16 January 2015

Earthdawn 4E: Anatomy of a Discipline 19 - Illusionist Part 1, Spells

This is the nineteenth 4E Anatomy of a Discipline, an ongoing series about Earthdawn Fourth Edition. Introduction and Index.

Everything contained here is the work of a fan and not associated with FASA Games.

The spell selection for Illusionists is a little eclectic. They have a smattering of buff, damage, and debuff spells for combat - many of which have above normal numbers, but also have the downside of being an illusion. However, their biggest area of expertise is outside of combat operating in social situations and through trickery, particularly illusions and mind magic. The nature of their illusion magic also means they have access to some spells which find loopholes in reality as we know it, generally through spatial manipulation.


During development of Earthdawn Fourth Edition, one thing was very clear: the mechanics for illusions needed help. A complete listing of the problems is a fool's errand, because they are endemic to every aspect of the mechanics. To resolve this, it was burned to the ground and entirely rebuilt.

The first part, perhaps the most important, was looking at how illusions functioned within the setting and the various roles they play. It became clear quite a bit of confusion could be prevented from putting the effects previously known as illusions into three different categories.

Mind-affecting spells are the first category. They are no longer associated with illusions and these kinds of spells are available to multiple spellcasting disciplines; Illusionists just happen to get the lion's share. These are typified by a static effect step and have a rather specific effect. The distinction between these spells and illusions can be subtle, but these spells do not adapt to a situation and the target is likely going to know what happened when the duration wears off.

Figments are the second category and are a subset of illusions, though not really referred to as such. They are designed to fool the senses temporarily, but nothing more. While these can be convincing, but interaction with them will immediately reveal them to be fake. They are nothing more than images and sound; quite realistic, but clearly just figments. This is what most Illusionists want you to think is the extent of their powers. There are no special mechanics around these effects.

True illusions are where things get complicated and developing the metaphysics became important. These effects don't create images, scents, and sounds like a figment, instead they compel the observer to believe these things exist. The illusion uses the observers' feedback to actively adapt and continue compelling them to believe. In many ways, true illusions break the laws of magic as Wizards understand them. Illusionists, however, have learned to exploit this flexibility to create spatial distortions, among other stranger effects. While they utilize this magic, it is poorly understood.

The strength of a true illusions comes from the fact the observer can interact with it, which leads to its credibility. However, it's ability to adapt to intense scrutiny is limited and an observer can penetrate the illusion. This is the sensing test, which was carried forward from previous editions. The scope of sensing tests was expanded and is left largely to GM discretion since there is no point in trying to plan for every way a player may interact with an illusion.

Disbelief tests were done away with for most illusions (more on this later). At best, they make the process more complicated, but generally just serve as a source of frustration - there is something strange about having to make a roll and pay Strain to see if you can disbelieve something. This was to discourage people from disbelieving everything, since it was an easier test, but also part of why the system didn't work. There is also a cumulative bonus to sensing tests if others have passed and are trying to help so you are not left with a situation where everyone has left the illusionary box except for one character who has gone unconscious from failed disbelief tests.

Illusions which cause damage are a little different. Since the interplay of the true/false spells was part of the fun for many players, this was maintained. To keep the theme of simplifying the mechanics, these spells can be disbelieved. The system is simple: do you disbelieve the spell? If yes, you are successful, no test. If it's an illusion, nothing happens to you - hooray! However, if the spell is real, it's bad news. As an aside: you cannot disbelieve a spell an ally is casting on you which you know to be real just to artificially lower your Mystic Defense and get extra successes - your character knows it is real.

The goal was to create some simple, unified systems which are easy to use and adjudicate in play. Along these lines, the difficulties for sensing tests are no longer based on a table, unless they are dictated by the effect test of the spell. Instead, they are just based on a table - all illusions of the same circle have the same sensing difficulty. Which, if you are curious, is Circle+15. This is similar to streamlining dispel difficulties (Circle+10), thread weaving difficulties (Circle+4), and reattuning-on-the-fly difficulties (Circle+9).

One request which was made clear by fans and shared by the developers was to have more Illusionist spells which were copies of the effects of other disciplines. Not all spells are suitable for this conversion, but there were a number of spells brought over towards this end.

