Friday, May 24, 2024

Illusionary Post

I am at the point now where I think I have probably spent more time working through the illusionist class than Gary Gygax ever did.

[oh, hello! What's this? Well, it's NOT the thing(s) I've been working on the last couple weeks. Sometimes, when you hit a wall writing...which I need to step sideways to get back on track. Another D&D post for the fun of it]

Once upon a time, I spent a whole LOT o' time writing about the, here and here and here. Good stuff (there's also this bit about color spray and gnomes...for the interested)). Worth a read, I suppose. But that was all waaay back before I took up the AD&D sword again; I was still futzing around with OD&D in those days, rather than simply playing the game. Tinkering. The silly mental exercises we do rather than, you know, doing the real work (i.e. world building and running). 

Here's a choice quote from my most recently blogged thoughts on the illusionist (post-return to AD&D):
As reworked by Gygax for the AD&D system, the spell list for the class is...poor. ...the class, unfortunately, needs a lot of "clean-up."

But how can I say that, when I haven't actually seen a player run and develop an illusionist character over a long-term campaign? How do I know that the printed in the PHB...wasn't reworked specifically due to extensive play-testing and is, in fact, the perfect representation of the class?

Don't really know HOW I'd run them now, because no one wants to play them in my campaign. I do have extensive spell list revisions stored somewhere on my laptop...I'd be tempted to break those out. But probably, I'd just start with the standard rules (if someone wanted to play an illusionist)....
In other words, I punted on the matter.  What I have found...over and over that with regard to Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, there is very little that needs to be changed to improve the game's overall effectiveness. It functions, and functions well, within the parameters of the rule system as designed.  We argue and critique and hypothesize and debate but when played with the intention of, you know, "playing D&D"...when played intentionally the game works just fine. Most of the adjustments I've made...or proposed...over the years either ended up falling away (i.e. I moved back to the Rules As Written), the case of B/X and OD&D games...were simply moving the system towards 1E. And now I play 1E. That's half the battle right there.

So then, why am I poking at the illusionist?  Because the class IS still a bit of a mess. 'But JB! You just said...' Yeah, yeah, I know what I just said. Give me a minute.

The most recent CAG podcast focused squarely on the 1st edition illusionist class: a very good discussion, and I found myself in agreement with nearly all of it. Oh, some of my stronger quibbles have to do with the phantasmal forces spell, and the implication that nerfing it (for example, not allowing it to do real, actual damage) is akin to restricting the fighter to only doing subdual damage...but regardless of which side you land upon that particular debate, the major point (we do not want to include a class no one wants to play) is valid, and is one requiring some examination.

So: let's talk about it. Is the illusionist a class worth having in the game? Is is a class worth playing?

As a concept, I think the class is fine...more than fine, actually. It fills a very interesting niche, much the same way that the druid fills a niche. The cleric is the high priest archetype (well, at the higher levels, of course. To start, the cleric is quite a bit farther down the food chain of the church hierarchy). But whether your cleric is modeled on the medieval Christian church or the ancient temples priests of Rome, regardless this is the pomp and ritual and institutionalized religion with all its sacred trappings, bells, and, candles. 

And the druid is not of that: they represent the more earthy, shamanic traditions, communing with Mother Earth, the animals, the base elements of nature. That is a great niche...with a great suite of special abilities!...that is somewhat like a cleric (hey, there's 'worship' going on!) but is very, very different. A nice change of pace.

