Friday, January 19, 2024

(Rant) Illusion Magic Sucks

Let's be honest, illusion magic sucks. In pretty much every game or franchise. Normally, tabletop games have an advantage over video games in the realm of creativity and player-agency, but with Illusion magic I feel the exception. At the very least, in a video game, you can see the outcome of casting an illusion spell. Watching the AI glitch out and jankily attack other entities in the world from your Rage spell, The decoy that every enemy suddenly turns to attacks, the 50% increased damage taken by the mirror image- hinting it is too squishy to be the real opponent. Both player facing and NPC-facing- Illusion spells are a rare but welcome inclusion, as they are the only real way to trick or interact with hostile NPCs beyond bartering or speech systems inherit to games that have them.

However, Illusion magic in tabletop games suck. I don't think I've ever played a full campaign with an Illusionist in the party, or played one myself. Don't get me wrong, some illusion spells are cool. The classic mirror image or blur spell, invisibility, silence (especially if Silence upon a spell caster is a literal Silence, so they can't even scream out for help? So cool.) But the entire category of Illusion spells or magic? The entire School of Illusion magic? It's so bad.

Typically when people talk about Illusion magic, they mean one of two things. In the more video-gamified sphere, it would probably be any spell that disguises, changes, or magically alters the appearance of a character and/or effecting the minds of characters in a game in some way for an effect. The other classic example being Sleep or Charm- but once again- these aren't actually Illusion spells- at least not in D&D. So instead, Illusions are relegated to fake phenomena. Things like holograms (images without weight or substance), fake sounds, or glamours that disguise. Some more enterprising games do with faking entire sensations- painful false wounds that scale all over the body or illusionry walls of flame that require a morale check to jump through. These uses of the spell all share the same common issue- it's always a trick. That's the point of illusions. The issue here is that they aren't interesting. Once you've beat on Illusion, you've beat them all. The illusion is always the same; a Will check, a Wisdom roll, a round to concentrate to will the illusion away; it's painfully boring. An actual wall of flame is interesting. You can toast marshmallows on it, or dose yourself in water to take less damage to jump through, or try to make a bridge over it made of something that won't burn, or any other number of things that a real obstacle would need to overcome. Illusions don't have that benefit. They are simply a trick- you describe what the players see, and then they figure out its fake.

Codifing and making types of illusions into spells is also terrible. Illusions, being fake things, also have some of the weakest and least well-defined spell rules. Usually, you can just make an illusion of anything with an illusion spell, with some arbitrary restriction (it can't make noise, it can only be so big, etc.) making it honestly less creative then other spells that might breed ingenuity with their limitation. Be honest with yourself; when has anyone ever used an illusion other then for intimidation, or pretend to be someone to get past a locked door with one of those little slides that the guards can peek through? I can't think of almost any. There are some creative exceptions to this of course- a line of illusory customers to make your business seem booming and scaring away your rivals- only to be undone when they discover none of them moving after a long period of time. This is part of the fun of tabletop games, and while Illusion magic can do that, it's a one trick pony. It ONLY does that, and nothing else.

The other problem with Illusion is it is down to DM fiat on how effective it is. If an NPC believes something is real or fake is based on out-of-character knowledge. How common is Illusion magic in the world? If the NPCs take whatever they see at 100% face value, then Illusion magic is too strong, as you could summon a wounded orc outside the camp and they'll open the gates for you every time. If you make enemies too smart, too skeptical, then it does literally nothing. I only see it as a way to start arguments at the table; "You know, people in this world KNOW that illusions exist, right? Nobody is going to believe your ragtag team of level 5 dudes can summon a dragon if we don't give them all their stuff." Then comes the counter- "b-but I've specalized my character to cast illusion magic! That's not fair". This comes the second part- in a fantasy world- who the FUCK wants to be an Illusionist? It sounds cool on paper, but it's terrible in principle. Nothing an illusionist does has any weight- nobody would take them seriously. Once again, nobody would actually seek out an Illusionist for anything. Maybe to hide a castle or trick an enemy- but once again- that's something a mundane, non-magical group of Rogues and thieves can do and would arguably be more interesting. The only "good" Illusionist would be one who disguises themself as any other Wizard and pretends to cast other spells, only tricking people into thinking they are powerful in some other way when they are not. It feels like you're taking extra steps to get the same result. If tricking someone should be easy- it lacks value.

