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In a campaign I've been playing in, we've been having a real tough time deciding how powerful to make the first level Charm Person spell for Magic Users. We are playing Swords & Wizardry, a D&D 0e retroclone.

In S&W, it's described this way:

If the spell succeeds (saving throw allowed), the unfortunate creature falls under the caster's influence.

It's the interpretation of that last word that we can't agree on. Some in the group want to see it as just making the ensorcelled person feel that they are the caster's best friend and would like to help them out if they can, but not so powerful as to make the target do anything they wouldn't normally do.

Others in the group argue that such a reading makes the spell nearly useless because it does nothing more for the caster than what good role playing and a high charisma could accomplish. Instead, barring asking the target to do something like commit suicide, they should be compelled to do almost anything the MU asks.

Seems to me that the first reading makes the spell too weak, and second reading makes it too strong. It's only a first level spell after all. To complicate things, S&W has a 3rd level spell called Suggestion that forces the target to carry out a hypnotic suggestion, but just the one task. AD&D has a similar spell, except at the 4th level. How is this different from Charm? Shouldn't a higher level spell be much more powerful?

Has anyone else run into this dilemma? If so, how did you resolve it? Anyone have any thoughts about how to find a middle way? Thanks in advance for the help.

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8 Answers

up vote 30 down vote accepted

"Best friend" is the right approach. You absolutely would do things if your best friend asked you, that you would not do for a random charismatic stranger you just met at a bar ("Hey, can I hold your treasure while you go to the bathroom?" "OK!"). If you asked the ensorcelled person to do something which they would NOT do for their best friend ("Let's kill these orphans and take their toys!") it doesn't work. A charmed person is just so incredibly naive and nice toward you that you feel ashamed taking advantage of them, and they will really feel betrayed if you push them too far and break the spell. If you make a request which falls somewhere in the gray area, give the target another roll to refuse and/or break free of the enchantment.

One reason to avoid the more powerful interpretation of this spell is that it works both ways! You won't be laughing when a 1st level NPC Magic User destroys your entire party by casting Charm Person on the fighter.

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I concur with Modern Hacker, the "Best Friend" approach is the way to go. I think of it as a mild form of the Jedi Mind Trick in Star Wars. –  RS Conley Aug 20 '10 at 0:31
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In my games it's generally something like being in love. It doesn't force to the target to do anything outside his or her basic character for the caster, but it will push the target about to the limit of what that is. That's largely because me and the people I play with enjoy playing around with different emotional states like that; in practice it's not all that different from the "best friend" interpretation.

This is significantly better than what you can get from "good roleplaying and high charisma." Interpreting the spell in this way lets you turn someone into your best friend instantly, and without any other work. It's a very powerful spell in the dungeon (at least as long as you're dealing with relatively intelligent foes), and even more so outside of it.

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I normally go with a very potent, best-friend or strong-crush sort of thing. Suggestion is more potent because it can be used to make you believe the caster rather than your lying eyes; the classic example is convincing someone to take a refreshing dip in a pool that holds acid, not water.

Charm, however, lasts a long time, and can be tricky, depending on the politics around your table. Blatant plug: I've discussed this on my blog. ;)

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I've found the "best friend" approach works best. Players don't realize sometimes that spells cut both ways, and they REALLY dislike it when their character is charmed and made to do something they protest as "I would NEVER do that!" Keep it fair and players will soon realize they cannot abuse the rule in the other direction either.

Also, something I do is allow additional saving throws for the target for suggesting actions that are out of character. For example, charming an orc then asking him to join you in combat is one thing (something a friend would do for another); asking the poor orc to hold back an onrushing group of giants is another, and should result in an immediate new save ("This guy must not be my friend if he's asking me to commit suicide!"). I find rolling additional saves for charmed characters if asked to do things out of character or obviously suicidal is a good way to control abuse of the Charm spell.

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"Some background, we are playing Swords & Wizardry, a 0e retroclone, but nearly all systems have similar descriptions of the spell. "

Not quite. Best Friend approach is explicit in the Allston D&D Cyclopedia:

D&D Cyclopedia, p.45:

If the saving throw is successful, the spell has no effect. If it fails, the victime will believe that the spellcaster is its "bestfriend" and will try to defend the spellcaster against any threat, whether real or imagined. The victim is charmed.

ISTR that it's used in other D&D editions as well.

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In our games we had charm person positively influence the targets attitude toward the caster based on a general scale of hostile > indifferent > friendly > loyal. The targets attitude would only move one better on the scale. So an enemy caster at best could make the target indifferent to the caster. The target will not attack the caster unless, he or she or any allies are attacked first. It is great for allowing the caster to escape.

On the other hand, a PC caster could use charm to make an indifferent or friendly boss or merchant more inclined to help the PC.

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I take best friends plus a lack of critical thought about the framing of the situation. To take the orphan example from the accepted answer--you're not going to get the good guy to kill the orphans. On the other hand, you might get the good guy to kill those demons that simply look like kids.

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I define the Charm spell's effects as "big brother hero worship".

Imagine a small boy who adores his big brother. In the eye of the younger boy, the big brother can do no wrong. Anything the older boy asks, the younger will do, because he wants his bother's approval.

However, all hero worship has its limits. At some point the younger boy is going to realise that is can-do-no-wrong elder brother is, in fact, doing wrong. In-game, this is when the charmer asks the charmee to do something against their alignment.

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