Charmed, I’m Sure 1

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.)

  1. 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. []
  2. 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. []
  3. 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. []
  4. 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. []
  5. 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. []

Bill Coberly

About Bill Coberly

Bill Coberly is the founder and now Editor Emeritus (that means he doesn't really do anything any more) of the Ontological Geek. He currently studies law at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, where he lives with his wonderful wife and a pair of small and snuggly terriers.

  • Sara Davis

    I real­ly enjoyed this! I per­son­al­ly love sta­tus effects–I always want an option to poi­son my weapon or par­a­lyze foes–but I rec­og­nize that sense of frus­tra­tion and dis­ap­point­ment when your favorite char­ac­ters turn on your party, and I rarely devel­op the Charm skill for my own party when it’s an option. (I think DA:O had some kind of glam­our charm, actu­al­ly, but I have no idea what it does, because it’s obvi­ous­ly going to be less hon­or­able than set­ting dark­spawn on fire.)