D&D Ideas — Possession
Welcome once again to the weekly newsletter. This week’s topic is possession, which we discussed in our weekly live chat. We hangout every Monday evening at 8 p.m. EST on Nerdarchy Live to talk about D&D, RPGs, gaming, life and whatever nerdy stuff comes up. Speaking of possession in Island in the Storm adventurers can ease a restless spirit’s forlorn imprisonment but only if this ghost can take over one of them body and soul. An imprisoned ghost pleads with the heroes to possess one of them in a bid to escape her island exile along with 54 other dynamic scenarios in Out of the Box. Find out more about it here. You can get the Nerdarchy Newsletter delivered to your inbox each week, along with updates and info on how to game with Nerdarchy plus snag a FREE GIFT by signing up here.
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Delving Dave’s Dungeon
Possession is a classic horror trope and therefore you should use it in tabletop roleplaying games like fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons if you want to ratchet up the horror aspect of your game even if only for a story arc. Some monster types narratively make sense to possess others even if they don’t mechanically possess that ability. The monster type can determine how they posses their victims.
Aberration. Often these creatures have weird psychic powers. I could see a mind flayer astrally projecting themselves into their victim.
Celestial, Fiend, Undead. I see each of these as being able to physically enter their victims. In the case of undead I’m specifically thinking of incorporeal creatures. Celestials and fiends might not even be able to enter the Material Plane without a host to possess.
Elemental. Unlike the other types of monsters I like the idea of elementals able to possess a host but in a super obvious way. For example an earth elemental could absorb the victim into themselves. The target’s face takes on the sculpted statue look of their host instead of a rough rocky appearance typical of earth elementals. A fire elemental host might look completely normal except they are on fire.
Adding an aspect of possession can create some unique situations in your 5E D&D game.
Hidden in Plain Sight. This is a great way to hide a monster from the characters. They think the antagonist is a noble or politician but it turns out they are either a puppet or ally to the actual threat — the creature possessing them.
An Innocent Victim. The Exorcist movie is a perfect example of this. The creature possesses someone who doesn’t have a choice in what’s going on. The characters have to figure out how to defeat the creature behind everything. Do they find a way to save the possessed? Will killing the possessed person drive the being out of this world or will they just hop into a new host?
Not the Final Form. This idea could work with the Hidden in Plain Sight idea. Basically there’s two monsters in one. The characters go through the work of defeating the villain but this only releases the monster within, which they now have to face off against.
Monster Power-Up. No matter how you go about using the possessor and possessed you can have the possessing creature wield their powers through the victim. If the monster has spells, spelllike or supernatural abilities these could be added to the repertoire of the possessed creature. It could be just a way to tweak the power level of a standard monster with some of these other powers.
Story Power-Up. More than just powering up monsters’ abilities you can power up your story arc. This could be a slow burn. The characters find themselves combating the same problem over and over again — whatever the monster is trying to accomplish. It could trying to uncover an object, murder a ruler, find a lost city or anything else. The adventurers defeat a villain wielding weird powers trying to accomplish this goal. The characters think they are done but another evildoer shows up with the same weird power set and motives. Maybe now they’ve added “kill the meddlesome adventurers” to their to do list.
After encountering these similarities a couple of times the character hopefully begin piecing together the mystery so they can get at the real threat — the possession entity. This offers up some interesting twists and turns to explore. Are the creatures being possessed victims? Are possessed creatures allies to these beings?
From Ted’s Head
Possession is a difficult subject when it comes to tabletop roleplaying games. If a 5E D&D creature possess a character against their this essentially takes away the player’s agency. Some players totally get into these situations and do whatever the creature asks by way of the DM. They find it fun to act without the same moral and ethical constraint and enjoy setting up the other characters for their deaths — after all this makes a great story.
However, many others are very much against possession. They do everything they can to avoid it and can get upset out of game if it happens to their character. If possession is a consideration or a heavy concept you are considering as a DM make sure it is covered in your session zero so you know how everyone feels about the subject.
