Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Dominating PCs

Must... Resist... Urge... to Skydive...
Once in a while, every Dungeon Master starts to stumble into the section of the Monster Manual where monsters don't just attack your HP, but mess with your mind. And not just in a "I'm a Dragon/Lich/Evil Mastermind and I'm so clever" kind of way. In a mechanical kind of way.

This is more than just imposing the charmed condition. That's a simple mechanic with consistent, workable results. You can't attack the charmer, and the charmer gets advantage on Charisma checks against you. Pretty straightforward.

I'm talking about Dominate Person. Geas. Command. Suggestion. Heck, even Charm Person can be a hassle when it's an NPC using it on a player. There are quite a few monsters in the MM that come with these troubling spells, and sooner or later a DM will use a Rakshasa, Lamia, Vampire, Orc Eye of Grummsh, Sphinx, or Yochlol in their game.

These spells mess with a basic tenant of Role-Playing games. One of the contracts you make in an RPG is "Player tells DM what they want to do, DM tells player how world reacts." Mind-controlling spells add limits to that first part of the contract. And even though there were already a lot of limits in place (such as sticking to fantasy tropes, etc), players seem to find total control too much to concede.

When you accidentally the whole party
But of course, there are ways to allow agency to exist even in these situations. First, let's explore some options that can be used in any situation, then let's go into some of the actual problem spells and figure out how to best handle them in game.

Options for Controlling PCs

1. Tempting Offers

One of the simplest ways to allow this sort of mental coercion (and admittedly one of the weakest mechanically) is to make the player a powerful offer. They obey, or X happens.

Get the picture?
This is usually situational, and often exists outside of the scope of a single spell, but it can still offer choice. Let's take an ongoing example: a devil has magically ordered a fighter to attack the other members of the party.

For this method, the devil could be inside the character's head, rooting through their memories. Perhaps they find the fighter's family, their guild master, or a location of significant importance. Something that would otherwise never hold the devil's interest. But the devil promises that this target will be under attack from devils unless the fighter obeys. Then, the player can take the threat of losing something important in their decision to obey the devil.

2. Meta Suggestions

Another simple way to perform mind control on a character is to simply give them suggestions as the DM. These suggestions would later be revealed to be the machinations of a spell.

This is the face of a person who gives high Job Satisfaction ratings
Again, this is a situational method, and usually requires some prep by the DM. Going back to the fighter example, the DM would have had to plant the suggestion in the party's mind well beforehand.

In this scenario, the DM would have told the party that there was a traitor in their midsts, and that the players couldn't know who it was because the traitor wouldn't act differently until the right moment. Alternatively, the DM could have told the whole group that the that traitor's player knew, but was told not to tell anyone. In reality, no player had been told.

In the fight, the devil would simply call out to one of the other members of the party as if they were an ally. This would, in a roundabout way, cause the fighter to attack that ally.

A final note about this method: This requires a DM manipulating the metagame, which can work for some groups but not for others. Make sure your players are the type of players not to flip tables when the deception has been revealed!

3. Exploitable loopholes

This is likely the most straightforward method, and probably the one that most DMs already use. Basically, you give the player a command that can be fudged to have minimal effect on the group, if the player is quick-witted enough.

It's your turn to take the trash out
In our devil and fighter example, this could manifest in a few different ways. The simplest way would be for the DM to say "The Devil orders you to attack your allies." A smart player will switch to a dagger or use a shove action to mitigate the effect. A harder suggestion would be "The Devil orders you to attack your allies with your magic sword." Even then, if the fighter strikes the party's barbarian or paladin, they can lessen the effect a bit. A very smart player could run 30 feet, throw their sword as an improvised weapon (with disadvantage due to the range) and deal extremely low damage.

The key here is to keep the suggestion slightly vague. Allow the player to determine part of their action, but not the whole action. This makes the players who know what they are doing get to be clever and look cool in the face of danger.

4. Single body part defiance

In certain situations, it might make sense for only a portion of the player's body to be out of their control. The wording of a Command, Suggestion, or Geas spell might only affect a single arm, leg, or even digit on a character. This is similar to the exploitable loophole above, except that it effects the character rather then the wording of the command.

