Wednesday, February 12, 2020

Use Your Own Illusion

In the comments on my last illusionist post, Alexis wrote the following:

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.

As most of my readers know, I’m an admirer of Alexis’s work, especially his critical thinking with regard to the Dungeons & Dragons game. And after reading his comments (and knowing that he doesn’t usually make off-the-cuff slander without good reason) I emailed him for elaboration…because, while I want to examine the spells with my own critical eye, I don't mind using his perspective as a starting point. He was kind enough to oblige me with some specifics:
  • He dislikes the demi-shadow magic and demi-shadow monster series (the latter culminating in 6th level spell shades, originally named "shadow monsters III"). Aside from a segment or two of increased casting time, there are no changes to the spell save incremental increase of “real” damage/hit points, and this could be modeled fine with an incremental range based on caster level (similar to spells like magic missile, fireball, etc.) rather than wasting a whole separate spell slot. If you like scaling spells (not everyone does) you can’t really disagree with him…there just isn’t much distinction between the entries; I’d likewise put minor creation and major creation in this category. This being said, if you do change shadow monsters to a spell that scales up to “shades level” then - when an illusionist hits 12th level - you’re giving her the same (6th level) spell equivalent THREE times (the number of 4th level slots that level illusionist has), effectively tripling her power. Of course, this only matters in a By The Book campaign where a spell-caster can memorize the same spell more than once. 
[both Alexis…and myself…ascribe to the house rule of only allowing a single casting of a particular spell each day. For me, this adds more variety to the game, and requires spell-casters to use alternate methods of accomplishing tasks. But I understand that this notion isn’t everyone’s cup of tea]
  • He finds the 7th level spell “First Level Magic-User Spells” to be patently ridiculous and, again, I don’t disagree. However, this entry was changed substantially from Aronson’s original version. The class, as first presented in The Strategic Review, was allowed to learn a 1st level magic-user spells in lieu of a 4th level illusionist spell, and a 2nd level magic-user spell in lieu of a 5th level illusionist spell (5th level spells being the MAXIMUM of the original class, based on OD&D’s pre-Supplement spell-caster limits). I infer the designer’s original intent was to show the illusionist’s scale of power as a subclass of wizard…that a spell like magic-missile could only be gained upon reaching 8th level or levitate at 10th level. It’s not all that different from an assassin’s lesser thief skills or a paladin’s lesser turning abilities. And limiting the MU spells gained to 1st and 2nd level prevents the high level illusionist from learning “signature” magic-user spells like fireball and lightning bolt and fly: the flashy evocations that really give wizards their swagger. 1st and 2nd level utility spells (or a cheap burning hands)? Sure, why not. Unfortunately, the ramp up of power for the class (i.e. adding 6th and 7th level spells) renders the addition of this “MU option” in the middle of the lineup as silly. If an illusionist can learn 1st level MU spells as 4th level spells, shouldn’t they be able to learn 3rd level MU spells as 6th or 7th level spells (thus stepping on the wizard’s swag?)? Gygax’s solution: move 1st level MU spells to 7th level, the height of an illusionist’s power. Of course, a single 1st level spell of ANY class is a poor excuse for a 7th level spell…so Gygax’s edit is to allow the illusionist to take FOUR such spells for each selection of “1st level magic-user spells.” It’s a tepid patch and, frankly, one that causes additional headaches (such as when it comes to reading and writing spell scrolls). 
  • Alexis singles out several high level spells that don't appear to punch their weight when it comes to assigned level. These include veil (equivalent of a 4th level spell), shadow door (a needlessly fancy invisibility…and not even improved invisibility!), prismatic spray (a randomized/possibly ineffective attack spell at 7th level?!), vision (more or less equivalent to divination, the 4th level cleric spell), and programmed illusion (a contingency-style version of spectral forces). I happen to agree with his disapproval of the first three which all appear to be Gygax inventions: veil, shadow door, and prismatic spray do NOT appear in Aronson’s original manuscript and they are all very “weak sauce” spells attempting to fill out roster holes (Aronson wrote only five and six spells, respectively, for 6th and 7th level illusion magic, and Gygax is plugging holes left in the 5th level from the removal of create specter and 2nd level magic-user spell). It’s hard to quibble too much with vision when you consider that there was no divination spell at the time Aronson wrote it (the 2D6 reaction roll is a throwback to OD&D, for which the spell was originally written, and it’s a little strange/lazy that Gygax retained it after replacing all such rolls in AD&D with % base…see the aforementioned divination as an example), but given that divination DOES exist in AD&D, it’s probably best to make it more distinct (I don’t mind different spell-casters carrying different forms of overlapping magic). Programmed illusion does seem slightly underpowered for a 6th level spell (considering that permanent illusion is likewise persistent without the caster’s concentration and yet has no expiration date)...5th would have been more appropriate level for the spell. I’d also point out that originally the spell had a duration of 12 turns, not one round per level. 
[yes, I realize that prismatic spray is listed in the updated illusionist spell list…byline Peter Aronson…of Dragon magazine #1. However, the spell is given no description in the magazine, so who knows who added it? In Aronson’s LATER 1977 manuscript, it is NOT listed in the spell list of 7th level spells, despite the author having added multiple ADDITIONAL spells (color bomb, dreams, and phantoms) to both to the spell lists and the spell descriptions which, for me, is evidence that prismatic spray is not an Aronson invention. ALSO, please note that “prismatic wall” was the ORIGINAL name for prismatic sphere in Supplement I: Greyhawk. Aronson never intended these to be two separate spells: his original description was “as the MU spell.” It was only Gygax who distinguished these as two separate spells in the PHB]
  • The final spell singled out by Alexis is alter reality, which he finds to be poorly defined. Is it a limited wish or isn’t it? Is it real or an illusion? The ORIGINAL version was all of one sentence: “A form of limited wish, but the illusionist must first make a [sic] illusion of the change he wishes to cause.” It is not stated HOW the illusionist “makes the illusion;” Aronson did not specify a particular spell that needed to be cast. Still, I think it’s a fair assumption to make alter reality a “two-parter” of a spell in order to make it a more limited limited wish. Why? Because despite being a 7th level spell, an illusionist can pick it up with a mere 1,100,001 experience points, the equivalent of a 12th level magic-user...whereas a wizard requires over 1.5 million experience to perform the same magic. I rather like the idea that the illusionist first imagines and creates her (illusion of) reality…and only afterward decides whether or not to expend the spell power (and take the three years of aging!) necessary to assign it permanence. For me, it flavors a spell that would otherwise be a duplicate of limited wish (similar to 3E’s clerical spell miracle). As I said above, I'm not against spell-casters "doubling up" on spells of similar long as they're thematically appropriate and possess their own particular style. 
[all that being 5th level illusionist spell "dream" (found in Unearthed Arcana and NOT to be confused with Aronson's - unpublished - spell dreams) is terrible as a "far more limited" version of limited wish. A limited limited wish? How about a limited limited limited wish at 3rd level? that IS lazy spell design...]

