DM advice needed: Resolving a tricky plot thread.

Hi! Sorry about the wall of text but I could really do with advice from more experienced GMs on how to resolve a campaign plot issue.

By way of background: My campaigns have a “theme” but I also like to incorporate player’s ideas for plotlines that they would like to follow. This tends to work quite well because, frankly, most players come up with relatively simple plot ideas that I can fit in around the campaign theme.

The problem is that I have a player who is getting frustrated in the lack of progress in their plot.

The plot is as follows: Their family, for the past 10 generations, have had a pact with Orcus. In exchange for the soul of the first born child of each generation, the family gains sorcerous powers. The player wishes to get their character’s family out of handing souls to Orcus BUT still retain all the benefits of the pact.

I have told them various ways that they could break the pact entirely but the sorcerous powers benefit would almost certainly stop. The player refuses to accept that as an option.

Instead they want to travel to Orcus’ realm, beat Orcus and get him to acquiesce to a new deal where the character’s family gets all that they want and Orcus gets to live. This, to me, sounds like a seriously difficult endgame target and I have let the player know that. I have also let them know that Orcus, on his home plane, is incredibly powerful and they’ll need some divine or infernal assistance in order to be victorious.

The players started at level 1 and they are now level 7, after 30 sessions. I have so far included three factions wiling to assist the player character in a fight against Orcus:
  • A (LE) cult that worships the devil, Zariel. They will help but the player characters would need to prove their loyalty to Zariel and that means doing a number of really morally dubious jobs. The player characters have started these but are reaching the point where it’s obvious that they are working for an evil cult and they intend getting out of this soon.
  • A (LN) “Ministry of Magic” who wish to stay neutral but would be interested in seeing if they could turn this to their advantage. So far though the characters are too low level for the ministry to see how they could prevail. The player characters also don’t trust the ministry.
  • A (LG) church of Athena who is annoyed that the character’s family entered into a pact with Orcus but will help as long as the family convert to the worship of their deity. The player doesn’t want to agree to this.
The player is frustrated that I haven’t added an obvious faction that really wants to help him confront Orcus and will willingly/freely give him very significant assistance on how to achieve his (not entirely noble) aims.

Considering the character’s level and aims I am not sure how to take the player character from where he is to where he wants to be.

Any advice that will help me get this plotline resolved, in a non-McGuffin way, would be very much appreciated.

Thanks in advance!
 
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Nagol

Unimportant
Yeah, I'd tell the player that their plot line is best handled when they add another 10 levels to the character and develop allies and resources that are simply completely out of reach to a 7th level character. Further, I'd have in-game history and legends suggesting a far better approach (as in potentially survivable) would be to lure Orcus away from his home and confront him when he is weakened or to use stealth and subterfuge to enter his territory undetected or to acquire something Orcus desires more than the power from the family and trade it.

I'd also make sure the player understood that while I am happy to adjudicate their attempt at this, the result is certainly not guaranteed and they better prepare. Beating Orcus and forcing a concession on his home turf is probably the absolutely hardest route to take and their chances will reflect their choices. Beating Orcus at all would generally require someone/something of similar ability though sufficiently high-level mortals have been known to repulse his forays onto the Material Plane.

If the player seemed insistent, I probably introduce a trap choice where someone arranges for him to receive help to recover relics/artefacts that can help get the group to Orcus' lair and recover the signet that represents this deal. With the signet out of Orcus' control, the link with the demon lord will be broken and the signet can be realigned to an Outer Planar power of the player's choice. At 7th level, that would mean acquiring a means to reaching that particular plane in the Abyss, something that will protect the group from the immense amount of undead found there, something that will help hide the group, and something that can help defeat the powerful demons there as well. It's not a place for even high-level mortals to take lightly.

What the player doesn't know is the person/group helping him are aligned with a demon lord of similar power to Orcus (Demogorgon, or other top-ranked demon lord) who wants the deal for themselves (as much to embarrass Orcus as to acquire the piddly amount of power 1 soul every 20 years represents). To realign the signet requires the player to hand it over so a high-level ritual can be performed. But the person doing the ritual will realign it to their patron. That is their deal for power.
 

