Mind control is tricky business. As a player in a D&D-descended game, you understand that you have limited control over the world at large, but you are the final arbiter on how your character thinks and acts. Losing control of your character’s behavior is effectively being denied the right to actually play the game. No surprise, then, that how to handle the effects of persuasive skills and mind-altering magic remains an ongoing debate in RPG design circles. Apocalypse World and Dungeon World offer an interesting take that preserves player agency—if you do the thing you’re told to do, you get experience points—but the choice feels like it separates the player from the character more than I’d like. I recently stumbled upon another way to handle a Charm spell targeting player characters, though: If the caster comes across as genuinely friendly and likable, and most other supporting characters are bigger jerks in comparison, you probably don’t even need to roll any dice.
To be fair, this technique may be unique to my current group, or even just the specific situation they were in. I thought it was worth mentioning, though, because it worked even though the odds were stacked against this character. After all, the players had been sent to kill the target, not chat him up. Also, he was a ten-foot-tall wasp-god with creepy human hands, a zealous cult following, and widely publicized magical powers.
Some context might be helpful here.
In our ongoing soulslike Knave game (Grave), the player characters, fresh off their victory against the AntiPhoenix (the living embodiment of finality, from Veins of the Earth), were sent by the Spectre of the Bröcken (a giant she-wolf made of skeletons, also from Veins) to kill the Deepwasp (a giant, immortal bug-wizard from Cold Ruins of Lastlife). When they got to the Deepwasp’s lair, however, he also congratulated them on their victory against the AntiPhoenix, publicly rewarded and celebrated them in front of his many followers, and offered to send them on quests for more rewards, should they desire it. And when they asked if they should kill the creature that sent them to kill him, he said no, with seemingly genuine sadness that no one he has ever sent on that quest has returned, and he does not wish to send them to be needlessly destroyed.
That was May; it’s now July, and they’re still doing quests for the Deepwasp. Players who joined late and got the recap asked, “Wait, why haven’t you guys killed the Deepwasp yet?” And then, upon meeting him and being celebrated before all—in a world where pretty much everyone else they’ve met is either trying to kill them, convert them, or, at best, charge them for goods and services—they agreed he seems like an all right guy. One more quest can’t hurt, right? And then, the rewards! He’d regurgitate a stream of glowing soulmatter into their open mouths to grant a whole level at once, touch their heads to impart knowledge of exactly the spells they’d hoped to find, and grant magic items that did just what they needed. Just one more quest for this guy can’t hurt … right?
Gradually, though, the cracks started to appear. After one quest, another supporting character wryly informed them that they just sparked an arms race between factions that were pointedly not killing the giant larva bristling with magic weapons; the player characters would now have targets on their backs. And upon returning to the Deepwasp’s lair, they couldn’t help but notice that even as he praised them for their great deeds, his followers were starting to look pretty resentful that these newcomers kept stomping through with all kinds of magic doodads they never seem to share. The players started discussing a scheme to start a magic weapon lending library, arming the Deepwasp’s most disaffected followers, and hopefully getting them to kill him. Or if not them, maybe getting the Frigid Knights (also from Lastlife) to throw some guys at him. If they don’t want to fight the Spectre of the Bröcken, they’ve got to take care of this guy.
Partly, I’m sure, this is just old-fashioned cautious play, doing their best to minimize risk to their own characters—but then again, in this setting, their characters are functionally immortal. And sooner or later, they’ll remember that the Deepwasp seems to have divination powers rivaling Santa Claus (he sees you when you’re sleeping, he knows when you’ve killed the AntiPhoenix), so it may occur to them that their secret plans to destroy him may not be so secret. But I can’t help but wonder if they’re so hesitant to attack him because they kind of like him.
Things are coming to a head, and soon they’ll try to act against him, “Charm” or no. What might happen when push comes to shove, and we have to address—likely with some dice—whether this is actual mind control?
If you’re one of my players, you should stop reading now. (Yes, this means you, Casey!)
I’ve considered a few possible avenues. I’m not going to do all of these, but I figure I’ll present everything that occurred to me in case it’s helpful to anyone else pursuing a similar agenda. Just in case you ever find yourself GMing just such a situation yourself, you might want to….
- Bind their bodies: Let them do whatever they want to do up until they try to take a specific action the charmer doesn’t allow … and then, they just can’t, as surely as if they tried to play piano with their hands chained behind their back. You lift your blade to strike, and it suddenly feels heavier than a boulder; your knees quake; your stomach lurches. Roll to see if you can overcome your body rebelling against you.
- Deceive their senses: The magic was like an illusion, presenting the charmer as the kind of fellow you’d love to get a beer with (or do a fetch quest for). Once you call for (and succeed) a roll to see through it, though, you start remembering things differently. It felt at the time like he’d been praising you, but now you remember his mocking tone; how he called you “worm” and “slave”; how his followers laughed at you when you thought they cheered you on; how he bragged about the vile rituals he’d finally perform with all the trophies you brought back to him.
- Poison their gifts: Anything the charmer has given to the charmed is a potential fishhook to tug on later. Anything he imparted mind-to-mind, soul-to-soul, is now a part of him that lives inside you. The more of him you willingly accepted into yourself, the harder it will be to resist the effects when he starts shaping your form into something else entirely. (Maybe you should’ve asked that man-sized beetle blacksmith of his, “So what’s your story?”)
- Stay the course: Will you keep striking even as your target cries in pain and confusion? Why have you turned on me? he wails. Oh, no—you have been charmed by my enemy. You are not in your right mind—but it is you who are named in the prophecy, you who must survive to save this world. I … will not fight back. Strike true, then, and when you come to your senses once more, I beg you—he pauses, tears welling in his great, humanlike eyes—forgive yourselves, for you know not what you do.
We’ll see what happens. And I do hope they get that magical weapons lending library off the ground. Sounds like a fun project.