Call of Chicago: The Case Of the Overly Ambitious Blurb

Mind_controlBy now, if you have a Ken Writes About Stuff subscription, you’ve opened and perhaps even read this month’s installment, the GUMSHOE Zoom on Mind Control. And if so, you may have noticed that it doesn’t quite match the blurb for that installment, which I wrote way back in May or June of last year:

This is the kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful GUMSHOE Zoom I’ve ever known in my life. Presenting detailed rules for brainwashing, memetics, telecontrol, and brain hacking, and for gear from the Microwave Auditory Effect gun to subliminal flashers to tinfoil hats, it brings the fight inside your head.

That first sentence looks accurate enough, but what about all this other stuff? My plan was to create a Zoom much like the Martial Arts Zoom, with the generic rules up front and the specific examples afterward. What happened was this, which happens every so often in the game design biz: the rules took more space than I thought they would. In order to provide a good broad set of rules that covered every sort of mind control contest, especially including the Inception-style Mental Battlefield rules, I wound up using the entire length of the Zoom (and a good bit more, if you do the word count). This left no room for all those built examples, which will have to go into their own Mind Control 2  installment of KWAS next year, perhaps. Or into a setting, if I wind up doing one outside KWAS. Or into a setting inside KWAS. I don’t actually know. I didn’t know back in May or June of last year, either, which is how we wound up in this mess in the first place.

And believe you me, nobody feels worse about that than I. Except possibly Cat, Simon, Wade, and that one reader who went out and got both of the Scanners sequels on DVD to prep for a big 1980s corporate-raider mind-control secret-government campaign that it turns out I haven’t written yet.

So here’s what I’ll do. I’ll make good on that blurb at least, right here. Presenting, detailed rules for …


In the North Korean (or CIA black site) “toss him in the hole and disorient him until he identifies with his captors” sense, brainwashing is mostly just a factor of time. In that sense, it’s best handled as a montage of hoods and cold water and bright lights. For NPCs, brainwashing takes as many months as they have Stability, minus one per point of Interrogation spent by a supervising PC. (That means it usually takes more than one adventure to brainwash someone, as you wait for those Interrogation points to refresh.) For PCs, treat getting brainwashed as a Full Contest of Mind Control (Mind Control, p. 5) with one contest per week or month (depending on the degree of realism desired — a psi-tech Treatment Chair or Parallax Screen might speed this up to one contest a day) between the NPC interrogator’s Shrink or Psychoanalysis ability and the PC’s Stability. (A failure by the NPC means the brainwashers have to start the contest over, not that they release you.) You could, if you wished, chalk off the Stability damage you receive in specific zones using Quick and Dirty Mental Battle Damage (MC, pp. 9-10).


This is the science-fictional ability to alter a listener’s beliefs by seeding your speech, writing, advertising, etc. with viral memes, not the simple study of the semiotic content of cultural belief systems. Memetics is a Special Ability, bought either with a premium (MC, p. 4) or as part of a potential pool (MC, p. 4). To propagate a memetic virus, spend 2 points of an Investigative ability corresponding to the thrust of your meme: “Don’t trust Freemasons” uses Occult Studies or Human Terrain, while “Resistance is futile” might require Intimidation. Then spend Memetics and roll against the Difficulty the GM sets, depending on how precise, powerful, and pervasive you want the meme to be. (Difficulty 4 being a “standard” memeplex for the setting.)  The meme effects its audience (getting the audience may be a whole different operation involving a break-in to the radio station or performing a play) until countered by another Interpersonal ability spend, or until a month has passed and regular social input has resumed dominance. PCs resist a meme using Sense Trouble (if they know to suspect memetic warfare) or Stability (if not), against a Difficulty equal to the GM’s die roll (+2 if an enemy memeticist is targeting them or their subgroup specifically). A failed roll means they should roleplay believing the meme until it wears off or another PC counteracts it with an Interpersonal or Memetics spend.


This is just mind control at a distance. Use the Range parameters (MC, p. 6), modified by +2 for contagion (using a voodoo doll with some of the target’s hair), similarity (using an actual puppet as the voodoo doll), etc. in the case of magical mind control. Chips, implants, and other gadgetry may amount to the same thing, or eliminate the range factor altogether. In some cases, those modifiers may also apply to the Mind Control roll itself.

Brain Hacking

Using special software, electrodes, and creepy invasive needles stuck in someone’s brain to “reprogram” their mind over a period of hours (Difficulty +3 for “rush jobs”). This is just mind control like any other, using Digital Intrusion (and that special software, of course) as the Mind Control ability. It’s a great way to set up Mental Battlefield scenarios. In Matrix style games, it might even be able to “reprogram” skills, but that’s a can of worms the GM may not want to open. But here goes: The brain hacker’s Digital Intrusion equals the total number of ability points that can be rearranged in a target’s psyche per adventure. If outside abilities like Archaeology are implanted in the target, an equal number of the target’s ability points must be suppressed.

Microwave Auditory Effect

Technicians on WWII radar stations reported “hearing voices” but it wasn’t until 1962 that neuroscientist Allen Frey demonstrated that microwaves could trigger an auditory response. An MAE transmitter can convince someone who doesn’t know about MAE that they’re “hearing voices” and even implant specific suggestions. This is a 5-point Stability test if you’re on the receiving end; PCs using MAE weapons make a Shooting or Mechanics test (depending on the specific gear) to operate it. More sophisticated mind control masers (MCMs) use subliminals to trigger specific brain areas and emotional reactions, tied to phrases and suggestions. Treat this as one-scene Emotion Control rather than long-term mind control, using a Player-Facing Mind Control test (MC, pp. 4-5). At the GM’s discretion, PCs using MCMs must make a Digital Intrusion (to specifically program the MCM for that target), Shrink (to specifically formulate the MCM attack), or just a point-and-shoot Shooting or Surveillance (if the beam must be held in place for minutes instead of one trigger-squeeze) test.

Subliminal Flasher

This device might either just snap a target into a hypnagogic state (-4 to Hypnosis or Mind Control test Difficulties), or actually erase a few minutes of memory a la Men in Black. Either way it just takes a Shooting test to flash it in the target’s eyes. The target must be looking at the shooter, and have his eyes open. Treat it as a Player-Facing Mind Control test (MC, pp. 4-5). PCs resist at Difficulty 6 (or higher, if the GM wants the tech to be mature or powerful or both); NPCs resist at the total of the player’s roll plus her Shooting spend.

Tin Foil Hat

Increases the Difficulty of any mind control method depending on electronic signals (whether organically generated by a psionic brain, or transmitted by an NSA satellite) by 2.

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