Dang, I needed that mouth!
In these situations, allow the player to use the rest of their body to fight back. Make a strength check to see if they can hold down their rogue arm. Make an Acrobatics check to see if they can hop on one leg. Even a slight of Hand check could be called for.

In our example, the Devil would have commanded the fighter's sword arm to attack, without affecting the rest of the body. The Fighter, hoping to save their friends from pain, might have to make a srength check to force their sword arm to drop the sword.

5. Confusion-like effect

This method works best when you have a relatively small player in a combat casting the spell. For example, if the Devil in question is merely a mook in an Archdevil's army. In this case, it doesn't really matter what the devil wants the player to do. The Archdevil is the real threat here.

Enemy has done a great confuse upon me
In this case, it's perfectly fine to have the player roll on the table provided with the Confusion spell (PHB pg. 225). The table provides a few different options that a creature might randomly tell an enemy to do, including something that doesn't affect their action/movement.

I would make this a little more flavorful, however. In the example we're using, I would use something like this:
  • 1: The devil tells the fighter to flee, it doesn't care where.
  • 2-6: The devil orders the fighter to grovel and praise it
  • 7-8: The devil orders the fighter not to come any closer, but to attack whatever is within reach
  • 9-10: The devil tells the fighter to use a free action (PHB pg. 190), probably sheathe their active weapon

6. Disadvantage

This is lifted directly from Compelled Duel, and is one of the only ways of enforcing mental control in the Rules as Written.

Simply put, impose disadvantage on every action the character takes except the ones the spell suggests. This is a very fast and easy way to run these spells, but in some situations the detriment of rolling with disadvantage won't stop the player from continuing to do what they want.

This is fairly obvious from our example, where the fighter will basically have disadvantage on anything but attacking their allies. However, this probably won't stop the fighter from attacking the devil anyway.

Specific Spells and How to Use Them

Calm Emotions! I said calm! CALMER!
Calm Emotions (PHB pg. 221)

Best method: Exploitable Loopholes

The condition suppression isn't a big deal for this spell, but the forced indifference is. I would make this spell end an active combat, with the condition that the players can't start a combat again until they are attacked. This give the players a challenge: how do they get someone to attack them, before the enemies get a full minute to heal and regroup?

Charm Person (PHB pg. 221)

Best Method: Meta Suggestion / Exploitable Loophole

You can easily have a player make a Wisdom save at a party without telling them why, then have an "Old Friend" show up a half-hour later with advantage on all charisma checks. Alternatively, you can use the method above, where the players have to figure out how to get the NPC to harm them. Finally, this spell features a failsafe: after an hour, the player will know they were charmed, and then anything goes.

Command (PHB pg. 223)

Best Method: Exploitable Loophole

This spell provides a good amount of easy commands with defined mechanical effects. Of course, there are whole forums on better command words than listed in the PHB, and since they are only one word, they are ripe for exploitation. Orc Shaman tells you "Betray!"? You could always just reveal a secret you've been keeping about another character.

Compelled Duel (PHB pg. 224)

Best Method: Disadvantage

Works best as written.
This seems natural and healthy
Compulsion (PHB pg. 224)

Best Method: Single Body Part Defiance

Works best as written. Since you aren't taking their action, just their move, and they get to save again at the end of their turn, this isn't that bad.

Crown of Madness (PHB pg. 229)

Best Method: Single Body Part Defiance

Works best as written. Since you aren't taking their move, just their action, and they get to save again at the end of their turn, this isn't that bad.

Detect Thoughts (PHB pg. 231)

Best Method: Tempting Offer / Meta Suggestion

This is a great spell for threatening something the character loves, especially on a failure. I would look at the character's Bond when looking for "something that looms large in [the character's] mind". Alternatively, the monster could be able to gain knowledge of any information the player talks about at the table. Then, as a DM, simply ask the player what they don't want to think about.

Dominate Person/Beast/Monster (PHB pg. 235)

Best method: Exploitable Loopholes / Single Body Part Defiance / Confusion-like effect

This spell has two levels: simple commands that can be turned into exploitable loopholes, and full control that is best done via a confusion-like effect or a single body part. This is a high-level spell, though, so it should have an appropriately difficult set of commands with few loopholes. It might be best to write out some commands and actions ahead of time if you know you will be using a monster that has this spell.

