Behind the Screen
Charmed, I'm Sure
By Jason Nelson

"I can't believe we're talking to a troll!" Michael grew impatient. "I just wanna stick my sword through his head and move on before any other bad guys show up."

"Wait a minute," said David, "I've got it all figured out. He already told us he thinks he should be the head bad guy in charge of this bridge fort and that he doesn't like his boss, right? Check it out -- I've already got him fascinated with my oratorical skills, and now Rashean Bantecou will unleash his mighty bardic powers to suggest that maybe we could work together to do in the big boss. He gets his promotion, and we get a free pass across the bridge to the main part of the dungeon. It's perfect!"


Consider these points regarding charms in your campaign.

Charms and language. Most charms have limited use if you don't possess a lot of language ability. If you plan to do a lot of charming, build your character accordingly.

Charms and campaign style. DMs and players should talk about campaign style and what they expect. Like illusions, charms require a lot of subjectivity in their use, so you need to know ahead of time whether and in what circumstances a charm is going to be effective.

What does it mean to be a friend? If a controlled creature is "on your side," what does that mean? How much will it really put itself out to help you? Obvious self-destruction is not allowed, but the target has to be willing to put itself out for you to prove itself a friend. Will it turn on its old allies to help you?

How reasonable do you need to be? When commanding or requesting something from a controlled creature, how much can you get away with? If you're too restrictive, control spells become useless; too permissive, and they are all-powerful.

What happens when the charm is offline? Do charmed or dominated creatures recognize their condition? Can they reveal their condition to others? Probably no in both cases, but what do they do when you are not actively engaged with them? Do they follow you around like a puppy? Return to their normal activities?

"C'mon, Dave, doesn't it have to be a reasonable suggestion?" countered Ally. "Why is this guy just going to turn on his boss and let us into the fortress he's supposed to be guarding? And besides, aren't you forgetting the little fact that he's a troll? He's chaotic evil -- he's totally going to screw us as soon as the suggestion wears off."

"That's the beauty of it -- he's chaotic evil. It's perfectly in keeping with his character to betray his boss in order to get ahead. He's just passing the buck on dealing with us for someone else down the line."

"Eddie, Arphaxad the Mighty says less yak, more hack," Samantha cut in. "This charm-and-suggest plan might work, but it's got too many variables. Still, it's nothing a nice explosive cascade right up the six-hole can't cure! Eat hot nuclear death, troll-boy!"

"Yes!" Michael almost shouted. "Mikko moves in to flank and sneak attack if there's anything left!"

Eddie could only sigh as he reached for the dice. Another roleplaying opportunity up in smoke. Literally.

Some of the trickiest spells to run in the D&D game are those that involve mental control or influence. Something like fear or sleep -- that's easy. You cast the spell, and those who fail do whatever the spell says. A spell like magic jar (or a ghost's malevolence ability) grants total body control, so again there is no problem. It's all those other spells in between that require a lot of interpretation and, from the point of view of players like Michael and Samantha, make them more trouble than they're worth.

Spells like charm and dominate depend heavily on the type of campaign and how a DM uses them. In some games they will be indispensable, while in others they will be useless. Many creatures are immune to mind-affecting spells, but the larger barrier is the fact that these are language-dependent spells. If most creatures in the campaign speak a common language, this is no problem, but if the party travels extensively or meets a variety of creatures (including creatures that have no language), PCs may be unable to get a controlled creature to do much of anything.

Rashean might sing or play his harp and use bardic music to fascinate any kind of creature, but his best Perform skill is in oratory. Should that work on a creature with no common language? Maybe. In any case, he speaks Giant; he can converse with the troll and try to use suggestion on him. But what if he runs into a dragon or xorn or winter wolf? Should you have to know almost every language in the game world just to be a well-rounded charmer? Add to that the fact that Speak Language is a cross-class skill for every class except bards, so learning a ton of languages can get very expensive in skill points. That hardly seems fair, especially when every monster in the game understands fireball and magic missile with complete clarity!

To be really effective, charm-type spells require advance knowledge of what you are going to face (so that you know it's something you can communicate with) or else expenditure of character resources -- in skill points to learn languages, or in other spells and magic items that will let you talk to the things you charm. A bard or sorcerer gets so few spells that you almost have to choose whether you are going to go whole hog into charm-type spells or else avoid them entirely. If you're going to spend some of your spell choices on those kinds of spells you'd better be sure you'll be able to use them, because you aren't going to have a lot of alternatives to fall back on. For Arphaxad's repertoire, Samantha decided to avoid such spells entirely because she saw them as a losing proposition -- just too much to do to make them pay off compared to developing a more combat-focused sorcerer. Bards have class abilities that overlap (or even duplicate) charm effects, and it was easier for David to build Rashean toward being able to make good use of charms, but even for him it is hard to prepare for every eventuality.

