Mind Control and You.... and Them...
Mind control abilities have always been avoided or very poorly executed due to their extremely powerful/angering nature so here are some tips on how to use it properly to enhance your game.
Players Hate Mind Control!
This statement is mostly true. Fortunately, it doesn't have to be. Most players will experience complete and total rage if their character has just been 'told' what to do by the GM. They themselves want to choose their character's destiny. They themselves want to decide how to perform in combat, skill checks and the like. A player that has just been mind controlled may cross his or her arms and sit there for the rest of the session with a scowl on their face. Makes sense. The fix? Usually it is to throw away the ability or item involved with mind control and substitute a health potion, 20 pieces of gold, a basic attack, or something else much less fun instead. And that's why we're here. We want to avoid 'less fun.' We want to avoid mundane and focus on utilizing mind control powers, abilities, and items to their full potential to add another fun and exciting element to the game.
The Golden Rule
The golden rule? Allow your players full and total control of their characters at all times. Which means throw those nasty mind control abilities away, right? WRONG! Instead of throwing them out the window to rot beside a pile of complicated rules text, Excalibur, and Cthulhu, let's take another approach and change how they work slightly, for the better! We'll examine how to modify the way they are utilized so they are both fun and exciting for both the players and the GM alike and we are going to take away any grumbling and headaches that would normally accompany these otherwise ignored masterpieces! Lets start with you, the GM...
For the GMs
It is totally possible to have an NPC use a mind control ability on a player that does not affect the player's turn in combat. Let's say you've got a powerful sorcerer that the players encounter but he has a mind control ability. Oh the horror! There are a few ways we can make this work:
- Do it on the NPC's turn. Allow the players to take their own turns as normal throughout the entire encounter. Then, when it's the NPC's turn, use part of the turn to 'take control of a player character.' This makes the players feel like they are truly taking on a powerful enemy without taking away their own actions and ideas. The NPC may be using a player character to attack another PC, or move them out of position, but what's the difference if it's all done on the NPC's turn? It would be the same as the NPC attacking a player, or using an ability that is moving a player around the room. Utilizing mind control this way, again, will make your players think they are taking on one of the baddest mothers out there. Which will make for great fun and great glory when they ultimately defeat it!
- Using a form of resistance. This can be helpful, too, in allowing players to feel as if they have more control over their own destiny. A willpower check (or the like) could be used to either completely resist the incoming mind control ability or minimize its effect.
- Make a suggestion, rather than a dictation. If a player fails to resist the mind control ability, maybe tell the player 'you feel an overwhelming urge to attack a friendly PC.' Then leave it up to the player to decide the outcome. Some players will not want to play along and say 'I resist the temptation.' Other players (who have probably been dying inside to attack another PC) will say, 'I can't control my arm! YOU! GNOME BARD! I STAB AT THEE!' This allows everyone to do exactly what they want, which is the purest definition of fun.
- Make extreme limitations. Perhaps only getting within melee range of the enemy NPC will provoke him to using mind control tactics. Or maybe it's only used against them if they're NOT in melee range. Or it's only used if they aren't standing on a certain rune on the floor, etc. This allows the players peace of mind because if they don't want to be controlled, they'll figure out what they can do to avoid it. Again, this will add excitement to the encounter because not only is it a combat encounter, it has an element of a puzzle as well. You can also put limitations on the duration or the effect of the mind control. Maybe it only lasts one round at first with a very minimal effect. Then it could gradually become more powerful as they continue to provoke it. Keep in mind this will only work, though, IF you allow your players a way to avoid it entirely. If it's totally random and effects THEIR turn, you run the risk of breaking the golden rule.
- Goad them into a desired result. Admittedly, this suggestion is a little more difficult to pull off. But if you can do it, kudos! Using illusion to your advantage you can try to trick the players into doing what you want them to do. This is like... mind control in real life... kinda. If you want the mind control to effect only one player, speak directly to that player. If you want to mind control the group as a whole, speak to all them in general. Kinda like this: 'You see the wizard casting a spell that is causing the ground beneath you to give way!' It is totally an illusion, but you may get the player to run away from where they are standing anyway. Or, 'You notice when the barbarian in your party takes damage, it seems the evil wizard does too!' Use that to turn a PC against another PC, if they buy into it.
