Behind the Screen07/20/2003


"Good morning, angels . . . "



FAIR WARNING: The fictional "Behind the Screen" gamers

Eddie. The DM for the current campaign. Eddie has alternated between playing and DMing over the years. He is mostly by the book as a DM, but keeps a sense of humor about the game and indulges a bit of DM whimsy now and then.

Ally (Alexandra). Eddie's older sister, Ally is usually quiet and unassuming. She's in the chair every week to roll the dice, but is more of a worker bee than a queen bee. She plays Melantha, a human female fighter/cleric.

Samantha. Samantha dated Eddie many years ago before moving to California. She joined the group after moving back. She is a bit of a powergamer and does not appreciate David's grandiose theatrics. She plays Arphaxad, a halfling male rogue/wizard.

David. Outspoken, loud, dramatic, even overbearing at times though when he means well. David is the life of the party and the center of attention, because he almost can't help himself. He plays Rashean Bantecou, a half-elf male ranger/bard.

Michael. Michael is just happy to be here. He enjoys the game, but he enjoys the interaction among friends even more. Like Ally, he's happy to do the thankless jobs in the game and simply have fun. He plays Mikko, a dwarf male fighter/rogue.

"All right, Eddie," Ally said, "Melantha gets out three vials of holy water and we each pour one on the evil black flaming pentagram."

"The flames sizzle and hiss and then are extinguished," Eddie said. "The angelic being within steps forward. You hear the ringing tones of its voice inside your mind as it asks which of you is the leader of this sorry mortal band."

"That would be me," David said, ignoring Samantha's glare. "Rashean Bantecou, minstrel and smiter of tyrants. My name is legend in this country!

"More like a legend in your own mind," Samantha snapped. "Eddie, I make my Knowledge (planes) roll to see if I can pinpoint the type and power level of this celestial. Looks like a 31."

"Sheesh! You and your modifiers!" Eddie shook his head. "All right. It looks to you like a mighty planetar."

"Woo-hoo! I'll pour on the charm and see if I can wheedle some curing and maybe a true resurrection out of him for poor Mikko. Hmm, how about a 19 on Diplomacy?"

"The planetar's gaze seems to pierce through your very soul as he shakes his head sadly. 'Oh, how weak and tainted your hearts are. How small your minds and vision. You have done me a service, so I will bring your friend back to life, but then I must return my attention to cosmic tasks far beyond your comprehension and whose importance beggar description!' He steps over to Mikko's dead body and touches it. A spark of energy passes into Mikko as he slowly stirs to life."

"Sheesh, check out the attitude on this guy!" Ally said. "I point out that we are laying the holy smackdown on the High Imperceptor of Bane here -- it's not like we're just out rolling paraplegic kobold children for their milk money. I've got three levels of cleric. Doesn't that count for anything with this guy?"

"The planetar simply mutters a disgusted oath in Celestial before vanishing in a flash of light." Eddie passed a note to Michael, whose character was just brought back to life.

"That level-stealing bastard!" Michael said. "That cheapskate planetar did a raise dead. I thought you said it could do a true resurrection, Samantha?"

"It could, but I guess it decided not to. Kiss that level goodbye, Mikey. Tough break."

"Hey Eddie," Michael said, "Mikko shouts to the heavens: 'Thanks for nothin', you sanctimonious jerk!' When I get that level back, I'm takin' it in Ranger this time, just so I can make 'outsider (good)' my newfavored enemy!"

Michael's problem -- really his whole party's problem -- is one that pops up now and again in D&D campaigns and in game-related fiction (maybe most infamously in Gary Gygax's Gord the Rogue series, when the celestial is willing to bring only one of three dead party members back to life, even though they are on a mission to save the world). The party tromps through some benighted hell-hole, comes upon an imprisoned celestial creature, braves deadly dangers, traps and guardians to free it, and maybe even loses one or more characters in the process. Rather than showing gratitude, the celestial cops an attitude, grudgingly offers some minimal reward or assistance, then disappears.

Does Michael have a legitimate gripe? His character -- and party -- is out doing good deeds, maybe even trying to save the world (or a big piece of it) from the forces of evil. One would think that their goals and those of most celestials would be pretty congruent. Given this, it seems reasonable to assume that any given celestial they encounter should be willing to lend more than just the bare minimum of assistance to their mortal allies, especially for a character like Mikko who gave his life in the effort to liberate it from imprisonment. If you add on top of this the reasonable expectation that any newly freed prisoner might feel inclined to show some gratitude toward his or her rescuers, then it seems like a just-rescued celestial should be just about falling all over itself to help.

