Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Class Struggles: The Illusionist

It's a logical extension from my talks about wizards over the last two weeks to go right into illusionists. I have always been curious about the illusionist class and it's genesis. For starters it is one of the few classes that really only exists in AD&D first edition. Editions after that make the illusionist a "speciality wizard"; a type of magic-user/wizard/mage. It also didn't exist in OD&D or Basic D&D (with exceptions, that I will get too).

Last week and the week before I killed a lot of photons explaining that "magic-user" was a generic term for any sort of magic using character class. So wizards, necromancers, mages, witches and naturally one would assume illusionists would fall under this umbrella term. It is interesting then that the illusionist is viewed as so different to merit its own class.

My research has turned up the first mention of the Illusionist as coming from the pages of The Strategic Review - Volume 1, Number 4 from Winter 1975. That's pretty early on really. The article, ILLUSIONISTS!: GENERALLY APPEARING AS A NEW CLASS FOR DUNGEONS & DRAGONS was written by Peter Aronson. Though Gygax and Blume were still the editors, so it had their tacit approval, if not explicit. The opening to the article states:
Illusionists are a sub-class of magic-users who, as the name implies, employ illusion and similar powers. Their prime requisite is dual, in that they must have both a good intelligence and a dexterity of not less than 15 as a high degree of manual conjuration is involved when they cast their spells. Although severely limited in the number of magical items they can employ, Illusionists make up for this restriction by the power of their magic.
So in theory then it is harder to become an illusionist, but their magic is stronger.  I am not so convinced this is completely true. Afterall there is no fireball, lightning bolt or wish in their spell list. Sure there is more to magic than that, but a well placed fireball is still good to have.  Looking over the XP tables the Illusionist needs MORE xp than even the magic-user.

Peter Aronson comes back in no less an illustrious issue as The Dragon #1 from June 1976. Here more levels of the illusionist are listed and spells up to 7th level are detailed.  Here some of the more interesting and uniquely illusionist spells are introduced.  Here we also see that illusionists get a +4 to any saves vs. illusion or light based spells.  This is expanded on in The Dragon #12 by Rafael Ovalle. Here the illusionist is also given the chance to recognize any spell cast by another illusionist.  The spell lists have been tweaked a bit as well.

This was the same time frame that EGG was working on his Magnum Opus, AD&D.   Illusionists now appear in the Players Handbook as a subclass of the magic-user. They have their own XP values and spell lists separate from magic-users.  It is also noted that while only humans, elves and half-elves can become magic-users, gnomes can become illusionists.  The saving throw bonus has been dropped, but the XP values are now less than the magic-user.  The illusionist is still limited to 7th level spells, but many of the illusion spells it shares with the magic-user are usually a level lower.  Still, I have a vague memory of the magic-user being a better illusionist than the illusionist itself.  I can't find any tell-tale evidence of this.

The Illusionist and The Witch
At this point I want to point out something.  For the last two weeks I talked about the flexible nature of the magic-user and how, when played as intended, almost precludes the need for a separate witch class.   Then bam! here comes the illusionist to completely shake that idea up. Though it really only confirmed it my mind.   The illusionist was born in the pages of Dragon magazine, as was one of the many incarnations of the witch.  Plus there is this entry which we have all read before.

Yes, I know that the witch was added after the fact by persons unknown, but I was still promised witches.  But imagine for a moment if we had gotten a witch and illusionist class.  It is entirely likely you would not be reading this blog!
In fact, one of my first AD&D characters was a female illusionist named Cara that I styled as a witch-like character.  I pretty much based her on this art from D1-2 Descent into the Depths of the Earth by Bill Willingham.

Post AD&D 1st Ed
After this the Illusionist disappears as it's own thing really. In 2nd Ed it becomes a prime example of a speciality mage. The advantages of course are now the illusionist gets access to a wider variety of spells than before, but still less than the generalist wizard. In many ways this is a full realization of the "magic-user" concept. The same is true for 3rd edition. Personally I rather liked this idea since it fits in with the narrative of my idea of a magic school with different "Schools" of instruction.  Though on the other side of the coin is that this also took away some of the things that made the illusionist a unique class.  Some of that "uniqueness" has been taken over by the Sorcerer.  Yes, they are not the same thing, but both are compared, favorablly or ill, to the wizard.

The Basic Illusionist
No talk of the illusionist class can happen without talking about the Basic Illusionist.

The Basic Illusionist is the brain-child of +Nathan Irving and was first seen during the S&W Appreciation Day Blog Hop. You can get it from RPGNow, or from his blog, In both cases it is 100% free.

Before I delve into the book itself. Lets take a moment to look at this cover.
Seriously. That is a cool ass cover. I am not sure what made Nathan Irving choose this piece ("Beauty and the Beast" by Edmund Dulac) but I love it.  The title works in seemlessly, like they were meant for each other.  The woman in foreground is no longer the "beauty" but she is now an Illusionist.

The book is overtly for Swords & Wizardry, but there isn't anything here keeping you from using any Original of Basic inspired system.  I know it works out well in Labyrinth Lord and Basic D&D and it really should work well in ACKS, Spellcraft & Swordplay or any other system.  Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea might be a trick, but they have an Illusionist class already (more on that later).

