Monday, June 7, 2021

Surveys & Samples: Charm Person

I've struggled with the D&D charm person spell for some time (c.f.: Charm Person Through the Ages). Partly that's due to what appears to be one of the most radical de-powerings of any spell in the first 3 editions or so. In OD&D it started out with the stated effect of:

... come completely under the influence of the Magic-User until such time as the "charm" is dispelled (Dispell Magic)... (Vol-1, p. 23)

But this "complete" control and infinite duration was rapidly nerfed with recurrent saving throws (Supplent I: Greyhawk), language that the victim merely considered the caster a "trusted friend and ally" (AD&D PHB), bonuses to saves in combat and other restrictions (AD&D DMG), etc. By the time of the 3.5 edition revision, it merely lasts 1 hour/level, and requires an additional Charisma check to convince the victim to do anything they wouldn't normally do anyway. 

Now, some claim that this is broadly the way it always was intended (but boy, that seems like a huge shift in the language to me). E.g., Mike Mornard, who played in both original campaigns by Gygax & Arneson, recalls:

"Charmed" means "Charmed, I'm sure." The person is now your new best friend. They are NOT your mindless slave. That's how Dave and Gary both played it. (ODD74; account required)

On the other hand: In the section on hiring NPCs, it is written: "... or they can be Charmed and thus ordered to serve" (Vol-1, p. 12); and charm person was also ability ascribed to monsters such as Vampires, Dryads, etc., who could dominate and, indeed, "enslave" a victim (see: Vol-2, Nixie) for a year or more each. In the AD&D DMG Gygax tried to carve a distinction between those abilities and the spell of the same name, saying they were very different; which seems more like a retcon than consistent intent. 

Related to this wide variation in power of the spell over the years, one of the things that really bugs me about charm person is how often it turns into a debate at the table over what its effect should be -- and how often players are surprised or disappointed at an effect they didn't expect. For a 1st-level spell, I dare say this is unique. Other low-level spells generally have a very clearly qualified effect that the caster will be aware of in advance. But here we have charm person at 1st level -- frequently the very first offensive spell that a new magic-user will take -- and it usually turns into a dispute or a "gotcha" upon casting it. 

For the brand-new D&D player, it seems likely that their first impression of magic is that it's all based purely on fiat rulings by the DM and how much you can sway them through argument. 

Facebook Poll

Wondering what the majority opinion was, I thought to ask a poll on the sizable Facebook AD&D group. Questions were first reviewed & edited by Patrons on the Wandering DMs Discord channel (thanks!). Here's the result:

There were a total of 158 different voters (note participants were directed to pick "all that apply", so generally multiple selections). Of the options presented, the vote totals were as follows:

  • Defend the caster -- 126 (80%)
  • Flee the encounter -- 80 (51%)
  • Surrender and disarm -- 68 (43%)
  • Attack former allies -- 35 (22%)
  • Nothing: charm fails in combat -- 12 (8%)

So only two of the given options received majority approval: Defending the caster seems clearly to be allowed, and fleeing the encounter gets the nod from a hairs-breadth over half of the respondents. Other options like surrender or go on the offensive for the caster got the thumbs-down.

I must say I actually am quite heartened by the interpretation that an enemy charmed in combat doesn't immediately start fighting on the magic-user's side -- even though that's how I always ruled it by default historically. That seemed to me to be following the letter of the rule, but it felt incredibly swingy. Losing any party member to a spell is one thing, but then the other side gaining the same figure, of course, makes for an immediate 2-person swing which can be quite brutal (esp., again, to a 1st-level spell; and moreso with modern small party sizes). 

(Contrast, though, to an example like the magic-user in J. Eric Holmes' Basic D&D sample dungeon: he has a fighter he holds under a charm person spell, and the first thing he does in an encounter is "(a) direct the fighter to attack", albeit probably not former allies. Or likewise the one in Frank Mentzer's Basic D&D dungeon; when the player misses a save vs. charm person, they immediately abandon the cleric with whom they were adventuring -- and who earlier referred to the effect as, "He has probably cast a spell on the goblin to force it to serve him".)

Other Suggestions

As is common, a large number of other intriguing suggestions were added in the discussion, as well as some objections to the premise of the poll in the first place. The most common redirection is that the effect of charm person is indeed entirely context-dependent, and will only be known after the result of role-playing interactions between the player and DM. (Which if you recall is part of my grief earlier). Some examples:

John D.
None of the above! The magic-user can't force the fighter to do anything. They can only make suggestions and the fighter will respond as if they viewed the caster as favorably as possible. All of these would depend on the context.

Keith W.
Can't force anything....but with some good roleplaying, I'd allow some of those. Nothing that causes harm to him or his allies, but I could see him trying to talk them out of killing the caster as they now view you as a friend.

Drew B.
This is where the magic user has to come up with some strong role playing for the spell to work.

Troy O.
Great opportunity to let player role play dialogue and the more convincing the “story” the better chance it will work to charm but not force. For example go kill dragon now vs spun story of why fighter needs to go kill dragon might work. Of course DM final say...

Adam V.
I think it depends on the charisma of the mage

And so forth. A few other interesting takes:

Chris T.
The big problem is how does the charmed fighter square the circle that his best friend and allies want harm / kill each other?

Daniel N.
Since the spell says you could convince someone to hold off a dragon (and surely die) I’d say it’s pretty powerful, level one or not.

Alan S.
How good is group communication and how noisy is the fight?...

Mark B.
Just bc he regards the caster as a dear friend doesn't mean he stopped regarding his former allies as they were. He wouldn't likely attack them for any reason

Jay G.
Mark B. you’re assuming the charmee likes and trusted his former allies. Why is that necessarily true, especially for evil opponents? And even if they do...when the charmee trusts the caster totally, if he tells him “your comrades are really evil doppelgangers! We need to kill them!”, why wouldn’t he believe him?


As noted earlier, I'm quite uncomfortable with the "depends on roleplay" interpretation, because ultimately it depends far more on DM attitude or mood that any comparable, frequently-used, low-level spell. My instinct is that lower-levels spells should be clearly defined and known quantities to the player. Higher-level spells I'm a lot more comfortable transitioning to murky effects that may surprise the player or have an effect unique to a particular DM's game world. Charm person at 1st level with a hugely slippery and unpredictable effect stands out as "proud nail" unlike anything around it.

I actually feel very prone to write explicitly into my effect for charm person, following the poll results, that it can definitely make a victim play defense/shield-man for the caster, or withdraw from the encounter -- but not throw down their arms, or attack former allies. The items on the far ends I'm most comfortable with; the ones near the 50% I'm just somewhat more sketchy about, but not unhappy to follow a consensus on those.

What do you think about those results?