Ask GV: On Controlling PCs

UZ asks (in response to one of the Management’s posts, but hey, if it gets the mail-slot going…)

How do you get a PC to accept mind control? How do you sell servitude to someone who fights (theoretically) for freedom?

Dear UZ:

That’s a very good question. The PC is a special kind of protagonist—resistant if not immune to plot-induced stupidity (source-induced stupidity, on the other hand….), innately aware of the forces behind the Wall, and equally likely to serve the Laws of Dramatics slavishly or flip them the bird based on unknowable whim. On the plus side, they have a massive weakness to variations on random chance.


Before you get started, take a look at your targets. Are they obsessed with money and bragging rights over everything else? Do they seem to feed on angst? How important is the concept of their group? That’s going to determine who’s vulnerable. The ones with a lot of team-feeling are going to be tricky; it is a Priority for them not to betray their friends. But the ones who love angst, who are fond of moral ambiguity, who are barely holding on to their inmost desires and will soliloquize about it at the drop of a hat? Play to whatever it is they seem to want and it’ll be easy. You might want to consider also the caliber of the part of them outside the Wall, if you have any way of finding out. Every now and then something you do will appeal specifically to the Out-Waller, at which point you’ll have to just figure out how to get that appeal across.

You’ll note that while I talk about this in terms of pitches, mind control works best when it isn’t detected, nor even seen coming. You’re dealing with people who think simultaneously on both sides of the Wall, and you’re trying to sell to the ones beyond the Wall while leaving those on your own side of the Wall completely unaware, until they’re already under control and dealing with the disadvantages and (rarer) advantages thereof.

Last of all, play to the numbers. If you’re dealing with PCs, then just about everything is probably numbers at its core. Go for the vulnerable, the ones who never learned to fight on this particular sort of battlefield, the ones who cannot make their own luck.

For example….

Say you’re dealing with someone who has this Thing about forbidden things—temptation, stuff that the teammates would look askance at, base urges, that sort of thing. If your control gets them to do the things they want to do but won’t admit to, the Out-Waller is going to be having a field day, and even the PC you’re actually dealing with, if he realizes he’s being controlled, might not necessarily fight it, since it gives them the perfect excuse: it wasn’t me! It forced me to!

On the other hand, let’s say you’ve got someone who on your side of the Wall is a hard sell, but whose Out-Waller might find this state of affairs interesting. Let’s say you have a case where the opponent on your side of the Wall is a hard target—strong-willed, very set towards one goal, a team player first and foremost, that sort of thing—but you know their Out-Waller wants the most interesting story possible and has a fondness for internal conflict. If you can make the case on the other side of the Wall that what you’re doing will be dramatically interesting, and leave a little bit of loophole room but not enough to fully sabotage you, it’s not unheard of for the Out-Waller to actively lend you a bit of a hand. (The Management could probably tell you all about these sorts of scenarios.)

Note one last thing: be aware of the level of trust between your opponent’s Out-Waller and your own. Most of the Out-Wall tactics I’ve discussed here are far more effective when that level of trust is high; if the opponent’s Out-Waller feels that yours is only there to make her life difficult, that makes her a lot less receptive to ‘inconvenient but interesting’.

If you have your own questions, leave a comment on this post, and we’ll have an answer and (if applicable) a linkback for you.


  1. UZ says:

    So it’s to be an appeal to higher powers… interesting. Once you get out there the possibilities are nearly endless, up to and including the irony of getting a strong-willed character to take the mind-control bullet for a weak-willed character, and team spirit becomes a weakness.

    That is, until the laws of Dramatics reassert themselves because cheaters never prosper. This is part of the reason why I’m asking about having this happen at a PC level rather than a meta level.

    See, in most stories a villain exerts a certain amount of pressure on what we consider to be the natural order – they are an attractor, effectively, but the order doesn’t allow for attractors and the more the villain pushes the harder those laws will snap back, no matter how facultative they are. (See Batman and consider who the creative forces are in that story.)

    But, if you can get a PC to believe, it ceases to be wrong, or *as* wrong, depending. Look at the standard evil-wedding-to-the-PC’s-boyfriend trick. Tearful evil weddings are easily crashed, but a cheerful evil wedding will leave the protagonists sad and confused, trying to figure out why the love of their life is marrying, for example, Seymour Guado.

    Of course it’s always a lie and they’re just pretending to be happy, right? But that can’t be with mind control, they have to believe it. This is what I’m looking for, a reason for the PC to hitch their wagon to your mind control as cheerfully as they hitch it to the status quo. If we can get the agreement to go bottom-up instead of top-down, you’re not bending the rules nearly as hard and it won’t hurt as much when they snap back.

  2. Ravyn says:

    Yeah–heh, I should have put a little more emphasis on that first paragraph. Took it for granted that people would know how to Know Their Target, given it’s something I harp on semi-regularly.

    I harp on the meta level because it’s the biggest difference between PCs and Everyone Else–the fact that they are controlled by two sets of emotions, and that someone who appeals to both not only gets all the benefits of a fully convinced target, but occasionally finds some of her obstacles being smoothed out because someone behind the Wall finds this Interesting (or, conversely, that there are some things that should go smoothly given the immediate opponent but hit the Out-Waller the wrong way and end up bombing because of it). Why not take full advantage of it?

  3. UZ says:

    Because watching a character truly and recognizably be themselves is probably my greatest joy in any kind of narrative.

    I played a game once long ago where one of the PCs was a barbarian. He was a bit unusual; most barbarians are impractical creatures supported by huge reserves of energy, apt to commit the most unnecessary acts and then afterwards claim that they were practical, when in fact they were usually poetic justice or in some cases just pure audacity.

    This barbarian was eminently practical, disregarding for the moment his ear collection. He would eat anything that was less than two weeks old, he felt no compunction in running away from danger, and at one point in a philosophical discussion he argued that it was a warrior’s duty to attack the weak because those were the ones he was sure he could defeat.

    There was something about him, though… he was ten times as appealing as a normal barbarian, his absolute bald-faced self-servitude and his willingness to do nearly anything to survive made him a more convincing survivalist than any other character I’ve ever seen, and by a few sessions into the game every player could play him in-character. He was somehow intuitive, and even though you’d never want to be around him in reality, he was an awesome character. It was a joy to watch him be his grubby self.

    This is somewhat a characteristic of my writing (at least for me), people you’d run from in real life but are great fun to write about. But to achieve this I try to keep the higher levels from intruding noticeably on their motivations. It’s not a rule, obviously, but it helps in my case.

  4. Ravyn says:

    Indeed. (The Management very much approves.)

    I tend to assume people more along the lines of the Management and her lot. The kind that will point their characters’ weaknesses and proclivities to the plots they themselves are interested in. She had a player once, practically begged for one of the nasty political players in their setting to wrap his character around her little finger, since that was something on which the both of them, both sides of the wall, tended to align, much though the Inner of the two would deny it. And then you have the Management herself, who channeled a love of living by her wits and talking out of situations with a character who recognized the strategic power of surrender and/or playing the bait to get her to places or to people she couldn’t for whatever reason get to on her own. So the key, I find, is to get them to channel in parallel, so it’s partly the Inner and it’s partly the Outer and the synergy between them pushes your agenda far harder than Narrative Dramatics or falling polyhedra ever could on their own.

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