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Devil's Bargain

Reposted from a Discord conversation:

Small, silly story: we're playing Pathfinder 2 in a very 90s era, paladins-and-princesses, let's-pretend-this-story-makes-sense style. It's really like watching a bunch of 16 yo playing D&D for the first time. It feels quite nostalgic in the entire childish silliness of the drama.

For example, some months ago one character died (at a very low level) and one of the others, out of generosity and general mischeviousness, sold his soul to a devil they had just met in order to get his friend resurrected.

Now they're much higher level, and they meet the devil again (a succubus, of course) while she's in servitude of a giant in a viking-like town. There's a second troublemaker in the group and out of pure spite (and because now he can afford it) he banishes the devil to the 9 Hells out of nowhere. Ok.

Two sessions later, the character who sold his soul dies fighting golems. The character who got resurrected knows the ritual to cast reincarnate. But the devil who owns the soul is now back in hell ready to claim it. And what's really... bizzarre, I don't know how else to define it, is how all of this happens with no planning or intelligence behind it. It's not deep or particularly interesting but I have this feeling in the back of my brain that this randomly-generated coherence is somehow rooted in the specific and spontaneous use of their abilities. 
 

Department: 
Actual Play
Games: 
Pathfinder

Comments

FroggyC's picture

This is going to sound weird and I'm sure many people will find it objectionable. Feel free to criticize the point, I welcome it.

My impression with these type of occurrences is that they have some sort of "mystical" component to them. Not in the sense of the paranormal, but as in, you subconsciously tap into some archetype from the collective unconscious and act it out in your story, and that's why it connects with the other people in the room.

At the end of the day, selling your soul to the Faustian devil is a common story, yes? Maybe one of the oldest. It makes sense that when it's set up you collectively will lead the character to end up having to pay for it somehow, or at least confront their decision.

You can have a less wacky explanation by just saying that players were aligned and knew what they were looking for. Or, well, the other explanation was that it's a fortuitous coincidence and that you ascribe meaning to it post-hoc. But I've always felt these types of explanations, while sometimes true, don't really explain the full extent of what's going on.

LorenzoC's picture

That's a fascinating proposal. I'm not against it.

It may be useful to know that the process of realizing what was going on wasn't immediate.

The character who proposed to reincarnate the dead character is the one who banished the devil. He expected to be able to run the ritual, but we found out that it's Nature based, so the only character who can cast it is the one that the dead character sold his soul for. It sounds fine, and off-session I start writing the tables for the rolls, as the rules suggest. We get to the part talking about how the soul may be trapped if the character had some curse or bargain hanging on them... and it clicks.

So I would rule out that there's any level of conscious design. We didn't "make it happen", even unconsciously. I wish (except I don't).

 

badspeler's picture

I very much agree with FroggyC's assessment here. I don't see how the rules of the pathfinder 2 could be used to support the situation you describe. The only way I can see it working is through a Contract Devil which wouldn't allow you to resurrect the person who made the contract in any case. And the contract devil is not a succubus in any case. 

Moreover, I don't see how selling your soul would ever be the best way to resurrect someone. The standard cost for the resurrection is proportional to a character's level so I don't see why that wouldn't be the best avenue.

For a plot to truly emerge out of a system, it can't be driven by player creativity and then forced into compatibility. It needs to result from the actors following their goals and incentives (and not metagame incentives).

Can you give us a more complete picture of the mechanics present in this situation? It feels like there were a few ad-hoc rules changes to make the interesting thing happen. If I'm mistaken, I would be very interested.

LorenzoC's picture

This is a very important detail that I left out: the succubus has no power to resurrect or even to make that type of contract, by the rules. The situation at large was that (it's not relevant to the example, but all of this is part of the Golarion setting and not my work) the contract happened in the resting place/prison of a powerful and ancient archdevil (https://pathfinderwiki.com/wiki/Mahathallah ) that was once an handmaiden of the goddess of death, Pharasma. 

The succubus was capable of reaching over to her and negotiate the deal; resurrection is fully within the powers of an archdevil, by my reading of the rules (but wait), and while the idea of selling your soul to the devil isn't terribly explicit, the rules for the Phistophilus devil did.