Ally asks another good question: Shouldn't Melantha, as a cleric serving the powers of good, have some kind of claim on the assistance of celestial creatures? Any divine spellcaster might feel reasonably entitled to a little positive attention from the celestial minions whose mission of divine service they share. This expectation could extend to devout and faithful lay followers of good deities. If Rashean Bantecou (David's bard) has donated large sums of money or provided other assistance to the good temples in his home city; does that count for anything when dealing with celestials? Can you build up heavenly "brownie points" by good living? It does make a certain amount of sense.

Unfortunately, these seemingly valid in-game rationales create a lot of complications (often from a metagame perspective) for the DM. One problem is the literal deus ex machina involved. If Eddie is going to introduce a celestial being into the adventure that is capable of solving the problem, then why is the party there at all? If he wants to use the "free a trapped celestial" plot element, he either needs to use a celestial so wimpy that its abilities are irrelevant in the big picture or else somehow constrain what it can do. Otherwise, why should Melantha, Rashean, Mikko, and Arphaxad waste time and effort doing what the celestial could do better and more easily than they could? Eddie's adventure needs to be centered around the PCs finding and facing the bad guy, not on them trying to find a helpful NPC (the planetar in this case) to fight the bad guy for them. (Unless Eddie constructs the adventure so that freeing the trapped celestial is a key point -- many adventures require the recovery of some plot device, be it creature or object, as a necessary step to defeating a super-powerful bad guy.)

In some cases, a freed celestial might join the party, much as any other NPC could take up with his or her rescuers for a time after being freed. This alternative begs all the usual questions about who will run the character (usually the DM, so more work for you), what the character knows, how trustworthy the NPC is, how much control the party has over the NPC's actions, and so on. But it also creates additional complications, especially in campaigns like Eddie's, because the planetar would be far beyond the power level of the party. Even lower-power celestials would wield more power than the average party member or possess capabilities he doesn't want the party to have access to, like the ability to teleport at will. Arphaxad's bag of holding and necklace of adaptation could turn any willing celestial into a taxi service or at least a teleporting messenger or transporter. It's not so much the outsider's combat-relevant spell-like abilities that are problematic, but the useful miscellaneous ones (e.g., dispel magic, detect [any], passwall). In effect, a celestial in the party is almost like an unlimited-charge magic item.

In theory, all of these elements can be addressed through proper roleplaying. Just because Arphaxad demands to be toted around in the bag of holding doesn't mean the celestial will do it. If Mikko gets raised from the dead, what is he complaining about? He was dead and is now alive, and tough noogies if he dropped a level! The celestial is not the party's slave. It is not a walking magic item. It is a real creature with thoughts and feelings, which might be very different from the mortals around it even if they share a common alignment. Developing those interactional constraints on what the celestial can and will do takes time and effort, though, and those may be in short supply given the other necessities of running the game. If they are given short shrift, though, we are right back to the PCs asking something reasonable -- something that the players, being the clever beasts that they are (and frequently the DMs of other campaigns), know that the celestial can do -- of the celestial and having the celestial refuse, for seemingly no reason other than that the DM's whim. Are the PCs using player knowledge that their characters wouldn't have? Maybe, but their characters might have high Knowledge skill rolls, too.

So, what's the answer? Are angels just as big a bunch of creeps, in their sanctified way, as demons and devils? Should good-aligned PCs simply stop expecting anything helpful out of them? That seems wrong somehow, and yet it's a hard one to call. Like most things, the solution lies in finding balance. If the players want a celestial that they can order around and compel to do things, there are methods for doing that, such as summon monster, planar ally, and planar binding spells, where there is little ambiguity about who is doing what for whom and at what cost.

Other celestials can be run like you would any NPC -- with reason, wit, personality, and even a touch of humanity. PCs who approach them with a gracious spirit should be met with the same, and celestials with a good reason to help should be willing to offer what help they can (or offer future aid), whether magical, physical, or simply wisdom and knowledge. If Melantha is a faithful cleric of good, maybe she has earned a circumstance bonus to Diplomacy checks with celestials. Likewise, Rashean might have curried favor with the divine forces for his good deeds or his donations as a lay member of the faith or simply because his store of bardic knowledge suggests the proper forms of address and ritual to use when dealing with particular types of celestials. If Mikko has sacrificed himself to help gain the celestial's freedom, the celestial should be willing to put itself out for him. Be flexible and reasonable, and above all don't go out of your way to make the players hate the celestial good guys worse than the fiendish bad guys!

About the Author

Jason Nelson lives in Seattle with his wife Judy, daughter Meshia, son Allen, and dog Bear. He is a full-time homemaker, part-time Ph.D. student in education policy and philosophy, and is active and committed born-again Christian. He began playing D&D in 1981 and currently runs one campaign while playing in another.

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