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I am hoping this is not too broad. I will try to narrow it down to make it acceptable to RPG-SE guidelines.

I am working on a short campaign modeled on the Suicide Squad concept, also used in Escape from New York and to some extent, the Dirty Dozen. The PCs all start as people in prison with a death sentence upon them. The players get to choose the reason, as well as whether they are actually guilty or innocent. They are offered a mission by a black ops civil authority. If they succeed, they are released from their sentence, if they fail...

That's where I need a control. I need a control that will mean almost certain death for them if they fail to complete the mission. I could easily homebrew a magic item or poison, but I'd prefer to work within the established rules. Therefore I need a control that meets the following criteria:

  1. It is an item, substance, ability, spell or otherwise to be found in a published WotC book. I have most of the fifth edition books, and would prefer that edition. An otherwise perfect item from a previous edition would be acceptable.

  2. It must be something not easily subverted. Most poisons can be neutralized with the appropriate spell, a curse can likewise be removed. If it can be countered, it should be only possible with resources available to high level characters. The PCs will be 5th level. So a wish could undo the control, but a Remove Curse or Lesser Restoration should be ineffective.

  3. (a) If possible, it should be something that could be triggered immediately, by a handler. The Suicide Squad wear explosive armbands that can be detonated remotely should they act against the wishes of their commander. This one is not essential, but would be nice.

    or

    (b) It needs to have some kind of time limit: 48 hours, 1 week, it doesn't matter. If it cannot have a time limit, then it must meet requirement 3a: be able to be remotely activated. In this way, the time limit is simply enforced by someone at HQ saying "Their time is up. Terminate them."

  4. It needs to be something that can eventually be safely removed when the task is complete. The government that sent them on this mission is ruthless, but true to their word.

Is there something that meets these requirements?

Note: Since it has come up several times in the answers below, I know that as DM I can create anything I want in order to solve this. I am not looking for any answer that tells me I am the DM and can do anything. I would prefer to do it as close to RAW as possible. If for no other reason, it keeps this question from becoming too broad, and I would not like it shut down when I have already gotten some great suggestions.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ What classes are the PCs? \$\endgroup\$ – Rubiksmoose Mar 31 '18 at 16:31
  • \$\begingroup\$ At this point, no PCs have been built. All Classes and Races from PHB, Xanathar and Volo are legal. This campaign is a 1-or 2-shot, and I wanted the players to have freedom to experiment, since the lethality of the campaign will likely be high. \$\endgroup\$ – keithcurtis Mar 31 '18 at 16:42

11 Answers 11

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As far as I know, there are no magic items that fit your criteria, since they are either meant to be beneficial, or they are cursed - in which case the curse is not controlled by an outside force, such as your government. (There might be an item that I'm unaware of, maybe from an earlier version)

With magic items out of the play, the only thing that comes to mind is an ability that Way of the Open Hand monks gain at level 17:

Quivering Palm
At 17th level, you gain the ability to set up lethal vibrations in someone’s body. When you hit a creature with an unarmed strike, you can spend 3 ki points to start these imperceptible vibrations, which last for a number of days equal to your monk level. The vibrations are harmless unless you use your action to end them. To do so, you and the target must be on the same plane of existence. When you use this action, the creature must make a Constitution saving throw. If it fails, it is reduced to 0 hit points. If it succeeds, it takes 10d10 necrotic damage.
You can have only one creature under the effect of this feature at a time. You can choose to end the vibrations harmlessly without using an action.

10d10 (which is the effect on a saving throw success!) will probably kill any 5th-level character, unless you roll really bad. Or you just use the average result, which is 10*5.5 = 55. A barbarian in the group might survive this, but you can just "roll" really good so he doesn't make it. It's not like the players would know the difference (provided you roll in secret), and the effect will supposedly only be for deterrence reasons anyways, unless you're actively going for a TPK.

You could of course transfer this ability to a magic item, which could be capable of affecting multiple creatures at a time - if you so desire. After all, you as the DM are free to use abilities and effects that are not available to player characters.


Another possible solution would be using the spell Glyph of Warding and storing a high-damaging spell inside. Usually, I wouldn't permit players to trigger this spell on something like acting against the creators wishes, since that's a very complex trigger. But, since you're the DM, you can rule differently for your own sake.

Note that this glyph could be dispelled, whereas the monk's ability cannot.


Another possibility would be Geas, although its RAW version can be removed with Remove Curse or Greater Restoration, which violates your criteria. You could rule, however, that it can't be removed with one of these spells (although that deviates from RAW, obviously, which violates a different criterium).


