Illusions, Damage, & Death

THE MOST POPULAR wizard badguy in D&D history is, of course, the Necromancer, which always sounded funny to me, because clearly, the necromancer isn’t the most dangerous. Perhaps he is the sickest! But as far as sinister goes, clearly another specialist holds the title, and he is “The Illusionist".

Illusions deal with spells to deceive the senses or minds of others. Spells that cause people to see things that are not there, hear noises not made, or remember things that never happened are all illusions.

-AD&D Players Handbook

Illusions are, indeed, a very large subject. No other school of magic has the attention to detail as the school of illusion, because like no other school, this school can either break the game, or make it. Spells from the other schools of magic are clearly defined, but this just isn’t so with Illusions, many of them just list what they can and can’t do, leaving a bulk of the work open to conjecture and the caster. I’m not going to sit here, and even attempt to relate illusionary magic in practice, the options are truly limitless, but what I am going to do is talk about how damage is delved in illusions. Now keep in mind, many illusionists like to put tricks in them, especially villains who have had a long time to prepare, they’ll layer them with real and imagined dangers, and even cast illusions within illusions. And, while the possibilities for constructing heinous and deadly illusions are endless, how they do damage is set firmly in stone, and it is this stonework, the backbone of the illusion system, that we’ll be delving into tonight. So grab your spell books and your quills, and prepare yourself for a dark and odious adventure: Into the mind itself!


There are several factors which make an illusion work (or not work), the most important element is believability. An illusionist must know the creature or thing which he is creating, and he must know it well! If he tries to create a dragon, but has never seen one, then his dragon is going to be lacking, just information that he’s heard, however if he has seen a hobgoblin, then he can create a very convincing hobgoblin, well, with the proper magic and use of spells he can. It will be indistinguishable from the real thing.

The second element of believability is appropriateness. Does the thing belong there? An illusionary wall works really well if it is placed where adventurers have never been, but one popping up in an adventurers home would be iffy at best.

The final ingredient, and of equal importance, is that the illusionist must maintain the illusion. If the illusion is of a troll with rabies, it is the wizard which dictates his hits and his misses, he’ll also be responsible for giving the illusion battle damage if he chooses too. This thing doesn’t really exist but in the minds of the people watching it.

Illusionary Attacks

An illusion is only as good as it’s creator. A low lever mage can create an illusion of a massive monster, but it won’t attack as the real thing, it is limited to the same THAC0 as the wizard who created it.

Damage caused by an illusionary attack is an illusion as well, and only exists in the minds of the victims. DM’s should tell them how much damage that they are taking, but keep track of their real hitpoints behind the screen. Illusionary damage will disappear after 10 to 30 minutes (1d3 turns).

Because of this, an illusionist will probably just use illusions to hold off an attack for as long as possible, however, characters who are killed by illusionary damage believe themselves to be killed, the illusion has gripped their mind to the point where they actually believe that they are dead. At that time, the character must make a System Shock check, if they fail it, they are so convinced that their bodies actually stop working, however if the system shock roll is passed, they will faint for 1d3 turns.

Illusionary Instant Kills

Because illusions are about trickery and deceit, no real damage ever takes place. We can, however force an instant kill in a variety of different ways. The most popular, and easiest to pull of is an illusionary trap. People who suddenly see a giant rock falling on them won’t have time to figure out if it is real or not. In cases like this, a System Shock roll is checked immediately, failure indicates that the victims heart has burst from the fear! Success entitles the victim to a saving throw vs. spell, if this is failed as well, then he will believe that he is dead for the standard 10-30 minutes, but if he can pass, then he’ll instantly see that this wasn’t real.

An illusion can create some exciting and realistic effects, but an illusionary monster can only perform actions which the wizard knows about, or can comprehend. Thus, a dragon could use it’s breath weapon, however it doesn’t have dragon infravision or other abilities such as poisoning water, as this is just to far out of the scope of what an illusion can handle.

This doesn’t mean that since a mage can’t give an illusion innate abilities, that the person fighting them won’t. For instance if a warrior has fought a medusa, and is aware of it’s ability to turn flesh to stone if you lock eyes with it, and he accidentally finds himself staring at it, his mind will create the illusion that he is turning into stone and suffer those effects, while those that have never seen or heard of one wouldn’t suffer the same woes.

Other Capabilities Of Illusion

Illusions are only as real as the illusionist can make them. If the casting wizard is struck, or otherwise attacked, his illusion will fade away. A stronger illusionist is also capable of taking over the illusions of a weaker mage, and turning it against them.

Illusions are only as real as the victim makes it. They can’t make things invisible, however they can make something appear to be something that it isn’t. An illusionary pit isn’t really a pit at all, the victim won’t fall into it, but he will believe that he has and probably suffer the effects of an instant kill. Illusionary pits are more often used as a way to steer enemies into real pits which have been concealed by illusions as well.

An illusionary object cannot hold any weight, because it really isn’t there, thus an illusionary bridge would be detected by an enemy throwing a rock at it, unless the illusionist is nearby and aware, and can quickly add the additional illusion of a rock hitting the bridge.

An illusionary wall would trick a victim enough that he could lean against it, his mind would just assume that it was there, however if somebody were to push him, then he would fall right through it.

