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You Wanna Fight?

Yes, Master

Bryan Jonker
April 3, 2002  

"With the greatest respect," he smiled, "I once mesmerized a patient during the removal of a tumour. I have cured people of delusions and addictions. The vile weed tobacco, for instance."

Lynne Truss, Tennyson's Gift


Last month, I talked about how cults could be used as antagonists. Although not all cults are the same, they employ some sort of mind control to obtain and retain the cult members. Mind control and cults go together like peanut butter and something that goes well with peanut butter. However, when you look at most role-playing games, the only "mind control" you see is magic or psionics. There may be a mention of hypnosis, but for the most part, mind control is relegated to the supernatural. While this may "work" for a high-fantasy campaign, real-world cults don't have or need this crutch. This column investigates mind control, in all its different facets.

Mind Control, the Old Fashioned Way

Because I started with cults, lets first explore the mundane means cults use to influence others. By "mundane", I mean non-magical, non-psionic abilities. I don't mean "everyday." Some of these techniques are advanced and subtle. They are also used in cults, both past and present.

Margaret Singer gives a number of rules for "thought reform," or mind control. The cult first has to control the subject's environment - who he contacts, when he can eat and sleep, what he says. A character infiltrating a cult is going to have problems, because in an efficient cult, everything is monitored and controlled.

Of course, not all cults are efficient. The cult then needs to "create a sense of powerlessness in the person." Force the person to quit school, quit his job, and send all his money to the cult. Not only does this have the happy side effect of making the cult richer, but also it makes the person dependent on the cult.

The cult then creates a series of rewards and punishments that encourage the person to abandon his previous life and take the beliefs of the cult. Part of that belief system includes the authoritarian structure of the cult. The cult leader can then give commands without fear that the commands will be questioned.

This is all complicated. In Life 102, McWilliams gives a simpler, if less scientific, explanation. Life is a series of pressures and releases. Rend is due (pressure) and then you pay it (release). You have an argument with your spouse (pressure) and then you make up (release). It's the standard novel structure, standard because we live our lives this way. What the cult leader does is associate all the "pressures" with the outside world, and all the "releases" with the cult. Eventually, the person makes the associations himself. This factor, along with rote repetition of a fact, implants the cult leader's beliefs.

McWilliams also notes that this technique isn't isolated to cults. Advertisers and politicians use it all the time ("Coke is it", "49 or Fight"). When questioning people, lawyers will speak very softly, lulling the jury, and then SHOUT OUT the main point. Pressure and release. In a despotic nation, the state itself may promote this type of technique.

Finally, if you have any doubts about authority figures able to control the masses, there's the infamous Milgram experiment. For those not familiar with the experiments, here's a synopsis. Subjects think they are participating in a memory/learning experiment. The subjects are chosen to be "the teacher," and they have to monitor the student (actually, an actor) learning a series of words. If the student doesn't complete the task, the subject has to administer a shock, ranging from 15 to 450 volts, or "slight shock" to "danger: severe shock." In short, 65% of subjects went all the way to 450 volts. This experiment has been duplicated, with similar results.

Part of the effectiveness of this experiment involves schemas - people assign roles to themselves and others. In the Milgram experiment, there were two schemas: "experiment" and "teacher/student." The experiment schema meant that the subject had to listen to the scientist, and the teacher/student meant that the subject had control of the student. But, another factor was authority - the scientist had the ultimate authority. The subject gives his will to the scientist.


Hypnotism dates back from ancient times - ancient rites may have incorporated hypnotism in creating trances, with drums and chants helping. But (at least for me), the interesting stuff started in the Victorian era, where hypnotism and phrenology (the study of the shape of the head influencing behavior) competed with what we consider more rational sciences. The study of "animal magnetism" invaded London from France in the 1780's, and by the 1820's and 1830's, the study of hypnotism was in the classrooms, the medical centers, and the stages. Patients cured of insomnia and hysteria through hypnotism became famous.

It was thought that mesmerism could cure all disease, and even cure the soul of sin. One person, Dr. Elliotson, listed substances (like water and nickel) that could transfer the hypnotic suggestions from person to person; by "hypnotizing" a water supply, a person could control an entire town. Rumors circulated of entire races able to use hypnotism to control their own metabolism, and hypnotists could move organs to different parts of their own body. Hypnotism took the dual role of science and showmanship, fact and fad. The facts sorted themselves out in time.

