Monday, May 23, 2011

Mythic Monday: I Sold My Soul for D&D

On using the devil of folklore in your D&D game.

The party of the first part, that's you
Agrees to render up her soul now and forever more
To the party of the second part, that's me
Shall we go?

Want a donut?
Flip through the various monster manuals and peruse the section on devils, and you don't see anything resembling "The Devil", as we've seen it portrayed in folklore and myth.  The "devil as tempter" has a strong foothold in the folklore of western culture - from the stories of the Bible and the early saints, through Faust, Washington Irving, and eventually "The Devil and Daniel Webster".  Robert Johnson went down to the cross roads, sold his soul, and became a famous blues musician;  Homer Simpson sold his soul to Devil Flanders for a donut.

I realize the TSR folks were averse to church controversy; in addition, the default cosmology for AD&D doesn't support the dualistic conflict between good versus evil from which the myths of the tempter devil arose.  In games with 9 alignments and 27 outer planes, there's a degree of moral relativism across the options -every ethical approach has it's own special set of divine beings, outer planes, and a tailor-made afterlife.  Why choose "good" when there's nothing to lose with being lawful neutral, for instance, and finding the lawful neutral divine being to worship and looking forward to the lawful neutral afterlife?

What I've done with Gothic Greyhawk is to simplify the beliefs of the world's inhabitants to include two choices (a belief in the good place and a belief in the bad place), and set up an eternal struggle between the creator deity and his dualistic Adversary.   Now you're getting close to the kind of environment where so much of our supernatural horror film and literature takes place.  D&D supports many kinds of fantasy genres, and the inspiration for Gothic Greyhawk are things like gargoyles, angels, church graveyards, vampires, witches and... the Devil.

Using the Tempter in the game
Mechanically, I wouldn't bother with statistics for the Tempter - I would consider The Devil a plot device and not a physical adversary with hit points and an armor class.  It's a universal spirit of evil that appears and offers wealth, riches or youth to the greedy, and tries to tempt "good" characters into abandoning their choices.

The enticement in game terms can be represented as an extra powerful Wish Spell.  The terms of the agreement should be up to the bargaining skills of the characters involved; Faust gains the service of his own personal devil for 24 years, whereas Daniel Webster gets like 7 years of wealth, and things end badly for old Tom Walker.  In the folklore and popular culture, there should be the proverbial contract signed in blood, and the deal-maker should have to carry some kind of skin discoloration (like a birthmark) going forward - the Devil's Mark.

I can see a lot of interesting stories by having "Old Scratch", as he's called in Washington Irving, or his second-in-command (Mephistopheles), casting favors in the game world.  A prominent NPC has a meteoric rise to fame, fortune and wealth; is he the proverbial rock star that sold his soul to the devil?  Perhaps a loved one or NPC made a terrible bargain with Old Scratch and the characters have the chance to play out their own version of a trial to save the soul of the loved one.  (Pop culture clich├ęs are still good for gaming).  Atonement and quests for redemption are strong stories as well.

Easley's Takhisis from Dragonlance
If you can't get over using a powerful entity as a plot device without having stats and fitting it nicely into the AD&D cosmology, I would use Tiamat.  In AD&D 1E, she's listed as a lesser god, and rules the 1st Plane of Hell.  In later editions, she morphs into an evil goddess of envy and greed, and would be ideal as a temptress and seductress (when appearing in a human guise) that provides wish fulfillment in return for a pact.  I always liked Tiamat as Takhisis in Dragonlance.

1 comment:

  1. I just watched 1980 Flash Gordon again with my kids, and I was struck by how Ming the merciless was Mephistopheles. There's even a moment when he offers Flash a kingdom, at the price of his principles (such as we see them). Really the only nod to yellow peril in that (or any?) version is his moustache.

    Seeing him that way suddenly makes sense of him. In the old b/w shorts he's always on the run, making mischief, seldom the mighty emperor: he's like the devil in a medieval woodcut, crawling up from below, reminding us of his serpent nature.

    Re your other recent posts, I've been having trouble with Cthulhu and Dragons for the flavour-clash reasons you cite. Is Cthulhu then just another dragon? Or are dragons restored to real horror status? Could the devil be a way into merging the two? He has a tempting face, but underneath is as alien as could be. Maybe both his tempting and his malevolence are just things people say about him, because they don't/won't see its true nature.