Is Your Game a Prophecy, or a Blank Page?

Often in the RPG community we’ll see an uproar that divides everyone into camps, spawning infinite twitter threads – recent ones have been GM fudging rolls, GMs dictating scene outcomes, railroading vs. everything else, when PC deaths are acceptable, etc. and etc. Honestly, most of the disagreements are false dichotomies – there are many ways to play RPGs, and they’re all valid as long as the people playing are having fun.

Many of these arguments exist because of a fundamental disagreement on how the game and campaign are to be played out. On one side, there is “The Prophecy Must Be Fulfilled” – and on the other, “The Future Cannot Be Known”.

Prophecy games tend to be ones that are run out of published adventure paths or campaign books – the group has bought the book and are excited to find out the story….we all know it’s pretty likely they’re going to overcome the challenges and get to the end of the story, saving the town/prince(ss)/world. The big question, though, is how that is going to happen? How will The Prophecy be fulfilled? There may be side quests, setbacks, even character deaths along the way – but eventually Evil will be defeated and Good will triumph. Because that’s how the published adventure goes, and that’s what the players (and GM!) want to eventually see happen. We don’t usually want to buy a book and then just toss it out halfway through. Even TPK’s can be worked into The Prophecy Fulfilled with a little creativity. The fun is finding out the how, not the if of the story.

In the other camp, the assumption is The Future Unknown – this is more along the lines of Old School games. Players enter a world where there is no end goal written down, there is only the adventure they make for themselves. Failure absolutely is an option, Evil might triumph, and the party might fall. This isn’t a possibility in Prophecy games. The world itself is a character that can strike down even the mightiest parties. Undertaking a task means danger and possible failure at any time – from early levels all the way up to higher tier games. The fun in these games comes from overcoming the (sometimes impossible) odds in spite of all that is there to stop you. And if there’s total failure, well, time to start over and try again!

These assumptions about the story – either writing it as we go, or simply filling in the middle between beginning and end – frames many people’s feelings about GM fudging or character death in subtle, but significant ways. If the prophecy must be fulfilled, then a little GM fudging simply moves us all towards that goal in a more dramatic fashion. But if the party could fail entirely in their goals – then no GM fudging is allowed, it’s “unfair” to the world and the experience.

What are your assumptions for an RPG? Do you assume playing from a published adventure means that you’ll get to the end, one way or another? Or is it preferable for the whole story to be unwritten? Let us know!

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