The Evolution of hold person

In a previous post I used hold person as an example of a spell that changed dramatically from OD&D to later versions.  The original version of hold person, as described in Men & Magic, was a very powerful charm spell that allowed the caster to compel action from his victims.

This fits in with the early pulp-influences and atmosphere of OD&D – the evil wizard or priest casting a spell and then ordering someone to drop their weapons, walk to the altar, and sacrifice the captive, say, or turn on their comrades in battle, or open the cursed book of Graalk, or open the gate of the besieged city, or…

In later versions of D&D (starting with Holmes) hold person causes paralysis, offering less opportunity for mischief on the part of an inventive caster, a drastic change in the nature of the spell.  I wondered what prompted the change.

So I was excited to see this comment in the Grognardia interview of Len Lakofka that illuminates some of how the change in nature of the spell came about: it seems as actually used in play, hold person required a system shock roll from those it affected.  Mr. Lakofka explains:

In the original AD&D manuscript… Gary had said that if a person was held (via hold person) he/she had to make a system shock roll! I said to Gary that this would become a “Little Finger of Death.” Certainly many NPCs as well as a few characters would have a Constitution score of 14 or lower. A system shock would kill quite a few folks. Since hold person is a 2nd-level cleric spell and 3rd-level magic-user spell, those spell casters needed very little experience to gain access to the prayer/spell. A gaggle of four 3rd-level clerics all throwing hold person at once on the same person would have a very high chance of not only holding him but killing him/her as well. I talked Gary out of it.

Awesome!  Now if we could only hear from someone on how the original magic-missile spell was used (with or without a to-hit roll?) the Mule’s curiosity would be satisfied.

For a bit.

3 Responses to “The Evolution of hold person”

  1. November 20, 2009 at 6:12 pm

    Based on recent commentary on the subject, I get the impression that hold person was not so much a charm as it was a compulsion. Instead of beguiling, it “held” the target’s mind and body in the caster’s mystical grip with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer. This sort of crude-but-thorough mastery was a staple of the genre.

    If I recall correctly, we see several variants of this sort of old-school hold person effect in the seminal (if maligned) D&D novel, Quag Keep.

  2. November 20, 2009 at 9:17 pm

    I love Quag Keep! Its modern sequel is justly reviled, though.

    So you’re saying it was more like a bard’s fascinate ability or a snake’s “hypnosis” of its prey? Or the kind of dominate that leaves the hero grimacing and struggling: “Don’t… want… to… kill… you…”

  3. 3 maldoor
    November 20, 2009 at 10:31 pm

    I have not read Quag Keep (actually I did about 30 years ago, and do not remember it at all) but from what I have gathered the spell worked like your second example. Like the many REH stories where a red shirt is forced to feed themselves to a monster, or lay still while sacrificed.

    _As written_ in Men & Magic, the description says, “similar to a Charm Person but which is of both limited duration and greater effect.” The Charm Person description: “will cause the charmed entity to come completely under the influence of the Magic-User until such time as the “charm” is dispelled.”

    Stripped of later context and limitations as laid out in Moldvoy and AD&D, I could easily see someone under the influence of Hold Person being told to slay a friend, or walk off a cliff into lava, etc. Like Eric says, the effect is like a sledgehammer: the victim is a puppet.

    The limitations of these spells have to be worked out in an OD&D campaign, but in general the spells – as used both by and against the players – sure had potential to be more (or less) powerful than in later versions. I like this: it makes magic more scary, in the same way that a Hero or Superhero cutting through four or five men-at-arms in a round should be scary.

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Past Adventures of the Mule

November 2009

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