Possession is Nine-Tenths of the Law

Mind Control and Psychic Combat!

With last week’s release of Bound by Gold, Malador the Mystic once again seizes a mortal body with which to threaten the world. But this newest Astonishing Adventure adds a rub: The heroes are brought into the investigation to help rescue the young man Malador is currently inhabiting. Bodily possession and mind control are common elements in superhero media; they make for emotionally wrenching resolutions as the hero overcomes the domination or tearful reunions as the hero draws out the original host’s spirit to help fight the possessing villain through heartfelt pleas.

Mutants & Masterminds, 3rd Edition uses the same rules for mind control and possession, revolving mostly around the Compelled and Controlled conditions applied via the Affliction power. A Compelled character’s Standard Action and Free Actions each round are determined by someone else, with their Move Action lost to the struggle for dominance. A Gamemaster might allow them to shout out warnings to those around them, but otherwise their only role in the action is to slow the force controlling them. Controlled overrides a character’s free will entirely, leaving all their actions each round up to the controlling force with the original mind a helpless passenger. Because Compelled is a 2nd degree condition, a hero overcome by it can attempt a new resistance check at the end of each round to shake the effect and regain full control of themselves, but Controlled—being a 3rd degree condition—can only be resisted once every minute.

While mechanically appropriate, the Compelled and Controlled conditions sidestep the narrative drama that mind control and possession can offer, so let’s look at some other ways to handle these effects in ways at the table to get everything you want from this classic trope.

Narrative Mind Control

Not all mind control needs to be equal. As an alternative to short-term “combat” mind control, narrative mind control make influence over a character as total and long-lasting as you need, particularly with villains like Malador or Knightfire who take mortal bodies as hosts. In these cases, it’s assumed the host’s mind is overwhelmed either by one of the most powerful wills in the cosmos or by an evil they invited in willingly. But beyond even these exceptional cases, narrative mind control means that villains with a focus on mental domination can keep a cadre of loyally brainwashed agents around without re-applying their Affliction power every ten rounds.

While the example of Malador is very overt, narrative mind control may be subtle instead, barely changing a character’s behavior or only causing them to act strangely when no one might notice. In this situation, a controlled character may only act in the middle of the night—sleepwalking for all they or anyone else knows—or they might think they’re going through their daily work tasks while unwittingly funneling information, security codes, or resources to the villain. The controlled character doesn’t fight the unnatural control because they aren’t aware of any unnatural control; everything seems perfectly normal from their point of view.

Narrative mind control is effectively permanent until deliberately ended by an outside force: a mystic dispels the control spell, the heroes defeat the psychic villain, or a hacker purges the corrupted software from the android’s brain. In some cases, a character under subtle narrative mind control might be able to fight the effects once they’re aware of it, transitioning from this model to the traditional Compelled and Controlled conditions once a character is presented with obvious proof or the villain makes their control overt and clearly opposed to the character’s morals. Especially subtle mind control may even linger after the obvious “fix” as psychics leave post-hypnotic suggestions that won’t trigger for weeks or a possessing spirit leaves just enough of their essence behind to reach out to the victim in their dreams.

Narrative mind control works best when applied to NPCs because it takes agency away from a character indefinitely, sometimes overwriting them entirely with a new character in the case of possessing entities. Some players might find the role of double-agent fun, however, so be willing to ask if a perfect story opportunity arises. In this case, the control becomes a temporary Complication, allowing the GM to occasionally dictate or forbid a course of action for the hero in exchange for a Hero Point.

Fighting Mind Control from the Outside

Mind-controlling afflictions come with a built-in mechanical solution: the target gets a new resistance check regularly to throw off the effect. But that solution isn’t necessarily satisfying in an emotional confrontation between a hero and a friend forced to do evil. Here are a few suggestions for ways the heroes can help an ally compelled against their will:

Aid

Heroes’ words of encouragement and love can help the target find their inner strength and throw off outside control. This functions like most Aid actions, with any heroes who help making appropriate PRE-based skill checks against a DC 10. A successful check grants the target a +2 bonus on their next resistance check against the control, while three or more degrees of Success bumps the bonus up to +5. Heroes will generally make Presence checks, but Deception, Expertise, or even Intimidate checks might be appropriate in different situations.

The Psychic Beatdown

Most mind controlling or possessing villains maintain a strong mental link to their target, so a hero with attack effects resisted by Will, such as a Mental Blast, might be able to target the controlling mind rather than the target themselves. At the Gamemaster’s discretion, this might require enough psychic sensitivity to tell the two minds apart (with a Sense like Psychic Awareness or Acute Detect Minds), count of a use of Extra Effort, or be a default ability of a Will-based attack.

An Incapacitated result immediately ends the villain’s mind control. A Dazed or Stunned result doesn’t, but allows the target a resistance check against the control if they haven’t already made one this round (making this tactic more useful against fully-controlled victims).

Challenge Sequence

For groups without a psychic warrior, appealing to the target’s human decency and compassion might help break them free as part of an optional challenge sequence. This option can be satisfying for roleplay-focused players who want evocative or dramatic resolutions to fights rather than just throwing bolts of energy. As with the Aid action, heroes can opt to make a skill check or appropriate power check as a Standard Action toward a challenge sequence to help the victim shake free of their unwanted control. The target DC is either the control effect rank +10 (more appropriate for mind control) or the villain’s Will rank +10 (more appropriate for villains possessing a physical host). The total successes needed varies, with a base of 1, plus 1 for every 5 ranks of the controlling power; shaking the mind control effect imposed by Affliction 10, for example, requires a total of 3 Degrees of Success. Increase the necessary successes by +1 or +2 if mind control is the villain’s primary power or somehow core to their existence (such as Malador’s psychic bonus to a host body), so ejecting Malador the Mystic (Will +14, possessing targets is key to his existence) from a host via a challenge sequence would require 5 Degrees of Success on DC 24 checks.