- Have it only affect other NPCs. I put this suggestion in here with a big caution sign attached to it. THIS CAN EASILY BE EXTREMELY BORING! I really only advise using a mind control ability this way if you are truly struggling to pull off any of the aforementioned suggestions. If your bad guy is only affecting NPCs that are there to help the players, it most likely is going to make your bad guy look like a total wuss to your PCs. Or worse, make YOU as a GM look like you are coddling the players and don't want to hurt them too much. If that happens, it's going to make the fight or encounter seem very boring to them, kinda like you hit the 'easy' button before what should have been a climactic battle. However, it is worth noting that some groups may indeed enjoy this because it will allow them to see a mind control ability being performed without it breaking the golden rule. It is also worth noting that even though this suggestion has severe drawbacks to it, it CAN have much, much reward as well. How so, you say? Glad you asked. You can use it to 'test the waters' so to speak. If you're not sure how your group will react to a mind control ability, do it this way and only use it on NPCs around them. If it looks like they are completely insulted or totally indifferent to it... throw one of the previously mentioned suggestions at them to blind-side them and reinvigorate your table! Or, allow your villain to quickly escape so you can take more time and come up with a really cool encounter using one of the other suggestions to full potential. If they seem to be taking it as 'hey this is really cool' then leave well enough alone. If you use this suggestion outside of combat, it can be a good way to let your players know what they will be getting into in a future encounter should they pursue this mind controlling bad guy. Doing it this way will most likely diminish an unwanted reaction since they'll kinda know what they're getting into ahead of time.
As a final note for GMs, know your players. You know if your players get upset if things don't quite go their way or if they roll with the punches and laugh while it's happening. This will help you determine which of these suggestions to use if and, hopefully after this article, WHEN you use mind control next in your campaign! :)
For Your Players
It could be fun if players were able to get a hold of a mind control ability or item. What barbarian DOESN'T want to know what the hot barmaid is thinking about? So here we are going to discuss how to let your players actually use mind control. Something worth noting, if you give one of your PCs a mind control ability or item, even if you have all the necessary limitations on it, they WILL think of something you haven't. Seasoned GMs are already aware of that fact. New GMs... you've been warned. With that being said, let's explore the ways in which we can let our players have fun while we, as GMs, keep our sanity.
- Make EXTREME limitations. Just as with using it for an NPC, making very extreme limitations for players is necessary so mind control is fun, not frustrating. And, when dealing with players, we are going to emphasize 'extreme.' So here are a few examples of how to make good limitations for mind control abilities/items.
- Range. The range of the ability should not be far at all. Something like earshot of a normal speaking voice would be good. This prevents a PC in town A from using it on an NPC in town B. Or even from a PC using it on someone down the road or in the next house over. Eye contact is another good limitation for range. This way a player can't make a guard on the other side of the wall unlock the locked door so easily. Combining both of these limitations together is highly recommended.
- Time. This one should be obvious, but we're going to talk about it anyway. The duration of the mind control effect when used by a player should not last long at all. If a player is allowed to control an NPC for a few minutes, there is no telling what will happen to your game. But time can be limited depending on the severity of the action, though, it needs to be very clear to the player that this is going to be the case BEFORE any attempt of the player wanting to use a mind control action to avoid an upset player. An example of a time limitation would be that if a PC wanted to make a grumbling NPC whistle a happy tune, it might go on for several minutes. If a PC was trying to get a banker to open the vault, it might not last long enough for the banker to put in the combination before he finally comes to his senses. These examples bring me to my next point...
- Actions. Players should not be allowed full control of an NPC with a mind control ability. They should only be allowed to choose one action to have that NPC perform. In other words, if they are trying to make a jailer unlock someone's shackles and another jailer sees what's happening and says 'hey what are you doing?' The mind controlled jailer should not be able to respond. He should also not be able to stop the action of unlocking the shackles. Kind of like, once a player says they are going to put something into an NPC's head, that action and ONLY that action is in there until it either succeeds or fails.
- Using a form of resistance. Like mentioned earlier with GMs, using a form of resistance is always a good suggestion if not a 'must' when dealing with players. It should change depending on the severity of the desired action as well. For instance, to convince an NPC to start dancing would probably warrant a very low resistance roll for that NPC. On the other hand, to convince the NPC that 'these aren't the droids he's looking for' would add a very high modifier to that NPC's resistance roll. Also, the higher the level of the NPC, the higher the resistance rolls should be naturally because the results can be so much more potent. In other words, common guards would have a lower resistance than the commander since the commander's actions might dictate the actions of all the guards.
