A few days ago in Twitter, and in a friend’s Discord channel, I posed some questions about how a setting might respond to the existence of charm person and, implicitly, higher-grade mind-control magic. I want to be 100% clear about this: this is a thought experiment, not me telling you that you’re doing it wrong not to dig way into how your setting responds to one condition. In real life, though, we base many, many things on the idea that people aren’t under invisible coercion or duress.
I owe a significant creative debt for the ideas in this post to Rabbit, Geoffrey Fortier, Will Kotas, Garrick Andrus, Keith Ammann, and others.
First, Some Parameters
To get everyone on the same page: I’m using 5e’s charmed condition and the charm person and dominate person spells as my core assumptions. I’ll talk about different demographic assumptions, as well.
The charmed condition: A charmed creature can’t attack the charmer or target the charmer with harmful abilities or magical effects. The charmer has advantage on any ability check to interact socially with the creature.
Note what this doesn’t intrinsically do. Outside of combat, it’s no more than influence – advantage on Charisma checks is no guarantee. Within combat, it doesn’t protect the charmer’s allies in any way, except that the charmed creature shouldn’t be indiscriminate with area-effect spells. It also doesn’t have a hard-coded way to end the condition – so each instance of the condition has its own way of ending.
Casting Time: 1 action
Range: 30 feet
Components: V, S
Duration: 1 hour
You attempt to charm a humanoid you can see within range. It must make a Wisdom saving throw, and does so with advantage if you or your companions are fighting it. If it fails the saving throw, it is charmed by you until the spell ends or until you or your companions do anything harmful to it. The charmed creature regards you as a friendly acquaintance. When the spell ends, the creature knows it was charmed by you.
At Higher Levels. When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 2nd level or higher, you can target one additional creature for each slot level above 1st. The creatures must be within 30 feet of each other when you target them.
There are a lot of useful points here for us to hang in-world responses on. For the sake of brevity, let’s say for now that every clause offers something, and I’ll get into them more in just a minute. There are other, comparable charm spells, such as charm monster (in XGTE) that relax or otherwise alter some of these parameters.
The most critical item, and most contrasting to other mind-influencing effects, is “The charmed creature regards you as a friendly acquaintance.” Unpacking that into what the charmed creature will or won’t do is enough for a half-dozen articles, but above all else it’s why it’s so important that D&D’s final rules parser is a human.
Casting Time: 1 action
Range: 60 feet
Components: V, S
Duration: Concentration, up to 1 hour
You attempt to beguile a humanoid that you can see within range. It must succeed on a Wisdom saving throw or be charmed by you for the duration. If you or creatures that are friendly to you are fighting it, it has advantage on the saving throw.
While the target is charmed, you have a telepathic link with it as long as the two of you are on the same plane of existence. You can use this telepathic link to issue commands to the creature while you are conscious (no action required), which it does its best to obey. You can specify a simple and general course of action, such as “Attack that creature,” “Run over there,” or “Fetch that object.” If the creature completes the order and doesn’t receive further direction from you, it defends and preserves itself to the best of its ability.
You can use your action to take total and precise control of the target. Until the end of your next turn, the creature takes only the actions you choose, and doesn’t do anything that you don’t allow it to do. During this time you can also cause the creature to use a reaction, but this requires you to use your own reaction as well.
Each time the target takes damage, it makes a new Wisdom saving throw against the spell. If the saving throw succeeds, the spell ends.
At Higher Levels. When you cast this spell using a 6th-level spell slot, the duration is concentration, up to 10 minutes. When you use a 7th-level spell slot, the duration is concentration, up to 1 hour. When you use a spell slot of 8th level or higher, the duration is concentration, up to 8 hours.
What we see here is another, much more powerful set of rules bolted onto the charmed condition. The third paragraph’s “drone mode” sounds like the core conflict of Sense8 and Jessica Jones S1 (yes, I know that the Purple Man’s power doesn’t have these limits), along with a lot of other shows. Mind control is serious business, to the point that if it works, it’s kinda the only power you even need. Just to state the obvious: characters in fiction don’t always get a chance to resist.
