Thursday, March 7, 2019

The Complete OD&D Illusionist

The Illusionist in Dungeons & Dragons was created by Peter Aronson, an early Boston-area fan. In 1975, Aronson submitted an initial description of Illusionists to TSR , who ran it in the fourth issue of the Strategic Review. Then the following year, Aronson's additions with system for higher-level Illusionists appeared in the debut issue of The Dragon. But Aronson didn't stop there - he made a number of further expansions and corrections which he circulated informally in 1977, of which the first page is shown above. Today, we're looking at the complete Illusionist subclass for OD&D as Aronson envisioned it, and the implications it created for "schools" of magic in role-playing games.

The basic concept of illusions in fantasy games had existed prior to Dungeons & Dragons: the 1971 first edition of Chainmail introduced the spell "Phantasmal Forces," which "creates the apparition of a unit or creature." The version of that spell in the 1974 edition of Dungeons & Dragons allows "the creation of vivid illusions of nearly anything the user envisions," with the ominous possibility that "damage caused to viewers of a Phantasmal Force will be real if the illusion is believed to be real." The power to create such illusions carried over to the "Wand of Illusion" and the "Illusion Generation" ability of magic swords at the very start of D&D.

Aronson saw in this the possibility for a sort of Magic-user who specialized in illusions, who could cast new spells like "Hypnotism", "Blindness," "Change Self", and "Nondetection." He sent his original write-up for the Illusionist subclass to TSR before he had seen Greyhawk, the first supplement to OD&D, which expanded the number of experience levels specified and with it the spell list for Magic-users. Necessarily, Illusionists would need higher level spells as well, which led to Aronson's additions to the class in the first issue of The Dragon.

The Illusionist subclass of Magic-users opened the door to the idea that wizards could specialize in some particular sort of magic - and in no small part, that spells should be formally classified into schools. Even before the Illusionist saw print in the Strategic Review, Len Lakofka had taken the idea of Magic-user specializations to the next logical step, in a series in his fanzine Liaisons Dangereuses describing a set of fantasy miniatures rules intended to be compatible with D&D. In the July 1975 issue, Lakofka broke spell casters down into four areas of specialty: "illusion, elements (fire and air or water and earth), change properties (healing, polymorph), command (fly, protection, charm, hold)." We can see these categories as precursors to the "types" of magic that organized spells in AD&D: Illusion, Evocation, Alteration, Enchantment/Charm, and so on. As he continued to serialize his system, Lakofka refined these into class roles for the Illusionist, Charmer & Enchanter, and Elementalist.

Some Elementalist spells are furthermore restricted just to "Fire Users," an idea Lakofka would evolve into the "Pyrologist" subclass of Magic-user that appeared the following September in Liaisons Dangereuses #74. By that point, his fantasy miniatures rules had run in the center of the first issue of The Dragon -- right alongside Aronson's expanded Illusionist rules.

The following year, Aronson felt he needed to revisit the Illusionist. An article he submitted to Wild Hunt #19 gives the rationale for most of the changes in this 1977 version of the Illusionist class. Aronson notes that because he had originally designed the class before Greyhawk, it was burdened with number of inconsistencies with the evolving D&D system that needed to be addressed.

In addition to fixing the system of previous spells, Aronson could not resist adding a few new ones. The Color Bomb, Dreams, and Phantoms spells are unique to this 1977 version. He compiled these revisions into a six-page description, of which the first page is given above. If you want to take his final Illusionist system for a test drive, here's the other five:

The Illusionist has cast a long shadow over the magic system of D&D: fifth-edition spells like "Color Spray", "Illusory Script", "Alter Self", "Phantasmal Killer", and "True Seeing" all have their roots in Aronson's design. And of course Wizards can specialize in the School of Illusion. This vividly reminds us how the system of D&D was a truly collaborative effort, where ideas that players devised became integral components of the game. But beyond their historical value, these rules give OD&D fans the opportunity to play the Illusionist as its creator intended -- so give them a spin!


  1. Hmmm... never occurred to me someone had to "invent" the schools of magic. But obvs. someone did. Thanks.

  2. Interesting. Any ideas how Invocation/Evocation became the name for the school of magic that dealt with creating destructive energy effects like Fireballs, Lightning Bolts, and Magic Missiles, instead of the original meanings of terms; the summoning in (invocation) and calling out (evocation) of gods and spirits? That has always bugged me a little bit.

    1. We always thought of energy kinds of spell being Evoked from another plane, fireballs from the plane of fire for example. But that's just players gibberjawing, not a "rule".

  3. Well this is an odd example of synchronicity. I have just made the decision to add illusionists to my campaign! This will come in very handy.

  4. Fantastic and timely; player w a recently deceased character just rolled up an Illusionist in my game. Will likely discuss this post on my Wednesday podcast. Thank you for all of the awesome scholarship.

  5. The early illusionist class was far more open to the idea of subjective belief than later editions. Illusions being "in the mind" or more powerful when "believed". Current systems treat illusions like physical things, light shows, and saves are based on interactions with this physical thing. We had a lot of fun playing illusions that were seen by one person, but completely unreal to another back in the AD&D days.

  6. Illusions and similar magic effects have always been very difficult to gamesmaster well ... I've never been a big fan of them.

  7. very cool finds, thanks so much for the posting!

  8. as so often, the earlier design makes much more sense than what the idea morphed into over the editions. I never cared for illusionists in 2nd or 3rd edition.

  9. I agree with Phil Dutre. Illusion is a meta effect in game, since you are already dealing in illusory reality in the first place. Always found it very hard to get "right" with illusionists and illusion spells. But I will say that the gnome illusionist I played in AD&D was a lot of fun and forced me to get creative.