A-Story-Worth-Telling, and the use of Oracles II

So, as Jason mentioned at his design diary blog for the Fifth World (a story-game set 500 years or so from now in the post-collapse and animist world of our descendants), Oracles can have a powerful effect on driving our stories in the direction we want them to go.

I personally first heard the word ‘Oracle’ used in reference to Vincent Baker’s role-playing game, In A Wicked Age. You can look at an online version of the oracle he wrote for his game.

An Oracle provides the essential elements for a Story. It seeds the players minds with characters (and motivations), locations, objects and events.

I really like Vincent’s Oracle style, and I heartily recommend studying it to understand what makes a good oracle Element. By really poring over his Oracles, I felt good about producing my own. In my mind, each oracle Element needs to provide an opportunity for motives, for dynamic interaction. For example:

A peerless hunter, sworn never to take more than his need, or lose his soul…

Yikes! Right? Can you see the motive, the opportunity for conflicts of interest? Who did he swear to? Why would he lose his soul? Who would want him to? That Element provides all kinds of fuel for story. Whittling it down to just ‘A peerless hunter…’ doesn’t provide enough oomph, for my taste. When in doubt, I encourage you to go for ‘Woo-hoo!’, rather than just ‘Interesting…’.

[A note – I’ve chosen to stick to my own Elements, out of respect to the other designers, but don’t mistake this to mean I think mine offer better examples…please check out the links above, and the veritable panoply of oracles at Abulafia, from oracles on the mafia, superheroes, horror, Shakespeare, westerns, anime…check it out. I think you will notice a quality difference over all the oracles, in terms of providing the necessary ‘oomph’, but I certainly enjoyed the outporing of creativity.]

So next after character, we have Elements concerning location. One I wrote:

Once a Great Lake, full of voices, now a hot Desert, where the spirits meet…

Do you feel it? The location has a direction, by benefit of its history. How did it become a Desert? Who lived there in its Lake days? What spirits, why do they meet? Pack those elements with juiciness.

Next, lets go for objects. How about this:

The grandmother of all drums, still and silent in the hidden womb of the cave…

Who made her? Who hid her? What does ‘grandmother of all drums’ even mean? For me, an object of contention should always have some movement to it. Hidden, stolen, borrowed, offered as a gift, damaged, and on and on. Notice how switching ‘hidden’ with the other adjectives changes the feel of where the story could go, while maintaining the fuel for story. It wants to burn, somehow!

How about events?

A sorry prophecy, hard to hear after so many happy ones have come to fruition…

Do you feel all the directions, all the stories that could spawn? That prophecy could almost count as an ‘object’ , so I’ll toss out a freebie:

A sudden storm, wrathful and focused…

Which in an animist sense, could also count as a character. You get the idea. Funerals, marriages, fires, ceremonies, negotiations, inconvenient revelations…

I’ve written the full text of my animist oracle, if you’d like to see it, at this thread on REWILD.info.

Once you have a hefty list of Oracle Elements (the game In A Wicked Age uses 52 at at a time, so you can use a deck of playing cards to randomly select them), write them down on index cards, and randomly draw 4 or so to set the stage for your story. Then pick your favorite characters, location, objects, and events. You may want to balance out the Oracle you’ve made, to make sure that enough characters exist to interact with each other, and have locations in which to set their drama. I suspect that tinkering with a good Oracle will reveal a whole world of ways to improve and balance it out to make better and better stories.

I’ve only just begun to explore the potential of story-seeding through Oracles. Notice too, in all of this, that ‘hacking’ story-games for your own needs consititutes a hallowed activity. Adding Oracles to games that don’t explicity require them, or making your own game around an Oracle, may just provide a big part of the fun for you.

Oh, and I’ve saved the best part for last…where did I get the ideas for those particular Elements above, for my animist Cascadian Folklore Oracle? Why, they all came from Phantom Waters, a recently published book of native and regional folklore, collected and re-told by Jessica Amanda Salmonson!

What does this mean for you? It means, go find your favorite books, your favorite stories, your favorite movies and tv shows, and pore through them, stealing the best characters, locations, events and mysterious objects! You yourself will rewrite the Oracle Elements in a pithy and concise fashion, so no worries about stealing really…the story will gain a life of its own. In this way, you’ll guarantee inspiration for a story worth telling.

Pretty cool.

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