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Johnny’s Five – Five Issues With Mental Powers

Posted By John Arcadian On March 11, 2009 @ 3:31 am In Johnny's Five | 16 Comments

Yes, yes, I see that you’re thinking about reading this article. You are looking at the words and contemplating whether or not you should comprehend them . . .

Ahah! I was right! You’ve read these words, just as I predicted!

Mental powers can be used to great effect in a game, but they can also be incredibly unbalanced. We’re not talking Jean Grey wielding deadly telekinesis, but Charles Xavier re-writing a person’s mind type of mental powers. So without further ado . . . Yes master, I’ll stop procrastinating . . .  let’s get on with the show.

1. Mind Reading Reveals SecretsI'm a Miiiiiiind taker.
In games that focus on social aspects or have deep and intricate plots, secrets are important. One PC with adequate mind reading powers in the right place can blow the whole thing wide open. When the player meets the BBEG in disguise all of his secret plans might be revealed. Heck, the player doesn’t even have to meet the BBEG, just a well informed henchman.

2. Mind Control Makes Your NPCs The Player’s Bitches
Pardon the language. Most role-playing game worlds are populated by 3 types of people. The PCs, the bad guys and everyone else. Generally, everyone else is of much lower ability than either the PCs or the bad guys, and thus much easier to take control of with mental powers. Don’t want to pay for that item, control the shopkeeper. Don’t want to talk or fight past the town guard, turn them against each other.

3. Your Players Will Eventually Use Their Mental Powers to Pick Someone Up
Updated based on Oddysey’s Comment
Sad, but true, there is always a player who wants to score, more than they want to play the game. While these can be interesting role-playing segues leading to character depth, they are more often sophomoric attempts at being funny.  The impact of using a mental power in this way depends on how it is being used. Utilizing a mind reading power to determine the results of a character’s seduction attempt can lead to interesting responses and provide the GM a channel to poke fun at the character. Utilizing mind control powers to force an otherwise unwilling person into an undesired act can bring up some big issues at the table.

4. A Strong Enough Psychic And You’ve Got An Army
As point 2, if you’ve got someone who can take over another person’s mind, you’ve eventually got the leader of an army. Throw some range and power behind a psychic and you’ve got a person who doesn’t need to worry about combat ever again.

5. I, uh, totally forgot what the last one was. Oh yeah, wait no.
Mind wiping. In an incredibly over-powered Vampire game, my character gained the ability/curse that he would be forgotten almost as soon as he walked away from a person. I loved to quip: “Don’t worry about my name, you won’t remember it anyways.” at any opportunity. While it was fun it was also hard to leave instructions with anyone or keep people I was trying to influence on track. If you take it one step further and wipe more than just a character from a person’s mind you can leave a person unable to function.

Ok, so those are some of the issues with mental powers. That’s okay though. Every ability or power has some issue. Aside from how they can be abused, mental powers can be really fun too. So let me lay down another 5 on you. Five ways to keep mental powers balanced and fun.

1. Use The Game System’s Built In Safeguards. If Need Be, Up them
A lot of games build in safeguards to their mental powers. If you find a power being abused then read up on the power and what safeguards there might be against it. Saving throws, resistance rolls contested rolls, etc. If they aren’t up to snuff you can always make it easier on the defender by giving an across the board bonus.

2. Plan For The Power
If you know a player, or npc, has a mental power, then plan to use it in the game. The vital piece of information that you are trying to get the group to understand could be as easily gotten as sitting in a bar and covertly scanning the minds of the BBEG’s henchmen who visit.

3. Tin Foil Hats
Magneto’s metal helmet was solely written in so that he could block out Xavier’s mental powers. The particular mold used to make a wine common to an area might provide some resistance to mind-reading. A magic item might prevent it out-right. While a bit cheesy, these kinds of elements can keep a character with mental powers on their toes and out of people’s heads.

4. Don’t Deny Using The Power, But Find Ways To Make Its Use Appropriate
So the PC’s have mental powers. Let them have some fun with them. Denying a power, or shutting it down every time can ruin a player’s fun. Work with the player to make the power appropriate in the context of the game. Give the BBEG a tin foil hat only when you need to. Remember, if the characters have psychic powers, the bad guys might as well.

5. Society Always Has Consequences
Rampant abuse of power doesn’t often go un-noticed. Just because you can get stuff for free, pick up chicks, or dudes, effortlessly, get your own army of hapless followers or blank a person’s mind it doesn’t mean you can get away with it all the time. Having a little up-rising against the person using the powers, or having someone hire the PCs to look into the demon that has been plaguing the town, only to find that the demon is the psychic PC can make a player use their power with a bit more caution.

