This article was first broadcast in Episode One Hundred Twenty Three on 17th June 2020.
Ryu: Why are you making that face?
Lennon: Well…once again I was sort of expecting a certain someone to show up for the discussion.
Ryu: I asked her, but when she said she’d only bother if she was allowed to give an object lesson in how tricky contracts work using you and Ostron I figured it might be better to leave her out of it.
Ostron: Although it might have been interesting to see her expression if I asked for indestructible and non-removable kidneys.
Ryu: And what about your expression when she turns your kidneys into solid lumps of adamantine?
Lennon: Which brings us neatly into the topic in our notes.
In the D&D world, there are several methods for mere mortals to gain access to quazi-godlike supernatural assistance beyond hoping their resident cleric is very skilled at rolling a d100. Unlike the deities that demand a certain level of devotion and experience before their favors are granted, three other supernatural types are able to hand out favors as well, though getting them to do so isn’t necessarily easy. They are Devils, Fae, and Noble Genies, the latter of which have access to full-blown wish spells.
Obviously the major caveat there is none of the three groups mentioned tend to negotiate in good faith. “Fae Bargains” are usually regarded with suspicion by anyone who hears of one, Genies’ wishes are often used as object lessons in hubris, and “contracts with a devil” don’t really need interpretation to figure out why they’re problematic.
However, when they show up in the campaign, they can cause just as many headaches for you as the DM as they do for whatever hapless player or NPC is subjected to them.
The first problem that may crop up or that you have to watch out for is metagame knowledge creeping into players’ actions. Anyone who’s read real life Celtic lore about the Fae or read any more modern stories where the mythology is borrowed will be aware of the unfair nature of bargains with the fae. Similarly, players who are familiar with D&D lore or stories that feature vengeful genies may be aware of the “gotcha” approach to wishes that is commonplace with D&D noble genies.
However, player knowledge should not translate to character knowledge by default. Characters who meet a Fae being in the woods and are offered a gift or a favor should not, by default, run away screaming in the other direction, because as far as they know they just won the lottery, especially if they don’t recognize the creature as fae. At the very least there should be some sort of Arcana or Religion check imposed before they get wary of their fae benefactor, unless they come from a fae tradition or have studied it as part of their background. Or, I suppose, if they’re literally standing in the Faewild.
The same applies to genies, for the most part; the idea that a captured noble genie is forced to grant wishes is something that’s common lore in the forgotten realms, but the idea that the wishes can be detrimental isn’t known by default. The Genie isn’t going to tell them, because it needs to grant a wish to escape, and the person who originally trapped the genie may not be around to tell them either.
There’s less you need to obscure with devil contracts. As mentioned, if someone is making a bargain with a devil they probably know what they’re signing up for. That said, most devils are supposed to be intensely persuasive, so again, even though a player may know for certain that any contract with a devil will be a trap, a character might be persuaded that the devil is acting in good faith, or at least in not completely bad faith.
But let’s assume we’re past all that. Your players either don’t know or are correctly roleplaying that their characters are all in on making a bargain with one of these entities. That brings up the second potential problem.
All of the beings mentioned are supposed to be very good at crafting agreements that sound enticing and attractive while actually being detrimental to the character involved. That may or may not actually be true of you, but in most cases DMs want to craft some sort of agreement like that just for the level of roleplay and interest it can generate in a campaign. So if you aren’t actually a devil accustomed to making contracts tricking people into surrendering their souls, how do you go about making such an agreement?
The first thing to remember is that in all cases, the beings involved in the stories, whether they are D&D stories or mythology, always operate from the idea of “give them enough rope to hang themselves.” So just start out by plainly asking what the character(s) want. Depending on how they respond to that question, the response itself may give you enough to work with.
After you establish what they want, that’s when the devious parts of your mind need to get to work. Two things to focus on are what they said and what they left out. Most people are familiar with the difference between the letter of a rule and the spirit of the rule, especially if you’ve ever had a rules lawyer at your table. The deals made with Devils, Fae, and Genies all focus myopically on the letter of the agreement. So focus on what they said, and more importantly on what they didn’t say.
