Thursday, February 13, 2020

Color Spray

"Illusionist Week" continues. Hell, it might turn into "Illusionist Month." Sorry about that...I'll try to get the latest Zenopus update posted sometime this weekend...the kids aren't dead yet!

[mmm...maybe should have wrote *SPOILER*]

Just starting up from yesterday's cricket-worthy post, I decided that if I was going to rewrite the illusionist spell list I need to have some ideas of how I want to organize and structure it. There are, after all, some basic patterns that are readily apparent (spells based on color and light, spells that conjure "shadow stuff" from some demi-plane, spells that screw with a target's mind, etc.) and categorizing spells by type is something that will help with the re-organization of the list in a sensible manner. Sensible to me anyway.

SO...making a "deep dive" means doing some research and (in this case) started with reading the AD&D illusionist spell list. First up, audible glamer...not bad, though the whole "cast in conjunction with phantasmal force" is problematic (spell-casters don't cast spells "in conjunction"...unless Gygax meant "in conjunction with another illusionist" which, wow, TWO illusionists in the same party? That's got to be more rare than a pair of rangers...). I like the rough volume guidelines, though I'd probably cap it at "dragon level" (i.e. 24 men) my reckoning that would be 6th level, and any such illusionist would have access to the spell fear (what's more scary than a roaring dragon?). I don't want a spell to get into the range where eardrums start bleeding or cellular tissue begins to liquify.

Let's see...after that we have change self, a simple visual illusion and fine as written. Then we have the iconic color spray, okay, and...and...


Sweet Christmas, what the hell is this mess?

I'm not even going to bother quoting it here, because it's nonsensical. And, no, I'm definitely not the first person to notice it. The fact that I'm only noticing it NOW gives you an idea of how often I've run players with illusionist characters (some number less than two). I myself have run illusionists on multiple occasions but, given the choice, I've always taken phantasmal force as my first spell (dude...illusionist!) probably followed by hypnotism or wall of fog, maybe even change self. Some players might prefer a straightforward attack spell, but...well, that's not how I roll when I'm wearing the illusionist hat.

Which is all a long way of poorly justifying how I'm reading a book I've owned since 5th grade and never noticed that color spray spends a bunch of time defining what it does to creatures of higher level/HD than the caster while simultaneously limiting the effect to the level of the caster. Jeez Louise.

Checking other editions, I see that 2E "fixed" the spell by deleting the level cap. Which results in a power word equivalent spell that effects multiple creatures regardless of hit point value for a 1st level spell slot (creatures do get a save if they are over 6th level). I can see why it became popular. Oh, 2E...there are reasons I don't play you.

Once again, I see I need to go back to the source material: Peter Aronson. Aronson added this spell to the back end of the 1st level illusionist list for the 1976 Dragon #1 article that I mentioned in the earlier post. It's messily written...perhaps the reason why Gygax got "confused" in his editing...but let me take a shot at parsing it out (this is not a direct's my paraphrase):

Color spray effects 1D6 levels (HD) of opponents at a range of 24". The caster receives a bonus to the die roll of +1 for every five levels after 2nd (so +1 at 7th, +2 at 12th, etc.); however, the final result may not exceed six. If multiple targets are within range, randomly determine the order in which they are affected, assigning levels of effect (from the total effect rolled) until all levels have been expended. Partial assignment of spell effect is possible, and will impact whether or not the target receives a saving throw, as follows:

Level of effect equals creature's HD: no save
Level of effect exceeds HD/level by one: normal save
Level of effect exceeds HD/level by two: save at +2
Level of effect exceeds HD/level by three: save at +4
Level of effect exceeds HD/level by four: save at +6
Level of effect exceeds HD/level by five: save at +8

Color spray does not affect targets whose hit dice or level exceed six. Affected characters are rendered "unconscious through confusion." There is no other effect of the spell. 

Example: a 10th level illusionist casts the spell at a group of 7 orcs and 1 troll. She rolls 1D6 to see the effect and adds +1 because of her high level. She rolls a "6" which is the maximum result she can achieve (despite her level, the result does not increase to seven). As there are eight possible targets that may be affected the DM rolls to see the particular targets and order in which they are affected: the result indicates orc #1, orc #3, orc #5, and then the troll (since three levels of spell effect were expended on the first three orcs, the last three levels are sucked up by the 6 hit die troll). The first three orcs are knocked unconscious (no save); the troll receives a save versus spells with a +4 bonus to resist being rendered senseless. If five orcs had been struck prior to the troll, the troll's save would have been at +8 (the maximum possible bonus). If the troll had been struck first, it would have received no saving throw; however, none of the orcs would have been affected. If the orcs had been traveling with a balrog instead of a troll, only orcs would have been affected by the spell as the balrog's HD exceeds six.

