Friday, February 7, 2020

My Illusionist

My children have been eager to play D&D again since Tuesday's foray into the ruins of Tower Zenopus. Especially my boy, who just really wants to talk about D&D now. Last night, he wanted to pump me for info on my past experiences: Did I like DMing more than playing? What had I done more of? What was my favorite character class to play? What was the character class I had played the most over the years? What was the character class that I'd played the best? If I could play any class, which would I want to play?

All fairly tough questions, and not ones for which I could rattle off simple or straightforward answers...though I tried in at least one (or three) cases. As to which character class I would like to play, right now at this moment, I almost said ranger (still thinking of my human bugbear) but found the word illusionist coming out of my mouth instead. Which goes to show I'm still not over my fascination with this class as I originally posted waaaay back in 2010. I'm sure this particular fire has been kept alive by things like my adaptation of the class for Holmes Basic and the recent discussions over at Anthony Huso's Blue Bard blog.

Mind Bending
So waking up around 3am last night and being stuck in a mental cycle of considering the class (and not being able to sleep) I got up and started doing some research on the AD&D illusionist because, as I recall, every time I pull out my old PHB I find myself somewhat sputtery and irritated by the character as of the reasons I ended up going back to The Strategic Review for my Holmes version. "Research," in this case, consisted of cross-referencing the PHB information with Peter Aronson's original article (and its follow-up in Dragon #1), Grodog's interview questions (as referenced in the comments of Huso's blog post), and this article from Jon Peterson on the class's development, before finally going back to the PHB with a fine-toothed comb...just to see how (and if) Gygax had really "botched up the class" when rewriting it for AD&D.

Spoiler alert to that last bit: yes and no.

We'll come back to that in a second. First, though, let's consider the problem that leads to all problems with the illusionist class: the idea, the concept that the spell phantasmal force can create real, permanent effects...specifically DAMAGE...on individuals that believe the illusion.

Let's stop for a moment. Have you ever had a dream where you were killed? Like a falling dream where you actually hit the ground? Or that you were stabbed in the heart? Or that you were shot in the face with a gun? I have...not many, but several times: probably four or five in my life. I can count them because they were both intense and memorable. And they all resulted in the same thing: I woke up. Getting shot in the face by a ski-masked gunman is probably the most memorable (I've had that one a couple times)...the guy has me dead to rights, I know I'm dead, I feel the explosion of the bullet hitting me in the face, and then I am suddenly awake. 'Oh, it was just a dream...thank God!'

I do not have a heart attack (though my pulse is often racing). I do not go into shock or brain death. I do not feel "phantom pain." It's simply over and I realize the whole scene was nothing but an illusion.

That's what the original writers of the spell didn't realize (or didn't consider): a system shock roll for sudden aging or a physical transformation makes sense because it is based on an actual warping of one's physical body. People don't die of fright, except in certain types of horror fiction (and film based on the same). Or rather, they can...if they are one of the few people in the world that suffer from cardiomyopathy syndrome AND are in a weakened condition anyway (like old folks). But I think it's safe to assume that most player characters (and most D&D monsters) are made of sterner stuff than that.

The origin of that stupid first sentence in the phantasmal force description can be traced back to OD&D ("Damage caused to viewers of a Phantasmal Force will be real if the illusion is believed to be real.") which comes from the spell's original application in the Chainmail war game as a spell that summons an illusionary unit to fight for the caster. The Chainmail version makes no mention of believing/disbelieving or real damage or anything...although I can see how on the field of battle a unit of soldiers in close formation fighting illusionary warriors might accidentally stab their buddies. But consider this: a unit of (illusionary) archers appears on the horizon and launch a massive volley of arrows high into the air, darkening the sky. The (real) soldiers targeted, seeing DEATH coming, squeeze their eyes shut, crouch down and raise their shields over their heads, waiting for the inevitable and...and...and nothing happens. They open their eyes and look around at their fellows, perhaps with phantasmal arrows sticking out of shields (and bodies!) and stand amazed at the magic of such illusions.

But they don't die. 

