Communication with the gods is indirect and relies on the art of divination. A god's power is so great that even seeing them can kill a human and the gulf of understanding between mortals and the divine precludes direct communication. The gods also thrive on intrigue and scheming, preferring to be obtuse and let mortals struggle to understand them.
Divination is used for communication with the gods. Priests skilled in it may ask questions through rituals and interpret the responses which come in the form of omens. Divination works in the following ways:
- Omens: The gods influence the environment to communicate their opinions or wishes. Omens may be sent by a god unprompted or in response to a question.
- Portents: These are always present in the environment and show the overall mood of the gods. They indicate whether the future will be positive or negative.
- Rituals: These involve a ceremony to attract the god's attention and a prayer to ask the question. The god's response as omens can be searched for either during the ritual or afterwards.
- Consulting Oracles: A chosen few mortals can read fates and deliver prophecies. Their other function is to act as a channel to allow the gods to have a brief conversation with mortals without killing them.
Omens are messages from the gods used to make simple points. An omen may show disfavour, point the champions in a particular direction, warn of a great danger, or indicate whether the champions are on the right course. The role of priests is to read these omens and interpret them, which makes them the mouthpieces of the gods.
The nature of the omen depends on which god is speaking and what they are saying. A god will use their own symbols and realms to identify themselves, so Zeus may communicate by having an eagle circle the city and Hermes might make a herd of goats disobey their shepherd. How subtle the omen is depends on the message and the god's opinion of the mortals. Hera might send a peacock to peck a champion in the night to show disfavour, Apollo could have a python eating a doll to warn a character of a dragon and Poseidon might use an earthquake to show displeasure.
An omen may be sent by any divine being, including the Titans or the Primordial gods such as Gaia. The primordials are even further removed from mortals than the Olympians and Titans, so their omens are more metaphysical. Omens from Titans depend on the god and can range from taunts to outright deceptions.
Omens in Play
The Game Leader should place omens into their narrative and not rely on a character's action to spot them. It is left to the players to notice the omen in the Game Leader's words. While interpretation of the omen is best done through role playing, players may call on suitable advantages to take a character action as a player cannot be expected to have such a keen sense of omens as a native of Ancient Greece. A successful action gives the champion the omen's message, and good rolls and role playing should be rewarded with extra detail. Poor rolls on the action will cause a misinterpretation.
For example, a comet streaks over the city from the north and smashes a farmhouse to pieces. A successful interpretation action will reveal a warning from Zeus that a battle is coming the next day. If the roll was very good the characters will realise Zeus is warning that barbarians will raid the city tomorrow and the king will die in the fighting unless protected. A poor roll leads to the conclusion that Zeus favours the city but hates that farmer.
Nothing compels a person interpreting an omen to tell the truth. They can lie about the omen's meaning or use it to manipulate people, but consequences can be dire if the gods find out someone has had the hubris to speak in their name.
Portents differ from omens as they don't communicate a specific message or refer to a particular person or place. Instead, they communicate the general mood of a god and a vague idea of the future. Whilst omens are sent specifically by a god for a reason, portents are always present and may be read at any time. They are divine mood music. Greeks seek out portents when making important decisions, however the answers they find will always be in vague terms such as 'the future bodes well' or 'the god is angry'.
Portents are not sent by the gods but occur naturally as a minor form of prophecy. They are small, apparently unimportant events which indicate a larger trend. Game Leaders should weave minor details into the narrative which may or may not be portents of the future. The portents are linked to a god's realms or symbols. A bright sunny sky means Zeus is content; a roiling sea shows that Poseidon is angry again; and a festival which falls flat shows Dionysus is upset.
Players wishing to read the portents for a glimpse of the future may take a suitable action or pay a priest to do likewise. The future can be seen in the behaviour of animals, e.g. birds scratching at the ground and finding nothing can indicate a future of poverty. Extispicy uses the colour, smell and shapes of a sacrificial animal's entrails to divine the future. Alternatively, the stars can be studied. Planetary alignments and equinoxes are signs of great events, while comets, eclipses and meteor showers foretell something dramatic. Regardless of the method used the portent will always be vague.
A ritual is an attempt to forge a direct connection between the divine and mortal worlds. It is the only form of divination where champions can directly ask questions of the gods. Each ritual consists of two elements: the ceremony to attract the god's attention and the prayer to ask the question. The ritual will take several hours and involve dance, sacrifices of food or animals, and prayers. The more elaborate, time-consuming and costly the ritual is, the better. It may be performed anywhere, though a temple or shrine to the god is the most appropriate place. Game Leaders may award situation bonuses to the champion's attempt at divination based on the location and nature of ritual employed.