Option 1: Suspicion and Paranoia
There aren’t any low-level, high-confidence defenses against the charmed condition, unless it’s cast by an aberration, celestial, elemental, fey, fiend, or undead, in which case you use protection from evil and good. Let’s assume you’re more worried about humanoids in your day-to-day interactions. For this option, I’m also stipulating that, for whatever reason (maybe the Gods crave game balance and don’t want enchanters to suck), it’s not possible to solve this by researching a new spell or an affordable magic item.
It’s possible, then, that people spiral into broad suspicion and paranoia. This probably requires access to charm person to be pretty common. That’s easy: it’s a 1st-level spell available to bards, sorcerers, warlocks, and wizards. (This is where demographics come in.) For this option, let’s imagine that maybe 5% of the population currently have the class levels necessary to cast charm person one or more times a day, and maybe .001% of the population have the class levels necessary to cast dominate person. Having the class levels necessary doesn’t mean you learn the spell – Spells Known are a particularly harsh mistress.
Even if you could identify every bard, sorcerer, wizard, and warlock in the world, it wouldn’t help much in knowing who could cast charm person or dominate person, because:
1. You can’t reliably audit their Spells Known, and a wizard can always have a still-more-secret grimoire.
2. Even if you did know that, it wouldn’t help, because they could get their hands on a scroll of charm person and cast it. (I’m not touching the question of a philtre of love.)
In general, people probably mix up charm person and dominate person, overestimating the influence that charm person even grants. “Friendly acquaintance” isn’t “yes, sure, you can have all my money and I’ll write you into my will.” It is probably “oh, sure I know you, and I can wave you on through a security checkpoint as long as no one else, especially not my boss, is looking.” So one of the low-cost options for minor hardening of security is security checkpoints with 2+ guards – but of course an infiltrator can just upcast the spell to pick up more targets.
The 7th-level Devotion paladin’s Aura of Devotion is outright immunity to “be[ing] charmed.” The demographics on Devotion paladins of 7th level and higher have got to be brutal, and that’s only half the problem. You’ve also got to convince them to work for you, when they’ve already got a target for their devotion in mind.
There are probably some other purely mechanical solutions that I’m overlooking.
So what else could the people of a setting do, if they were scared of charm/dominate person?
- When you sign a contract or perform any other task that needs some assurance that you’re not influenced by the other principal, each of you use a knife’s edge to lightly cut the other one, ideally doing 1 point of damage. This ends charm person if the person holding the knife is the charmer, because it’s “anything harmful,” and grants a new saving throw against dominate person.
- Antimagic zones are insanely high-level and hard to come by, but they might be worth arranging for the gatherings of the rich and famous. Failing that, dispel magic offers a good degree of hope.
- Culturally, there’s probably a trend against making any kind of decision alone, unless you haven’t been around another person in more than an hour. You check with as many of your friends as you can before doing almost anything, and then check again an hour later. Invisibility + dominate person is – fortunately for everyone – locked out by concentration, unless the dominate caster also has an accomplice to cast the invisibility. (But at some point you’ve got to accept that enough people working against you at once can overwhelm any defense.)
- Because we’re drilling down to societal-level implications and well outside of adventuring standards, the verbal and somatic components of charm person step way up in importance, which also cranks up the importance of Subtle Spell. If every caster has the same V and S components for their spells, people learn to identify those with the same level of fervor as we hold our kids’ hands to cross the street.
- If the V and S components are idiosyncratic, I think suspicion falls on all arcane casters, and maybe all casters generally. Including anyone who picks up the Magic Initiate feat, I guess. Settings that brutally repress all spellcasting are not a good way to have fun in D&D, though. If you want a D&D that slowly trends toward a Mage-style Technocracy, you do you, but that’s further than I’d want to go, considering how many classes (and races for that matter) are spellcasters.
- It might become violently taboo to do anything that could be interpreted as a somatic component, which means you need to have something to do with your hands, or keep them in your pockets. Or social gatherings might adopt strict codes of silence, so that all talking is done in sign language but verbal components are easily identified.
- Back to security: in public places, or when entering private residences of the wealthy, there are guards who keep detect magic running all the time, scanning everyone who comes by for the signs of enchantment magic. They probably work in teams so that some are casting rituals while others are on watch.
