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Mind Control is Hard

The ability to control other people’s minds is a staple of science fiction and fantasy, right up there with throwing fireballs and levitating objects. As such, it’s very natural to want to include it in role-playing games. The problem is, mind control just doesn’t play well – or at least it’s very, very difficult to make it play well.

“These are not the droids you’re looking for…”

If your setting and/or rules system allows for it, it’s inevitable that one of your players will want to create a character with mind-control powers. It seems like a fun alternative to the classic archetypes of fighter, wizard, and thief. In most fiction, people with mind control powers tend to be clever, and use their powers in interesting ways to compensate for their lack of physical prowess. So it seems like it will be a unique challenge for a player who’s ready for something new.

In practice, however, mind control is something of a blunt instrument. In fiction, protagonists with mind control powers tend to only use them as a weapon of last resort. But in role-playing medium, there is little incentive to use any other ability. You need to get into the castle? Make one of the guards let you in. You need to win a fight? Turn the strongest opponent against his friends. You need to acquire a rare and precious item? Make a merchant give you all his money, then pay someone else to go get it. Instead of giving the player a tool that makes them come up with interesting solutions, it becomes a panacea for all problems. After about an hour, it completely loses its charm.

So if you’re the GM, and one of your PCs has mind control powers, you have to find ways to limit it. One of the ways to accomplish this is to say that it doesn’t work on certain key people. They have powers or artifacts or something that makes them immune (eg Magneto’s helmet). This way, your player doesn’t anticlimactically defeat the big bad guy by telling him to stab himself with his own sword. In rules systems where mind control is resistable, you give key NPCs a high resistance. As a result, you have a PC that has a cure-all against all low-level NPCs and is completely and utterly useless against anyone important. This is not fun.

Steel isn’t strong, boy, flesh is stronger!

Okay, so mind control doesn’t work so well for the protagonists. What about the bad guys? After all, mind control is sort of an intrinsically evil power. Giving the ability to control others to the antagonists is more manageable, though has its own set of perils. The same basic problem applies – if the bad guy can control minds, there is little reason for them to use any other power. And, just like you don’t want to let a PC be able to defeat important enemies by mind controlling them, it’s not fun for a player to have to relinquish control of their character in crucial situations.

There are two solutions to this problem. Either you give the bad guy some sort of combat-related prowess in addition to their mind control powers, or you make the final fight consist of the PCs wading their way through mind-controlled masses to get to the bad guy. The latter solution can end up being anticlimactic, as dispatching the villain becomes something of an afterthought.

Hard, but not Impossible

For the reasons described in the previous two sections, using mind control in RPGs can be very difficult. I do, however, have two examples (both of which involving Ben, oddly enough) where it was used to good effect.

Wake up, Sheeple!

In the first instance, Ben was GMing a campaign where the players were FBI agents that investigated paranormal activities. They had been tracking a group of serial killers during the election campaign season, and were closing in on the big bad. The penultimate set piece of the campaign involved the PCs chasing one of the killers, who happened to be demon-worshipping cultists, through a crowd at a campaign rally. When the PCs were mid-way through the crowd, everyone stopped chanting slogans and turned on them, zombie-style. The mindless crowd didn’t strike the PCs, but rather attempted to grapple and smother them. This put the players in a difficult situation, as they were being attacked by innocent civilians.

Ben and I discussed this scene at length, and decided that we need a way for the players to “win” without opening fire on the crowd. So we decided that there would be some people in the crowd that weren’t being controlled, and they were the people that weren’t wearing campaign buttons. The scene ended up playing out perfectly – one of the PCs was in real danger of dying, and they almost started raining bullets into the mob before they found a way out. Then, after they got past everyone, the final boss started transforming into a Lovecraftian demon-god while they raced to kill him.

So why did this work? First of all, the mind control powers of the bad guy were scoped; they had to put a pin on someone to control them. Two, the bad guy had more going for him than just mind control, so the final battle could have its own rockmost moments. Third, the identity of the controlled parties mattered. The fact that they were innocent bystanders made the fact that they were being mind controlled make them more than just a legion of goons to be slaughtered.

