Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Dubious Prophecies

The Sigil of Othimar, The Third Oracle of the Plateau
Prophecies and the foretelling of futures by soothsayers, madmen and oracles are a staple of fairy tales, myths, legends, fantasy fiction and role playing games. All great epics eventually have some wizened crone, cackling hag, blind old seer, wobbly gent in a threadbare kilt, long bearded geezer in a floppy hat with a pipe, or some vapor-huffing tart sitting on a bench next to some crack in the floor. Whether they are con-artists, self-serving manipulators of opportunity, frauds, freaks or just bored sailors with a Sinbad sense of style, those who speak of the future in sonorous tones of faux gravity, or who are just pretending in order to scrape up a few coins to buy a crust of bread, are fun to use in a story or a game session. They are especially entertaining when their advice is less than absolutely certain.

Dodgy, dubious advice that may well be lacking in merit is far more commonplace than farts in a feedlot. It is important to not overplay the veracity, accuracy or soundness of an oracle's pronouncements. Sure there are all sorts of spells for divination in most games, but most forms of traditional divination aren't spells, they are skills, techniques used to gain answers and advice. Using a pendulum, asking the magic eight-ball, consulting the Tarot, casting a horoscope, throwing the runes, picking up yarrow stalks, flipping a coin, cracking open a random book...these and more, far more besides are all forms of divination. None of them are spells. There's no reason to rely on spells when we have such a vast array of techniques to draw upon and there are so many ways to make hay from one single skill or class ability or technique.

Learning the divinatory arts can either be as simple as picking up tips from the household help like those impressionable young girls in Salem who just wanted to know what their future husbands were going to be like. They used an egg and a glass of water. It's a simple technique. It's a bit of folklore that they learned from their house-servant.

Never underestimate the power, nor the utility, of folklore.

Pretending to see the future, to give the impression that one knows something that is about to happen is a powerfully seductive thing. People who are as hard-nosed and skeptical as they come will fall for this. It is one of the things that can be manipulated by marketing, advertising, politicians, preachers, or stock analysts. Consider this--in today's supposedly rational, educated, technologically advanced world, we still have people wagering on the lottery and highly paid math whizzes and other shysters speculating of the future availability of various commodities. The financial markets are set-up as a hardcore economics-based form of competitive divination.

And they call us weird...

Cassandra we recall by name, but the Oracle at Delphi, well, we've lost the roll call. Books of predictions sell tons of copies. Astrology is still in the newspapers, even the online versions. You can get a lot of free beer doing Tarot readings, if you don't mind working that cheaply. Ouija boards are still available and now we have revised and newage-ified versions complete with crystals to save us from negative influences. Hah. Divination is big business. Projections of earnings and market share are just that--what we think might be so in the future--best guesses, informed or pulled right out of the butt--it's divination.

There have been too many pious clerics getting honest answers from their deities. There's just too much cut-and-dried, even definitive Yes or Now answers in what passes as magic in most role-playing games to suit my tastes. I want more intriguing ambiguities that can be further explored and unravelled, less of the random cryptic meaningless sentences or homilies or cliches or sayings* that could have been lifted from the script to Sucker Punch. Instead of divination spells, I want to return divination to its folkloric roots, to go back to the techniques and the sort of cultural cachet that once made books on Western Geomancy very popular reading material in Old Europe.

We've taken one approach to this in how we have developed the Haruspistadium in Riskail. It is a place where full-contact divination is carried out on a competitive basis. Some of those cackling hags, especially the ones from Ashadan, are particularly cut-throat.

We're in the process of developing another approach for Jalamere, one that will develop organically along with the rest of that setting. And then there is Book Nine. If we could accurately predict the future, we'd have foreseen that it would be delayed and put on the back-burner until we wrapped-up other projects. It will see the light of day, eventually, but for now the Nine Oracles of the Plateau will have to wait their turn. Patiently. They at least are supposed to be able to see the future...

* Not that there's anything wrong with some babbling mendicant spouting empty platitudes, cryptic or not. In fact a random table of platitudes, koans, sayings, etc. might not be such a bad idea... 


  1. I agree. Prophecy/divination needs to more flavorful, and have more of the vagary of real world models, or good literary prophecy.

  2. We're stripping down the assumptions surrounding the so-called Vancian magic system in OD&D/ S&W/Labyrinth Lord and rebuilding it from the ground up as a constellation of overlapping and inter-operative skills, techniques and other things. We want runes, tarot, geomancy, and more of that kind of stuff, without losing the fireballs and lightning blasts.

    Sorry we didn't get the Demonology post done for today. I'm still a bit tired, and the in-house editor has been feeling a little under the weather. It'll show up soon.

  3. Hi, Folklore is one of those subjects that is as old as time itself, and thus, fascinating to all of us. I love the old fairy tales, don't you? I enjoy reading Piers Anthony and such authors. I enjoy his Punning twist to literature.
    Good post.

  4. @Grammy: Fairy Tales are a lot of fun, my daughter used to love it when I read them out loud to her. There's a lot of godd stuf fburied in those stories. Puns are fun, sometimes. Piers Anthony has certainly made quite a lot of stories out of puns and vice-versa. I haven't read his stuff in years, but I still remember A Spell for Chameleon. That was a fun read.


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