March 15, 2011

How to Handle Divinations

Yesterday Ameron over at Dungeon' posted a good article on the nature of divination in RPG games. Continuing his train of thought I figured I would present some suggestions on how to deal with characters that use such magics, especially when it can derail a plot. I am making an assumption that the divination spell/ritual used by the characters is going to cause problems for your plot/story and you are looking for ways to deal with this. Perhaps the characters are questioning the faithfulness of their patron, a person you need the party to trust, at least for a little while longer. Perhaps the characters are seeking a way to destroy the villain of the story and you haven’t prepared that portion yet, because you intend to keep this particular villain around for awhile longer. There can be many reasons why a DM does not necessarily want a divination to be answered. So what can a DM do when his players start casting divinatory spells/rituals to help solve a quest?

There are some GMs who would prefer to allow the dice, or in this case spells, to fall where they may. That is alright, though I would warn you, once the players figure out divination is an easy button to solving a quest, particularly those that are high on intrigue and hidden mysteries, it will become their first line of attack rather than a last resort. Expect to have to answer divinatory magics frequently…and learn to write your adventures with divination in mind.

You do not have to answer the spell right then and there. Let the players know you need some more time to find a more appropriate answer than an off-the-cuff one. Answers are not required to be instantaneous; whatever higher being they are petitioning may not know the answer at that exact moment. In effect, the higher entity will get back to them, perhaps in a dream as they sleep that night.
“The mists are obscured though you feel an inkling in your mind that things will become clear to you sooner rather than later.”

Be obtuse. When a character casts a divinatory spell they deserve some type of response. However, how detailed the information they get back is dependent on the GM. Stories in history are laden with soothsayers whose words are next to useless in their application. Yes, you will in fact have completely nullified their actions, but this may be a better option than other choices; at the very least they received a response.
“The wind blows from the top and turns to the eye.”

Not every divination has to give the complete answer. Sometimes a divination will only lead the characters forward to the final answer. If the players are looking for answer on how to defeat an unkillable foe, perhaps the divination leads them to a weapon that can aid them in this task. This is actually a good way to redirect the characters along the plotline.
“The answer lies at the heart of the Wilting Woods.”

Assuming the characters are looking for information that is delicate or could be deemed important, it is possible that there may be another entity out to stop the characters from discovering this information. This could be that the villain they are looking to defeat has taken precautions against divinatory magic. It could be that an entity has sworn an oath to protect this information from any seekers. While at first glance this looks like a simply way to circumvent the players goals, in reality some information can be gleaned from this blockage; it means there is someone else out there opposing them and this someone else is rather powerful. Or, this could simply remain a mystery. In the end the effect is the same, the characters are stymied on their divinatory use.
“Another spiritual force is blocking all thoughts on this topic.”

Make something up; its does not have to be relevant or true. There are a lot of good reasons why the characters are given misleading information. Many of the same reasons why a divination was Blocked can apply to a divination being wrong. The freedom to just make something, anything, up means you can answer the divination with ease.
The only caveat with this is that the players will have wasted resources and time pursuing something that was doomed to fail, and that can be frustrating. It also negates the concept of divination and at that point you have to ask yourself why you allow divination in your game at all. If you are going to use this option it should be a rare occurrence and is best used when there is a rational for why the divination did not work correctly. This goes for any of my suggestions for circumvention.

In the end, divinations only have as much impact on your plot/storyline as you allow them. You can not control whether or not your players use divination (unless you make an empirical ruling stating they are not allowed) but you can control the answers. How the DM reacts to a divination determines how effective it is.
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