Bargaining With Fiends
We constantly make deals every day with the people around us. We search for the best prices with vendors through online comparison networks, negotiate social deals both directly and indirectly with people, and we even create agreements within ourselves. But in role-playing games, making a deal with powerful entities such as devils or demons (Fiends) is quite a slippery beast to tackle as a Game Master and needs to be handled in a slightly different way to thematically illustrate dark negotiations.
As background, I am currently running a level 10 evil campaign for my players. The biggest thing that they have learned is that being evil still requires support from NPCs and the world economy still has worth, but not like how it used to. They recently descended into hell and found a vibrant network of Fiends who wanted to make fiendish bargains with the players to advance their interests above ground. First, we'll need to understand what money and trade means to an entity that has no interest in shiny metal pieces. I’ll start with a discussion on normal commerce in order to get a baseline and then work towards the major differences PCs could across in a hellish outpost.
Trading With Humans
The basic psychology of human economics boils down to trust. Goods and services are being sold to another party for money. The purchasing party trusts that the seller will in good faith come through on the goods and services being bought. Both parties trust the money in exchange has value and can be used in other situations afterward. There are a lot of aspects that go into trust. Is there a history of good work? What is the craftsmanship quality like? Are there social reviews that support advertising claims? All of these points directly define how a peddler of goods and services is judged. But what about ugly, nasty Fiends?
Your Money Is No Good Here
The first problem is that ll is that everyone in hell hates you and is looking to take advantage of you and/or cause the maximum amount of suffering. Trust in any amount is an afterthought which basically nukes the entire discussion above. All that is left is reward gain balanced by risk management. The second problem, and this is not trivial, is that gold pieces are no good in hell. With ample stone in the depths of the Underdark, immortality, and an endless supply of forced workers, Fiends can theoretically mine as much precious metals as they want. This is in direct contrast to the surface world where precious metals are hard to dig up from the soil. Instead, Fiends require souls to fuel their chaotic lifestyle.
Why Trade In Souls?
Just as humanoids above ground have ample souls, Fiends below have difficulty in mining souls as there are not many humanoid races that survive underground. Fiends must make deals with surface world dwellers (or material plane) for their souls. Souls feed their appetite, display their reputation and worth to higher ranking Fiends, and allow them to increase their strength through new powers. They also seed the creation of new Fiendish soldiers in the epic Blood War between the two Fiend factions (Devils and Demons). All this boils down to one thing. In hell, Souls are king.
The Soul Exchange
By establishing that the only trade in hell are souls, we have only uncovered part of the story. There is no reason you couldn’t trade important information for an item or an action without the need for souls, but it should be understood that souls are at the heart of every deal.
The main question at this point should be, how does an adventurer get into the soul exchange in the first place? It’s complicated. And is gold truly no good? Yes and no. For the most part, yes, gold isn’t terribly helpful, however, there is a Fiend type we haven’t mentioned yet: Yugoloths. Yugoloths are the mercenary neutral Fiend. They still hate humans just as much as the rest, however, they are far more opportunistic in their approach to dealing with surface dwellers, or anyone for that matter. They understand that as neutral vendors, mercenaries for hire, and general opportunists, humanoids need a way to cash in and out of souls like at a casino and they are more than happy to take their cut. In a lot of ways, going to Yugoloths is better because you can avoid the faction politics of hell by only dealing with them. Of course, that is at least only where commerce is concerned and you have to have access to a Yugoloth in the first place. Even in this best case scenario, you still need a receptacle to contain a soul. If souls are king, now we need a way to transport them.
Soul Essence. Souls are created, used over a lifetime, expire, and reused in some cosmic way as dictated by the gods that have designed the process. An undisturbed soul has a place to go to take its spot in something like the natural order of life and death. It's the circle of life, so to speak, literally. However it works for your campaign setting, it doesn’t really matter, because Fiends break this process by siphoning off portions of it from the galaxy. But what is a soul?