First Circle

Assuring Touch: A nice buff against fear effects, giving a bonus to pretty much everything required to resist them. With 0 threads it can be cast in combat if necessary, and the ability to extend the duration into minutes makes this something most Illusionists should keep in their back pocket. <>

Best Face: If you or your group intend on engaging in impersonation shenanigans, this is pretty much a must. <>

Cloak: The odds are reasonable your group will include someone with Stealthy Stride (it could even be you!). If so, this is a solid boost to said character(s) with a default duration in minutes and the ability to extend it to multiple targets. It seems strange this is actually the new first circle spell, but here it is. 

Disaster: The magical equivalent to "your shoe is untied". Best used to either get the jump on some opponents, or to make a getaway. Since it has 0 threads, this is a solid choice for always inhabiting a Standard Matrix since you never know when it is going to be useful. <>

Encrypt: Not necessarily for every spellcaster, but definitely for anyone involved with intrigue; the ability to make text gibberish can vary from invaluable to useless depending on the campaign. <>

Ephemeral Bolt: One half of the basic attack spell for Illusionists. You are going to want this along with its true counterpart. The good news is both of these 0 thread spells fit into the same spell matrix. The even better news is if a target is affected by this spell they get penalties to Willpower tests until the end of the next round, making them even more susceptible to your tricksy ways. <>

Fun With Doors: For the Wile E. Coyote effects alone, this spell feels like a must. The two threads means you are going to need to plan your usage in advance. This spell plays very well into the themes of the Illusionist and how they effectively use their magic. <>

Monstrous Mantle: A 0 thread buff spell which improves attack, damage, and defense. It can be extended to additional targets for a thread, but cannot have the duration extended into minutes. This spell is powerful, but is also an illusion and is susceptible to a variety of sensing tests. <>

Send Message: Again, characters involved with intrigue or any sensitive social interactions will consider this a must. While it does allow for secret communication, if you are expecting a fight there are better choices. <>

True Ephemeral Bolt: The other half of the Illusionist's basic combat spell. This has lower damage than its illusory counterpart, but targets get penalties to sensing tests. <>

Trust: The ultimate fast-talking spell - Illusionists should not leave home without it. Keep in mind you do not want to use this spell on someone you will be dealing with again in the future: targets are aware something was done to them and don't particularly appreciate it. <>

Unseen Voices: Like Fun With Doors, this spell plays into the strengths of an Illusionist. This is less a case of "Will it come up?" and more of "How can I make this useful?". <>

Second Circle

Blindness: It has 1 thread, which can limit its use in combat (except against solo enemies), but with a duration in minutes it has significantly more applications outside of combat, particularly since they are likely to be making less sensing tests outside of combat. <>

Displace Image: For 1 thread, this spell makes the target effectively immune non-area attacks as long as the caster concentrates. And the attackers fail their sensing tests. Stopping concentration means attackers gain cumulative bonuses to their sensing tests, so the effects won't last a whole lot longer. This is a potent spell when used in the right situations, though probably isn't for every situation. <>

Innocent Activity: This particular spell lets the target get away with all of those things you want to do with people around but the GM looks at you incredulously when proposed. This is a spell every Illusionist should at least consider (and probably have). The odds are good this will come up and the ability stretch the duration into minutes increases the versatility. <>

Mind Fog: And if things ever go wrong, this is the spell which can help. It has some use in combat, but the thread and cumulative bonus to the Willpower test limit this usefulness. It is great for bypassing obstacles in the form of people. Another spell every Illusionist should consider. <>

Phantom Flame: One of the few damaging spells available to Illusionists, this replicates a Wizard spell which does damage over two rounds (or more with additional threads). It has one thread, but benefits even more from any additional extra threads because of the duration. The downside is the sensing test which can negate the additional rounds. Particularly combat focused Illusionists will probably want this spell for some added versatility. <>

See the Unseen: It is hard to argue with a bonus to finding hidden things. The default duration for this spell is in minutes and is a contender for a spell which the Illusionist always has active. <>

Third Circle

And Then I Woke Up: A bonus against illusions. If you encounter them, this is may be worth considering. However, if you are the only spellcasting slinging sensing tests, this may not be worth it. <>

Blinding Glare: This can be a great way to significantly hinder a large number of opponents who are menacing you. This can also be a great way to make your friends rather angry. On the whole, this has the most value when used outside of combat to dazzle obstacles and make a getaway. <>

