Today we are rethinking seers: prophets, augurs, and those blessed with foresight to see the events of the future. This is a common trope present in almost every fantasy setting, and for a good reason: it invokes wonder, which is essential to good fantasy.
But unfortunately they can feel stale: it's a dude or dudette, often old, whose eyes glaze over as they say some mysterious/cryptic thing about the future while having visions that may or may not be well timed. And since this trope is so beautiful and full of wonder, we shouldn't let this go to waste. So let's rethink seers.
I. What Is a Seer?
To lead off this post, we are starting with the assumption that terms like seer, prophet/prophetess, augur/auguress, oracle, etc. are synonymous: we're making no distinction for the purpose of this post. We will be using "seer" because it's short and saves us time, and in your world they may have semantic differences, so when we discuss what seers can do, just place the correct name where appropriate.
First, seers (as we mentioned before) can foresee the future. Often there are varying levels of success: they don't always see exact moments, and they often do not foresee what "will be": it is possible, through various actions, to change the course of the vision. This is the most common seer, and may occur through the use of an object (cauldron, specific temple or area, magic mirror, etc.), reciting specific words, taking a specific body position or moving one's hands/body in a specific way, and in some cases it might even happen inadvertently: the visions may just come, with or without the will of the seer being involved. This could be through a sudden vision, dreams, or a freeze in time while the seer is perceiving the vision.
Second, seers may glimpse the past or the present. In the Old Testament for example we see Samuel the Seer foretelling where Saul is hiding (present), Nathan the Prophet sees what David did with Bathsheba (past), and Daniel foresees what will be (future). Merlin portends what has been or what is, not just what will be in the Arthurian Legend. So prophecy is not just limited to what will be: it could give clarity about the past or present.
Third, we have "battle seers" who use their ability to foresee the present or future to give them a form of precognition or prediction in combat. Chirrut Imwe has a unique version of this in Rogue One, where he sees the Force moving around him and that tells him what others are thinking and going to do, and uses that both to see his targets and to strike them down.
Which also brings us to another cool feature of seers: they may see motivations not necessarily just actions. Foresight could be seeing the heart or intentions behind a person, perhaps even more than what they will do. Minority Report hints at this when they beg the question, "What if you change your mind at the last minute, unforeseen by the two boys but foreseen by the girl seer?"
Madeline L'Engle also has a unique take on seers across her works. Whether it's the Happy Medium in A Wrinkle in Time or the "Namers" of Sandy and Dennys, the seer sees things that others can't, and uses that knowledge to gain power (very vaguely defined as it changes based on the book).
Prophecies can also come in dreams, sometimes with metaphorical meanings (think Joseph and the dreams of Pharaoh), and sometimes with dialogue between the seer and another being (like in Ezekiel 37). This makes the prophetic vision immersive in a way that words uttered by an oracle can never be.
You also have the ominous/esoteric/old writing variety, with a proclamation of an old prophecy made long ago that may come true now, "in the fullness of time." Starcraft II handles this well, and for years after Wings of Liberty came out I poured over the prophecies of Aman's attempt to destroy life in the universe because these ancient prophecies were well presented (complete aside, my theory turned out to be correct when Legacy of the Void finally dropped, so all those hours of pondering it paid off!).
So seers are far more than just "predictors of what is to come, portending doom." We have ample room to create, and this is where we turn next.
II. Rethinking Seers
To make seers more interesting, we need to start by branching out from the typical augur, whether in presentation, powers, or perception. And there are a lot of ways to do this.
For example, you can start with banal prophecies presented as important to the player character. If you are playing in a modern setting, for example, and a seer addresses a character saying, "You will go to the bathroom today," that's not much of a seer - everyone already knows that. But if that seer adds, "DON'T LOOK DOWN WHEN YOU DO" the seer has the character's attention, and when the character goes to the urinal and someone sneaks up behind him to attack him and he notices them because he kept his eyes up looking for trouble, his opinion of the seer is cemented.
Now, obviously, this is a bizarre example, but you get the idea: you prove the seer through banal but true prophecies. This builds their credibility, and keeps the seer from just being a "big picture" seer, which makes them more interesting. It also helps to build a bridge toward larger prophecies: the player has trust in the seer because of the good turn they have done them, and now they are ready for whatever else the seer may share with them.
Second, use animals on occasion as your seers. Animals are great because 1) they have little to no reason not to share a vision as they rarely play politics, and 2) it makes something that could be boring into something unique and memorable. It is one thing to come across a dragon in its lair, it's another thing to come across a dragon in its lair saying, "You must not cross the threshold, for the fate of the whole region lies in the balance." As soon as that happens your players will think, "Oh my gosh, something interesting is about to happen," and you've got them hooked. All because of a seer.
Third, definitely use battle seers. Use people who prophesy the location of a target to strike them, as it's cool, different, and means they work just as effectively in the dark as they do in the light. We are always looking for ways to make combat more unique and different, and this is one way to do it.
Don't forget cadence and rhythm. Part of what makes seers interesting is the sound of what they say, not just the content of what they say: "Round about the cauldron go / In the poisoned entrails throw" has a powerful impact on us as we watch/read Macbeth because of the cadence and rhythm. So pay attention to how you say the prophecy: what is your cadence? Your tempo? Is it a deep foreboding voice, or is it soft and eerie? All of this paints the image and makes it memorable for your players.
And finally, inasmuch as players get excited by it, encourage players to play seers. Is one of your players elated every time a prophecy comes around? Give them the option to train to become a seer (be that a battle seer, namer, augur, or whatever you want to call it). Allow them to partake in it, and as far as predicting the future on a macro scale, if you trust the creative elements of your player, don't hesitate to let them create prophecies of their own. Talk about immersive: a player really feels like a seer when they are the ones choosing the words for an esoteric prophetic word. And it will make their day.
Prophets are one of those types of characters that don't fit neatly into a "class system," which is probably why Zurn makes use of so many types of seers. Make your world more interesting by not just building cliche prophets, but by giving your players someone truly memorable. You won't regret it.
Until next time,