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The Truth About Illusionists in D&D

In old school Advanced Dungeons and Dragons there was one class which isn’t in the Dungeons and Dragons fifth edition like there is today. Yes, we may have Sorcerers and Warlocks, neither of which are in AD&D. We may also have a load of different options for each class in the form of Arcane Traditions; however, in the new rules Illusionist has been relegated. It is no longer a primary class like it was in the days of yore, but instead it has become an Arcane Tradition and school of magic for Wizards to specialise in. Where this makes a lot more sense, and allows for the class to be refined, it also lets go of the traditional notion that illusionists are tricksters or happy gnome folk who make things sparkle.

Instead, in 5E (Fifth Edition, Version 5, whatever you want to call it), there is one simple truth about those who specialise in the School of Illusion. They are, without a shadow of a doubt, sort of evil. It takes a certain type of character to be an Illusionist.

Today, I thought we would talk about illusions and how they are really freaking twisted in the world of D&D.

The School of Illusion and the Innate Abilities of Illusionists in D&D

In the most recent edition of Dungeons and Dragons illusionists are different. They are treated like any other Arcane Tradition within the game, and as such get special abilities at certain points. At second level, for instance, they gain Minor Illusion as a cantrip for all of their minor illusion needs. That being said, it is their 10th and 14th level abilities that really make this class pop.

At 10th level, for instance, an Illusionist can create their Illusory Self. What this does is create an instant illusion of themselves as an instinctive reaction, causing an enemy to instantly miss. This is pretty cool as it means you get a kind of get-out-of-jail free card. You wouldn’t use it against a Kobold; however, at 10th level you could be facing something as tough as a Yochlol, Young Red Dragon, or Stone Golem. That means, it could equate to around 56 damage saved just by becoming an Illusory Self.

At 14th level, the Illusionist gains the ability of Illusory Reality where something they create with their illusion spells can become a real construct for one minute. The object can’t deal damage or harm anyone in any indirect way, which stops dropping something from a height (like a druid) only to make it real at the last second; however, it is useful for things like constructing bridges or ladders. It also allows for walls and other constructs to be built as defences. Groovy stuff.

Those are the innate abilities, and where they aren’t mind-blowing they are kind of useful. They also show the Illusionist in a neutral light, but trust me, that is about to change.

Illusions in D&D 5E and the Language of Fear

It used to be, in the days of yore, that Illusionists were based more around tricking opponents with audio/visual aids rather than attacking them directly. This is still the case with an Illusionist in Dungeons and Dragons 5E, however, there are a few major differences. Illusionists in AD&D are based around trickery and the external influence over others. Illusionists in D&D 5E, however, are based (fairly firmly) in fear and darkness. Let’s take a look at the spell list from the main Player Handbook and you’ll probably see what I mean –

Illusionist Spell List in D&D 5E

Cantrip

  • Minor Illusion – Create a sound or an image of an object within range. This is fairly standard.

1st Level Illusionist Spells

  • Colour Spray – Cause blindness based on Hit Points.
  • Disguise Self – Make yourself look different based on height, weight, and even race (so long as it is humanoid)
  • Illusory Script – Send secret messages in text or change text that has been written.
  • Silent Image – Create a visual image of anything you want within a 30ft cube.

2nd Level Illusionist Spells

  • Blur – Make yourself harder to hit by blurring your image.
  • Invisibility – Turn invisible. Turns you visible again if you are violent.
  • Magic Mouth – Create a magic watch-dog mouth that speaks when certain visual or audio conditions are met.
  • Mirror Image – Create dummy versions of yourself to draw attention off your real self in combat.
  • Nystul’s Magic Aura – You can cause an item to give false information about itself. This includes information about what it is like size, material, or magical ability.
  • Phantasmal Force – You can create an illusion that can attack doing 1D6 damage of anything you can imagine (within a 10ft cube).
  • Silence – Create a sphere of silence where no sound can penetrate.

3rd Level Illusionist Spells

  • Fear – You project a image of a creature’s worst fears before them. This frightens the target.
  • Hypnotic Pattern – You create a dancing image that transfixes anyone within a 30ft cube. This charms and incapacitates any creature in that cube.
  • Major Image – You can create a mirror image of any object and make it look completely real. It even shares characteristics like sound, smell, and temperature.
  • Phantom Steed – You summon a horse (or quasi-steed). For anyone who has read the Critical Failures series, this is the spell I imagine Julian using when he keeps shouting ‘HORSE!’

4th Level Illusionist Spells

  • Greater Invisibility – Like invisibility, but you can commit violent actions and still remain invisible.
  • Hallucinatory Terrain – You can change what the terrain in a certain area looks like. This includes covering holes or caverns with illusion. It may sound rubbish for a 4th level spell, but it’s actually really powerful when you think about what you could cover up.
  • Phantasmal Killer – You create a phantom force shaped like the target’s deepest fear. It frightens the target and also deals 4D10 psychic damage.

