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The Mutual Illusion of Control

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Yesterday, while watching the 68th episode of the second campaign of Critical Role (I’m late, I’m sorry!), something happened to pull my attention from the plot of the campaign and straight into player psychology, thinking about the fluidity of roles, and my early game-mastering shortcomings… Needless to say, what happened in Critical Role is in no way a fault on Matt’s part (and I’ll get into what actually happened in a bit), but I think it’s an interesting thing to note for all game masters.

Art by Jesper Ejsing; for Magic the Gathering

Here’s some context:

The party enters a dark cave where and while crossing a 
long bridge, the characters hear whispers from below.
Two characters (say, Alice the Able played by Zelda,
and Bob the Builder played by Xander) end up alone
after falling from the bridge.

GM: The voices that you heard before are getting
louder. Roll a Wisdom saving throw.
Zelda: Alice passes!
Xander: Bob fails the check...
GM: Bob, you feel the voices overtake you. Roll for
an attack on Alice!
Xander: Oh shit! *Rolls attack, hits, rolls damage.*

It’s not a big deal if you missed it but right there, Matt broke what many game masters will tell you is a rule you should never ever break: he took control over the player character from the player. In this case, he took Bob from Xander and told him what to do. Why is this not a problem here, and why shouldn’t you do it? Let’s unpack this.

Once upon a Time…

Let’s travel to early 2007 and follow me around as I was getting ready to be a game master for a group I barely knew at the time, except to know that they liked D&D. Growing up in a small place, reasons like this can be enough. Our first session went on for around an hour before I made several cardinal mistakes, only one of them actually being game-breaking. I’ve decided to bring in and introduce the “big bad” of the first part of the campaign to them in a memorable way: to show off their power, they cast Dominate Person on one of the player characters and proceeded to low-key use that character to get what they wanted from the party.

Let’s see what Dominate Person says (emphasis mine):

You attempt to beguile a humanoid that you can see within range. It must succeed on a Wisdom saving throw or be charmed by you for the duration. If you or creatures that are friendly to you are fighting it, it has advantage on the saving throw.

While the target is charmed, you have a telepathic link with it as long as the two of you are on the same plane of existence. You can use this telepathic link to issue commands to the creature while you are conscious (no action required), which it does its best to obey. You can specify a simple and general course of action, such as “Attack that creature,” “Run over there,” or “Fetch that object.” If the creature completes the order and doesn’t receive further direction from you, it defends and preserves itself to the best of its ability.

You can use your action to take total and precise control of the target. Until the end of your next turn, the creature takes only the actions you choose, and doesn’t do anything that you don’t allow it to do. During this time you can also cause the creature to use a reaction, but this requires you to use your own reaction as well.

To be fair, though, the 3.5e Dominate Person says this too:

You can control the actions of any humanoid creature through a telepathic link that you establish with the subject’s mind.

It was a different game, and compared to the 5e version above, this reading is way too vague to be useful.

I saw this spell as a chance to just let the players do their stuff, and then make the charmed character railroad them to the point I wanted them to reach. Awful, I know, but I’m not a talented game master. I learn from failing, and this was a large lesson! At one point after asking the player for a Wisdom saving throw (and them failing), I told them nothing until I needed them that their character just feels like something is overtaking them. Then I roleplayed the character instead of them, making the character do and say some things that would make the party realize that it’s the big baddy. I didn’t attack or pose any immediate threat, and in my head, I was reaching the wanted result of shock and horror at the relative difference in power between the party and this being. Shock, horror — success. The reasons weren’t what I expected, however. The player who just got mind-controlled erupted like a volcano (we were teenagers, prone to angry rants all the time), and refused to play on. We stopped the game (actually, we never continued that campaign afterwards), and when we all cooled down, I asked them how I should have approached this. The conversation went like this:

Player: Let me roleplay my character.
GM: But the character is being mind-controlled!
Player: The character might be, but I'm not!

I was a mess… It took me years of contemplation and shame to understand what exactly this means. It actually means exactly what it sounds like: do not take control from your players, even when you take control from their characters. Trust the players enough to have them roleplay their characters in any and all states of disarray. Give them the illusion of complete authority over the character. Trust them to know what is most interesting for the story of the group, and if you think they don’t know — maybe you’re out of the loop and should reevaluate your stance, or talk to the group! This is how you can earn their trust: to know that even though the whole world is the GM’s domain, that one character is precisely and exactly in the player’s realm.

