Sunday, February 16, 2020

Zenopus Part 2

Last night we had our third D&D session, still exploring the tunnels beneath the ruined tower of Zenopus; tonight, we had session four. It is "midwinter break" for my kids (a five day weekend, including the Presidents Day holiday tomorrow), so bedtime has been extended deep(er) into the night than usual...last night's game lasted until midnight, and tonight's would have as well if I hadn't made the children go to bed by 11pm.

But the details of these sessions will have to wait till a later post...I still haven't written about our second sojourn into the bowels of Portown's ancient catacombs. And I want to make sure I am chronicling these in sequential order.

While our first excursion presented the basic tropes of dungeon exploration (starting with character generation and equipment purchases) and featured several combats and treasure gathering, our second  (played out last Saturday, if I remember right) introduced concepts of role-playing to the children...that is, interacting in character with non-player characters.

[the first session only saw encounters with ghouls, skeletons, and giant rats, none of whom are great conversationalists]

First up was Brubo the Bearded (, Hooded) and his giant mastiff of a dog. The kids were quite surprised to find him guarding the ruins when they returned for more looting; apparently, they'd just missed him on their previous excursion. He informed them that ruins were off-limits by order of the Town Master, and that trespassing was expressly forbidden and punishable by law. Unable to bribe the old man, they decided to try to talk their way into acquiring some sort of permit from the local administration.

Unfortunately, none of their arguments found any traction with the Town Master (a rather busy man and annoyed by the antics of these would-be treasure hunters). Despite giving it a good shot (and possessing excellent charisma scores), the Master of Portown remained unmoved from his stance that the ruins were best left undisturbed.

[thinking about it today, I started to get the feeling he may have some knowledge about the pirate activity in the sea cliff caves; i.e. he may be in on the deal]

The adventurers were likewise undeterred from their quest (for more gold) and determined to find a sneaky way into the dungeon. Dissuading them from outright murder of a town constable, I reminded them of the elf's charm person spell and the beginnings of a plan were hatched. First, though, they went about hiring some more muscle...another daunting task after the resident mercenaries at the Green Dragon Inn were informed of the deaths of Flint and Match, the party's last two hires. However, a stout young lad (and Ot-nay Oo-tay Ight-bra) was willing to accompany the party for a share of the treasure and a kiss from the elf (her offer!); ecstatic, they garbed young Bryan in a chain hauberk and returned, re-provisioned, to the site of the old wizard demesnes.

"Sic Elf!"
Where they encountered Brubo (again) and his large, grumpy dog (whose name escapes me...Rupert? Maybe). Almost as soon as the bearded constable could issue a "Who goes there?" the elf began chanting her which point the wily old man immediately let loose his hound. Initiative was won by the beast who charged and savaged the elf, wrecking her spell; fortunately, Bryan and Daniel were able to dispatch it with efficiently murderous strokes. The old man turned and ran, bawling for help, and though Daniel attempted to shoot him down from behind, his arrow went wide the mark. Deciding it best not to wait around for the town guard to show up, the trio descended into darkness.

Thoughtless of mapping (again) the party wandered the dungeon in a roughly circular manner, at one point being trapped in a strange room with a metallic statue (an appeal to mama for help proved to be useful here in figuring out the means of egress), before finally stumbling into a barracks of goblins. The rowdy creatures were none-to-happy about trespassers in their home and attacked, only to be murdered quickly by our intrepid adventurers. The last goblin surrendered, but when proffered an offer of servitude to the slayers, decided death was preferable (a very poor reaction roll here) and attacked, actually managing to wound the burly fighter before being handed his head.

Battered, bloodied, and now loaded down with goblin treasure (a backpack of silver and a chest of copper), the party quickly (and luckily) located the stairs up and out of the ruins where they happily found neither Brubo, nor the town watch. Still several hours before dawn, they made their way through twisted and empty city streets only to be stopped by a patrol of three guardsmen (wandering monster roll). The dice were on the party's side (again) and these particular guards were NOT out hunting for the adventurers who had slain old Brubo's dog. Even so, the inevitable shake-down occurred when the party made the mistake of displaying the treasure they were carrying (lying that they had just come from a ship moored at the Portown docks). Negotiations with the watchmen proved successful, and the guards agreed to porter the crates to the Green Dragon Inn in exchange for a rather large "silence tax" that cut substantially into the group's profits. we're caught up (at least, till yesterday). The kids are really starting to get sucked into the game (as, you know, new D&D players tend to), so we'll probably end up playing tomorrow too. But I just can't keep my eyes open right now...I'll try to post the further adventures of Daniel the Brave and Maddee the Elf tomorrow.

[writing all this up, I can't help but be reminded of John Eric Holmes's stories of Boinger the Halfling and Zereth the Elf no doubt based, in part, on his own runnings of the game for his children. What a racket this D&D thing is...]

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!
: )

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.

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.
; )

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!

Thursday, February 6, 2020


The last few days have been markedly bad for my mood...although, I imagine regular readers must be wondering how much grumpier I can actually get.

Lots. And for multiple reasons...NONE of which are "D&D related."

But I am going to cut myself off right now from talking about those things. In fact, the original post I'd planned (and started writing a couple days ago) has been indefinitely shelved in the "draft" files rather than burden folks with...well, with all that. There's enough stuff to be depressed about in the world without me piling on.

