The Complete Guide to Charms and Enchantments: Part One

A couple of weeks ago, Sly Flourish recently featured my pass without trace article on the Lazy RPG Talk Show (which you should definitely watch).

As part of the discussion, he mentioned similarly problematic spells like charm person, and I thought: yes, that’s my next article! But I thought it made sense to cover other charm spells at the same time, as it is often through comparing these spells that we get a better sense of how they work.

As it turns out: there are quite a few charm spells, and they are all quite different! So I’ve decided to split the article into two or more posts. In this post, I am going to focus on just friends and charm person.

Charms are a bit like illusions: with a creative player and a generous DM, they can be very fun and very powerful. They are also, like illusions, a bit tricksy and very open to interpretation. I think many tables think charm spells to be considerably more powerful than they actually are.

Defining ‘charmed’

(A side note: a few months ago, I wrote a three-part article on the 13 D&D damage types, and I planned to follow it up with a similar article on conditions. Turns out many people have already done this! RPG Bot’s breakdown is possibly my favourite.)

Let’s start by reviewing what the 2014 core rulebooks say about being charmed:

  • 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.

(Side note: does advantage on social interaction checks includes Insight? I would say so.)

Anyway, that’s the mechanics covered, but I’m not sure the core rules ever actually define what being charmed means in the fiction. Herein, perhaps, lies the confusion. Consider this definition from the Oxford English Dictionary (OED):

[To charm someone]: To act upon with or as with a charm or magic, so as to influence, control, subdue, bind, etc.; to put a spell upon; to bewitch, enchant.

There is quite a big difference in game terms between being influenced and being controlled, subdued, or bound! Mechanically, a charmed creature is not ‘restrained’ or ‘paralysed,’ nor are they necessarily ‘controlled’ by the charmer. It’s an odd one. I wonder if bewitched or beguiled might do a better job of conveying what the condition actually does.

It’s worth noting that there are quite a few creatures that are immune to being charmed:

  • almost all celestials
  • all constructs except modrons
  • nagas
  • night hags
  • all oozes
  • sphinxes
  • swarms
  • the tarrasque
  • most intelligent undead except wights (and, curiously, vampires)
  • most yugoloths.

The Fey Ancestry trait also makes elves ‘charm-resistant’ with advantage on saving throws, and of course, this includes drow and their kin: driders, chitines, and so on.

Ethics of mind control

Before we go on, it would be remiss of me not to highlight some of the ways in which charms and enchantments can be . . . problematic.

Players can be very uncomfortable with the implications of charm spells. Controlling another person’s thoughts and actions can remind us of real-life situations where there was coercion, abuse of power, or lack of consent. This in turn has the potential to bring up strong feelings of helplessness, anger, or betrayal. For people with trauma in their past, this part of the game could be triggering. There are RPG horror stories of players taking charm spells to really dark places or blurring the boundaries between in-game actions and real-life actions.

For this reason, there should be a discussion at the start of a campaign—your session zero—about content and safety tools. Players should always have the option to say ‘pause for a minute’ if they aren’t comfortable with the direction the game is going. I like the ‘Pathfinder Baseline’ as a default (see below); it includes ‘reprehensible uses of mind-control magic’ as something that player characters just shouldn’t do, and even villains should only engage in such acts ‘off-screen.’

If you want a darker campaign than this, that’s fine—but you should get explicit buy-in from everyone. Otherwise, if the mind control is seriously unethical or immoral, or just deeply objectionable: it’s off limits.

Let’s look at the spells now.


Normally I would start by having a look at the spell description, but it’s not part of the SRD (weirdly), you will have to go and check it yourself, I’m afraid.

Some observations:

It doesn’t apply the charmed condition. Presumably, then, it works on creatures that are immune to being charmed.

It’s not just for persuasion. Despite the name ‘friends’, it can also be used to deceive and intimidate.

It only works on yourself. No boosting allies.

It doesn’t work on creatures that are already hostile towards you. This limits its use.

The after-effect is baked in. ‘What happens when this wears off?’ Other enchantments leave this open to interpretation, as we will see, but not friends. No matter how innocuous your use of the spell was, it’s going to piss people off.

No saving throw! But, it only lasts a minute and requires concentration for the whole time.

Other creatures can see that you are casting a spell. It has somatic and material components. The only way round this is the sorcerer’s subtle spell ability.

In essence, friends is kind of like a ‘half-charm.’ It achieves what you would expect a cantrip to achieve: a modest boon with some potentially serious drawbacks. I think it’s a bit overrated, personally. If your Charisma is good enough to be attempting this kind of interction, you probably don’t need the spell!

