Every omen, riddle, and hint must have a payoff. It absolutely has to tie in to a future point in the story, no matter how small a role it plays.
Cultivating an attitude of feverish connections sets your players firmly in the game world, reacting as normal humans do in the real world. They try to form patterns from incomplete data sets, overreacting or under preparing based on the narratives running inside their heads. If you watch closely you can see the stories that they want to play, the ones that they expect to see. These stories, legends, and tropes will flow directly from their favorite books, movies, and plots.
As a DM you should take note of all the conspiracies and off-the-wall connections your players form on the slimmest evidence. No random generator short of a weird neural net could roll up the sort of unique prophecies, foreshadowing, and omens that your players make out of your game.
How do you cultivate the right sort of preparation and improvisation to do that?
- Keep cliff notes of the theories and ideas your players have as they try to make sense of your puzzles, monsters, and NPC’s. They are telling you what they are learning from your descriptions, why let that go to waste?
- Before each game, give your prepared notes a look over to compare with your previous annotations. Try to insert a thread started in a previous game: confirming a villian’s motivations, revealing a humorous secret that was suspected, or advance a plot the players were suspicious of.
- To do this right, avoid hitting their suspicions too “on the nose”. If they suspected a rat cult, make the villain a rat-wielding mad-scientist. If they worried about defeated NPC returning for vengeance, turn a normal incident of sabotage into one related to that NPC’s traits. They should never be 100% sure whether they were clever guessers or if you are using their speculation to design the future.
- Allow your players to modify vagueness in your descriptions. If you describe a small smithy shop and they joke about a the smith having way too many anvils, why not make it canon? When the fighter asks to slide down the banister into an attack on the fleeing noble but fails to keep his balance, why not blame that on the noble being a cheapskate who is failing to maintain the place?
- Even if you do not say it out-loud, adopt an improv-style “yes, and” or “yes, but” approach to the wild conspiracies that your players invent.
- Everything should have a neat ending. If the goblin dog-fights in the beginning of the cave do not have a conclusion, do not include them. This is related to the principle of Chekov’s Gun: “If you put a gun on the wall in the first act, it absolutely must go off in the third” (I’m paraphrasing).
- When your players show concern or interest in a trope or piece of evidence, it should have some resolution. Sometimes that may mean dis-confirming their theory to keep the story as you have written, but if you can modify it, why not? This need not go as far as changing the ultimate villain from the butler to the gardener, but maybe the gardener is up to something creepy in his own right?
- Whenever you foreshadow an event or hint at a possibility, it absolutely must happen. This is where prophecies and omens come in.
- Just because everything must at some point come to an end, that doesn’t mean they should happen all at once. An absolute must practice skill is changing your tone, presentation, and word choice. Every session should have at least one piece of the “puzzle” that hints at a future event. Most of these should be resolved quickly, but maybe a third should be aiming at longer term goals.
- A short list of villains, especially those not interacting with the party, should be on hand at all times so you can draw inspiration for the actor causing any particular case of foreboding.
- What other heroes and monsters are rampaging through the lands?
- Who is the nearest power that might take an interest in such an event?
- Any event you plan to foreshadow absolutely must have a minimum of three leading clues. As the Alexandrian puts it, your players will miss one clue, ignore the second, and misinterpret the third before making a wild leap in logic to arrive somewhere close to the correct answer. What types of clues can these omens and foreshadowings be?
- Objects and effects out of place for the area.
- NPC’s with personality quirks, manias, or aversions.
- Secret messages, coded talk, or vague innuendo.
- Any magical effect, especially those with symptoms similar to disease, insanity, or biblical plague.
- Signs of insanity such as writings, drawings, or carvings.
- Signs of conspiracy such as fake currency, orders, or disguises.
- Feelings of doom, joy, or strong but brief emotions. This type of foreshadowing is difficult to convey without railroading a player character, but can be achieved by describing things in ways that anger, terrify, confuse, or gross-out the player (without going beyond the bounds of the group’s social norms).
- Odd coincidence: seeing an old NPC, a copy of the same dagger used in a murder previously, or a unique spell found on a scroll in a villain’s lair.
- Symbolic weather, atmosphere, or environs. Untimely fog, rain, sun beam through the clouds, or temperature shifts.
- Jarring sounds, or lack there of, like animal cries, birds growing silent, a death-wail, or a stifled laugh.
- Direct symbolism or prophecy from tarot cards, a fortune-telling spirit, written text oddly specific to the players, or a talking animal.
- Warnings from signs, rumor mongers, or strangers.
- Fairy tales or bard songs.
- Stereotypical bad or good luck omens, like a black cat, a raven, or a white rabbit.
- Innocuous objects shaped like good or ill omens. The clouds shaped like a skull or the island’s cove blooming like a flower with the tide moving in and out.
- Weird vegetation or fungal growths.
Take the combinations of your planned events and your players’ fever dreams and bring them to your next game. When asked where your ideas come from, the key phrase is “no comment”.