In reviewing the original version of the color spray spell, it appears to me that Aronson was offering up an "illusionist flavor" version of the classic magic-user spell sleep. It shares several characteristics with the spell including level (1st), range (24"), effect (knocking creatures unconscious), and the ability to impact multiple creatures without giving a saving throw. Also like sleep, color spray's effectiveness is limited by the targets' hit dice/level: sleep only affects multiple creatures at HD 3 or fewer (and only a single HD 4 target), while color spray affects creatures up to HD 6 at the cost of impacting far fewer "lesser" beings.

That is how I interpret the intention of the spell. Would you trade the ability to knock out more than six goblins or orcs for the chance to knock out a single minotaur or troll (or the possibility of TWO ogres?)? To me, that's a fair choice to offer to a player...though an Aronson illusionist of at least 9th level could have her cake and eat it, too (thanks to the option of choosing a 1st level magic-user this case, sleep...with a 4th level spell selection).

Still, as I wrote previously, I don't mind a little overlap in spell effect between two different types of caster, so long as it differs a bit in style and ties in with the class's overall "theme." A "sheet of bright conflicting colors" that renders a target unconscious "through confusion" is neat enough, though this gets nerfed with the 2E admonition that "blind or unseeing creatures are not affected by this spell."

[I lay the blame for this particular wonkiness (which is sure to lead to endless dispute about whether or not a creature with no a skeleton...can "see") at Gygax's interpretation of the spray as some sort of laser light show that has a blinding affect, rather than a confusion attack with a visual component]

*ahem* As I was saying...a little overlap, with modification/variation, is fine and dandy, but the designer never intended the spell to be something that could be used to take down a mindflayer or greater demon. Should it be able to blind or stun a large creature (like a roc or a tyrannosaurus)? Maybe? But when you can accomplish the same feat with the spell light at a greater duration and with additional utility, do you really need it?

If you want to go strictly By The Book...well, you can't, because the spell as written is nonsensical. Or, rather, you can read it literally, in which case the blinding and stunning abilities never take effect (because it never affects creatures of greater HD than the caster's level). And yet, with a literal BTB reading color spray provides a method for high level illusionists in AD&D to knock out exceptionally powerful creatures with a single first level spell. It almost becomes a "must have" spell for the attack oriented illusionist. Sure, creatures get a save versus spells...but that's still a 45% chance to take down a frost giant. And consider the crafting of a wand of color spray! As a first level spell, that's probably a very cheap outlay for an 11th level illusionist to manufacture in exchange for a huge amount of firepower.

[**EDIT** Ha! Just realized that under the 2nd edition rules, that same 11th level, "specialist wizard"...would be able to knock down 1D6 frost giants with each casting of color spray, with a 50% chance of success (due to the -1 save penalty assigned for specialization), AND she could memorize the spell five times a day! Just walk around the Glacial Rift of the Frost Giant Jarl...perhaps with an improved invisibility spell...knocking out 10+ hit die creatures left and right, recharging in her rope trick retreat when necessary. Talk about game breaking...]

Sorry folks but...much as it hurts...I think I'm going to have to modify this spell back to some semblance of what the original designer (Aronson) presented in Dragon magazine. My B/X mind would probably want to simplify it to something like:

Target 1D6 HD of creatures within range. Illusionist chooses creatures affected. No saving throw allowed unless a creature's level/HD exceeds the remaining number of HD affected by the spell (maximum of one creature may be assigned a "partial" number of HD). Affected creatures are knocked unconscious for 2D4 rounds. Range 6"+1" per level.

Something like that. But tarted up with language about clashing colors and whatnot.

All right, that's enough to chew on for a Thursday morning. Ha! Bet you didn't think I was going to pull a 1500 word post on color spray out of my hat, did you?
; )

Picture cropped or you'd see the mind flayer she's
targeting. Must be an 8th level illusionist.


  1. Completely off topic. Did you watch the Dragons game? Will you invest some energy in rooting for them?

    1. I had soccer match(es) to attend at the same time as the game, but we caught the “highlights” at the bar later that evening. My buddy Steve-O is trying to get me to go to the inaugural home game with him this weekend ($19 per ticket! You can’t even get into a Storm game for that).

      Here’s the thing: they suck. And their backup QB? He’s an ex-NFL player who was a converted 3rd string WR *before* being cut. I love me som Jimmy Zorn, but I don’t relish the idea of sitting on a metal bleacher in a February downpour (we’ve had record rainfall in Seattle this month...lots of flooding). Think I’d rather mess around with illusionist spells in my warm house.
      ; )

    2. *ahem* But I always root for the home team...even the Mariners.

    3. Keenan Reynolds is an amazing guy. He is why I considered them to begin with!

      But now I like them because they're the single team in the league who isn't completely generic. Love the unis and the name.

  2. Just to put in my vote, I'm enjoying your series on Illusionists. I've been thinking about how to make a version of the class for White Box FMAG, since they need to exist in the cosmology of the setting I'm currently running (the idea is that they are like fantasy Buddhists, kinda, in that they see the world as illusory, but unlike Buddhists they have learned how to manipulate the illusion to some extent, thus the "shadow" and "demi-shadow" stuff as they gain more of a deep understanding of the illusory nature of reality).