Nytmare

Adventurer
Have you had a sit down with the player asking them what they might want their path of victory to be?

The fact that they're gaining story benefits and not power level benefits would make me more willing to make concessions towards them achieving their goals (though not for a TON of additional levels). At the same time however, my initial storytelling reaction would be to give them something too good to be true because it is.
 
Thanks for all the replies so far - they have been very useful and much appreciated!

Just to clarify, yes I have spoken with the player who does accept that it's very much a long term aim. They're more frustrated that a clear path hasn't presented itself yet, and that's mainly because I didn't have a path for that, although I have tried to give options to pursue.

He's a very reasonable player but I was stumped, hence my post. You've given me things to think about and for that I thank you again.
 

John Dallman

Explorer
Do the other players know about this plotline? Because my reaction as a player, on any character with the remotest understanding of what's involved would be "Hell, no! I'm not going on this mission so that your family can try to draw on Orcus' power without consequences! You're setting yourself up as his least-favourite tool on the material plane should you (appear) to succeed in this. You're going to doom yourself and your family."
 

Nagol

Unimportant
Do the other players know about this plotline? Because my reaction as a player, on any character with the remotest understanding of what's involved would be "Hell, no! I'm not going on this mission so that your family can try to draw on Orcus' power without consequences! You're setting yourself up as his least-favourite tool on the material plane should you (appear) to succeed in this. You're going to doom yourself and your family."
Heh. I've seen that reaction destroy a campaign. I was running 1e/2e hybrid with ~7-9th level PCs who were operating a private investigator / troubleshooting company.

Hades had captured Artemis in his chair of forgetfulness and a contingent of priests approached the group about mounting a 'rescue' (all they'd have to do is to reach Artemis and persuade her to stand up). The group front man negotiated a deal where they had up to 2 years and could draw on a bunch of help. He was told there was a substantial number of gods and especially goddesses who were wroth with Hades and likely to provide quiet aid.

The rest of the group reacted in horror and the PCs quit left and right.
 
How about a faction that wants to do exactly what the player is putting forth...confronting Orcus on its home plane in an attempt to destroy it?

You can use this faction to show how foolhardy that quest would be. Maybe call it the 8th Crusade or something, indicating that they’ve tried this 7 times already and failed horribly. Maybe have the leader be a bit deranged....a Captain Ahab type whose lost much to this quest, and now no longer cares what price he (or others) must pay.

Basically, personify your concerns about the nature of the quest to grant context for the player. “Oh you want to go to Thanatos and kill Orcus? Okay...here’s the guy who’s willing to help. Good luck.”

Beyond that, maybe have Orcus offer an out of some kind. But of course such an offer would have a cost....Orcus isn’t known for its generosity. Any such offer would come with a hefty price.

Ultimately, I think Orcus as a foe is a great long term campaign goal. I don’t think it’d be bad for high level play for the PCs to eventually confront him in some way. But not at level 7. So I’d use the different factions and other potential subplots to buy time until later. Maybe the PC can get more than one of the factions to cooperate toward the mutual goal?
 
I think the simplest option would be another demon lord. They hate each other, and would always seek an advantage on a rival. I would suggest Grazzt, because he's a great manipulator, and his followers would be able to be very convincing. I would make it fairly apparent that he's being too helpful, and obviously has another agenda (which he should). The easy path isn't always the best one, and trusting a demon lord to keep his word is questionable at best.
 

aco175

Adventurer
You could give a few hints or clues to let the player choose something he likes to pursue. The group may find a secret page talking about a holy artifact or find rumors of a circle of knights dedicated to destroying evil or undead. Maybe he encounters a cleric of Lathander who needs help with undead and he could become an ally. Let the player choose his path and them you need to only plan so much.
 

pming

Adventurer
Hiya!

Sounds more like a Player problem than a Plot problem... but anyway...