- I still have no idea what a setting like this does to determine culpability for a crime after the fact. If you know dominate person is real but you don’t have a way to prove someone was controlled (or that they didn’t voluntarily submit to control), what does guilt mean as a legal concept?
- There’s potentially no upper limit on how crazy a society might go in attempting to use punishment as a deterrent. Maybe you really do go to Hell (via plane shift rather than divine judgment) for abrogating someone’s free will.
- Society might simply develop ways to communicate at greater distances than 60 feet. Isolated – and cramped – studies for composing letters, maybe. Tin cans and a long string. Semaphore. It doesn’t help as much as they hope, because it only protects the communicators from each other, not their allies.
Option 2: R&D
Many of the initial answers to my thought experiment proposed solving the problem with either a new spell or a new magic item. That strikes me as an interesting list of setting assumptions: that new spells can be created, that you’d trust the same category of people to cast your defenses as you’re worried about casting charm person, and that magic items can be manufactured in volume. After all, I wouldn’t expect D&D’s style of magic items to blanket even a whole building with immunity to the charmed condition – at best, you’re looking at each individual person needing their own wearable item.
This model suits Eberron a lot more than it suits the Forgotten Realms or most other settings. Well, okay, I imagine lots of mythals in the Realms block mind control one way or another, even though elves have been nigh-immune to charm spells in many editions of D&D. Still, mass creation of minor-to-moderate magic items is a central conceit of Eberron.
Getting any deeper into this – imagining a game economy around charm-immunity items – forces one to call into question much of the rest of the economy. They’re going to be in high demand (as guaranteed by the premise of their creation), so they’ll certainly command far higher prices than their production cost. You could require a rare component, so production costs go up over time.
Okay, imagining for a minute that you solve or handwave a bunch of those ideas, and you still want a pseudo-medieval or early modern society, what’s the deal here? I can’t see any way something like this happens without either a guild, or more likely a whole league of guilds, or an empire. I’m sort of imagining Rome under Diocletian’s Dominate – do you know how unusual it is for me not to intend a pun?) – and the vast organized and state-run economy that he put into place.
If it’s run by the guilds, well, now everyone needs something that they can only get through a legal – but not state-run – monopoly. On the plus side, they can probably guarantee supply. On the downside, they can functionally extort you for however much money they would like today, and quality control on their goods isn’t everything that you would hope.
Folks, I don’t think I can come up with a better three-word story seed than flawed charm immunity.
If it’s run by an imperial planned economy, then I hope you’re a military leader, provincial governor, member of the royal family, or a bishop, because I’m betting they get their protections first. Stories you tell in this kind of society involve having to come up with your yearly tax bill, paid in whatever the rare component of the magic item is, because your family has been permanently tied to its production. That’s the bad news. The good news is that your family surname is “Dragonslayer.”
Another likely outcome is an arms race. Spell-creators look for loopholes in the production offered by the charm-immunity item or spell and exploit that. If computer security has taught us nothing else, it’s that (me commenting on computer security is a fun way to get dragged all over the internet) the attackers have unlimited time and seemingly unlimited resources to look for holes, because when they win they get nigh-unlimited reward for awhile. Defenders… don’t.
You probably thought of this already, but I’ll fill it in here: you can do Option 1 and 2 as sequential eras in your setting. Inability to defend effectively leads to societal collapse, brought back from ruin (comparable to the Roman Crisis of the Third Century) by a despotic ruler and a new piece of magitechnology.
Option 3: Sanctioned Use
Society and the local executive power decide that they can’t regulate charm person out of existence, and really, do they even want to? In the right hands, it’s such a wonderful tool, isn’t it? This is your one-way ticket to a serious dystopia.
On one hand, you have governments that can compel obedience and decisively stifle dissent for a short time. Thanks to dominate person, they can make political enemies say whatever they want them to say – it’s deepfakes in your medieval fantasy, sort of. “You know you were charmed” is barely any help, because your knowledge isn’t actionable proof.