Instead, I'll simply announce that I ran my two children through their first, real B/X adventure Tuesday afternoon (February 4th...happy birthday, Alice Cooper!). Well, kind of. While I used the B/X system, I decided to use the tower of Zenopus dungeon found in the back of the Holmes Basic rulebook (though converted for B/X). It's incredibly lightweight, and yet mostly sensible in design (at least as far as D&D's basic premise goes). Also, Holmes doesn't have the same "save or die" mentality that Moldvay does with regard to low-level traps and such.

Characters were rolled up via 4D6 in order (best three of six) and the kids rolled incredibly much so that I was checking their dice to make sure they were actual D6s. My son didn't get a single score under 14, while my daughter rolled 15+ in every ability but CON and DEX. Unfortunately, both were light on gold (70gp and 80gp, respectively, to start) and had to settle for less than optimal gear: Daniel the Brave entered the dungeon wearing chainmail and carrying a battleaxe, while Maddee the Elf was likewise armored but sporting a sword, shield, and hand axe (she also had the torches).

Maddee wanted to hire some "helpers" (at my suggestion and despite her brother's protest that they reduce the shares of any treasure found). With an excellent hiring roll (helped by her 16 charisma), they picked up two grizzled mercenaries named Flint and Match, both of whom were enthusiastically the elf anyway.

[Maddee chose charm person as her starting spell, by the way; however, she did not perform any magic in the dungeon, for reasons that will become readily apparent]


The party entered the ruins and descended the cracked staircase into the depths of the tower's cellar/excavation, almost immediately encountering a crossroads. This being the players' first foray into any type of fantasy trope (and, thus, having absolutely zero experience with dungeoneering) they decided to take the right hand path rather than following the standard "alway go left" advice. Neither were they interested in taking notes or making maps.

Eventually encountering an old and swollen crypt door, they decided to break it down and look for plunder. What they found was an ancient crypt of broken sarcophagi and two flesh-starved ghouls (#5 on my top ten list of most dangerous B/X monsters) pawing through the remains. Neither group was surprised and the PCs won initiative...unfortunately, two-handed weapons always strike last in combat and the claw-claw-bite of the smaller ghoul managed to hit and paralyze Daniel the Brave before he could make a single attack roll. The larger ghoul, while wounded, still managed to rip the throat out of Flint and immediately began feasting on his flesh.

The smaller ghoul turned its attention to last two warm-blooded creatures yelling at it, and launched a devastating attack at the eyepatch-wearing Match, paralyzing him as he had poor Daniel. However, Maddee's great strength served her well as she struck a terrific blow that killed the creature. Rather than take the easy way out and attempt to escape, she turned to the remaining monster and slew it with a strong blow from behind.

She then sat there for an hour waiting for her companions to regain their mobility. Fortunately, no wandering monsters appeared.

After ransacking the tomb for loot (and finding some ancient platinum pieces and several small gems), the remaining three adventurers continued their exploration, deleting torches and taking no note of their circuitous direction. They encountered a room piled high with garbage, rubbish, and broken furniture, and thought there might be some treasure worth the search. Instead they were assailed by four giant rats, one of which immediately killed poor Match. The beasts proved no match for Maddee and Daniel, however, and despite their ferocity (they made their morale roll) all died beneath the blows of the adventurers. Many old electrum coins were discovered in the refuse, as well as a silver dagger.

Continuing on the pair entered a dark and foreboding chamber, filled with dust and ancient cobwebs. Daniel immediately considered the ceiling, but found no lurking giant spiders, and the pair decided to pass through, weapons in hand. It was only after taking such bold action that a clattering was heard from the hidden side alcoves as four animated skeletons lurched into the torchlight. As luck would have it, the children's dice were hot, and they dispatched all four in a clatter of bones with only Maddee taking a wound...though the blow reduced her to one hit point remaining.

[for the record, this was not a "fudging" on my part; all dice rolls were made in the open]

No treasure was discovered in the chamber and the wounded and weary pair continued on, coming to yet another intersection. Feeling a breeze from the righthand passage, they chose that route and were rewarded by discovering they had somehow managed to find their way back to the entrance stair...still with a torch and a half remaining!

So deciding that discretion was the better part of valor, Daniel and Maddee removed themselves from the ruined tower of Zenopus and made their way back to the Green Dragon Inn (whence they started), paying a piece of platinum for a private room in which to recover their health. The dice revealed that they would be fully rested and healed after three days, and they are already making plans to return to the ruins.

[if I had let them, they would have happily played more that night...and every night since; however, I put my foot down due to our rather busy family schedule; still they continue to talk about the game and want to play it again, and soon]

I am using straight B/X rules at this point, as they are the easiest entry point for the game (my son just turned nine; my daughter turns six in April). I have adapted Alexis's system for combat XP, as I like the way it models the experience gained from battle, even battles that end in defeat or stalemate. I intend that the players encounter Brubo the Hooded the next time they venture into the ruins, and I am already beginning to adapt the another adventure for the PCs, should they survive Zenopus and wish to explore a new site.

The kids are very excited about their newfound wealth. I'm curious to see what new equipment they'll procure.
: )