What I'd do: Give him everything he wants. That's what evil does. Mind you, if he accepts it all, he's royally and demonically ...er... "kerfluffled". At some point in the PC's "seeking of aid from others to directly confront Orcus", Orcus will hear of it. I mean, he's a Demon Lord. He's paranoid, crafty, and devious. Then, when the PC finally "surprised Orcus and defeats him on his home plane", the PC finds he is free...but with all the kewl-pwerz he so desires. ... ...And this is where it gets 'bad' for the PC... 😈

Orcus has been secretly 'tracking down' all of the PC's relatives that were sacrificed to him. He then turns every one of them into some powerful, evil-as-sin intelligent Undead, fueled by unyielding hatred for the PC who has managed to use their deaths for his own gain AND get away scott free! Of course, each of these new undead foes will be using their former wealth/power of their family (the PC's family..!!) to completely destroy the PC's life, as well as all the lives of those around him. They will make sure that the "family name" is spoken in infamy. Holy undead-slayers, paladins, clerics, and everyday adventurers will constantly be tracking down the PC and trying to end him. The PC's life from then on out will amount to hiding in dingy hovels, travelling under cover of night, and generally doing everything in his power NOT to be noticed. So...yeah, sure, he's got all these nifty "kewl-pwerz" and all that...but if he uses them he will find himself engaged with all the good, righteous, or 'opportunistic' adventurers who want to put his evil deeds to rest.

The old saying: "Be careful what you wish for" is the basic jist of it. :) If you really want to rub it in, have Orcus offer him a 'deal' that is far, FAR worse than what he had before (and make sure to play up the whole "...you didn't defeat me...I let you defeat me so I could teach you a lesson...have you learned your lesson yet, slave?"

^_^

Paul L. Ming
 
Is attacking Orcus with the powers that he himself bestowed considered a breach of the contract? It seems shortsighted of the PC (and player) to assume they'd be able to use any of their granted powers to injure the granter - at least for more than the moment it would take Orcus to rescind the deal.

For the character to have any leverage here there has to be a reason that Orcus would want to maintain the pact and agree to a (huge) amendment. It's Orcus: he can get souls from anywhere, he can make deals with hoards of greedy cultists until his soul coffers overrun, so why does he care about this family of scummy sorcerers (yes, sacrificing your first born for 10 generations is scummy) so much?

Some ideas...

Souls from an unbroken bloodline are required to complete some sort of great project. Perhaps they're points in a crown that are near completion, or stones in an gateway the will permanent bind Thanatos to the Prime Material Plane, or maybe each soul is made into a piece in a chess set, for a cosmic game he will play with Asmodeus. Whatever the reason, Orcus is close to completing the great project and can't have one arrogant scion ruin the entire thing. He can't rescind the deal without a contingency and he can't crush the PC, no matter how much he wants to, especially since the PC probably hasn't had two children yet (the first one to sacrifice, the second to carry on the line).

Which brings me to the next idea.

The nature of the sacrifice is a trick. It's not the first borns' souls that are collected (they get to go to innocent- baby plane Nirvana) but in fact the souls of the sacrificers. This serves as a way of insuring the some of the power Orcus granted is returned to him every generation (it's not a limitless resource after all) AND it's an appropriate punishment for the said sorcerer, insuring that the damnation sticks. The whole pact insures that the sorcerer's soul is delivered right to Orcus, and not lost in the bureaucracy of the Hells.

What Orcus needs to do with the PC who challenges him is play the long con by acquiescing, agreeing to still provide powers to the family without the first born sacrifice. Give the PC the "win". The sacrifice is just the most convenient means to damnation, but Orcus has resources to encourage damnation other ways. Perhaps he gives the PC a powerful artifact or a new power as a token of his defeat.

But Orcus also needs to have a way to capture the sorcerer's soul before it gets lost and becomes the torture dolly for some minor demon. For that he needs some sort of soul container the PC unknowingly keeps close...maybe an empty phylactery, or the artifact suggested above?

Anyway, this is all brainstorming. Sounds like an interesting problem and a slightly annoying player :/
 
Thanks for the replies.

Just to confirm, I have no problem with the player and I hope that it doesn't sound that I do - he's a friend and a good roleplayer - he just wants more direction and I was out of ideas.

Well I definitely have some ideas now ;) and for that I appreciate the time that people have taken to reply. You guys rock!
 

