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First off, I'd like to give credit where it is due: I was watching a walk through of Jak and Daxter 3, when this occurred to me. Jak gets many special ability that lets him access new areas. The one that triggered this particular idea is where he turned into Dark Jak and was able to blow away an alcove to reveal a hidden area. If there weren't video game mechanics involved, such a thing would "rehide" itself after his passing.

I was thinking about having a cult in my game, the populace controlled or manipulated somehow, and on command they go to a secret area or specially designed demiplane. The only way to get into this area is to have some sort of mark, or special ability that lets them pass through (though touching someone with said mark would allow others to get through, but no one with it would willingly allow this because it would expose the secret). I was thinking of 6 criteria for this:

  1. No Level: Whatever's controlling them can't have a level requirement

  2. No Theft: It can't be stolen (whatever it is is innate in the user or is passive in nature to those so controlled)

  3. Nothing Obvious: It can't show up as magic or technology with casual investigation (it might be magic, but would need something a bit more specialized than "detect magic" / "detect evil" or if it is technology, it can't be visible).

  4. No Direct Control: It can't show the method of control directly. (more investigation by the PCs will be needed, but with a bit of luck and skill, some clues laying around will allow them to solve the case)

  5. Willingness: It needs to be done willingly - though coercion/social pressure/trickery/physical sickness, exhaustion, etc may be involved to get them to agree to it (therefore the "victims" of said control / manipulation can't said to be forced into taking it (at least not directly)

  6. Another Benefits: Someone else (the BBEG or a mini boss) is able to benefit from the control either directly or indirectly

  7. Long Term Effects: (Bonus, but not required) if one or more of the PCs willingly accept the mark to get the others in, it'll have long-term consequences in the game beyond this story arc.

I am looking for personal experience achieving this kind of effect: how did you define the effect (monster effect? spell? magic item?), what rules did you use, how did it work out?

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    \$\begingroup\$ This is fairly open-ended. Are you looking for a strictly rules-based answer? If not, it seems like the answer should be just "a custom effect which does all of the above". \$\endgroup\$ – fectin - free Monica Jul 9 '16 at 14:17
  • \$\begingroup\$ Basically I was wanting to know of any sort of monster effects, spells/ technology, etc that would do this that anyone had used before. It could even be something super mundane, but obscure (for instance a super addicting drug, but the magic / ability is tied to its presence) \$\endgroup\$ – Jesse Cohoon Jul 9 '16 at 14:22
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There is no well-defined answer.

You almost certainly want a demiplane accessible through a portal as your secret area. It's just too trivially easy to bypass otherwise (e.g. Polymorph to Umber Hulk; tunnel to location) On how the portal to get to the demiplane might trigger, the most official answer is "however you want." The Manual Of The Planes gives some examples ("Portal Keys", p.21), but they don't usefully restrict it. So go crazy.

I'm not sure what some of your requirements mean ("needs to be done willingly" is pretty iffy in a world with charm spells), but to the extent that I understand your intent, you should look at Necrotic Cysts from Libris Mortis. They're little internal sacks of nastiness which make you more vulnerable to necromancy. They can be obvious, but don't have to be, and come with several ready-made rules (like the DC to remove them surgically), which makes them feel a lot "fairer" from the player side of the table.

If your bad guy takes a feat (Mother Cyst, p. 28), he gains access to a whole line of spells which interact with cysts. This includes mind control and several other nastily flavorful effects that explicitly bypass Protection From Evil (which breaks many other mind-control schemes). The second level spell "Necrotic Cyst" (p. 68) hands the cysts out. It also comes with a saving throw, but that's actually good here.

So, how do you actually hand out the cysts? Magic items. Potions are obvious (second level spell!), but that isn't as voluntary as you wanted. It could easily be a magical trap, self resetting, so you can pick up a cyst by hanging out by the evil altar, but that's also still potentially involuntary. If you don't like either of those, look at a custom magic item which does two things: casts Necrotic Cyst and gives a +15 bonus on fortitude saves against Necrotic Cyst. You auto-pass any save you don't choose to fail, so picking up a cyst is fully voluntary.

To actually build your BBEG, I'd go with something like a Dread Necromancer (from Heroes of Horror). His feats are Tomb Tainted Soul (unless he's already undead), Mother Cyst, and a selection from the Corpsecrafter line. Skim through K's necromancy handbook for inspiration. He can rule with an iron fist, but also direct skeletons to plow the fields (or whatever), which gets you reasons that the village thinks this is actually a good idea.

