Guidance – GMing 101: Dealing with the Devil

Welcome to Guidance, Private Sanctuary’s source for tips and techniques for the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game, written by Everyman Gamer Alexander Augunas. Today, we’re going to be talking about coercing your players into dealing with the devil.

Welcome to Week 1 of what’s going to be One Hell of an August! In honor of the Hell’s Rebels and Hell’s Vengeance Adventure Paths, the entire Know Direction Network is going to be plunging head-first into Chelliax, House Thrune, and into the heart of Hell itself for the entire month of August!

Today, we’re going to start with something small and delectable: deals with the devil!

What’s In a Deal?

Let’s start by talking about what a “deal with the devil” is. Although the concept itself is near universal, Christian folktales provide the most common source of the devil with the devil motif. Essentially, a person forms a pact between themselves and an infernal entity, often for diabolical favors that very from tale to tale; the most common trades are for fame, knowledge, power, or youth.

But as anyone could tell you, a deal with a devil always has a downside. With literal devils, the terms are usually set against the bargainer’s immortal soul. The length varies; sometimes the cost is eternal damnation, sometimes its for something else. In some versions of the tale, a particularly witty peasant manages to outwit the devil on a technical point, but in an actual deal with the devil folktale, said person always loses in the end.

Of Deals and NPCs

The ‘deal with the devil’ trope is one of the absolute best in regards to storytelling. A well-made deal with a contract devil can explain SO many different story elements that its unreal. “Hey, where did this schmuck get all this power from?” or “Why can’t we scry and fry this mortal king?” A great enough deal with a powerful enough devil can serve as an excellent backdrop for high-level play if done well and sparingly.

The alternate route is to have the deal gone sour route. Now, devils aren’t really the, “screw you over with their deals,” type. They usually give you what they want, how you want it like any businessman would. After all, if the service wasn’t rendered well, you might not recommend them to your friends. But that said, the prospect of eternal damnation can often weigh heavily on older NPCs or their descendants, who learn about the “catch” to their grandfather’s vast fortunes and the price that he paid for it. Entire adventures can be planed around the PC’s attempt to invalidate an infernal contract and what such an attempt entails and how it can be done is an adventure in and of itself.

Of Deals and PCs

As iconic as this trope is, it can be INCREDIBLY difficult to pull off in game on a PC. Why? Well, the reason is simple: the player is often aware of the nature of devils, and they often lack the desperation or desire that characters in the old stories have when they decide to make these deals. When you’re playing a complicated game of make-believe, its hard to justify actions like this.

So, how can you get your PCs to sign the dotted line? Well, you have to inspire one of those two emotions: desperation or desire. You need to make both the player and her PC want the thing and want it now, and yes, I said player AND PC. If your player doesn’t want the thing that the devil is willing to give, then there’s a very good chance that the PC won’t end up taking.

The other two things that are required to truly tempt your PCs into servitude are a lack of urgency and an ease of acquisition. Basically, whatever the devil offers to the PC, it needs to be easily acquired (Oh, you want to be the head of a successful business? Let me show you to easy street) and the price needs to be something very, very long term. For instance, if a devil said to you, “I’ll help you become king if you give me your soul,” then you might have second thoughts about it. After all, do you REALLY want to turn over your immortal soul now? How will you feel in a few decades? But if the devil changes his offer to, “I’ll make you king if you and all of your descendants worship my deity from now until the end of time,” then the king might accept it. After all, worship isn’t bad. What do I lose if I worship you? But what the king can’t see is that a lifetime of faithful worship will likely land his soul into the devil’s hands, and what’s worse, if his descendants follow his desires and also worship the deity, the king has just accidentally sold the souls of his entire family to the devil. And even though the king thinks that he can stop whenever he wants, the next time something threatens his throne even slightly, you can bet that he’s back to his faith with renewed zeal, incorrectly thinking that the devil is punishing him for his lack of faithfulness when reality, he’s sitting back next to a fiery lake slurping a soul smoothie.

Because truthfully, its just THAT easy.

Deals with Non-Devils

Even though the trope is called, “deal with the devil,” folklore is filled with plenty of similar, non-devil deals. Perhaps the most famous is with evil efreeti, where mortals make a wish to an efreeti for something, but that wish goes horribly wrong. In truth, this is the exact WORST type of, “deal with the devil” to throw at your PCs; restrict it to NPC story hooks exclusively. Why? Because creatures like efreetis, who twist their wishes, are so prevalent in folklore that you’re more likely to force your PCs into wish-paralysis as they try to word the perfect wish that can’t be twisted back on them. And when the wish does twist, they’re not surprised by it.

No, deals are better than wishes for PCs, even when that deal is simply, “draw a card from a deal and whatever happens, happens.” If you want to do a story about a wish gone awry, its better to either write it into a PC’s background or use it as flavor for an adventure with an NPC as the subject of the poorly-wrought wish. After all, wishing to an efreeti lacks that ease of use factor because of how common the stories are about it going wrong, and also because the negative effects of wishes tend to happen immediately. They lack the time necessary for the PCs to relax their guard, enjoy the benefits of their deal, and ultimately forget about the horrible, soul-damning thing that they’ve done. Because its when mortals writhe and squirm in self-loathing at their own short-sightedness that a contract devil is truly gleeful.

Got any questions, comments, or ancedotes about deals with the devil? Leave them in the comment’s section below, and until next time, have one Hell of an August!

Alexander “Alex” Augunas has been playing roleplaying games since 2007, which isn’t nearly as long as 90% of his colleagues. Alexander is an active freelancer for the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game and is best known as the author of the Pact Magic Unbound series by Radiance House. Alex is the owner of Everyman Gaming, LLC and is often stylized as the Everyman Gamer in honor of Guidance’s original home. Alex also cohosts the Private Sanctuary Podcast, along with fellow blogger Anthony Li, and you can follow their exploits on Facebook in the 3.5 Private Sanctuary Group, or on Alex’s Twitter, @AlJAug.

Alex Augunas

Alexander Augunas lives outside of Philadelphia, USA where he tries to make a living as an educator. When he's not shaping the future leaders of tomorrow, Alex is a freelance writer for esteemed Pathfinder Roleplaying Game publishers such as Paizo, Inc, Radiance House, Raging Swan Press, and more, and also acts as a co-host and blogger on the Know Direction Network, where he has earned the nickname, "The Everyman Gamer." Recently, Alex has forayed into the realm of self-publishing through his company, Everyman Gaming, LLC.

1 Comment

  1. The last sentence of the first italicized section says “Today, we’re going to be talking about g.” It’s a bit strange.
    A good article, though. I doubt I’ll try to tempt my PCs with devil deals, because they, the players, know about devils. However, I actively have a major NPC dealing with devils, though the PCs don’t know it yet.

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