No, I’m not about to get into a spiritual discussion, it’s the physical properties we need to define. The easiest way to define a soul is an ethereal spirit that is released from a creature when it dies. It is ejected immediately into the spirit world (ethereal plane) and stays there for a minute before it gathers it’s galactic compass and begins its journey to the great beyond. Typically that spirit will follow the path of the natural order by means of the ethereal plane. But when someone plucks that soul from its path, what does that look like? Insert soul bags and consuming souls.
Soul Bags. The best way to think of soul bags is like from the movie Ghost Busters. A soul bag is a small magical bag that compresses up to 100 souls into a small space (Why 100? You could do less, but 100 is what it takes to create a potion of Lichdom so that seems like a nice round number). The pouch doesn’t need to be large because the soul is ethereal and takes up no space. It essentially has a small gravitational pull on the ethereal plane sucking nearby souls into it, trapping them into little marble sized gaseous bubbles that can’t be destroyed because they are divine source energy. When you want to exchange souls, you ‘simply’ open the soul bag toward someone else’s soul bag and the gravitational pull exchanges the souls almost like atoms exchanging electrons. It's basically a bag of holding except for only souls.
Only powerful casters such as Fiends, Liches, or underworld necromancers would have any need to create souls bags. They need them to transport them from the material plane back to hell. A Fiend or Lich, if persuaded in some mutually beneficial way, would create a soul bag with the sole understanding (get it?) that you will be returning it full of souls for them to use later. This is sort of like an elaborate lease program, except if you don’t get them their allotted souls by the end, they either hunt you down or hire creatures to hunt you down for them. Notice this version looks exactly like a Hag deal which is not an accident (below). You could even ‘curse’ the bag so that the creator knows where the bag is if they were to hire someone to retrieve it. Like I said, the soul exchange is a rough place to be part of, but at least there is some way to get in on the action.
Consuming Souls. The final idea is about creatures which consume souls. There are very few creatures that can consume souls, but both Fiends and Liches can and must. Liches essentially burn the souls to sustain their existence like we do with calories. The soul is consumed and that’s that, they are recharged and then a week later must reach into their soul cookie jar and consume another soul (yum, an acolyte soul with such potential, my favorite!). Fiends however can feed on the soul and it will absorb inside them into something like a super soul or some amalgamation of souls within its body. The more souls they consume, the more powerful they become shedding its previous weaker shell. This is how Fiends can be transformed into something greater than they started. No Fiend wants to stay a Quasit or Lemur, they want power! This works for both status display and rank promotion. When they need to create new soldiers to fuel the Blood War, they perform a ritual to siphon off a small portion of their soul and seed it into an egg-like host just waiting to rise to meet their new master (Daddy!?).
Live Souls. The only final bit of lore that still needs to be pulled into this is the use of live souls, a.k.a. living creatures. You’ll need to decide if all creatures have souls, or just some? Is it just humanoids? Fey? Giants? Dragons? Beasts? What about Aberrations and Monstrosities like centaurs? It can get fairly complicated, but make some hard fast rules ahead of time. My standard ruling is that it must be intelligent and have human-like features which allows for a wide range of creature types. I love the idea that celestials are made of divine source power and giants are ancient offsprings before humanoids were created. Just make a decision and go with it!
And finally, we get to the dark portion of this article. Yes, it gets worse. We need to discuss Dark Elves and Duergar type creatures of the Underworld that creep up into the surface world at night and capture unsuspecting NPCs. Underdark creatures have no real need for precious metals and are known to make deals with Fiends for power (*cough* Lolth). This means they are actively involved in the soul trade. They collect live humanoids from the surface world and put them to work in their cities. Because none of their lore mentions soul bags, they will need to transport the live creatures to a Fiend nearest them. Before that creature expires, they are marched through the darkness to their local hellish trading outpost and are exchanged for some devilishly good bargains. This naturally would come with it’s own set of risks, but fortune favors the bold, and creatures of the Underdark are known to be hardy folk!
The Basics of Bargains
Once your players meet a Fiendish entity of great power, you’ll have to role-play their interactions during trade. There are several types of bargains to consider when making trades in your game to thematically fuel a bustling economy. Fiends will use some more than others, but in the end, they will choose the one which best fits their goals best based on your narrative.
Trust Based Trade. This is your standard humanoid type of trade. Trust comes from reputation, gold pieces, gems, and other valuables. Fiends might use this if they really need something to be done with questionable negotiations that either party can wiggle out of. If put to a written document or blood contract, both parties will gain something useful out of this. This is clearly a win-win, the problem with this is that most Fiends are not looking for a win-win. They are looking for an I-win-more type of scenario. The other drawback to trust based trade is that it could easily lack story. It’s sort of like buying something generic versus finding a unique t-shirt you got on that special vacation in a far away place. Trust based transactions are meant to be easy, but they often lack interest. You don’t want a story just to buy a torch, nor does a torch purchase need to have a story.
Soul Sales. Soul sales are the most common type of transactions that players could engage in with their hellish vendors. Souls are always useful and the terms are simple which basically makes them the utility knife currency for anything that a Fiend could want. A player wants a boon, item, or service, and in exchange they will pay X souls. Simple. Clean. And there are no hidden strings… except that there are. In order to collect souls, players will have to negotiate for a soul collecting receptacle (such as a Soul Bag like a Hag has as discussed above) and be required to pay the Fiend in souls. Not only that, but the player has then signed up to collect souls, which in the realm of fantasy runs the risk of becoming a murder hobo on the surface world causing its own set of problems. More on that later, though.
Hag Bargains. Hags are notorious for giving you exactly what you want immediately. They show shiny bits first! The rusty hook comes at the end when you have to pay for what you got later. It is basically the same idea of a credit card contract except Hags know that you will likely not be able to fulfill your payment and there is no rewards program to cash in on. The beauty of a Hag-like bargain is that all the information is on the table immediately. Then the players are tied to a timeline to accomplish whatever task was necessary which is a great role-playing feature to push story narratives over time.
Barter. The complicated portion of Fiends is that they LOVE bartering with loose contracts. Bartering allows for lots of loopholes to double cross the other. Players typically have a specific goal which makes them focused while an NPC can manipulate behind the scenes and in between adventuring sessions. There are downsides to this method as it actively engages the PCs in analysis paralysis and fear. If you are playing an evil campaign, they will walk into a tavern and check every door for traps as they walk by. They trust no one and they likely will have been crossed already. You’ll need to be ready to counter offers with multiple versions when crafting these deals.
Crafting A Fiendishly Bad Deal
The first part of crafting a deal is that you need to figure out the needs of both players and NPCs. The exploration process should go something like this;
- Importance. Identify if a deal is critical to the story development or not. Be prepared for the players to walk away if it isn’t critical and accept that as an okay scenario if it isn’t critical.
- Ask Value. What does the player want? Identify the overall value of the ask. If the value is low, it should be easy to accomplish or a simpler method like a soul exchange might be best to get a deal done. The more complex the ask, the more difficult the task associated might be such as a more defined bartering process.
- Fiend Needs. What might the Fiend want? They always need souls, but exchanging a few souls might be too simplistic for the value. Could they be brought to the material plane to collect souls themselves? A bigger ask requires a bigger risk for the players.
- Backstory. How does the party's backstory fit in (if at all)? This is here to make sure that you remember to add in the players as a primary focus for the story. The more that a deal is relevant to a party's history, the more engaging it becomes to the narrative.
- World Info. Then factor in what information or side quests you might want to insert into your campaign. If you need to push lore, faction interest, or some new aspect of your world not yet uncovered, this is where you could present it.
And after all that, you can start to design your deal. Yes, it is a bit more complicated than normal, but at least considering some of this will help your deals to become more successful instead of flops.
