Sunday, 22 June 2014

Prophecy

There's something in Fantasy that seems to draw Prophecies in the same way a ambidextrous mitten sale pulls in a crowd of frothing maniacal bargain hunters. And yes, it annoys me.

Gudguff frowned down at the crinkled parchment and sighed. He couldn't make head nor tail of what had been scrawled on it. 

"Sodding mystics, all the penmanship of a mutilated Hraagothi up a tree." Scratching at his head Gudguff traced his finger along the wavering line of scribbled words and mumbled them aloud to himself.

"Right then. 'Onee shalle rise...shalle falle. The windes ofe change shalle shove'...no, 'shake?' that makes sense, surely. 'Thee achinge kump? Lump? Rump? Shalle no shadowes...nake,' no, 'make.'" He took a swig from the clay jug near his elbow and continued. "Has to be make, surely. 'The fated of the clns...' must be clans, or maybe clams? 'will bye hys arme sayve alle frome harme.' Rhyming couplets, yes of course, that makes things easier. Right what's that?"

Gudguff sighed and unwound the scroll a bit more. The rest of it was as indecipherably spelled and badly written as the first foot of parchment. 

"Sodding prophecies." 

Gudguff swore to himself before taking a bigger swig from the jug. He looked at the intricate brasswork of his astrological clock and did some quick calculations in his head. 

"So, at the rate I've been reading this, I'll just about have time to get downstairs before Sorebum turns the world into his personal amusement park..." He looked from the scroll to the clock and then back again. "Stuff it." 

Gudguff methodically and with great care rolled the parchment up into a neat coil. Reverentially he carried the ancient scroll across his tower chamber to the wooden casket under the window. With a sigh he planted one foot upon the lid and threw the lot out of the window.

You should know the format by now. So, get your predicting pants on and pop open those Pringle-esque snacks, we're dealing with the turbulent waters of fate.

So, what is a Prophecy and why do they appear?
The dictionary defines Prophecy thusly:

  1. The foretelling or prediction of what is to come.
  2. Something that is declared by a prophet, especially a divinely inspired prediction, instruction or exhortation.
  3. A divinely inspired utterance or revelation.
  4. The action, function or faculty of a prophet.
Now, I've got no problem with "Divinely inspired Utterances". None at all. Aside from sounding quite nice it is also perfect for the Fantasy genre. As a bare-bones description then number 1 works quite nicely as well.

However, the action/function of or something declared by a Prophet...well...

Prophecy in Fantasy, when it is of the Divine Utterance (or DU-TM) variety is absolutely fine. God/s and other such celestial beings are presumably so removed from the human experience of reality that time to them is an open book (possibly with pop-up pictures for some of the bigger events/atrocities). 

It would make sense that in order to avoid some particularly bowel-loosening moment of dire horror, some benevolent deity would communicate some information to one of their many humble slopmonging followers. 

It is also utterly within the realms of Fantastical possibility (not much isn't really) that the message might get a bit scrambled as it passes from the deity to the cretin, what with the somewhat vast differences in language and culture between a divine being and someone who spreads faeces across fields. 

I can even buy the idea that the message might have been written down several centuries before current events or even that the deity is using an out of date dialect-dictionary which stretches metaphors beyond breaking point and into strange new meanings that totally overshadow the message.
It's fine, really it is.

What I can't let slide is half arsed writing that uses prophecy to explain what the hell is going on in an overly complex plot that the writer doesn't fully understand. Or using Prophecy to railroad some Deus ex Machina ending that suddenly saves what had been, until then, a pretty shitty day.


Right, so they are messages about stuff that hasn't happened? But how can some words on paper do any of that stuff?
Yes, a Prophecy is usually a list of things, people and circumstances that will interact and make several somethings happen, which leads to some bigger event.
Prophecies are usually found in the hands of wandering Wizards, mystics and heralds of doom. They are transcribed by people who are technically Prophets, though they never seem to gain any of the popularity that real Prophets tend to and they are read by other people who then go and do the hard work.

