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One of the players in my group is getting rather fond of a very powerful and clearly evil sword that gives them great increases to strength and magical ability. As a consequence, I would love to have them get possessed by the demon that inhabits the sword, but it wouldn't work very well unless this was kept secret from the other party members.

Is this remotely possible? Since everyone declares what their character is doing by speaking, I would have to sever this connection since the possessed player's actions would need to come from me instead, making it obvious that their actions were being controlled. I could take full blown control of everything, split everyone into different rooms, go into each one to hear what each players wants to do, then tell the other players what they actually end up doing, but this is way to much of a hassle for everyone and would make it rather obvious to the entire party that something fishy was going on.

Is there any relatively easy way to have a player lose control of their actions without the other players knowing it? Its fine that the possessed player knows they are possessed, but I want to hide it from the others. I fully expect the answer to be no due to increased difficulty it adds to inter-player communication, but I thought I'd ask anyway. I'm really looking for a system-agnostic solution, but if there are system-specific solutions to this issue I'd be interested in hearing them as well. :D

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Its sounds funny but most players are all to glad to play evil doppelgangers of their characters. Its always hilarious except for the character that gets robbed or Player Killed. Most legitimate stories of PK come from sudden alignment shifts and possession. –  Josh Nov 7 '12 at 15:58
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7 Answers

Well, this has actually come up on one or two occasions in games I've played. Often we just depend on player-character separation, but since a lot of us keep character sheets/dice rollers on our computers, on at least one occasion the GM just opened a gchat with the possessee and told them what to do that way without the rest of us knowing.

Of course, this doesn't work if you guys are hardcore pen and paper players. Passing notes is a lot iffier, especially if there's no precedent in the game for similar situations (in some systems passing notes could come off more casually than in others). I think the best solution in that situation would be to have a fairly detailed talk with the player you want to be possessed in private beforehand and give them some guidelines about what to expect in the session and how they would need to react to it. That requires you to depend on the player to have a fairly good understanding of what you want them to do, and might require you to lower the metaphorical GM screen more than you'd like, but it would also let the player influence the flavor of their own possession, which could be fun for them.

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I'm with Pulsehead here. Trust your players, and do it in cahoots (gotta love that word) with the player in question, in effect giving him control of the demon. Give him some guidelines about the goals, but let him play that demon himself. The player will have fun, you'll have fun (because you'll be surprised yourself), and the best part is when the other players and characters discover the switch, they'll be shocked and delighted.

We had a similar situation in a D&D campaign a few years ago, where a character was replaced by a shapeshifter. The player and the DM conspired together to plan this, and the player managed to pull it off for a surprisingly long time. We were wondering why the paladin kept hanging back during battle instead of rushing forward as he usually did, or why he seemed to be able to pick a lock, but he managed to give us vague answers ("accept things as they are hand-wave") that kept us confused long enough for him to do some serious mischief.

It made for a great story that we still talk about to this day. And it led to a further quest to go and find where the paladin was kidnapped to.

Trust your players.

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If you trust your player to play along with it, let him roleplay his descent into evil.

First, he gets power. Powerful people (presidents, kings, etc.) tend to not have to deal with mundane stuff (chopping firewood, etc.) and get impatient with having to do "menial labor". This should be a positive thing (you have to start with the soft-sell if you want someone to betray what they are on a core level).

Second, he should start to think that he and the sword is "better" than the rest of the party. Have him express this by picking fights, stirring up drama.

Third, he should start to act with more force than necessary. Sneaking through a ruin and someone jumps on you? Instead of knocking him out, he would probably just flat out kill the otherwise inoffensive NPC.

Fourth, now he should be prepared to double cross the party. It should be somehow cinematically significant (the big boss fight in a campaign/plot thread, etc). Right when the team expects the "jerk" party member to engage and do large damage to the big bad, he turns and starts attacking the other PCs.

I was once called on to do this. No one but me and the DM knew ahead of time what was going to happen until I started attacking the other PCs. The DM would pull each player aside (after I attacked them) and explain what was happening. It was an interesting fight that a bunch of non-combat characters had to fight not only a recently resurrected evil god, but also my fighter who was rolling dice better than I ever have before or since.

