This article was first broadcast in Episode One Hundred Twenty Four on 24th June 2020.
Killer DM: They want to be happier in life, so they’re given an object that permanently curses them with Tasha’s Hideous Laughter.
Killer DM: Ugh. You know when I play games with ROSTRO I get a lot more enjoyment out of it.
Ostron: Hey! I know that tone; You promised.
Killer DM: Yes, yes, fine, let’s move on to the next one.
Lennon: Um…so I have multiple questions.
Killer DM: Lennon! Great, come join in the fun.
Lennon: I’m pretty sure your definition of “fun” doesn’t conform to most rational beings’ interpretations. Also it worries me that Ostron is wearing plate mail to participate in this “fun.”
Killer DM: Well speaking of definitions I saw this old movie, Ghostbusters, and I had the wrong idea of what they meant by “buster” but anyway there’s this scene in the beginning that looked like great fun, so I’m using it to help Ostron learn about tricky contracts and wishes. And I promised not to kill him. Today.
Lennon: The plate armor?
Ostron (sighing): Advantage on shocking grasp.
Lennon: Right, that’s…disturbing. Didn’t we already talk about the loopholes and “monkey’s paw” wishes though?
Killer DM: You barely scratched the surface. Here, you can borrow the notes I’ve been quizzing Ostron on.
Now as the spoilsport mentioned, we’ve already discussed how contracts or wishes made with fae, devils, or genies in D&D are very likely to backfire on the wisher. If someone wishes for a teddy bear to sleep with and they aren’t specific enough, a grizzly named Theodore is going to show up in their bedroom and the cuddle session will probably not be very comforting.
However, in every poorly defined desire there are a bunch of different ways things could go wrong. Rather than an actual bear showing up, the wisher could end up with a teddy bear, but one where something dangerous or stolen is hidden inside. Or the bear itself could be an heirloom or have some sort of extra value the wisher is unaware of, setting off a host of other problems.
How an expressed desire will go wrong mostly depends on who the character is dealing with. While the three big groups will usually try to circumvent the spirit of contracts and wishes, they all have different motivations for doing so, which means the end result of the misinterpretations will be very different.
We’ll start with the fae. In D&D lore, most of the basic fae are like sadistic bullies with ADD; the reason they mess up people’s wishes is they think it’s funny to trick them and because they want to be entertained. Based on that, their “gotcha” results are more likely to be the kind where it’s immediately obvious that something is wrong, and it will usually affect the person directly. Other than certain types of genies, fae are probably the most likely to try quickly killing a person with a misinterpreted favor or wish, if they think the death will be amusing. So in the KDM’s example, a fey creature would probably go for the interpretation where a giant live bear shows up and chases the wisher around trying to maul and/or kill them. Remember; sadistic pleasure is the key here, so death is an option, but not the automatic go-to. Immediate but permanent afflictions or sudden and drastic changes in fortune are the most likely results of fae wishes.
Now that’s for the majority of fae. But when you start dealing with the big boys and girls and goats who play around with fae court politics their motivations change. They want power and influence, so they’re going to be interested in servants and control. Things like losing children or years of your life start creeping into consequences here. For example, that summoned bear from earlier? A high-level fae might offer to save the character from the bear by taking them to a safe place. When the character agrees, they’re whisked away to the fae’s castle or stronghold or whatever pretentious drivel they call their fairy hut and they get locked in the dungeon and find out that the cupid creature’s bows don’t actually make people fall in love but they are really good at hitting the heart. Then the fae promises to let them out if they agree to come back for say…three months out of every year.
That’s another thing the high-ranking fae love to do by the way, is the cascading wishes and bargains where people progressively dig themselves deeper and deeper into a hole they’re never getting out of. Fae are like casinos; the longer you’re there, the more you lose, whether you think you’re losing or not.
Moving on, “Genies” have been lumped into one category up to now but recall there are four kinds: Marid, Djinni, Efreeti, and Dao. How they’re likely to react to the wishes depends on which one just came up out of the lamp or bottle or wherever. However, it’s very likely any genie that was imprisoned is unhappy, so while there is a remote possibility you’ll get the genie from Disney, it’s more likely you’re dealing with an angry elemental being.
The Djinni are most likely to react similarly to fae; they mostly like mortals and unless they’re dealing with the mortal that actually imprisoned them, they might only tease or torment the wish maker rather than try to eliminate them. Djinni are also described as sensuous and decadent so if you’re being authentic, whatever mishaps result from the wish will probably be somewhat off-color or relate to appearance.
At the other end of the spectrum, Efreeti are hotheaded, vengeful, and despise mortals. Any wish granted by an Efreeti is probably going to inflict pain, misery, and death as quickly and violently as possible. They’re the type where a wish for immortality will result in the wisher being killed so publicly and so horrifically that everyone tells the story forever, then argue that technically counts as immortality.