    Anyway, you're giving me some areas to look out for and to consider fixing in my own version.

  3. Let me second the appreciation for the Illusionist posts. It has been a while since I looked at this spell in it's original 1st ed printing. The newer editions do a great job of cleaning this up. So much so that I forgot how the original spell read.

    On an unrelated note. That illusionist picture was the art I "borrowed" as one of my first witch characters. It so inspired me that in my Pagan Witch book I included color spray and in my Pumpkin Spice witch book I included prismatic spray (and prismatic lightning) as witch spells.

    1. I was actually surprise to see Dan Proctor’s version of color spray (in the Advanced Edition Companion for LL) retains the same nonsensical language found in 1E...figured he would have cleaned that up.

      I think “prismatic lightning” sounds a lot cooler than “prismatic spray.” THAT I might need to steal for my updated spell list.
      ; )

    2. I released 100% OGC, so you can copy it and use it all you like. Rainbow colored lighting bolts. For the witch it's an 8th level spell, but I think an illusionist should be able to use it.

    3. I will check it out. It appears 4E had a spell with the same name (if not the same effect).

  4. Enjoying all your posts on this topic and almost all you've written previously.

    Colour spray is my favourite spell after phantasmal force as it just seems so magical over more mundane spell's such as sleep or fireball. It's just a pity BX doesn't have it.

    On the illusionist theme, I Think that you should consider spell's which affect the five senses. As well as audible glammer your illusionist needs something which creates illusionary odours or cancels out real ones.

    Finally I've always thought that an illusionist would benefit from a spell like hold person but which used colourful ribbons or wool to bind the victim to the spot.

    1. @ Jacob:

      Interesting thought. My first reaction to such a spell is that it is more an MU spell than illusionist is creating something ("colorful ribbons") and illusionists only seem to draw "substance" (when they do) from the demi-plane of shadow. there a demi-plane of color also?

      [that's a little too cutesy for my D&D...though it would explain a spell like chromatic orb, which I dislike]

      On the other hand, if the streamers were pure illusion (targets only SEEM to be bound...) then it's no more than a slight twist on the 3rd level spell paralyzation (itself a twist on the ubiquitous hold person spell)...and I'm just fine with that.

      Was there something like this in that Doctor Strange movie? I feel like I've seen some similar F/X somewhere.

    2. On the demi plane of colour, I've always viewed the plane of Pandemonium in AD&D as being a swirling kaleidoscope of colour and a cacophony of church bells and brass horns.

      I think that you're right about the Dr Strange angle as I'm a big fan of the comic (my 2nd favourite after Spidey).

      The streamers should of course be illusory - so no save unless you actively disbelieve.
      I think that you could consider mapping a stage illusionist tricks to spell effects.

    3. I do want to get away from the whole amorphous mechanic of “disbelief.” You either receive a saving throw for the magic or you don’t. People tend to trust their senses (after years of interacting with the world through them).

    4. yes, I think that you are right. You could just have the save vs spells, modified by wisdom bonus and rationalise it as 'something just didn't seem quite right".

    5. I do like your illusionist from 2015 and I've just re-read both parts. I think that what you said then holds well:
      "Illusion magic effects no real change in the mundane realm; all that occurs takes place in the minds of those that behold the illusions".

  5. I always just treated colorspray as a sort of super sleep spell that could effect creatures over 4HD (who get saves) but was limited (like most illusions) to the Illusionist maintaining its effect. A really cool laser show like at a good arena rock concert.

    For me that works with the idea of illusionist magic, much more powerful versions of the mind affecting spells that MUs get but nothing that really bends reality like passwall or fireball.

    1. I agree the illusionist spells show be an effect on an individual's or mass audience's semses but doesn't actually change reality.

  6. Don't be too hard on the 2E version - they were trying to compensate for the enormous flaws of the 1E version, and probably had no idea what the original was or where it came from. The biggest disservice that Gygax did to the spell, which you hardly even touched on, was reducing it to a 5' by 20' by 20' wedge. Since it's described as "fan-shaped," I assume the 5' is forward and the 20' are to the left and right; a point-blank spell rather than the 24 scale inches of the original! You'd be hard-pressed to fit more than three giants into that area, and if you've got three giants bearing down on your illusionist in melee then you've got big problems that Color Spray probably isn't going to fix no matter how good it is.

    Sleep, meanwhile, had a range of either 3" + 1"/level in 1E, or a flat 30 yards in the 2E version that got rid of scale inches. On top of that, Sleep affects a 15' radius* which is a much more favorable area of effect, and it lasts 5 rounds per caster level instead of a mere 2d4 rounds. I can definitely see the logic of "Color Spray sucks in every way compared to Sleep, we should do something to improve it." Maybe their improvement wasn't the perfect fix, but given that they retained the extremely limited range, I've never seen it abused in live play (the Baldur's Gate video games, now that's a different story)

    * The specification that all targets must be within 30' of each other is not precisely the same as a 30' diameter circle, but close enough