Other options is that the power causes the player to go slowly crazy, or that they decide to fight when they should talk.

EDIT:

It did not occur to me that the evil sword would "take over" the player at random times, as a comment seems to indicate. If the sword only takes control occasionally, then there is no solution to throwing a few notes back and forth (or having a minute of private time with the affected player). As far as doing this without the other players knowing/realizing, IF you have the player's buy in and they sit next to you, you can pass notes under the table so the other players won't see the note.

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The question is explicity about a kind of posession where a character's free will is forcibly overruled by that of a demon, wheras you seem to be talking about a kind of slow corruption of the character's ethics (such as what could result from gradual (and not necessarily supernatural) persuasion). Your answer isn't totally irrelevant, but it is highly dependant on how the GM wants posession to work in his or her setting. Perhaps you could re-word what you've written to include this caveat, or to clarify how it can be relevant in the forced will-substitution case? –  GMJoe Feb 21 '12 at 3:09
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Yes, it can work very well indeed. You and the player need to talk about things before the session so they can make sure that they know what's expected of the demon's actions. Prepare an almost scripted way of that the demon will do things so you both know where it leads. If you wanted to have this run long term, I would use Pulsehead's answer as a starting point. They need to know as well that there should be a way for them to regain control of their character. Otherwise, it feels a little like a refbolt and a dead character.

Be careful of leaving plenty of hints to the rest of the party, otherwise, you will have a smug demon, lots of dead characters, and a whole bunch of pissed of players. Most games are played cooperatively so all characters implicitly trust the other characters. If one of those characters is working against them, then there is very little chance of the rest of the players catching on. It's not impossible, just hard. Thus you (as referee) need to pepper hints.

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If you've got good roleplayers, the other players are not even obliged to be unaware of the fact. It does take some work to willingly ignore the fact that a fellow player's character is possessed but it might actually make roleplaying their own characters easier.

Suppose the demon forces the PC to act in an manner utterly unlike what is usual of her. The usual way this goes sounds like

"Demon!Rick's Player : I backstab John.

John's Player : Sonuva... WTF did you do that for ?!?

Demon!Rick's Player : Hey, I'm only roleplaying."

Knowing the character is possessed, the other players know why and can skip past the bewilderment and anger stages and get on with the game :

"Demon!Rick's Player : With an evil grin on my face, I plunge my knife in John's shoulder.

John's Player : Ah, there we go. I scream in pain and fall to my knees.

Tessa's Player : I pull out my gun and point it at Rick, shouting 'What are you doing ? Stay where you are and drop the knife !'

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I do something incredibly cheap; I do all my GM'ing from behind a laptop, and so long as the player in question doesn't have someone else in the group reading his stuff I can just send them a quick message and inform them.

There's not really a good way to do this without instituting a plan for it well ahead of time. One thing I would do if you don't use digital stuff is to give all players notes each round as opposed to just telling them their status changes (and actions if possessed). If you're more tech-savvy, do this with texting or an instant message.

All of my ways tend to fall flat in light of other players getting curious and peeking at other players' stuff when they get a chance. At least with my groups, I can't really trust them with secrets either. I also can't trust the groups to be totally compliant with player/character separation even when offering sizable incentives, just on account of most of them being total novices and myself and a couple others being veteran.

EDIT: I guess you could also do a secret ballot where everyone sends you their moves with the caveat that they must not raise their voice if they do something they didn't write on account of being out of their own control.

So in short, my answer would be maybe.

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I usually prepare for it in advance. I have a brief, written code of conduct for the possessing being - with any limiters based on their intelligence. Then i try and let the player accomplish their mission through their character. I take them out of the room, then when i come back i make it look to the other players as if they have shaken off the effect of something (note i do this often enough where its hard for them to know). I'm fortunate to have great players. I give them one physical queue to let let them know if they have gone too far, but they get to ham it up or undermine the party in their own way. Its usually pretty obvious when possession happens - unless the possessor knows the character or has access to their memories, their behavior simply wont be normal.

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