Rolemaster Spell Law Deconstructed. Are Illusions a broken mechanic?

Perhaps more than any other spell, and dating back to AD&D, Illusions have been misused, misunderstood and abused. Some have argued that Illusionists, if played “correctly”, are the most powerful spellcasters in RPGs. That assertion relies on two bedrock principles: creativity of the player and an expansive interpretation of the limits of the spell.

The principle of illusory magic is a bedrock in myth–deployed by trickster gods, Djinn and clever mages in ancient tales and modern pop culture. At first glance the idea of magical mirages is simple, useful and restrained in effect. Unfortunately, AD&D forever changed and corrupted illusions to the delight of rule-lawyers everywhere. For me, it got the point where I didn’t allow Illusionist Base Spells until I could get around to fixing them. What was the mechanic that screwed up illusions? The mechanic of “believing creates reality” first found in Phantasmal Force, a 1st level illusionist spell.

“When this spell is cast, the magic-user creates a visual illusion which will affect all believing creatures which view the Phantasmal Force, even to the extent of suffering damage from phantasmal missiles or from falling into an illusory pit full of sharp spikes” (emphasis mine)

The concept that visual illusions can cause real damage is both revolutionary and game breaking. Like many things D&D, this promotion of Illusion effects has been mainlined into other game systems and now an accepted trope. We can never know the original intent of the “believing” rule–perhaps without a physical component, illusions would be weak and easily ignored? Maybe D&D saw some mental aspects to illusions that created a placebo effect on the unwitting? “Believing” as a game rule is always tricky. Sure, some players can dive into it and roleplay it well, but having a group where some of the characters believe and others don’t can take the players out of the game quickly.

But the more fundamental question is should Illusions have a physical force/touch component to it to begin with? What’s wrong with just having a visual illusion spell that doesn’t have a “touch” or “believe and it will harm you” mechanic? I can think of many, many uses in gameplay. Sure, upon close inspection a foe can determine that a visual effect is an illusion, but that doesn’t minimize it’s potency in many gaming situations.

Spell Law attempted to rationalize this through the “touch” process–giving illusions a physical impact to reinforce the spells authenticity. The Rolemaster Touch spell was a level 2 spell that could be added to other illusion effects. (while working on this post a discussion popped up on the RM Forums HERE).

While D&D mixes many magic types into their spells, Rolemaster’s realms maybe best suited to utilize differing types of illusions into it’s framework. Glamours, phantasms, illusions, mirages, facades etc are all used to describe some type of illusion spell. It might be helpful to create a framework for these words that tie them to certain phenomena or attributes, but for now let’s keep it basic: An illusion is a false sensory stimuli produced by a magical effect. Whether it’s a visual scene, smell, sound or perhaps even a touch, the spells efficacy is dependent on the target. A blind person cannot be affected by a visual illusion, and a deaf person cannot be affected by a sound illusion.

Rolemaster has two realms that work well with illusion, but both should work quite different from a mechanics standpoint. I’m not happy with Spell Law RAW–so like all the other spells, I tore them down and then built up from scratch. To me it’s clear that illusions will work quite differently with each realm.

The realm of elemental powers and physical manipulation, Essence, and more specifically “Light Law” or light manipulation seems a natural fit for visual Illusions. It’s harder to rationalize including physical effects, smell or sound into a “Light Law” spell list though. Sound illusion can fit into a “Sound/sonic Law”, physical effects could fit into “Telekinesis” and smell could be a utility list. Of course, consolidating into a single “Illusions” list with various aspects (sight, sounds, smell, touch) works but requires casting multiple spells to generate a multi-faceted effect. Nonetheless, I don’t see the Essence realm creating illusions that will cause damage if a target “believes”. Instead, Essence illusions are physical manifestations–a hologram or sound machine.

