Hot take: D&D 5e gets Charisma dead wrong. 5e only acknowledges a tiny slice of the greater whole: Charisma isn’t about being likable, it’s about being compelling. It’s about being a metaphysical Mack truck on a highway full of smart cars.
Charisma in D&D is regularly sidelined. It’s often thought of as attractiveness, and physical appearance is easy to ignore or forget in a game played in our imaginations. Charisma does carry further mechanical weight in 5e, indicating that a PC is likable or good with people, but it remains a frequent dump stat. You can’t have awesome attribute scores across the board, and in a game of grand magic and deadly combat being likable just doesn’t seem as important as being tough.
I think this understanding of Charisma is all based on a misinterpretation. It’s a misinterpretation that 5e almost seems to have embraced as a system. But while most of D&D 5e’s mechanical systems aren’t set up to correct that mistake, a few hint at what I think Charisma really represents.
Here’s what 5e’s PHB has to say on page 178, “Charisma measures your ability to interact effectively with others. It includes such factors as confidence and eloquence, and it can represent a charming or commanding personality.”
Attractiveness, social skill, confidence and eloquence, charm… sure. I think that’s too limited. I think Charisma represents all of that, and more.
My personal interpretation is distilled from the definitions of charisma and its synonyms, and from perusing too many old RPG rulebooks and spending too long thinking about the implications of their systems. Charisma is synonymous with force of personality, strength of character, and personal magnetism. In old RPGs we see it—or an analogue—used as a measure of a being’s will and their ability to directly connect to or alter reality (like POW in old Call of Cthulhu). It’s tied to luck, to the universe’s favor, and to magical potency. Mechanically, every so often, D&D 5e uses Charisma in the same way: Charisma saves are required to avoid being banished from existence or bound to another’s will (as in the spells Banish and Planar Binding).
If D&D’s Charisma attribute is just a measure of being likable, a Charisma save for those spells makes no sense. Why would your likability let you resist forcible eviction from reality? But those Charisma saves make perfect sense if Charisma is something more akin to force of personality, force of will, or metaphysical weight class. By that understanding, just as you use a Strength saving throw to oppose being pushed around physically, you use a Charisma saving throw to oppose being pushed around metaphysically.
Extrapolating from the above, when else would it make sense to call for a Charisma save?
Any time that someone’s psyche or metaphysical self is being overpowered or overwritten, a Charisma save could be appropriate. I would call for Charisma saves to resist some psychic attacks, magical metaphysical poisons that erode one’s connection to reality, attempts to warp reality and one’s relation to it, or environmental conditions that displace someone in time, space, or plane. If it’s easier to conceive of it as an analogue to other attributes, I would call Charisma saves a mix of Strength and Constitution saves for one’s connection to reality.
This also rounds out the underlying logic of D&D 5e’s tripartite magical paradigm.
D&D uses Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma as spellcasting attributes. Wizards use Intelligence, Clerics and Druids use Wisdom, and Sorcerers (and Warlocks and Bards) use Charisma. I found it easy to reason backwards from system to fiction for Intelligence and Wisdom. But until I had this larger conception of what Charisma represents I struggled to make sense of a Charisma based spellcaster. Using general social appeal to work magic just didn’t fit with my understanding of D&D’s fiction.
Intelligence spellcasters are nerds. They study long and hard until they find the right cheat codes to hack reality and produce consistent magical effects. This is why wizards research things, why they love books, and why I really want a good way of allowing wizards in 5e to prototype new spells (with potentially disastrous consequences).
Wisdom spellcasters are attuned to themselves and to greater powers. They dedicate themselves to those larger forces, and commune with them to beseech their favor or channel their magic into the world. They are often empathetic, insightful, and deeply connected to the world around them and the greater powers with which they’ve aligned themselves.
Charisma spellcasters, with this understanding of Charisma, have sufficient presence, force of will, or metaphysical power to coax or coerce reality into agreeing with them. That power might be innate, as with most Sorcerers and Bards, or it might be borrowed or augmented as a Warlock’s is. Regardless, they have the ability to lay hands on the universe, to take the wheel.
I love that this interpretation of Charisma makes fictional sense of 5e’s strange mechanical choices. But what I like most about this interpretation is that it opens up Charisma to have fictional and mechanical weight beyond whether other people like you (or that weird edge case of resisting your sudden expulsion from reality). Thinking of Charisma as someone’s metaphysical weight class, their innate ability to grab the universe and push or to convince reality that their view is the correct one, fits 5e’s current limited conception of the attribute while also growing it into something that makes larger sense.
It’s consistent: someone with high Charisma still possesses considerable presence. But with this understanding, we can see that it doesn’t matter whether they’re likable, or attractive, or what-have-you. They might be an asshole and horrifyingly ugly—but, hand in hand with their greater metaphysical mass, they’re phenomenally compelling. Kind or cruel, charming or taciturn, it doesn’t matter. Spending a few minutes in the same room as them, listening to them speak, is incredibly impactful and maybe even life-changing.
Does this require any other changes to 5e? Maybe. I haven’t gone through 5e’s spell list and changed any spell saving throws, though there are a number of spells calling for Wisdom saves that might make more sense as Charisma saves. My instinct is to sort the spells based on whether I think they’re about deluding the target (more like a Wisdom save) or coercing or altering the target (more like a Charisma save), but I haven’t done that yet.
Regardless, this understanding of Charisma makes significantly more sense to me, and it doesn’t require me to change any old systems in order to enrich my games. I’ve been inspired to imagine and incorporate more weird magical effects and dangers. My players know that Charisma isn’t an inconsequential dump stat; their choices carry more weight, and the PCs with proficiency in Charisma saves have finally seen some benefit from that.
So. What do you think? Does this feel satisfying? Will you use this for your own games, for your own imagination? Or am I missing something here?