the stops with no possible change in course. There are few options, if any, and if a player takes an alternative route, there is no satisfying reward. Everything is designed to funnel back into some overarching plot determined by the DM. The players lose agency, their actions have little impact, and the game feels meaningless. It’s like handing you the second Wii-mote in Super Mario Galaxy while your older sibling plays as Mario. Sure, you can collect star bits, but you’re not really doing anything. The feature mostly there to entertain younger children. (I’m sorry to any adults who enjoy collecting star bits with the second Wii-mote.)

Writing Good Prophecies

Now that we’ve got that out of the way, let’s talk about how write a great prophecy. I’ll show you the prophecy I wrote for my last campaign, and then I’ll offer some tips to keep in mind when writing your own.

The Prophecy of Everlasting Ice was inspired by 1) the frost giant plot in Storm King’s Thunder and 2) the one-hundred-year winter preceding Ragnarok in Norse mythology known as Fimbulwinter. I split the prophecy in two halves of a frost giant tapestry.

The Prophecy of Everlasting Ice
If the Ordning is shattered, a King of Ice rises from a lowly tribe. The Isenkong duels the highest Jarl for Thrym’s Favor. As frost dampens flame, Surtur chooses his champion.

On the last day of winter, branches part unscathed. The Heart of the First Flame is pierced by its own sword, sealing the buds of spring with Everlasting Ice. Only warriors endure the winter; those without thick hides perish.

The second half of the prophecy, which was inscribed in glowing blue runes on the petrified hide of a great whale, was given to the main Tier 3 villain, the Isenkong (“Ice King” in giant). This allowed some flexibility if I needed to end up changing something later (shhh, don’t tell my players), but also made for an dramatic reveal when the characters would find it in the lair of the Isenkong, where they discovered that the charismatic frost giant was none other than their old friend Cantu, the Pale Sorcerer – but that’s a story for another time.

Leave Prophecies Open to Interpretation

The best prophecies can be interpreted differently from different viewpoints. They refer to individuals through symbolism or titles. They never give hard dates. Your villain may look at the prophecy and see themselves as the savior it speaks of. This makes your puzzle more exciting. Characters can look for it as meaning, or try to interpret omens as fulfilling certain aspects of its words. One of my players actually printed out the prophecy and kept it on the front of her binder. The party would stop and ask each other if something was fulfilling the prophecy from time to time.

My prophecy was tied to awesome moments I wanted to happen when I was planning the campaign, but ultimately they shook out differently than I thought. I drew an image on the second half of the prophecy that depicted five silhouettes – the same number as party members – fighting the Isenkong. One of them was glowing in flame. Who was that person? When I planned, I hoped that it would be one of the characters. I thought it was going to be the party barbarian, Kav, who was Cantu’s brother, or perhaps maybe the cleric, Bertha. It ended up being the hafling bard! Keeping the prophecy open to interpretation allowed it to be flexible and tell stories with my players, not for them.

At any point, I was prepared to have the players alter the prophecy. The prophecy was the Cantu’s weakness. He clung to it as inspiration. To him, he could not fail for fate was on his side. Every time it looked like Cantu was going to fail, he grew desperate and made mistakes. During Tier 4, the characters showed Cantu that he was wrong about the prophecy. Not only did it break his spirit, it caused him to become a powerful ally against an even greater threat.

The Draconic Prophecy section in Eberron: Rising from the Last War (check out Beadle & Grimm’s Gold Edition here) has some fantastic advice for spinning cryptic prophecies into fantastic adventures. For examples of prophecies in the Forgotten Realms, you can look to the Prophecies of the seer Alaundo, immortalized in the Endless Chant of Candlekeep. (I just might have something coming out related to this soon.)

Surprise Players With New Information

Giving players new information later can give clarity to the prophecy — or turn their world upside down! In my example, I split the prophecy in two. When they received the first half, the events were already in place. Cantu had risen to the Isenkong. But when they ventured into his lair in the Blue Mountain, they discovered the other half of the prophecy, none of which had come to pass. They had a significant chance to alter the course of history. There were thirty days left until the last day of winter.

New information reminds your characters of the prophecy and helps them see it in a new light. It also allows you to add new developments or reconcile something that didn’t quite translate the way you’d hoped at the table. In Avatar: The Last Airbender, the party learns in Wan Shi Tong’s library that they will have an opportunity to stop the fire lord based on the darkest day in fire nation history.

Avatar: The Last Airbender - "The Library" Flashback Review - IGN

Here are some other ways that you can reveal new information about your prophecy:

  • Part of the prophecy is in another language
  • The prophecy is a key to a larger event
  • There is a missing piece of the prophecy — a smudge, a torn page, or an alteration made by the antagonist
  • The characters learn the prophecy was written by a faithless narrator
  • The prophecy is a fake, and the characters are unknowingly carrying out the villain’s scheme for them

Give Prophecies Proper Attention

In the words of Ron Swanson, “Never half-ass two things. Whole-ass one thing.” If you choose to give your characters a prophecy, you need to spend time on it. Your players are likely more clever than you give them credit! You don’t want your players to be able to connect the dots right off the bat. They’re going to pore over it, talk about it with each other, and reference it hopefully multiple times over future sessions.

Don’t treat your prophecy like a puzzle. You don’t want it to be something you can “figure out” without key events or details to give it shape. It’s best to structure your prophecy with at least one or two details that the characters don’t know, be they NPCs, locations, events, or something else.

Consider accompanying your prophecy with physical props, designs, or drawings. I provided my players with a handout of the prophecy with burned edges and drawings. That Christmas, one of my players gave me a dice box she made for Secret Santa; it had the prophecy wood-burned into the lid!

Running Good Prophecies

Writing a good prophecy is only half the battle. You have to run it well at the table, too! Just as you gave it proper attention during synthesis, you want to do so at the table.

Remind Players of the Prophecy Often

Writing a good prophecy is only half the battle. You have to run it well at the table, too! Just as you gave it proper attention during synthesis, you want to do so at the table.

Have wise NPCs question the characters about the prophecy. Maybe the prophecy is whispered among stone giants deep in the Underdark, or has become so widespread that it is a common children’s story in a kingdom. Foreshadow events with symbolism. If your prophecy speaks of birds, perhaps the characters see flocks circling them during important moments.

Throw in a Catalyst

You can also add a catalyst to your prophecy. This is someone or something that accelerates the prophecy’s events, bringing them to the forefront of the story. You might consider incorporating a catalyst after a major side quest or character arc to get the characters back “on track.”

A catalyst could be someone who wants the prophecy to happen. Maybe they benefit from its completion, but bear no ties to the villain. Perhaps the catalyst is someone who wants to obstruct the prophecy, but in some way they inadvertently accomplish one of its tenants. The catalyst could also be an event, such the solar eclipse deadline imposed on Aang and his companions in Avatar: the Last Airbender.

Prophecies can have a place in tabletop roleplaying games, but we have to be careful as game masters that plot doesn’t eclipse player agency. Whether this article has inspired you to include a prophecy in your campaign, I hope you’ve found my advice valuable.

Like this article? Consider supporting me by buying one of my products on the DMs Guild, such as Darkhold: Secrets of the Zhentarim or Elminster’s Candlekeep Companion. If you’re running Baldur’s Gate: Descent into Avernus, consider picking up an alternative introductory adventure to the campaign, Devil’s Advocate: A Guide to Infernal Contractsor Baldur’s Gate: City Encounters.

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