Saturday, August 25, 2018

Why Aren't You Using Signs and Portents in Your Game?

The gods work in mysterious ways, or so the holy men say. But if there isn't a cleric in your party, you might be hard-pressed to notice their influence at all. Even if you find yourself in the stronghold of an ancient deity (well-known or mostly forgotten), there's no real, tangible feeling of them most of the time. Their cultists might be there, and there may be some rather disturbing art on the walls, but other than ambiance there's no real feeling that the gods are alive and well to those they don't personally talk to.

You want to keep players on their toes? Change that.

Guys, this is the third one of these we've passed. Don't you think it means something?

Signs of Favor, Signs of Peril

The forces of the world live behind every tree, and lurk behind every cloud. While many of them are far away, they have ways of making their favor and displeasure felt... and many times they will do so as a warning to mortals. A warning of danger ahead, or a warning they are risking true blasphemy. And, in some cases, these signs may be sent as a way of congratulations. Of showing approval for the work one has done.

Best of all? It's a great way to make your faraway powers feel immediate, while also giving those knowledgeable about magic and religion a reason to roll their dice to figure out what strange, seemingly random occurrences might mean.

For example, everyone knows of the Queen of Crows. This shrouded crone is the one who decides when and how someone dies, her gnarled fingers clutching the blade that snips the thread of one's life. If the party is about to slay someone who has surrendered, then a crow landing on that person's shoulder and cawing could signify that it is not that person's time yet. If the party ignores that portent, and slays them anyway, they might find themselves constantly followed by crows. The little black bastards might steal their rations, caw loudly to ruin ambushes, and in the most extreme cases might attack spellcasters to ruin their concentration. Alternatively, those who obey the portents might find that crows become helpful, showing up in moments of crisis. Crows who call out to them by name to lead the way down hidden paths, or who drop stolen keys into dungeons so individuals might free themselves more easily. In cases where an individual has truly earned the respect of the Queen, she might even send them a companion to help guide them... particularly if the individual is sworn to her service, or has worshiped her for many years.

"The dead stay dead!" Huh... I wonder what it's talking about...
You can take this in as many different directions as you want, and you can use these signs and portents in big ways, small ways, or as pure flavor. As an example, if someone offers prayers to the god of bravery and wine, and they fought valiantly, then the next time they're in a bar have the keep give them their first round on the house. On the other hand, if they were dishonorable or cowardly, then the next time they try to have a drink it curdles in their mouth. Bitter and vile, the wine tastes fine to everyone else. Those who displease a goddess of truth might feel eyes on the back of their neck when they tell lies, and those who give obeisance to a fey lord might find there is always easy foraging as they move through his woods... almost as if they were a guest in his house.

Another thing to remember is that these portents can be localized, as well. So if you're in a given region, it might be considered bad luck if a tree falls across your path in a storm. Alternatively, it might be a superstition that to curry favor with a river goddess that you always throw back the first fish you catch to prove you aren't greedy. Seeing a white stag could also be a mark of the Beast King's grace, letting someone know they are safe as long as they stay on their current path.

There are all kinds of things you could introduce here, as a DM. Sky's the limit!

If you're looking for some go-to examples, though, you might want to give 100 Random Oracular Pronouncements a look. I wrote it for Azukail Games a little while back, and it's meant for exactly this sort of situation.

Why Go To The Effort?

I'm sure there are a few DMs out there right now asking why they should put something else on their to-do list. After all, don't they have enough to do with plot, and combat, and cat-wrangling? Yes, you definitely do... but you might want to consider this all the same.

Firstly, these kinds of events make it clear that there are forces moving in the world, and that they can have an effect on the characters. That makes the gods, the spirits, and the genius loci of various locations live, and it means everyone (not just clerics, paladins, etc.) gets a piece of the action when it comes to the ripple effect of the actions they take. That alone is unique, and reason enough to consider these occasional signs.

Secondly, though, these allow you to provide little tweaks in-game based on the players' actions, ethos, attitude, and offerings. If someone goes through the effort of following a god's teachings, or of making offerings to the local powers-that-be, you can give back as a way to reward that roleplaying. And if someone disrespects the divine, or simply attempts to invade its stronghold (as often happens when you have to storm a temple of elemental evil), this allows you to add a touch of difficulty or creep beyond just throwing in more bad guys. Because we've all seen altars of bones covered in bloodstains... but when you enter a sanctum of a god opposed to your creed with the intent of doing harm, it's disconcerting to say the least when your gums start bleeding for no apparent reason. Particularly if those sheathed in divine protection don't experience that sensation, letting you know that the devil is aware you're in his living room, and this is your last chance to walk out before things get nasty.

Those are my thoughts for this Fluff installment. Have you used portents and signs in your games, and if so, what were they? For more of my work, check out my Vocal archive (or just go to my Gamers page to see strictly tabletop stuff). Alternatively, you can head over to the YouTube channel Dungeon Keeper Radio, where I help put together a variety of shows for players and DMs alike. If you want to keep up on all my new releases, follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. And to help support my work, consider Buying Me A Ko-Fi to give me a one-time tip, or going to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to become a monthly patron. Every little bit helps, and there's a lot of free stuff in it for you either way!

1 comment:

  1. Love it. I have included a couple of them in the campaign I'm DMing, but they were limited to those bound to deities. The idea of expanding it, especially in worlds where the deities are so very much present, is an interesting one, and well worth pursuing!