What exactly can a Charisma check achieve, anyway? The DMG has rules for changing an NPC’s attitude (page 244), but I question how many DMs actually use them. Besides, they only go up to DC 20, and many ‘face’ characters can roll much higher than this (I’m looking at you, eloquence bards). I prefer to think about Charisma checks in the usual way where the player tries to do something and the DM sets the DC (DMG p238). Here are some examples of what I might allow for each of the three Charisma checks:

Very easy5Telling a simple lie to a gullible child.Raising your voice to make a child run away.Asking a friendly barkeep for a small favour.
Easy10Pretending to be a harmless traveller to avoid suspicion.Convincing a group of street thugs to leave you alone.Convincing a merchant for a small discount.
Moderate15Blaming someone else for breaking a vase when you did it.Forcing a prisoner to reveal critical information.Persuading a guard to let you pass without proper permits.
Hard20Conning a merchant into believing that a fake item is rare and valuable.Convincing an experienced warrior to back down from a confrontation.Negotiating a temporary truce between two feuding factions.
Very hard25Maintaining a false identity over an extended period.Convincing a high-ranking official to agree to your demands.Persuading a noble to fund your expedition without any previous experience.
Nearly impossible30Passing yourself off as a well-known public figure without being detected.Intimidating a dragon into fleeing.Convincing a dragon to share part of its hoard with you.

Note the description of Persuasion in the PH, by the way:

‘When you attempt to influence someone or a group of people with tact, social graces, or good nature, the DM might ask you to make a Charisma (Persuasion) check. Typically, you use persuasion when acting in good faith, to foster friendships, make cordial requests, or exhibit proper etiquette.’

Two observations here:

  1. It’s the DM who calls for which skill to use, not the player;
  2. You typically use persuasion in good faith.

If you’re using Charisma to attempt some kind of underhand manipulation, Persuasion probably doesn’t apply. I’m not even sure it’s necessarily Deception if there isn’t any lying involved. It might just be a straight Charisma check without proficiency.

Charm person

Here’s the spell description:

And again, some observations:

It’s tricky to use in combat. Not impossible, but considerably less likely to succeed. If we assume a spell save DC of 15, for example, a creature with a Wisdom save of +0 will fail 70 percent of the time. With advantage, this drops to below half.

It’s easy to sustain. It lasts an hour and does not require concentration! This it very appealing.

It can target up to nine creatures with upcasting. Having said that, I think there’s a case of diminishing returns here. I can’t imagine many spellcasters are happy to burn high-level spell slots for charm person.

It only works on humanoids. The clue’s in the name, I suppose: charm person.

It does not make you their friend. This, for me, is the most crucial part of the spell’s description and the root of most misunderstandings. The spell says that the target ‘regards you as a friendly acquaintance.’ Some observations:

  • This is singular ‘you,’ so the target would act normally with the rest of the party;
  • ‘Friendly acquaintance’ does not mean friend, lover, soul mate, ally who would die for you, and so on.

Here’s the definition of ‘acquaintance’ from the OED:

‘a person one knows slightly or on a less intimate basis than friendship. Frequently paired or contrasted with friend.

So it is a pleasant but casual relationship, not a deep personal bond.

I thought it might be helpful to think of some examples of things a charmed person would not do:

  • Harm or betray their allies;
  • Harm themselves or risk their life;
  • Compromise their values (eg, a lawful creature won’t become conspicuously dishonourable, and an evil character won’t become suddenly merciful and compassionate);
  • Act against self-interest;
  • Lend you significant money or resources;
  • Reveal their most personal thoughts;
  • Abandon their post or quit their job;
  • Commit crimes that they otherwise wouldn’t commit;
  • Invite you to live with them;
  • Take significant risks;
  • Perform errands or favours that require significant time or effort;

That’s . . . quite a long list. I’m sure there will be some disagreement in the comments, but if you would do these things for an ‘acquaintance,’ I worry about you.

Final observation: when the spell ends, ‘the creature knows it was charmed by you.’ What happens next is open to interpretation. Unlike friends, they are not automatically hostile, but I can’t imagine they would be very happy with you. They might:

  • Feel angry, hurt, or betrayed;
  • Demand an explanation;
  • Be confused;
  • Respect your cunning;
  • Seek revenge;
  • Fear you;
  • Shun you;
  • Resign themselves to what happened;
  • Forgive you!

How exactly they respond might depend on the creature’s power level, intelligence, wisdom, relationship with the caster, and moral compass (alignment), as well as the specific circumstances of the scenario. Frankly, it might also depend on the DM’s whim.

In essence: it’s nuanced. But it’s in the nuance that the players (and the DM) can really have some fun.

Next time: suggestion, compulsion, dominate person, and geas!

If you like what I do, please support me on Patreon or buy my products on DriveThru RPG. You can follow me on Facebook at scrollforinitiative, Bluesky @scrollforinit, X @scrollforinit, and Instagram @scrollforinitiative. And if you want to make my day, you can buy me a coffee here.  

Never miss an article

Unsubscribe at any time.

2 thoughts on “The Complete Guide to Charms and Enchantments: Part One

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *