Friday, February 14, 2020

Phantasmal Image

One of the reasons I started a Patreon for this blog was to have money to subscribe to other folks' Patreon projects...and my devious plan has worked out quite well (thank you to all my supporters!). One of the subscriptions I'm funding at the moment is Alexis Smolensk's "The Higher Path" blog, and I've found his thoughts well worth the (small) price of admission. Yesterday, he wrote up several of his own thoughts on illusionist spells, riffing a bit on my own recent posts. Since I know not all of my readers subscribe to Alexis's stuff, I want to excerpt from his post, as it's pertinent to today's posting:
Two fundamental problems surrounding the existence of illusion in early D&D (which has more or less continued to poison the design) would be the dual fuzzy mechanics of "create your own illusion" and "disbelief." I can recall, all the way back to high school, the habit of players to immediately rush to, "I create a huge fire-breathing dragon with my 1st level illusionist spell, phantasmal force; do they disbelieve?"  
In other people's worlds, this was treated first by a DM's roll, to see if they disbelieve; then, a roll to see if the disbelief was successful. Statistically, this gives two chances for the huge dragon to be successful. If half the victims believe, and then half the disbelievers fail, then the dragon kills 3/4 of the onlookers. I must tell you, the way the rules are written in the DMG and Players' Handbook, this interpretation is "reasonable." Why wouldn't the 1st level illusionist create a fire breathing dragon? Why would you create anything else?  
In my world, disbelief was automatic. I would argue that even if we lived in a world with real fire breathing dragons, the sudden appearance of one, including one that was REAL, would be utter disbelief. We as human beings are built that way...  
And for this, I was shouted at and called vicious names for being unreasonable. To my mind, to make the spell work ~ to make any of the illusions work ~ they had to lack any possibility of being unlikely or impossible. Like, say, the illusion of me throwing a bag of gold coins towards the enemy, to draw them out to where they could be shot through with arrows by the party's fighters. Or creating an apparent ledge for the enemy to back onto, or a rope bridge crossing a river ... which could be fallen through, killing the victim.  
But when I asked my players to invent believable illusions, I discovered as a DM that players are not very creative in this way. They can only see dragons....
I can empathize with his point of view...I've had similar experiences myself. Smolensk's solution has been to remove phantasmal force from his game and replace it with more specific, practical, and easily adjudicated spells like phantasmal feature and phantasmal figure...this I find quite reasonable, though I might quibble over the details.

One of the problems with the original phantasmal force is that it tries to do too many things with a single spell. Fans of fantasy fiction, as I'd guess the vast majority of D&D players are, have experienced the concept of illusions in a myriad of different ways, and have formulated an idea of what an illusionist is based on those experiences. But in fiction (regardless of type) illusions are used like any other tool of the fiction creator: to further plot, to explore character, and/or (in the case of a visual medium like comics and film) to "astound and amaze."

Dungeons & Dragons isn't's a game, something meant to be experienced. And illusions, like any other spell or aspect of character ability, must have practical applications. However, because our touchstone for understanding is solely based on fiction, it is a challenge for most of us to employ illusions. Most of us, I believe, are used to using methods other than deception to achieve our ends.

[that is to say, other aspects of D&D have analogies to real world experience. We have used "protective gear" in real life...whether it be a hard hat, seatbelt, or sports equipment...and understand how armor can be used to save our lives. Some of us have had actual fights, but all of us have used tools in some application of force to accomplish our objectives, be it pounding a nail or cutting a steak. We understand that the real world...can be accomplished only by those who are fortunate to have the means (money and/or training) to do so, but we can all observe birds taking wing to fly from one tree branch to a telephone wire, and can vividly imagine ourselves doing the same with a magic carpet or broom. And most of us have experienced some sort of invisibility...if only the kind that comes from being anonymous in a crowd of strangers at a movie theater or event...and can visualize how one might cross a room unnoticed, so long as we don't boldly interact with the individuals present]