Mentalism, however, opens up a wide range of possibilities. Under our rules (and I think RMU went this route as well) Mentalism illusions are “internal”–a false sense implanted into the target, or targets, mind(s). This allows Mentalism a more flexible and powerful Illusion ability. Unlike Essence though, these Illusions will only be experienced by the target(s). To me this a good balance between Essence and Mentalism spells. Essence allows for manifestations, that are seen by anyone but are limited in scope while Mentalism can be fully immersive but only by select targets. This mental projection also gives the Mentalist the ability to affect the targets nervous system, i.e. pain receptors. This gives Mentalist the ability to incorporate “damage” (via pain penalties and not real damage) in the spell effect.

In my opinion, it’s Mentalist Illusions that best mirror the functions of the D&D Phantasm spell, while Essence emulates the presentation of the Phantasm spell. Rolemasters realm differentiation allow for more precise form/function execution.

These are my solutions. But to revisit the topic: are RAW Rolemaster Illusion spells broken? Should a caster be allowed to add “touch” effects to a bridge illusion so characters can cross a chasm? Does this even make sense? Is an illusion, a false sensory input, compatible with a touch; an actual real directed spell that creates a physical effect? Combining the two break the rules.

Just my 2 cents!


14 thoughts on “Rolemaster Spell Law Deconstructed. Are Illusions a broken mechanic?”

  1. The problem is somewhat in the word Illusion. In RM I think the word Manifestation is a better description for what an essence illusionist is doing. That is why they are capable of doing harm, a physical manifestation, or could just be a sight, sound or small.

    I do think that mentalism and essence illusions should be radically different and along the lines as you describe them.

    Regarding whether your essence illusions should be able to do real damage I would say yes but the spells need to be on the Spirit Mastery list. After all isn’t Charm Kind a sort of Glamour? If that list can happily include Word of Pain right along side Charms and Suggestions then you have a full gamut of mental attacks.

    I could even argue that the touch illusion effects could sit happily on the Wind Law list. There is plenty of ‘hard’ air on that list!

    1. Those are good solutions: either Spirit Mastery for a “mentalist” style believing effect or a elemental solution by using telekinesis or wind for a physical effect. But that still leads to the issue of an Illusionist needing a non base list to wholly create this type of illusion AND the mechanics of “twisting”–combining two spells, concentration etc.
      This touches upon the core problem I had with Spell Law. It was designed to emulate D&D as a bolt on product originally and adopted those tropes and it was a “top down” approach. Define the Professions first and then create spell lists that reinforced the tropes and perceived powers of these Professions. Later companions doubled down on this (Paladin, Nightblade, Witch etc). This led to lists with arbitrary spells, illogical groupings, subsuming the role of skills and just bad mechanics.

  2. I always presumed that “illusions can harm” came from an external source to D&D. Perhaps like “you can die in your sleep” (never could work out how anyone knew that). Psychosomatic damage essentially.

    I can’t see a purely illusionary bridge working to cross a chasm, especially if those using it know it’s an illusion. At some point physical reality has got to override illusionary reality. Which makes illusions a great way of getting people to fall into chasms. An illusion damaging people is the affected individual being damaged by their own mind. A chasm hurting people is physical reality overriding the mind.

    If the illusion has an actual physical presence to me that is no longer an illusion but something else, such as a conjuration .

    1. The bridge example was brought up somewhere on the RM Forums and/or a blog I read somewhere, but there are dozens of those extreme examples that players have argued in the past.

      I see two types of damage–physical damage from a different type of spell or “illusory” damage that the target believes but is still not real. The D&D phantasm breaks that logic. In my game illusory damage is given as hits and pain mods but he hits are just a technique to trick the player–an illusion in real life!

      But I agree completely with your last sentence, Illusions are just that, while physical manifestations may augment an illusion they aren’t ephemeral by definition. So why should physical manifestations be included in an illusionists Base lists if they fall outside the Illusion framework? Just to maintain Profession cohesion?