Although that violates your criteria: have you thought about blackmailing the characters? For example "if you betray us, your wife dies" or something like that? Might be worth a shot, provided you find something appropriate for each character. You could also set the requirement for your players to provide something like this, unless the suicide-squad-aspect is not clear from the beginning and should be a surprise.

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  • 2
    \$\begingroup\$ A half orc can survive quivering palm with relentless \$\endgroup\$ – Garret Gang Mar 31 '18 at 17:55
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    \$\begingroup\$ Yeah, classic blackmail's always an option for this setup. Have the characters write some people important to them into their backstory, then put those people at risk. \$\endgroup\$ – V2Blast Mar 31 '18 at 17:55
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    \$\begingroup\$ Great ideas all round, but this post had the widest array to work with. Thanks, all! \$\endgroup\$ – keithcurtis Apr 1 '18 at 17:09
  • \$\begingroup\$ Quivering Palm is also one-per-monk, not one-per-target. If the government has enough high-level monks on hand (perhaps they're the secret service equivalent or something) then you can stack more than one per player, then trigger them all at once. Enough quivering palms can kill anyone. \$\endgroup\$ – Ben Barden Sep 4 '18 at 20:18
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Geas is the perfect spell for this,

  • It can last forever

  • It can kill lower level pc's that disobey the given order by doing 5d10 psychic damage once per day, it becomes less effective at higher levels. Low level barbarians and old one warlocks are also capable of surviving.

  • it works so long as the issued order is not certain death, so it should work in this case

  • it is hard to remove (part of the Geas command can prevent players from actively removing it) To prevent players from removing geas, could home brew in persistence (allowing it to reactivate after x-time)

Another thought is a slightly modified contingency spell:

Have the contingency spell be set to cast power word kill on the pcs...

Perfect kill switch for up to level 10 chars...

However You'd have to modify contingency so that it only requires a small insertable object rather than a figurine& make so that it can be cast targeting other players.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Remove Curse can remove it. \$\endgroup\$ – Mala Mar 31 '18 at 17:57
  • \$\begingroup\$ can you prevent them from removing someone else Geas? \$\endgroup\$ – PixelMaster Mar 31 '18 at 17:57
  • \$\begingroup\$ Good point mala, edited in possible fix. The limits to what you can order with gas are, "it fails if the order will lead to certain death" beyond that there is literally no limit to what you can do with it. \$\endgroup\$ – Garret Gang Mar 31 '18 at 18:09
  • \$\begingroup\$ Geas states: "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". While your average 5th-level wizard won't survive this, a barbarian will probably survive if he's at maximum hit points*. And since it's 1/day only, he can just take a long rest and be at max HP again before he takes the damage again. (*barbarian with 16 CON and average hit points instead of rolls: 12 + 7 + 7 +7 + 7 + 5*3 = 45. That damage is possible, but it is definitely not a certain death) \$\endgroup\$ – PixelMaster Mar 31 '18 at 18:54
  • \$\begingroup\$ Good point, I forgot that it was only one a say. Editing answer. \$\endgroup\$ – Garret Gang Apr 1 '18 at 21:11
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Did you watch those movies?

What the protagonists are trying to do, and what the audience wants them to do, and what they usually end up doing is subverting the mission and delivering well deserved vengeance on the a-hole that sent them on it.

If I were setting up this campaign, subverting the compulsion is what I would expect would be the players primary goal and confronting and defeating the person who sent them on the mission as the self-evident climax of the campaign. As such, having several ways to escape the compulsion is a good idea.

You don't need a mechanical solution to a psychological problem

If the prospect of freedom is not enough to motivate them then the insta-death compulsion is likely to create a very real risk that if things get too tough, the players will just say "Why bother?", sit down and wait for the end. At least they get to die free, right?

Far better to think like this:

No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. ... any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.

John Donne

"This is the mission, you have 48-hours or we kill your daughter."

Of course, I would still expect then to be trying to subvert the mission and get their daughter and f*^% over the guy who said this.

Playing by the Rules

NPCs have different rules than PCs - if you want your NPC to have the ability to hurt/kill the PCs from a distance just give it to them.

Options

Wish can do anything.