Here is how a deal might be written behind the game master’s screen. Just jot a few notes down and write down a baseline price. Let’s say a player wants an epic boon/item to deal with some problem they’ve encountered from their backstory. The value of the ask is pretty large. A well crafted deal might start with some broad negotiation techniques before honing in on specifics. You quickly identify that the Fiend wants to collect souls on the material plane to increase their rank/stature. Now we can start thinking of the negotiation like a triangle where the base is at the top and then you widdle it down to a point.
- Negotiation Part 1. The Fiend wants you to bring them to the material plane and be released at a specific location. They will use your body as a vessel to get to a specific place. In this case the player might be nervous about being possessed, and rightfully so. It drives the story to a particular location where the Fiend might not only collect souls, but deal with someone that crossed them in the past.
- Negotiation Part 2. So of course the players don’t want to be possessed. The Fiend will instead only use you as a vessel for X days or until you get back to the surface. This still drives a story, but the players may still be nervous about being possessed at all, but at least there is a time limit associated so it’s not, well, forever.
- Negotiation Part 3. The Fiend gives the PC a scroll to summon them once at a location. This alleviates the problem of being possessed, but the player still doesn’t want to get attacked by the summoned creature. They want more assurances of their safety.
- Negotiation Part 4. The players are instead tasked with holding on to an object, such as an orb or egg, and then they place it in the material plane. The Fiend’s purpose would still be to cause chaos and collect souls and offer the PCs greater security than the previous ideas. Even this may cause alarm for a PC that doesn’t want to hold an item. What if that item is cursed. By the 9 hells, of course it was!
- Negotiation Part 5. If none of those negotiations work, then resort back to transactional deals such as souls. The players still need to collect souls in order to make the deal happen, making it a dirty business that doesn’t come without its own set of problems.
- Negotiation Part 6. If the PCs are morally against collecting souls, then they likely would never have gotten to the point of this discussion in the first place and they probably don’t need the item, boon, information, or service that badly. Don’t feel bad that they didn’t accept the deal. You still made your world interactive for some great roleplaying.
Obviously, this is only one form of negotiating to transport a Fiend to the material plane. There are many other varieties of ideas you could use. The important thing to note is that the bargain process went from broad to specific. It had more risk down to less and still created important thematic tension. If the deal was necessary, it dwindled down to the cost of a simple transactional fee of souls instead of a story driven narrative but still had drawbacks associated. In the end, it is the players that must make the final choice and sometimes they’ll have to choose the lesser of two evils. Now that’s great storytelling!
Avoiding Murder Hobo
If players get into the soul trade, they are actively throwing a wrench into the standard RPGs hero's journey (or alignment system if you use that). They are actively participating in evil actions and they should be aware of that. Sure, I’ve been in the public relations world for decades and they could posit that they only kill bad guys, but it all still goes against the ‘thou shall not kill’ idea. But this isn’t the real world, and in RPGs bad guys die all the time. The point here is that making deals with evil entities is risky business.
The real problem is that being a game master for murder hobos is not really a fun aspect of roleplaying and there are obvious sensitivities to even discussing such activities. I am not here to judge, but I suggest that you simply fade to black and roll for some souls during the event to collect. Focus on the story, not the activity. If players go on a rampage killing merchants on the road, ransacking tiny hamlets, or some other variation of mass killings, you better believe there will be repercussions. Evil campaigns are notorious for having the good guys in the realm, the real heroes, which will hunt them down. If the heroes can’t do it, mercenaries, military units, regional armies, and even celestial warriors will be mobilized to stop the threat of the evil PCs. The more murder hobo they go, the more coordinated resistance they will face until they no longer are allowed in those lands and contracts for the heads sent well beyond.
Roleplaying A Demon
One of the more difficult parts of the process is roleplaying the Fiend itself. Give it whatever deep, dark, and ominously grotesque voice you can conjure, but the important thing to remember is what the Fiend is after. The process of negotiating with a Fiend can be frustrating. Expect in-game social conflict. There is a problem. The solution the Fiend offers creates added and often unnecessary stress and risks. There is no doubt that players will be irritated to some extent. Remember that the Fiend is nearly immortal. They have plenty of spies, irons in the fire, and most importantly of all they have time. They don’t NEED to make the deal right now, the players do! Mortals and their decaying bodies and all.