NOW this is not to say that a clever illusionist cannot cause harm or death with the phantasmal force illusionary bridge over a chasm, for example, will drop the first person that attempts to step foot on it. But the arrows and soldiers and monsters conjured by the spell are no more than ghosts or wispy spirits, providing entertainment perhaps, but disappearing when touched or contacted. Certainly it makes a fine spell for a 1st level illusionist.

But the high level illusionist is a powerful individual that can actually bend reality to conform to her visions, creating shadow monsters and shadow magics that DO cause true damage, making minor and major creations possessing substance (though temporary), and culminating in her ability to alter reality itself, bending it to her will alone. The wizard's spell wish is more powerful, yes...but note that is a conjuration spell: the magic-user is contacting other dimensions/powers to grant her the boon she craves. The illusionist simply imagines, and then molds reality to her own truth.

[not without cost, of course: casting alter reality ages the illusionist three years and requires a roll for system shock as usual. Such bending of physics should never be undertaken lightly!]

SO...having established a new baseline for what phantasmal force is and what it can do and seeing that we've got a good range between that (as a first level spell) and alter reality (at the highest end of illusionist magic), I can come back to addressing my issues with Gygax's AD&D, which is this: Why are some illusionist spells placed at the wrong level for such a specialist class? For example: why is ventriloquism a 2nd level spell for an illusionist when it is an incredibly basic illusion (1st level for magic-users!) and the illusionist has already mastered this kind of thing (phantasmal force at 1st level!)? Why can the illusionist cast a 3rd level (magic-user's) image illusion (like phantasmal force) at first level but requires a 2nd level spell slot to cast a weaker image illusion, like mirror image? That doesn't make sense to me at all.

And it didn't to the designer, either. The Strategic Review article that published Aronson's illusionist class came out after the original Greyhawk supplement, but was written BEFORE said supplement, and thus did not take into account the new magic-user illusion spells, nor the higher level magics available for spell-casters. HOWEVER, the illusionist that appeared in Dragon magazine #1 (also written by Aronson) DID take these into account and updated the class to reflect the changes. And lookee here what we have: mirror image and ventriloquism at first level, rope trick and dispel illusion at second level, dispel exhaustion and phantasmal killer (the REAL "mind shock" illusion and the beginning of "mental-illusions-having-impact-on-reality" spells) at third level, etc. So what the heck changed? Why did Gygax...whose list of illusion spells almost exactly conforms to Aronson's...decide to wreck what was appropriately scaled by the original author?

One reason, as far as I can tell: symmetry. The new additions of dancing lights and audible glamer...both perfectly appropriate as 1st level spells for an illusionist...were added to the list. As a result, two spells (ventriloquism and mirror image) were BUMPED in order to keep the number of illusionist spells capped at twelve per level...with a corresponding cascade effect on later entries. irritating.

Hey, I understand that it's nice to be able to roll a D12 and get your random spells as needed. But you know what? Not at the sake of screwing up the scale (for a wizard, audible glamer is a 2nd level spell and ventriloquism is 1st does it make ANY SENSE AT ALL to reverse these for an illusionist?!!!). It's not like you didn't boost the number up to 16 per with the Unearthed Arcana anyway, dude.

But you know what you can do to keep your probability equal (while having 14 spells at 1st level)? Roll a D20 to determine the random spell and roll again if the number comes up a 15-20. OR you could simply leave the new spells (audible glamer and dancing lights) off the list of starting illusionist spells (as you did with Tenser's floating disk and Nystul's magic aura for magic-users). OR you could do this:

Roll D12 three times to determine starting spells
1. Audible Glamer or Ventriloquism (illusionist's choice)
2. Change Self
3. Color Spray
4. Dancing Lights
5. Detect Illusion
6. Detect Invisibility
7.  Gaze Reflection
8. Hypnotism
9. Light or Darkness (illusionist's choice)
10. Mirror Image
11. Phantasmal Force
12. Wall of Fog

See how easy that is? So easy, in fact, that I shall be using this method for all future illusionists in my campaigns. Right after I reset all the illusionist spells to their proper places in the level hierarchy (I will also be adding Aronson's spells color bomb, dreams, and phantoms...all of which are slightly quirky, yet appropriate in terms of theme and scale to his concept of the character class; will probably not add back create specters).