On the other, the authorities still have to work to stop spellcasters from learning the spell, as either a Spell Known or a free spell learned upon leveling. Yeah, they can’t do a single solitary thing about that, except to pull a PsiCorps: once you learn charm person or dominate person, you join the Order of Enlightened Persuasion or you die with a quickness. See above notes on how radical suppression of spellcasters is what might logically happen, but it’s not the kind of fun we look for in D&D.
Likely you have a significant criminal society of mind-controlling spellcasters, and they have a lot of overlap with dissident or revolutionary elements. They have to do everything they can to stay out of range and line-of-sight from spellcasters of the Order until they’re ready to completely commit to a fight. The Order has to do everything in its power to infiltrate their ranks and get close to people outside of combat, since damage and hostility either end effects immediately or grant advantage on saves. To put that more briefly, it creates an atmosphere of extreme brinksmanship.
For this option, I think we’re talking about higher wealth and more developed magical knowledge, to pair with much greater centralized power. I think we can draw in some higher-level magical concepts as solutions here – specifically, planar travel. One of the best anti-dominate measures is to have all of your important meetings on another plane or demiplane, and then start watching closely for suspicious verbal or somatic components.
Okay, this is getting a little corner-case and ridiculous, but maybe there’s a whole thing about casters proving that they’re not maintaining concentration on a dominate person spell – so every known arcane spellcaster has to keep dancing lights or another visible concentration spell running while they’re out in public. This just displaces some of the necessary work to carry off a deceit: now you need one accomplice to maintain your dancing lights for you (and stay nearby), and a second accomplice to keep the first under invisibility. Okay, that fix isn’t great – recasting dancing lights breaks invisibility, and greater invisibility has too short a duration.
History suggests to me that an authoritarian regime will, without exception, collapse into a large-scale money grab by everyone with power. What does that look like here? It might start with a variation on selling indulgences – in this case, literally just selling scrolls of charm person or dominate person. These include permission to cast them on ill-defined Enemies of the State. This is how Option 3 collapses into Option 1.
Option 4: Acceptance
Yes, I know it would suit the Kübler-Ross model better if this were Option 5, but Option 0: No One Knows About Them (Denial) rejects the whole premise of this post, so I’ll give it a miss.
What would it look like for a society to have so many people capable of casting these spells that they have to do something else? In the Harry Potter universe, anyone could learn and cast the Imperius Curse – they respond by anathematizing the spell and creating a prison of horrors. As we see, this is no great shakes in dissuading anyone from using this and other forbidden spells.
At least as far as charm person goes, what if casting it came to be seen as politeness, rather than an attack? It’s a signal of intent: an admission that you think your powers of persuasion are not sufficient without help. Perhaps it’s seen as an aid to the socially awkward. It’s a society that cherishes civility highly, thinking nothing of how the charmed can’t attack the charmer. Perhaps they point out that no one thinks ill of sanctuary, which prevents quite a lot more people from attacking the caster.
Dominate person is a stickier wicket to make acceptable. What occurs to me is a societal concept of dissociation. A body is but a mask, and there are a dozen ways magic can disconnect body and actor. I think that to them, disguise self is about on par with dominate person, and what you’re no more connected to actions you perform while dominated than you are to actions a doppelganger performs in your guise. What they do care about is engaging meaningfully, fiercely, with the active intellect – the charmer, the person under the disguise, whatever.
They would look for way to make consequences follow the caster rather than the body, which D&D doesn’t currently support all that well (and that’s largely on purpose, to keep villains safe). They’d also want ways to harm or create other magical consequences for the caster of project image.
The fey are a potential use case for such a society. I think they might say that everyone serves someone, and one master is as good as another. Is it really better to be threatened, cajoled, and blackmailed into doing what you didn’t prefer to do? Hardly! Maybe they also think there’s little that a dominated person could do that would matter much in a day, or a week – the affairs of the Seelie and Unseelie Courts move on to the next scandal or delight soon enough. Much of this dispassionate view doubtlessly comes from the Archfey, and lesser fey receive it through social pressure to emulate their betters. It’s just that (almost) no one can control the Archfey; the same isn’t true for the lesser kinds.
This came out more as a brainstorming document than an organized collection of thoughts. I hope it has entertained you and sparked a few thoughts, all the same. Feel free to add your own twists and new ideas in the comments!