Mind control is a staple of genre fiction. It appears in fantasy, science fiction, and horror. It’s used an awful lot in superhero stories. As such, it’s hard to avoid in any roleplaying game that tries to emulate any of these genres.
But mind control is rooted in the idea of removing someone’s agency, and playing a character without any agency is just not very fun. Ask anyone who has had their D&D character under the influence of Dominate Person for round after round after round…
Smallville RPG includes mind control, at least in part because it was based on a TV show that was chock full of mind control and other forms of mental alteration. Given Smallville RPG’s commitment to the concept that no player can ever dictate another character’s choices, mind control could have been a fascinating addition to the game. Unfortunately, it isn’t. It’s either so weak that it can be ignored, rendering it meaningless, or it’s so overpowered that it violates the game’s core principle of protecting player agency.
In short, mind control in Smallville blows harder than Clark Kent’s super breath.
In this blog, I will describe various ways that we could hack Smallville to make mind control work better, taking inspiration from some other roleplaying games. The different strategies are not mutually exclusive, and two or more could be combined in the same game. Maybe even all of them together.
What’s wrong with it?
Smallville’s main focus is its player-versus-player Contests, which happen when one character wants another character to do something (and do it voluntarily). Contests are escalating sequences of rolling dice, with players at each stage either having their character Give In (do what the other character wants them to do) or rolling (trying to exceed the previous result). If a character doesn’t Give In, they do not do what the other character wants. That choice is always in the hands of the player. However, if a character doesn’t Give In and cannot beat their opponent’s last dice result, they suffer Stress.
Mind Control is an Ability, which is one of several types of trait that you can roll into a dice pool during a Contest. Abilities represent superpowers, and other trait types include Distinctions (personality traits or skills), Relationships and Values. All traits are rated as dice from d4 to d12.
When used in a Contest, Abilities like Mind Control work like Distinctions and are exactly as useful as Distinctions. This is intentional, and keeps super-powered characters on a similar level to non-powered ones. However, Abilities and Distinctions interact with the fiction slightly differently.
Distinctions like Attractive, Impulsive or Martial Artist can be used when they reflect what’s happening in the fiction, but they do not require the opposing player to react to them specifically. If a character doesn’t want to Give In then they don’t need to roleplay how conflicted they are at disappointing the Attractive person. If someone is reacting to being punched in the face, they won’t necessarily respond differently if the puncher is a Martial Artist. The active player should roleplay their own Distinctions, but the reactive player doesn’t need to.
On the other hand, Abilities establish something in the fiction, rather than merely reflecting it. Abilities like Flight, Heat Vision or Shapeshifting let characters do something that other characters just can’t, and they demand a reaction when they are used in a Contest. But in my experience, players don’t roleplay their characters as being affected by Mind Control even when someone rolls that trait into a dice pool against them. Perhaps when players say “My character wouldn’t do that”, I should ask “But would your character do that when they are mind controlled?” I imagine that would quickly get tedious, and players could still go on as they were.
I also said that sometimes Mind Control is overpowered. That’s because, as an Ability, Mind Control has certain Special Effects that characters can get. These are activated by spending Plot Points, and include:
- Insert a post-hypnotic suggestion in your target to be acted upon later; and
- Make a target oppose their friends without having to maintain control over every action.
These bypass Contests entirely. Pay a Plot Point and you’ve automatically dominated another player in the specified way. The rules imply that they cannot even resist until a later scene, ideally when the mind controller is no longer present.
So how do we fix this?
The Sorcerer strategy
The easiest (and, frankly, best) answer is to just exclude mind control as an option from your game.
That’s what Ron Edwards did in the game Sorcerer. The Annotated Edition says explicitly that, although it is possible to influence a character’s behaviour to certain extent, it is a feature of the game “flatly fixed in place” that no human can be simply told what to do.
I realise that there will be a lot of people who aren’t satisfied by this solution, many of them interested in playing games that are similar to the genre media I mentioned earlier in the blog post. However, it is still possible to adhere to the spirit of this solution while including mind control in the game world, and that is by ruling that mind control only affects NPCs, not player characters. This may be in-character (the player characters are explicitly immune) or as a shared agreement out-of-character.
In Smallville, this makes mind control less useful as a trait to be rolled in Contests (before for NPCs and players), but it is still useful as a way of driving drama. Villainous NPCs can use it to put the friends and allies of the protagonists in danger, or even use those friends and allies as minions and bodyguards. The protagonists will be less able to defeat the villains because they will be invested in ensuring that their friends aren’t hurt.
The Dungeon World strategy
Maybe Mind Control should work even if characters don’t Give In.
In Dungeon World, Wizards have a high-level magic spell called Dominate that lets them control another person, but only in specific and limited ways.
In Smallville, there’s precedent for a player to win a Contest and get what they want, even if their opponent didn’t Give In. If someone wants to take a MacGuffin that someone else is holding, and that other person does not Give In (i.e. does not voluntarily release it), the winner could still take the MacGuffin by force, perhaps inflicting Injured stress on the loser.
