I’m usually hesitant to say that something is bad game design. I’m not a game designer, I’m a law student who writes sometimes, so I generally try to assume that there’s something I’ve missed when I encounter a design choice I don’t like very much. But you know what? After finishing a playthrough of Pillars of Eternity, I’ve come to a conclusion: in most videogame RPGs, the Charmed status effect is horseshit, and needs to go.
Status effects are temporary conditions applied to a character in an RPG that differ from pure damage or healing. They can be hostile, inflicting some impediment upon the character that makes him or her less effective in combat, or they can be helpful. Most RPGs, from Final Fantasy to Baldur’s Gate to World of Warcraft, borrow most of their status effects from the same general collective unconscious. While each of these games have unique status effects or idiosyncratic twists on standard ones, there are some status effects that show up in recognizable form in all or at least most RPGs. Charmed is one of them, and I hate it.
Before we get started, full disclosure: I’m not drawn to status effects on the best of days. In 4th edition Dungeons & Dragons terms, I’m a “Striker,” which means I like to pick a target, isolate it from its friends, stab it in the face until it goes away, and then move on to the next target. The only status effect I’m particularly interested in applying is Dead. So that might explain some of my aversion to Charmed: I’m not very likely to inflict some of these exceptionally annoying status effects on my enemies, so I’d appreciate it if they’d show me the same courtesy. The 4th edition D&D term for someone who is enamored of status effects is “Controller,” if you’re curious. Magic: The Gathering seems to attract Controllers,1 which may have something to do with why I don’t play that game any more.
Nevertheless, status effects are, in general, a good thing. They exist to make the game more complex, and to open a wider variety of compelling choices for the player to make. If the only thing a player can do is inflict damage upon her enemies, the game is likely to get stale very quickly. But if she has to both inflict and respond to status effects, she must think more carefully about what to do, and she is confronted with more complicated and meaningful choices.
So first, let’s talk a little about some of the status effects I don’t hate. Poisoned usually means that our poor victim (we’ll call him Steve) takes a small amount of damage every turn until either he’s dead or the poison has worn off. It can usually be counteracted by a spell or an item (inevitably called an Antidote), but that item does not usually heal however many hit points Steve lost while he was Poisoned. So when Steve is Poisoned, our player has a choice: does she waste a turn now using an Antidote on Steve, or does she use that turn to do damage or otherwise do whatever she would normally have done? All things being equal, it is better to cure Steve’s Poison sooner rather than later, so he takes less damage. But maybe it’s more important for Steve to attack an enemy or help out another injured friend, or maybe the monster Steve is fighting is likely to just Poison him again, so there’s no point curing the poison until the monster is dead or has at least shifted its attention. This creates a set of interesting choices for the player, all without removing Steve from the fight.
Blind (or sometimes Darkness) is another neat status effect: usually, it drastically reduces Steve’s accuracy, such that he is not very likely to hit with his next attack (sometimes only a physical attack, but sometimes the Blind extends to magical accuracy, too.) This, again, can be cured either by an appropriate spell or item,2 or, generally, by the passage of time. Once Steve is Blind, our player has some choices to make: does she try to attack anyway, hoping that Steve will be lucky or to at least keep an enemy focused on Steve and not a squishier character in the back row? Does she spend a turn clearing up Steve’s vision? Does she have Steve perform an action (healing a comrade, casting an attack spell that isn’t affected by Blind, etc.) that doesn’t rely on accuracy, and just wait out the timer on the effect? Again, our player has interesting choices to make, but Steve is not removed from the fight.
So, how does Charmed usually work, and why is it horseshit? An enemy casts a spell on Steve, and if he fails some kind of mental resistance check, he switches allegiance, attacking his allies under the control of the computer AI until a certain amount of time has passed, when he instantly switches back to the player’s control. There are usually various spells that can be cast on Steve to either raise his mental defenses in anticipation of a Charm-happy monster or to remove the status effect after it has been applied.
Different games vary as to whether or not Steve is allowed to use his full suite of abilities while Charmed. I’d venture a guess that he is usually restricted to only attacking with whatever weapon he had equipped at the time of his bewitchment, but that’s not always the case. Sometimes he can do anything to you that he would be able to do to your enemies. Sometimes Charmed itself only allows Steve to use his weapons, but there is a meaner status effect called Dominated or some such which lets him really cut loose.
The player has no control over Steve whatsoever, and thus any choices she has to make relate to what to do about Steve, who is now no longer listening to her instructions. The choices are fairly stark: attempt to kill Steve, so that he stops attacking everyone else, attempt to incapacitate Steve via a paralyzing or silencing spell so that he stops attacking you until his moment of confusion wears off, or ignore Steve entirely, moving squishy people out of the way and just hoping he doesn’t manage to do very much damage before he comes to his senses. If you have the right spell prepared or available (and assuming Steve isn’t the only one who knows how to cast it) you might also be able to cast some anti-Charm spell, if it exists.