Take the example above where Ostron wanted indestructible kidneys. He never specified that they had to work, or they had to keep from damaging other parts of his body. So, kidneys made of nearly indestructible metal coming right up. Or let’s say someone wants to be immortal. Great! There’s a species of jellyfish that, as far as science can tell, is biologically immortal. Did the character specify they had to be the same race? Or even sentient? No? Guess what they turn into?
Another approach is to have the desire or wish granted just the way the character wants, but have the consequences be problematic. So say a character declares they want to be the most attractive person in the world. The creature makes that happen, no strings attached. You know what really beautiful people often end up with? Stalkers. Also jealous husbands or wives, sometimes even if they didn’t even have or cause an affair.
Similarly, let’s say a character wants to be the best fighter in the world. You could even go all in and grant them mechanical advantages like a 22 AC, automatic advantage on attacks, and auto-criticals on every hit. First of all, every army general in the world is going to be begging them to fight, non-stop. And they will probably be angry or suspicious if the character says no. Also, the people who didn’t get to hire them? They’re going to do everything they can to get rid of them before a battle even starts. 22 AC you say? Great, Disintegrate needs a Dex save, and they hired arcane assassins. Hope you can dance.
Now don’t fret if you don’t think you’d be able to come up with those kinds of loopholes on the fly; there are lots of ways to make them happen later. The easiest out is to have the character make the wish and then have the response be a cliffhanger to be revealed at the start of the next session, but that may not be possible.
However, don’t panic if that’s the case. Some of the more interesting and arguably better gotchas with things like this are the ones where the character doesn’t even realize their request or wish backfired until later. So make their desire happen and continue through the rest of the session. Then in the break you have, start figuring out how the deal can be subverted.
There are a few options for you if you have some time to research. First of all, as mentioned before, this trope is all over pop culture. Movies such as 13 going on 30, Bedazzled, the 2020 Fantasy Island movie, and Tom Hanks’ Big all feature the idea of wishes or deals gone wrong as the main premise of their stories. The Disney movies Freaky Friday and Blank Check as well as the movie Labyrinth all use this idea as the catalyst of everything else that happens in the film, all of which are great examples of what we mentioned where the desire is granted without strings, but the consequences are still bad for the character.
If you’re more of a literary type, classical stories such as the tale of King Midas, The Picture of Dorian Gray, and the short story The Monkey’s Paw all illustrate the idea, with the last one being so famous for it, it’s used to describe exactly the kind of deal making you’re going for.
If you have access to it, the other option is to get legal advice. No, seriously. Although the majority of lawyers are not in fact agents of Hell trying to screw everyone over, they do have training and experience in recognizing or crafting arguments based on the loopholes and missing assumptions that you’re trying to exploit here.
One side note that should be mentioned; while backfiring wishes and deals is more or less expected when dealing with the fae, devils, and genies, if a character is casting the wish spell for something other than the prescribed uses, it’s generally assumed that they will not be taken advantage of or have their wish intentionally misinterpreted. If you want to play it that way, it’s your game, but there are already failsafes and risks built into the spell, so players might not appreciate more limitations.
Of course, if you are dealing with one of the other sources, there are some subtle variations in how the interpretations of the wish might go-
Ostron: Which we’ll have to discuss later.
Ryu: Sorry, we’ve got to get over to the scrying pool
Lennon: Man, I wish-
Ostron and Ryu: STOP TALKING!
Ostron: We just spent the whole short rest talking about fae and devils. If some of them aren’t keeping tabs on us and what we say right now I’ll be very surprised.
Lennon: What do we do then?
Ryu: We go to the scrying pool and hope none of the listeners wrote in to talk about things they want to see change in their lives.
Lennon: Are we on the hook for that if they get a visit from an archdevil?
Ryu: Do I look like a supernatural legal expert to you? Look, if anyone comes by to complain, I’ll just have KayDee talk to them. Now come on, let’s go.