Things to do with Oracles

Here at Thought Check Games, we… like… In a Wicked Age. For what it is. For the most part.

… hm. Did that come across as wishy-washy enough?

Okay, no, we do, we like IAWA. It’s fun, it’s flexible, and if you’ve got dice in your pocket and a couple of folks who are all about making a story happen, then it is exactly what you need. No planning needed, just a willingness to take a step back and let the story flow naturally, and that’s cool. That’s cool.

It’s not really what we like in games. We like our games to be gamier, and the divide between GM and player to be a little more strict. It’t just how we roll. But for what it is, IAWA is good, and you know what it has that we freakin’ love? Oracles. Oracles! So elegant! So beautiful! Have you heard of these? Pick a genre of Oracle (Blood and Sex! Nest of Vipers! The Unquiet Past! Or, the correct option: God Kings of War!), and draw a few cards from a standard deck of 52. Each card yields a lovely little genre-appropriate evocative description, and these descriptions conjure images which become characters, settings, and events. Beautiful! If you aren’t familiar with just how delightful these are, then walk with us here, if you please, pull up one of those oracles. Even if you are familiar, look at all those Oracular Hacks suited for other genres entirely! Pulp adventure, urban horror… even spelljamming! Three of our favorite things!

(Confession: the set-up isn’t so great at this particular site. Sometimes we have a deck of cards but no Internet, you see, and would prefer printed oracles, but many of these can be tracked down or approximated).

So, why do we love oracles? Well, friends, because they are narrative CHUNKS. That’s interesting. Little bits of story that can attach with ease to other bits of story. Random, for interest, but genre-defined, for appropriateness. A narrative salt, which can make anything a little more savory.  And that’s what we’d like to propose right now.. methods of using oracles as a seasoning in any old game system.

  1. Use an oracle during character generation! Okay, that was a bit of a gimme, but not to be overlooked… you can force players to have sets of characters who have some sort of relationship to one another without invoking GM’s fiat. Classy. While we’re hitting up the obvious, let’s mention…
  2. Plot generators. As a GM, draw a little web of connections… six or so nodes linked together, with one circled as “big bad evil guy”. Drop cards on the nodes. Consult the oracle. Instant vague outline of a plot. Oh, not ideal for an involved campaign, but if you need something on the quick, you could do worse.
  3. In a system in which playing cards are used as a means of task resolution, an Oracle can make the resolved task that much more unpredictable. We’re thinking, as a specific example, of Primetime Adventures… whomever wins a conflict is determined by a draw of the cards, which means that every time someone wrests significant narrative control, there are at least two cards on the table. The narrator might, for instance, grab one card from the bunch, consult the appropriate oracle, and use the image it contains as a seed for his or her description. For those who want to be surprised by their own stories.
  4. Metanarrative coupons! You know, any token which can be used to alter the way the game world works… fate points, hero points, whatever. If you can spend some points to declare that your character knows a guy who knows a guy who can disarm this bomb, you have metanarrative coupons in your game. Using an oracle, when a player drops a token, he or she summons the entity attached to the card, bringing the image from the oracle into the game world. These coupons become more limited in breadth (i.e.: if you cannot justify how the description attached to the card might help you, then you cannot use this card), but are more powerful in what they are creating. Perhaps unsuitable for something like FATE, where the economy of fate points is fairly tight and fast moving, alas, this is an idea perhaps better for games that do NOT already have a metanarrative coupon system. Think, like, D&D, where there’s very little narrative power in the player’s hands, or something like that. Perform an act of god-pleasing heroism, and you are given a little slice of fate… a card you can play at any time to change the world as you see fit. Neat, eh?
  5. We’re going to use numeral five to repeat the last one, which turned into a bit of a skimmable block of text: reward players with cards that they might play to add the entity from the oracle to the game world! Metanarrative coupons!
  6. A more specific incarnation of the above, requiring a more specific sort of oracle: clues. In a game about investigators which isn’t necessarily about investigation, if you’ll appreciate the distinction, an oracle may be made up of broadly-defined clues as to the identity of the murderer, the participants in the conspiracy, the cause of the mutations. By which we don’t mean “plan out the details and lay a trail of clues,” we mean “abstract the crime entirely… have characters gain a clue when it seems appropriate, maybe using card suits to determine if it’s something physical, forensic, recorded, or witnessed, and let them come up with their own conclusions.” Be flexible enough to keep your choice of villain parked where the clues could reasonably be pointing, and your players get to do some actual brain-straining before they move on to the mad shootouts.

Some of these we’ve done. Some, we need to try. One idea is missing, because it’s what inspired us to write this in the first place, and we’re working on making it maximally interesting. Is there anything else we’ve missed?

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