Prophecies fall into three categories in Fantasonia.
  1. Stuff will happen no matter what you do! Probably the purest form of Prophecy. No matter what the Hero and their band of idiots do, this form of Prophecy has not only predicted it but also listed the outcomes, what happens afterwards and the colour of everyone's underwear. Heroes faced with this type of Foretelling will usually take one look at it, decide to make their own fate and then look back only realise they have been dancing to Prophecy FM's programming all along.
  2. Stuff will happen because you believe it will and then go and make it happen! A more realistic and deeply frustrating form of Prophecy. Often the Hero will be presented with the aged scroll of wisdom by someone from an Order who's existence is devoted to the fulfilling of Prophecy. The Order in question will almost never ponder the idea that by forcing the Prophecies into completion they are actually invalidating them, unless there is a clause in each of the writings which refers to the Order and mentions them doing all the leg work. This type of Prophecy reaches a 9.6 on my "Frustrating-shit-ometer(TM)"largely because you, the reader, never know if it is a real Prophecy or some cynical and world manipulating bollocks. Which can be a good plot mechanic when used well or a giant boil on the neck if badly thought out.   
  3. Stuff might happen or might have already happened but you're so confused by the wording the event in question is probably history! Or as I like to think of it, Nostradamus territory. Real world Prophecies can often be linked to absolutely anything. The more convoluted the wording the less likely the "Prophet" in question had any clue at all about the looming future. Sweeping generalisations about the human condition and inevitable events will usually replace any of the wackier but more accurate Foretellings of the other varieties.  
Type 1 Prophecies are the most cloying. It doesn't matter what the Hero in question does because they are fighting against fate and destiny. Ironically in struggling against such things they are actually fulfilling their role in the grand cosmic scheme of things without realising it. But if they were to stop that would also be filling their role as it was meant to be at that moment...

Yes I know, it ties your head in knots. 

The Vikings had a very phlegmatic approach to this sort of universe. The loose philosophy was: 
Whatever is going to happen is going to happen, there's no point fighting it. Accept it and get on with your life until it ends.

There are other theories that give the sense of slightly more freedom and don't hint at some all encompassing intelligence running everything in everyone's life all the time, like google.
The foremost of these is that fate is driven by catalyst points in time at which somethings must happen. Depending on the outcome of these events the universe then lurches off down track A or track B. 
However, once again things are made more complicated very quickly. What size of event is important enough to warrant such a split? Is it only the huge things which happen at most, once or twice in a life or maybe once in ten generations of one family? Or is it the little things? 
Does my decision to wear red socks today mean that there is an alternate universe in which I didn't? Do these choices branch out infinitely from each micro-second and decision we make? Has your brain melted yet? If these alternative realities do exist for each choice we make, do they exist for the thoughts we have? If they do then doesn't that sort of make us like gods? Able to shape realities by dreaming them into being?
Or do all of the alternative choices just stay as potentials that never blossomed, is the world around us the only possible world because it is the world we live in?
If I'm honest neither of those is particularly comforting or easy to wrap your mind around. Hence Type 1 Prophecies being cloying and sticky like chocolate that has melted in your pocket. 

Shard looked around at the Wizard and his muscular companions dubiously. 

"So you're saying that I need to come with you?"

"Yup." The Wizard sounded either resigned or bored. Shard couldn't tell which.

"And that it's been foretold that I will do this, to help you kill the Dark Lord?"

"Yup." The Wizard was picking at his knuckles distractedly. The larger of his companions had collapsed to ground and was busy going blue in the face whilst the other, wearing some sort of loincloth, blew air at his face with a soft raspberry sound.

"And that it's all fated, so I will end up doing it regardless of what I want to do?"
"Pretty much." The Wizard didn't look up from his knuckles as he absently drove the heel of his boot into his suffocating companion's gut. The huge man breathed in with a whooping gasp startling the drunk in the loincloth.

"But I'm a twelve year old girl!" Shard protested. "My mum wont let me go to the village green on my own, never mind going to Mount Fwoom!" Her voice rose in pitch as she protested.

"Indeed lass, you are twelve. And yet your wits are as sharp as broken glass and exceed the minds of both of my companions put together."
He paused and looked behind himself briefly. 
"Admittedly, not difficult." He sighed and stared at Shard from under his bushy eyebrows. 
"If it makes you feel any better I could tell you that it wont matter what you want to do because the Prophecy is a glimpse of Fate. Fate which controls everything, men and beasts, plants and stars gods and weathermen."

"Weathermen?"

"Horrible tricksters who promise rain and deliver sun." He waved an irritable hand at the deep blue sky and then at his thick leather rain cape. 
"What I'm trying to say is that it doesn't matter what you do, because it is already Fated, so You might as well do what you want."

"But aren't I supposed to discover my fate in some sort of mystical accident or something?" Shard stared up at the Wizard in the intent way the young have. "And if I just start doing what I like how will I know it's what I'm meant to be doing?"

