Charm Person Alternatives

As I mentioned in the prior "Spells Through the Ages" blog post, charm person in the AD&D era is definitely one of those fiddly bits that truly aggravated me -- forcing the need to philosophically debate what counts as being "against one's nature" and whatnot (blech). Here's a couple other options to tone it down from the OD&D version, if necessary, while keeping it simple and straightforward to adjudicate.

1. Limit the Duration

This is pretty obvious; the fact that the spell was originally unending -- up to dispel magic --  was a primary source of its great strength. It's one of those things where one might extrapolate wizard characters with arbitrarily large entourages all from the 1st-level spell. In fact, as you can see in my OED Book of Spells, I'm in favor of a guideline of no spell under 5th level being allowed to be permanent. My own conversion of the charm person spell there has a flat duration of 1 week, period, which I find to be much more elegant (no special table needed), and still provides some opportunity for subterfuge and surveillance, for example.

2. Give a Saving Throw

Okay, so let's you go the "fight against their nature" route -- then my recommendation would be to give at most one extra saving throw in the specific case of "turning against one's former allies" (either in combat or by divulging secret information, say) -- to indicate that the victim is entirely, completely dominated. There are admittedly plenty of these "Fight it, Bob!" scenarios that pop up in fiction, but in many cases the enchanted victim really does wind up horribly fighting their old allies anyway. So maybe give the caster a strategic choice about either to (a) definitely keep the victim out of the current fight, or (b) risk using them against their old allies. That's a reasonably interesting tactical choice.

3. Slow the Victim

The other thing that I do is to treat the victim as slowed, and getting only half attacks, while in combat. What this does is moderate the great "swinginess" that occurs when a character is switched from one party to another when in combat (while avoiding the argument about whether that's "in their nature"), and at the same time giving the flavor of many fantasy portrayals of enchanted people acting against their own will, but doing so very slowly.

For example, here are a few panels from classic Lee/Kirby Thor stories:

And lest we not forget, ol' Reggie Jackson in the Naked Gun movie:

I Must Kill the Queen

I think I've made my case.


Spells Through the Ages – Charm Person

Man with hearts flying out of head
In classic D&D, the 1st-level spell charm person was one of the strongest possible selections for a beginning wizard character (possibly second only to sleep). It had no hit-die cap, so even the mightiest fighter in the game had about a 50% chance of missing the save and being neutralized by it; and it was possibly indefinite in duration, creating the possibility of nigh-permanent servitors or long-term secret double-agents (as used by certain notable monsters like vampires and ogre mages). Let's see how it evolved over the years:

Original D&D -- Charm person was not included in the Chainmail fantasy rules, but it was in the earliest version of D&D (for example, before the invention of magic missile):
Charm Person: This spell applies to all two-legged, generally mammalian figures near to or less than man-size, excluding all monsters in the "Undead" class but including Sprites, Pixies, Nixies, Kobolds, Goblins, Orcs, Hobgoblins and Gnolls. If the spell is successful it will cause the charmed entity to come completely under the influence of the Magic-User until such time as the "charm" is dispelled (Dispell Magic). Range: 12". [Vol-1, p. 23]

We'll note how potent the spell is, in that "it will cause the charmed entity to come completely under the influence of the Magic-User". It's even referenced prior to the spells section with similar powerful effect: "Monsters can be lured into service if they are of the same basic alignment as the player-character, or they can be charmed and thus ordered to serve" (Vol-1, p. 12). And charm person is ascribed to monsters such as Vampires, Dryads, and Nixies, who can use it to "enslave" victims for a year or more each (Vol-2). As we'll see, later editions will start nerfing that, but I like the clarity and simplicity of play here (what you do is what the M-U says; no weaselly debate over whether it's in your nature or not). In addition, it seems to be effectively unending, at least until someone thinks to cast a "Dispell Magic" on the victim. I find that this spell alone makes solo play in OD&D almost untenable; the first time you encounter any 1st-level magic-user, they can cast charm person, and you'll probably fail your save and be out of the game. Of course, the larger your adventuring party, then the less of a proportional loss any single character will make (and note that Vol-1 recommends a referee to player ratio of about 1:20, and possibly up to 50! [Vol-1, p. 5]).

Greyhawk Supplement -- Normally, the OD&D Greyhawk supplement is not something I would check in on individually, but in the midst of its expanded spell list, it effectively errata'd two specific 1st levels spells -- charm person and sleep (indicative of the relative great power and utility of those spells; the only other spell so modified is charm monster, so as to keep the symmetry with charm person). Here's what it says:

Charm Person: Intelligence allows the charmed person to eventually free itself from the charm. A check will he made on the following basis, and if a score equal to a save vs. magic is made the charm is broken. Charms do not affect the Undead.

