Players familiar with Baldur’s Gate will recognize the story below from a text that you could read within the game about how the “big three” deities of evil gained their powers. It”s one of my favorite little bits of D&D lore, since it manages to tell a fun story while giving good background and motivations to each of the characters involved.
In ages past there was but one god of strife, death, and the dead, and he was known as Jergal, Lord of the End of Everything. Jergal fomented and fed on the discord among mortals and powers alike. When beings slew each other in their quest for power or in their hatred, he welcomed them into his shadowy kingdom of eternal gloom. As all things died, everything came to him eventually, and over time he built his power into a kingdom unchallenged by any other god. Eventually, however, he grew tired of his duties for he knew them too well.
Without challenge there is nothing, and in nothingness there is only gloom. In such a state, the difference between absolute power and absolute powerlessness is undetectable. During this dark era, there arose three powerful mortals – Bane, Bhaal, and Myrkul – who lusted after the power Jergal wielded. The trio forged an unholy pact, agreeing that they would dare to seek such ultimate power or die in the attempt. Over the length and breadth of the Realms they strode, seeking powerful magic and spells and defying death at every turn. No matter what monster they confronted or what spells they braved, the three mortals emerged unscathed at every turn. Eventually the trio destroyed one of the Seven Lost Gods, and they each seized a portion of his divine essence for themselves. The trio then journeyed into the Gray Waste and sought out the Castle of Bone.
Through armies of skeletons, legions of zombies, hordes or noncorporeal undead, and a gauntlet of liches they battled. Eventually they reached the object of their lifelong quest – the Bone Throne. “I claim this throne of evil,” shouted Bane the tyrant. ”I’ll destroy you before you can raise a finger,” threatened Bhaal the assassin. ”And I shall imprison your essence for eternity,” promised Myrkul the necromancer. Jergal arose from his throne with a weary expression and said, “The Throne is yours. I have grown weary of this empty power. Take it if you wish – I promise to serve and guide you as your seneschal until you grow comfortable with the position.”
Before the stunned trio could react, the Lord of the Dead continued, “Who among you shall rule?” The trio immediately fell to fighting amongst themselves while Jergal looked on with indifference. When eventually it appeared that either they would all die of exhaustion or battle on for an eternity, the Lord of the End of Everything intervened. “After all you have sacrificed, would you come away with nothing? Why don’t you divide the portfolios of the office and engage in a game of skill for them?” asked Jergal. Bane, Bhaal, and Myrkul considered the god’s offer and agreed. Jergal took the heads of his three most powerful liches and gave them to the trio that they would compete by bowling the skulls. Each mortal rolled a skull across the Gray Waste, having agreed that the winner would be he who bowled the farthest.
Malar the Beastlord arrived to visit Jergal at this moment. After quickly ascertaining that the winner of the contest would get all of Jergal’s power, he chased off after the three skulls to make sure that the contest would be halted until he had a chance to participate for part of the prize. Bane, Bhaal, and Myrkul again fell to fighting, as it was obvious their sport was ruined, and again Jergal intervened. “Why don’t you allow Lady Luck to decide so you don’t have to share with the Beast?”
The trio agreed, and Jergal broke off his skeletal finger bones and gave them to the players. When Malar returned form chasing the skulls, he found that the trio had just finished a game of knucklebones. Bane cried out triumphantly, “As winner, I choose to rule for all eternity as the ultimate tyrant. I can induce hatred and strife at my whim, and all will bow down before me while in my kingdom.” Myrkul, who had won second place, declared, “But I choose the dead, and by doing so I truly win, because all you are lord over, Bane, will eventually be mine. All things must die – even gods.”
Bhaal, who finished third, demurred, “I choose death, and it is by my hand that all that you rule Lord Bane will eventually pass to Lord Myrkul. Both of you must pay honor to me and obey my wishes, since I can destroy your kingdom Bane, by murdering your subjects, and I can starve your kingdom, Myrkul by staying my hand.” Malar growled in frustration, but could do nothing, and yet again only the beasts were left for him. And Jergal merely smiled, for he had been delivered.
Campaign or adventure ideas:
For a way to incorporate the lore into a game, maybe a trio of lore-masters can’t agree on the “true” story of the Dead Three – which of the Dead Three truly came in first place? There’s a text in a temple to Malar that might solve the debate, however it’s guarded by his cult and the Many-headed Beast of Hornung, a monster similar to Cerberus. Legend has it that the clue to defeating the beast is within the lore of the Dead Three. For example, the solution might be to throw a giant’s skull, and steal the text while the three-headed dog plays fetch. Or the solution might be to divide into three groups and fight each head separately, as the Dead Three split their power.
It’s interesting that the Dead Three were originally adventurers. In fact, for something a little different, their exploits – slaying one of the Seven Lost Gods, defeating a gauntlet of liches, etc. – would make an excellent mini-campaign for players interested in trying out the epic tier of play.
I like that despite their vast powers and epic battles, in the end the Dead Three gained their power from gaming and luck. Including similar games as part of a gauntlet of challenges can spice up an adventure, especially because you’re playing a “game within a game.” Poker, blackjack, dice games, trivia games, checkers, and charades are all fairly easy to learn and could result in a memorable session.