Gudguff could see the next question forming before the girl knew it was there. My own little prophecy. He joked to himself. 
Before she could continue Gudguff interrupted.

"If it makes any difference what so ever, you wont have to do chores or go to temple." He looked around and noted his companions had managed to stand up at last. 

"Can I bring my sister?"

Gudguff smiled in a kindly way.
"Of course not. She's not in the bleeding Prophecy is she?"
Type 2 Prophecies are much easier if more frustrating.
A Prophecy is a prediction for events that will happen in the future as described by a Prophet. If those events are then deliberately put into motion by a group of people dedicated to seeing that things happen. Without an all deciding fate-type thing in charge. Then surely what is happening is a bunch of people are reading a nice story by someone who might need medical care and then deciding to go out and change the world. Possibly by killing or arranging specific births for people, real people, who match a vague description in the story. Or worse, who don't have anything to do with the nutter's writings but who these Activists think might be better for the purposes of the Prophecy.
If that is the case then it isn't really Prophecy any more. Just some rather dubious Mission Statementing undertaken by people with a skill for reading a lot into something quite vague. Rather like anyone who gets offended by "Political Incorrectness". 

Gudguff stepped back and spat blood and teeth into the thin dust of the road, swearing lispily to himself. Spire simply stood where she was and looked pleased with herself. 

"Whaa 'id oo oo 'at 'or" He garbled. 

"For saying a naughty word to my sister." Spire replied. 

The Wizard noted that Spire was probably as strong as Ran Dom McGuffin or Mogmush. Easily as strong. He grimaced and spat out a tooth. 

"That's your sister?" He asked Shard.

"Yup." The tone was insufferably smug.

"Riiight... She can come." Spire stepped forward flexed muscles that Gudguff was certain he didn't have. He thought for a moment. "If she would like to, we would be very happy to have both yourself and Spire to accompany us on our quest."

The girls beamed in unison, from behind him Gudguff heard the intake of breath from Ran. Grinding his remaining teeth together, Gudguff started to swear to himself as he started walking.

Right, now my brain has stopped bleeding, where do they appear?
In most Fantasy, Prophecies tend to appear in lands that are being dominated, against their will, by some sort of Dark Lord or other evil presence. They usually have something to do with the renewal of the world or the toppling of the said evil.

How can I find a Prophecy?
Well if your Fantasy world is in need of one you can always find a mad Prophet lurking under a stone somewhere. Perhaps in a swamp? Or living as a hermit atop some gods awful mountain. Prophets are the easy part. The difficult bit is working out what effect, if any, your Prophecy is going to have on your realm. As we have now discussed a Prophecy is actually a hint as to the nature of the universe and will effect the things far beyond its remit. Or not, as it's Fantasy and therefore totally up to you!

But what about false Prophecies?
What about them? They happen all the time! Do you remember the Millennium Bug?
At the worst you could include a few to throw your characters off of the scent for a while. Or possibly as a task in its own right to be sorted out. Or you could have a True Prophecy which then turns out to be a load of crap even though it has led your characters to something important or vital.
The sky's the limit!
The group came to a halt at the Wizard's instance. He waved the two love struck simpletons into silence and their laboured conversation ground to a halt. 

"What are we doing here?" Shard whispered. 

Gudguff had not bothered explaining why they had made the trek into the mountains, he wasn't in the habit of explaining anything to his companions as up until recently they had trouble remembering their own names and how to breathe.

"We're here for a prophet. HE guided me to you...and your sister. I need his advice now."

"Oh. OK." Shard whispered her understanding and went to stand with the others. 

Gudguff laid his satchel and staff onto the rocks and approached the cave. Off to his right the Tree Of Telling rattled in the wind as the thousands of dead Prophecies pinned to it's dry branches shook as if trying to tear free and be released into the world once more.

The cave was noisy. Gudguff could hear the slapping and spattering noises from ten feet outside. He had been able to smell the place from thirty. Stepping very carefully he moved around the corner and out o the pool of sunlight into the ruddy glow of a fire. 

In the crimson glow two figures worked their very special brand of magic.

Shrot the Blind sat and wrote on the Prophecies on a never ending roll of cheap toilet paper. His brother Rolf the Thick scooped up his brother's turds and dashed them on the spattered cave walls before calling out the portents and words of the gods. 

Gudguff looked at the scene before him for a long moment before coming to his decision. 

"Bollocks to this shit."