So, how do we reconcile “take total and precise control of the target” (as Dominate Person tells us) with this new constraint? Well, actually, the very next sentence says it all: “Until the end of your next turn, the creature takes only the actions you choose, and doesn’t do anything that you don’t allow it to do.

While the player has an illusion of complete authority over their character’s life, the GM has to uphold an illusion of complete disconnect between their will and the player characters.

While I agree that the “take total and precise control” part is a bit hard to ignore, bare in mind that these spells were mostly written so that the players could use them on monsters. Whenever choosing to make a judgement call about some rule, ask yourself if whatever you’re going to do next is going to be fun for the group. Will taking the character away from the player be fun? I thought it could, but I was wrong. The players aren’t there to enjoy your story, and they need to feel as if they’re alive in this imaginary world you helped create. You may choose the character’s actions and constrain them, but all of this can be expressed verbally.

You could stop for a while, take the player away and tell them what to do and what not to do. Make it imperative. Make sure they know that they are being commanded to find a way to wiggle inside those imperatives, but also explain to them what state of mind they’re in right now. It’s not that their characters want to do this, but they are doing it. It’s like a puzzle, let them go through it at their own speed. Let them have fun with roleplaying this new, temporary role. Depending on the context of the situation at hand, give the player insight that the others don’t have, as information is power. Otherwise, your player is just a dice-rolling machine that you talk through, and this is rarely a pleasant experience for that person.

Dominate Person is somewhere in the middle of mind-altering spells. Charm spells usually just give you a changed perspective: you may now be sure that your enemy is your friend, and that’s okay! It’s easy to see that the player is in control here. On the other end of the spectrum, Geas spells inflict damage if the character chooses to resist. For example:

While the creature is Charmed by you, it takes 5d10 psychic damage each time it acts in a manner directly counter to your instructions, but no more than once each day.

Through the Looking Glass

Art by Jason Felix, for Magic the Gathering

It’s hard to deal with these effects, but just remember the golden rule: don’t take control from the player, even if you do from the characters. This brings me to the whispers from Critical Role. I was trying to find out what those whispers were (Matt, if you read this, please tell me, thank you!), as they could pacify the characters, as well as make them do stuff (jump off the bridge, hit their friend). Whatever they were, though, looking at the execution, I’d say that they were at least Dominate Person of some sort, as the GM just asserted total and precise control. Why was it okay for Matt to do that? As the saying goes, to break the rules, you must first master them. Matt has done that and gone beyond. His group is a cohesive whole that played D&D forever. They’ve been playing for such a long time that there’s probably not many things that the group wouldn’t let Matt do, given that they all know he has a good knack for making the game the most fun for everyone (and this includes all of us critters as well!). He also knows that the whole group of players will act in character and towards the story beat.

One might also say that it would have been a long while for Matt to explain the situation to Zelda, and for Zelda to pick up what to do — that this was more optimal for the same result. I beg to differ, as seeing the character outside their norm might have been more fun than just hearing “roll for an attack” (with everyone being so good at improvisation), but even outside of that, if you’re afraid for your session time, here’s what you can do.

Tell the player what happens if they fail the Wisdom saving throw up front. Make sure they understand, before the roll, that the whispers are telling them weird things like “kill her” and that it’s becoming really hard to think about anything else. Then, after the roll, if they fail, just tell them that the whispers become paramount, let them work with that. Let them lose control of the character to themselves.

This act establishes the second part of the mutual control relationship in D&D: while the player has an illusion of complete authority over their character’s life, the GM has to uphold an illusion of complete disconnect between their will and the player characters. This mutual bond forms the establishing context in which the magic of D&D happens. This is what Matt can use to his advantage, and he can do that because instead of breaking the rule, his context is more established and much more fluid than what a new group and GM might have. He also might have to work around scheduling and work dynamics much more complex than any of us would guess.

As I’m sure the man himself would tell you, don’t try to be him when hosting a game – not because you’re somehow worse than Matt Mercer, but because you can do only what you can do, and trying to be another GM won’t make it far into earning the trust of the group. Be yourself, establish that mutual illusion of control, and hold on to it while riding the wave of fun that D&D can be! [long pause] But, if you ever want to go the path of absolute player character control, at least be sure to understand what you’ll cause, and watch Jordan Peele’s Get Out. Your player will feel as if they are in the Sunken Place, so make sure they know you know they know what you’re getting into!

“Now sink into the floor.” Still image from Get Out (2017).

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