The Art of the Faustian Deal
Faustian deals are a prime part of roleplaying; they might not be aspects of supernatural horror, but they have a solid tradition in gaming. The stereotype is that evil will reach out to PCs, and offer them power… at a price. And who can say no to powerful abilities or weapons, especially when one is sure of their own safety?
In short: you must know what your players want, find out what they’re willing to trade for it, and close the deal, while everyone knows it’s a bad deal. There is nothing more satisfying than having players willingly walk into a Faustian trap, knowing there are strings attached, and yet they walk into it anyway.
Quite simply, I hate shopping in RPGs—too many sessions of what we termed “Calculus: The Roleplaying: The Game of the Shopaholic.” But there is something to be said about dealing, haggling, and the Faustian deal, especially as I’m reading up on the City of Brass for my Legacy of Fire crew. Most of them—the old guard—are pretty circumspect about potentially Faustian deals, having lived through some heavy abuse in the past.
Back in the day, when Dietrich was around and running his homebrew fantasy “college students in the past” game, we ended up in a city of nightmares. The main feature of this city was its bazaar, filled with anything imaginable; knowing full well we’d be screwed over by it, we haggled anyways. First were the tattoos of power, able to grant all sorts of wondrous powers; the one my roommate got allowed him to leech the powers of magical creatures, while Reuben acquired stat boosts which as far as I know were never codified. Next were the symbiotes; as my character was the “giant dork stereotype,” I went for what the GM had termed the “Venom suit” out of Spider-Man. I think we passed on buying items after the tattoos and symbiotes screwed us over, save for some “Phoenix Downs” which revived the dead… by sucking the life from nearby living things, creating a spot of dead fish in the Mediterranean. And somehow we’d bartered away enough information about the future for a fallen angel to nail “95 Feces” to a wall in mocking effigy. Generally not our brightest hour, especially when my roommate had seven infants sacrificed for his tat.
A note for players, since multiple people have fallen for this test: whenever the GM says something is stored in a crib or a cradle… stop and think for a minute. Ask yourself: Well, what the fuck do you store in a cradle? Because the answer is almost always babies, and the fact two people were shocked by this revelation is both sad and hilarious. (To quote my roommate: “Wait, what was in the cradles?” The player I pulled this on didn’t think to ask about them, being so wrapped up in his deal, until after they were pulled out for sacrifice.)
The prime example of a Faustian bargain screwing over a player was when all the important people bailed on Dietrich (so we could go play Star Wars d6, if I recall). This left him with his wife and a trio of chortling morons, who came up with the brilliant idea to make a hamburger joint in Legendary Olympus. But, alas, alack—trouble! They had no way to process ground beef! Insert a group of traveling satanic gypsies here, and suddenly they had bartered away something valuable for a Magical Meatgrinder which always produced meat when the crank was turned.
In hindsight, Dietrich was a bit obsessive about Judeo-Christian mythology, demons, dead babies and whatnot, and went a bit overboard on the gross-out factor. In describing the meat grinder to the important players (e.g., us), he had a ten-minute description of a charnel pit filled with squealing, mewling infants which funneled down through hammerspace, expelled through the Magical Meatgrinder that Slavering Yahoo #3 had acquired. In the end, we considered our misdeeds in the nightmare city light by comparison. (Well, except for my roommate, who so abused by the GM’s “backlash” that he was all but driven from the game, thus killing it.)
Needless to say, when Dietrich handed his game off to myself and Reuben, we threw in as many Faustian deals to screw over players as we possibly could.
The Price of Power
There are a lot of ways in which a GM can screw over a player in regards to shopping: the items are defective, don’t work as described, stop working after a certain amount of time has passed, stop working after a certain number of uses, stop working after a certain distance from the seller, return to the seller magically, etc., etc. To me, this is just a 1st Edition-style GM dick move, blatantly screwing the PCs over for no creative reason and without any way to escape. What’s the difference between an automatic death from rot grubs and spending gold on worthless items? In the end, they’re both janky maneuvering made to screw the players over. (Well, unlike with the rot grubs, the “buying defective items” doesn’t involve the PCs rolling their arms in poop, but besides that.) And in the end, blatantly screwing your players over isn’t scary, it’s just frustrating, and reflects badly on the GM.
My favorite option is for the items or powers to work as described—no matter how ludicrously powerful they are—but for the cost to be far greater than the PC expects. Usually I run the payment as something out-of-the box, like a character’s emotions or memories—their feeling of regret, their three worst memories. Consider the trade of information, selling secrets from the future or from other planes, other worlds, and the impact it would have. Or, it could be a number of unspecified deeds to be performed at a future date, even ones which don’t jeopardize the well-being of the deed-doer or his companions. What the PCs barter away might be more than they intended, or foresaw—losing an emotion or giving away someone else’s soul can come back to cripple characters at inopportune times, and are things you can’t defend against with a +5 Vorpal Longsword or the ability to fly.