Intelligence Check Every
up to 6 month
7-9 three weeks
10-11 two weeks
12-15 week
16-17 two days
18 and above day

[Sup-I, p. 21]

So obviously, the major change here is to downgrade the effect from permanent-until-dispelled, to merely indefinite-until-the-next-save-per-intelligence. It's still potentially long term (especially for those of average intelligence or less), but likely does not last forever.

Dalluhn Manuscript -- Here's an extra-credit little look at what's called the "Dalluhn Manuscript" or "Beyond This Point Be Dragons" (per the cover), which is highly likely to be an early play copy cribbed from a pre-publication D&D draft. I can't avoid looking at the text here with interest:

Charm Person: This spell applies to all mammalian figures equal to or less than man-size, excluding all monsters in the "Undead" class but including Sprites, Goblins, Orcs, etc. If the spell is successful, it will make the charmed person completely under the influence of the Magic-User for a length a of time equal to 6 plus the level of the Magic-User.
Notice that's almost exactly the same language as seen in OD&D ("completely under the influence", etc.). It doesn't try to list every subject monster in the game. But most importantly: it has a very short duration, e.g., just 7 turns for starting-level Magic-User. Is the indefinite duration in OD&D just a typographical accident from leaving that clause out? I wonder.

Holmes Basic D&D -- Here's our "transitional" edition before D&D entirely bifurcates from AD&D. Basically it copies the original D&D text, with the Greyhawk errata included. It has the identical range (120 feet underground) and still includes the precise phrase "come completely under the influence of the magic-user". The table to determine later saving throws is identical to the one we see in Greyhawk. (Thus, for brevity, I won't bother to include it here.)

Advanced D&D 1E -- In AD&D, this is one of the spells which rather inconveniently gets split into a series of back-references, because what comes first in the book is the very similar druid spell, as follows:

Charm Person Or Mammal: This spell will affect any single person or mammal it is cast upon. The creature then will regard the druid who cast the spell as a trusted friend and ally to be heeded and protected. The spell does not enable the druid to control the charmed creature as if it were an automaton, but any word or action of the druid will be viewed in its most favorable way. Thus, a charmed creature would not obey a suicide command, but might believe the druid if assured that the only chance to save the druid's life is if the creature holds back an onrushing red dragon for "just a round or two". Note also that the spell does not empower the druid with linguistic capabilities beyond those he or she normally possesses. The duration of the spell is a function of the charmed creature's intelligence, and it is tied to the saving throw. The spell may be broken if a saving throw is made, and this saving throw is checked on a periodic basis according to the creature's intelligence:

Intelligence Score Period Between Checks
3 or less 3 months
4 to 6 2 months
7 to 9 1 month
10 to 12 3 weeks
13 to 14 2 weeks
15 to 16 1 week
17 3 days
18 2 days
19 or more 1 day

If the druid harms, or attempts to harm, the charmed creature by some overt action, or if a dispel magic (q.v.) is successfully cast upon the charmed creature, the charm will be broken automatically. The spell affects all mammalian animals and persons. The term person includes all bipedal human and humanoid creatures of approximately man-size, or less than man-size, including those affected by the hold person spell (q.v.). If the recipient of the charm person/charm mammal spell makes its saving throw versus the spell, its effect is negated. [PHB, p. 55-56]
Then later in the magic-user's section:
Charm Person: Except as shown above, this spell is the same as the second level druid spell, charm person or mammal (q.v.), but the magic-user can charm only persons, i.e. brownies, dwarves, elves, gnolls, gnomes, goblins, half-elves, halflings, half-orcs, hobgoblins, humans, kobolds, lizard men, nixies, orcs, pixies, sprites, and troglodytes. All other comments regarding spell effects apply with respect to persons. [PHB, p. 65]
And like some spells, there is errata-like information in the DMG; first for the druid version:
Charm Person Or Mammal: If at the same time this spell is cast the subject is struck by any spell, missile or weapon which inflicts damage, the creature will make its saving throw at +1 per point of damage sustained. Naturally, this assumes damage is inflicted by members of the spell caster’s party.