This, I hold, is a boring set of options, particularly since the answer is almost always not to kill Steve, since that’s damage which does not move you any closer to ending the fight, and in fact may cause you some permanent setback later on (depending on how the game handles death or damage in-between fights). Instead, I always find myself sighing, moving my squishy characters out of the way, and kiting3 poor Steve until he remembers which side he’s on.
Other problems, which aren’t technically inherent to the Charmed status effect, but tend to be associated with it, further make it more annoying than interesting. Charmed goofs up your party’s AI in a real-time or real-time-with-pause game. In Pillars of Eternity, I have my characters set to automatically attack the nearest enemy, unless they are told to do something else. This means that everyone who was on auto-attack before Steve was Charmed have now retargeted Steve, since he’s the nearest enemy, and nothing in the game’s AI knows how to distinguish between “Enemy” and “Temporarily Confused Friend.” Allegiance in most of these games is trinary: friend, enemy, or neutral party, so the Charmed status simply toggles Steve from friend to enemy, without making any adjustment for AI.
Nevertheless, one could imagine a game which accounts for this and adds a few more allegiance-states for AI purposes, or allows you to decide whether your foe-only AOE spell attacks charmed allies or not, and otherwise handles the thousand-and-one other minor annoyances that make Charmed as obnoxious as it is.4
But I don’t think this would be enough. I think Charmed is horseshit to its very core, because of the way it violates one of the central rules of this kind of game. By taking away one or more of your playing pieces and giving them to the other guy, Charmed not only takes away some of your tools, it punishes you for developing interesting tools in the first place, and disrupts the entire delicate party-management balance you’ve been working on this whole time.
Games like Pillars of Eternity and Baldur’s Gate are about building a statistically diverse and versatile group of characters who can handle a wide variety of different threats. You have fighters in the front lines, with tons of hit points and maybe a way to stop people from getting around to your squishier characters in the back. You have magic-users that do a lot of damage or exert a lot of control over the battlefield, but are very physically frail, such that sustained pressure from enemies will knock them out of the fight before they can do much good. Mix in healers for support, rogues for damage-per-second to really deal out the sustained punishment, and various weird characters that mix-and-match these roles and suddenly, in the typical three-to-six-person party, you can only have so many of each role in order to keep all your bases covered.
Charmed takes away one of those roles, and then turns it against you. It’s usually one of your front-line fighter-types, since they tend to be closer to the enemy casters who are doing the Charming and also tend to be less-equipped to handle a mental onslaught. Fighters have high physical defenses and low mental defenses, as a rule. This means that not only does one of your walls between the enemy party and your squishy casters stop functioning, he or she turns around and becomes an additional threat right up next to your party. But even if the Charm hits someone other than your fighter, say a wizard or a healer, a key element of your party composition has simply turned off for a few moments. Even if your Charmed wizard isn’t allowed to cast spells on your party, she isn’t doing the control work she is supposed to be doing, so your other five party members are not able to perform as well as they ought to, never mind the fact that she’s also poking them with a stick every few turns.
It’s also existentially confusing: you can imagine a team of hardened adventurers shrugging off poisons and sword wounds and being psionically flung through the air, but watching your friend or lover suddenly start trying to give you an unwanted appendectomy would seriously damage your relationship, no matter how “unintentional” Steve convinces you it was. There are a lot of potential tensions with the massive split between the minute-to-minutes of combat and RPG stories as it is without adding that kind of nonsense into the mix.
Overall, Charmed just feels unfair in a way that good status effects don’t. It feels like cheating. You’re taking all of my hard work building this character and not only invalidating it, you’re using it against me. You can’t imagine a game of Chess where the other player can occasionally turn one of your Knights into one of his Knights for a short time, right? I don’t even like Charming the computer. I always feel like I’ve snuck through some combat encounter if I Charmed one of the important adversaries. I don’t want a combat encounter to toggle between easy and impossible based on whether or not one unit passes a Will save.
