GM Tip. Get Inside Your Players’ Brains

Sometimes I like messing with the heads of my Savage Worlds players. It’s a good method for keeping them on their toes, but also for introducing story elements that they couldn’t possibly know otherwise. I tried it recently during the Zombie Run campaign in a climactic dream sequence. But I also had attempted this during an earlier D&D-style fantasy campaign.

The campaign involved a couple of competing vampire lords dealing with an underground city full of brain eating Mind Flayers (AKA Illithids) — a very under-used monster in traditional D&D campaigns, IMHO. The The Players found themselves doing the bidding of Silas, a somewhat evil Count Dracula-type vampire king of Twilight City. They were bumping around the Underdark in search of his old nemesis, Octavius (another vampire lord, a bit more evil, this time in the tradition of Count Orlock). According to the convoluted plot, Silas wanted to enlist his old enemy’s army of the undead against the Illithids who menaced his permanently-dark city above ground (The thinking was that mindless undead would be particularly effective against monsters that relied largely on psionic attacks).

Now, on to the messing up of the heads. Our brave Players (a berserker and a mage, along with some cannon fodder NPCs) ultimately got into quite a dust-up with some Mind Flayers in an a mine filled with the Illithids’ slaves. I wanted to underscore just how evil and dangerous the Mind Flayers could be.

The Players went toe-to-toe with the Mind Flayers until they realized the bad guys’ superior numbers and effective spells were going to end in the heroes’ defeat. They barely managed to escape with their lives, sprinting down a long hall and putting up a force-shield while they sought out the “relative” safety of a ghoul-infested staircase nearby.

Well, that was what they thought, anyway.

I dropped hints of what might have really happened throughout the next game session or two. NPCs they’d met only a few hours or a day before wondered “where you heroes have been all week long”. Later, they encountered a search party sent by Silas, that claimed the Players had been gone for nearly ten days. The Players found it disturbing, but I think they just assumed their humble GM had lost track of game time. They didn’t worry too much about it.

It all finally came out a little while later as the heroes returned above ground. They were assigned by Silas to provide a briefing about their Underdark adventure to the local army to help the soldiers stop the Mind Flayers from overwhelming the city. But in the middle of the briefing, they watched Silas’ top military General transform into a Mind Flayer before their eyes.

Naturally, they slew the creature.

But then it turned back into a human (well, vampire) form. At this point, I gave the heroes some hints from horrid “flashbacks” to their captivity with the Mind Flayers.

Now it dawned on the Players — they’d been set up, Manchurian Candidate-style.

They never made it out of that titanic fight with the Mind Flayers. At least, they didn’t do so on their own terms. The heroes had been brainwashed into thinking they’d gotten away. More importantly, a delusion had been implanted in their brains that would make them try to assassinate Silas’ power brokers.

SHANE. Great, just great.
BRADLEY. What’s going on?
SHANE. Don’t you see? We’ve just been pawns for the squid-faces. It was an illusion.
BRADLEY. So the General wasn’t a Mind Flayer?
SHANE. Nope. Those psionic bastards got us good. And who knows whether they’ve got more surprises in store. Maybe we’re still down there? We’ll wake up tomorrow and I’ll be the King of Twilight City, sitting on a throne with golden treasures all around and everything is so perfect… but why does my ass hurt so bad? We are so screwed now.”

Even better, now the Players were Wanted for the crime and would be on the run from an entire city’s worth of militia. The only thing giving them a remote chance of escape was the chaos being sewn by the Mind Flayer’s invasion of the surface. It would make for a very dramatic conclusion to the adventure.

Messing with your Players’ minds in every single adventure isn’t recommended. They’re just going to feel used and railroaded — and it’s a GM’s job to at least provide Players with a strong illusion of free will, even if they really need to get through various plot point “checkpoints” for the adventure to hold together. But from time to time, it’s not a bad idea to play mind games with the crew — a great way to keep them guessing what’s going to happen next.


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