The Illusionist

The illusionist has never been a popular class in my gaming experience.  In fact, the only illusionist I ever recall rolling up (apart from my current C&C character, Dagodart Stav, whose master Duggenning is depicted above) was near the beginning of my gaming days, when my brother & I had somehow convinced my Dad to make a character for AD&D when we were around 10 & 12.  (We had just scored some hex paper and had no idea what to do with it, so we assumed it was the correct paper to use for notes and characters.  My Dad, very tolerantly, went along with it.  His rolls must have been suitable for an illusionist, because I remember advising him to play a gnome illusionist.  I recall nothing else about that session, apart from it being nearly impossible to read anything on the hex paper which had very heavy, dark lines.)

Anyway, I get the impression that illusionists are not loved in the old school blogosphere either.  Perhaps they are blamed for the abomination of “specialist” magic-users in AD&D 2e.  Perhaps they are just seen as somewhat unnecessary.  Maybe their limited spell and magic item lists make them unattractive.  There is certainly some anecdotal evidence that illusions in general are hard to adjudicate fairly, too.

Although I’m happy with my illusionist character in Castles & Crusades, I think I’d change the class a little should I run a game.  Here are my ideas, influenced mainly by the level titles in AD&D and the conception of the class in the computer game Ultima III.  I really like the explanatory fluff for illusionists in the 4th printing of the C&C Player’s Handbook, which, in short, describes illusions as creating realities from the beliefs, fears, and wishes of the caster and/or subject of the spells.  I’d go even further and make Illusionists mystics who take advantage of the illusory nature of reality itself to manipulate the consciousness of others and reality.  I suppose this must be influenced by Buddhist and Hindu ideas about the illusory nature of phenomena experienced by the unenlightened, and the siddhis available to those with insight into the true nature of reality, as well as traditional Western “stage magic“.

I’ll try to make this as general as possible so you can easily adapt it to whatever game you play (early editions of D&D/AD&D, C&C, or a retro-clone).


Illusionists are a sub-class of magic-users.  They are mountebanks and tricksters who use a combination of magic and sleight of hand to distract and fool others.  As adventurers, they bring their formidable skills of deception, intimidation, and stealth to the table and can play a support role similar to thieves and magic users.

Prime requisites: Intelligence and Dexterity.  (In D&D and variants, both stats must be 15 or higher to gain an experience bonus. In OSRIC/AD&D, the minimum attributes are 12 Int., 12 Dex., and 10 Cha.  In C&C, the prime is Intelligence, and Dexterity and Charisma  are recommended additional  chosen primes)

Experience: As Magic-Users.

Races: Only humans can become illusionists, unless the DM finds it an appropriate class for other races in her campaign.

Hit Dice: d4 (progress as per Magic-Users)

Class Abilities:

  • At first level, illusionists gain Pick Pockets (Sleight of Hand) and Hide in Shadows and have these abilities as an equivalent level thief.
  • Illusionists can also cast spells as a magic-user, choosing spells from their own specialized list.   (The DM should review the spell lists to see if any other Magic-User & Cleric  spells should be added to the illusionist list, and contrariwise if any Illusionist spells on the existing lists should be deleted.  I would, for example, add Rope Trick, Animal Summoning, Snake Charm, Levitation, and Create Food & Water to the Illusionist’s repertoire, but remove direct-damage spells like the Dark Chaos, etc. spells in the C&C list.  My criteria would be emulating the tricks real-world magicians and fakirs perform.
  • The material components of illusionist spells, if used, will generally be “props” which are not necessarily consumed by a casting but also much more expensive than normal “one-shot” components.
  • They may use any magic item allowed to Magic Users except for those which rely on “evocation” type spells (Wand of Magic Missiles, Wand of Lightning, Staff of the Magi, etc.).  They may use any other Magic-User item like bracers, amulets, hats, etc.  They may also use a limited range of Thief magic items, provided they are not weapons or armor prohibited to Illusionists.  The DM should use her discretion to decide which items are appropriate for Illusionists to use.
  • At 4th level, an illusionist may acquire a special kind of henchman called an Assistant,  who helps the Illusionist work his or her trade by providing some additional distraction.  The Assistant will be a first level Illusionist.  Whenever working with an Assistant, an Illusionist can memorize one additional first level spell (as well as one additional cantrip if these are used).  These bonus spells are lost if the Assistant dies, loses consciousness, or is otherwise unable to assist the Illusionist.  Similarly, if the Assistant assists the Illusionist in any spell he casts (taking no other effective action, but possibly walking, hiding, etc.) the illusion will be extra potent and reduce saving throws against it by one.  When an Assistant reaches 4th level he or she will leave the Illusionist’s service (although they may also leave sooner if better opportunities arise or they are ill-treated).  Although an Illusionist can gain these benefits from no more than one Assistant at a time, he may have as many as his Charisma allows.  It is up to the DM to determine how assistants are gained (through guilds, apprenticeship, want-ads, etc.)  If an Assistant dies and is not raised/resurrected, the Illusionist will get a bad reputation among the pool of potential replacements and can not acquire a  new Assistant, but no other permanent penalties are applied.  Illusionists cannot cast Find Familiar, and cannot gain familiars, although they may own, befriend, and train animals.
  • Illusionists may use daggers, darts, and staffs as weapons, and cannot wear armor nor use shields.  They may use flaming oil and poison.
  • Illusionist may research new spells as Magic-Users do, but will very rarely share their secrets with other illusionists.  A guild may enforce a code of secrecy, which allows only certain members to sell their spells, and these generally only to other members.  Those who break this code will face expulsion, shunning, and possibly worse.

Published in: on April 23, 2010 at 11:11 am  Comments (3)  
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3 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. I like it except for one thing… only humans?? I can totally see very Fae elves being illusionists. And are you really going to leave out gnomes?

    • Well, I see the demihumans getting their magic either inherently (elves) or from nature (gnomes, dwarves). Fairy-type elves are using glamour, which I don’t see as being the same as Illusionist illusions. Plus do gnomes really have the stage presence to be illusionists? Well, maybe… there is always Magical Trevor, who is probably a gnome.

      But I also think only humans should be allowed to be bards, druids, and monks, while we’re at it, and I kind of dislike the idea that elves can be clerics…

  2. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Michael Scott. Michael Scott said: The Illusionist « Swords & Dorkery […]

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