Rules Matter, Until They Don’t
Okay so let’s get this out of the way, rules are made to be broken. Of course, breaking too many rules imbalances the game. Once a rule is broken, when does it stop? When faced with a creature powerful enough to bestow boons, craft epic magic items, and the like, you need to be willing to challenge standard rules. For instance, what if the PCs need to find someone? They could have a Fiend cast Locate Creature. What about finding a lost item? They could cast Locate Object. What about Scrying on a creature from a different plane of existence? Many of these spells have distances associated with them and for good reason, which is why they are lower level spells. If they were able to be upcast, they might even be too powerful in a hurry. Divination spells are tricky business, but you already know that when your players are going to hell, they aren't there to see the sights. They need something important. It’s time to break some rules, but breaking the rules should also increase the cost of their ask.
When you are at this level of bargaining, you better believe that the entity is drawing upon very ancient and powerful magic. It might even be something that can only be done once. Feel free to manipulate the casting time making it into a ritual. What if the ritual takes a week to locate someone across a different plane of existence instead of zing zang zoom and its done. Maybe throw in a few unique spell components to upcast it? If time isn’t enough, does it require a special item? More souls? A secret no one knows? Remember this could be a “Yes, but…” situation where the yes creates an obstacle that is not innatianable, it's just steep.
Soul Exchange Rates
Now that we understand who wants souls, their physical properties, and how they work, we need to figure out how much they are worth exactly. This is completely a subjective number and you will have to tweak it in your campaign, but I found the best rate to be the equivalent 1,000 GP per 1 soul. Why 1k for a commoner soul? Because the more they are worth, the rarer they feel to obtain, and more importantly the less murder hobo your players have to go to collect souls. This may be an added wrinkle, but to facilitate and gamify the soul trade, better quality souls are worth more. If that seems like tedious note keeping, just keep it to 1k. The thought is that there are always tiers of leadership within society. The Royals are above the nobles and they are above the commoners. A high level caster is much more savory than a low level acolyte. The idea is that souls are divine raw power, those that are closer to divinity in some way, or harness the source power of the world, are worth more inthe soul trade. This will also facilitate role playing initiatives to go for the boss character over meddling with common guards.
Basic NPC Soul (Soldier/Guard) up to CR 8, 1k
NPC Souls from CR 9-12, 3k
Elite NPC Souls from CR 13-18, 5k
Epic NPC Souls from CR 19+, 10k
Legendary NPC Souls (ie princess, king, etc), 25k
Magic Item Prices
The final concern is now that your players see some easy cash grabs by fading to black and rampaging a village, they want to go shopping. Because you are dealing in souls, they can only shop in hell severely limiting access to both items and payment methods. You now have to quickly design a small black market that won’t be too taxing but feel vibrant. The best thing to do is to have a short list of magic items available. You don’t have that many items, just have a few or use an online rollable table to automagically generate them. If the PCs return some time later, refresh the list. This will allow time to pass, the world to turn, and your players to get out and adventure. It should be noted that the prices below follow the standard pricing of other magic items.
Common Items, No souls, 50-100 GP (1d6+4 X 10GP)
Uncommon Items, 2-8 Souls (2d4 X 1000 GP (2k-8k GP))
Rare Items, 8-18 Souls (6k + 2d6 X 1000 GP (8-18k GP))
Very Rare Items, 20–49 Souls (17k + 4d8 X 1000 GP(20-49k GP))
Legendary, 50-100 Souls. Must be RP'd associated with quests.
Consumables are half price, rounded up in souls.
And that’s it! You have successfully created the soul trade and black market of hell. It feels vibrant and dynamic. There are nasty deals to make with evil creatures and uses for collecting souls.