Master says to tell you that there aren’t anything such as mental powers and you really don’t have to worry about them. Master also says he wants me to make him a sandwich. So while I’m off doing that, tell me what you think of mental powers in games? Had any fun experiences with them? Broke down crying as you watch the PCs psychically trod over your carefully crafted world because of them? Know of any other good ways to counter them?

Answer the last one first, my tin foil hat doesn’t seem to be working. Yes master, mayo on the sandwich . . .

About  John Arcadian

John Arcadian is the head of Silvervine Games, a freelance writer and art director, a website developer, a builder of sonic screwdrivers, and a purveyor of kilted mayhem. When he isn't out causing trouble in his kilt... Well, no, that is pretty much what he does when he isn't running RPGs or or trying to take over the world.

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16 Comments To "Johnny’s Five – Five Issues With Mental Powers"

#1 Comment By Bookkeeper On March 11, 2009 @ 4:24 am

One rather unique counter option I came up with in a supers game was the thought-bomb. Since you could often tell if someone was sifting through your brain, it was useful to have a few thoughts that might unsettle or disrupt your intruder: For stuffier folks (Professor X, etc), go with dirty pictures. In a Vampire game, this gets easier with mental images that could induce frenzy. I later saw the notion in a comic book when a prisoner began mentally running through atrocities he had committed for the government in order to scare off the guy rummaging through his memories.

Essentially, if mental powers are part of the milieu, powerful individuals and groups should plan for them. Such defenses ought not be impregnable, but they can be difficult and varied. One of the more interesting Marvel responses was called the psi-scream – essentially the equivalent of turning up the speaker really loud and waiting for you to switch on yout psychic microphone – instant noisy feedback. A less painful variant might be some sort of psychic “white noise” generator: Yes, you can hear the thoughts of others, but it’s like trying to pick out a conversation in a bus station.

#2 Comment By Scott Martin On March 11, 2009 @ 9:46 am

Mental powers are often problematic. If you want to know how bad they are, watch the players when the powers are used on them. I know that, as a player, I’d rather control my character, not take a nap while the GM makes the decision. I’d rather take a big penalty to hit or act than be told “you can only stand still” or “attack you friend this way”.

That said, there are a number of genres where it’s appropriate and other powers are even bigger hassles. For subtle mind control, its ethics, and a ‘realistic’ influence on a medieval world, I really like Katherine Kurtz’s Deryni Chronicles.

#3 Comment By BryanB On March 11, 2009 @ 9:47 am

Yes. Mind powers can be an issue…

I am having issues with the Mind Trick Force Power in Star Wars Saga Edition. The power isn’t written out clearly and there is great potential for abuse. Nothing indicates how long it will last. Modifiers for changing an NPCs attitude are mentioned but they are not spelled out. The power is vague on some aspects of its use. I’d certainly like to have clarifications about the power but there has been nothing in errata so far. So I have started to use the modifers that are found under the Deception skill header. Still, it needs some work.

#4 Comment By Nephlm On March 11, 2009 @ 10:02 am

In the campaign I’ve run I’ve removed these powers. Or specifically the metaphysics don’t support direct mind control or memory manipulation.

However the whole array of empathy and emotion control exists. It just means they need to work harder at it. The control isn’t as fine and consequences are much more likely.

If you make your enemy angry he’s pretty much going to be angry at you.

But decent emotion manipulation tied to decent social skills allows a lot of flexibility.

#5 Comment By oddysey On March 11, 2009 @ 11:22 am

You forgot to mention that problem number three (Your Players Will Eventually Use Their Mental Powers to Pick Someone Up) is rape. (Or on the way there, at least.) There’s that whole “informed consent” thing, y’know. Which may or may not be an issue, depending on the game, but if a character wouldn’t sleep with someone who was drunk, or wouldn’t threaten someone into sleeping with them, it’s worth reminding them that using their mental powers to do so is functionally the same thing.

#6 Comment By MadmanMike On March 11, 2009 @ 11:47 am

In terms of “not always active” mental powers it helps if you remember you have them. There were quite a few times I forgot that detect thoughts was on my daily spell list (3.5). I also played a telepath in a game where we fought a lot of undead, that wasn’t too much fun either.

#7 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On March 11, 2009 @ 12:06 pm

A few pointers on mitigating the mentalist:

Such powers work both ways. And I as the GM know far more about the world than they do. (For instance, I know about this fringe organization that targets telepaths for extermination, on the grounds of privacy and self-determination.)

If the players have something like an Action Point mechanic (in order to re-roll failures, etc), shouldn’t the GM have it, too?

