Reprise: How to Keep Mind-Reading from Breaking a Plot

Originally posted on June 2, 2010.

While I’m not too fond of dealing with mechanics as a whole, there are some that just appeal to my problem-solving nature: ones that can drive a GM crazy, but might just take a little sideways thinking. And not long ago, I caught on to a comment by Callan on Living Dice’s GM Misery Index, in which he mentioned mind-reading.

Having run a game with a mind-reader as one of the most long-running characters, I’ve learned a thing or two about working around it; in fact, I found mind-reading, like lie detection, to be one of the easiest powers to work around and provide chances to use productively but not plot-breakingly—and I’m near-addicted to plots that rely on secrets. Here’s how I went about it.

Note what the mind-reading power in question can or can’t do. Most mind-reading powers, in large part because of the dangers they can pose to a GM’s secrets, are written to specifically target surface thoughts. To look at what this means, here’s an experiment for you: at least once in the next day or two, stop for a moment and take stock of what you’re thinking about. Yeah, some of it is going to be something you’re hiding, or that’s going on right now, or worrying about something big in your future—the surprise party for your uncle, next week’s big report, the dog going and tangling with something that fights back. But some of it is ephemera. I wonder what’s for dinner tonight? Will he ever stop talking so I can go to the bathroom? Why is this song stuck in my head? Why didn’t I come up with this retort two hours ago when it would still have been useful? Deciding that what the mind-reader gets is ephemera isn’t always going to work—if his target is in a conversation about what the group really wants to learn, or working intensely on a project, he’s probably going be picking up relevant thoughts. But if he’s just raiding minds on the street corner, he’s likelier to get a diatribe against inconsiderate people on the road than something directly useful.

Another way to keep mind-reading from being a plot-breaker is in-character knowledge. Specifically, the other characters’ knowledge that the ability to read minds exists and that one of these people might use it—and even better, ways to tell if that character’s using it. You’d be amazed how quickly the thoughts of someone who’s just realized someone’s in their skull go from their own secrets to some sort of thought overlay (“If you are reading my mind, it won’t help much at all”, as one of my players put it during a card game), or equally likely to fond thoughts of what they want to do to the rotter who’s taking a listen where he shouldn’t be.

But not all mind-reading is surface thoughts alone, and not all mind-readers can be sidestepped quite that easily. Of course, that’s when we get into defensive items and powers, or ways of shifting one’s own mind to give off the wrong result—but that’s also when we get into other questions. One is whether all the information is necessarily accurate. Characters can have wrong impressions, incorrect conclusions, information that they never quite managed to acquire. Just because a mind-reader can learn all sorts of inconvenient things doesn’t mean he will—he might learn things that are inconvenient for him instead.

And speaking of the mystery element, there’s also what happens when you’re dealing with a full-on mystery plot among a group of people technically answerable to authority. Sure, maybe your mind-reader has figured out whodunit and why from a dip in someone else’s brainspace—but what are they going to do with that if the courts won’t accept the results of a mind-read and just taking the guy out themselves will get them branded outlaw within the evening?

This’ll cover a good portion of the mind-reading tricks that might put a kink in the standard plot. I’ll be looking more into this later; do you see anything I’ve missed?

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