- Limit it to combat. Making a mind control ability limited to combat encounters only will help avoid a lot of headaches outside of combat and it will grant players a LOT of joy. Used alongside with some of the aforementioned limitations will make it a very fun ability indeed. Example: the PC wizard uses mind control on an orc. The orc fails its resistance check. The orc is now under the control of the wizard during its turn for a certain amount of turns (maybe based on the wizard's own willpower check.) So the PC wizard takes his turn as normal, and when it's time for the orc's turn, the wizard governs where he moves, what he attacks, and who he attacks (most likely another orc unless he's that crazy wizard in the party that attacks the gnome bard again with the excuse of 'it wasn't me! It was the orc!') Why the gnome bard is always picked on is beyond me but that's for another post and another time....
- Make it exhausting for a player to use. Allowing players to run around mind controlling stuff at will all day long is going to make you as the GM pull all of your hair out. All of it. Like, not just on your head. A way to avoid this is to make it very exhausting. You could make it so that the PC has to stand absolutely still and can't control their character while they are using mind control on an NPC. Then when the control effect ends, the PC must wait until they sleep for 6 hours (or equivalent depending on racial abilities) before being able to use it again. The more power you grant the PC when controlling an NPC the longer that duration should be. In other words, if its minimal, simply waiting a few hours may be sufficient. But if they are governing EVERY action of the NPC for 30 seconds to a minute... or more (not recommended) then maybe it takes several DAYS to recover from such concentration to be able to use that ability again.
- Suicide. This is one of those things that a player will think of that you haven't... So now you know. And knowing is half the battle. If allowing a player to obtain an item or ability that grants mind control over an NPC, I highly recommend not letting them implant the idea of suicide unless its restricted to ONLY combat and only on lesser NPCs such as orcs. Otherwise you are going to find that the end boss the players have been tracking down for the last several sessions suddenly went all emo and is attempting to jump off the cliff, taking all his loot and experience points with him.
- Limit its area of use. This is different than range. This means maybe the item can only be used during a special ritual, time or season. Or only used on a certain plane of existence where your current campaign is taking place. This allows a way to be rid of the mind control item when you decide you no longer want to deal with. And it's much better than telling a player 'someone stole it' or 'it broke.' A player will be O.K. knowing they only have a certain duration to use the item. As a side-note: It will be much easier for you as a GM to limit an item with a mind control quality to it than an ability, skill, or spell a PC learns.
I really hope this was helpful for anyone reading this and that it makes you want to take that item or ability that was thrown away when you bought your GM's guide and resurrect it in a way that is both fun and exciting for you and your players alike!
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? Responses (6)
Provides a great overview of a problem many players and DMs have run into, and then suggests a plethora of solutions (and their disadvantages). We need more posts like this!
I would like to add that giving the players mind-reading often has two big side effects - a taxing burden in terms of coming up with what the heck the player is thinking (being accurate) and the difficulty of not ruining the game in terms of whatever suspense the DM is trying to engineer.
The suggestion to do it on the NPC's turn is gold. Never considered it before, but it is solves a ton of problems. Having, say, the NPC relocate the player and then have the player waste their move on their turn just heading back to their previous position underpins the struggle that a player under mind control would engage in, while giving the players their agency back.
A useful submission.
Great overview and suggestions here. I wonder if another approach, similar to your 'Goad them into a desired result' approach, is to lay the bait for the player, so to speak, give them things they *want* to do, but as part of the mind control have that be an illusion, revealing that what they were doing all along was what the controller wanted them to do. Does that make sense? It would require some skilled writing and probably a little luck, but the payoff would be great.
Something I just thought of after reading the comments from Mageek and Dozus: Allow the mind control ability that a PC is using as a plot hook. They see someone's thought and it's about how to assassinate the king or something similar. Thus sending the PCs on a quest to figure out how deep the assassination plot goes. Or, sort of as a more positive way, maybe one of the players, while sleeping, keeps dreaming of a magical item or weapon. And the more dreams they have, the more is revealed in where to find this item which doesn't actually exist but is instead a trap that tricks the players and lures them into his dungeon.
Great article. I also like the idea of treating Mind Control as basically a form of illusion. It has the disadvantage of requiring notes/private chats/etc to implement fully though.
Willingly playing out the effects of mind-control should provide some form of reward to the player, even in the case it leads to their character's demise. Perhaps some form of boon on their next character.
I echo Mageek's 'we need more posts like this' line. LOVE the subject matter and the way this is written up! Keeps you entertained while reading. Great comments too. Very nice!