It's also a big problem with scope and power-balance-dynamics in a campaign or world. If Illusion magic is so strong that it can create living illusions that can interact with a world, or do things like trick you into thinking you're leaving an area but really just walking in a circle over and over- then it's way too powerful. (Not even getting into spells like "Shadow Conjuration" which make "Quasi-Real" illusions- at this point it's basically just a budget Conjuration spell.) Essentially equal to mind control, another form of magic that's equally as game-world breaking in its potential power- both for the players and for the DM's own worldbuilding and campaign design. If you can cast a spell to make anyone stab their brother thinking it's a monster- everyone would be investing all their resources into countering and stopping that kind of magic- making it a moot point. If you don't allow illusions to be flexible or have some minor interactivity- then they're too weak. You could counter any illusion by just carrying around a bag of stones and throwing them at it- if the rock doesn't bounce off or hurt them, it's fake. The entire concept of a "Disbelieve" action is just so terrible. I hate this concept. If you're going to prove something isn't real, you need to do it through something that interfaces with the game world. It's the same problem with perception checks- it's a binary yes or no with the DM largely determining how bad it really is to succeed or fail. If you set up a programmed illusion to make a spooky noise or create the image of a monster to scare people from looting your cave away- it will either work or it won't. They'll either run away and never try to enter, or figure out it's fake and ignore it- no real counterplay other then a random chance or check on a character sheet.

However, with all that said, that doesn't mean Illusions can't have a place in fantasy or your fantasy games. Illusions can be extremely cool. But once again, it's specific to how it works and its iteration, not necessarily a player-facing power or feature. Glamors that hide characters true forms are classic, as are mirrors showing the worst side of you in its reflection. But once again, these feel like they should be less like spells and more like aspects or parts of a world that could potentially be created- very rare magic items that can steal people's voices or masks that change your own face while you wear them are cool. One could apply this logic to any magical phenomena, but Illusion is especially enhanced by this touch because it becomes a secondary element to magic. Not a spell or school of magic, but a side activity, almost like Alchemy or something similar- a specialized skill that exists in the world as rare craft- something that few would admit to knowing or trading in. Consider this; would you rather pretend to summon a dragon with an illusion spell that creates one, or dress up your PCs in a multi-person costume and hoist them up with a winch? The fun of tricking people is in the trick; not in ticking off a box on your spell slots. 

Now to be fair- having a suite of different small magical tools used to trick people does make it much easier, and fantasy settings have the benefit of having more "tricks" then real life illusionists do. Not needing to hire a bunch of random townspeople to dress up and just being to create illusions of them is a valid and believable use of "problem solving" with magic as part of any Sorcerer's toolkit. If anything, this post was just to justify why I don't care for Illusion spells and don't really like writing or including them in my games or on this blog. Just an opinion.

Thursday, January 11, 2024

Mundaun's monsters are really cool

I play a lot of random, shitty little indie games you've never heard of. Don't take that first sentence too literally; I actually think of most of them are quite good. I'm fond of small projects made with a lot of heart- anything unique and interesting. One such game I played last year was Mundaun, which I heard about and thought (incorrectly) it was a survival horror game in the same style as Darkwood or Nightmare of Decay, some other small indie survival horrors- but Mundaun is quite a bit different. Not necessarily in a bad way either- and it gave me a decent bit of inspiration. The following article contains spoilers.

Mundaun is set in a very isolated region of the Alps- representing a very genuine and faithful recreation of a very small and isolated culture. The entire game uses pencil-drawn textures, and all of the in-game narration is done in the region's obscure dialect with English subtitles. It's more of a "Folkloric" type of horror, with the monsters and threats of the game being very specific to the game world itself. This is probably the best part of the game; and what inspired the creation of this blogpost.