Ultimately, the usefulness of charm-type spells depends on the DM. Eddie would like to see conversation and interaction with NPCs along with the action and problem-solving elements of the campaign, and has set up the campaign to provide opportunities. If most encounters in your campaign begin with the words "roll for initiative," then you probably don't need to bother much with charms. They aren't useless in combat: A charm or dominate spell can make a creature friendly toward you, so even if you can't talk to it at least it won't attack you (and it might even fight to protect you if someone else tries to attack you). Still, that's not much to bet on.

The real trick with spells like this is exactly how far you can push them. What are the true limits on your control? Ally's questions are valid ones. How can you be sure what your "new best friend" will be willing to do? What is a reasonable suggestion? A charmed creature "perceives your words and actions in the most favorable way," but what does that mean? Is it like an unlimited-use suggestion ability for as long as the creature remains charmed?

For that matter, what does being "friendly" mean to a troll? Does it depend on the creature's alignment, or its own personality? Alignment does help determine how a creature understands the world and other creatures it interacts with, but each target is an individual so you may get wildly different results depending on the kind of creature you charm. The best interpretation is probably that the effect imposes a uniform kind of "friendliness" on the target. Under the Diplomacy skill, the Player's Handbook states that a friendly creature "wishes you well" and will "chat, advise, offer limited help, or advocate" for you. That doesn't sound much like it would actually take up arms to defend you, which would be more like a helpful attitude -- someone who will protect, back up, heal, or aid you -- but the spell description states that you might get a charmed creature to "hold back an onrushing red dragon." That's some kind of friend!

Even if a creature is being your friend, you have to determine how much initiative it takes in doing things on your behalf. A charmed creature sees you as a friend, but how much will it put itself out for you, and when will it take your lead? What will it volunteer for your use, and what will it willingly give up at your request? You can give it orders by winning an opposed Charisma check; should you be able to augment this with a Bluff or Diplomacy check (to make the order seem more reasonable or appealing)? If you don't give it direct orders or if it ignores the ones you do give, what does it do?

Even with dominate, which allows you to specify the actions a creature takes (and can partially overcome language barriers), how far can you go? What kinds of things qualify as "actions against its nature" for the subject, granting new saves? In a lot of cases, you could argue that almost any command you gave a dominated creature would entail a new save. Say a vampire showed up while the party was battling the troll, dominated Melantha, and told her to come away with it. Wouldn't that be abandoning the party in the midst of combat -- something against her nature? Commanding the dominated person to fight for you would almost certainly be a violation of its basic nature. Just telling it to stand there and do nothing? Much the same. How often does it get a new save? Every time it does something against its nature? Every round it is forced to continue the activity? If the DM wants to undermine the person using domination, it is all too easy, and that potential is what dissuades a lot of players from even bothering with spells like this.

You still have all the questions of whether people remember what happens to them while they are charmed or dominated, of whether they are responsible in any way for their actions while controlled (especially for alignment-relevant classes), and how easy it is for people to tell that they are being controlled. If Rashean had managed to get his plan to work, to suggest that the troll betray his master, could the party have then plotted with the troll on how to do it subtly and quietly, with the troll cooperating under the influence of the suggestion, maybe allowing them to ambush the boss? In the movies, mind-controlled people make great spies and saboteurs, because no one knows anything is amiss until it is too late. You give them orders, commands, or suggestions and they carry them out. I keep thinking of old vampire movies where the victim has been dominated by the vampire and acts mostly normal -- maybe a little distracted -- but then the vampire shows up and starts directing the show.

There are a lot of reasons to like charm and dominate spells. They can be very atmospheric and immensely useful in the right situation. Players might even have fun "going rogue" on the rest of their party if you let them play out the results of having their characters get charmed or dominated by the bad guys (which also saves you the trouble of directing their actions in addition to those of the opponents). You just have exercise care in using them to make sure these effects are not infinitely powerful or totally worthless. Either way is no fun, but a sensible approach, and sometimes erring on the side of being generous in how effective they are, makes them a useful part of the game and comparable in value to the rest of the "old reliables" in the spellslinger's arsenal.

About the Author

Jason Nelson lives in Seattle with his wife Judy, daughter Meshia, son Allen, and dog Bear. He is a full-time homemaker, part-time Ph.D. candidate in education policy and philosophy, and is an active and committed born-again Christian. He began playing D&D in 1981 and currently runs one campaign while playing in another.

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