Dao are all about slavery and greed, so their interpretations are going to focus on either getting the wisher to somehow end up in service to the Dao or making the Dao a lot of money. Dao are also extremely greedy, so if the wisher knows this and actually bargains with the Dao, it’s possible they can buy their way out of extreme vengeance. Returning to the teddy bear example, the Dao will probably give the wisher at Teddy bear with a stash of diamonds hidden inside that came from a red dragon’s horde. In that scenario, the wisher may actually be able to get the Dao itself to help them out if it promises some (probably most) of the diamonds to the Dao afterward.
The last kind of genie, the Marid, are egotistical to a fault and love lording their superiority over everyone else.
Lennon (quietly mumbling): Physician, heal-
Killer DM: You just ruined my fun earlier, do you really think it’s in your best interests to finish that sentence?
Marids. When they screw people over on wishes, they’re more likely to play a bit of a long game, granting the wish in a way where the wisher will slowly realize how badly they’ve been played as time goes on. This is when clever DMs will make the wish come immediately true, then bite the wisher in the backside with horrendous consequences. The teddy bear? It was stolen from an orphan. The orphan is working in a sweatshop. And when you return the teddy bear, the orphan gives you a hug. Also the orphan had a plague of some kind, so guess who has it now? It’s a little too much delayed gratification for my tastes but I can appreciate the artistry.
Now moving on to the devils, who I am not related to no matter how much Lennon insists on spreading that nasty rumor. These guys and gals and things need some attention because their motivations are really easy to get wrong, so here’s a quick refresher on the red boys’ sales team.
Devils make deals to fill a quota, but they aren’t going to waste time on just anyone; they have piddly little souls of lecherous drunks and freeloading layabouts washing up out of their river all the time. Devils want the juicy targets; powerful spellcasters, notoriously vicious warriors, and scary necromancers, although those last ones are sometimes more red tape than it’s worth because Orcus and the Raven Queen show up with injunctions and cease and desist orders and so on. Hell is first and foremost a bureaucracy, remember.
The point is that devils need the souls in their contracts to have real worth once they get to the Hells, and in most cases that means power and notoriety so they’re also willing to play the long game, arguably more than anyone else we’ve talked about. Very few Infernal bargains will result in the immediate death of whoever’s making the deal, and most of them won’t mention swearing their soul over to the devil right off the bat either. About the only time that might happen is if the person doing it is a very powerful or well-known servant of a celestial god, where capturing their soul will provide an immediate and obvious coup for the Devil. Otherwise, the Devil needs the person they’re dealing with to rack up some evil points or some power before it’s worth claiming them. That doesn’t mean they’re totally uninterested in the lesser souls, it’s just more likely they’re going to have whoever’s making the deal go get those in order to taint their own soul even further.
An easy parallel to make is that Devils making bargains essentially work like drug dealers; the first agreements made with a mortal are only going to tangentially benefit the devil and probably won’t cost the person asking much at all, but they’ll be immediately beneficial. If they ask for the power to deal with a local hoard of bandits, the devil is probably going to just hand them a set of magic weapons and armor that aren’t even cursed and let them have at it. Remember; long game – after that the person who made the deal now thinks of the devil as someone that can help out, and the devil probably got to claim all the souls of the bandits that died because it’s unlikely they were serving Pelor. Then beings the long and destructive spiral where the mortal asks for bigger and bigger favors that start costing more and more in terms of health, morality, or devotion.
On that note, it’s important to remember Devils don’t actually have access to grant wishes in terms of the wish spell; they have to work with their own resources, which may include other agents they have in the mortal realm or things they can get in the nine hells. That means a lot of the negative consequences for the requester are going to take the form of their life falling apart around them. They ask for food during a famine and the Devil tells a bandit leader it’s also working on to ransack another village and drop the food off. Someone wants a promotion at work so their boss ends up getting kidnapped and sacrificed by a cultist. Or the classic “Well of course it’s a magic weapon bound to the Nine Hells, where did you think I was going to get one? Limbo? I’m sure no one will notice.”
That also means as the requests get bigger, the devil needs more from the person, and that’s when the hooks dig in. The devil will need the person to expand the devil’s influence so it can do bigger and better favors. Twenty years later the mortal is standing in the middle of a ritual chamber with ten dead virgins and a crying baby in a sack, waiting for his patron to manifest from the Hells and wondering how things possibly got this bad…
Hopefully with all of that information, when someone is about to make a wish that will ruin their life and prospects you’ll be able to more authentically determine how to mess up their day or their legacy.
Lennon: Your commitment to authenticity is just awe-inspiring.
Killer DM: I know, I do try. Now come on I’ve got an extra chair here and a lot of backfiring wishes to quiz on. I won’t even make you wear the metal armor.
Lennon: While that just sounds like a sublime way to spend an evening, I’m afraid I need Ostron with me to take care of some business in the scrying pool.
Killer DM: Oh fine, I suppose that means you need Ryu back as well? (sighs) Just let me go change.
Ostron: Um, speaking of changing?
Lennon: What, all she has to do is take off the hat, it’s not like she’ll be that long.
Ostron: Yeah, but I’m wearing a suit of plate mail now, which I never do, and I have no idea how to get out of it.
Lennon (in disbelief): Well I hope none of the listeners have urgent concerns then. All right, bend over.
Lennon: Who’s the martial class here? Now you might feel a little pressure…