Magicians in Earthdawn lean toward thoughtful and creative play styles. They have a variety of tools, many of which can be applied in inventive, out-of-the-box ways. The Illusionist is, in its own way, the epitome of this. They have the ability to create virtually anything. (Or should that be virtually create any thing? Language is fun.)
We get a lot of questions here, and while illusion magic may not be the biggest category, it’s certainly persistent, and provokes a lot of discussion. This week I thought I would take a few paragraphs to go over illusion magic to try and address some of that—at least broadly speaking.
The first thing I recommend to anybody with questions about illusions is to review the rules on pages 266 and 267 of the Player’s Guide. They cover all the core concepts and might answer any questions on their own.
As mentioned in the rules, there are two basic kinds of illusions: Figments and Illusions (sometimes called “True Illusions”).
It’s a little too simplistic to say figments are “obvious” illusions, but that isn’t a bad conceptual place to start. In general, the purpose of a figment is to entertain, enhance, or distract. To some extent, they are obviously not “real”.
That doesn’t mean figments can’t have an impact! The sounds created by the Unseen Voices spell (Player’s Guide, page 299) are figments, but a guard is still likely to investigate noises in a place they don’t expect. If you set it up properly and enhance the spell through the Mimic Voice talent, you can deceive targets by providing false information.
Generally, a figment acts as the medium through which another effect (magical or otherwise) takes place. The Disaster spell (Player’s Guide, page 295) is one example. The illusion itself isn’t meant to stand up to scrutiny, merely distract the chosen targets for a few moments.
Figments cannot directly harm (cause damage to) a target. Any test made to interact with a figment reveals its illusory nature. Perception (or Awareness) tests to initially spot or notice one shouldn’t trigger this, but closer investigation should. For example, the guard targeted by Unseen Voices would notice the voices aren’t real when they go around the corner to see who’s there.
True Illusions are more versatile and powerful. Any illusion that causes damage must be a True Illusion. Their magical energies are capable of altering the target’s pattern–resulting in damage–and convincing the target the effect is authentic. An illusory effect can be more potentially powerful than an equivalent “real” spell, but at a cost: the effects require a conscious mind (or the closest thing to it), and there is a chance the target can undo the effect by noticing it’s illusory underpinnings.
In addition to regular Namegivers, undead, spirits, Horrors, and even animals can be affected by illusions. Anything with senses that could be deceived or manipulated might fall victim to an illusion. Even truly mindless targets, like some falsemen or similar constructs, can fall prey to an illusion–after all, they have a pattern for the spell energy to manipulate. They should behave as though the illusion is real, and while unable to make a deliberate effort to disbelieve or detect an illusion, other tests they make can still disrupt the spell. For example, a high enough Attack test on a character with the Monstrous Mantle spell (Player’s Guide, page 297) counts as a Sensing test and can end the effect.
This brings us to the topic of Sensing and Disbelief. When an individual makes a roll interacting with or investigating an illusion, they have the chance to notice discrepancies or other flaws indicating they are dealing with an illusion. The GM does not need to decide these flaws in advance.
You can feel free to come up with them in the moment—though obviously this depends on how comfortable you are at improvisation. If you’re using illusions as a challenge for your players, you can come up with a couple of ways the illusion falls apart, but your goal (and the point of illusion magic) is not usually to have your players solve a puzzle to uncover the illusion. If the test isn’t sufficient to sense the deception, the magic reinforces the deception and the character simply doesn’t notice.
Once a character notices an effect is an illusion, it doesn’t hold any power over them. In some cases, the sensation is still present, but it’s true nature as an illusion to that observer is just obvious (becoming, in one sense, a figment). Through their knowledge they can help their friends and allies notice the illusion as well (this is represented with a bonus to appropriate Sensing tests).
Disbelief is handled differently in Fourth Edition. In previous editions, actively “disbelieving” an illusion required a test, and it was possible—even in the face of knowing a particular effect was false—to still be affected by it. In Fourth Edition, only specific, damaging effects can be disbelieved. You get one shot, one choice, and that’s it. There is no test to make, no bonuses to apply. It’s an all-or-nothing affair, and it’s risky. As a GM you should make it generally known that player characters always have the option to try and disbelieve an attack spell, but offering it as a choice every time a damaging spell is cast on them will quickly get tiresome.
One way to get around this difficulty is for the players (and their characters) to be forewarned. If they know they are facing an Illusionist (or other opponent that uses Illusion magic), then you can be a bit more proactive about reminding players of the option to disbelieve. Of course, Illusionists thrive on misdirection, and one with ill intentions is not likely to advertise their status as a practitioner of the Discipline. In this case, what the characters don’t know could very well hurt them.
The exact amount of any particular element you choose to have in your Earthdawn game is ultimately a matter of taste. But the difficulty of adjudicating illusions can lead many gamemasters to minimize (or completely eliminate) their presence in the game. Some even go as far as disallowing Illusionist player characters! If you’re one of those, I hope this post has made you reconsider your position, and made you willing to spice things up with a little bit of magical deception.