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I'm DMing a game where I want the BBEG to feel almost dreamlike: it can physically do little to nothing, but uses mind control and illusions.

Until now, it mind-controlled the mayor of a small town, hid objects from the players, blinked around a couple times, made a "time freeze illusion": I haven't thought through how powerful these things were because they just looked manageable for a high-level character so I figured they would be balanced.

For my next trick though, I'd like the guy to mind-control a small fortified village, with about 100 people in. Would this be balanced, story-wise?

  • By "balanced story-wise" I mean that I'm not concerned about the combat balance: I just don't want the players to think "the monster mind-controlled an ENTIRE VILLAGE? It must be too powerful for us to ever fight, we won't ever stand a chance".

  • By "mind-control 100 people" I mean that the village doesn't have a ruler, but after this spell the whole village sees the bad guy as their ruler: the town guards will protect him if needed, and everyone else just will just be sure that he's their righteous ruler.

  • I'm asking because I couldn't find a RAW mass mind-control spell, so I don't know how to check whether this would be feasible for a CR 20ish. What I'm looking for is something like "yes, this other monster can do similar things, you're good to go" or "not even a CR 20 monster could mind-control all those people, because Mind Control is a 7th level spell and a mass version would be too powerful".

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    \$\begingroup\$ Would your typical Vampire fit the bill, especially the Charm ability or do you want something that truly goes "I snap my fingers and everyone within X feet is charmed"? \$\endgroup\$
    – Tobias F.
    Dec 3, 2021 at 7:04
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    \$\begingroup\$ @TobiasF. I was looking for something that really says "he's got the whole city", meaning that he shouldn't have to cast it on everyone one-by-one to make it work, but I guess I could tweak the Charm ability (and add some Modify memory) to make it work. \$\endgroup\$ Dec 3, 2021 at 7:28
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    \$\begingroup\$ There is no RAW spell that allows for this. It would literally be easier to replace everyone in the town with doppelgangers or demons bound to the BBEG over the course of a month or two than to mind control everyone. \$\endgroup\$
    – jo1storm
    Dec 3, 2021 at 10:39
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    \$\begingroup\$ This question can be clearly answered from a narrative-balance standpoint, and we shouldn't close it -from review. \$\endgroup\$
    – Akixkisu
    Dec 3, 2021 at 11:51
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    \$\begingroup\$ Earlier editions (2nd or 3rd) had Mass Charm as an 8th level spell, IIRC. Could affect a few dozen people at a time. Your wizard can cast in a crowded tavern, then ask his new friends to call a town meeting for the next day... One of the expansion books had "Virus Charm", in which the person you charm can wander around town and make other people he meets to be your new best friend too. \$\endgroup\$ Dec 3, 2021 at 19:41

4 Answers 4

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With a sufficiently high spell save DC, a 20th level caster can get the entire town under their control in three and a half weeks.

This plan is going to use the spell geas:

You place a magical command on a creature that you can see within range, forcing it to carry out some service or refrain from some action or course of activity as you decide. If the creature can understand you, it must succeed on a Wisdom saving throw or become charmed by you for the duration. 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.

Geas, when upcast to 7th or higher, has this effect:

At Higher Levels. When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 7th or 8th level, the duration is 1 year. When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 9th level, the spell lasts until it is ended by one of the spells mentioned above.

The spell appears to give significant latitude to the caster in assigning the command, only specifying "some service". So a command like "obey me" or "do my bidding" appears to fit squarely within the spell's capabilities.

Now, for the numbers. A 20th level caster has four spell slots of 7th or higher, so four castings of geas per day for 25 days will get 25 of the townspeople under control indefinitely, and 75 of them under control for a year, assuming the caster's spell save DC is high enough to guarantee failure.

Therefore, it seems feasible within existing mechanics for a powerful spellcaster to control a town of 100 people.

Be advised, the townspeople might find it a bit...unnerving...when one of them drops dead for failing to follow your decrees:

While the creature is charmed by you, it takes 5d10 psychic damage each time it acts in a manner directly counter to your instructions

Surely he can come up with an explanation for this to maintain his positive image.

