Jan 06

Prophecies & Omens Part 1: Avian Auguries


The start of a brave New Year brings the travelling RPG Blog Carnival to Tales of a GM once more.


It is a great pleasure to host the carnival for another January. My nominated theme is Prophecies & Omens.


See the Prophecies & Omens launch post for more details.




Roman Auguries

In the ancient world, the flight of birds was often interpreted as a divine message. The Ancient Romans were famous for this means of divination, but the practice can also be found in Ancient Greece and Egypt. Indeed, the word augury is from the Latin auspex, meaning one who looks at birds.


The role of the Augur was a central part of Roman political culture. Decisions such as the appointment of a magistrate, or the conduct of a military campaign, all required an auspicious bird omen to proceed. Augurs were recognised as a distinct class of priest, although their numbers were strictly limited.


For Your Campaign: Augurs have a close link to government, and thus are influential members of the priesthood. They could be involved in political intrigue, and may be open to bribery to ensure the right augury in support of a particular faction.



Bird Signs

The Romans saw a great many meanings in the behaviour of birds. Firstly, only certain birds were recognised as carrying divine meaning. For the Romans, these birds included ravens, eagles, owls and woodpeckers.


The two variables for a sign were the flight of the birds, and the noises they made. Variations in each of these traits indicated a different message, although there was a degree of personal interpretation for the Augur. Thus, the same sign may be interpreted in different ways by rival Augurs. To add to the complexity of the process, the Romans divided the sky into quadrants. It was therefore important where the birds performed their actions.


For Your Campaign: To add bird augury into your setting, first choose a list of sacred birds. These could be tied to individual deities, to strengthen the link between the birds and the gods. Many game descriptions of deities includes a sacred animal. The more powerful auguries are when a god’s sacred animal engages in behaviour linked to the chosen god.


For example, an eagle, sacred to the Sky Goddess, flying high is a clear sign of her favour. Likewise, a dove, sacred to the Harvest God, carrying an ear of corn means a bountiful harvest.


Weave a few conventional auguries into your game at the beginning. This familiarizes your Players with the concepts. Push towards having these auguries fulfilled, or at least have the King act in expectation of their fulfilment. Then, when the augury reveals an eagle carry an ear of corn, the Players are more likely to take notice.



Adding Avian Auguries

Should you want to include auguries in your campaign, then there are a few choices to make. If all priests can perform auguries, then allow Players to access this ability. Secondly, consider how augurs fit within the structure of your church hierarchy. Are they a dedicated type of priest? Is this just a title, or must augurs show natural talent for prophesy? How closely are augurs linked to decisions of local government?


For Your Campaign: Once you have the framework for augurs established, you are likely to need a method for generating random auguries. This topic is long enough for an article of its own, so I shall present tables for the generation of bird auguries next week.



Beyond the Birds

Just because the ancients searched for divine meanings in the flight of birds does not mean this is the only option for a fantasy RPG. Any creature, or even object, with a degree of varied movement, can be a source of augury. Depending upon your game setting, there are several options for you to explore.


For Your Campaign: The source of auguries depends upon what surrounds a culture. An aquatic culture could look to the movement of fish, while maritime societies might interpret the actions of whales, dolphins and other swimming mammals. Likewise, a nomadic or herding culture could look to the behaviours of their herd animals. Even if kept within a field, a flock of sheep may still display different ways of moving and grazing.


Looking further afield, there are other options for fantasy cultures. Natural phenomena, such as clouds or waves, could be read as divine messages. A woodland culture may read meaning in the drift of leaves in the wind, or the pattern of sticks under a tree. An underground culture might crack open a rock to look at the pattern of crystals within. The best fantasy auguries reflect the sphere of the god sending the message, and the interests of the culture.




Reading meaning into the movements of birds has a long heritage. This makes an interesting method of delivering divine prophecies in your game. However, you need not restrict yourself to just birds. There are many other vehicles for prophecies and omens. Create a unique method of augury to give your campaign a distinct feel.


Do you use augury in your game? What birds are sacred to your gods? Can you think of a better way to convey a divine prediction? Share your thoughts with your fellow GMs in the comments below.


Happy Gaming



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6 pings

  1. Good article. The Romans were big on several odd forms of divination.

    For some context on Greek and Roman religion, I wrote about it here: http://wp.me/pylJj-22

    • Phil on January 12, 2017 at 1:54 pm
    • Reply

    Hi Sean,

    Thanks, I am glad you liked it. Your article was a lot more detailed about Greco-Roman religion, so thanks for sharing that.

    Will you be contributing to the January Carnival?

    All the best

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