What can hypnotism do? Fortunately for GMs, studies are inconclusive. A few things are accepted as facts. Hypnotism is more than a placebo effect - it is a real technique. Fakers like the Victorian O'Key sisters can be exposed by lie detector tests. Some people are more susceptible to hypnotism. This susceptibility is unconnected to gender, age, experience, or most personality traits. Willpower, unlike many games to the contrary, doesn't affect being hypnotized.

People who are hypnotized aren't mindless automata, but are "active problem solvers who incorporate their moral and cultural ideas into their behavior while remaining exquisitely responsive to the expectations expressed by the experimenter." Sleep is not necessary for hypnotism; "waking hypnosis" is common in the modern day. Post hypnotic suggestions can be given, and the subject can be given amnesia, forgetting that she was hypnotized.

Other issues are more muddy. Standard theory states that a hypnotist cannot force a person to do something against his will. However, Wesley Raymond Wells ran an experiment where the subject was hypnotized and was told to do 10 simple tasks. However, the subject had to choose beforehand one of these tasks and actively resist. The trick was, after Wells hypnotized the person, he "produced amnesia for the critical item, without asking or finding out what this item was." Of 16 subjects, all 16 complied with the forbidden task.

Another experiment had the subjects put themselves in apparent harm and harm others. The subjects, although in some cases unwillingly or hesitantly, complied. An imaginative GM could have fun with these two experimental cases.


When I started this column, I was tempted to just refer readers to Greg Egan's Quarantine, but that would be cheating. But still, you should read it for a wonderful mind-control scenario, including one of the best logic conundrums concerning mind control. But, that would be giving away part of the book. Just read the whole thing. Yes, it's that good.

Otherworldly powers give the GM a wider range of letting evil geniuses run mind-control schemes. However, it also presents a problem. If the evil genius wants total power, and he has the ability to control people, then why conquer the world? This leads back to motivation - what does the evil genius want that mere mind control can't give him? Does he want to control more minds? Mind control is such a huge power that most people could use it unobtrusively to fulfill his desire.

If mind control is common, then society would change a lot. GURPS Supers mentions the Three Telepath system, where the courts use telepaths to determine guilt or innocence. Similar factors need to take place in the courts for mind control. Did the person who commit the crime really act of his own volition? Will people do what they want, and then use mind control as an excuse? Will mind control would be the equivalent of rape, or will it be considered as mere coercion? How would mind control be handled in civil cases?

Some people also may want to use mind control to help themselves - currently, hypnosis can be used for dieting, to stop smoking, or to cure psychological illnesses. Picture a reliable, side-effect free way to break habits, and ask yourself how many people would partake.

Game concerns

Having the main antagonist take over other non-player characters is useful for building his army of darkness and blight, but it's tempting to take over the player characters. Make them dance to your tune. All GMs secretly have a God complex, after all.

First, a word of warning. In the wrong group, this is just an extreme form of railroading. By taking over the characters, you are taking over the only input the players have in the game. Some players will object, and perhaps rightly so. The trick is take over the player characters while still giving the players some type of input. Phrased this way, two suggestions come to mind. First, you can tell the player that his character is being controlled, and has these goals. The player then gets to control the campaign.

This is how hypnotism works - the person doesn't become brainwashed, the motivation is simply replaced with a new goal. This method also keeps the player in the game. The second thing you can do is say, "you wake up later with no memory of what just happened." By skipping the mind control session, you keep the focus of the campaign on the player.


I don't feel I've done justice to this topic. Others may say I've driven the subject in the ground - they'll ask what the point was about this column. The theme for these columns is the enemy: how to play him, how to give him depth, and how to present him to the players. Mind control is common gimmick for archenemies. It allows the enemy to have a ready-made army. But, it's not as easy as "poof, he has this power." There are more options, and more consequences.

Next week, it's on to the next topic: contests and non-lethal battles. Not all battles are life and death, after all, and creating sports is a great way to create mock-pressure. If you're lucky, I'll even give some details on the Live-Action Pokmon campaign I was involved in :-).

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Wanna Fight by Bryan Jonker