Interlocked Geas - start with the "prime directive", add another that compels them to attack anyone in the party who breaks their Geas, add one to any of the party who tries to prepare Remove Curse (ban Bards from knowing it in the campaign rules), etc.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ I fully expect them to consider getting vengeance, but I need the death threat to be real. I can control the tone and tempo of the game to keep them from feeling suicidal. I do very much like the idea of interlocking geases. I don't see anything in the rules to prevent it, although it would exempt elves, who are immune to the condition. And as I have said in previous comments and in the question itself, I know it is within my power and privilege as the DM to create any ability, condition, spell or item I want in order to achieve this. Maybe I should emphasize this more in the question. \$\endgroup\$ – keithcurtis Mar 31 '18 at 22:43
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Geas Bomb

Geas can be used to remotely enforce a command, on pain of 5d10 damage when the target disobeys. However, it has the two weaknesses of being removable by remove curse, and it doesn't do enough damage to kill a 5th level character. However:

  • There's nothing that stops you from casting geas twice on the same target.
  • "Don't try to remove the geas" is a valid command.

This sets up a more complex command:

"Complete the mission given to you within 29 days. Actively refuse any attempts to remove the geas from yourself or your companions. If you receive a sending containing the words 'you are off the leash', then you are acting counter to our command."

Once you've put that geas on, apply a whole pile of geases to each player. Since the spell can request "any command you choose", there's nothing in the rules that prevents this command.

In addition, this gives you a built-in remote trigger. If the geas-er decides that the squad is causing too much damage, then they just send a sending and the problem goes away, since receiving such a sending is explicitly against their orders. If you don't like that kind of direct remote trigger, you can change it to something like "if we tell you to, go hide somewhere and don't move until we come get you", which is the same TPK of a different color.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Certain death geas don't work. .. and I am not sure if geas is stackable as you cannot benefit from being under the effect of multiple instances of the same spell, however you can curse some one multiple times add long as each curse effect is didn't so this might be okay \$\endgroup\$ – Garret Gang Apr 1 '18 at 21:17
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Tiny Staffs of Power

Retributive Strike deals 160 damage (to the target that breaks it, or in this case, the target that it's attached to) on a successful save making even a Barbarian with 20 constitution who rolls maximum hit points die at level 5. Even if he has the Tough feat.

Note: if you are still worried about them surviving through some weird Abjuration-wizard/max-temporary-hit points/relentless-endurance shenanigans, you could use Staff of the Magi for 400 damage but having 5 legendary magic items is more complicated than 5 very rare ones

A simple contraption with a metal piece pressed against the staff where the party's handlers could cast catapult (from a Ring of Spell Storing) or something on the piece of the contraption that snaps the tiny Staffs of Power and activate the Retributive Strike, while not strictly RAW, certainly makes sense realistically and thematically.

The government stole these magic items from a powerful Pixie conclave they defeated but lacks the spellcasters who would be able to attune to them so they use them for the only purpose they can by rigging them to this death machine.

... or something.

Perhaps the identify spell could be used by your party to realize just how screwed they'd be if they don't listen.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ a level 5 barbarian who rolled maximum hitpoints and has 18 CON has 5*12 + 5*4 = 80 hitpoints. If they rolled AS and he got 18 CON, he can choose Tough instead of his ASI or increase CON to 20, resulting in 60 + 5*5 = 85. If he's also a half-orc, he can survive the damage with Relentless Endurance. Unlikely scenario though ^^ \$\endgroup\$ – PixelMaster Mar 31 '18 at 18:50
  • \$\begingroup\$ @PixelMaster in that case, see my note lol \$\endgroup\$ – David Coffron Mar 31 '18 at 18:54
  • \$\begingroup\$ that's italics, I skipped that somehow ^^ \$\endgroup\$ – PixelMaster Mar 31 '18 at 19:00
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Homebrew it. That's the D&D Way.

You are in fact describing an old D&D trope, made popular in the Curse of the Azure Bonds (computer game, adventure module, and novel) back in 1989. In AD&D 2e module FRC2 Curse of the Azure Bonds, PCs get these magical tattoos put on them that force their actions, and the campaign is about their attempt to escape them.

The rules for the bonds span 3 pages in the module, but as for removing them:

Dispel magic and remove curse will never have any effect on the brands, except to bring about the results mentioned above. A limited wish spell (if successfully cast without the death of the magic-user) will remove one of the marks from one individual. A full wish spell will remove up to three of the marks. Short of these actions, the Azure Bonds will prove extremely difficult to delete. Attempting to cut off the arm and regenerating it through magic will result in the brands merely reappearing on the new limb.

Anyway, if you don't want them removable by the rules, make up a new thing that someone has just created. This still leverages the rules framework, but specifies what works and what doesn't. This is basic homebrew content generation expected of any DM, and first party published adventures, monsters, etc. don't hesitate to say "well this is a curse but..." when needed.

