On Irresistible Mind Control Spells (Really? Really?)

CN: mind control-based self-mutilation (because apparently this is a thing I actually need to rant about, and this is gonna be ranty)

Over Thanksgiving, I played in a D&D one-shot with a friend and some folks she introduced me to. Now, it’s fair to say I have a very high bar when it comes to running traditional-style RPGs. I’ve been blessed to play with some of the best GMs around (and have been called that myself). So when I encounter problematic GM stuff, those moments stick out so hard.

And boy fuck, did a bad one stick out. In the final encounter, the GM described the following to a player when an enemy attacked:

“The [foe in the distance] conjures an ethereal sword in his hand and looks at you. Then he takes his sword to his neck and cuts. You find you take your own sword to your neck and cut your neck. (Rolls) Take [whatever] damage.”

This was to another player, not to me, so I got to sit in shock. The first thing that went through my mind was “Mind control effects should have Will saves, yo. What is this shit?” But it wasn’t on me, so I just processed quietly for a moment.

There was a silent beat in the room, as I guess I wasn’t the only one who was quietly stunned by this description. So I took that to actually ask my question. The response “Oh, I just reskinned another spell.” (I wish I asked which spell after the fact.)

I let it go because I wasn’t going to make a scene and because I was gonna be sleeping on the couch I was sitting on later that night, so didn’t want things to get awkward. But boy fuck, I knew I was gonna write about this later.

I’m no fan of mind control spells in general. They squick me. And from a design perspective agency denial bores me. But it’s part of the fantasy genre, and at least they often allow for the chance of recovery or mitigation.

But being told by the GM that you mutilate yourself? And having no agency, even a sense of a random one? Fuck no. Don’t do that. You don’t know the lived experience of the people around you. Did any of them used to cut? Plan drastic self-harm stuff? Know people who have? Have vivid images in memory of such moments?

When you take a mechanic and significantly change the narrative around it, you genuinely change the mechanic. You may well violate other design intentions by not thinking about consequences and consistency (like taking a no-defense damage-at-a-distance spell like Magic Missile and changing its context to being about agency violation). You create discordance in a world that attempts to live by internal logic, thus breaking a sense of trust your players have with you and that world as they until that moment understood it.

So I dunno, don’t have mechanics that force people to be told how their avatar in the game commits self-harm? And other irresistible mind control spells? (I’m looking at you, every fantasy spell that’s enabled players to play out rape.) But if for some fuckin reason you still think it’s a good idea, don’t have them without agency and resistance.

(And no, it’s still not a good idea. You can do better.)

Image: Alex E. Proimos via flickr.


One Response to On Irresistible Mind Control Spells (Really? Really?)

  1. blackcoat says:

    See, phrasing it as “He draws the sword across his chest, which leaves no wound, but you double over in pain as your skin opens up in the same spot. Take 3d4+3 damage” is a good way to have that work. You get to deal the damage, it’s a weird and different effect than magic missile and makes the dude scary as hell. “That sword can cut me from a distance what if he just stabs himself in the heart oh shit” etc.

    There’s a Save Vs Death trap in one of the early 5E adventure paths, that makes you think you can breathe water and you want to swim and hide in the bottom of a pool for ten minutes. There’s no warning, and nothing the characters could do except make this one fort save.
    I fail it, and say “okay, but I’m a druid, I turn into a fish when I dive into the pool”
    This started a half hour argument with the DM, and also lead to me not wanting to play with that group anymore.