Remember that a charmed creature’s or person’s priorities are changed as regards the spell-caster, but the charmed one’s basic personality and alignment are not. The spell is not enslave person or mammal. A request that a charmee make itself defenseless or that he/she/it be required to give up a valued item or cast a valuable spell or use a charge on a valued item (especially against the charmee’s former associates or allies) could allow an immediate saving throw to see if the charm is thrown off. In like manner, a charmed figure will not necessarily tell everything he/she/it knows or draw maps of entire areas. A charmed figure can refuse a request, if such refusal is in character and will not directly cause harm to the charmer. Also, a charm spell does not substantially alter the charmee’s feelings toward the charmer’s friends and allies. The charmed person or creature will not react well to the charmer’s allies making suggestions like "Ask him this question..." The charmee is oriented toward friendship and acceptance of the charmer, but this does not mean that he/she/it will put up with verbal or physical abuse from the charmer‘s associates. [DMG p. 43]

And finally errata for the magic-user version:
Charm Person: Attacks causing damage upon the subject person will cause a saving throw bonus of +1 per hit point of damage sustained in the round that the charm is cast. [DMG p. 44]
(Phew!) The primary new inventions here are several mechanical tinkerings given in an attempt to reduce the spell from the simple and devastating effect originally given in OD&D ("come completely under the influence of the Magic-User"). That is: There is evidence of enormous tension in how powerful the spell is, and the ways in which it has been used by dungeon-delving adventurers in the past (and hence an tremendous increase in the verbosity of the rules text). In this case (specifically in the Druid spell text) we see a switch to having the victim "regard the druid who cast the spell as a trusted friend... not... an automaton... not obey a suicide command...", and more of the same in the DMG expansion. Unfortunately, this new rule opens the door to widespread rules-lawyering, as casting the spell is likely to initiate a prolonged philosophical debate about how a given character treats a "trusted friend and ally" (possibly in opposition to other friends and allies), in what cases they might "refuse a request", how likely they are to be duped into thinking they can stop a dragon for "a round or two", etc. So this would be one of the places where I've found that AD&D makes the game sometimes painfully subjective and argumentative (much like new interpretations of alignment, illusions, etc.) -- so that we might fold this into the greater trend of Silver-Age naturalism, perhaps.

But in addition, there are yet other provisions for breaking the spell, including (a) automatic termination if the caster harms the charmed person, and (b) a generous new saving throw whenever damage is taken from anyone in the caster's party (as per the DMG). The table of intelligence-based saves is also given some refinement, with more categories given, etc.

Another minor wrinkle is that if look at the OD&D spell, or the druid spell given here, the list of possible target types is open-ended, with a basic and simple rule-of-thumb given to adjudicate it (in OD&D, "all two-legged, generally mammalian figures near to or less than man-size"; in the AD&D Druid spell, "all bipedal human and humanoid creatures of approximately man-size, or less than man-size"). But the magic-user version includes a closed-form list of racial types, without any of the language of "including" or "for example"; thereby apparently restricting the use-cases from any new creatures that might be added to the game. You might reasonably choose to ignore that (i.e., continue to play by the OD&D rule); but it seemed enough of a serious issue to require a Gygax-penned Dragon article expanding the list to those types from the Fiend Folio and beyond -- including, in fact, the rather severe dictum that "players must attempt to remember the list of creatures affected" (Dragon #90, p. 16)!

Finally, as noted above, the spell is included as an ability for many powerful monster types, including vampires (since OD&D), ogre magi (since Sup-I, Greyhawk), and even the greatest demons (as of Sup-III, Eldritch Wizardry). This is a key component for how those evil creatures can survey and subvert nearby human communities on a long-term basis.

Advanced D&D 2E -- As usual, the 2E spell is basically a direct copy-and-paste from the 1E text, with some minor grammatical editing. The effect is identical with regard to: range and number effected (one); caster status of "trusted friend and ally", with all previous restrictions and ambiguities; immediate termination if the caster harms the charmee; identical table of intelligence-based saves, etc. (Thus I have chosen to forego copying the entirety of the text here.) It does bring back the open-ended effect on creatures types, to wit: "The term person includes any bipedal human, demihuman or humanoid of man-size or smaller, such as brownies, etc." Also, two somewhat interesting corner-case refinements are added at the end (although exhibiting the 2E tendency of being unable to make up its damned mind about a given mechanic):
If two or more charm effects simultaneously affect a creature, the result is decided by the DM. This could range from one effect being clearly dominant, to the subject being torn by conflicting desires, to new saving throws that could negate both spells...

Note: The period between checks is the time period during which the check occurs. When to roll the check during this time is determined (randomly or by selection) by the DM. The roll is made secretly. [2E PHB]
The latter actually does address a question I had looking at the 1E text: "Can't the caster calculate the exact time of the next saving throw, and wait for that moment to cast a new charm person spell or the like?" With this modification, the time of termination becomes unpredictable, and the casting magic-user can no longer manage it automatically like an accountant with a spreadsheet. More generally, I don't see why this couldn't be a regular rule for the system, with long-term spell effects being subject to some amount of unpredictable modification by the DM.

Dungeons & Dragons 3E -- The major change in 3E is the shortening of the spell from the open-ended duration (as given by the special table for saving throws) to one that is only 1-hour-per-caster-level:
Charm Person: Range: Close (25 ft. + 5 ft./2 levels), Target: One person, Duration: 1 hour/level -- This charm makes a humanoid of Medium-size or smaller regard the character as a trusted friend and ally. If the creature is currently being threatened or attacked by the character or the character's allies, however, he receives a +5 bonus on his saving throw.
The spell does not enable the character to control the charmed person as if the person were an automaton, but the subject perceives the character's words and actions in the most favorable way. The character can try to give the subject orders, but the character must win an opposed Charisma check to convince the subject to do anything he or she wouldn’t ordinarily do. (Retries not allowed.) A charmed person never obeys suicidal or obviously harmful orders. Any act by the character or the character's apparent allies that threatens the charmed person breaks the spell. Note also that the character must speak the person’s language to communicate the character's commands, or else be good at pantomiming.
This version is at least somewhat simplified (compared to the behemoth that is the 1E AD&D text), but keeps fundamentally the same wibbly-wobbly restrictions with regard to the text on a "trusted friend and ally", "not... an automaton", "never obeys suicidal orders", etc. In fact, it strengthens them, by now making any threatening act by the caster's allies grounds for automatic termination of the spell (as opposed to granting a saving throw from damage, as in 1E-2E).

Now, as observed above, the greatest change is in removing the schedule for intelligence-based saves, and replacing it with the much shorter 1-hr/level duration. In some sense, this makes the spell more elegant, by removing the need for the large table, and bringing it in line with the way durations are expressed in most other spells. But unfortunately the effect completely neutralizes the use of the spell for long-term surveillance and espionage, as it had been used in many campaign and adventure plot points up until the time of 3E. In particular, the fact that the 1st-level spell remained on so many major monster lists (ogre magi, demons, etc.), with such a paltry effect, looked downright silly and spawned some bewilderment among players. More generally, this served as a poster-child for the 3E trend of taking 1E spells with long-term campaign usage, and narrowing them to only combat use within a single dungeon crawl.

On the one hand, 3E did introduce a more heavy-duty spell called dominate person which strips away many of the restrictions built up to this point ("generally force the subject to perform as you desire"). But: (a) it is a 5th-level wizard spell, (b) while it is used for the new vampire ability, it is left out of most other monster ability lists (see above), and (c) the duration is still only 1-day/level, and thus much less than the simple charm available in editions 0-2 (and so still limited for some plot purposes). To access an equivalent indefinite-duration power, you'd actually need to utilize the enslave ritual in the Epic Level Handbook.

Moldvay Basic D&D -- Now let's check in on the parallel line of Basic D&D that was published after Holmes, and concurrently with the AD&D line:
Charm Person: This spell can be used on any human, or human-like creature (such as bugbears, gnolls, gnomes, goblins, hobgoblins, lizard men, ogres, pixies, or sprites). It will not affect undead, nor creatures larger than an ogre. If the victim fails to make a saving throw vs. Spells, the victim will believe that the spell caster is its "best friend" and will try to defend the caster against any threat (real or imagined). If the caster speaks a language that the charmed creature understands, commands may be given to the victim. Any commands given will usually be obeyed, except that orders against its nature (alignment and habits) may be resisted, and an order to kill itself will be refused. Creatures with above average intelligence (a score of 13-18) may make a new saving throw each day. Creatures with average intelligence (a score of 9-12, which includes the monsters listed above) may save again once per week, and creatures with below average intelligence (a score of 3-8) may save again once each month. (A charm may be removed by a dispel magic spell.) [Moldvay, p. B16]
Like the OD&D and Holmes versions, the spell here keeps its open-ended list of creature types, such that the DM can clearly apply it to new types as desired. But unlike those editions, we see that this version has folded in the key ambiguous restrictions first seen in AD&D, re: "best friend", "orders against its nature (alignment and habits) may be resisted", etc. Those restrictions are nicely edited down, however, and they don't specify the auto-termination for caster attacking the charmee, nor extra save for allies causing damage (although they might reasonably be extrapolated by any DM). The long table has also been edited out, being replaced by a very elegant rule of one save per day, week, or month, depending on whether the creature's intelligence is above, equal to, or below average. Once again I'll say that Moldvay has done a very nice job of perceiving the essence of the spell, and he's spent the time to write it up far more elegantly than in other editions.

Mentzer Basic D&D -- In the Mentzer version of the rules, the charm person spell (actually the first magic-user spell in the game) fundamentally has the same effect as in Moldvay above. However, it again blooms to a much larger expanse of text, because (a) Mentzer seems to write to a much lower reading level, (b) the details are given more examples as to what does and does not qualify for the language given (including an in-game example boxed paragraph), and (c) the rules are split between player's and DM's books, with most of the content merely hinted at in the former, and then given specifics in the latter. All together it runs 16 paragraphs (which I will forgo here, since I don't have a digital copy and would have to retype the whole thing).

The one change I can spot in this version is that, like AD&D, it seems to veer back towards suggesting use of a fixed and closed list of creatures types effected. It says (DM's Rulebook p. 14), "You may decide the exact creatures affected, or you may use the list below". It then proceeds to give a separate paragraph for these apparently distinct ruling strategies for the spell; first a list of criteria "if you wish to make your own list", and secondly a closed-form list of "creatures in this set which are subject to Charm Person", ending with the pointer, "NOTE: Some other creatures given in the EXPERT and COMPANION Sets may also be Charmed. They are listed in each set." All in all, Moldvay expressed in a single paragraph the same idea that it takes Mentzer sixteen; or perhaps charitably we might say that Mentzer has had more time to see players wrestling over the ambiguous nature of the rule, and tried to give more detail to adjudicating it (but honestly: it's really the former).

Allston Rules Cyclopedia -- Largely the Rules Cyclopedia spell looks like the Mentzer version, again fairly verbose, split between the main spell text with the simple rule for durations a la Moldvay (p. 45) and a "more complex system" given in the DM's Procedures chapter, featuring an alternate table for durations which mostly resembles the one from Greyhawk/AD&D (although with even more categories, almost a separate one for each distinct point of Intelligence; p. 144-145). All together there are 12 paragraphs and 2 separate tables for this one 1st-level spell. Again, I would replicate it here but the text-copy out of my PDF version seems based on broken OCR and therefore prohibitive for me to correct.

Summary -- Charm person is a spell that seems to have simultaneously been at war with itself, its designers, editors, players, and referees. The spell that seemed so simple in OD&D was apparently seen as overpowered and abusive in later years (and even I must admit: it pretty much breaks solo play in OD&D all by itself). The text for the spell massively inflated, contracted, and re-inflated in different rulebooks over the years, presenting what must seem like a crushing weight of rules language to the incoming player for the single 1st-level spell -- and frequently split, re-addressed, and errata's in multiple books of the same ruleset. I'm pretty sure that no other 1st-level spell had such an enormous mass of rules text devoted to it over the years (although the phantasmal force illusion, at 2nd or 3rd level, is in the same general class).

As noted above, I've personally been long aggravated by the spell in its AD&D form, with its ambiguous and personality-dependent (even philosophy-dependent) restriction, and the propensity to argue ad nauseum over what a certain character would "ordinarily do". The expectation that such psychological and moral-based debates would be a regular part of D&D play is something that really annoyed me about so-called Silver Age naturalism -- and slowed the pace of many games to a dreadful crawl (and not of the exploring-the-dungeon type). Furthermore, the soft-and-fuzzy "best friends" rule doesn't match any of the fantasy literature I can think of, which in contrast does feature many cases of enchantment in which the heroes are forced into actions they definitely wouldn't normally take, irrespective of their inner desires and motivations.

So, I'm very much a proponent of a short and simple-to-parse rule in any of my RPG gaming; if that means that a certain spell is a very powerful one, then so be it (and in fact it make it more compatible with most fantasy literature, and game-balanced with a very small number of spells memorized by any wizard). If we must modify charm person, then I think the best idea would be a straight duration limitation like most other spells (as I did in OED: Book of Spells, limiting it to a straight 1 week period), or maybe a significant saving-throw bonus, or (if absolutely necessary) boosting it to a higher spell level. Among the many reasons that I'm delighted to play OD&D instead of AD&D is being able to avoid debate over the ubiquitous 1st-level magic-user spell charm person.

[Illustration by royblumenthal under CC2.]