Getting into the book now we have 34 pages (with cover) on the Illusionist class. The book starts off with a helpful FAQ.  Personally I think Nathan should also put that FAQ on his blog as a page so every knows why they should get this.  The Illusionist class itself is in S&W format, but the only thing keeping you from using this in any other Basic or Advanced Era game is a table of Saving Throws.  Copy over what ever the Wizard or Magic-user is using in your game of choice and give them bonus to saves when it comes to illusions. I like the original -4 (or +4) but as much as -1/+1 would be fine too.

The Illusionist gets a power or feature every odd level, but nothing that is game breaking when compared to the wizard.  The Illusionist trades flexibility for focus in their magical arsenal. There is even an Illusionist variant class called the Mountebank.  Which is more of a con-artist.  Not sure how it compares to other classes of the same name.

One of the best features of the book is a guideline on illusionist magic and how to play with illusions.  Great even if you never play the class.

What follows next is over 150 Illusionist spells.  Many we have seen before and come from the SRD.  That is not a bad thing. Having all these spells in one place and edited to work with the class is a major undertaking.  I for one am glad to see them here.  Spells are alphabetical instead of sorted by level.
A list of conditions ported over from the SRD is also included. I like that personally.  We all love how the older games and the clones play, but in our zeal we tend to forget that 3.x and later games did in fact have some good innovations and ideas; this is one of them.
We end with a couple of monsters and a two page OGL statement.
Really, this is a fantastic piece of work and really should be the "go to" document if you ever want to play an illusionist.

Other Clones
The design of the Illusionist class is such that adding it to any game should really be a breeze.  Adventurers enter a new land and discover a new brand of wizard.  Compared to other custom wizards out there the illusionist is more powerful than his counterpart in 1st Ed. AD&D.

ACKS Player's Companion
The Gnomish Trickster has a number of good spells that work well for the Illusionist.  All the arcane spells tagged as (ill) for illusion would work nicely as well.  I will go out on a limb here and say the gnomish trickster is basically the "Basic" interpretation of the Gnome Illusionist.

Adventures Dark and Deep
+Joseph Bloch's own magnum opus and dedication to a game that never was is also a good place to look for any ideas on class evolution.  I have to admit I am curious what he uncovered about the illusionist in his own research.  Why was the class included and so on. His game has both an illusionist and a mountebank classes.  Not to mention plenty of illuison spells.  This book also retains the link between gnomes and illusionists, in this case the Deep Gnome.  This illusionist feels very much like the 1st Ed or even the OSRIC Illusionist.

Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea
+Jeff Talanian's fantastic Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea also has an Illusionist class. Like all the classes in the book it is limited to 12th level.  I had a quick glance over the spell lists and there wasn't anything that jumped out at me; the spells are drawn from similar sources.  There is is information though that owners of either could use. Obviously the Basic Illusionist covers many more spells but more importantly it has the guidelines for covering how illusions in the game work.

The Companion Expansion
This is another "Companion" style book for Basic-era D&D and clones and is something of a forgotten treasure.  It also has an Illusionist Class that is roughly equal with the Basic Illusionist, but the real feature of this book is the expanded spell list.  If you are looking to extend your illusionist a bit more with more spells then this is a good way to do it.

Labyrinth Lord Advanced Edition Companion
Given it's aim to emulate AD&D via the Basic D&D-like rules it is no surprise then this illusionist cleaves very close to the source material. This is the illusionist of old.

Magical Theorems & Dark Pacts
+Dyson Logos' Magical Theorems & Dark Pacts is an excellent book for playing all sorts of wizard types.  That is, oddly enough, except Illusionists.  This however is not issue; The Illusionist fits in quite nicely here.  The Enchanter from MT&DP would have some spells that might be good for the Illusionist as well.

Theorems & Thaumaturgy
Another great free product. Theorems & Thaumaturgy comes to us from +Gavin Norman and introduced his Vivmancer class.  Vivimancers and Illusionists are about as different as one can get really.  But Theorems & Thaumaturgy does have some things that the Illusionist can use.  For starters there some more Illusionist spells in T&T that any Illusionist could use.  Both this book and the Basic Illusionist make the assumption that Illusionists should have access to 8th and 9th level spells.  If you are going to play an Illusionist then it is worth your time and effort to get a copy of Theorem & Thaumaturgy.

The Witch
Witches and Illusionists share the ability to cast various figments and charms/mind affecting spells.  I would say that in any game that has both classes that Illusionists should be limited to charm spells up to 5th level and witches any type of figments up to 5th level.  Illusionists then get all (or most) of the Illusion spells and witches get all the curses.

There is only two things I really want.
To combine all of this into one place and to have a bound book version.  I think it would be excellent.


Arlee Bird said...

I like stage illusionists, but have no experience with gaming. It's a class that makes sense for fantasy gaming though.

Arlee Bird
Tossing It Out

JB said...

Huh...I haven't read Dragon #1. When I was working up my "Holmesian take" on the illusionist, I was mainly using the original Strategic Review article. I'll have to do a side-by-side comparison.

I love illusionists. I want other people to love illusionists. I want there to be the same kind of contingent of illusionist players as there are folks who dig "warlocks" or "tieflings." Bring back the illusionist! Not just a wizard knock-off!