I’m normally pretty big on rolling openly, but when it comes to stuff like this, I roll behind the screen. Matter of fact, I think I may scribble a little article on this…

#8 Comment By John Arcadian On March 11, 2009 @ 12:12 pm

@Bookkeeper – The thought bomb is a great idea. In general organizations might plan for mental attacks, but it is the low-level NPCs that are going to be most susceptible.

@Scott Martin – You’re right. I’ve rarely ever seen a good implementation of mental powers, except when used against NPCs. Still, I’m a big proponent of anything the players can use against the world also being something that can be used against them. It’s definitely a meta-issue about player fun.

@BryanB – I know a lot of books which write in mind powers make them vague because they are hard to deal with. I think at some point developer’s just stop and say: “Let the player’s interpret it.”

@Nephlm – That’s a good way to do it. It still lets the GM have some say in how the NPCs react, or the player in how their character reacts. It does open up a problem though. I’ve had players under the influence of similar things (a pacifism spell) insist on carrying out their actions (killing a person who pissed them off) calmly.

@oddysey – You’re absolutely right. That is deep deep territory and someplace that I hadn’t gone when writing the article. Any kind of mental invasion is rape-like by its very nature. I think if this ever comes up in one of my games (thankfully it actually hasn’t), I’ll have to counter with some pretty hefty hardware to make a player aware of the consequences of their actions.

#9 Comment By dmmagic On March 11, 2009 @ 1:21 pm

I only ever had one response to mental powers when PCs had them, and that was societal uprising. Because the only time someone wanted to play a psion was when they wanted to min-max a character and abuse their power as much as possible. Subsequently, they’d be branded a witch or a demon or something and hunted down.

Good rule of thumb is to let the player know in advance how society will react. Had one who wanted to play a half-dragon in 3.5 and I told him they were uncommon and would scare people. He stayed cloaked and hidden as much as possible, but when he slipped or lost his cloak in town… well, everyone thought he was a demon :-P

Just the way it goes sometimes.

#10 Comment By John Arcadian On March 11, 2009 @ 1:57 pm

@MadmanMike – The undead are truly the bane of mind conrol. Well, the undead are truly the bane of the living as well. Still, with mind control you can make sure you have a nice human wall in front of you while you’re fighting the undead.

@Kurt “Telas” Schneider – In my opinion the GM always has the ability to secretly fudge the die rolls. If this were an open system, it could have some serious negative impacts. I.E. “I spend one of my GM points to prevent you from taking over that NPC (or charming the NPC, or damaging the NPC, etc.)” could annoy players. Suddenly it is out in the open that the GM might change things about the world based on the players. Knowing that it is done, and seeing it done are 2 different things. Now, setting a cache of points to use to make changes, and using them secretly when you make a change sounds like an excellent way to keep the improv heavy GM from over doing it and sticking to a prewritten story. I know I tend to modify the hell out of my games, often to great use, sometimes to later discovered detriment.

@dmmagic – I’m actually surprised that the societal uprising against powers doesn’t come up more in a lot of game settings. People, by our nature, have a tendency to rebel against that which is different. The first hint of magic and I would think that people who didn’t have magic would rally against it, unless of course it was benefiting them.

#11 Comment By penguin133 On March 11, 2009 @ 2:42 pm

The fantastic Ray Fiest has a nice wrinkle on mental powers in his magnificent riftwar trilogy, the main hero, Prince Arutha, is foretold to be “The Bane of Darkness”
and is therefore targeted by Undead assassins and the Forces of Evil generally; he is in possession of a magical Amulet however, given him by the Priests of Good, that simply renders him psychically “invisible”.therefore when he fakes his own death and heads for the wilderness and the enemy HQ on a suicide mission, hie gets away with it because his BBEG can’t tell it is a hoax!
If anyone hasn’t read Raymond Feist, by the way, shame on you; the nearest to written roleplaying you will ever see!

#12 Comment By DarthKrzysztof On March 12, 2009 @ 7:09 am

I approach this topic not as a GM, but as a player who’s got a telepathic character in an upcoming Mutants & Masterminds game. I’d just as soon avoid the pitfalls from the other side of the screen as well… thanks for bringing this up.

#13 Comment By Tommi On March 12, 2009 @ 7:22 am

The five issues are parameters for the game one can run while there are serious mental powers afoot. Much like if the player characters are capable of using deadly violence, then the game should take that into account.

#14 Comment By John Arcadian On March 12, 2009 @ 9:26 am

@penguin133 – Haven’t read Raymond Feist, shame on me. Sounds like an interesting take on self fulfilling prophecies.

