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?


  1. Jay G's suggestion that charmed characters of evil alignment may distrust their 'friends' and be more eager to turn on them is an interesting one. Enemy alignment could be a pretty concrete way to rule on the otherwise fuzzy question of what suggestions one might take from a trusted friend. Perhaps:

    - Charmed lawfuls can always be directed to protect the caster.
    - Charmed neutrals can always be directed to inaction or flight.
    - Charmed chaotics can always be directed to attack anyone they don't know.

    For grey areas, (or as an alternate limitation), you could keep OD&D's long-term coercive charm effects but have commands that involve significant danger to the charmed party trigger another save.

    1. Ooh, that tickles me quite a bit, actually. Not sure I'd write it into my own house rules due to space issues. But that's really neat. :-)

  2. Replies
    1. Per OD&D, it's "two-legged, generally mammalian figures near to or less than man-size"

  3. Hmm. I am of the mind that as a 1st level spell, Charm Person should be both simple to adjudicate and not too powerful.
    So I could see a wording such as: blah ... humanoid .. blah.. as an ally.. blah ... will typically defend the caster, or be told to flee the combat (language permitting), but will not surrender, disarm, or give up treasured items...(or otherwise call out wherever you choose to make the line)

    Otherwise, you get into something more mechanical like a bonus to reaction roll (per level?) (and possibly alignment as wazbar suggests) for any suggested course of action.

    1. Right, I don't mind that too much. Or maybe just rule out the attack-allies specifically. I've also seen it suggested to treat them as instant-hirelings (since it's actually referenced in the hirelings section like that).

      Sometimes it seems weird that the (AD&D) rules treat giving up a magic item as more severe than, e.g., hold-off-that-dragon for a few rounds.

    2. The issue about giving up the magic item reflects that side of Gygax that claimed that all players were greedy selfish bastards out to wreck the balance that the DM desperately sought to maintain. (If you think I exaggerate, see the bottom of p. 7 of the 1E DMG.) The players don't get a long-term advantage from killing off a charmed NPC, but they do from stealing that NPC's magic items.

    3. I also think there is a difference between "help us hold off the dragon" and "hey, you go hold off that dragon for us"

    4. Great points all around.

      And: Nice quote on DMG p. 7. That Preface is one of the rarest parts of the book for me to re-read regularly.

  4. If we go to the Gold Box interpretation, those games had charmed characters switch sides and fight for you (or the enemy). But I guess video games aren't where you go for nuanced interpretations.

    My preference is for the target to be under the caster's complete control. 1st level magic-users get one spell, so it should count. I think it's also in line with Sleep, which is also much more powerful than its level would suggest. Maybe an extra save could be added if asked to attack allies, with a bonus or penalty if the character is lawful or chaotic. And of course the standard language disallowing suicidal commands would apply.

    1. That's a good data point on the Gold Box games, thanks for that. How big were the party sizes generally? (With Sleep at least there's an upper hit dice limit.)

    2. You had a six-person party in Gold Box, with the ability to add NPCs (usually for story reasons, but in Pool of Radiance you could hire party members).

      I'm pretty sure that charm person only switched a character to your side for a single combat, but don't quote me. It's been a while.

    3. Oh, even more interesting. Thanks for that!

  5. 3E developed a series of charm spells:

    1st level: Charm Person
    3rd level: Suggestion
    5th Level: Dominate Person

    Each grew stronger in what it could force the enchanted being to do...

    With Charm Person, "The spell does not enable you to control the charmed person as if it were an automaton, but it perceives your words and actions in the most favorable way" and lasted 1 hour/level.

    "You influence the actions of the target creature by suggesting a course of activity (limited to a sentence or two). The suggestion must be worded in such a manner as to make the activity sound reasonable." Duration is 1 hour/level or until the action is completed. So it is more limited in scope but more powerful than Charm Person in that scope.

    Then there is Dominate Person:
    "You can control the actions of any humanoid creature through a telepathic link that you establish with the subject’s mind. If you and the subject have a common language, you can generally force the subject to perform as you desire, within the limits of its abilities...

    Subjects resist this control, and any subject forced to take actions against its nature receives a new saving throw with a +2 bonus. Obviously self-destructive orders are not carried out." Dominate Person lasts one day per level.

    So in 3E they kind of split the difference by offering a higher-level spell with the old-school interpretation of Charm Person.

    I myself like the Moldvay version, which has longer durations between saving throws based on Intelligence and does not have any provision for saving throws against suicidal commands or commands against their nature (they just don't do it, but remain charmed). But of course, that requires DM adjudication, which seems anathema in the more modern editions of the game.

    1. Right, thanks for that! The 3E Dominate Person spell is definitely (I think) in the tradition from Gygax in the AD&D DMG where he tried to cut a distinction with, "The spell is not _enslave_ person or mammal" (even though that was the exact word used for the Nixie ability in OD&D).

      It's interesting, Moldvay actually cut the categories and mostly reduced the times compared to what was errata'd into OD&D Sup-I (Greyhawk). As usual, he made a sharp and simplifying edit there.

  6. Based on the poll results I would suggest allowing the first two results without a saving throw. Having a charmed person attack their allies should require a saving throw. As far as duration goes I use a turn but then I am trying to mirror Jedi mind tricks and not fantasy literature. I would recommend one hour or one day.

    1. Yeah, I agree with one day for my game.

  7. When I've seen charm come up, it's usually been against single opponents, not one individual in a group of enemies. As such, the charmed character joins the PC (like a henchman) and pretty much follows him/her around, fighting with the character, etc.