5th Level Illusionist Spells

  • Creation – You can create an item of either vegetable or mineral composure taking up a five foot cube. The length of the spell is determined by the material created (ie. Gems only last 10 minutes). The created item cannot be used as a spell component.
  • Dream – You can send a target into someone else’s dream. They can be friendly and deliver a message. Alternatively, they can be unfriendly taking on a fearful form, and deal psychic damage.
  • Mislead – You conjour invisibility like the basic invisibility spell, whilst also creating an illusory version of yourself elsewhere.
  • Seeming – You can change the appearance of any number of creatures within range. This is with the same restrictions as Disguise Self.

6th Level Illusionist Spells

  • Programmed Illusion – You can create an illusion, a little bit like Magic Mouth, that gets triggered on a condition of your choice.

7th Level Illusionist Spells

  • Mirage Arcane – Like Hallucinatory Terrain but bigger. It covers more space.
  • Project Image – You can create an illusory version of yourself that acts and behaves as you. It can interact with people, and speak on your behalf. You can go into a trance to also have it sense like you so you can see through its eyes and smell what it smells etc.
  • Simulacrum – You create a creature or being that is a duplicate of a creature you have seen, out of ice. It has the stats of that creature or being, but half the hit points. It never dispels unless you cast Simulacrum again, or it dies.

9th Level Illusionist Spells

  • Weird – You target creatures within a 30 foot radius sphere. Those creatures are frightened by their greatest fear appearing to them in their minds. They need to take a saving throw each turn (Wisdom) or take 4D10 psychic damage each.

The Dark Truth of Illusionists in D&D

“Okay Luke,” I hear you ask, “what’s your point? We’ve now looked at all of their spells – what of it?”

Well, dear reader, let me draw something to your attention. That spell list may seem okay, but it is really dark when you start to question it.

When we think about Wizards in D&D we usually picture one of a few things. Gandalf or Saruman are two examples that we often see within the game. Long time D&D fans may remember the Elminster series and what he was like as a wizard. Alternatively, we imagine the learned, book bound, intelligent mastermind who always has a spell to help or hinder in any situation. To some extent that is true – however, Wizards can also be incredibly dark in any form of literature (Saruman, Voldemort, Jafar, Loki, Baba Yaga, Gargamel…) , and nowhere is this more true than in the D&D universe. Evil mages are, arguably, just as common, if not more so, in D&D. They are so common that Mystra, the goddess of Magic, sends Elminster Aumar out to kill whole swathes of them in the first Elminster book. He probably kills around 40 in the latter half of the book.

The point still stands that yes, a lot of the low level illusion spells are what you would expect an illusion spell to be like. You would expect a cheeky illusionist to be able to change their appearance or make minor illusions. That being said, you have to question the wizard who takes Fear at 3rd level. Or Phantasmal Killer at 4th. What about the Wizard who takes those and uses Dream as a nightmare? Even something like Greater Invisibility exists purely so invisibility can incorporate violence without being dispelled. Even Hallucinatory Terrain is a spell that is used to facilitate deceptive violence. Name a use for it other than to cover up traps – I implore you.

If you are taking those spells, taking them together, then you are more fear invoking or potentially violent than you are using illusion as an aid. You are not an illusionist anymore. You are a psychic assassin.

The Morals of Illusionists

Illusionists in D&D 5E are powerful, but not in the traditional sense. They manipulate and control, and they do so by crippling the mentality of their opponents. In a straight up fight, they don’t really have any direct damage spells (they get Shadow Blade in Xanathar’s Guide but that’s about it), but instead they cannot really attack an opponent without psychically destroying them as well. This makes them the equivalent to those who fight with poison blades – it gets the job done, but it is also kind of overkill. It’s not exactly an honourable way to defeat an opponent.

So, what are Illusionists in D&D 5E?

Illusions are rogues. They are magical assassins. They are sneaky wizards who damage the mind. They are potentially nasty pieces of work. Yes, they have some neat spells; however, they also have some that can be used in severely damaging ways. Dream, for instance, can be used to spread damaging nightmares, Weird can kill a whole swathe of people or creatures in one go, and Phantasmal Killer is probably the worst death any person could have. Imagine dying by your worst fear – it’s truly horrific. Physically and ethically.

So can Illusions be good? Well, yes, of course they can; however, as a player there will always be a temptation to use the higher level spells that decimate an opponent’s psyche. Whether your illusionist is good however, can be defined by who you use those powers on and how you feel about those people. Using Dream, for instance, to encourage someone to make a specific decision is one thing. Using Dream to psychically assassinate someone is something completely different – and it is this, along with the alignment system, that makes illusionists a challenge to play.

So, what are Illusionists? What is the dark truth?