The illusionist is to the magic-user what the druid is to the cleric...a very different type of spell-caster, one who has taken a different road when it comes to weaving magic. While the magic-user seeks to alter and change reality, bending it to his/her will, the illusionist says "to hell with reality! I can just bend the mind and the perception of what reality is."  Which is awesome. It's a different approach to using magic...but one that requires a certain type of player ingenuity to make function. It is a far more subtle type of character to play: yes, a player does have to think in terms of trickery to use their magic with effective results, because the illusionist doesn't have the same direct powers as the MU does with spells like burning hands or knock

Mostly, that is. As EOTB points out in the aforementioned podcast, one can play an illusionist as just a pocket magic-user, with a selection of simple, direct magics: spells like color spray, wall of fog, invisibility, blindness, etc. don't require any heavy mental lifting to use, no negotiation with the DM regarding an opponent's "disbelief" and possible saving throw. Unlike the various phantasm spells, these are simple, direct applications that...if a player chooses to stick to 'em...result in a character that appears (mostly) like any other magic-user, albeit one with a different bag of tricks.

To the main issue: it's not the concept that's the problem, it's the spells on the illusionist's list that fail to "punch their weight," especially as the illusionist climbs higher in level. Sure, it's nice to get phantasmal forces as a 1st level spell and maze as a 5th level, but other spells are simply lame in comparison to the magic's gained by an MU of similar x.p. total. And do I want every illusionist in the game to be pocketing the exact same selection of "most effective" spells? No, I do not.

SO, in order for the class to be viable for one's game...something VERY desirable to me, given the delightful way the class fills its particular niche...the illusionist must be viable over the long-term, i.e. not just for the first five or six levels of play. And that means correcting Gygax's corrections to the original (Pete Aronson) spell list.

[by the way: in preparation for this task, I did take the opportunity to review all the "new" illusionist spells presented in the Unearthed Arcana. In general, I hate them all with (perhaps) a single exception (phantom steed). To me, all these new spells are FILLER, most more-or-less duplicating other spell effects (both illusionist and otherwise) in a slightly more specific fashion. These could be good ideas for illusionists wanting to pursue magical research, but I certainly wouldn't make any of them "standard"]

Here, then, is how I'd curate the illusionist spells; adjustments have been made by comparing relative x.p. values at which a spell is gained compared to the spells granted to spell-users of the same x.p. total in other classes, with some caveats (illusions are, for example, easier to master). In many cases, defaulting back to the original Aronson spell lists were appropriate. I've also added one or two new spells of my own:

1st Level (14): audible glamer, change self, color spray, dancing lights, darkness, detect illusion, detect invisible, gaze reflection, hypnotism, light, mirror image, phantasmal image, ventriloquism, wall of fog

2nd Level (12): blindness, blur, deafness, detect magic, dispel illusion, fog, hypnotic pattern, improved phantasm, invisibility, magic mouth, misdirection, rope trick

3rd Level (12): color bomb*, continual darkness, continual light, dispel exhaustion, fear, hallucinatory terrain, illusionary script, invisibility 10' radius, non-detection, paralyzation, spectral force, suggestion

4th Level (10): confusion, dreams*, emotion, improved invisibility, massmorph, minor creation, phantasmal killer, phantom steed**, shadow door, shadow monsters

5th Level (10): chaos, demi-shadow monsters, major creation, phantoms*, programmed illusion, projected image, shadow jump***, shadow magic, summon shadows, veil

6th Level (8): conjure animals, demi-shadow magic, mass suggestion, maze, permanent illusion, prismatic spray, shades, true sight

7th Level (6): alter reality, astral spell, phantom prison****, prismatic wall, spectral life****, vision

*  Spell description can be found in Aronson's original manuscript
** As per Unearthed Arcana (I feel so dirty)
*** As transport via plants (druid spell) but with shadows.
**** Spells of my own design: the former is adapted from my (Holmes) spell mind warp, the latter is adapted from Aronson's create specters (the original version, not the version appearing in The Strategic Review)

In my campaign, illusionists begin with three spells, randomly determined, each of which may be cast once per day (so all illusionists know/cast a number of spells as listed in the PHB plus two first level spells). To determine starting spells, roll 1d12; however, an illusionist will only be taught audible glamer OR ventriloquism (not both) and will only be taught light OR darkness (not both) before starting their career. 