So in short, the players had met and fought the succubus; the specific player sought out her help to ress her friend; at this point, I guess a Contract Demon was the next logical step. However, the next detail is that the succubus wasn't alone on the prime material plane, as she was accompanied by a Glabrezu.

Now the Glabrezu has the power to grant wishes, even if their effects are perverted and devastating. 

So what happened here is that the players *tought* they were doing a deal with Mahatahallah, while what really brought back the player was a Glabrezu-granted wish, which of course turned out perverted (let's just say that a lot of people died in the wake of the character's resurrection).

LorenzoC's picture

It may be relevant to say that the players were fully aware of the glabrezu's presence (the two devils acted as a pair, and in fact interacted with the group since the beginning of the game and up to the "big reveal" as they had took over the identities of two servants of one of the players) and even fought him before, but (to my knowledge) none of them was aware of the glabrezu's capability to grant wishes, so they still think Mahatallah did it (which is informing a few of their decisions even now).

badspeler's picture

So in short, the players had met and fought the succubus; the specific player sought out her help to ress her friend; at this point, I guess a Contract Demon was the next logical step. However, the next detail is that the succubus wasn't alone on the prime material plane, as she was accompanied by a Glabrezu.

Alright, maybe help me go through this process sequentially. Here's my understanding.

  1. The players fight a succubus (at a low level?). The outcome involves the succubus and the PCs living to fight another day.
  2. One of the player characters dies.
  3. The surviving PCs encounter the succubus again. They ask for her help in resurrecting their friend.
  4. As it happens, she has been traveling with a powerful demon called a Glabrezu. A Glabreuzu can (by the rules) cast Miracles although they end up perverted. The Glabreuzu and the Succubus were a known pair- originally disguised as one of the PC's servants.
  5. One of the players offers to sell his soul (to the Succubus?) to resurrect his fallen comrade. They think the deal is with the setting character Mahatahallah but it's with the Glabrezu.
  6. As specified in its entry, the Miracle has devastating consequences since "the glabrezu always perverts the miracle according to their own treacherous nature".
  7. The succubus (and the glabrezu?) is (are?) banished.
  8. The character who sold his soul dies and ends up in hell- where the succubus is.

There are a bunch of details that make me suspicious of true emergence taking place here. Here are some questions I have.

  • Why did two powerful demons act as the servants of one of the PCs? What were their motivations?
  • Why did one of the PCs "sell his soul" to the demon instead of say performing some service.
  • "let's just say that a lot of people died in the wake of the character's resurrection" Can you be more specific about this?
  • What was the pre-established afterlife cosmology for the setting? Is there just one hell that all beings go to after death?

Most of these kinds of examples of emergence end up having some ad-hoc components to them. It usually involves the players getting access to high-level magic or other special resources through GM fiat. There is a strong impulse to fudge things when something interesting might happen and there's nothing wrong with that but it's important to recognize if we're to understand how to reliably achieve emergent play.

LorenzoC's picture

I'll briefly reconstruct for maximum clarity. Most of what you'll read is straight out of the Golarion setting rules. If I have changed something significant, I'll say.

- One of the player character is an important political figure; his uncle is one of the general of an ex-Runelord and now Ruler of New Thassilon, sorceress Sorshan. The uncle is dispatched to reclaim an abandoned fortress in the Lands of the Linnorm Kings that Sorshan wants to use as a stepping stone to take advantage in the power vacuum that is afflicting the southern areas of the Lands (there's only one Linnorm King, and his claim to have actually killed a Linnorm is highly disputed) and rebuild a commercial route to the richer north and the archipelago.
The player character is sent investigating after the uncle goes insane and disappear; as such, he is technically going to act as governor, despite his low character level (politics don't care about XP).

- the two devils are in service of Mahatahallah, or rather, they are tasked to keep her imprisoned. Her prison is under the fortress, of course. Uncle-general knows about this, and decides he wants to speak to the archdevil. The devils try to stop him but he's way too powerful and they have to fall back. He talks to the devil, "goes crazy" and leaves with his generals. He leaves these two servants in place, and the devils kill them and replace them as they have figured out it's a good way to find out more (and protect the tomb).
All of this happens before play.

