Monday, June 3, 2019

Unearthing Arcana: Hold Person

Wizard: I cast hold person!
DM: OK, the orc boss failed his save and is paralyzed.
All the players at once: I slit his throat!
DM: …

You probably heard that dialogue before at some point of your Referee life (or some variation of it). Which is actually quite acceptable. Yes, acceptable… not just because it is tactically advantageous, but also because RPGs are (or were supposed to be) open-ended games, a unique mix of mechanics and a freeform narration. So, theoretically, if you paralyze your opponent during combat, you can go for the killing strike. If your players never took that opportunity to mercilessly slay their enemies then congratulations: you have heroes at your table (that is rarer than it sounds).

Of course, maybe you don’t have a problem with Hold Person and the way it works like an “instant kill” spell at the lower levels of every edition of the game.

Let’s take a look at this spell.

Art by MattiasFahlberg.

OD&D’s Hold Person: A spell similar to a Charm Person but which is of both limited duration and greater effect. It will effect from 1-4 persons. If it is cast at only a single person it has the effect of reducing the target's saving throw against magic by -2. Duration: 6 turns + level of the caster. Range: 12".

OK, as many things in the first version of D&D, the spell entry seems both quite interesting and open-ended (also uncertain). What we can be sure is that Hold Person targets 1-4 targets and has big duration.

The first thing that stands out is the Charm Person reference. In OD&D, our beloved Charm Person where targets that fail their save are “completely under the influence of the Magic-User”.

After reading that we can go back to Hold Person. Actually, for someone like me (that come from BECMI and AD&D 2nd) is hard to see Hold Person as anything different than a paralyzing spell, but that seems to be the case here. If you interpret that Hold Person is just an improved version of Charm Person then things get a lot easier for the Referee (as far as I remember you can’t try to kill a target of Charm Person).

With AD&D 1st, Gary Gygax didn’t wanted to leave doubts regarding his spells. No sir. The duration of Hold Person here is shorter (but still enough for a combat) and it affects 1-3 targets. There is quite an extensive list of what type of humanoids are affected, although we do get the description that this spell “holds immobile” and “freezes in places” the target(s).

You can say that AD&D 1st started the whole issue. When a target is “immobile” and “freezed in place”, then it is safe to assume that the victim is helpless and that a coup de grace is in order.

BECMI and Rules Cyclopedia didn’t added much (besides the Rules Cyclopedia letting clear that Hold Person has an opposed version called Free Person).

AD&D 2nd didn’t changed things either, though it did added: “Held beings cannot move or speak, but they remain aware of events around them and can use abilities not requiring motion or speech. Being held does not prevent the worsening of the subjects' condition due to wounds, disease, or poison”. AD&D 2nd also kept the trend of reducing Hold Person’s duration.

Oh, and did I said coup de grace? Although the rule wasn’t first mentioned in D&D 3rd, that edition surely made it popular. In D&D 3rd the spell lasts even less and the target “may attempt a new saving throw to end the effect” (probably because they finally noticed is such an overkill spell). You can say that 3rd Edition was honest and let it clear that a paralyzed target could be the victim of a coup de grace and, thus, finally officialized the instant kill (and no, 3.5 and Pathfinder didn’t seemed to change anything… interestingly I didn’t found any reference of Hold Person in the Pathfinder 2E Playtest).

D&D 5E at least requires Concentration in the spell duration, which is a nice touch, but it doesn’t change anything regarding the “instant kill” aspect (and yes, 5E doesn’t have a coup de grace rules, only that all attacks against an incapacitated target are automatically criticals, which means that we are back to the “it falls to the Referee to solve the whole conundrum”).

I purposely left Holmes for last because it is has an interesting take on the spell: “Similar to a charm person spell. Affects 1-4 persons. Holds the person or persons rooted to the spot unless released or the spell wears out. Duration is 6 turns + level of caster. If cast at one person alone it reduces his saving throw by 2”.

For me leaving a target “rooted to the spot” and immobilized are different things. I find this version almost as good as OD&D’s Hold Person. Maybe the target is rooted by this feet (or paralyzed from the waist down) and thus she can’t be the target of a coup de grace (although I admit that it leaves spellcasters theoretically free to cast spells… and actually this interpretation kind of equals Hold Person to Entangle).

I also remember that when I played Baldur’s Gate I and II, a Hold Person spell created a shimmering shield around the victim (you could still hit the target for normal damage and, because we’re talking of a vidoegame, coup de grace wasn’t an issue).

OK, all this talk is because I usually hate Hold Person as an “instant kill” spell (too easy, too boring). Last week I bought the D&D 5E Starter Set and runned it for my kids as a straight tabletop RPG for the first time (I had tried RPGs before with them, but always with heavy alterations and lots of dynamic and ludic activities mid session). Because my kids love Super Mario Bros. I reskinned lots of monster and spells as effects that they would recognize from the videogames, and that included a version of Hold Person. That is when it hit me that I had just created not a reskin but a variant of Hold Person, to address the “instant kill” thing.

Here are others!


1 - Magic Bubble - The target is trapped in a magic bubble that is indestructible from the inside (although disintegration might work) but any hit from outside will blow it (leaving the target unharmed). The target floats a few feet over the ground while the spell lasts and a strong wind might move him (like a levitation spell). The good side about this variant is that it doesn’t allow a save each round. (Yes, this is the Super Mario Bros. version I used with my kids and probably moves the spell to the Conjuration School)
2 - Force Shield - The target is restrained by a sparkling shimmering force shield. The shield provides light as torch and provides a weak protection, reducing damage by half against the first attack against the target (which can’t suffer any kind of critical hit or coup de grace). However, attacking the target grants him Advantage in his next saving throw to break free. (This is my feeble attempt of copying the spell from Baldur’s Gate and moves the spell to the Evocation School)
3 - Bilarro’s Equanimous Hold - The target is completely restrained by crackling ethereal bands. If the target suffers damage while under this cantrap, her attacker suffers the same amount of damage as crackling bands snapback. (Another variant that takes the spell to the Conjuration School)
4 - Mesmerizing Gaze - The target is so consumed by the caster’s presence that she can only stare back, immobilized. This version requires that the target can see the caster and the caster remains in line of sight. The charm can be broken if the life of the target is in danger. If the target is attacked he can make new saving throw as a reaction (notice that backstabs are still effective here).
5 - Planar Misalignment - The target isn’t actually immobile but out of phase with the current plane. He can speak or even move, but no sound will come out and she won’t leave the spot where she was hit by the spell. The target can’t affect this reality while under the spell’s effect and every attack against her has a 50% of being completely ignored. (Another variant that takes the spell to the Conjuration School)
6 - Under the nights of Arcadia - The target is enthralled by many sprites and faeries, falling under their enchantment and becoming paralyzed. The only difference here is that the faeries hate when other spoil their “fun”. So anyone attacking the target must also save or become affected by the spell.

Awesome art choice by SeaSkyMoon.

1 comment:

  1. Never have issues with our group... but it is true that we don't think in coup-de-grace or whatever. We just ignore or attack the parayzed one.