(And yes. Those would be things which I managed to barter away from my unsuspecting players, to unfortunate results.)
Even worse are items/powers whose power level is so far beyond the scope of the PCs’ imaginations that the items/powers are more of a hindrance than help. When doing my own Faustian deals, Ian ended up with a magical sitar which emitted a hallucinogenic effect, giving drug-induced prophecies, and increasing emotions of the song played. Gloomy songs become suicidally depressing; happy songs become Bacchanalian orgies. Of course, the sitar improved his rolls, increasing the chance he’d over-succeed, which would increase the mind-affecting hallucinogen. For some reason, players always look for the item to under-succeed, to fail or vanish, and never expect overwhelmingly powerful items to screw them over.
In other cases, they could be fueled by—or spread—corruption; this might not hurt the PCs necessarily, even if they’re good aligned, but people (including other party members) usually don’t look kindly to sacrificing babies or planting homemade bombs on crowded subway terminals. And, of course, fueling the items or powers may become a problem as well: again, sacrificing animals, torturing people, or ritually scarring yourself aren’t usually things players like to do to their characters, no matter how powerful they’ll become.
In any case, there are plenty of ways to prevent bartered items and abilities from being too powerful; even a munchkin has limits, especially when they start losing their sanity, or become a sociopath the rest of the group must keep in check. If you’ve given something to a player that you think is too powerful for its cost, increase its added cost, or slowly amp up the cost the PC has already paid. Losing the feeling of regret slowly erodes any feeling of consequence; every action is a logical experiment, like a child squishing ants in different ways to see the results. Giving away memories can lead to the loss of abilities—”I can’t remember my piano lessons!”—or perhaps they weren’t lost but traded in, and new nightmares have replaced them inside the character’s head.
On second thought, the Faustian deal is very much supernatural horror.
Working the Crowd
In general, players are fairly obvious about what they’d like to end up with: a musician wants musical instruments, a historian wants knowledge, a wizard wants spells. Whatever type of weapon is currently being used, only better, and more powerful. But let’s face it, usually around half (or more) of the group is going to immediately kibosh any kind of dark deals, and pressure the rest into passing. The hardest part about a Faustian deal isn’t figuring out what to offer, it’s finding out who is willing to barter, and who is too concerned about the fate of their character. (From a GM perspective, it’s a bit odd when people care so much about the safety of sheets of paper lined with numbers… people need to take more risks and make bad deals. Frequently. Yeah.)
Items, especially ones out of a book, are most acceptable to people for some reason—maybe it’s the expectation that they’re safe or something. Powers, abilities, and tattoos are the hard sell, but they can be done. Foreshadowing helps; seeing someone naturally fly without wings can plant the seeds, so the players ask for it. These things require a contract, plainly stated so the PCs know they’re not being screwed, even though they know full well there’s some strings attached. Tats are semi-permanent; symbiotes dying can kill a PC; abilities can fail. Worst-case scenarios, but the first thing a player thinks of. Of course, for someone with a low power level—a normal person in a supernatural setting—any kind of benefit is worth considering.
Just face it, most people are going to decline them; focus on the interested parties, and keep the deal sweet, but always come up with a decent back-door to balance the benefits with a flaw.
As a last resort, offer something for free. Nine times out of ten, people won’t take free things from anybody of ill repute—or who they think is of ill repute—but it’s the quickest option to give the PCs any number of items. Jewelry can range from simple tracking devices to hideous bio-tech devices which don’t come off, and slowly embed themselves under the skin of their wearers.
In the end, there will probably be someone who is interested; more often than not, someone will go against their better judgement as a player in order to roleplay what their character would do. Now, having taken the plunge and actually roleplayed, it’s bad form to totally bend them over the table. Nobody likes the GM who sits back, laughing, going “Haha, you stupid players, I’m the best GM because I’m screwing you over.” But they knew it was a bad deal going in, that pesky metagaming and all, leading to our final point…
Probably the last and most important thing to understand about the Faustian deal is that it must be able to have closure of some kind. A Faustian deal works best as a challenge: the characters see power, and get power, but also powerful repercussions. It screws with players for a while, reminding them not to make poor choices in life, before it ceases to be a crippling hindrance. The players can always barter back their lost memories or regrets, though it will incur more costs; items can always be destroyed, or sold, or purified. In many cases, simply not using the power/item except when necessary is enough to clear the players, and is a staple trope of videogames and movies, like that crappy “Bhaalspawn form” ability in Baldur’s Gate 2 I never used. Working out psychological issues through gameplay can work, regaining sanity, combating depression, overcoming whatever obstacles have been installed. It’s a commitment, requiring time and roleplaying, but flawed heroes eventually become heroic heroes, and are heroes just the same in either case.
What bothers me most is when other players butt in with “Wait, you don’t even know those work! Don’t do that.” Of course they work, otherwise they wouldn’t fetch such a high cost. And yet… people trade for them anyway.