Challenge Rating: CR 20, possibly as low as CR 12.

As far as I can tell, the lowest CR creature with access to 9th level spell slots is the 18th-level Archmage at CR 12, with three 7th level or higher spell slots, so they could do it in 34 days. For 20th-level casters, the lowest CR is the Drow Matron Mother at CR 20.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Perhaps displaying themselves as sent by God and call that divine punishment? Religion has worked for ages to convince people of their cause / justify things. \$\endgroup\$
    – Tobias F.
    Dec 3, 2021 at 17:51
  • \$\begingroup\$ While good, this goes against the op's comment about not wanting to have to go around people one by one \$\endgroup\$
    – SeriousBri
    Dec 3, 2021 at 18:06
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    \$\begingroup\$ @SeriousBri As it was not included in the question (I didnt even see the comment till just now), it seems that is more of an "ideal preference" sort of thing, rather than a strict criteria for a solution. In particular, I provide a direct answer to the last bullet in the question: "What I'm looking for is something like "yes, this other monster can do similar things, you're good to go" or "not even a CR 20 monster could mind-control all those people"", to which the answer is "this is perfectly feasible for a CR 20 creature, possibly even as low as CR 12, to achieve." \$\endgroup\$ Dec 3, 2021 at 18:10
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    \$\begingroup\$ @SeriousBri But if not adhering strictly to that comment is the only thing you want to downvote for, I'll take that as a net positive in my personal recordkeeping. \$\endgroup\$ Dec 3, 2021 at 18:11
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    \$\begingroup\$ I think "Obey me" is a bit too vague to work for the Geas spell. You'd need something like "fetch the McGuffin", "fight the invading army", or the like. \$\endgroup\$
    – nick012000
    Dec 4, 2021 at 14:53
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I can actually speak directly to this, because a game I play in recently had a very similar story arc: a wizard had effectively mind-controlled an entire village. The exact means by which he did so is still unclear, but we discovered that people were only affected if they spent the night (long rest) in the town, and they had disadvantage on their saving throw to resist the effect if they ate the town's food, which the wizard had laced with a necromancy enchantment that lowers one's defenses against mind-influencing magic (wisdom saves). We eventually discovered the grain silo that was both the source of the magically poisoned food supply and the site of the magic item generating the town-sized mind control effect, and destroyed both in a climactic battle against the wizard's simulacrum. (The real wizard is still at large, a still unresolved plot thread.) The town gradually returned to "normal" over the following few days as people gradually started making their saving throws to end the wizard's influence. (In my notes, I called this story arc "Against the Grain".)

To bring this back to your concerns, the fact that the wizard's influence was tied to a specific delivery mechanism meant that once we figured out what it was, we were no longer in danger of being affected ourselves as long as we took the proper precautions. This solves the problem of a town-sized mind control effect seeming too powerful for the players to face. Of course your BBEG wants it to look like they can just snap their fingers and mind-control a town, but maybe it actually took months of work behind the scenes to set up the proper circumstances for it. Having a specific mechanism like this also gives the players concrete goals to work towards beyond just fighting and killing the BBEG. They might decide to find and destroy the item that serves as the focus of the spell, or they might decide to use spells that negate charm effects to free a few key villagers from the BBEG's influence and build a resistance.

This scenario also resulted in some other interesting gameplay challenges, assuming your PCs are not "murder hobos". In our case, we recognized that any townsfolk who took up arms against us might not be doing so of their own free will, we decided that it would be wrong to kill any of them. This led to some creative problem solving to accomplish our objectives as much as possible through stealth, non-lethal attacks and spells (sleep, fear, etc.), and intimidation tactics to get the townsfolk to avoid fighting us. In one case, we ended up heisting the wizard's crystal ball with almost the entire party polymorphed into various animals, using Telepathic Bond to coordinate everyone's action. Later, our animal-loving bard rode through town on the back of a large beast loudly declaring that the town had profaned against the "god of animals", which served to both intimidate the guards and distract their attention from the infiltration mission being carried out by the rest of the party.

