Jan 20

Prophecies & Omens Part 3: Oracle Temples


Here at the start of a brave New Year, the travelling RPG Blog Carnival is back at Tales of a GM. It is a great pleasure to host the carnival for another January. My nominated theme is Prophecies & Omens.



Here in part three, I explore the most famous source of prophecies in the Ancient World.




The Oracle at Delphi

The proper name for the oracle was the Pythia, the high priestess of the temple of Apollo at Delphi. A succession of priestesses were considered the primary source of oracles in the Greek world, and beyond. Delphi was widely consulted from the 7th century BCE, to the 4th century CE.


There was a complex religious procedure surrounding the preparation of the Pythia, including ritual cleansing of the priestess, and the sacrifice of a goat. It is believed vapours arising from the earth induced visions of the future, which the Pythia relayed in verse. These prophecies were often cryptic, and even open to multiple interpretations.


For example, Herodotus tells of Croesus, King of Lydia, who consulted the oracle in 560 BCE. Croesus wanted to declare war on the mighty Persian empire, and sought advice from Delphi. The resulting prophecy declared a mighty empire would fall, which Croesus interpreted as endorsing his victory. When the Lydians were defeated, the prophecy was deemed fulfilled, just not in the way Croesus expected.



Oracles and Politics

Given the fame of Delphi, the temple became very rich. Petitioners from across the Greek world travelled to the temple, often bringing with them rich offerings and gifts. As the pre-eminent source of oracles in the country, there was a lot of political prestige associated with the pronouncements of the oracle.


For Your Setting: A single source of divine prophecy will accumulate power and enemies in equal measure. The temple itself could be a tempting target for thieves willing to risk the displeasure of the guardian god. Likewise, competing factions of the pantheon may resent the prestige awarded to the oracle.


How would these church politics play out in your game? Could one faction spread false prophecies in order to discredit the oracle? Maybe a false prophet is created, to simply undermine all prophecies. Take inspiration from modern media conflicts, and apply them to the church hierarchies in your game.



Smaller Oracles

Few oracles achieve the prestige and influence of the Pythia in Delphi. However, this is not the only way to include an oracle in your game. Wandering fortune-tellers in gaudy tents, the card-sharp in the tavern with a tarot deck, or the wise woman living in the woods are common examples of smaller oracles. Their fame may be less, but their predictions can be just as accurate.


For Your Setting: The individual oracle model may suit your game better than the grand temple complex of Delphi. If you really want to hand the Players a prophecy, then this option offers more flexibility. Now the oracle can come to the Heroes. These oracles are more likely to use objects to help with their prophesy, such as tarot cards, crystal balls or rune sticks. The message may be the same, but the feel of the prophecy will vary according to the dressing. If all else fails, have a delirious beggar deliver a frantic message, before collapsing and remembering nothing when they awaken.


The most personal method of delivering a prophecy is through the medium of dream. This technique requires no outside input, allowing the GM to simply present the prophecy to the Player. Dream sequences are notoriously difficult to portray, and beyond the remit of this essay. However, they remain a useful last resort method of communicating a prophecy to a Hero.



Visitors to the Oracle

The process of visiting the Oracle at Delphi, or indeed any oracle, follows a series of steps reminiscent of Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey. I have long regarded this as a useful model for story arcs, and simple plots, within an RPG. The process begins with a question, from either an individual or a community. Typically, this question looks to answer a problem or challenge facing the group.


Once the question is known, a journey to the oracle is required. A quest for knowledge is a common trope in fantasy, and thus easily fits within a game. On arrival at the Temple, there are a series of challenges to overcome before meeting the oracle. For larger temples, this includes questioning by the officiating priests, securing the right to an audience ahead of the other petitioners and undergoing the necessary purification rituals.


Assuming all these obstacles are defeated, the heroic petitioner can now give the question to the oracle. The answer is likely to be cryptic, or a riddle. Thus, further enquiries and knowledge is sought, perhaps from sages within the temple. Sometimes another journey is required, to consult texts or sages in another location.


Finally, with a comprehensible answer, the petitioner returns home. Depending upon the nature of the initial challenge, this may not be the end of the story. The message of the oracle needs to be implemented, which could face additional opposition from within the community.


For Your Setting: Your first option is to build upon this rough outline of a story arc, and run that in your campaign. Alternatively, this could be the backdrop to the actions of the Heroes. Perhaps they remain at home dealing with the ongoing challenge, while other representatives of the community seek divine wisdom. Alternatively, simply have the Heroes regularly meet caravans of petitioners travelling to an oracle. Use this justification to explain why the roads are so busy through the summer months, or to have individuals from across the realm staying in the same inn.




Oracular temples are infrequently used in RPG settings, but they offer many benefits. A single powerful temple can impact church politics and lead to increased traffic through the realm. The process of seeking a prophecy provides a great framework for a story arc. It also justifies why the defence of the city has fallen to a ragtag band of Heroes while the official civic Guardians complete the quest to the oracle. If you prefer, single oracles can still deliver potent prophecies to the Heroes.


Do you use oracles in your game? How does the church leadership react to the power and prestige of the oracle? How would you deliver a simple prophecy to a Hero in your game? Share your thoughts with your fellow GMs in the comments below.



Happy Gaming



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