As a player I have seen everything from half hearted attempts to use a character’s weakest stuff against the strongest characters and I have seen a player use every trick on their character sheet to see how many of their companions can be taken down in a round because of the possession.
Possession goes so much further than being simply charmed and controlled by an enemy. It is an invasion into a person’s very being. Imagine being able to control your senses while someone else operates your body, or worse experiencing a lapse of memory only to regain consciousness and find out you have done something horrible to those you care about. How is this going to affect you? What if you have caused lasting harm? What impact is this going to have on you? The character of Yasha on Critical Role Campaign 2 struggles with these issues and it’s a source of terrific roleplaying and character growth.
Possession can come from a lot of sources in 5E D&D. Usually it is an undead or fiend but there are so many other ways. A cursed magic item or any sentient magic item could technically possess a character if the DM desires. A guiding angel could totally take over a character to enact vengeance upon a hated foe or set things right in the multiverse.
If you are looking for flavor for a character perhaps a paladin has such an angel in their prayers and visions. When they smite perhaps just for a moment the angel possesses the character to add the radiant damage to the attack. Mechanically this paladin is no different than any other paladin out there. But if for role playing reasons you imagine your fighter character’s features as divine events brought about by an angel this would be a very cool way to make your character stand out. It could also give the DM reasons to have certain types wish to target you to hurt the angel. An aasimar’s Angelic Guide certainly will do for another path to incorporating possession in this manner.
Some things in 5E D&D offer a more friendly form of possession between two willing creatures. Anytime a wizard takes on the sight and senses of their familiar they are technically possessing them, right? Figure out how you want to have things possess or get possessed in your game and let things get spooky or fun!
From the Nerditor’s desk
I hit all the bullet points in my notes when Nerdarchist Dave and I discussed Possession with a capital P in fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons terms during our Nerdarchy Live chat. For a different take on possession in 5E D&D I turned to the good old dictionary where one of the meanings of the word is “the state of being completely under the influence of an idea or emotion” as in “fear took possession of my soul.”
Adventurers in 5E D&D typically represent strong willed individuals. If nothing else they take extreme risks on the regular so they must be possessed of powerful motivations. So as I often do in these circumstances I take a look at the Basic Rules and see what sort of guidance 5E D&D offers in this area on its most accessible level.
Whenever I make a new character it’s fun and helpful to consider the Suggested Characteristics given with each background option. Even when I have a strong concept in mind already these personality traits, ideals, bonds and flaws can help fill in the gaps. These are the touchstones for roleplaying a character so however you imagine and portray your character these aspects represent the core of who they are — the aspects they’re most possessed of you might say.
- Charity. I always try to help those in need, no matter what the personal cost.
- Greed. I will do whatever it takes to become wealthy.
- Sincerity. There’s no good in pretending to be something I’m not.
- Independence. I must prove that I can handle myself without the coddling of my family.
- Logic. Emotions must not cloud our logical thinking.
- Responsibility. I do what I must and obey just authority.
A character possessed by these or any other ideals makes decisions motivated by them. With my own characters I find when I cleave to their core ideals it’s a much more rewarding experience. They develop into truly memorable characters much more so through the ideas they’re possessed by than any fantastic powers. And those are just ideals!
Roleplaying a character whose characteristics include things like they’d do anything or never do another thing — basically any absolute declarations — can lead into and out of all sorts of unexpected circumstances and this is a big part of the fun of 5E D&D for me anyway.
One related perspective on the concept of possession by an idea or emotion crosses over with next week’s newsletter topic so I’ll leave you with a teaser. If a creature uses the dream spell to build something secure in the target’s dreams like a bank vault or a jail and their mind fills it with information they’re trying to protect could the caster plant an idea the target would become possessed by upon waking?
*Featured image — An unknown adversary causes problems for adventurers in Enemy at the Gate, one of 55 dynamic encounters ready to drop into your game in Out of the Box. [Illustration by Kim Van Deun]