The Devil Is In The Details (And The DM)

One of my favorite things to do as a Dungeon Master is to offer my players and their characters everything they want. Nothing like the temptation of having their goals handed to them for a price that’s probably too good to be true to really stir up some drama and inter-player discussion at that table. After all, everyone has different lines they’re willing to cross when it comes to what acheiving their goals is worth. Some characters are willing to sell their souls, some are willing to part with their life, some are only willing to part with things they have. Some are willing to sacrifice their health and comfort while others are only willing to sacrifice the health and comfort of others. And nothing ever makes that more clear than when you give one, and only one, character in the party a classic devil’s bargain for something that might impact the entire party.

It’s a fine line to walk, presenting such a potentially monumental devil’s bargain to a Dungeons and Dragons party. After all, it can get incredibly unpleasant at the table if one player does something that takes away the agency of another player. It is best to only use such grand deals when you’ve got a table full of safe, collaborative players who know and respect each other’ boundaries. Smaller ones can be used at any time, since they tend to only impact individual characters, but if you’re offering one character the ability to get everyone out of a constant nightmare scenario that has no other clear means of escape then you had best make sure you’ve got safety rails in place so the entire table talks about the decision before one player makes it.

I had a great example of this at my table last week. One of the players started hearing whispers from the streets of the cursed domain the party is trying to unravel that rose from unpleasant background noise to an actual voice when the character failed a roll and wanted some knowledge that he didn’t have. In exchange for one discrete chunk of memory (as described and defined by the player), the whispering voices granted him knowledge of the magical circle he’d failed to decipher on his own. Since that only impacted his character, it required no consultation from the other players, though the player in question did make sure his character was voicing this stuff out loud so the other players and characters could express their skepticism and urge him to greater caution than he seemed to be displaying.

Now, however, the single voice that has risen out of the hundreds of whispers is offering to get him and anyone he likes out of the domain entirely in exchange for one minute per life saved of the character’s future life. He could choose to bring out everyone who has gotten trapped in the domain (a number I have written down) by their own choice or by being kidnapped like the ex-PC the players are trying to rescue and be finished with this entire arc in an instant. Since this decision would impact the game on an incredibly broad scale, not just at this moment but in the future as well, we’re talking about it as a table. Of course, the player has had time to consider it on his own, and he and I have discussed it in detail since it was proposed to his character and the entire thing is a non-starter if his character would never take a deal like that. Still, it’s a decision he’s said he isn’t comfortable making on behalf of the entire table so we’re shifting it to include the entire group. Which I find incredibly interesting because it means his character would probably take the bargain in a vaccuum. I love a character willing to make sacrifices and bargains for The Greater Good.

Of course, he could choose to ignore the deal and continue muddling through without any assistance from the Solitary Voice Above The Hundred Whispers, or he could make smaller individual deals that effect only him but that could be of benefit to the entire party (the voice has offered many types of bargains if the price of total escape is more than the character could bear to pay). I’ve made it clear to the player that he can ask for almost anything. This is a negotiation, after all. What good is a single, inflexible bargain? They’re so easy to reject, after all. But an open-ended negotiation? An on-going conversation that could include any number of deals since it’s an open offer that the character can return to any time he likes? The temptation of a solution to any problem that arises with no penalty for choosing to make no bargain immediately? That means it will always be something he’s considering in his decision-making process.

And that’s just the beginning. There’s plenty more this character could get if he asks for it and is willing to pay the price. After all, I’m not interested in tricking my players or my players’ character. I’d much rather give them a deal they can’t turn down even though they know that the price they’re paying is too good to be true. Especially the player I’ve given the offer to. He knows better than anyone else exactly how devious I can be when the need arises. He knows that just one minute of control over his character by this disembodied voice could be all it needs to bring some awful plan to fruition, and he’s considering way more than a single minute. I could easily wind up with three hours of his character’s life. Maybe more, maybe less. There’s also the possibility of additional stipulations, to be determined during any final negotiations. After all, it’s not fun if I get everything I want. I need a challenge for my NPCs to keep them interesting to me.

Regardless, I’m having a great time tempting my players and I haven’t seen the group chat this active in a long time. Love it when I can toss a wrench into the cogs of my own systems in a way that makes all my players talk about it until the next session.

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