Tuesday, March 15, 2011


There's a good conversation about charm person that's been going on at Chgowiz's blog since yesterday.  People are interpreting and re-interpreting the old charm person spell, the one that reads,

"... The creature then will regard the druid who cast the spell as a trusted friend and ally to be heeded and protected. The spell does not enable the druid to control the charmed creature as if it were an automaton, but any word or action of the druid will be viewed in its most favorable way."

Difficulties were bound to arise with this kind of abstract language about a subject material which is necessarily abstract - controlling/influencing the mind.  In tackling the subject, I prefer to go back to the beginning ... which is long, long before persons of questionable scholarship in the 1970s invented D&D.

"Charm" as a noun originated in the 12th century as the old French word charme, which in turn derived from the Latin word for a song or a verse, carmen.  The Latin verb canere translates as "to sing" ... and the sense that an enchantment is weaved over an individual derives from the habit of sitting still and passively when listening to performers.  Who hasn't sat in a room with other people in the company of a singer who is truly gifted, without taking notice that no one is talking, and everyone seems completely mesmerized?  The condition was observed, and it was understood even prior to the Romans that words spoken rhythmically - verba concepta - provided power over the listener.  Those who studied rhetoric in order to produce brilliant oratory in the Church service or prior to battle learned to make use of such speech patterns in order to compel others to believe a given truth or follow a given path.

The adjective, "charming," began to be associated with objects or places in the 16th century ... which was merely the recognition that something attractive could produce desire.  "Charms" in general were objects which were held or demonstrated in order to produce a pleasing response - in a rural existence with very little in it that was beautiful, a single marvelous trinket could have great effect.  Numerous stories written in the 17th and 18th centuries speak of how an object brought misery who knew of its existence, because of its desirability.  Beautiful objects were seen to have power, and the possessors of beautiful objects were imagined to be powerful - take note of the religious fervor associated with royal crowns, sceptres and orbs.

Yet as a verb, "charm" only means to recite or cast a magic spell.  Any spell can be, by definition, "a charm."  Historically it is too general to be used specifically in the sense of "compelling an individual to take a given action."  More correct terms for what is termed as charm person in D&D would be words like beguile, bewitch, enthrall, entrance or possess.

Be-guile derives from the French word guile that means a fraud or a trick ... a means of distracting or manipulating the opponent so that they don't perceive what's going on, or that they take actions for the wrong reasons.

Bewitch derives from biwicchen, and means literally to "be a witch" ... and the word as we understand it derives from the sense that if you are being manipulated by a witch, you are behaving in a manner not in accordance with propriety.  Women have a tendency to lead men astray, you see.

En-thrall is the practice of putting an individual into mental or moral thralldom, or slavery.  Enthrall exists as a spell in D&D, but for reasons that aren't hard to guess at, the spell holds a crowd rapt in attention.  But then, this is the modern meaning.

En-trance is a late 16th century development of the 14th century trance, which is to be thrown into "a state of extreme dread or suspense...a dazed, half-conscious or insensible condition."  The Latin word transire meant "to cross over," and as such trance was seen as the dread one possessed prior to death, at the point before the soul was to cross over into the afterlife.  Entrance as a portal developed as a word in the early 16th century, and the word's use for deluding persons into a state of terror became popular within a few generations.

Possess derives from the Latin possidere, which meant to "hold as property."  The demonic sense did not come into use until the 16th century, around the time when the folks in Europe were burning witches by the hundreds - about a hundred years before Salem Massachesetts, whose residents were pikers in the witch-burning finals.  Ownership by the Devil became a popular way of expressing the helplessness of future victims for the stake, removing conveniently any possibility that these souls could be regained by any method except supernatural - in this case, a gruesome death.  It is this verb, obviously, that the charm person spell as written wishes to avoid.  The game does not want casters possessing their subjects, and thus coming into ownership of their bodies and limbs so as to do anything that the caster might do with his or her own self.

Possess is clearly in the realm of geas, quest, magic jar and the like, and so right out of any use for charm person.  It seems to me that enthrall would probably be the next stage down, and that it describes more closely the spell suggestion than that of charm person.  I don't think anyone wants to drift into the sphere of bewitch, which clearly suggests seduction or some other sexual compulsion ... so not at all a useful description for charm person.

That leaves a division between the words beguile and entrance ... either the creation of confusion and misdirection by the mage perpetrated against the subject, or possibly the construction of a terror which reduces the subject to a condition in which no action can be taken.  I would think the majority of players would prefer beguile to entrance - partly because of the confusion the latter has with doors and gates - but somehow, for me, this reduces the caster to the status of a sideshow barker, using clever statements in order to inveigle the local yokels into the tents to see the pretty girls or gathered freaks.

But after all, it's only a first level spell.  Perhaps it doesn't need much oomph.


Telecanter said...

Wonderful post. A useful look at how these states might be represented by different spells (and at different levels) in the game. Thanks.

Anthony said...

I'd go with the word Trust.

Think what you would and would not do for a trusted friend. Enter into a risky business proposition because your friend assured you it would work out? Sure. Believe what your friend says as long as it kind of made sense or wasn't a blatant lie? Sure, within reason. Stop defending yourself in a fight? Not a chance. Put yourself in obvious and grievous harm? Nope. etc etc...