There are no reversible illusionist spells. Illusionists automatically read illusionist magic.


  1. Those seem like some pretty extensive alterations to the class. My own feeling is that people don't play it because the stat requirements keep it difficult to qualify for, much like the Monk or Paladin, though I suppose that the people whose house rule is that PCs automatically qualify for whatever class they want might argue against that. Anyway, I don't see the need to alter it so much.

    In my settings, usually, Illusionists are proponents of the philosophy of Denialism (along with Monks). They believe that the perceptible world is a veil of illusion that they can manipulate. This is in contrast to Magic-Users, who largely believe that they are manipulating the laws that govern the universe.

    I'm also a lot more sanguine with the UA spells and allow all but one of them. You will never get me to allow Chromatic Orb in any campaign of mine. I don't care what level your Illusionist is, nobody gets a Save or Die effect from a 1st level spell slot without serious downsides and other limitations. My feeling is that, in a world that allows spell research, people are going to research less effective and "filler" spells, and I am okay with that.

    1. When rolling characters, we use Method I from the DMG, but abide by the PHB stipulation that only characters with two 15+ ability scores are viable. Consequently, many PCs will have the min quals for an illusionist. FWIW: we’ve seen 3+ paladins and at least a couple wannabe bards (no monks, though). It’s not the ability requirements that are the issue.

      Does a curated spell list really amount to “extensive” alterations? I mean, everything else is pretty much the same….

    2. When you do that in a world with spell research, though, you are saying that these particular spells are impossible. Sure you can do that, but how do you justify it? As I said, in a world with spell research, some people are going to make the spells you consider to be "filler" or otherwise inferior. If a spell is at all possible and justifiable, someone should have made it, even if it's hidden in only one grimoire in the world or whatever. I guess a lot of it is that I'm just not seeing why you're doing this in the first place. Those spells aren't overpowered like 1E/2E Chromatic Orb.

      I could see a setting in which the listed spells, curated as a DM likes, are all of the spells that exist, but then you have other implications that go on too, like no research, no exotic effects (unless there's some special dispensation to allow them, like alternate magical theories or whatever that relegate them to NPC-only use). But in the baseline game as outlined in the DMG, the spell research rules imply something more open.

      In all of my 40+ years of play, I've only ever rolled up a Paladin once (and then discovered that I hate the class), though I probably could have played one any number of times since so many methods allow arranging ability scores as desired. But I also have never used the "two 15s" recommendation from the PH either. Maybe I should. Also, if you give me my choice of DMG methods, I'll take Method III, though Method II is also good. In my games, I allow any of the four, except that Method III only gets three rolls for each ability score. I've recently been considering allowing only Method IV, but that might also mean reverting a lot of other things like leader levels.

      I think that spell lists are a very big part of any class, especially as they affect what spells a character can start with, or what spells might appear on a random scroll or in a random book. That's a list of all of the potential powers a character might have, barring research. That's why an Illusionist is different from a Magic-User, after all. I'm just still not sure why Illusionists require such ridiculously high ability scores.

      Okay, I can see that I'm rambling a lot here. Sorry about that.

    3. No, I don't think you're rambling: you've got a lot to say on the subject, and I appreciate it.

      Method I (roll 4d6, take the best three and arrange as desired) is something I've done since grade school...with AD&D. When I was running B/X or (in 2019) OD&D, I played strictly by the book. The part about the two 15s (in the PHB) was pointed out to me in recent years, and I've since adapted it; saves a lot of re-rolling and (generally) makes everyone feel good about the character they're playing.

      RE: your first paragraph

      This seems to be specifically with regard to the UA spells, which I (mostly) dislike. I have no qualms about a player wishing to perform spell research to learn these spells. I rather like the demonology-themed magicks originally presented in module S4 ("binding," etc.) and think the occasional tome of weird magic (like Iggwilv's "Demonicon" or the the scroll of "crystalbrittle" in D1-2) are a nice little reward to stash in an adventure.

