Should Charm Person Work Like a Jedi Mind Trick?

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?

Often, yes.

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.

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5 Responses to Should Charm Person Work Like a Jedi Mind Trick?

  1. Ilbranteloth says:

    Your description of initiative rings true (and is how I envisioned it) until the evolution of the game ties multiple acts, with your complete move) and gets even worse when you add a grid and minis. Because now the action in the game doesn’t resemble what you describe at all as one or more characters get to move, act, bonus act, even react sometimes, while everybody else stands still and just waits to be killed because their turn comes too late.

    In AD&D, if you had multiple attacks they came on different segments, unless they were different appendages (claw, claw, bite), and if you used weapon speed factors, even fighting with two weapons occurred on different segements. Combined with rolling initiative at the start of each round, the action at the table much more closely resembled the action in the game.

    Spellcasting also took time, and you could interrupt a spell and ruin it. Which meant that the idea of attempting to conceal a spell was a risk/reward circumstamce, rather than the automatic success, even if they notice.

    The beauty of the AD&D rules is that the rules weren’t so fixated on ensuring that everything was “balanced” in a step by step mechanical way. As house rules (like being able to try to conceal a spell) became codified, it removed flexibility (and authority) from the DM’s ability to adjudicate that action in according to a narrative approach, because now the players have a set of rules that they expect to work the same way every time.

    “I have silent spell, the can’t detect me.”

    And instigators interrupting a role-playing scene? Combat is a role-playing scene. At least how we do it. AD&D has a simple mechanic for that too. A surprise check.

    The best thing about the surprise check? It’s variable. You don’t know if you’ll succeed, so it’s a risk/reward decision, rather than a “this always works,” or, “sorry, you can’t play that scene in D&D.”

    Yes, ambiguity in the rules can be taken advantage of by poor players or DMs. But when played with an understanding of their benefits, and in good faith, or with well written rules that benefit good planning and role-playing, they are a far better tool and framework to match the action at the table to the action in the game.

  2. Jason Cohen says:

    To answer your original title…… I think i COULD, based on your Charisma score vs the Opponent. Of course charm person should work if you beat the role, but its effect should be based on how high your charisma is. / how much you beat the opponent by. Put it on a scale … Say

    Beat them by
    1-4 = They are charmed but not open to suggestion they just see you as a friend.

    5-9 = They are charmed but may be influenced slightly. They see you as a trusted friend, and value your opinions.

    10+ They fully bend to your will.

  3. Samuel Penn says:

    In Pathfinder, for kicking off initiative in a social situation like this I have the character who is initiating the ‘combat’ to make a Bluff check, and everyone else rolls their Sense Motive against it to see if they are surprised. Also, if there’s one character (or creature) who has obviously started things, I allow that character to take 20 on their initiative roll. They get a big advantage, but still aren’t guaranteed to act first.

  4. mohrjoe says:

    I always found sleep to be an incredibly overpowered spell in low level adventures. I started this game with AD&D 1st Edition but have played OD&D and Basic. Sleep gives the low level wizard to take out a whole group of enemies rather than just one. While charm may allow the wizard to have some control over one enemy and use them as a walking ten foot pole to find traps sleep allows the wizard to control several enemies at once.

  5. MadScientist1023 says:

    This may be a somewhat obvious point, but it seems to me like Suggestion is more akin to the “Jedi Mind Trick”. There’s no somatic component, so it’s a bit less obvious you’re casting a spell. I suppose the DM would have to rule how obviously arcane the verbal component is, but it seems like they might rule the sentence or two you utter could count as said component.

    Either way, I’ve described Suggestion to new bards as the Jedi Mind Trick. You’re uttering a sentence or two of things for the person to do, and if they fail the save, they do it. Making a person like you is mad helpful, but if a friendly acquaintance tells me these aren’t the droids I’m looking for when they are, I’m not going to believe him.

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