    I think I see the spell as more of a adding a hazy, mind-alteration to a target, rather than outright mind-control. The subject is operating (more-or-less) like they're in a dream dreams we often see people we know in different roles than reality. If a charmed goblin saw its friend attacked by (previously ally) goblins, it would probably fight to defend itself and its new "friend"...but it probably wouldn't initiate combat with prior allies just on the wizard's command.

    This "dream state" explains why charmed spell-casters cannot (for example) manufacture magic items and whatnot for their new friend. They just can't focus with the charm acting on their perception of reality.

    So, yeah: in my opinion a charmed creature would defend the caster, but wouldn't flee (unless fleeing WITH the caster), or surrender (why would they need to surrender to their "friend"), or attack former allies (unless defending itself from former allies). A charmed creature would certainly put away its weapons if there was no danger and the thing was just chatting with its new "friend."

    While I would allow a charm to be cast in combat, the target of such a spell would probably spend at least a round in confusion as it tried to "re-orient its perception" to its new mental state.

    What I think is very interesting is that the AD&D description of the spell seems to indicate the charmed creature gives the greatest portion of its loyalty to the caster, even to the point of putting its own life at risk to save the caster (see the description in the druid spell section about holding off a red dragon!). That tells me that a charmed individual, forced to take sides in a combat with former allies, should side with the magic-user. However, what if the caster's opponents have a deep emotional connection to the charmed creature: a spouse, a sibling, a parent, a child? Would an attack by the charmed character's paramour give it a chance to "break" the charm? I'd think it would be worth at least a save...with failure indicating the creature obeys its charm "programming." Reminds me of that scene in the Manchurian Candidate when Raymond Shaw kills his girlfriend while in a trance state.

    1. I like that interpretation of the dream state a whole lot! There have been times in the past when I considered making charmees move & act at half speed. (e.g., "I... must... kill.. the queen"). But maybe just taking "attack allies" off the table gets me where I'm comfortable.

      Great reference with Manchurian Candidate, btw.

  8. I've mentioned this here before, but my inclination is to say that the effect of Charm Person is the same as getting a maximum result on a reaction check. The DM already needs to think about how far that goes, and Charm Person can ride on that.

    In so much the character's don't have to fight and can talk with creatures on a good reaction check, they can rely on doing that with a charmed target - that's the mechanical effect. Anything they negotiate by talking is subject to the same level of DM fiat as they would face with any other friendly NPC.

    1. Related, someone today offered the interpretation of "instant hireling", as with that same reaction table (OD&D Vol-1 p. 12) being used to hire NPCs. The top level being "Enthusiast, Loyalty +3". Today that's really hitting me quite nicely.

  9. Would it help things if I introduced doubt into the interpretation of even the OD&D description? Is "completely under the influence" the same as "completely under the control"?

    But seriously... I think Charm Person has an immediate and easy to adjudicate effect, but lots of potential side effects that require interpretation. Basically, all the things listed in your poll.

    The immediate effect is the "best friend" result. M-U casts Charm Person on the guard, guard fails save, guard is now M-U's best friend. Guard will not attack the M-U except under the same kinds of circumstances that your best friend would attack YOU. Guard will help the M-U (no roll required) to the same extent as your best friend would help YOU. And so on. I basically treat it as "charmed person starts out as completely loyal."

    For other stuff, the guard will potentially still do what the M-U requires, but not necessarily so. The same as your best friend might do riskier or more difficult things for YOU if asked, but becomes less and less likely as the risks rise. That's where the interpretation comes in.

    Defend the M-U against miscellaneous dangers that aren't allies, like giant spiders? Probably, although morale would come into play.

    Defend the M-U against (former) allies? Maybe not. Will probably try to convince allies the M-U is OK/on their side.

    Flee encounter? Maybe, especially if they are cowards anyways, or if the encounter is crazy dangerous. But if the charmed person is very concerned about other people's opinions of their bravery, they probably won't flee most encounters, but might be convinced to make a defensive retreat.

    All of this is subject to communication. Charm Person doesn't say anything at all about telepathic control or granting the ability to communicate. The M-U has to make their desires clear. At the very least, for OD&D, you should follow the command and control rules in Vol. 3.

    And all of this applies to nixies, dryads, and vampires, too, as far as I'm concerned. Dryads basically convince victims they are in love. PCs might attack their former allies if they insist on harming their One True Love, but don't necessarily attack on command. But the main goal of these monsters is not to gain an edge in combat, but to either get a servant or (for vampires) to move a victim to a more useful location for feeding. Vampires maybe can do this without speaking, but otherwise, it's the same thing.

    But that's just my interpretation.

  10. Just thought of two examples of magical/psychic charm or domination in film...

    In Boorman's Excalibur, Perceval encounters Morgana near the end of his grail quest. She uses her power to try to charm him, but fails. We see other knights who succumbed to her charms in a most unpleasant situation...

    Second and more recently, Loki in the Avengers had total mental domination of his subjects due to the power of the Mind Stone. The "enchantment/psychic command" was so powerful they even acted against their core beliefs and performed actions that were otherwise suicidal... but, also, at times were able to do things against or rather, sideways, from their commands.

    I am sure there are other examples in film, but I can't recall any off the top of my head.

    1. Those are great examples, thanks for those!

      IMO, if there was a difference in effect between "charm person" and "charm monster" (e.g., Loki's ability), I'd be all for that. But the AD&D DMG attempt at carving out two different meaning of "charm person" (spell vs. monster ability) rubs me the wrong way.