Charm Person and Other EnchantmentsCharming and enchantment spells are a key part of the bard class. I'd like to talk about some of the problems with these abilities, and how they can be used well in a game. In my past posts, I've talked a bit about enchantment, in combination with the trope of "beautiful woman enchants male protagonist." There are several places that this ability comes up in the D&D rules, and I'll use Pathfinder to draw attention to some examples.
The Charm cleric domain is the most obviously tropey use of this ability. It's description in the SRD reads: "You can baffle and befuddle foes with a touch or a smile, and your beauty and grace are divine." This is a very gendered description, evocative of many examples in genre literature of a woman's beauty entrancing a man. Two subdomains of Charm are similarly gendered: Love and Lust. One might expect that Lust would be masculine, but the spells that it grants: touch of idiocy and confusion, speak directly to the stereotype of men who are rendered confused and stupid by predatory, sexual women.
If charm is the feminine use of enchantment, the masculine use is hypnotism. In the Captivation subdomain, hypnotism replaces charm person, and Entrancing Aura replaces the more feminine power of Charming Smile. Hypnotists, in genre literature, are almost always men and they do not rely on sexual wiles to entrance people, but rather something akin to science, along with a strength of will that overpowers simple minds.
Throughout the many supplements and manuals of D&D, this gender divide in enchantment is pervasive, tracing back to the rules for Comeliness in First Edition (AD&D) that allowed particularly beautiful women to charm men.
The feminine forms of charm generally have the following qualities:
- They are often tied in some way to the beauty of the charmer, either their physical appearance or the beauty of their voice.
- They are generally persuasive, rather than controlling. The target of these enchantments is aware of what they are doing, and believes that they are doing it of their own free will.
- The Charm, Love, and Lust domains.
- The charm subschool of Enchantment.
- Spells such as charm person and suggestion.
- They are often tied to the strength of will of the charmer, either through holding and maintaining eye contact or through a hypnotic visual or sonic pattern.
- They are generally controlling, rather than persuasive. The target of these enchantments is unaware of the actions that they are taking, and may not remember taking them.
- The Captivation domain.
- The compulsion subschool of Enchantment.
- Spells such as hypnosis and hold person.
I feel that these sorts of rules lead to play and stories that recreate some of the harmful and gendered tropes found in fantasy literature. Although I haven't gotten up to addressing the spell system, it seemed like a good idea to talk about this here, because bards use these sort of abilities all the time. One way to break up this gender divide is to focus on tropes for charm that are gender neutral, or to deliberately gender-swap existing tropes.
How Do These Abilities Fit in the Story?The first question that I feel needs to be asked is: how do we anticipate a protagonist, rather than an antagonist, using these abilities? Here are some examples of ways that charm/compulsion abilities are famously used:
The Jedi Mind Trick: "These aren't the droids you're looking for." This is compulsion through mental strength, generally used by the heroes to evade capture. It only works on the "weak willed." As a trope, this type of charm is masculine in nature, but we can find examples of it being used by non-male characters (Rey in The Force Awakens, for example).
The Natural Charmer: This is a subtle power, that may or may not be supernatural. Think Moist von Lipwig from Going Postal. Generally an unconscious effect, it causes others to like the person more than they usually would. This is a very widely used trope and is generally gender neutral.
The Seducer/Seductress: Use of this ability may not be directly sexual in nature, but it is almost always sexually-charged. Female examples abound, but Black Widow from The Avengers is one who comes to mind. Although I haven't seen it, Eliot Spencer, from the show Leverage, is a apparently good male example of this (yes, I will see it, I just haven't had time yet!).
The "Who, Me?" Trick: Immortalized by Tasslehoff Burrfoot in the Dragonlance series, this protagonist is so clearly good and innocent that they can regularly get away with murder without being questioned. This trope is usually associated with female characters, particularly young girls. Gender is so strongly associated with that trope that when I read the books when I was young, I thought that Tasslehoff must be a girl in disguise! (And, interestingly, it turned out that it was the player of the original character that was female.)
Note that all of these are abilities that mislead a (usually minor) character into doing something that is not harmful for them, but will help the protagonists. The most problematic is the seducer/seductress, but it is still a good fit for some games, if handled well. Most of these abilities require the person who is being charmed to understand the language of the charmer, and the charmed person is understood to be a human who normally has free agency. In comparison, abilities that are more dominating than these are usually only used by antagonists, or, if they are used by the heroes, it is against creatures that are understood to not have free agency.
How Can the Rules Support This Use?The structure of the rules should meet the following goals:
- Charm spells and abilities should be tools in the same way that a sword is a tool, and should be able to be used in diverse styles.
- Characters should not be forced to comply with tropes in order to make use of charm spells and abilities.
- Abilities should be written from the perspective of the protagonists' use first, and the NPCs' use second. Evil uses of charm abilities should be expressed as evil.
Finally, the rules can help is to set forth specific categories of actions that a charmer can persuade their target to do. The trick here is to set limits that aid in story, while still allowing the players to be creative. In addition, setting forth such categories can keep these abilities from being abused, in the sense that they can easily be used for rape or torture if no such limits are set. The Pathfinder rules already take steps in both of these directions. The command spell now includes a list of things that can be ordered. And the charm person spell will not allow the target to do something obviously self-harmful, and requires an additional die roll if it is the sort of thing they would not normally do. I believe the former goes a bit too far, while the latter does not quite go far enough, but together they encompass a range of restriction that does the job. More details when we get to spells and magic!
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