Fog of Jeer: A debilitating area of effect spell. This is particularly effective when used against the support section of the opposition. They tend to be bunched up, away from your allies, and have little to gain from adopting an aggressive attack stance. <>

Nobody Here: Stationary invisibility. Great for getting up to no good and particularly effective for setting up an ambush. This spell is similar to Innocent Activity, but comes with its own advantages and disadvantages. The primary disadvantage is it doesn't play as well with others interacting with the illusion and the targets interacting with the environment. The benefits are a longer duration by default, more targets, and no one knows the targets are even present. <>

Phantom Warrior: This is an interesting buff spell. It provides a bonus to Physical Defense and a penalty to opponent's active defenses (Avoid Blow and Riposte). The bonuses are good (3), even for 1 thread, but it becomes significantly better when an extra thread is woven to affect likely all of your allies. The penalties to sensing tests (the active defenses) give this better than average longevity. <>

Fourth Circle

Clarion Call: With three threads, this isn't likely to be used during an action scene. However, in the right (or wrong, depending on where you sit) hands, this can be a very useful tool. Like many of the spells in an Illusionists toolkit, this is best when used to bypass problems, or find interesting solutions. <>

Great Weapon: No threads and it causes opponents of the target to become Harried. This is effective against solo opponents as well as hordes. As with all of their buff spells, this is an illusion and affected by sensing tests. A downside is additional threads only include one additional target. <>

Notice Not: Similar to Nobody Here, this spell provides effective invisibility to a target. The upside is it allows the target to move freely and interact with the world, however it only affects one target as a default. <>

Phantom Lightning: Another illusory version of a different discipline's combat spell. Very similar to an Elementalist's Lightning Bolt, this is worth considering for Illusionists who want more variety in their damaging spells. Since it is competing with Phantom Flame for a spot, both are 1 thread spells with comparable damage. Phantom Lightning wins out in target rich environments, while Phantom Flame is more useful against tougher opposition. <>

Stop Right There: This is a great spell if you want to capture someone alive or prevent them from giving chase. It has a single thread, so it may require a little advance planning, but it can also be extended to more than one target. It isn't as great for use in combat to beat someone up, but sometimes one turn is all you really need. <>

Suffocation: It has three threads, which is a lot. However, it is also a long range area of effect spell which deals Mystic damage, inflicts harried, and halves movement. This is one of the few area control spells in an Illusionist's arsenal, but it is a potent one. <>

Unmask: If you are involved in a game with a significant amount of intrigue and subterfuge (possibly other Illusionists), this may be pretty useful for a Scooby-Doo style reveal. For more exploration oriented games, it isn't likely to come up. <>

Fifth Circle

Bond of Silence: Like many of the Illusionist spells, this is about finding the right opportunity - failing that, making one. Preventing someone from talking about a particular topic is powerful in that right situation. Situations like taking someone captive, forcing them to lead you to their base of operations, and preventing them from revealing they have been captured. Not that this has specifically come up, or anything. <>

Eye of Truth: If you have And Then I Woke Up, you should consider this spell as it works on your allies as well. As you well know, Illusionists can be really obnoxious to deal with. <>

Illusion: Every Illusionist should probably have this spell simply because of the versatility it offers. <>

Phantom Fireball: A new entry into the "Phantom" series. This one comes from the Elementalist and is a area effect ranged attack which also inflicts blindness. At one thread, this is in the same category as the other two spells. It has the lowest base damage, but will likely affect the most targets.

Presto!: You know the trick with a stage magician and their hat? It's like that - reach into your hat and your hand comes out some other opening. The variety of uses for this is wide... well, okay, mostly planting or stealing things. Just don't let anyone see or it can end prematurely. <>

Switch: Just the kind of shenanigans in which an Illusionist specializes - switching appearances with someone else. This tends to accompany some kind of caper, or is the herald for events descending into chaos. Regardless, it rarely goes well for the other end of the equation. <>

Sixth Circle

Astral Shadow: As you get to be higher Circle, more and more opponents will have access to astral detection, which can foul up standard sneaky techniques. This spells helps with the problem by concealing the target. While it won't protect you if you have been noticed, it is generally good to go unnoticed by anything lurking in astral space. <>

