Thursday, January 29, 2009

The Oracle at Motherfucker

As I mentioned in this post, time travel is a bitch. Today, however, we're going to talk about her bitchy little sister, prophecy. It's a whole bitchy family. For the love of God, please don't ask me to extend this metaphor any further.

Prophecy is a funny word. In the religious tradition it belongs to (the Abrahamic trio: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam), prophecy is the function of the prophet. That is, to receive information from God and disseminate that information among the people. So in a way, the biblical prophets were divine marketers. However, in the bible, some of that information concerned future events. In the real world, when most people think of a prophet, they think about someone who sees and talks about the future, so that's the definition that we're going with.

Trust me, I could go on at great length about the possibilities inherent in a story about prophecy in the biblical sense - it's strongly tied to how awesome I find paladins - but that's not the goal today.

Prophecy can be problematic in writing, but it's even more problematic in roleplaying and story games. After all, in writing you probably know what's going to happen next. Story games, on the other hand, are an emergent experience. If you reveal the future, you've revealed the future. If you know where a story is going to go, it isn't an emergent experience anymore. It's an experience that already happened.

A few games exist that try unique approaches to this problem. Legend of the Five Rings, for example, included a spell that created what those of you who play video games will recognize as a "save point." Essentially, you cast the spell and then continue to play. At any point thereafter within a set duration - such as when the characters have just uncovered some important information at a great personal cost, or all been eaten by the monsters behind door #2 - the would-be prophet can stop play and revert to the moment he cast the spell. Everything the players just experienced was the prophet's vision, which he can communicate to his buddies. The players can can go on to act on the prophesies, using the information without paying the price or picking door #1 instead. This solution is clever, but limited to short-term prophecies; there's no predicting the fate of empires in this game.

Weapons of the Gods takes a broader approach. Instead of opening his ears and recieving information, the player opens his mouth and creates. Before the dice hit the table, the player of a character with the power to predict the future declares what he wants to happen in the future, and the Game Master sets a difficulty based on how likely she judges that future to be. If the player's roll succeeds, events are now influenced to turn out the way he describes. However, the characters in the game don't percieve this as an influence; instead, they percieve it as a prophecy. Although prophecy is not a major part of this game, it would probably work similarly in Houses of the Blooded, which uses many techniques of player-driven narrative. This technique, allowing the player to create the future, is interesting in that it preserves the emergent nature of story gaming. Prophecies can happen, but they become part of the evolving progress of the story, rather than the Game Master simply telling the players how the story ends.

The challenges facing a writer of fantasy when it comes to prophecy are oddly enough, similar to those facing a writer of game material. Even though a story is static - once written, that's it, and you probably have at least a murky idea of where it's going from the very beginning - you don't want it to feel static to the reader. That is, the reader wants to be able to imagine that what she's reading is really happening, somehow, that every moment counts. Prophecy tends to undercut that illusion by reinforcing the reality that what the reader is experiencing is a book, an artifact of dead trees (or these days, plastic and electrons) sitting in her lap, unchanging. In my experience, fantasists combat this experience in one of three ways:

  • "Gee, can you vague that up for me?": Some writers have dealt with the problem of prohecy by making prophecy unreliable. Cryptic utterances, confused visions, gnomic texts, and other situations rife with opportunities for interpretation - and misinterpretation - help keep prophecy from becoming too deterministic. The downside of this approach is that figuring out what the prophecy actually means becomes the focus of the story, and while potentially fun, this can also be tiresome if poorly handled. Also, while the characters (and the reader) don't necessarily know what the future holds, the fact remains that even a crpyic prophecy fixes the future in place. While the hand-to-forehead experience at the end of the story "so that's what the old woman meant!" can be fun, it still means that the characters had no free will, and that's a downer.
  • Fauxcephy: I'm enormously clever, aren't I? Faux prophecy? Fauxcephy? Moving right along... some writers handle the problem of prophecy by making it less than perfectly reliable. Unlike the above solution, though, it's less a matter of user error and more a matter of limited hardware. It isn't that you might misinterpret the prophecy - it's that the prophecy might be wrong! Fate is flexible, and just because a prophet said it doesn't mean that it's going to be true. As you might have guessed, I prefer this solution strongly. It does have a flaw, however: making something less itself is rarely a good solution to anything. Good writing is dominated by strong choices, not cluttered by wishy-washy choices, and prophecy-that-isn't-really-prophecy is the very image of wishy-washy if handled poorly.
  • Screw It: Prophecy doesn't exist. For whatever reason, magic can't do that. The benefits of this solution are obvious. As are the flaws.