On your specific requirements:

  1. Not sure how to interpret this. There's no requirement on the villagers, but your BBEG definitely needs levels.
  2. Check. It might work to cut someone apart and use their bits, but only maybe. Either way, murder for body parts is no longer really "stealing."
  3. It's optionally obvious. That's better than you asked for.
  4. Not sure what this means, but I think cysts qualify.
  5. At least one method given qualifies.
  6. This one's a bit weak, but the spell line probably qualifies.
  7. Definitely counts. Cysts make you more vulnerable to all necromancy.
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  • \$\begingroup\$ add normal hypnosis would seal things (not the spell, but how it works in real life) to make the people calm, cool, relaxed, and implant hypnotic suggestions into the minds of the victims, you've got a combo that's not easily detected. \$\endgroup\$ – Jesse Cohoon Jul 9 '16 at 20:13
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If I was a BBEG and I was truly concerned with someone finding my base or identifying my minions (and potentially connecting them with me), I would not mark them with any sort of arcane sigil, no matter how powerful a spellcaster I was, out of fear that a more powerful (or lucky) caster could come along and detect magic the sigil I put down to identify them.

However, to the discerning mastermind, there are other, more discrete options to give your minions access to and from your secret base while you formulate your convoluted, multi-decade plan for world domination. In 5th edition anyway (I'm more familiar with 5e than 3.5), there are several spells that activate or remain dormant based on whether the creature says a passphrase designated by the caster (Glyph of Warding is the first one that comes to my mind). Though Glyph of Warding dissipates when it is activated once (making it an inefficient choice for creating a secret base for moving creatures into and out of if a spellcaster has to keep recasting the glyph), having either a portal spell that activates and sends the speaker of a passphrase to a designated demiplane or an abjuration spell that temporarily dissipates when a passphrase is spoken near it confers a lot of the benefits you are looking for.

  1. No Level Requirement - The lackey doesn't have to be a certain level to gain access - all they need is the intelligence to memorize a short phrase.

  2. No Theft - It's information. Unless the lackey is dumb enough to have the passphrase written down somewhere, there's nothing that can be stolen.

  3. Nothing Obvious - Again, it's information. A mind control/mind reading spell might be able to detect the passphrase, but that's far from "casual investigation".

  4. No Direct Control - This seems like the same point as above, really.

  5. Willingness - Willingness does not factor either way into whether the lackey can learn the phrase or not. Of course, it might be better to seek out willing minions who are less likely to betray your secret base, but you can always Manchurian Candidate someone if you're running low on personnel, and if you're intending for these people to be mind-controlled, you can simply give them a command that "When the clock tower bells strike noon, come to the cave outside town and say the works 'Ranga Banga.'"

  6. Another Benefits - If by "another benefits", you mean that said BBEG/BBMB can exert some measure of mental/physical control, see through their eyes, scry them, ect, then no, the passphrase method does not provide such a benefit to the person who gave it to them. If you wanted to leash them, you'd have to find another method.

  7. Ease of Transfer/stealing - This is the main reason why I would recommend this. You're planning for the PCs to eventually be able to access this area, preferably without the permission of the BBEG. All they need to do is find one of his minions with access to the other demiplane (not as easy as it sounds, given 3 and 4) and persuade or "persuade" (if your PCs lean more towards E or ChAs) him or her to give up the passphrase. Of course, the boss may know of the minion's defection or capture and set up an ambush at the site of the portal, leading to a big, climatic, and most importantly for your players, entertaining battle. Both the set-up to finding the passphrase and the assault on the portal would make great adventures or encounters.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ The tag says 3.5e, not sure why you referred to 5e in this reply. Glyph of Warding is available in 3.5e. Suggest you edit your answer to make it fit the edition. \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Jul 9 '16 at 19:11
  • \$\begingroup\$ @KorvinStarmast I own and have read the 5th edition rule books multiple times, whereas I merely play 3.5 at the discretion of a rather lenient DM. Thus, I am far more familiar with the language and specific mechanics of 5th edition spells as opposed to their 3.5 equivalents (and I chose Glyph of Warding because I knew it existed in both editions, and should be worded somewhat similarly). \$\endgroup\$ – chif-ii Jul 10 '16 at 1:12
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Voldemort's Death-Eaters were all marked.

Using such a mark to allow access beyond certain portals or doorways, would be possible. Having such a mark also lets others know of your membership, and might (for a long term effect) allow you to be easily tracked by other members.

Here are some spells that could be expanded upon to create the effects.

Arcane Mark, Charm Person, Magic Aura, Message.

Make the effect a 3rd level spell. Make it require a voluntary failed save. The mark is normally invisible, but can be called to visibility by another bearer of the mark or the creator of the mark. A Message can be cast and sent to the mark's bearer, requesting they come to the portal. The charm effect makes them very amiable to the request. The mark allows entry through the portal. The mark has a non-magical aura.

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    \$\begingroup\$ how would something like that work in game? (and by what means would it work?) \$\endgroup\$ – Jesse Cohoon Jul 9 '16 at 14:57

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