But all that is (perhaps) a post for later. Right now, I've got to get to my housework. Cheers!


  1. I love the illusionist. In concept.

    I don't know how much experience you've had running the class, or playing it; I've always included the option in my games going back to 1980 and so I have LOTS and LOTS. As written, the illusionist class is an unmitigated disaster. Nothing makes sense about the phantasmal force spell; it is either too weak or too powerful, depending on how the DM chooses to play it; and most players are so baffled by the expectation to invent an illusion that they usually just repeat the same illusions over and over.

    Above 4th level, the illusionist spells as written in the AD&D Players Handbook are ... garbage. Utter trash. They lack proper spell descriptions, with usually less than a hundred words to describe a spell that absolutely cannot be inherently understood. Clearly, the publishers lacked space or any real content they could produce. As such, once an illusionist hits 9th level, we're pretty much in the land of "just make stuff up." It is crazy clown time, I can tell you.

    Steadily, over time, I've carefully worked to fix the illusionist ~ I wish I could say I've done it, but it requires the invention of a proper list of 5th to 7th level spells and it hasn't been on my radar in some time. I once had such a list, but they're lost and I do think I could do better now than 20 years ago.

    As written, the class is unplayable.

    1. Alexis, your input (and experience) is, as always, greatly appreciated by Yours Truly.

      I have NOT had much experience playing or running the class...personally, I don’t get a chance to PLAY all that much, and no one I run seems interested in the feels like an intimidating class for most people due to A) the inherent weaknesses akin to all wizards coupled with B) a requirement for more imagination than the rather straightforward wizard spell repertoire. As you said, I can only imagine players getting into endless repeats or defaulting to more standard “attack” spells like Color Spray and Blur, etc.

      Your issue with high level spells is interesting (and is the first time I’ve seen this particular gripe). My guess...without looking at them at the moment...would be that they were cribbed from Aronson’s original text, which was written for OD&D in that edition’s normal pithy style, and that elaboration was deemed unnecessary due to a lack of actual play testing.

      Still, I think spells like programmed illusion and improved phantasmal force APPEAR to be fine extrapolations on the illusionist spell list...assuming you first work out the limitations of the Phantasmal Force.

      You may be right (that the class is unplayable as written), but I want to spend a little time on it. Maybe write a scenario using an NPC that has access to those higher level spells. Something.

  2. Regarding phantasmal force, that's why I greatly prefer the B/X version. None of this real damage if you believe the illusion stuff. Victims fall unconscious at worst. This makes the spell much simpler to adjudicate and reason about.

    1. I am sure I am biased in part on my own experience with B/X.

      Give me the “mind manipulation equals death” at 3rd level (with the Phantasmal Killer spell) instead...and only for TRUE illusion specialists.

  3. It's impossible be 100% sure, but based on how phantasmal force is originally presented in Chainmail, where it literally calls forth an illusory force of men, and Gygax's own literary taste, I believe the idea behind it being able to cause death is taken out of "Thuvia, Maid of Mars", with the Lothar calling on illusions in battle.

    Whether or not "fatal" illusions make logical sense is of course a different matter, but genre emulation seems to be the conceptual basis behind the original spell. Also, from a design standpoint, the "possible fatal" nature of the spell also makes a little more sense in its placement in the OD&D spell list. But with the addition of other illusions spells, and a bunch of other magics, all operating on different ideas of internal balance, things really start to get messy (much as 3E splatbooks took to the absolute extreme). Then you strap on the illusionist class with entirely different spell rankings and it only becomes messier.

    1. I have read that elsewhere, too (about Thuvia). Sometimes I enjoy genre emulation, but this isn’t one of those times.

      Personally, I think Aronson’s original conception of the class is LESS messy than the way it’s presented in the 1E PHB...that, of course, is what I aim to get back to.
      ; )

  4. I'm wondering if the Nerdarchists read this blog. They just did a video about all the problems of player/DM negotiation with illusion spells (in 5E, but as they do with reference to older editions):