Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The Problem with Demons

I ran across a blog post today that was basically a pitch for a new game idea. I am not going to link to it, because part of this post is about why the pitch turned me off so much, and my dislike is not entirely fair.

The part of the pitch that immediately turned me off had to do with an invasion of the world by slavering, evil, sanity-bending demons from beyond time and space. (I'm paraphrasing, not quoting.) And my immediate reaction was, "Been there, done that." Why?

The whole demon thing I feel is terribly overdone. And part of the reason is that it is such an incredibly shallow justification for anything. It is equal parts "a wizard did it" and "we can kill them because they're EVIL". It becomes difficult to add any kind of subtlety or moral conflict to the setting.

The fact that they are from another dimension allows the GM to do absolutely anything they want with the demons. They don't need to follow any kinds of rules. Teleportation? Possession? Invulnerability? The ability to mentally animate cheese? Sure, whatever, toss it all in. These are things that obey different laws of physics, man, they don't have to make sense. So, when our friendly heroic PCs meet them, we are at a ludicrous disadvantage. Not only are we outclassed, we can't even predict how we will be outclassed. We have no kind of lore or logic to fall back on. We might as well pour water on them, because you never know what might work.

Introducing an enemy that is implacably, unthinkingly, irredeemably evil may sound cool. You get to set up all kinds of horrible things, and the PCs can just react with maximum force. There's no need to worry about whether or not these "people" have feelings. Bringing them in to face justice is a joke. Your mission is to kill them all, and probably die trying. Is that really all that interesting? I mean, that's the plot to Doom. Why don't we try playing with something a little more involved? A group of invading soldiers who are doing what they think is best for their people, and regret what it costs us. If you want to go with demons, give them a strict code of honor, and have them incapable of breaking their word (a la the darker tales of the fae). Maybe have them be implacably, unthinkingly, irredeemably good, and determined to eradicate our filth of the earth. All I'm saying is, mix it up a little, and give the PCs a way to engage with the enemy, not just survive them.

Okay, there is one genre where this might be appropriate: horror. Not dark fantasy, but outright horror. Of course, I do not understand the horror genre. Not only does it not appeal to me, but I don't really understand how it is supposed to work. So, for those of you who are going to throw Cthulhu, Silent Hill, or Hellraiser at me, please don't. Just accept that I don't know what I'm talking about.

If you are looking at a dark fantasy setting (whether that fantasy is set in a medieval-esque era, the modern urban era, or a futuristic sci-fi era) though, please try to avoid including setting elements that actively try to not make sense. As a player, it is frustrating to fight things that don't make sense. As a reader, it feels lazy, like you don't want to put the thought into making a setting that will hold together. As a GM thinking about running your setting...

Well, I won't be.


  1. I think my favorite demons were from Stolze's Reign - probably because they avoided many (not all) of the tropes you have here - mostly the fact that they are unrelenting evil that views humanity as food.

    But the neat part is that they generally grow in various phases becoming larger and more powerful/intellectual to the point it can possess/hollow out a human and pass as one.

    Eventually it grows into a thing capable of facing down nations.

    Still creeping horror at various levels, but plays by a set of rules.

    1. Reign is, of course, full of all sorts of awesome. And Stolze has demonstrated on more than one occasion that he really gets how to make cosmic horror personal. It's a deft touch, though, and I can never put my finger on how he does it.

  2. Or you could make the demon invasion the driving force of the setting, but the interactions would be with everything peripheral to the demons.

    I ran a campaign exactly as you described, "demons invading". However in the first 10 levels they have fought the demons a total of once and that was a small scouting party. I used the demon invasion as a catalyst for getting the PCs (who were basically children) to flee their homes and venture into the unknown.
    From there they interacted with villages and cities to warn/prepare them for the invasion...and when that didn't work they organized an evacuation.
    Thereafter, they ran afoul aggressive demon hunters similar to the Inquisition that became antagonists to the story.

    Basically, while the campaign was all about a "demon invasion" the true interactions were never with the demons but rather with the rest of world and their reactions to the demon invasion.

    1. That's certainly a possibility. But, at that point, the demons aren't much more than a natural disaster. They aren't really an "enemy", per se. They are as overwhelming as the floods to Atlantis, the Black Plague to Europe, or the asteroid from Armageddon.

      Of course, an apocalypse scenario is very cool. I'm not going to fault you on that. I am going to have a knee-jerk reaction, though, of rolling my eyes at the "demon invasion". You may be clever enough to make it interesting in the details. But my assumption, reading that blurb, is that it is a fairly thinly developed problem that the PCs aren't even supposed to interact with. It's not a hook I'm likely to bite at.

  3. Good points to remember when using "things from beyond" in a campaign, especially as a major plot point.

    Demons are just summoned tools in my current campaign, sure they have their own agenda and all, but they are essentially barred from the world unless summoned. This make them interesting one off challenges but always the tool of another threat.