So no, there is no "mind control town" spell in any printed material, as far as I know. But if you design your town-controlling effect with appropriate limitations and ways to mitigate its effect, you can have a really interesting and non-traditional story arc while still allowing your players and their abilities to be effective against this much more intangible threat. In our case, this was done by tying the mind control to specific physical objects or locations, which had specific mechanical effects that could be learned and countered. This in turn prevented the situation from ever seeming hopeless, and it broke down the problem into manageable sub-problems that we could plan and strategize around.

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    \$\begingroup\$ This is a good example of using "fiction first" rules. How hard/easy it is for the NPC to do this mind control (in the fiction) will determine how balanced this ability is story-wise. If you want your NPC to simply snap their fingers, that is going to indicate a much more powerful enemy. If you make there be a lot of restrictions and set up (but it may seem at first that they simply snapped their fingers), then things will be more balanced than how it may first appear. \$\endgroup\$ Dec 3, 2021 at 18:32
  • \$\begingroup\$ While this answer is very well-written, it isn't just what I was looking for: my BBEG only wants to mess directly with the PCs, it has no intention to charm them, and doesn't even have anything against the town really, it is just a way to annoy its targets (this was written in the original question, but I was told to edit it out because it would have been "distracting"). I will however keep in mind what you wrote in the third paragraph, because something like this will make the resolution a lot more interesting. \$\endgroup\$ Dec 13, 2021 at 13:46
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Aboleths do it all the time

What you're describing is right in line with a common behavior of Aboleths using their Enslave ability. It would take more than a month to get up to 100 people, and there's a possibility of losing control of the occasional victim if they get beyond a mile or get injured, but it's totally doable given time, and the victims can simply be ordered not to leave the area. Since the targets of aboleth enslavement lose their reaction in combat, I would probably describe them as being clumsy and awkward, moving like marionettes (or stoners).

Also of note is the Aboleth's Regional Effect that lets it project an image of itself and act as if it's in that location.

But more to the point, you don't really have to worry about whether "this is too strong". Is a village full of charmed people really any different than a 100-strong warband or a town full of cultists? The fact that the people are victims rather than aggressors might change how the PCs want to approach things, but it's not a balance question -- the scenario just is what it is.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I think the "is this too strong?" question is intrinsically linked with "what happens when my PCs try to do (something like) this?" While some groups are more prone to it than others, it's wise as a DM to assume whatever nonsense you're pulling with NPCs is going to encourage the PCs to consider doing the same. A straight up "no, you can't" is unsatisfying and gives a sense the DM is using "rules for thee, not for me", and empowering them with it too early and without enough thought into the mechanics is unbalancing. At some point it needs to be addressed, so might as well know it now. \$\endgroup\$ Dec 5, 2021 at 10:01
  • \$\begingroup\$ That said, an Aboleth should have his potential slave army accounted for in his CR, so as long as we aren't concerned that the Aboleth's CR is wildly off base then the question is dealt with by default. \$\endgroup\$ Dec 5, 2021 at 10:03
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    \$\begingroup\$ No, the Aboleth's CR only takes into account that it might hijack a PC's brain. It has the same CR 10 whether it has previously made a thousand slaves or none. Any slave army should have its CR calculated the usual way, the same as an extensive cult or pirate crew. In any case, it IS rules for thee but not for me. NPCs don't use the same rules as PC. Monsters, whether they're dangerous beasts or evil spellcasters, don't have to fit within the range of what a PC can do. \$\endgroup\$ Dec 5, 2021 at 15:49
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Earlier editions (2nd or 3rd) had Mass Charm as an 8th level spell, IIRC. Could affect a few dozen people at a time. Your wizard can cast in a crowded tavern, then ask his new friends to call a town meeting for the next day, where he casts it again....

More subtly, one of the Forgotten Realms expansion books had "Virus Charm", in which the person you charmed can then wander around town, and make other people he meets to be your new best friend too.

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