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.


  1. A side effect of using illusions in my AD&D campaigns years ago was the oft-repeated player exclamation, "I DISBELIEVE!" It was funny at first, but it sort of impedes the whole "willing suspension of disbelief" required of playing role-playing games.

  2. To me, Illusion magic is like cheating at cards. It's a useful skill to have, but if anyone realizes that is what you are doing, it loses most of it's efficacy.

  3. Yeah, I've had all the problems kick me in the face all the times I've tried illusions in d&d-likes. "You never saw that so you can't make a convincing one", "it doesn't make shadows so they auto disbelieve", "they ignored it because they have extra senses you don't", "you have to spend the same level illusion spell as the non-illusion effect or its too strong". Bullpuckey.

    In my games illusions start believed and there have to be blatant violations for people to get suspicious. Sure, they know illusions are on the table. But did the mage invis or teleport? Summon a real demon or a fake? Luck into a free fey wish and call in a real dragon or not? Create a real wall or a fake one? Use a 2nd level spell or a 4th?

    And that gets to the best way to use illusions. Mix them in with real stuff that'll royally screw the targets over if its real and they dick around trying to disbelieve. Which is my second part of running them, disbelief is dangerous. You can't disbelieve a real demon and it'll auto-hit or you'll auto-fail saves if you try to disbelieve the real deal. Think a skeleton is an illusion? Take a hit, full damage and no possible defenses. That's how you disbelieve.

    Yeah, its a fake out. But it has to be cheaper and easier, and sometimes safer (demons ya?) than the real deal. The problem is making it dangerous to try disbelief over treating it as real. Unfortunately lots of d&d-likes can't quite manage that even once you're past the GMing issues. Third thing O've found helps is they don't vanish, poof, or "go transparent" for anyone once disbelived. Makes them a nuisance even after you know its an illusion and shuts down some other whining too.

  4. "in a fantasy world- who the FUCK wants to be an Illusionist?"
    People don't choose the illusionist life, it's what happens when a peasant cuts a deal with a demon to instantly receive the knowledge needed to become a wizard, but didn't specify what sort of wizard. Or sometimes when the gods need to take a wizard down a peg, they'll swap his school to illusion.