Now to preface this; I should mention that I am obviously not a member of this culture or community this game is based off of- I think it's extremely idyllic and feels very genuine, but I am not one of them. The reason why I preface it like this is because of a concept that came out to me when playing the game; which is that the monsters and enemies of the game feel like something the people in this region of the world may have actually believed in in some way or another- a mixture of folklore and common-sense sort of stuff. I don't know if this is actually true; but it gave me a deeper appreciation for both the game's monsters and, more importantly, the concept of a "monster" in and of itself. I think the real value of the game to me was the refreshing and greater clarity over the concept of how folklore, something intrinsically based on TTRPG and fantasy-fiction writing, creates the secondary or fictional universe which we immerse ourselves in when we play games. In other words, Mundaun's monsters felt to the player and world of the game the same way werewolves, vampires, and goblins must have felt to the medieval European people that we base our fantasy fiction games on; something present and, while not insurmountable if you know what you're doing, still a danger and a threat.

In Mundaun, there are only really 3-4 monsters you encounter through the game, plus the final boss or encounter. The first are the hay monsters, slow with ranged attacks, but common and high in numbers. The second are the bee-keeper monsters, attacking you with a swarm of bees if you get too close. The third are the soldiers who can shoot you if you enter their illuminated area, the fourth are the snow beasts, who summon avalanches of snow and are more of a puzzle to avoid- considering you can't kill them in any way. Finally is the devil himself, who is more of an end-game boss in a few scripted sequences, which you can only deal with by the magic/holy lantern you get early in the game and whose importance is only revealed after piecing together a puzzle.

Now its important to remember that you don't encounter more then one type of monster at once at any point in the game. Monsters can come in groups but are usually fought solo, and you don't get anything for defeating a monster other then breathing space. It is much better to avoid them. I played this game incorrectly the first time, falsely thinking it was a survival horror game, trying to run over every hay-man with the Muvel truck to try and save up on ammo- but it's not really that kind of game. After taking the game at face value and playing it the way it was intended, these monsters really stuck out at me.

Why? Because of the thematic weaknesses and resources used to defeat them. Each monster can be fought or avoided by the player- but the method you fight each is somewhat specific to each monster. Because of their skills, location in the game world, or just general position of the player-character at the time when you fight them, you'll have different tools. What makes this so good is the realization of what is going on. The monsters are related to the life and folklore of the people who live in the region.

How do you deal with hay? You stick it with a fork or burn it- same as you deal with the hay men.
How do you deal with bees? Blow smoke at them, or put on a bee-suit.
How do you deal with enemy soldiers? Shoot them with your gun.
How do you deal with the Devil? Well- you can't directly. You'll need magic- or a little help from someone upstairs.

The monsters in Mundaun are not video game or RPG enemies to be defeated or surmounted, but a part of life, each with its own understood time and place, method, and level of danger. By the above metrics; it would seem that the snow beast is the strongest monster of all- the iconic monster of the game that can't be hurt by any weapons. Does that means cosmological the snow beast is stronger then the devil? Not really- it's a force of nature. It's the avalanche. You avoid it by staying out of the way. They even illustrate this by putting a gun and ammo at a vantage point above a snow beast and, upon shooting it, it simply gets mad and charges at you since bullets don't do anything. Why would a gun do anything against the dangers of a mountain?

You become immersed in and appreciative towards the culture and people portrayed in the game. By doing so- you understand that these monsters are not made up fantasy creatures as a bundle of stats and abilities but a reflection in part by the culture that made them. This, I think, is helpful in understanding fantasy world creatures and how people deal with or interpret them. We in the modern day are so far removed from this mythology and the cultural context that spawned it that we simply associate the monsters and their counters as being made up- silver counters werewolves because it's silver. Not because silver is a metal with many properties associated with purity, showing if food is spoiled, being used in medicine, and so on- the opposite of the danger and corruption/madness associated with someone becoming a wolf. Once again- even this isn't significant to a modern person- where as a medieval person would attribute a wolf to being a real threat, not some animal that's in constant danger of going extinct.

While it goes beyond the scale of this blogpost- I wanted to briefly mention the potential in using this style of monster and story-telling to enhance and improve TTRPGs and immersion in a fantasy settings. The idea of taking the real world thing, situation, or common fear and applying it to fantasy monsters as though they are projections are exaggerated/empowered versions of those fears and situations- even though no real world culture has to fear giant were-rats in the sewers, a fantasy culture might. And how does a fantasy culture deal with rat men? Well- they'd probably use wizards and fighters with armor and weapons- but what if instead a were-rat could be repelled by a regular sized mouse trap? It can't possibly hurt it, but it scares it and drives it away- the exact same way someone would deal with a regular rat.