      But I don't want them as standard.

      Most of my curating of illusionist's spells has been done in AID of the class. My campaign ignores most of the UA material in general, so spell-casters are limited to what's in the PHB. Here I've added MORE spells to the illusionist roster, and made their power (I think) appropriate to the x.p. they've earned at given levels. Why I'm doing this is because many are WOEFULLY under-powered. Shadow door as a 5th level spell? Really? At 200,000 x.p. a magic-user can learn teleport, wall of iron, or magic jar. No way, man...leaving the list "as is" is lame. I want the illusionist on par with the other classes that mimic their style (i.e. the magic-user). The PHB gives a total of 65 illusionist spells, plus the option to learn 1st level MU spells. My curated list gives them 72 and boosts their "oomph." I think that helps the class.

    4. Re: Two 15s - You say it saves re-rolling. Does that mean that you just boost the top (or bottom) attributes to 15 if there aren't two? I'd expected the best way, or at least the most probably-by-the-book way, would be to simply allow the character to be re-rolled if there weren't two. Either way, I still think that the Illusionist shouldn't require such excessive attributes. I want to toggle it back to be more like the Assassin as compared to the Thief, at most, like maybe 12 Int and Dex.

      Re: UA Spells - I dunno, I appreciate anything that keeps me from having to do unnecessary work. That's what I feel like I'm paying for, and why I'm not so fond of a lot of for-money products that put the work back on me (and why I really appreciate Bryce "10footpole" Lynch and his reviews that are really explicit about what in an adventure helps at the table, and really castigates products with elements like 10-paragraph read-alouds in italic fonts or excessive useless backstory that interfere with that). That said, I get your position even if I don't share it. My feeling is that there should be a wide range of spells, as many as possible, because the world is bigger than the PCs. But I can understand confining the list to whatever is most common in the setting. Anyway, I still hate 1E/2E Chromatic Orb.

      Re: Curating - I think I need to go back and re-read your earlier posts on the subject. And this one, too. I think that I somehow got the impression (baselessly, no doubt) that your biggest change was eliminating the UA spells.

    5. Players roll a pool of six stats. If there aren't two scores of 15+, we scrap the entire pool and re-roll. If there ARE two scores of 15+, then them's the scores you get and the player makes the character.

      Average score on a 4d6, take three, is (roughly) 13. It is extremely rare that we've seen any character whose highest scores were "only" rare that I can't remember any. Maybe it's the dice we're using?

      RE UA

      I used the UA from 1985 (when it was first published) until 1990ish (when I stopped playing AD&D). I used ALL of it: the new classes, the comeliness, weapon spec, spells, treasure, social class, spell books, the new unarmed combat rules. Our games were absolutely filthy with thief acrobats, +5 quarterstaffs, Drow multi-classes, plate armor, and whips/lassos. "Chain lightning" was a staple of our group's wizard. Everyone was a specialist with the bow so they could get point blank shots. Etc., etc.

      None of it is necessary to the game...much of it detracts from the existing mechanics, or sets bad precedents, or adds needless padding and thoughtless (i.e. "not well thought out") systems to the game. And ALL of it is a distraction from the actual work of world building and system mastery that should be the focus of any 1E Dungeon Master. Nah. I don't need it (I'll write a bigger blog post on the the UA, one of these days).

      RE Curating

      Yeah, no. I eliminated the UA when I started playing 1E again (in 2020). I just decided I didn't want to bother with it (three years in, I still don't bother with it save for TWO exceptions) there weren't any UA illusionist spells to "eliminate." My curating was completely focused on the PHB spell lists.
      ; )

    6. Oh, there's so much in the UA that makes more work for the DM. Not what I'm paying for. No Weapon Specialization, no Barbarians, Cavaliers, or Thief-Acrobats, the new random tables for magic items aren't in use (I reserve the right to place selected items from those lists, though), none of the "underdark" "races" and few if any of the expanded "race" selections, no damned Comeliness.