In the case of Mind Control, a player might refuse to Give In but their character would nevertheless do what the controller wanted involuntarily. The controller would not be able to take active control of a person, but the person would be compelled to perform the specific and limited action that the controller wanted, even if the action is against their own wishes.
The compelled character would still be played by their usual player, and may even retain their own senses and personality. The player knows exactly what the character has been compelled to do (which must be, again, specific and limited), but has freedom to do this however they like.
The Fate Core strategy
We could separate the establishment of control from the giving of instructions.
One of the ways you could do mind control in Fate Core would be for a mind controller to place an aspect on another player called something like ‘Under my control’, e.g. by rolling to create an advantage or inflicting a consequence. Since aspects are true in the fiction of the game, the targeted player would be expected to roleplay as if mind controlled until they could resist the control, e.g. by rolling to overcome.
In Smallville, players have an option to introduce plot elements into the fiction by spending Plot Points to create Useful Details, which exist for a scene and can be rolled into relevant Contests like a trait for free. One effective type of Special Effect is to spend a Plot Point to create a Useful Detail rated at d8 (most Useful Details would be d6).
Therefore, we could replace the current Special Effects for the Mind Control Ability with one that allows players to create a d8 Useful Detail called ‘Under my control’ on another character. The mind controller spends a Plot Point to influence the plot, and it goes to the affected person. The Useful Detail is now a part of the fiction, and must be roleplayed accordingly.
It does not mean that the controlled person will do any specific action that the controller wants. That will still require a Contest, although the mind controller will have an advantage because they can include a d8 Useful Detail for free for a whole scene, and there is an expectation that the victim will be roleplaying as if they are mind controlled.
But fiction is full of examples of mind controlled people resisting. Each Contest is a chance for the control to be broken. If there is a Contest and nobody Gives In, this is the kind of situation that could easily lead to ominous nosebleeds (Injured stress) for either participant.
The Apocalypse World strategy
Players should have more incentive to Give In when their character is being mind controlled.
In Apocalypse World, there are various moves for influencing other characters. These include basic moves like go aggro, seduce, and manipulate, as well as explicitly mind-controlling moves in the Brainer playbook, like in-brain puppet strings. Although they have different rules and are used in different contexts, they have in common that the person being influenced can choose to do what the influencer wants or suffer consequences (e.g. taking harm). Seduce and manipulate can also give experience to the person being influenced if they agree to do it.
This focus on the player’s choice of whether to submit is similar to what happens in Smallville but subtly different. In Smallville Contests, players have the choice to Give In (do what the influencer wants) or to roll dice. If they choose to roll and do not exceed the previous result, they will take Stress, but there’s almost always a possibility that they might roll and exceed the previous roll, taking no Stress at all.
It would make more sense if mind controlled characters had a clear-cut choice between Give In or Stress. That is, if they have already rolled in the Contest and failed to escalate, they should have a choice.
In Smallville, this makes most sense as a Special Effect on the Mind Control Ability. You could replace existing Special Effects with one that says ‘Spend a Plot Point to permit your opposition to Give In before you roll your Stress pool against them’. As with Apocalypse World‘s seduce and manipulate moves, this Plot Point would go to the opposition, and they would have the option to Give In and gain the Plot Point, or resist and know that they will suffer Stress.
The Worthington Academy strategy
The last strategy I’m going to suggest is one that doesn’t exist in any other game, because it relies on using the mechanics that are unique to Smallville, specifically Value and Relationship statements, and the ability to Challenge them. I call it the Worthington Academy strategy, not because I’ve actually used it in my ongoing X-Men campaign of Smallville (discussed here and here), but because my players and I came up with it during a discussion at the most recent session. That does mean it’s a bit less polished than the other ideas, but here goes anyway.
In Smallville, the key traits to roll into a Contest aren’t Distinctions or Abilities, they are Values and Relationships (collectively called Drives). Drives have corresponding statements that indicate what a character’s personal beliefs are (for Values) or how a character feels about another character (for Relationships). These can be Challenged during sessions and rewritten between sessions.
Mind Control could be used as an Ability that temporarily gives a character a new statement, possibly even over-writing an existing Value or Relationship statement. This could take the place of existing Special Effects for Mind Control.
The new statement can’t be Challenged, or at least not in the same way. Perhaps you roll three dice when following the new statement and only one when Challenging it (reversing the usual rules). Or you use the full Challenge mechanics (roll three for now, then step it down) when you act on the new statement instead of subverting it, and it disappears when you step it down all the way. Or perhaps you can continue to Challenge the original (overwritten) statement, but not the new one.
The original statement would remain on your character sheet, but perhaps you can only use the original statement when in a Contest against the mind controller, attempting to resist the control. Otherwise, you will need to wait until the new statement disappears on its own, perhaps at the end of a scene like a Useful Detail.
I’d be really interested in hearing if anyone tries any of these strategies in their own games (of Smallville or otherwise) and if so how successful they were. Do any of you have any other ways of including mind control in your RPGs without deprotagonising your players? Please let me know.