Telling stories is an art that has been with us as far back as cavemen drawing on cavern walls with mud and blood. Since that time, the art has expanded through different mediums – from cave paintings to verbal orations, ballads, poems, sculptures and hieroglyphs, plays, books, movies and yes, role-playing games. It has also evolved through the use of several different literary tools – alliteration, back-story, cliffhangers, first person narrative, flashbacks, red herrings, and foreshadowing (to name just a few). This article aims to help you improve the story of your adventure or campaign by effective use of foreshadowing.
First, what is foreshadowing, really?
- The short version: To represent, indicate, or typify beforehand.
- The long version: “Anything that links to, or reveals a glimpse of, or a hint about, a forthcoming story point or issue of characterization, but without yet being a salient story point itself in the moment it is revealed.”
When an element is introduced that doesn’t appear to be the focus of the story, it has the potential to be a foreshadowed event, or realization of things to come later on.
In your role-playing game, foreshadowing can be utilized in two ways. The first is to plan for major events, plots, or people that will have a significant impact on the story later on, and hint or briefly show those things earlier in the story. These are elements that are placed deliberately and with purpose. You’re hoping that the players, at some point, make the connection between the foreshadowed event and the actual event.
- The NPC brother of a PC (coming to save the PCs in the beginning of the adventure) can be foreshadowing the reveal of the main enemy as the same NPC later in the adventure or campaign.
- Detailing the baron’s beautiful dagger as he uses it to unseal a scroll’s wax seal can be a foreshadowing of how the young maiden is ritually sacrificed later (with the same knife).
- The son of a slain bounty hunter mourning the loss of his father by embracing his father’s helmet – is a foreshadowed event of the boy eclipsing his father’s greatness.
The other way we can utilize foreshadowing is by way of the “loose noose” (that’s my term, I made it). What I mean is when you introduce, or your players discover a (usually random) story element, and then you zero-in on that element as an opportunity to enhance the story – that’s the loose noose technique. The unplanned (better-than-I-had-planned) events that pop up can make you a star in the eyes of your players, and they actually require less work.
- Mid-adventure, the PCs come across an abandoned village. Inside the first home that they search is a painting of a woman. This woman is missing an arm as if from an injury or birth defect, and the players end up being really concerned about the painting. Because of this, you (as the GM) have decided that the PCs will eventually face this woman as a major adversary. You didn’t really plan it that way, but the players think you did and revere you as a talented game master.
- In the Warhammer Fantasy RPG, insanity is a definite possibility for player characters. At the beginning of the adventure using this game, the PCs have to visit an insane asylum. By the end of the adventure (in which was filled with many fear, terror, and insanity checks), the PCs all eventually fall insane, ending up imprisoned at the original asylum. Sure, you probably didn’t plan for that to happen, but because of all the harrowing encounters the PCs had to endure, the PCs were almost fated to end up there, making it as though you may have planned for the possibility of it playing out that way.
Stale stories are a dime-a-dozen. That’s why we have dozens and dozens of literary techniques to make stories more and more fulfilling and rewarding. Don’t think of a role-playing game’s adventure as a series of events; think of it as a fantastic and compelling story waiting to be told, and the use of foreshadowing is a great way to help make that happen.