- the PCs arrive, and for some 15 solid sessions they interact with the demons as precisely what they act as. They're slightly suspicious but when I say "servants" I probably undersell the importance of these two people, who had been running the colony up to now. The demons do a lot to make life in the colony miserable but the players are generally more concerned about other matters and don't notice anything. 

- eventually players explore the fortress, over several expeditions. The demons consider killing them but these are low level and somewhat rash guys that don't bully and out think them as the general did. If they kill them, Sorshen will send even more, more powerful guys, so they try to manipulate for the most part.
This comes to a stop when the players, exploring the ruins, find the tomb - and the bodies of the two servants, in an advanced stage of decomposition. At this point the demons arrive and combat ensues. The players are level 5-6 at this point, so the succubus is manageable, but the glabrezu is not. This is how the cleric dies. The demons retreat before the characters can kill the succubus.

- the players return to the colony and mourn. We start planning the new character. One player - troublemaker #1 - decides to sneak out and go back to the fortress. He calls for the succubus, and offers to make a deal. We go over what could happen here, and the player suggest he could pledge allegiance to Mahatahallah as she's powerful enough for a wish. Now, if you want to be technical, here the players makes a "mistake" - he knows Mahathallah is an archdevil, and these are demons, so his assumption they can act in her liege is wrong.
The demons, however, take this chance for two reasons - the first is that while they outlevel the characters, they're still formidable enough (5 level 6 characters can easily dispatch the level 7 succubus and while the level 13 glabrezu is technically well beyond them and would have probably won, through some luck they did really hurt him); the second is that they realized that one of them is the nephew of the general, and so they think they may use him to find the general and get even. 
The demons trick the player, cast the Glabrezu's miracle and create a magical potion of resurrection (ad lib here, it would probably need a more elaborate "change shape in some random passing by cleric the dwarf happened to stumble upon" charade but it was late and I was exausted). Now, they don't need the guy's soul, because the Glabrezu's ability says nothing about it, but the guy is so persuaded that they're devils and he's offering it so... they sign the contract. It's not even a very good one because it's really not their thing, and this played out later when the reincarnation happened (last night's game).

- now, the biggest thing I had to improvise was how the miracle was perverted. There's very little in the text explaining it. My first idea was to make the resurrection ineffectual or have monstrous consequences for the resurrected. It's the thing that makes the most sense but 1. the guy who's getting his character back had no say in any of this, 2. he's just back to roleplaying after a 10 years pause and 3. he was already making a new character, getting ideas - having him play pointlessly for a few session felt like an inappropriate use of his time.
I get some wording from the player who's doing the deal about what he wants, and we get to a point where he says that the cleric dying was "unfair" and "unjust". The succubus asks if this is about "fixing this injustice, that the wrong person died" and I find a solution. The dwarf rapidly became an engine of terrible luck for all those in the colony who didn't die when they had to. Some people they saved before died and so on. 
I think this is the one aspect that could have hit harder, but the situation was complicated and the rules very vague, so it felt appropriate.

- point 7 and 8 are correct - only the succubus was banished. Notice that them meeting the demons again was somewhat staged, but not terribly so. I had a range of NPCs in the region and randomized their movements. One of them is a raider captain (we're talking vikings) who's actually bearer of ancient giant-god blood. Really powerful guy, and he ended up raiding the colony while the characters had left and moved north on their adventures. The demons were there, he recognized what they were, and tooke them in his service (by force, this time).
Banishing the demon allowed her to return to hell which I decided overtook the giant's binding ritual, so there's some ad lib here. 

- as for the afterlife... it's kind of a mess. The way it's handled is strongly based on AD&D 2nd edition's Great Wheel mechanics, with some 4E sprung in as there's a very powerful psychopomp deity like the Raven Queen (Pharasma, here) and then 37.658 exceptions to her rule to send people into whatever place they're referencing from some other product. Golarian is the ultimate kitchen sink setting. I have no idea if my handling of the situation is 100% setting-compliant and honestly I don't really care, at this point.

 

LorenzoC's picture

Sorry, I wrote devil instead of demon in a few places - this is a byproduct of me having to "play along" with the player's mistake for months.

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