In three original, brown Dungeons & Dragons books, what spell ranks as the most powerful? At 6th level, disintegrate could turn someone to dust, but charm person could put someone “completely under the influence of the Magic-User until such time as the ‘charm’ is dispelled.” Would you rather turn a foe to dust or turn a king or empress into your thrall? And charm person rates as a mere 1st-level spell, available to the weakest of mages.
Charm person brings more power. No contest. Why did such a potent spell land at first level? Read to the end for the answer.
D&D’s fifth-edition rules curtail charm person’s original power. “The charmed creature regards you as a friendly acquaintance.” But even weakened, the spell might outrank disintegrate. Would you rather turn a hostile king to dust or make him regard you as a friendly acquaintance? You could go far with help from a powerful and friendly acquaintance.
Charm person delivers power, but when I play wizards, the spell’s potential frustrates me. I dream of using charm like a sort of Jedi mind trick, subtly casting it with a hand wave and making allies—or at least friendly acquaintances—of all who stand in my way.
I’m thwarted because charm person is a spell, and spells work differently than Jedi mind tricks in two key ways:
- People usually notice someone casting a spell.
- Spellcasting takes longer than a hand wave.
According the Player’s Handbook (p.203) spells with verbal components require “the chanting of mystic words.” Somatic components add “forceful gesticulation or an intricate set of gestures.” Most D&D worlds make magic common enough for ordinary folks to recognize spellcasting when it starts.
Folks also know that spells can pose severe danger. A spellcaster can shoot bolts of fire, or worse, compel you to do terrible things.
In many D&D scenes, someone who witnesses spellcasting will probably assume the worst and take sensible precautions—if not violent steps. Even villagers will know that they can’t usually be ensorcelled by someone who can’t see them.
Folks in the market won’t assume someone who starts a spell intends to use prestidigitation to clean a stain. Spells can make you do terrible things—like give away free merchandise.
Of course, the circumstances matter. Today, if an actor in a play pulls a gun, no one clears the theater. If someone in the audience pulls a gun, people take cover. Spellcasting has as much potential to be deadly or entertaining.
To cast a spell without provoking a fight, characters may need to fool their target into believing a spell is harmless, or even beneficial. Can the wizard bluff the chief into expecting a spell that will lift a curse? Despite any deception, targets with arcane knowledge may recognize a spell from the casting. They may even loose a counterspell.
Spellcasting in a D&D world often looks like a potentially hostile act. Can a target do anything before a spell like charm takes effect?
In D&D, when someone in a tense situation makes a provocative move, roll initiative. Then, start taking turns from the top of initiative order. Nobody has to start fighting, but if the queen’s guards see the wizard start chanting and gesturing, they may loose arrows.
To some players, forcing the wizard into initiative order either seems unfair or defies their sense of the game. The wizard acted first, right?
Stop imagining initiative as a way to settle who starts acting first. In D&D, everyone in a round does 6 seconds of fighting all at the same time. Turns just exist as a completely unrealistic way to make sense of all those actions in a fun way. Who starts their 6 seconds first matters far less than who finishes first. The first to finish lands the first blow.
To picture how initiative works, imagine a Western where two gunslingers face each other. Each dares the other to draw, but the first to move may still fall to someone quicker to shoot.
“But,” players argue, “The wizard gained surprise, because our characters were just talking.”
No. The players at the kitchen table are just talking. In the game world, the queen faces a group of hardened, armed killers. While the woman with the lute seems agreeable, the ranger keeps an arrow nocked and the dwarf fingers his axe and glowers. (Charisma was his dump stat.) The queen knows these types by bloody reputation. When wizard the starts chanting, no one feels surprise except the ranger. (That player is sending a text.)
This sometimes defies players’ expectations, so when someone interrupts a role-playing scene with an attack, I explain that despite their “surprise,” everyone will act in initiative order. Then I ask if they still want to start something.
Initiative does more than support the game’s fiction; it avoids rewarding instigators with a free attack. Many players enjoy role-playing scenes, so don’t reward impatient players who spoil the dialog. (For more, see What to do when a player interrupts a role-playing scene to start a battle.)
Sometimes a wizard can cast spells without starting a fight by concealing the act of casting. Mystic words and forceful gestures seem hard to hide, but some combination of distraction, background noise, and concealment might succeed. In a noisy ballroom, a caster could make a Dexterity (Slight of Hand) check to hide a gesture. In the throne room, a party member might engineer a noisy distraction. Perhaps, with a Charisma (Performance) check, a bard can conceal mystic words and gestures in a song and dance. These misdirections give players a chance to show skill and ingenuity.
Still, if characters aim to charm the queen, they probably have to find a way to get her alone somewhere in the caster’s line of sight. Otherwise, her court would see the bard’s song and dance, note the queen’s change in attitude, and connect the dots. Guards know that the queen can’t be spellbound by a bard with a split skull.
With these challenges, charming someone powerful starts looking less like a quick way to wealth and influence and more like a heist. Such undertakings make great adventures.
By now, many readers probably want to set me straight in the comment section. “Hey dummy, The Jedi mind trick isn’t charm person, but more like suggestion.” Do the suggestion spell’s components resemble a hand wave and the suggested instruction? “These aren’t the droids you’re looking for.”
A soft dungeon master could allow their children such tricks, but that defies the game. Verbal components consist of mystic words. In a tweet, designer Jeremy Crawford confirms the rules. “The spell’s suggestion is a separate, intelligible utterance.”
Suggestion appeared in the Greyhawk supplement two years before Star Wars reached theaters, and Gary Gygax drew inspiration from hypnotism, not Jedi.
If you want to use charm to turn enemies into friends and use suggestion to bend the will of kings and queens, you need skill and a clever plan—or to play a sorcerer with the Subtle Spell metamagic option. As a DM, I relish seeing players show ingenuity in my D&D games, so I favor these limitations. As a player, well, I’m creating a sorcerer for my next character. Always look out for sorcerers.
Why did Gary Gygax put the original charm person spell at first level despite its power? Original D&D debuted as a tightly-focused game where treasure hunters entered dungeons, spent turns moving and fighting, and kept score in gold. (See The Surprising Trait Fourth Edition Shared With Original Dungeons & Dragons.) Characters in dungeons didn’t meet queens or even shopkeepers to charm. Instead, magic users cast charm person to turn one attacking orc into an ally who could walk ahead. Such redshirts died in the next trap or next battle. As the game blossomed, D&D’s simple style of play disappeared. As soon as Greyhawk reached players, charm person started to weaken. Fifth edition includes the weakest version yet. Even so, at 1st level, charm person rates as strong.