hypnotoadI’ve recently finished a long move out of my home state of Ohio. During the many long days of packing and unpacking, I watched a lot of netflix in the background, and being a geek I tended to watch lots of geeky tv series and movies. I realized a pretty common trope in a lot of fantasy, sci-fi, and supernatural shows is one of the main characters getting mind controlled – as in, really common. I was a little amazed by the amount it got used and how many shows made use of it. There are rules for this kind of control in many games as well. With a missed roll the PCs can suddenly come under control of an NPC who is under control of the Game Master, just like in this clip from Gamers 2.

The question that rises in my mind is whether it is fair or not.

Should any of the players characters be put under control of the game master because of mind control or magical effects? Sure, there are often rules to prevent abuse and saving throws and resistances, but does it strip a player of too much control, even if it is fair mechanically? That is exactly the concept being played out in many of the stories that use mind control and often the character being controlled gets to heroically fight it off, but players resist plot elements that feel like losing or seem to send them backwards. Ever tried to put a PC group in jail for the story elements of it? While I think elements like this that provide an internal challenge to defeat can be incredibly fun and fulfilling, I realize it requires the right balance of group, play style, and fairness. I wonder if it is worth it to use things like this and I wonder if players find these elements as fun.

So, what do you think? Are mind control spells fair game? Would it be fair for one PC under the GMs control to eliminate another PC? Should these kinds of things be cleared with the players first?

11 replies
  1. Redcrow
    Redcrow says:

    As you pointed out it is a common trope in fantasy (charm, mind control, possession, etc.) and I think completely fair to invoke on a character in game as long as it is done in moderation and only for short durations.

    As GM my preferred method of handling it isn’t to take control of the character myself, but to give the challenge to the player of portraying their character while under this alien influence. So the character may be taken out of the game for a short time, but the player isn’t. This can also help to hide the character’s condition from the other PCs for dramatic effect at a later time if necessary.

    • John Arcadian
      John Arcadian says:

      I’ve done that before in my games, but I found as much reluctance to act against the party or out of character as there was to having someone else control the character. Did your players take to playing up their “condition” well? I can see the right group of players in the right game taking to it.

      • Redcrow
        Redcrow says:

        I try to avoid using things like Charm, Mind Control, Possession, etc. where it only leads to one PC attacking another. Instead I prefer to use it to either provide the villain a mole within the group that can spy on and/or sabotage them. So for that the players usually take to it very well. It seems to only be when it results in a straight PC vs. PC that the players grumble alot, which is understandable as it likely will end badly for one of them.

  2. Roxysteve
    Roxysteve says:

    I’ve had this come up a number of times. The only time it ever works well for me is if the player is good enough (not necessarily experienced in the game system, but from a personality standpoint) I’ll explain what has happened one-on-one, list the GM’s goals for the controlled character and let the player have at it.

    I’m currently running Deadlands:Reloaded and this is bound to come up sometime given we now have a Huckster in the gang. I’m dreading it to be honest.

    • John Arcadian
      John Arcadian says:

      I like the idea of listing the goals and letting the player play those out on their own. I could see adding some motivation to the players so that they play them out instead of taking the easy path. I.e. extra experience for the player being controlled if he/she plays out actions and extra experience for other players if they are affected by the controlled player’s actions. It would make it less painful if they got backstabbed or damaged in some way by.

      I think I might do my next article on ways to help with mind control.

  3. BishopOfBattle
    BishopOfBattle says:

    My current campaign actually centers around a “mind control” setup for the players (heavily riffing off of the old D&D Curse of the Azure Bonds gold box game). When I introduced the situation to them, rather than actually telling them what they did I instead presented false situations where I could somewhat reasonably predict their responses (there may also have been a minor bit of railroading).

    In my case, they were being mind controlled to attack a passing politician, so I told them that the politician in question recognized them and shouted out to his guards to kill them and that the crowd around them was preventing them from beating a hasty retreat. After they committed to attacking and making their rolls, I laid out the actual course of events, where a group suddenly and unexpectedly opened fire on the politician from a group of civilians.

    That worked well as a one off or infrequently used trick, though obviously it doesn’t work so well if its being used in every fight. In battles with the major NPCs, who all have a method of controlling the players, I’ve used two methods of dealing with it.

    The first is that controlling the party as a whole for any length of time requires a lot of concentration and a small ritual. I use this only when the NPC gets the drop on the party and then just as an opportunity for a short Villain Monologue sequence and usually to take a single action to add complexity to a scene (ie: murdering a civilian while the NPC escapes and the police are already en route). It is never used as a method of causing damage to any of the party members.

    The second is for short bursts of momentary control over a single party member, the equivalent of casting an offensive spell. In this case, I do tell the player exactly what they are doing, but the effect only lasts for the duration of the NPC’s turn, effectively giving the player two actions that turn. They act on their turn to do whatever they want, then on the NPC’s turn they control that player to do something they want. This is typically used as an attack on another party member and is the only time I use mind control to hurt other players.

    Generally speaking, this is as comfortable as I feel doing “mind control” on players. Taking control away for an entire scene (or possible an adventure?) seems too heavy handed. I’d be more likely to use it in a one shot or side adventure where the player isn’t controlling their main hero, but that would specifically be with players who I knew could handle the challenge and would be in from the beginning on what was happening to them.

  4. Orikes
    Orikes says:

    Like many things, I think it depends on how it’s handled.

    Obviously no one likes getting the control of their character taken away from them or being removed from play for an extended period of time. At the same time, it is definitely a trope of many of the grenes roleplaying games revolve around, so it feels wrong to avoid it completely.

    For an established group, I think it can work well to get the player in on it with the GM. Instead of just doing the standard ‘PC is mind controlled and attacks his teammates’, have it be something the villain has done to infiltrate the group and get the player of the affected PC to play along until the mind control is broken. This way it becomes a storyline where the other players can slowly pick up on the wrongness of the affected PC.

  5. Scott Martin
    Scott Martin says:

    While I accept it in games that build mind control in, I do tend to avoid scenarios (and whole game systems) that involve a player being out of control of their character for long periods of time.

    On very rare occasions it can make for a great story– Roxysteve’s goal setting has worked at tables I’ve played at– or if the player embraces it. If the affected player only sees the lack of freedom–or, worse, if the player doesn’t get to make decisions or agonize while under mind control, I keep it short or mechanical in nature.

  6. Toldain
    Toldain says:

    I personally am very averse to having my character mind-controlled. My usual GM’s know this, I’ve talked with them about it. I tend to invest character build resources in resisting it as well.

    I think that while it’s a common story element, one plays a character in an RPG to make decisions, and when the GM takes the ability to make decisions away from you, there’s no reason to play.

    It also doesn’t help that my early experiences with mind control were of the form “Now go kill that other PC” Do Not Want!

    So as a GM, I tend to stay way, way away from plots that involve the players being mind-controlled. Fooled, yes. Possibly a simple suggestion like “drop it” or “put me down!” would be ok, too.

  7. Joe Rooney
    Joe Rooney says:

    My experience of this is that it’s fine to do it (within reason) so long as you don’t micro-manage how the PC goes about it. So use mind control to set particular objectives (e.g. kill the party, to give a particularly bad example) but give the player as much agency as possible in terms of their approach.

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