My (red) kryptonite: Mind control in Smallville RPG

Clark Kent (Tom Welling) with red kryptonite eyes, from Smallville via Wikia

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.

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Here’s the Kicker: Character creation and plot hooks

Sorcerer_CoverLast weekend I had my first experience of the game Sorcerer by Ron Edwards. Sorcerer was originally self-published in 1996, and it was at the vanguard of the indie RPG movement. I’m not going to discuss the game extensively, but there was one thing in particular that got me thinking.

I want to talk about Kickers.

A Kicker is an unexpected event that shakes up a player character’s life. It forces the player character to react, but does not dictate how they should react. It is the set-up for the player character’s opening conflict during play.

Kickers in Sorcerer

As defined above, Kickers are not new and not revolutionary. They are basically just plot hooks. Most long-running campaigns start with something similar, usually at the start of the first session of play, to get the players invested and the characters moving. Even the standard D&D trope of being commanded by the local ruler to sort out those bandits chop chop almost meets the definition (except for not dictating how the players should react).

But what Sorcerer did that was new and was revolutionary was this: it put the Kicker into the hands of the player.

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