In literature and screenwriting, a Promise is a foreshadowing tool presented to the reader in the form of dialogue, a note to the character, or a visual cue that isn’t a “red herring“. You can read more about the Promise on TV Tropes, although they seem to focus on actual verbal promises made between characters, and not so much on the writing tool.
As a reader, imagine if I introduce to you my protagonist, Chad. Chad is an up-and-coming hotshot lawyer who just landed a major position in a high paying firm. Now imagine in an early scene I show Chad nervously experimenting with cocaine for the first time– hands shaking as he sniffs it off the ass of a troll doll, because he’s trying to impress a Senior Partner. This is a promise.
A promise of good times, that is.
I’m promising to the reader that this will be a plot point later on. Otherwise, why would I have gone to all the trouble mentioning it? I could have wasted the reader’s time with any other daily activity. I could have shown Chad eating at the new sub-shop down the street, or having his suits ruined by an inexperienced dry-cleaner.
But no. This is a promise. Chad will be hooked on coke later. Or Chad will get his boss busted for possession. Or Chad will take this as a life lesson—not to be coaxed into illegal activities to impress his superiors.
If I hand one of my players an antique lamp, or an ancient sword, or a live sloth with a drinking problem… these are all promises, and I damn well better deliver on them later down the line. It fulfills a need in us to see literary promises turn to foreshadowing. We crave the feeling that one event happens because of another, and life’s not just a jumble of disconnected events (which it totally is).
There are varying degrees of “jumble.”
This “Promise” is the exact sort of tool you can utilize in your tabletop game. Elude to a future cocaine addiction. Foreshadow a murder. Tell your players there’s something under the bed, then throw a curveball at them and have the monster jump out of the closet.
Here, in no particular order, are five quick promises you can make to your players, or promises you can squeeze out of them, that will enrich your game and make you seem like a dungeon mastering genius.
Promise 1: The Artifact
Or several-freaking-hundred artifacts…
This is the easiest story promise to make, and probably the most mishandled one. Roleplayers separate physical objects into two categories. Sell it or wear it. If the story-relevant artifact you’ve given them isn’t immediately useful or obviously necessary for the quest later on, guess which category they’ll put it in?
Instead, give them an artifact they’ve heard about through the lore of your game—a fabled sword, a mystical chalice, a magic lamp. Something that has come up in earlier dialogue. Examples of The Artifact are sprinkled throughout real-world mythology. All you have to do is convince the players to hang onto the trinket you hand them, and watch them try to apply it to every scenario they encounter ever, until you’re ready to fulfill the foreshadowing promise.
Promise 2: The Vow
“Promise me we’ll always be friends.” Or “Promise you’ll come back for me.” Or “Promise when this is all over, we’ll open that self-serve aquarium shop where customers can scoop out their own snails and goldfish…”
Make the players give a vow—of service, fealty, loyalty, or that they will return one day out of duty. As the dungeon master you can potentially lead them through several quests with this device, and when the promise/foreshadowing pays off, the players will feel relief being let off the hook. But be warned, if your players don’t like to commit, this trick may only work once.
Another angle is to have an NPC whom the players are fond of make a vow to them. This sort of characterization will add depth to the story. I’ve seen the most bloodthirsty, power-hungry, watch-the-world-burn players become regretful when an NPC makes a solemn vow to them, personally (with a heavy dose of foreshadowing) only to die later.
Promise 3: The Mystery Door/Button
“If you press this button, someone, somewhere will…
Stop pressing it. Just stop. I haven’t explained it all yet… Goddamnit just give it back!”
With this promise the players either lack the key or password to gain entrance, or the door itself is a complete mystery.
The best use of this literary promise can be found in the mind-bender book of insanity House of Leaves, by Mark Z. Danielewski. In it, Danielewski introduces a house that spawns extra doors, hallways that are too vast on the inside to match its external dimensions, and eventually an immense maze of grey hallways and cavernous unlit rooms. The owners attempt to explore the insides of the dimension-bending house like they’re going spelunking. But (Spoiler Alert) the expedition turns dangerous, and soon people become lost in the endless, expanding void.
That last paragraph wasn’t a book promotion. I just wanted to give you an example of a popular novel that is entirely built on the Mystery Door/Button Promise. But be warned, giving your players an unsolvable door, puzzle, or lock may result in hours of them fixating on a problem that can’t be solved until later. So be ready.
Promise 4: The Returning Villain/Champion
Those very simple words promise a world of pain to the receptionist cop in Terminator, and put the viewer on notice that the Ahnuld-Bot will be back, and the desk guard may have been wiser to pay attention to the Return Promise.
Or take the movie Scream for another example. “I’ll be right back…” in horror movie lingo is a pop culture joke by now, only because it worked so well in early slasher flicks to let the viewer know that someone is about to take a machete to the throat.
Any time a hero promises to the party that he’ll return when there is need, or when a dying villain warns the party that his true master is much nastier than he is, or even when the villain claims he can’t be killed—it lets the party know that a promise has been made, foreshadowing greater things to come.
Promise 5: The Personal Code
One of the most subtle promises in storytelling, yet a highly effective one, is to show off a character’s personal code of honor, morals, or conduct. If an assassin claims he won’t kill women or kids, you can bet your ass he’ll be tested by this later. If a thug says he’ll take any dirty job if the price is right, you can be damn sure he’s going to get hired to do something even he finds distasteful.
Let the party know an NPC traveling with them has a personal code, and not just the lawful paladin who has a personal code about everything. Make them convince a streetwise thief to break his “trust no one” code. Let them encounter a golem or cyborg whose programming restricts them from murdering unarmed foes.
Just remember that the character’s personal moral compass isn’t the foreshadowing. The foreshadowing is when the character is set down a path that inevitably leads to them breaking their code, when the NPC is stretched to the breaking point. That “snap” moment, is when the promise really pays off.
Or if you’re George Lucas you piss away your foreshadowing with amazing prejudice.