Monday, May 17, 2010

Precognition in RPGs

I recently re-read a column from by Bryan Jonker titled "Stupid People Tricks" that tried to deal with the problems that precognition abilities cause in Role Playing Games. As, for some reason, my mind was filled with various time-travel tropes it led to resonance and herein lies the result.

The first thing to accept is that precognition changes the future, if it didn't they'd be little point in it existing within the game. So the question lies in how it changes the future. On page 11 Bryan deals with different versions of time travel, the one that should be of particular note to Game Masters is the the Multi-World theory. Accept this and things become much easier - the future that the mage/psychic saw was the future that would have occurred had the mage/psychic not used their abilities what happens now may be different. On page 10 Bryan creates a scenario whereby an NPC is wanted for murder, precognition is cast and the mage sees themselves arrested along with the NPC, the NPC is thus ditched.

Gerald grinned as he wiped the blood from his knife on the dead women's skirt.
"This will show them" he thought as he reached into his back pocket and retrieved that distinctive handkerchief he'd 'borrowed' from his so-called friends.
Pushing it into the women's hand he closed her fingers around it.
"This'll teach them for ditching me".

So having avoided being arrested for accompanying a murderer the PCs may find themselves accused of murder itself. Of course if you make every alternative scenario worse the PCs may just stop using the ability and where's the fun in that, sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't; make the players think every time they use it.

However that makes yet more work for the GM so why not just make the ability time consuming to use.

The mage blinked his eyes the mists of time still swirling before him, he could dimly make out the figures of his colleagues arrayed about his circle waiting for the information he had gathered.
"My friends" he croaked, voice still sore from the incantations he'd performed earlier "We must act quickly. If we fall upon the goblin army we shall take them by surprise and victory shall be ours."
He blinked again his vision clearing and looked at what he could now make out to be goblin warriors standing around him spears readied to strike.
"Thanks for that" spat the rogue from his trussed-up position on the floor "Really useful to know".

or it could just be prohibitively expensive
The group lurked opposite the entrance to the gaming rooms.
"So are we going to win?" asked the lanky ranger.
"Why are you all looking at me?" complained the mage, "How am I supposed to know?"
"Because you're the one who can see the future" rumbled the warrior.
"So you want me to pour out this rare unguent and sprinkle on the diamond dust so I can see if we win a few measly silver in a game of chance?" queried the mage.
"Yeah put it that way and it does sound a bit silly" replied the ranger.

or even both. If the rules give specific durations and ingredients to the spell the next question to ask is exactly where is the future?

"Concentrate, concentrate" the psionic thought "I just need to see what will happen in the next five minutes, not ten minutes, not half an hour not even a year from now though that would be interest... oh bugger".

or even who's doing the seeing.

The bedraggled warrior clumped angrily over to the mage and towered threateningly above him.
"Two pitfall traps, three swinging blades and something nasty guarding the door. I thought you said you didn't see any problems ahead".
"Well I was stood here with no problems, how should I know what's going to happen to you if you charge off without me?"

If the rules give you little leeway in terms of direction or cost the symbolic options is open to you. Why should the future be played out as if on television with everything clear cut. If as GM you have some small artistic ability, or better yet none at all, why not draw out the future and force the players to interpret it. Don't just draw it out as is either symbology is a good tool to use.

The figures turned from their inspection of the distant goblin's mountain as the mage stirred behind them.
"What did you see?" asked the warrior eagerly.
"I saw a great pillar of stone toppled by tiny figures at its base" replied the mage.
"So we were the figures and the pillar the mountain. We're going to win!" exclaimed the ranger.
"Um" added the mage.
"Um?" asked the rogue.
"Well I've always viewed this alliance as being firm and stalwart not unlike..."
"A pillar of stone" finished the rogue
The mage nodded.
"So the pillar could be the mountain falling, or us?" stated the warrior.
"Yes" said the mage, "Sorry".

All this trickery and deception may make the player question why they bothered to take this ability in the first place
"Ten years I slaved to learn the art of seeing the future. Ten years memorising the incantations, perfecting the arts of concentration. Ten years and for what? To discover that as soon as I use it the future shifts and changes making my observations useless. Ten years!"
The young mage settled down from his outburst and turned towards his master
"And what did we all tell you when you set out along this path?" he asked
"That the future was a tricksy thing and that to gaze upon it would serve me to no avail" replied the young mage sheepishly.
"And you listened to me in the same way as I listened to my own master so many years ago"