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Presumably you are explaining the concept to the players and they're bought in. In this case, the control isn't really something you need from an existing rule or spell. It's simply part of the setting.

Make a magic item that acts like the explosive armband you want, explain that in the adventure intro, and don't stress about it.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Yes, everything is explicitly stated in the campaign proposal, and players all have complete buy-in. As I said, I could easily homebrew whatever I want to fit the bill, but I prefer to use the tools given if possible. \$\endgroup\$ – keithcurtis Mar 31 '18 at 17:27
  • \$\begingroup\$ @keithcurtis as the DM, you're given a tool for this already: Rule 0. Nothing in the game RAW works for what you want because that would be imbalanced in general play, so you'll have to change the rules to fit your setting. Since the players are on board with the idea, I don't see why shoehorning it into a contrived interpretation of existing rules is better. Ask your players for ideas and choose one they can agree to. \$\endgroup\$ – Asher Mar 31 '18 at 17:47
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Asher he's asking the question to see if anything in the game RAW does work the way he wants. \$\endgroup\$ – David Coffron Mar 31 '18 at 17:53
  • \$\begingroup\$ Yes, as I said in my question, coming up with a homebrew fiat is dead simple. That's my last resort in this case, though. \$\endgroup\$ – keithcurtis Mar 31 '18 at 20:29
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Wish

Using wish should be able to do what you want.

State your wish to the GM as precisely as possible. The GM has great latitude in ruling what occurs in such an instance; the greater the wish, the greater the likelihood that something goes wrong.

Wishing, for example, "[All the PCs] will die unless they complete [task] to the degree that is approved of by [shadowy BBEG] within [time limit]" should do the trick. As DM you should have the latitude to allow this wish to happen fairly and maybe even generate some interesting story surrounding how such figures have access to so much power.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I had considered that, but beings with access to that level of power would hardly need a 5th level Suicide Squad. A limited Wish of some kind might fit the bill, but then it gets into homebrew territory. \$\endgroup\$ – keithcurtis Mar 31 '18 at 16:59
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D&D games, in general, do not come with nonremovable death curses. D&D is meant to be a heroic game where characters overcome problems, so all its curses cone with built-in ways to overcome. Geas is an excellent example: it does exactly what you want, but it comes with an escape hatch and that makes it unsuitable for your adventure.

I'm worried that this question is going to attract a lot of unsuitable answers: answers which require a completely unrealistic expenditure of resources on the part of the captors and still don't fit your criterion of being inescapable. If (as I suspect) you're looking for a solution that preserves verisimilitude, your campaign will work much better if you put on your houserule hat and say: "this geas spell was sealed by a cleric of the dark god Besz-ul-Qoma, so it can only be unsealed by another cleric of that god, and Besz-ul-Qoma is Lawful Evil so none of its clerics will help you."

If you must have a RAW solution, you might try importing the 3.5e version of the spell, which can only be removed by someone two levels higher than the caster.

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    \$\begingroup\$ If you import another edition's spell, it is not a RAW solution \$\endgroup\$ – David Coffron Mar 31 '18 at 22:16
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    \$\begingroup\$ OP writes: "An otherwise perfect item from a previous edition would be acceptable." \$\endgroup\$ – Dan B Mar 31 '18 at 22:33
  • \$\begingroup\$ still not RAW. The OP just allowed for a non-RAW option \$\endgroup\$ – David Coffron Mar 31 '18 at 22:37
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A deity level curse which can only be removed by a deity? this would mean they have 48 hours to either do what he says or find another deity convince it to remove the curse. (P.S. deity level curses cant be removed by remove curse)

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Red Slaad Eggs

(from red slaad)

Claw. Melee Weapon Attack: +6 to hit, reach 5 ft., one target. Hit: 7 (1d8 + 3) piercing damage. If the target is a humanoid, it must succeed on a DC 14 Constitution saving throw or be infected with a disease - a minuscule slaad egg.

A humanoid host can carry only one slaad egg to term at a time. Over three months, the egg moves to the chest cavity, gestates, and forms a slaad tadpole. In the 24-hour period before giving birth, the host starts to feel unwell, its speed is halved, and it has disadvantage on attack rolls, ability checks, and saving throws. At birth, the tadpole chews its way through vital organs and out of the host’s chest in 1 round, killing the host in the process.

If the disease is cured before the tadpole’s emergence, the unborn slaad is disintegrated.

I've seen varying accounts as to if this is removable with greater restoration or lesser restoration, but in the case of the greater restoration: that's a 5th level spell (9th level character, minimum).

... Unless your benefactor is concerned about releasing 4-6 slaad upon the world.

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