  2. Switching the spell list is a fine fix. I'm not sure it makes me want to play an illusionist, but I'm also not sure how you could modify it enough to compel me.

    I have trust issues. And I think I said it on a previous posts but, a lot of playing a illusionist comes down to the DM and how they interpret effects and how powerful they want to make it. Does Audible Glamour reliably fool monsters and earn a benefit equal to other 1st level spells? Or does the DM constantly let monsters not be fooled?

    Last did you consider re skining spells like sleep or hold person to have a similar effects but caused by illusionary magic?

    1. I did not. Color spray and "color bomb" are the illusionist's version of sleep. Paralyzation is hold person. "Dreams" is their version of feeblemind. The illusionist already has analogous spells...and the shadow magic and demi-shadow magic provides some of the offensive MU-type firepower, with a bit of versatility.

      For my money, it's much so that I dropped the "first level MU spells" from the AD&D list (and the "2nd level MU spells" from Aronson's list). It's not necessary to give them MORE wizard spells...we want them to have their own unique inventory of magic. And, yet, it's okay to have overlap of spells (detect magic, invisibility, etc.) with other classes...especially when they're thematically appropriate...because a little redundancy with regard to utility spells is useful, and a precedent set down since Book 1 of the original LBBs.

  3. Of course, I've invented a number of illusionary spells, to fix this very problem. On the whole, the result has been very positive in game play, with my daughter having run an 8th level illusionist, whom she loves dearly.

    A point which she always makes, however, is that so many of the spells that exist in the original game require the enemy to have either an intelligence or, as she puts it, "eyeballs." Dumb creatures, or those without eyes, have considerable immunity to many of the illusionist's classic spells.

    1. Yeah, this was a heated conversation on the CAG discord the other day. Are (effectively) mindless creatures (golems, slimes, skeletons and zombies) affected by and fooled by illusions? In general, most grogs seemed intent on allowing illusions to function against such creatures, regardless of "mind" or "perceptive" capability...the main argument being that withOUT the ability to affect such creatures, the class becomes very ineffective in the D&D game, dis-incentivizing players from choosing it as a class. I am not of that opinion, but the opposition is well entrenched.

      [do folks worry that clerics become less effective in an adventure that doesn't feature undead? *sigh*]

  4. It's implicit in the AD&D PHB that illusionists have some sort of connection to the plane of shadow. We've included additional summoning spells to this effect.
    Additionally, in our house rules, we allow wisdom spell bonuses for all four 'pure spell-casters' (cleric, druid, mage, illusionist, but not paladin, ranger or bard). We additionally have an Intelligence bonus whereby intelligent spell users add a small amount of damage (+1 or +2 total, not per die) and a small saving through penalty (max -1), equivalent to the strength bonuses for damage and to hit. (NPCs get all of these too, of course) .
    Finally, we use Alexis' rules of no multiple spell memorization - except for illusionists. This counters the limited list somewhat.

    1. With regard to MUs, I follow the same stricture of only one spell copy per spell slot (and MUs only know the spells they know, rather than carrying huge spell-books that they peruse like an inventory). They are...or, rather, WERE...the only spell-caster with this stipulation.

      I now run illusionists the same way...and for much the same reasons as I do for MUs.

      But I CONSIDERED going your route (allowing the player to memorize multiple "phantasmal forces" for example). In the end, I decided that a character that wished to create more than one illusion in a day needs to learn the various phantasm spells that appear at different levels ("improved phantasm," "spectral forces," "programmed illusion," etc.). Spells like change self, mirror image, and hallucinatory terrain are still "illusions"...just illusions with a very specific purpose. And I want PC casters to be using those different spells for different purposes, expanding their creativity.

      We'll see how it goes (we have a new illusionist in my campaign...first one I've had at the table in DECADES).
      ; )