Chosen Path: When someone is given a choice in which way to go, this spell makes the choice an illusion by having only one option. The most obvious use is to prevent someone from following you, but it can also be useful in a caper to divert people either away from somewhere or towards somewhere. <>

Flying Carpet: It's a flying carpet and does pretty much what is advertised. Which is why every Illusionist should have this spell. <>

Illusory Missiles: An area effect damage spell with good damage (WIL+8), good range (40 yards), and a good area (6-yard radius). It does have 2 threads to go along with all of that and this illusion can be in the same spell matrix as its real counterpart. <>

Memory Scribe: You get to change someone's memory - one fact per success. Unless you are only doing hardcore kaer crawling (in which case, why are you playing an Illusionist?), odds are going you will want this spell. And probably abuse it. The downside is you have to touch the target. <>

True Missiles: The real counterpart to Illusory Missiles. It does less damage (WIL+4), but also gives a penalty to the next sensing test. <>

True Switch: You actually change locations with someone and they don't have to be willing. It can be used with an ally as a shortcut into hard to reach places - make them do all of the hard work, swap places, then have them do it all over again - or to put your captor in the prison, or your rival on the wrong side of the lava. <>

Seventh Circle

Dancing Dragon: Summon an inky black illusory dragon! It has the advantage of looking an awful lot like a Nethermancer spell and is pretty dangerous, attacking with your Spellcasting Step and doing Illusionist Circle + 8 damage. With four threads it is pretty intensive, but it is likely to occupy a lot of attention after its arrival. <>

Silent Stampede: Improved sneaking for your entire group and even for those characters who are stereotypically terrible at it (e.g. obsidiman Warrior or troll Sky Raider). This spell actually can affect a large number of people, which makes it perfect for rescuing hostages and prisoners. <>

Stampede: This is a good crowd control spell for two threads. It has a decent range (40 yards) and causes Rank targets to become harried. One of the biggest advantages is it can be cast in the same space as your allies, since it isn't a general area effect. <>

Twisted Tongues: If there is someone you want to embarrass horribly in a social setting, this is one of the best options available. The ability to reduce someone to uttering only gibberish for a few minutes is very useful in the right situation. It's use outside of a social/intrigue style game is limited, but that goes for many of the Illusionist spells. <>

Vertigo: This single thread spell is great for lockdown on a single (or few with extra threads) target. The initial effect isn't terribly strong, -2 to all action tests, but it scales with successes and can give some large penalties with a good roll. Of particular note is the penalty doesn't have an associated type (blindness, harried, etc.) or any resistance on subsequent rounds, which means it can stack easily. <>

Walk Through: Another example of the spatial manipulation of which Illusionists are capable. The ability to go directly through a wall is almost certainly going to be useful at some point. <>

Eighth Circle

Face Lift: For two threads, this is a fairly crippling spell which is useful in a number of different situations, from combat to social. The price is a little steep for a combat debuff, as it only inflicts full darkness penalties (which is still good), but this can also neutralize a Troubadour and their social talents. <>

Form Exchange: I consider this to be the final spell in the Switch and True Switch line as this combines both of the spells. You trade places and appearances with the target, which makes for a seamless deception. The amount of trouble this spell can and has caused is likely immeasurable. <>

Other Place: Want to know how to sneak an army into a keep, or empty the entire treasury? This is the spell. There is a lot of setup required to make good use of this spell. It connects two places and must be cast at each of them, which means the Illusionist has to be present at both locations within two hours. Still, this is amazing for the right situation. <>

Rebel Limb: Have you ever wondered about the answer to the age old question, "Why are you hitting yourself?" This spell may hold the answers. For one thread, you can take control of a target's limb. You have it do pretty much whatever you want. Why wouldn't you want this spell? <>

Shadow Spell: If you deal with spellcasting opponents frequently, this may be a spell for you. At two threads it takes a while to setup, but it can cripple an opposing spellcaster, particularly if they rely on damaging spells quite a bit. It doesn't do much against spellcasters who traffic primarily in buffs for their allies, however. <>

Stench: One of the best lockdown spells available. For two threads, this effectively shuts down everyone in a four-yard radius until they can pass a sensing test. Be careful, however, as the spell is indiscriminate and will affect your allies as well. Given the secondary effects, they aren't likely to be terribly happy about needing to bathe immediately. Not recommended for areas with nice rugs. <>