I hope you like Blood-tinis! Because that's all we've got around here.
Enthrall (PHB pg. 238)

Best Method: disadvantage / Meta Suggestion

Works best as written, but in certain situations (such as combat) it would make more sense to tell the player they think they have been transported to the Ethereal Plane with the caster. This could simulate the hazy, less-perceptible visions of anything else around them.

Feeblemind (PHB pg. 239)

Best Method: Confusion-like effect

This spell is really more of a plot device than something you should use in a random combat. However, if you do need to figure out what the character should do while they have a shattered intellect, the confusion table is a good way to represent that. I would include the caveat that the player won't attack friends at random if they roll a result of 7-8.

Friends (PHB pg. 244)

Best method: Meta Suggestion

This spell works best if you portray the caster as friendly and likeable, but tell every player except the charmed one that they get a bad feeling from the NPC. When the spell ends, of course, all bets are off.

Geas (PHB pg. 244)

Best Method: Meta Suggestion / Exploitable Loophole

A long-term spell like this is perfect for setting up a meta suggestion. The DM can call for a Wisdom save without asking why, then a minute later a shadowy figure approaches and makes a deal that sounds too good to be true. Of course, this has a built-in consequence of dealing psychic damage when disobeyed, but the once-per day limit can make this easily seem like a character is just developing horrible migraine headaches. Alternatively, this spell could have a command with an exploitable loophole, giving the player the option to take the damage each day in defiance.

It's not you, it's me.
Phantasmal Force (PHB pg. 264)

Best Method: Meta Suggestion

This is a tricky one. The difficulty with this spell is threefold: the player must make an Intelligence save, the spell only affects a single target, and the spell only lasts a minute. So the "bridge" in the example would be quickly disproved by the player's suspicions, the other players, and the time limit. In order to make this work, I'd first suggest rolling the player's Int save in secret. If they fail, then you can tell them they see something "out of the corner of your eye" or "that you didn't notice until just now". For best effect, make it something personal to the character: a small trinket, a ghost of a loved one, etc. Then, the player might not be surprised when the other players say they can't see it. Also, give it some sort of "escape method": the trinket slips out of their hand and is lost in the grass, or the ghost fades from view.

Suggestion/Mass Suggestion (PHB pg. 279)

Best Method: Exploitable Loophole/Single Body Part Defiance/Meta Suggestion

This spell works well as written, which I would use an exploitable loophole to employ, but it also contains a version where the player is affected for an entire 8 hours. The suggestion "walk west and don't stop" is completely reasonable. This is where I would employ a different method. Single Body Part Defiance is a good one: then they can still do other things while they walk for 8 hours. Meta Suggestion also works: the spell ends if the caster or their companions damage the character, which leads to a good problem to solve. This works well with Mass Suggestion.

Dryad/Succubus/Vampire's Charm Ability (MM pg. 121/285/297)

Best Method: Meta Suggestion / Exploitable Loophole / Tempting Offer

This one is a more potent form of Charm Person, so aside from using the Meta Suggestion or Exploitable Loophole Methods, I'd also use the Tempting Offer method. I'd possibly use these in conjunction with each other to impress the potency of the creature's charms.

Just hanging out, being spooky
Ghost/Intellect Devourer's Possession Ability (MM pg. 147/191)

Best Method: Meta Suggestion / Single Body Part Defiance

This one heavily depends on if the Ghost is friendly or hostile. A friendly ghost will probably allow the player to continue acting, but the DM can emphasize certain plans of action to that player. A hostile ghost will be fighting against the target for control and will certainly try to control various body parts. Of course, the intellect devourer will nearly always be hostile.

Harpy's Song (MM pg. 181)

Best Method: Single Body Part Defiance

Works best as written. Since you aren't taking their action, just their move, and they get to save again at the end of their turn, this isn't that bad.

Nothic's Weird Insight (MM pg. 236)

Best Method: Meta Suggestion

Honestly, this is the easiest one on here. Most players would jump at the chance to reveal a secret or flesh out a backstory for their character. Just ask the player.
Unlimited knowledge always seemed like a worse deal than unlimited power.
Hopefully this helps, and gives you some cool ideas on how to run these tricky types of scenes.

Thanks for reading!

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