Game developers seem to understand that, and most boss monsters are immune to Charm accordingly. Who wants to say they beat Sephiroth or Sarevok or Thaos because they waggled their eyelashes at him and he stabbed all his friends to death? So, maybe as a brief test, if you don’t want to let the player apply this status effect to the game’s bosses, you shouldn’t let the bosses apply it to a player character, either. If it makes the fight unfun when applied to one side, why would it do anything different when applied to the other side?5
There’s an exception to every rule, and I must admit that I don’t hate the XCOM: Enemy Unknown Mind Controlled status effect, which is functionally identical to Charmed. There’s a couple of reasons for this, I think. First, it’s relatively rare, so you don’t have to encounter it every single mission. Second, only a few types of enemies can apply this effect, and they are fairly readily identified, so you know it’s a danger when you see a Sectoid Commander or Ethereal on the map. Third, the game is turn-based, so some of the AI wonkiness I discussed above doesn’t happen. Fourth, XCOM is all about being brutally difficult. The whole game is about fighting an enemy that you don’t understand and which is vastly superior to you. I don’t mind it when it punishes me more than a game like Baldur’s Gate, which is much more about being an adventurer than being traumatized. Fifth, if a character is Mind Controlled, and starts shooting at his allies, your other characters stand a chance of panicking and running away/hunkering down/firing wildly. While this makes the game harder, it also makes the consequences of the status effect feel more real: I’d probably freak out too if a friend and ally suddenly started trying to kill me.
But most importantly, handling a Mind Controlled character in XCOM is a matter of picking between a number of interesting choices in a way it isn’t in Pillars of Eternity. A few background facts: if you kill the character doing the mind controlling, Steve shakes off his confusion and goes right back to your team. Further, XCOM is a turn-based cover-based shooter, such that leaving your flanks open is a surefire way to get soldiers killed. You must put concrete between you and your enemies, or you will die.
So, what do you do if Steve gets Mind Controlled in XCOM? You can try to kill the opposing psychic, but that might involve leaving your flanks open to Steve, who currently has a great flanking shot on your characters, since you weren’t worried about having cover from Steve until very recently. Since you can’t guarantee you’ll hit your target, attacking it instead of pulling back might leave the enemy still standing and Steve still with a great shot at the side of your head. Do you pull your characters back and regroup, treating Steve as yet another enemy combatant you need cover from until you decide what to do? Or do you realize there’s no way this is going to work unless you kill poor Steve, mourning him later over drinks, since death is permanent in XCOM? I’ve made all of these choices, and each feels painful, dangerous, and, above all, interesting. While I wouldn’t say I’m happy to deal with Mind Controlled in XCOM, it presents me with more meaningful choices than Charmed usually does.
So, this is a call to arms, game developers: Stop uncritically putting Charmed in your videogames! I have a sneaking suspicion I’m not the only one who thinks like this, if only because there don’t seem to be Charm effects (at least not imposed upon the player) in Dragon Age or Mass Effect or most of the other RPGs I’ve played from the last few years. Perhaps they understand: Charmed is not fun, it is horseshit. Please stop stealing my toys and hitting me over the head with them.
(As a final note, I think my favorite status effect is Oil from Final Fantasy Tactics and Final Fantasy XII. Oil doesn’t do anything on its own, but if an Oiled character is hit by a fire attack, that character takes double damage from the attack, and the status effect ends, because all the Oil has been burned off. This is brilliant, partly because of the air of terrified anticipation it creates in the player: do I just keep fighting and hope I can kill this thing before it lights me on fire, or do I need to stop and fix this first? Further, the item in Final Fantasy XII that removes the Oil effect is called the “Handkerchief,” which is adorable.)
- Fun thought: the people in the Animorphs books that were controlled by alien slugs in their brains were called “Controllers,” so that’s kinda neat, and lines up nicely with my theory that everyone who is super into status effects in RPGs is a murderous alien simply posing as a human in order to act out their twisted fantasies. [↩]
- In Final Fantasy games, the anti-Blind item is usually called an “Eye Drop,” so I guess our anime-haired protagonist just stops in the middle of battle to, like, clean his contact lenses, which is an image I am totally okay with. [↩]
- “kiting” is a game term for convincing an enemy to chase you and then running around in circles while he chases you, unable to hit you, as though you’re flying him like a kite. Usually, you kite an enemy so that your other allies can take potshots at him while he’s trying to kill you, but there’s a number of other times when kiting (or kiting-like) behavior is helpful. I also have a sneaking suspicion that successful kiting is a sign of bad game design, but I’ll have to think more about that before I commit to it. [↩]
- The Pillars of Eternity brand of Charmed kept making poor Steve switch weapons, such that even once he snapped out of his reverie, I had to waste yet more time switching him back to whatever he was supposed to be wielding in the first place. [↩]
- Okay, so I can actually imagine an answer to this question, because in most of these games, the smaller encounters filled with monsters that can be affected by status effects serve a different role than the big boss fights, turning the dungeon crawl or whatever into an exercise in resource management, preserving enough materiel and whatnot to survive the boss fight after running through the gauntlet of smaller monsters. But that doesn’t allow me to make a pithy joke, so, here we are in a footnote rather than in the main part of the article. [↩]