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.


  1. Like ESP, you could have a chance of the spell reversing if the target makes his save. A problem with the save for Charm Person is that low level players' saves are so bad. You might give the target a bonus to his save "in the heat of battle" vs. out of combat, since that is less philosophical.

    I think Command or Suggestion might better match what triggers the slowing effect in fiction, though it would reduce swinginess. The slowness might be short term, thus affecting combat without ruining spycraft.

    1. Yes, I did mean the slow effect to be in combat-only, and not noticeable at other times. (Those comic examples above all pretty much exhibit exactly that.) And it strikes me as a pretty attractive idea to just have the spell be non-combat-only (kind of the reverse of 3E/4E tropes).

      IMO, I do think on the saving throw end that it's even more problematic that high-level PC's (other than M-U's) have only about a 50/50 chance of making a spell save, so even a 20th-level fighter is pretty likely taken out by the one 1st-level spell.

  2. I'm in agreement about the perfidy of spell descriptions which require metaphysical analysis in order to be implemented in the game. Especially since I have been known to play D&D with other philosophers.

    Kudos for this series of posts on spells. I'm putting together my own glosses on spells for an original D&D campaign and your analyses have been very helpful.

    I'm leaning toward a limited duration for charm person. I've also put a cap on the duration of continual light, so as to avoid the proliferation of magical glow sticks in the campaign world.

    1. Thanks for the kind words! And I totally, completely agree that continual light making for permanent illumination all over the game world must be stopped (one of my top pet peeves). My own rule-of-thumb is that no spell under 5th level is allowed to be truly permanent.