4e: Mind Control

Content Warning: I’m going to discuss some mind control stuff in ways that violates consent. Not any specific outcomes from that, but if you find the whole vibe icky, that’s what this is about.

Also, other, I guess, content warning: This isn’t about the horny topic of mind control, so if that’s the vibe you’re hoping for, sorry?

Rather what I want to talk about here is the way Dungeons & Dragons uses Mind Control across its multiple iterations and how, as tends to happen when I talk about it, 4th Edition did it in the best way.

Dungeons & Dragons has always had mind control as part of its world. Evil enchantresses doing evil dances are all over the place in the fantasy space it works from, and the inspirations of Lord of the Rings and The Bible and other fairy stories fill the world with all sorts of unreasonable jerkholes who use mind control to get what they want. However, things like cursed turkish delight doesn’t translate super well to game mechanics, and when enemy wizards can cast spells, the vision of how D&D was meant to work at first meant, well, of course you get to use those spells.

I wasn’t super informed about the way it used to work in 1st edition. 2nd edition had spells like charm person and dominate monster, which in Baldur’s Gate 2 were basically pointless. You could use them for occasional tricks, but it’s generally easier to just do one of the many other broken things that are available and reliable, because the city of Amn is just a dumb loot pinata. Still, those spells existed, and 2nd edition had wording like:

If the spell recipient fails his saving throw, he regards the caster as a trusted friend and ally to be heeded and protected. The spell does not enable the caster to control the charmed creature as if it were a automaton, but any word or action of the caster is viewed in the most favorable way.

Incidentally, this spell can only be ‘recipiented’ upon a creature that is a bipedal person, and it is of humanoid man-size or smaller. Man, 2ed was wild. Like, you could break out a negotiation of personhood when you try to charm a bullywug.

My first D&D, 3rd edition, had the same set, because one thing 3rd edition really embraced was the idea of including as many of 2nd edition’s bad ideas as it could. Enchantment was as a school, populated with a lot of effects that included things like buffing allies and even giving someone a complete Executive Function failure in Hold Person, but there were still charm person and dominate sitting there. Bear in mind Charm Person lasts a long time: 1/hour per level, which means that it’s not actually that hard to keep someone under its effect for a long time, especially in the mid game when your 1st level spell slots aren’t under pressure. Creepy!

The charm system tied into the diplomacy system, which let you use a diplomacy check against a fixed difficulty (?) change the attitude of NPCs. This system is pretty vague, but also not vague enough: The rules as depicted seem to make it clear that you can, by default, spend one minute talking to someone, hit a high number on a skill check (and those numbers are very attainable, even if you want to eat a 10 point penalty!) and suddenly, a character can shift from hostile, like actively attacking you, to willing to fight for you.

And that is a badass thing for a character to be able to make happen, but by the rules, this is a mundane skill effect that the wizard’s been doing for a while, but also, the rules only suggest that maybe you can’t repeatedly attempt to improve someone’s disposition to you. It’s weird, because by presenting this whole things a button you can push to get effect, you’re kind of weirdly systemitising the diplomacy skill into this device that lets you do this as a fairly elaborate but still possible combat maneuver?

This is important to consider, though, because 3rd edition D&D’s entire system space for all social interactions ties back and forthe between these spaces: Mind control spells work like diplomacy and diplomacy works like mind control. That’s a bit weird.

There’s this assumption that you just kind of want a heroic application of these spells, which is pretty weird. 3rd edition even had rules for spells to just plain out be evil spells though those are all in the necromancy space. Apparently, violating consent isn’t evil but reanimating a skeleton is. That seems skeleton-racist to me.

The thing with this whole mind control question is presented as necessary and convenient. That is, charming someone is something that people do. I can charm someone and I am not a wizard (I’m a warlock patron, we’ve been over this). Charming someone is a low level utility spell on par with locking a door, or translating some complicated text. You can’t make a charmed subject kill itself, but there’s a lot of stuff you can make it do, because it regards you as a friend, with a charisma check.

I’ve never had to explore what this means, though, because my players are all adults and we have left our own unnecessarily edgy D&D playing in the past, but that’s still a yikestastic space to have just sitting around in the rules. And when it sits there long enough, it has the implication of being safe to play around in. Charming a guard to get past them vs Charm Personing a guard to get past them aren’t so different in this landscape, and I don’t know how 5th edition handles it, but the talk I see about it seems to imply that we’re back at this place of ‘magically making someone do things is a morally neutral act and its applications are left as an exercise to the reader.’

In 4th edition, there is no ‘charm person.’

Charms existed: But charms are a subtype of powers, and charm effects are very specific in what they do. Charms are used to signal existing powers that have an effect that coerces an enemy, but it also specifies those actions – sometimes moving them, sometimes making them attack something. These effects are dotted through a number of powers, too, which mean that if you are playing a mind-controlling kind of heroic character, your options are very specifically limited to the combat arena most of the time, and outside of that you have to make do with being good at Diplomacy.

Bear in mind that Diplomacy in 4th edition is also different: It doesn’t have a fixed table or anything like that. It instead talks about how the skill is used and the general kinds of outcomes you can get, which in this skill system means that there’s a lot more room for the DM to make choices about the outcomes and diplomacy specifies that it’s for negotiating in good faith.

Because 4th edition has specific applications for charm spells, there’s no need for the generality. Because diplomacy is specified as working in good faith, there’s no need for using it as a form of manipulation. Because these skills and systems are kept separate, there’s no ambiguity about abrogating NPCs (or god help you, PCs!) consent or will!

What’s more, there are ‘coercive’ actions that everyone can take that have different flavours. A fighter can reposition an enemy or make them attack an ally, through the use of martial techniques that lack the charm keyword – so suddenly, the control over enemies is no longer seen as only existing in this space of mental manipulation and consent abrogation. It’s that characters can do these things, and that the nature of combat in the universe is one where things get moved around, your decisions get curtailed, and you can push, pull, coerce or manipulate people in combat so you don’t need to force that onto enemies.

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