This avenue is strictly optional and not always appropriate, so check with your Gamemaster if its appropriate to an encounter before you begin investing time into the attempt. Some villains might simply need to be defeated before they can be excised from an someone’s mind. As a compromise, heroes might need to know intimate details about a character to try appealing to them, and may need to reveal personal information about themselves such as their secret identity.

Talking Points

Similar to the challenge sequence, a talking points solution to mind control of possession can be very satisfying and emotional, but turns the encounter into a roleplay scene rather than a challenge sequence. In this case a hero doesn’t need to roll dice at all; they must simply recall enough important details about the character to reach their mind and force out the unnatural control. Make a list of 5–10 important details abut the character and decide how many of them a hero must bring (generally half as many) up before finally breaking through the control to reach the target. This might include their name, their family, beloved pets, ambitions, favorite music, career, or fears—whatever feels relevant to a character and their life. Especially important talking points may even count as two points, creating a few vital elements to a character or a “power of love” moment. This solution obviously works best for freeing NPCs who are already close to the hero rather than strangers or random victims, but it can still work as the climax at the end of a long investigation where the heroes have to learn many details about the victim’s life. Heroes are limited to bringing up one talking point each per turn, but once they bring up enough, the target can automatically shake off the mind control.

Rather than a solution, talking points might instead buy the heroes some breathing room. In this case, each talking point isn’t a step toward freedom, but bringing one up imposes the Dazed condition on the victim for one round. Talking points that would count double instead leave the victim Stunned for one round.

Like the challenge sequence, talking points are strictly options, so consult your Gamemaster if you like the idea.

Fighting Mind Control from the Inside

the Mindscape where psychic battle becomes physical

One of the biggest criticisms against mind control at the game table is that it essentially takes on player out of the game until their character can shake the effect. Many players feel like they might as well run and grab a pizza or boot up a video game because they know it will be a while before they need to pay attention again. Much of the advantage of a mind control power is that it limits the heroes’ action economy—how often they are allowed to act in a round—while usually adding to the villain’s

Giving a mind-controlled player something active to do can help salvage their night and make the encounter more memorable for everyone.

Play Along

Some players relish an excuse to go toe-to-toe with their fellow gamers, pitting their build against their friends’. Others love the dramatic tension of their hero turning on their allies and unleashing both physical and psychological punishment. For these players, simply being told “You’re mind-controlled now. You have to attack you allies, but you can decide how,” is the start of a great scene. Let the player decide how they unleash their abilities against their friends and don’t underestimate the pathos of a player choosing story-based conflicts in this occasion, saying hurtful things or exposing their friends’ secrets rather than attacking physically.

As with all player-versus-player approaches, be careful pitting a mind-controlled hero directly against their friends, as it can lead to hurt feelings away from the table. It might be a better idea to turn a mind-controlled player character loose against the police or military or a rival villain, while the remaining heroes battle the villain while shorthanded.

Ghosted

In some cases, overt mind control or possession may force a character’s mind or soul out of their body while the villain maintains control, leaving the hero a bodiless ghost floating over the battle. The character gains Permanent Insubstantial 4 and Permanent Concealment 10 (All Senses), but may still be able to interact with the physical world using mental effects, abilities with the Affects Substantial extra, or by using Extra Effort. A hero in the midst of an “out of body” experience like this might instead explore nearby rooms to gather information or be ejected close to someone close to them, like a kidnapped lover whom they can comfort or try to learn the whereabouts of.

Mindscape Battle

Many superhero stories handle a psychic battle of wills as literal combat inside a mindscape or the Astral Plane, with the hero’s psyche donning idealized armor and battling the invader’s mind or hallucinations. In this case, a hero being mind controlled doesn’t remove their player from the action, it only relocates the action to the psychic plane. The hero must fight alone against a psychic copy of the villain (replacing their mental powers with more overt Damage or Affliction effects) or face off against hordes of minions that reflect the villain’s psychic control, such as the Tulpa (Deluxe Gamemaster’s Guide, page 149). Alternatively, the villain’s psychic avatar might translate their mental mastery in the real world to be martial mastery in the mental worlds—use the same personality and description, but select a physically-oriented statblock like the Powerhouse or Weapon Master hero archetypes. If the hero succeeds in their struggle, they knock the villain’s control over them down by one stage—Controlled becomes Compelled, Compelled becomes Dazed, and Dazed becomes unaffected.

If you want to add more details to the mindscape battle, check out the War of the Minds sample scene from Chapter 6 of the Deluxe Gamemaster’s Guide.

 

However you choose to apply mind control and possession to your superhero games, the key is to provide fun and options to your players, not take options away. Be creative and willing to adapt, and encourage new ideas or unorthodox strategies. The end result might be different, but it’s likely to be an experience everyone remembers.

Crystal Frasier

Crystal Frasier is the developer for the Mutants & Masterminds Roleplaying Game, as well as a comic book fan, RPG geek, and corgi aficionado. She has played a variety of roles within the tabletop and video game industries, and has lent her talents to companies including Green Ronin, Paizo Publishing, Palladium Books, Onyx Path Publishing, Rogue Genius Games, and Kobold Press.