This is Faith in Play #56: Guidance, for July 2022.
In most of our games, either God or the gods are irrelevant, or we via our characters tell them what we want to do and ask or sometimes tell them to help. Sometimes the referee decides that we will go on a quest, and a non-player character such as a cleric or oracle or prophet tells us what we have to do–but it still falls to us to decide how we are going to do that.
I have written elsewhere about guidance in the Christian life, and a critical aspect of it is that it is very much about our expectation that God is going to direct our paths, showing us not merely what we should do but how we should do it. That is absent from most of our games–and on some level we don’t want to add it, because it leads to games in which players aren’t making decisions but simply going through the motions of following the referee’s instructions.
This, though, becomes somewhat unrealistic. Most of us, I hope, pray when we are uncertain of what to do; and as we have noticed elsewhere our characters frequently face choices with no basis on which to make a decision. Why would they not pray?–and were they to do so, how would they be answered?
One problem we have, similar to that which we discussed in connection with Synchronicity, is that we don’t want to disempower the players. They need to be in control of the story, and if all they’re doing is following the directives of the referee’s non-player divine persona, we have an illusionist, or at best participationist, game. Yet if we disallow all such divine guidance, we disempower God.
One solution has been embedded in fantasy games from the beginning, which is to give magic-using characters and particularly clerics spells which will predict probable outcomes of various actions and answer questions about the present or even about the future. Of course, players have to decide to use these spells, and referees are usually in something of a bind, not wanting to give away the entire store yet needing to make the spell worth casting, and the result is frequently that players don’t find the spells worth employing, particularly as it will limit the use of other spells. It also is limited to clerics and occasionally to characters whose class is itself religious (e.g., paladins), which means characters who don’t have those spells receive no direction from their gods, no matter how faithful they might be.
Beyond that, a quick survey of a few gamers came up with some other useful possibilities.
One option involves having the characters dream, and giving them information through the dreams, allowing them to see places they have not been or converse with persons they could not otherwise reach. Similarly, referees have sent oracles or prophets to bring messages to them, sometimes with the delivery agent having no notion of what he is saying or what it means. One referee has a player character in his game, an old widowed witch, who carries her deceased husband’s skull on a staff and believes it speaks to her; the other player characters are not certain she is entirely sane.
One referee says that he encourages players to have their characters pray for guidance, and when they do they always receive something–not necessarily something dramatic, but possibly a light suddenly appearing down a dark corridor, or a meeting with a stranger who offers clues, or, again, a cryptic dream. It occurs to me that the hint need not be inexplicable; the light could be a gnome hunting mushrooms, and still be divine guidance. In The Silver Chair, part of The Chronicles of Narnia, the children are told they will find their next instruction when they reach the ruined city. They find an inscription in huge letters in the foundation that says UNDER ME, and although they are told that it is part of a longer long-gone inscription and originally read UNDER MEN, it was in fact their direction, that they needed to go beneath the ruins.
Adapting a mechanic from one particular game (Traveler 5), the referee can give player characters temporary abilities. In the particular example, at the beginning of each game session all the players roll 2d6 for each of their characters. The character with the highest score gets that value for “Curiosity”, the second highest gets that score as “Insight”, and the third highest gets it as “Luck”. These scores can be used by asking to use them and then rolling another 2d6, which if successful allows Curiosity to get the answer to a question about the world, or allows Insight to get a hint on the best course of action, or allows Luck to negate a bad event happening against the character who has the luck. Each attempted use lowers the score by one point for next time, and the scores are reset and the individuals having them shuffled at the beginning of the next game session. This empowers the players, enabling them to decide when they need guidance and what to do with it when they get it.
It occurs to me that there is another reasonable approach. If you have flexibility in your scenario design, such as that which we discussed in RPG-ology #8: The Illusion of Choice and in RPG-ology #47: Left or Right, you can assume that when the character prays for guidance, whatever the player decides to do next puts him on the right path. That doesn’t mean it gets him where he wanted to be, but it will get him where he needed to be. It might require a bit of scenario adjustment to accomplish, but in some ways it can be a simpler solution to the complicated problem of bringing divine guidance into play.
Of course, simply allowing spells to provide guidance works in many games; but these ideas broaden the possibilities for letting characters get direction from their deities.