Illusionists are challenging characters. They are characters with difficult moral standings who require discipline to play. They are not immediately aggressive Wizards. They are not necessarily dark characters; however, there is that hidden undertone that, in my opinion, gives them a temptation that could easily challenge their alignment.

I now feel like this has gone deeper than it needed to go – so I am going to hand it to the floor. If you didn’t before, this article offers the basic information you need to understand illusionists. What are your thoughts? Are they dark or am I reading too much into it? Let me know in the comments below.

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6 Comments »

  1. They seem dark. Now, it all depends on how you play it, but I could only see them being Chaotic Good if considered good. That’s just because of the nature of the Illusionist. Illusions are meant to cause misinterpretations. I see that as lies and deception. I’m sure one could argue that it’s for the grater good or better outcome. I see them as a darker character to play though. Just the nature of those spells you listed too.

    These posts really make me want to get back into D&D. Just need to get a dedicated group that can meet regularly.

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    • Oh yeah!! Although I suppose they could be Lawful and calculating in their later levels. I don’t think Dream, for instance, is a Chaotic spell, but it takes calculation. They are, by their nature, deceptive – but yeah, I really think they have taken a dark turn!

      Search for that D&D group and start again 😀

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  2. Well, we all have our own opinions, but I feel like you’re reading too much into it. Magic is a tool, and just like any tool it can be used for good or evil.

    I think the Illusionist suffers as a class, much like the Assassin did. In early D&D, they seemed pretty much tacked on and not completely worked out. Fleshing out an Illusionist in the D&D magic system was essentially looking through the Magic-Users spells and noting which ones were “illusion”. Possibly adding a few more, so they wouldn’t be stuck with no spells at certain character levels. That doesn’t really represent Illusionists from literature and movies.

    I think it would be a poor recreation no matter what though, because Illusionists are essentially based on one spell type “Illusion”. Illusionists in literature aren’t typically casting *different* illusion spells (like minor illusion, phantasmal force, etc.). They are most times just weaving an illusion. Higher powered Illusionists seem to be able to affect more area, and create more convincing illusions. That is perhaps a separation of their power levels. But in D&D it would directly transcribe to one spell “Illusion”, range and area of effect equal to some multiple of their level, etc. And players wouldn’t be thrilled. “The Wizard just gained another level and got Fireball. Hmm, nope. I still have just the Illusion spell. But I can affect a whole room now. Yay?”. You have the same problem with recreating Summoners in D&D, and other ‘one-trick’ wizards from literature and films.

    There is also a problem with recreating “illusion” spells in a game system, as they are essentially “wish” magic with no material substance. Anytime you give player’s free reign with Wish magic, then the game system will likely be broken. “I wish for 3 more wishes….”, “I wish I was the ruler of the world”, etc. It gets out of hand real quick and will give even seasoned DM’s a headache. Having no material substance, possibly no lasting impact on the real world, should balance the power of an illusion, but players are a tricky lot often looking to abuse and twist the rules. Like the Illusory Self power you mentioned above. Say the your Illusionist manages to travel to other dimensions and then confronts a God. The God attacks, but he just uses the “Illusory Self” spell to make the God miss. Granted, mages in D&D can only use so many spells a day, so he will eventually run out, but it still seems very odd that a mere Illusionist could cast magic that affects even the Gods.

    TL;DR
    So looping back, I think they have an unfortunate spell selection, cursed from the old days, and also hampered by the limitations of the “class”. Which is why they look a bit odd, spell selection wise. I still think it’s very much up to the interpretation of the player/DM, and the alignment of the character on how to actually play them.

    Liked by 1 person

    • You raise some very fair points friend. I am almost certainly over-thinking it.

      You’re right Faust. It does come down to alignment and how the player wants to play the character. Ultimately any character can be played in any way. I am yet to see the pacifist Barbarian for instance, but there is nothing to say it couldn’t be played.

      The Illusory Self ability is an interesting one; however, it only works once per long rest. It may fool a god, but only once!

      It’s an interesting point you raise that the spells came before the classes. Do you reckon that’s how they did it? The spells came first, then the classes just fit around them?

      “The Wizard just gained another level and got Fireball. Hmm, nope. I still have just the Illusion spell. But I can affect a whole room now. Yay?” – Haha I think you hit the nail on the head there mate 😛

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      • That’s the part I often find interesting, looking for characters that might play against type, like the pacifist barbarian. I usually do it more in video games though, as I don’t want to screw up someone’s campaign.

        Yea, I’m sure the spells came before the class. The original and Basic D&D Games had only the Magic-User class, no Illusionist. The spells were pretty much developed in Basic and then expanded in AD&D.

        I think the unique Spell casters idea was handled

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        • Oh phone replies…drat! I think the unique Spell caster classes (Illusionists, Summoners, etc.) have been handled better in other games, as they started from the ground up.

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