The Gassy Gnoll: Animals in RPGs (RPG Blog Carnival), Part 2 – Omens

As I mentioned in part 1 of this series (about familiars), though I was initially unsure how I’d approach this month’s blog carnival about “Animals in RPGs” (hosted by Tower of the Archmage), after a bit of brainstorming I ended up with four separate ideas for posts. So here’s the second one on omens in RPGs.

First, let’s look at what an omen is. According to the Free Merriam-Webster Dictionary, an omen is “an occurrence or phenomenon believed to portend a future event.” Other sources describe omens as one event predicting another – potentially good or evil – event or series of events. Omens are interpreted, which suggests there are people who can divine the future through the signs and portents around them.

Though I’m a skeptic about omens personally, they have existed for thousands of years in cultures around the world. So why shouldn’t we use them in our games?

Some peoples utilize the appearance of certain animals or animal spirits to offer glimpses into the future. Many Native American cultures rely on animal totems and natural spirits to help guide them into the future. Myths, legends, and parables relate stories of important figures to the qualities of naturally appearing flora and fauna. Snakes appear in key stories of the Bible as well as in stories about St. Patrick, who many believe drove the snakes out of Ireland. Fish are sometimes associated with knowledge and boars with strength, birds with prophecies of coming changes.

And I won’t even go into the use of animal entrails or blood for divining the future. I’ll just focus on keeping the animals alive (for the most part) for the time being…

Ultimately it’s all about the interpretation. As a GM, I’d be tempted to give the players one example of someone describing what an omen means and then let them do all the rest… I’m sure that the players will let their imaginations run wild if you let them!

The fun part about using omens in RPGs is the same problem that exists with movies and television… If you’re too obvious, you’re telegraphing everything to your players. But if you’re not obvious enough, the “signs” go largely unnoticed unless you hit them over the head with a baseball bat to reveal their purpose.

Instead, perhaps you should offer omens and symbolism as part of a package for a particular character or group of characters. Find images, sounds, and animals that fit in with a PC‘s religion and start slipping the player a note whenever one of those events happens. Or if a NPC interacts with the party, use particular beliefs to fuel phrases or regular habits. If a priest for a particular faith helps the party bury the dead after a particularly bad battle, perhaps he or she might mention an event the PCs hadn’t noticed. “The great goddess Lagamorphia is pleased… did you not see the white rabbit blessing the graves of thy fallen comrades?”

If you go too far with it, you end up with more of a Monty Python “killer rabbit” approach. But you can use repetition to your advantage as well. If a deer always jumps across the path in front of the party right before a battle, they’ll come to expect a battle, Pavlov-style, every time you send Bambi leaping in front of them. But what happens if a deer jumping in front of them is just a deer? It might inspire an interesting conversation both in the game and on a meta- level.

Examples of omens from the Nuremberg Chronicle...

Image via Wikipedia

When you create your own worlds, cultures, and religions, be sure to drop in a few omens for good measure. I found a few references to take advantage of:

There are also many books on the topic, from a variety of points of view that are spiritual, historical, or cultural. So I definitely encourage you to visit your local libraries as well.

a list of ten random events you might be able to use in your game if your party is traveling along a forest trail. Roll a d10 and let your PCs decipher these clues.

  1. A bird travels towards you at high speed and flies over your head, hardly pausing to change course.
  2. Off the trail, you see a fox pause and regard you warily before heading into the deep forest.
  3. Ahead of you a large number of butterflies have gathered to rest on a particularly mossy old log.
  4. Blocking the trail is a large bull moose with antlers as wide as one of your horses.
  5. Coming from the forest you can hear rustling and see a large boar charge across your path.
  6. In the deep forest on one side of the path you hear a series of howls echoing through the trees, eventually answered on the opposite side of the trail.
  7. Off the path you see a small series of ponds and a stream, with a pair of swans silently gliding together through the water.
  8. Your horses shy from a snake on the trail sunning itself.
  9. A collection of thirteen ravens begin circling above your party.
  10. Off the path, a deer has been freshly killed, though you don’t see what killed it and you hear no animal sounds beyond the clip-clop of your horses’ own hooves.

Next up… The Hunt!

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