The Old Lady in the Woods

The second example takes place in a campaign that I GMed set in the American Old West, but with fantasy races and magic. Dwarves were engineers and miners, elves were fancy aristocrates, goblins were tinkerers and traders, orcs were recently-freed slaves, and so on. It was set in New Mexico, and there were two Native American tribes in the region, the Apache and the Utes. I made the warlike Apache centaurs, and the peyote-smoking Utes into Wild Elves. The story of the campaign is largely irrelevant to this post, except to say that the Big Bad was a Wild Elf who lived outside of town and was known to be able to heal people.

Eventually, Ben’s PC, a half-elf named Tamlin, got seriously injured and needed to be healed in a hurry. So they took him out to the healer woman in the woods. She was a little odd, but willing to help. What they didn’t know was that the healer woman was an ancient evil mage, and that she could control minds and summon horrors from the deep. She heals Tamlin, but she also puts him under a spell where he has to do her bidding.* She tells him to go back into the world and act normally, but he’s not allowed to tell anyone what happened, nor may he harm her. Oh, and she raped him. You know, for fun.

So then she sends Tamlin back into the world, and he’s a bit shaken up. He runs into one of the other PCs, who can tell that something is wrong, but Tamlin won’t tell what happened. The other player just thinks that they’re trying to hide something. Ben comes up with the really clever solution of finding the receipt for the carriage service that they hired to take him out to the witchy woman and handing it to him. The other PC follows the clue to the carriage service, finds out that he went out the healer lady, and then metaphorically shrugs his shoulders and says “Huh. That’s weird.”

I had expected the PCs to go visit the Ute Indians, the mystical Wild Elves who lived in the mountains, at some point. They would take one look at Tamlin, see the horrible evil magic hanging over him, and dispel the mind control. Then the PCs would realize that the old lady in the woods was actually an evil sorceress, and go into the final battle prepared. But they never did. So when they got to the final battle sequence, Tamlin was still under the control of the ancient evil wizardess. She told him to kill his friends. Ben did something really cool here, in that he followed her instructions, but did so in the slowest way that he could, taking extra turns to aim and the like. In the end, however, the PCs were not able to prevail. They all died in the final battle, and in 1867 our whole world was overrun by hideous Chimeras from an aztec-like civilization.** It’s odd that nobody noticed.

Although the final result was a tad negative, I actually feel like this was a successful example of using mind control in a campaign, mostly because of what Ben managed to do with it. Tamlin, Ben’s PC, was defined by his eagerness to please and fit in. He was always the guy that would buy a round for the fellas, or go get things for people. After he was enslaved by the ancient shaman (I’m running out of synonyms), he snapped and stopped letting people boss him around. The other players could tell that something had happened, but they didn’t know what, and he wouldn’t/couldn’t tell them.

That was the other thing that was really fun. Ben knew who the real bad guy was, and the other player’s didn’t. And he couldn’t tell them. This is really a great example of where the Divide & Conquer approach shines. These were all really good players, so they probably would have made very similar decisions if they had known what happened. But since they didn’t, the reveals when they learned what was really going on had a lot more impact.

There were really two things that made this work. One, although the player was mind-controlled, I deliberately left some wiggle room in their instructions. They weren’t a mindless automaton. Second, the player was able to roll with it and make their loss of control into something positive. This was really a success because Ben made it one.

If it Were Easy, Everyone Would Do It

So yeah, mind control can be very, very difficult to use effectively.  In many attempts to introduce it to the setting, I only have the previous two examples as instances where it really worked well, and that’s including the one where all the players died.  I don’t want to discourage GMs from trying to use mind control in their own campaigns, but rather to cast more light on the pitfalls that it can introduce.


*Although the magic rules in GURPS would call for Ben’s PC to get a roll to resist the spell, I didn’t give him one. I felt like the dramatic tension would be hugely diminished if he succeeded in resisting, so I didn’t give him the opportunity. This was a classic example of the Rockmost philosophy, although before we’d heard the term. Should I give him a roll to resist the mind control? What would rock most?

**So yeah, TPK. That campaign ended on kind of a downer, and definitely made me second-guess my decision to use mind control the way I did. In the end, I still feel like it was worth it, as the decision of the players not to pursue certain clues should have negative consequences, and they almost triumphed in spite of their mistake. I feel another post coming on…

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Categories: RPGs as a Medium
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  1. March 2, 2010 at 7:11 am

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