The Price of Power

Faust, etching by Rembrandt (c. 1650)

Faust, etching by Rembrandt (c. 1650)

One common theme in literature is “What is the price of power and is it worth paying?” The classic example of this is the Faustian bargain, named after the character Faust who sold his soul to the devil in exchange for magic power and forbidden knowledge. The story (usually) ends tragically, with him going to Hell as he realizes that the price of his power was far too much to pay.

Of course, the definitions of “price” and “power” provide endless variations to explore. For instance, it could turn into “How much are you willing to sacrifice to save the world?” where sacrifice is the price and having the ability to save the world is the power.

This is a fantastic theme to explore for role-playing games: just like how we can explore the consequences in literature, we can explore the consequences through the fictional characters we are playing out. I suppose at a very basic level, nearly all role-playing games revolve around this theme. Each character must decide if the risk of dying (or facing some other terrible consequence) is a price they are willing to pay in order to have the power to get what they want (whether it is gold, glory, experience, safety, etc.).

Granted, some role-playing games push this much harder than others. In Dungeons & Dragons 4e, character death is rather rare and thus the price of the power to successfully loot the dungeon or save the world is relatively low. Instead, this theme usually plays out where characters are trying to stop evildoers who are willing to pay too big of a price (not always at their own expense) in order to have the power they desire. Thus it’s not about personal choice but about stopping those who have gone too far.

Call of Cthulhu does the reverse. Characters typically enter into situations for personal reasons and it’s usually expected that they will eventually go insane as a consequence of learning “things that man was not meant to know.” Thus the price of power is almost always too much. Fortunately, this usually isn’t the main theme in Call of Cthulhu and games are often quite enjoyable if players expect that they aren’t going to win in the end and enjoy the tragic story.

One of the many things that I like about Deadlands is that it provides ample opportunities to explore this theme without necessarily forcing it upon the player. A character can play it safe the whole time, being a gunslinger who just likes to shoot up the baddies to save the people. Alternatively, the character can have an Arcane Background, which usually involves some sort of tradeoff. “Hucksters” for instance, gamble bits of their soul with manitou (lesser demons) in order to pull off magical powers. Perhaps they are doing it as a Faustian bargain, hoping that the really big consequences won’t come to pass. Or perhaps they feel that the most effective way to save the world from the manitou and the abominations they create is to use their own power against them. Thus the question becomes an interesting twist: “Is the risk that comes with using the power of the manitou worth the possibility of ultimately defeating the manitou?”

Deadlands supports this exploration mechanically as well. One of the new edges for the setting is called “Veteran o’ the Weird West.” Characters who take it gain 20 XP (which is huge; enough for four Advances!) but in exchange, you have to draw on a table of consequences you’ll be stuck with. The edge description says “the results can be quite extreme, from maiming to insanity.” Thus the question is: “Is having a more powerful character worth the consequences that come with it?”

The Road to Hell Cover

"...is paved with good intentions."

For the last bit of the summer, I decided to start up a Deadlands mini-campaign using the pre-published “Devil’s Tower” trilogy (originally written for Deadlands Classic, converted for Deadlands Reloaded). As it turns out, four out of five players decided to take a risk with Veteran o’ the Weird West. I told them ahead of time that I’d modified the table a little bit for my own purposes to make it slightly more ugly. They’ve already discovered some of the consequences: one character walked into a saloon and while describing him, I mentioned that he only had one arm! Most of the other characters have yet to discover their consequences, but they are coming. I’m sure we’ll find out later if they decide that the price of power was too high.

We’ve just started the first of the trilogy, “The Road to Hell.” The story is just unfolding and they’re primarily okay with the price they are paying now: track down a stolen gem in exchange for a hefty sum of money. Eventually that price will steadily increase but so will the power (eventually, the stakes won’t be money, but the salvation of the world!). How much are the players willing to pay for that power? We’ll find out!

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Posted on July 10, 2011, in Gameplay, RPG Thoughts and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. Let me just say that, in the course of gaming, I *love* the “pay for power” economy.

    I actually based an entire character off of that concept–Actorios of Theleb Orethia, the eladrin swordmage/warlock in ChaoticFred’s Dark Sun Game. Things didn’t exactly turn out the way that Actorios had hoped….at all.

    With Ramon ending up with one arm, I’m actually finding that it doesn’t hold him back *too* much. Climbing those pipes would have been difficult, but that’s what his whip is for! Vamanos!

    Looking forward to more sessions, brother!

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