Ovinomancer

No flips for you!
If it were me... Orcus lied. He made the deal long ago and maybe instilled some power or nudged it along, but the deal is now entirely in his benefit. He grants nothing to the family, but shows up for every first born. These he turns into hideous abominations who's only remaining coherent thought is hatred for the family that sold them for nothing. All the PC has to do is stop his family from presenting more firstborn sons and everything's right as rain, except Orcus would gleefully release generations of monsters on the family because of what a nice guy he is.

This "truth" is something that can occur at much lower levels, and provides a faster storyline that having to weave in a powerful enough ally that comes to the PC at a low level only to be relevant at a higher. It also plays to the manipulation of the demon lord, and the horror of having your ancestors twisted into abominations that seethe with hatred of their family is a nice, horrible touch.

As an aside, I really hate the bait and switch suggested above where you give the player his victory only to snatch it away. That should only be done if the PC fails. It's a great way to make people very upset and it's rather a jerk move. It might be "cool twist" storytelling from a writing standpoint, but it's awful from a RPG standpoint. If you absolutely need a twist in RPGs, do it at the beginning or in the middle, not at the end, and never to reverse a win.
 

CleverNickName

Limit Break Dancing
This issue must come up a lot with warlocks...my wife was dealing with something very similar to this in her campaign last year. Long story short, a player wanted to start out as a warlock of Orcus, but he eventually wanted to break that pact and become a cleric of Ehlonna. Which is fine, but he wanted to also retain all of the warlock powers he had been given. This whole "breaking the pact" arc was very important to him; he wanted his character to be a reformed demon-worshipper who saw the light. A preacher who still smells of brimstone, if you will.

To his credit, he discussed all of this with his DM beforehand, and she was able to fill him in on everything before he rolled up the character. She said that yes, he could break the pact with his patron, but there would be consequences: specifically the loss of his warlock invocations and spell slots. To get them back, he would need to find and form a pact with a new patron, because that's how warlocks and pacts worked in her game.

She was obviously setting him up for a story arc where he would have to petition a Celestial or an Archfey to "buy out" his contract with Orcus, but he wasn't interested in that kind of dynamic. I think that in his mind, those warlock powers were "earned" though years of service and Orcus shouldn't be able to revoke them. And in her mind, warlocks never have power of their own; they can only beg, borrow, or steal it from another being until their contract runs out.

I'm not sure which was the "right" way. They couldn't come to an agreement, so he ended up playing a different character altogether.
 

Imaculata

Adventurer
The best way for a level 7 character to try and take on a powerful foe as Orcus, would be to first take down some of his weaker henchmen. He can have commanders and lieutenants that are easier to fight. And of course a longterm solution would be to find a different source of power.
 

Ovinomancer

No flips for you!
This issue must come up a lot with warlocks...my wife was dealing with something very similar to this in her campaign last year. Long story short, a player wanted to start out as a warlock of Orcus, but he eventually wanted to break that pact and become a cleric of Ehlonna. Which is fine, but he wanted to also retain all of the warlock powers he had been given. This whole "breaking the pact" arc was very important to him; he wanted his character to be a reformed demon-worshipper who saw the light. A preacher who still smells of brimstone, if you will.

To his credit, he discussed all of this with his DM beforehand, and she was able to fill him in on everything before he rolled up the character. She said that yes, he could break the pact with his patron, but there would be consequences: specifically the loss of his warlock invocations and spell slots. To get them back, he would need to find and form a pact with a new patron, because that's how warlocks and pacts worked in her game.

She was obviously setting him up for a story arc where he would have to petition a Celestial or an Archfey to "buy out" his contract with Orcus, but he wasn't interested in that kind of dynamic. I think that in his mind, those warlock powers were "earned" though years of service and Orcus shouldn't be able to revoke them. And in her mind, warlocks never have power of their own; they can only beg, borrow, or steal it from another being until their contract runs out.

I'm not sure which was the "right" way. They couldn't come to an agreement, so he ended up playing a different character altogether.
There's nothing in the description warlock pact that requires service or says the boon is revokable. It could be a one time exchange or a period of service ir an ongoing relationship. I'd say the player has the authority to choose which, as that's character background stiff, but tables differ.

The challenge I'd place here wouldn't be getting rid of Orcus (I'd not even consider revoking warlock powers) but overcoming that pact to prove to Elhonna that you deserve the mantle of being her cleric.
 

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