Faith and Gaming: Deals

Thanks to Goethe, there is a very compelling story of a man named Faust, a man who made a deal with the devil. The story has become something of a cultural idea, such that the word “Faustian” is used to describe any effort to achieve something at too great a cost. Faust, according to the story, sold his soul to the devil.

Faust und Mephisto beim Schachspiel (Faust and Mephisto Playing Chess)
Faust und Mephisto beim Schachspiel (Faust and Mephisto Playing Chess)

I have not read the book, I am embarrassed to admit; there are many great books I have not had the opportunity to acquire or the time to peruse. I have been exposed to the core of the story through educational television, so I am aware that the deal did not work out so well for Faust. He discovered that everything the devil gave him was a cheat, and everything he had that might have been good his supposed benefactor managed to ruin. Yet in the end he found redemption. What interests me more is the idea that someone might make such a deal with the devil and not have the kinds of complaints Goethe suggested for his protagonist. There are always stories of people who sold their soul to the devil for what they really wanted; those deals fascinated me.

They fascinated me because for the longest time I couldn’t see what the devil got out of the deal. Why would Satan ever buy what he already owns? After all, it’s rather clear that anyone who is lost is already his by default; he doesn’t have to pay anything to own them. It is equally clear that no such deal would make any difference to the possibility of redemption. Salvation is as available to the person who has made such a deal as it was before he made it. Satan gets nothing he doesn’t already have, not even the certainty that he can’t lose it. So why would he ever bother to make such a deal with anyone?

I finally realized that there was a reason for him to make such a deal, a very complex and cleverly deceptive reason. The deal is a sham. He knows that it’s of no use to him at all as a contract. As Yogi Berra said of the verbal contract, it’s not worth the paper it’s written on. He can’t hold anyone to it. He certainly doesn’t make it for that reason. Rather, he makes the deal for very different reasons.

  • First, it costs Satan very little to meet the piddling fleshly desires of most people. In The Little Mermaid, Ursula the Sea Witch is extolling her services, and shows in a rather simple sequence how she takes two people who desperately want to be loved and gives them to each other, and then takes credit for their happiness. The things people want are easy to find, really, if you just pull a few strings behind the scenes. Whether it’s money or women or respect—as long as it’s not love or happiness, he can probably do it cheaply. Keeping his end of the bargain isn’t so difficult. In fact, there’s a good chance that he doesn’t have to do anything anyway. Someone who would be willing to sell his soul to the devil to get what he wants is willing to do anything, to take serious risks and work very hard, and stands a good chance of succeeding without any supernatural intervention. It’s probably a freebie.
  • The poor slob who gets into this thinks he’s made a deal and can’t get out; he’s in exactly the same place he was before, needing no more salvation than anyone else, but he’s blocked by his own mistaken belief that he’s done something irrevocable and that even God cannot save him now. This is probably what keeps Faust locked in for so long. He feels like he’s made the deal, and the devil has kept the letter of the contract so cleverly that his failure to provide what Faust really wanted can’t be held against him. Faust feels trapped. The guy who has made this deal might as he gets older think it perhaps was not so good a deal as his younger impetuous self believed, but that now it is too late to change things, as he’s enjoyed the fruits of the contract and has to pay the price. He doesn’t understand that the deal hasn’t changed his eternal position at all; he’s in exactly the same place as he was before he made it, needing Christ’s salvation, but that he’s been sold another layer of lies saying that it doesn’t apply to him, that because of his deal he can’t be saved.
  • The beneficiary of this deal almost inevitably advertises that Satan gave him these good things, and others start to think that following Satan must not be so bad, and some of them decide to try it. Satan never has to give these other fools so much as the time of day. The fact that he’s given one guy something (if he ever actually did) is taken by them as proof that he will meet their desires as well. The price he pays to keep one person bound in this deception suckers an untold number of others into the same deception at no additional cost. They spend their lives trying to get what they think he’ll give them, never getting anything for their labors, and furthering Satan’s work in the process.
  • Worse than that, there are millions of fools who have not “sold their souls to Satan” who now believe that they’re all right because they didn’t do that. So by paying a price for one man’s soul which he probably had pretty securely already, Satan convinces countless other people whose souls he holds just as firmly in his grasp that they’re going to heaven because they never made such a deal with him. We know that these people are as lost as anyone else who has not made a deal with Christ; we know that the only hope anyone has is to give his soul to God. By floating the idea that he would actually buy someone’s soul, the devil has created the belief that he doesn’t already own it, and so provided false assurance to all of those who can tell themselves they never made that mistake.

Someone asked me months ago whether telling particular kinds of stories within games can make them Christian games. I don’t think it’s necessarily as simple as that. I think any story told within a game has the potential to be very Christian or very unchristian, depending perhaps on how it’s told. This story, though, does have potential. What if we could play out such a deal, a Faustian story, in a role playing game?

People with strong levels of character identification might be uncomfortable with this notion. The idea of roleplaying the act of summoning demons is among the major objections to such games raised by the critics, and time and again we repeat that you don’t do that. But what if you actually did pretend that your character did that? I certainly understand the hesitancy to be involved in such a thing, and if we were talking about doing it for real, I would tell you to stay away from it entirely. However, we’re talking about doing it in a game, in an imaginary way; so bear with me.

Let us suppose that we’re going to get involved in a role playing game in which our characters are going to actually summon fictional demons, and make in-game deals with them, trying to trade favors for power, promises for success, payment for magic. In this game, these demons are not toys. It’s not as if you can just draw the magic symbol on the ground, pronounce a few words, and conquer these powerful beings such that they are your willing and obedient slaves. There is a real struggle going on here, and you’re going to have to give to get. You are playing a dangerous game. If you don’t quit before you’ve gone too far, you’re going to lose—but this is the only practical path you’ve got to reach your dreams. So you’re walking the edge, dealing with the devil and trying to get the better of someone who is far smarter, far more powerful, and far more experienced than you will ever be—and who will probably cheat you if you slip.

I have no problem at all with playing such a game in which my character loses his soul because he dabbles with the devil. The idea of losing my soul would terrify me, if I thought for a moment that God had not defeated the devil or did not hold me firmly in the palm of His hand. That I can actually see how it might have happened to me, through my own choices, is a fabulous lesson to explore. It’s a great idea for a game. Do you think playing that would make you more or less likely to make such a deal with the devil in reality? If you walk away from the game feeling like your character was a complete fool to let himself get destroyed by his desires, you got something good out of it. If you walk away thinking that your character was terribly (in both the ancient and modern sense) fortunate to have escaped as little scathed as he was, you got something good out of it.

That game actually exists. It’s called Sorcerer, written by Diana Jones award winner Ron Edwards. But Sorcerer doesn’t define its demons or its souls in such supernatural terms, rather letting the players and referee craft them to their preferences and the nature of the story they want to tell. I find the stories it can tell even more fascinating. Suddenly Faust is dealing with a devil who doesn’t appear with horns and tail, but is hidden in the flux of desires and principles, in the deceptions of the world. The game suddenly informs all of these conflicts with a potentially spiritual dimension. Drug use is like dealing with demons; maybe, in some sense, it is dealing with demons, trying to keep your soul while offering it in exchange for some pleasure or peace. Fame and success and wealth all can be demons in this world. Certain dysfunctions in relationships are also very like dealing with demons. There are many, many ways this concept of dealing with demons, of “selling your soul” to have what you want, can be veiled under a thin disguise of reality.

In some ways, I’m far more afraid of people making the kinds of deals with the devil that most Sorcerer games actually portray—the kind in which they’re unaware that Satan exists, but they’re sacrificing their soul for something that’s not worth it. Playing Sorcerer in these contexts has the potential to illuminate exactly that aspect of it: that selling your soul is not worth whatever you’re going to get for it.

I can certainly understand character identification and wish fulfillment as issues for some players. Sorcerer is not about character identification and wish fulfillment; the game is about consequences, and that is perhaps where the rub lies.

There are gamers for whom character identification and wish-fulfillment mean I can do whatever I want and no one will stop me. I have a lot of trouble with that kind of play, as player characters will kill any non-player character who gets in their way, or merely for a target to rob or as a means to some other goal. This gets dangerously close, in my assessment, to really selling your soul to the devil: imagining that the world might be so constituted that no one could stop you from taking whatever you wanted.

Sorcerer, by contrast, says, you can take whatever you want, but there’s a price to pay for it; are you willing to pay the price? How much will you pay, and will you be satisfied with what you get for that? Some who push the envelope will reach their desires; more will go down in flames. Sometimes stopping, counting the cost and deciding that what you want is not worth it, may be the best move. In the end, you may have learned that selling your soul to the devil is not worth whatever you’ll get for it.

Retelling Faust within your game in a way that brings out the deception and danger behind the deal could be a very potent idea for awakening players to their need for Christ. You don’t need to use Sorcerer to do that; you can probably do it in one way or another in any game. Think, though, about how to make the threat real and the temptation strong. Faust only works if the character truly believes he’s made a deal and is getting the benefit of his bargain. If he recognizes too easily that God can save him, there has to be a compelling reason why he would stay with the devil until it’s too late.

This article was originally published in July 2003 on the Christian Gamers Guild’s website. The entire series remains available at its original URL.

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  1. Ethan says:

    If you play d&d you are probably familiar with the spell planar binding?
    It is a spell that allows you to summon elementals, and other outsiders, and demons.
    But they do not just do what you want.
    Instead you have to bribe, threaten, and monipulate them into doing your will.

  2. Sorry to take so long; for some reason I’m not notified of comments on my articles, and I only just found this.

    I have been playing Dungeons & Dragons since 1980, but I still play the version of the game that was in print then, and that specific spell name is not there.. There were summoning spells that worked much as you suggest, by which the summoner called the creature to his presence but had to bargain for favors. (There were also ways to coerce such creatures; none of my players ever experimented with them.)

    What was missing was a game mechanic for consequences. That’s what Sorcerer brings to the table: if you deal with demons, you might lose your soul, or you might not, but you’re taking a serious risk.

    But you’re right: a creative Dungeon Master could no doubt do much on the fly that Sorcerer does specifically.

    –M. J. Young

  3. Ethan says:

    Personally though, I actually prefer roll-playing to mechanics for things like this, but, both work for different types of players and DMs.

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