Monday, June 14, 2021

Ever-Bewitching Charm

Following up on the charm person survey from last week, I asked a similar question on the ODD&4 forums (account required). A fascinating discussion ensued, and our colleagues over there have old-school research capacities that far outstrip my own. Here's a few of the remarkable insights that I felt should get a bigger amplification:

SebastianDM observes:

The interpretation of this effect seems to be one of the earliest issues of D&D. I was just reading some of the old issues of Alarums & Excursions and found that the very first discussion of the very first issue is related to this very issue. I read that the content of this issue was mainly reprinted from APA-L since it was the first issue, so I guess the discussion is from 1975 at the latest.

Debate in 1975 over charm person

Our friend Zenopus of Zenopus Archives points to Dragon Magazine #52, where J. Eric Holmes (author of the Original D&D Basic set) reviews the newfangled Moldvay B/X rules:

A charmed Magic-User is too confused to do magic? Boy, that last rule would make a dramatic change in the conduct of my game, where the player characters would be apt to yell, "Don’t kill the evil magician! Let me try to charm him first, then use him to wipe out the rest of the monsters on this level."

Poster acodispo points out that charm person is heavily baked into the OD&D rules section on hiring new NPCs (Vol-1, p. 12; before the nominal explanation of the spell itself), such that one could easily and solidly interpret it as an "instant hireling" spell:

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. Note, however, that the term "monster" includes men found in the dungeons, so in this way some high-level characters can be brought into a character's service, charisma allowing or through a Charm spell. Some reward must be offered to a monster in order to induce it into service (not just sparing its life, for example). The monster will react, with appropriate plusses or minuses, according to the offer, the referee rolling two six-sided dice and adjusting for charisma...

Perhaps most interestingly, this thoughtful discussion is actually prompting some people to flip their prior interpretations, such as poster ampleframework here:

I think I'm starting to lean back towards the "total mind control" camp after seeing some of these arguments. It kind of makes sense. Magic was unbalanced in an awesome way in 3lbb. Maybe it's better to not invent limitations or justify later ones in this context. 

Fascinating stuff! Has the way you rule on charm person changed or evolved over the years?

15 comments:

  1. I'm of the "if there's a higher level spell that does something, lower level spells shouldn't achieve the same thing" camp. If people are making the argument that 'completely under the influence' means that a character loses all self-control and self-determination, then what's the point of suggestion and hold person and the like?

    I see charms as sensitive things that can be used to great effect but that require some effort to utilize properly or maintain (Theoden and Saruman or Rhadagast being a classic example)

    My best interpretation for the hirelings section is that the Charm Spell precludes the normal charisma and alignment requirements, but that all the other requirements apply like "some reward must be offered" and the implicative 'we won't slaughter your friends and family' we get from the "not just sparing its life."

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    1. Hold Person affects multiple targets, or grants a penalty on the saving throw on a single target - which seems ample justification for the higher level.

      Suggestion first appears in AD&D (so later than the time frame we're talking about), and isn't restricted to "persons" - the text indicates that it can affect even a dragon. Plus it appears to be able to alter a target's perception so that they can be tricked into suicidal actions. (the "that pool of acid is actually water, why don't you take a refreshing dip?" example.) Again, the higher level is justified, even against the near mind control interpretation of charm person.

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    2. Suggestion does appear in Greyhawk, but I agree with you it seems to work on any creature at all, as well as allowing the magic user to defer the execution of the suggestion. Both of those justify making it higher level than Charm Person, even if it weren't for Greyhawk also beginning to nerf Charm Person with its reduced duration based on Int chart...

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  2. Reading the tone of those responses, they could have been written 40, 20, 5 years ago or yesterday :)

    To answer the question, these certainly lend more evidence to the idea that complete control as a common/initially intended interpretation; I don't know it changes my opinion on how I would want the spell to work. I would still lean towards it working as a bonus to the reaction roll- leverage the persuasion system that it already there?

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    1. I feel like spells that allow you to control people are pretty common in folk lore and fantasy literature; spells that do the equivalent of a bonus on the reaction roll much less so (like I can't even think of one off hand...)

      Also, I'm personally biased against magic that's just a bonus or penalty to some ordinary action (yes, including spells like Bless). I want spells to feel like some sort of supernatural power at work.

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    2. Fair, but there things in lore that don't have spells, spells that don't have an analog in lore, and as you say plenty of spells that fall into the bonus to ordinary game mechanic.
      But if "complete control" is on the menu, I would still like to see some limits: be it around Hit Die, can't cast in combat, Duration, Preservation of Self, whatever to keep it in line as a 1st level spell.

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    3. Honestly I think these are all solid arguments in every direction.

      One thing I wonder now with the Swanson quote is where the "best friends" idea initially came from -- was there some prior discussion, or was this the first appearance if the idea?

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  3. I can't say that it has (changed or evolved). In my earliest days, it was never a sought after spell; "direct damage" was more the order of the day, and other uses were so temporary as to not require rulings (bard's charm generally wore off when they stopped playing, monster's charm ended when the PCs killed them, etc.).

    In recent years, I've seen it used more often but generally for the exact same purpose: charm the ogre. Where there's an ogre in a low level adventure there almost always seems to be a low level PC with a charm spell. The ogre will either make or fail its save and subsequently becomes a "big buddy" of the wizard PC...and then, invariably, DIES in the very next encounter.

    I just don't see a lot of creative use of the spell...though whether that's an indictment of my players or ME (for being a poor sculptor of scenario) is up for debate.

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    1. Fascinating. I think I can deduce you're playing Moldvay B/X or some analog, because it's the only edition that let _charm person_ work vs. an ogre. Now, _sleep_ on the other hand, that's the ogre-slapdown in any edition.

      Although I think I agree with the greater use of charms in my games in recent years. For some reason it was about ten years back that it dawned on all of us how powerful it is to get a guard to tell/guide you on the layout of current dungeon level.

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    2. Very interesting that your groups leaned towards direct damage. My experience was the exact opposite; bypassing the target's HP entirely was the most popular way of using spells in combat (interestingly even more than using buffs, despite the chance for saves to negate spells on enemies).

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  4. So I wrestled with this and I really came to the conclusion that it was a "recruitment" tool in the dungeon in that I view it as a combat spell and I think some use it as a subterfuge. In my games someone who has been charmed is very obviously charmed (spinning spirals in the eyes, monotone speech, robotic movements) and will not take actions unless specifically directed (going back to "complete control"). Now, I don't go as far as to force a magic user to waste an action directing them (yelling is free) BUT if they forget about their charmed friend he's just going to stand there and stare at the wall until they remember him.

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    1. To clarify: I might be a little more nuanced than a strict reading that I framed above. I generally think of it like when Jafar charms the Sultan in Disney's Aladdin so I do require the magic user to be able to provide direction (language).

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    2. I think that's a very fair-game interpretation. On the same theme, in the past I've considered treating charmed victims as slowed. (Haven't done that lately, though.)

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  5. I've certainly changed from my original (AD&D-based) "trusted friend and ally" to (my interpretation of) OD&D's "completely under the influence". Initially, that was more from following the rules of a given book than a conscious choice on my part, but I've come to like the latter enough to stick with it even when I run something where that's not really how the rules go (like LotFP).

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