Illusions & Saving Throws

A saving throw is usually not automatically granted, a player has to state that he believes that what he is seeing is an illusion, at this time a DM can make a secret die roll to check if he can pass his save or not, if he can, then he sees the illusion for what it really is. If one person can pass their saving throws, then the rest of the party has a +4 to their saves, those who fail are convinced that what they are seeing is real, and what the other is seeing is the illusion.

Final Thoughts

With all of this information, hopefully the idea of illusionary magic is less daunting for you. It tightens up what an illusion is and isn’t capable of, and how much information and strength is given to our illusions by the victim himself.

There is still a ton of creativity involved, more so then any other school of magic. If you are interested in illusions and how to create really good ones for your badguys, then I suggest a module called “Web of Illusion” which is part of the Ravenloft series, that centers around a temple constructed by a Rakshasa, the true masters of Illusion! It is a very thoughtful piece (and a really crappy adventure) which gives a lot of insight on how to weave these things with reality to make them more effective, and really push the boundaries of what the illusion is capable off.


Brooze the Bear said...

I think that you are giving too much power to the Illusionist. Physiologically, just because you think you die, will never mean that you will actually die. That's because human body can not recall physical pain or physiological symptoms. You can stress over it, and perhaps over time stress yourself to death recalling the extreme torture, but not instantly.

Your suggestion would make the Illusionist character a lot more playable. The way it is presented in AD&D, nobody wants it, especially at the lower levels, it is too ineffective. My conceptuion of the character is not an illusuionary pit, but an illusion of the floor covering a pit into which an unwary charcater will fall.

With regards to illusion attacking. Rules clearly state that any hit on an illusion will dispel it. I am fine with characters beig knocked unconscious rather than dead, but I would only let catastrophic failure lead to a real physical damage after a system shock roll.

What you are doing with the illusionist is that you are patterning one aftre a medieval painter. Artists, like Da Vinci were fere following a tradition, where to paint an object was to create a lifelike illusion of one, and to be able to do it successfully, you had to KNOW the object you are painting, so the painters of hat day were the frist natural scientists, stone masons and engineers, before a medieval artist would undertake to paint a country cottage, he would first learn how to build that cottage in real life.

Ripper X said...

It takes a considerable level to be able to cast illusions capable of causing injury, the rules that I have described are simply expanded from the Players Handbook. A failed System Shock check is definitely required for the illusion to prove fatal. And an illusion has no reason to disappear if you hit it, because it isn't there. The caster can give damage to the monster, which would make it more believable, but a monster who you hit over and over and nothing seems to happen gives the party a clue that this isn't real, and is probably a programed illusion.

Brooze the Bear said...

AD&D description for Mirror Image specifically tells you that each image disappears after taking a hit. Spells like Phantasmal Force deal real damage, but hold on, a 3rd level Illusionist spell Spectral Image only differs from its Phantasma cousin in that it engages the five senses. So, you can not do a stinking growling Ogre at 1st level since the Phantasmal Force is strictly a visual illusion. So, at the level when a Magic User can throw Fireballs and a Druid can Call Down Lightening and breathe underwater, Cleric can animate dead and a magic user can summon 2-8 real live Orcs to fight for him, our illusionist can create an illusion of an ogre or a Bugbea, or if he is wise enough, a red dragon, about evenly match. From round to round, you have to do an INT, WIS or DEX check to see if the illusion is maintained realistically enough to fool others after taking damage. But consider the Pit With Spikes. 1d8 or 1d10 points of damage per 10' fallen, considering spikes. Depending on the Illusionist's angle above the ground, he can do a 10, 20, or even 30 foot drop if he is directly above the spell victim. But if the Illusionist does the Bottomless Pit, it will take he feeling of terminal velocity in the victim and a picture fo the ground rushing to meet the victim. Hold on - bottomless pit/ground rushing in. Two different illusions. A lone thief or a stupid Ogre, yes, ok. But what about a gang of Orcs. They see one or two of their own collapsing and acting weird and they see one dude without armor making gestures. What they do? Start shooting arrows at the wizard to break his cocnentration. Witch doctor shoots a magic missile? Spell is broken. Compare this to a Magic user throwing a Fireball at their midst.

OK, the metaphysics in the AD&D world are different than in ours, I can even justify Illusionist spells doing real damage an d killoing their victims, considerig that an Illusionist is capable of maintaining the Illusion long enough to do damage, so the conclusion of the spell is not at all automatic and each successful it will necessitate a control check on part of the Illusionist, since that orc will see his cpear g through the illusion and not into it, and will see through it and let others know. And it won't work too well on the Elves, who are resistant to charms and hypnotic magics.

What I am leading to is that the body of Illusionist magic is much weaker combatwise when compared to the other classes (nobody in my campaign is really into magic enough to justify me fleshing out different schools of magic), and for players Illusionist class wil only work as part of a multi class. Most Likely, Thief/Illusionist, since I do not have too many demi-humans. One of the thieves guilds will teach it to their thieves. Their magic is not rally outlawed in my gameworld - Necromancy is, and Assassins tradecraft are, along woht slave trade. Of the four thieves guilds currently conceptualised for play, none teach Illusionism, one does Fighter Thieves, the other makes pirates, and third does thieves-acrobats.

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