During the ritual the champion may impart information to their god and the climax is asking the question. Champions are wise to avoid asking anything which they should know or be able to work out themselves as the gods take a dim view of lazy champions. Likewise, repeatedly asking for information will irritate the god.
Carrying out rituals with due decorum is a skill and some characters can do it, or they may rely on priests. Players may increase the chance of a ritual working though good role playing (e.g. appropriate behaviour during the ritual) or by sacrificing something important to the character. A well-performed ritual will please the god who will provide an answer to the question. A failed ritual might fail to attract the god's attention or fail to engage them sufficiently to answer the question.
Once the ritual is complete, the god will respond over the next few hours with an omen. A better ritual will provide a clear, more easily understood omen. Portents may also give hints to the gods take on the question.
An oracle is a seer chosen by a god as a conduit for prophecies and their divine voice. An oracle can read the fates of some mortals or places as a form of a prophecy. They may be used by their patron god as a direct channel allowing mortals a brief conversation with the divine before the oracle is exhausted. When not dealing with prophecies or channelling the thoughts of a god, the word of an oracle is still valued. They speak to mortals at all levels of society, are told numerous secrets and have a great deal of insight into affairs of the world.
Oracles are revered for their direct connection to their patron god and temples are built to provide protection and control access. The most famous oracle is at Delphi and dedicated to Apollo, god of prophecy. Kings and Tyrants are drawn to Delphi by the power of Apollo's patronage and consult the oracle before they make the most important decisions. Consultations may involve talking to Apollo through the oracle, or just talking to the oracle herself for guidance. Any message the gods wish the whole world to hear is delivered through Delphi.
Prophecies are predictions of the future and their delivery is part of an oracle's role. The gods do not create or control prophecies and have no more power to defy them than mortals. It is the gods who choose who can be a conduit for prophecies. While they often choose a famous oracle, sometimes a prophecy may be delivered by a rambling madman or talking animal.
A prophecy is an exceptionally powerful force in the world and major events are prophesied. Prophecies are subtle, rarely fully understood and frequently fulfilled by someone's attempts to avoid them. The rise of Zeus came about due to Cronus' attempt to subvert a prophecy. It is this subtlety which makes them so interesting and a rich source of good role play opportunities. They are an excellent way to frame an adventure and to foreshadow its events. The prophecy should be phrased vaguely so that the champions will only understood each part when it has already come true, or at least when it is too late to change much. Gods may take advantage of prophecies to manipulate events as Athena did with Jason and the sandal. The champions may try to do this themselves.
Consultation and Channelling a God
To consult an oracle the champions must gain an audience with them. In principle any Greek can visit an oracle, but the servants of the gods who control access to the oracle favour those with wealth and power. Of course the priests have their own agendas which may alter how soon the oracle can grant an audience.
A simple consultation with an oracle, to draw on their mortal knowledge, takes the form of a ceremony where the attending priests announce the champions and the oracle accepts their question. The oracle will give the sagest answer they can without using any divine power or prophecy.
Those seeking prophecy must likewise seek an audience but the ceremony is a direct appeal to the god. It is a longer, more elaborate ritual and another way for the oracle's guardians to control the flow of information. A poorly performed service will offend the god and no information is likely to be forthcoming. If the ritual is successful the oracle will make a single prophecy, answering the appellant's question.
The final form of consultation involves channelling the god. An even more expensive and elaborate ritual is required before the oracle may attempt to become the voice of their god. If it is successful the characters can converse with the god, though only briefly, and even these answers will be vague or ambiguous. Speaking directly to a god is not without risk and the wrong word may insult them and earn their wrath.
The delivery of prophecies and the channelling of a god's thoughts are powerful tools in the game. Their use relies on the whim of gods and the fates so Game Leaders decide when they work and what information is revealed. Oracles are a tool with which the Game Leader can enrich the game, not an easy way for players to solve an adventure.
The sight of a god in their true form kills mortals in an instant, so when a god wishes to appear before a person they must do so in disguise. The gods like to test mortals' true characters and appearing incognito is a good way to do achieve this. Often a character will never realise the old hag they insulted or the lame man they helped was a god until much later.