@DarthKrzysztof – As a player you’re in an awesome position to make use of the powers in interesting ways. I’m of the opinion that, as a player, you should make use of whatever powers in whatever ways work best for the character. So if the personality type is want to go and break the world apart with the powers, go for it. If you’re playing a non chaotic neutral type of character, then you’ll probably have to do a lot of thinking about what exactly the character’s limits are.

@Tommi – Sadly, most game systems rarely ever plan for defenses against mental powers. Adequate defenses at least. Violence, such as the sort that characters engage in as a matter of standard gameplay, is planned for. Enemies have physical defenses that often work adequately against attacks. This doesn’t happen as much with mental powers. In some ways this is fairly realistic to the world. If mental powers were suddenly discovered it would take a while to explore the science of them and build up defenses against them.

#15 Comment By Snargash Moonclaw On March 12, 2009 @ 12:49 pm

While game systems don’t always take defenses into account, if the setting includes these abilities as more than secret or newly discovered abilities then the GM, in the personas of major characters still should. Even if psi abilities are extremely rare, most magic systems incorporate rather common mind reading spells. Even if these are high level spells not many can cast, characters in the setting will have certainly considered them. No one could successfully rise to the level of BBEG without having done so already.

As they are essentially part of intel gathering and interrogation tools, standard real-world counter intel and interrogation protocols have some inherent value still. That is, limiting information to a need-to-know basis. Where these abilities are common place, cellular organizational structures will be even more common – probably even the norm outside of espionage and evil master planning organizations. Major merchant houses and trade guilds will routinely impose information limitations to prevent access to trade secrets, market plans, etc.

I think most psi systems tend to make mind reading/mind control powers a bit easier than those which manipulate physical forces and objects. This seems sensible a first glance – like affects like. However, if this is a problem then it’s also reasonable to reverse this and make them *more* difficult instead. Levitating an object basically overcomes/counters a single, highly stable and very predictable force: gravity. The mind of another sapient being is anything but stable and predictable. I don’t mean mental instability in any clinical sense here. Rather, unless someone is highly focused on something, all sorts of random thoughts arise in addition to those pertaining to the persons current activity. If someone can “tune-in” to this surface chatter they’ll be overwhelmed with all sorts of irrelevant data. Additionally it’s all pretty fleeting. The mind reader would require deeper access to make any sense of most of it.for example, something reminds a subject under covert mental observation of the dog he had as a child. Observer gets a fleeting image of a dog. That’s about it. The person being observed *knows without actually thinking of any of it* a wealth of associated, contextual information. He doesn’t have to actually *think* the name Fido to think *of* Fido.

Working a little more deeply then, someone my try to read the thoughts of someone who is being prompted in some fashion to actually think of the things they want to learn – whether surreptitiously (casual bar conversation) or directly under interrogation. This still doesn’t mean the mind reader gets any *useful* information in response to the prompting. “Who do you work for” could well get the thought of “that aging jackass who’s always trying to hold me back” and a face of the mook’s immediate boss. The visual image is likely to be highly distorted compared to an actual photographic image. Features may be exaggerated, e.g., that aging jackass appears to have a lot more grey hair and lines in his face than is really the case and the visual content will probably only appear for a split second. The mind reader then suffers the same problem they would of having seen a face for a moment in a crowd and then trying to remember it later. Eye witness accounts are notoriously unreliable and the interrogator is now in this sense, an eye witness. Can s/he actually identify/recognize the person in a real encounter? Could s/he provide hir companions with a description that would be of any real use? Did s/he even catch that image before the subject’s mind moved onto some other related thought? Actually digging into someones mind for specific information (as if hacking a computer) should be extremely difficult. Informational interlinking is far more random than a computer – there are exponentially more linkages to any given datum than any computer can possibly establish/manage. Tracking a thought of the immediate boss toward any information about higher ups is fighting huge odds against constant sidetracks to memories of how the subjects dad always tried to hold him back, the local priest has the same kind of thinning grey hair – pretty much anything that might be associated for any, seemingly ridiculous reason, is going to be connected in the subject’s mind. Good hunting. . .

I agree wholeheartedly that players shouldn’t be discouraged and have their abilities made useless/pointless, but these can certainly be addressed if they’re out of hand, or simply threatening to crash a well developed story much too early without really having to rework the mechanics.

#16 Comment By Tommi On March 13, 2009 @ 7:48 am


The point is that when running a game where someone can read minds one does not structure the game such that mind reading makes the situation trivial or boring, much like when running a game where someone is playing a competent killer one does not structure the game such that merely killing someone makes the situation trivial or boring. (I don’t know about your group, but in mine people don’t always play competent killers.)

The powers that are available constrain the design space one can work in, though they may also expand it (to different directions). Considering the ramification of different powers is useful, so that one knows the constraints. One should know about design constraintsthe powers do not become problems.

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