There's no monolithic, pithy solution to the problem of prophecy. Like time travel before it, the answer is to write carefully and with forethought. Pick a theory of prophecy - does free will exist, or does it not? Is prophecy easy to read or open to interpretation? Can you fight your fate, or are you screwed, Oedipus-style? - and stick with it. Make your story work despite the problems, and your story will work.

Despite its problems.

* * *

  • When have you used prophecy in your writing? How did it go? Well? Poorly? Did you regret it later?
  • Where in fiction have you seen a particularly good example of prophecy well done or a particularly egregious example of prophecy done poorly?
  • Have you ever encountered the problems of prophecy in roleplaying? How did you handle it?

5 comments:

Abby said...

To keep this related: I'm surprised you didn't write about your incredible fondness for precognitive mentors.

Unrelatedly, you should totally write a post about the stuff we were discussing at lunch. (geek self-hatred, etc.)

Mark said...

I'm not sure there's enough to say about this - oh, and by the way, I'm also fond of the idea of precognitive mentors continuing to provide aid from beyond the grave? A little narrow.

Maybe there's a post on that for later, though.

Scattercat said...

I've actually always enjoyed prophecy, at least when done well. The trick is to make sure the characters aren't certain of the prophetic accuracy and to make liberal use of puns or otherwise nonspecific words, such that you are free to arrange matters to suit and then claim the prophecy applies. Real-world prophets made heavy use of poetic allusion so as to maximize their ability to say, "Ah, just as my prophecy foretold," no matter what disaster transpired. All they had to bet on was a disaster occurring in relatively near proximity to their prophecy; given the nature of the world, this is hardly a wild gamble.

Once again I'm going to point to Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn, in which the prophecy turns out to be distressingly accurate and yet completely worthless to the main characters. (I shan't say more for fear of ZOMG!SPOILERS)

I also recall a short and rather nasty series by Mike Resnick (who does love his pessimism) called Oracle. (I think it went Oracle, Soothsayer, Prophet, but I can never quite recall the order of the books.) It's scifi, at least in trappings, but very much in the high fantasy mold, and the central connecting character is a little girl with the power to see a few seconds into the future. As she grows, her power becomes larger, until by the end of the third book she's become rather a frightening person. The themes center on what it means to know the future and how one can and cannot act on such information. There's also a strong dose of "Absolute power corrupts absolutely." An intriguing set of books, if prophecy is of interest to you.

I think the best bad example of prophecies would be that tiresome trend of bad fantasy where they preface the Grand Epic Novel with a bit of badly-rhymed poetry about the gods and the Chosen Hero and other such gibberish. Almost always too vague to be worthless and rarely if ever of enough poetic value to be worth the effort to read.

Ben said...

I've become rather tired of prophecy as a fantasy trope. It's been done waaaaaay too much. Unless you can put a pretty unique spin on it, I'd say avoid it. But that's just me. I've always stayed away from it in my roleplaying games, because it just causes way too much work.

Mark said...

@ Scattercat

I agree on being sick of the gibberish prophecies, but as for Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn, that book is, in part, exactly what I was thinking of when I wrote that, even well done, prophecy has a way of making the characters' actions inconsequential. In the end, free will and human strength meant nothing. Everything turned out the way it was meant to. At least, that was my reading at the time.

@ Ben

Yeah, basically, it's become a trope and it's lame. The question is, how can we invert a trope. Inverting a trope is like turning abuse into a kink... a deliciously sexy way of turning something bad into something so, so good...

Ok, possibly that was the wrong simile to use. Nonetheless, onward!

It's hard to avoid prophecies in some rpgs, because in many of them, some prophetic powers are hardcoded into the game. Of course, you can always just remove them, but too much of that leaves your players feeling limited and ticked off.