I had this idea – voodoo dolls are a tired trope and not without problems. So, what are the alternatives? I decided to list some, but let it be known, there is way more here than I can cover in this article. So crank up your inspiration dial, dive in, and come away with some cool ideas to flavor the trite control powers and mechanics in your game.
A note on Sensitivity
While I like the idea or concept of Voodoo dolls – otherwise this article would not exist – I am aware of the problems the concept poses. There are many layers to it, but I found this article to be both interesting as well as enlightening. This is not meant to diminish your fun with things. But I believe that the overall fun in the world can be greatly increased by being considerate of other people’s believes and ways of life.
A Note on Mechanics
In roleplaying games, player agency is an important factor of the social contract at the table. Steering the actions of another player’s character can only happen with their consent, and should be done sparingly, if at all. That being said, some monsters have abilities that allow them to control characters, and that can be fun, too.
The following ideas how to make something of the concept of a voodoo doll work are not intended as additional mechanics for how to control a player character. Instead, they are meant as new flavors and “reskinning” of those mechanics already existing in your game.
What a Voodoo Doll is supposed to to
What a voodoo doll is capable of differs greatly, and usually depends on “story needs”. We are mostly talking about Hollywood, after all. There are cases where the doll is used to inflict pain, sometimes it carries a curse and makes the target sick. Again, other times it gives the user direct control over the victim, translating movement of the doll directly to physical movement of their limbs – or their whole body, physics be damned.
The following ideas focus mostly on physical control, but can easily be adapted to cover other effects as well. If you want to use one in your game or story, keep in mind that this is mostly for show, and that you can get away with a lot as long as it looks interesting (or “vague and evocative” as Dael Kingsmill puts it).
“Linking the Remote”
One common aspect of doll depictions is the requirement of something from the victim’s body. Usually this is hair, but other (humanely harvested) parts might work as well. Nail clippings and blood are the two most obvious ones that come to mind.
As a variation on the theme, there could be a way to use one item to exert control over multiple individuals. This would require pieces of each person, as well as a physical way to distinguish between them. Likely, touching specific spots on the item while performing the controlling magic would steer the influence in the right direction.
This category covers things that you would not look twice at if you found them in someone’s home, or on their person, beyond maybe odd fashion choices. The ascribed control can work by simply holding the item, or by moving parts of it. I think the latter is more interesting, because it gives a visible cue as opposed to “it could be anything”.
Woven from colorful threads forming intricate patterns, this article of clothing comes with a subtle pattern change that signifies different body parts or areas of control. Taking actual control could be as simple as caressing that area of the fabric, but might also require puppeteering it in a rather obvious fashion. If you need a mental image, the flying rug from Aladdin comes to mind.
To key this item to a specific person, strands of hair can be woven into the fabric, or included after the fact. Alternatively, there are places on the pattern that can be dyed with drops of the victim’s blood to form an even stronger connection.
At first glance, this is just collection of beads of clay and glass, seeds, and other vaguely round objects, held together using a sturdy string or a fine chain. It can be worn around the neck, as the name implies, or, wrapped a few times or made smaller to fit, as a bracelet. There is a pattern to the beads, though, and a number of them allow for direct control over a victim by turning these beads in a specific way.
To link this item to a person, something from them needs to be included in one bead, either by baking it in or inserting it into a dedicated cavity somehow. This makes it rather easy to combine multiple persons into one item, and holding “their” bead while operating the rest of the necklace.
In this case, the actual voodoo doll replacement could be a case itself. A small wooden box, intricately carved and painted, might hold some keepsakes or items of interest. But as soon as a pin is removed that holds the walls together it unfolds, revealing the carving of a skeletal figure on the inside faces.
This section covers things that are obviously magic in nature, and visibly defy the (boring) set of physics and expectations that we are used to in the real world. They might be more at home in a fantasy setting, but should still be unsettling to most who encounter them.
Basically, these are golems or “matter elementals”. Small person-shaped things that can walk and move like a humanoid would. Since they are arcane in nature, they can likely obey verbal commands. They can also be commanded to hide, or to fold up and rest while inside a pocket or pouch.
They can come in all manners of flavor, i.e. made of a number of different materials. Seriously, this category covers too many ideas to list, from actual wooden dolls to something made of rice or fur. Listed here you’ll find a number of less obvious choices. At least I hope they are. If they are what your mind went to right away, I congratulate you on a mind well inspired. If not, you are on a good way, still!
- Spirit Energy – shimmering energy with a glow that ebbs and flows gently, and can walk through walls.
- Smoke – can be kept in a small vial, and takes on a humanoid form once it flows out of the container.
- Animal doubles – an animal jinxed to link it to a humanoid. It can be alive or dead, depending on your personal taste in necromancy.
Voodoo Dolls Specialties
Here are a few ideas for things adjacent to voodoo dolls that do not quite fit the requirements, but would make for interesting additions and mechanics in your games.
The Reverse Doll
This version works with most flavors detailed above, but the magic runs in reverse. The small facsimile moves and behaves just like the real counterpart does. Thus it can be used to spy on them, find out where they are going and what they are doing. This can include anything from spying on someone’s routine to revealing secret passageways. This mechanism could be integrated with the controlling magic, and made to be switched on if desired.
The Voice Skull
This is an actual skull, preferably a large one so it fits over an insidious spellcaster’s head. Once it is enchanted and linked to a target person, the head will grant the wearer their senses. Putting it on literally puts the attacker inside the head of their victim. They can see what they see, hear what they hear, and possibly even taste what they taste.
In addition, it is possible to enhance the connection and speak directly into the person’s mind, as if someone was whispering directly into their ear. While not a direct form of control, this enables a way to exert influence over someone without relying directly on magic. Or keeping an eye on agents in the field, if that is more your thing.
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Check out my other Inspirations, and remember to Be Inspired!