Phantasmal force exists to allow the model a particular type of magic found in ICONIC form of magic and, perhaps, the most basic form. In some fictions, ALL magic is illusional: it creates nothing real, creates no lasting change, affects nothing but tricking the minds and senses of its observers. This, of course, is not the case with the Dungeons & Dragons game, where most magic is very, very real to the characters: fireballs and healings and transformations (from polymorph to petrification). And yet we include illusions in the game because they ARE iconic to the fantasy genre, and D&D is nothing if not a kitchen sink approach to fantasy, welcoming every bit of myth, legend, pulp novel, and celluloid. We see the creation of illusions in film and literature for specific purposes and think it should be included in the game (it's fantasy after all) and we create a catchall spell that will create "vivid illusions of nearly anything the user envisions."

[that's Gygax's quote, BTW, from OD&D, volume 1]

Why shouldn't the caster create the biggest, baddest monster she can think of? Why shouldn't she create an illusion of fire raining from the heavens, or of the earth cracking open beneath her opponent's feet, or of the lead orc tripping a trap that drops a thousand tons of stone on him and his compatriots? Why shouldn't an illusionist push the boundaries of whatever is the most practical application of the spell? This isn't's a game. Players are trying to use their tools in an expedient manner.

And rather than take a step back and rethink things, the designers allow the spell to stand as written (as a catchall for anything displayed in fiction) and instead attempt to rein it in with limitations: the illusion must fit within an area. The illusion cannot be struck in combat. The illusion must be believed. Etc. Or even more complex, we start implementing distinctions like "figments" versus "phantasms," re-defining how an illusion operates on targets INSTEAD OF simply re-defining the limits of what can be created.

In my opinion, Phantasmal force is too broad of a spell and, thus, too prone to abuse and (as a result) argument and distraction from the game.

Look at audible an auditory illusion it produces a single type of sound, whose maximum volume is determined by the caster's level of experience. Unlike phantasmal force, it does not require concentration...but then the noises are indistinct (you can create the sound of shouting or talking, but no actual words, just hubbub). For me, this gives some good parameters for a rewrite of the spell: I'd call it phantasmal image.

Phantasmal image produces a static, visual illusion. The volume of illusion produced is determined by caster level, topping out (like audible glamer) around "dragon size." Because it is a specific visual image conceived by the caster, the illusion remains in existence only so long as the caster concentrates. Deliberately touching the image immediately causes the spell to vanish; the image may be used to mask an existing, real feature.

Examples of the phantasmal image could include: a chest of gold, a corpse, a bridge over a chasm, an arrow stuck in a (real) tree attached to a note, a wall blocking an open corridor, or a crack or pit in the floor. It could mask an existing bridge (making it appear dilapidated, broken, or missing), it can make a door simply seem to be continuous wall, or can make a chest of treasure appear to be empty (note that unlike the 2nd level invisibility spell, such "deleting" of features only effects static targets, and are dispelled by touch or when a caster ceases concentration).  Phantasmal image cannot be used to create dynamic (i.e. moving) images: no attacking mobs, no flying dragons, no rain of arrows, no crackling bonfires, etc.

It is my opinion that this defining of the limits of the spell actually provides MORE possible uses for such magic. And because of its limitations (the need to be static, dispelling by touch, etc.) there is no need to muck around with saving throws or issues of "disbelief:" the spell creates a phantom image that disappears if someone interacts with it. Player characters that disbelieve a pool of green slime are free to put their foot in it and test their theory...more cautious individuals might simply look for another way around the obstacle.

All right, more to come. Have a happy Valentine's Day, people. Don't say I don't love you all!
: )


  1. That should read "1/4" not "3/4". Sometimes my fingers type numbers my brain has not invented.

    1. That’s still quite a few people.

      If an illusionist creates a phantasm of a medusa, does she risk turning herself to stone? Obviously she would automatically disbelieve, but (under the rules as written) would she be required to make a save versus spells, in addition, in order to prevent being subject to a gaze attack from her own creation?

      Just a random thought....