Part 1 of many...probably
Ah well. The point of all this is that there's quite a bit of work to be done my opinion...maybe not an impossible (or even excessive) amount. Nathan Irving published a 34 page book called The Basic Illusionist for the Swords & Wizardry retroclone and, while it doesn't quite hit the mark for me, it offers a few interesting ideas on the class...probably more than Unearthed Arcana, whose additional illusionist spells (with a handful of exceptions) just doesn't prime my pump.  I doubt I'd put out anything as ambitious as Irving's book, but after taking THIS much time with the class I feel obliged to write up something. At least a better spell list.

But I think that will need to wait for the next post. I've got a whole spreadsheet diagramming illusionist spells of every stripe, where (and by whom) each was introduced, how they migrated, what they cross-reference with regard to magic-user spells (both by level and x.p. value necessary for casting). One thing really stands out about the illusionist when you start examining her: she really goes up in level fast, compared to the magic-user. Her total number of spells by experience point isn't so much different (and factors in favor of the MU at high levels...of course), but the sheer speed at which she gains access to high level magic is pretty amazing. An illusionist gains access to 7th level spells 700,000 x.p. before a cleric; you could run a second illusionist to 12th level with that amount of experience points! Wow.

Maybe that's why I like the class so much...sheer power potential. Now I just need to get the spells right.
; )

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