      1. Interestingly, D&D 5E has phantasmal killer, and similar spells, dealing psychic damage. Which looks pretty similar to normal damage but does make it clear that the targeted character is being mentally affected by the spell, rather than physically.

        I’ve never personally dealt much with illusion magic, tending more towards the “blow stuff up” types, so I didn’t realise the sort of problems it could cause.

        I think I personally wouldn’t have physical manifestations included in Illusion lists, but instead be some type of hybrid. I also think a lot of the later RM professions are technically broken, as those in later Companions perhaps only worked with the game they were house rules from.

        1. Phantasmal Killer is a great spell–I adopted several variations for BASiL Mentalism (which I have yet to post up). I like Mentalism for immersive illusions–really the sky is the limit of what a caster can do when they are basically projecting into a target’s mind and/or slaving their nervous system. Plus this calves off “Dream Magic” if the setting supports it.

          1. It does make a heck of a lot of sense as a mental/psionics spell/power, especially as the description even says that it plucks the image from the mind of the target.

            1. I didn’t touch upon this in my post but the other mechanic for Essence Illusions is the use of memory to determine the accuracy and realism of the illusion. As you say, mentalism can pull imagery from the targets mind.

      2. Your house rule is really interesting here.

        I have always assumed that the damage from illusions and phantasms was limited to Rank 1 martial arts and just damage multipliers for exactly the reason you are suggesting. There are no killing criticals on that critical table. The only way to kill with an illusionary attack is by massive numbers of #hits i.e. shock.

        I think the RAW and your house rule are doing the same thing in the same way to achieve the same effect. The difference is that the RAW illusions are reusing an existing attack table to simulate the chance to hit and random nature of combat whereas you are bypassing the table.

    2. I think your conjuration and my manifestation are pretty much the same thing. I can easy see a caster creating a bridge out of thin air, the party escaping across it and the it dissipating at the end of you call it manifestation or conjuration.

      It is the mental connotations of illusion that make you want people to fall through it.

      1. Yes, that’s more terminology than anything. I can see combining an illusion with something else to create something that is real, albeit short lived. I just don’t think that I would class that as a pure illusion spell, but some sort of hybrid. You could probably make an entire spell list based around such a concept.

        1. Is the Illusionist a viable profession in its own right or are illusions just something that magicians/mentalists can do by combining spell effects.

          I don’t mean in your game, which is profession-less but in an alternative Spell Law.

          If you want to keep the illusionist then one needs to completely redefine the professions base lists to be both fitting with the essence realm and the professions description “Illusionist – Illusionists are Pure Spellcasters of Essence
          who have concentrated in spells of misdirection and
          illusion. Their basic spells deal mainly with the
          manipulation of elements and forces that affect the
          human senses: sight, sound, touch, taste, smell, mental
          impulses, and the combination of these senses. More
          subtle than the Magician, the Illusionist is less direct,
          but no less powerful. Professional skills: Awareness,
          Composition, Delving, Magical Expertise, Performance
          Art, Power Manipulation, Spellcasting”

          Especially the ‘more subtle than the magician’ part but probably with the same elemental base lists but inserting you suggested light illusions into light law, touches into wind law and so on.

          1. As you know, I separated out each element into its own unique base lists. Illusions were rolled into Light Law base lists. This also includes traditional light spells, electricity etc. The premise being “photonic control” ie visible spectrum which would include energistic output like shock bolts and electricity. So that makes illusions a subset ability of a “light mage” (or whatever you want to call them).

            When doing BASiL, I approached it from a logical, organizational process. How should spells be grouped? What spells should be kept? What new spell abilities can be added that fit into groupings? Do the spell lists fit the criteria of the realm framework? I never included professions as an organizational criteria. Instead, now that I have these spells grouped with an internal logic, they create professions by default. I’m not sure their is an Illusionist in the same way that RM Raw has it, but a mage who focuses on the Light Law lists could be called an Illusionist. Or a Shock Mage, or Light Magician, or White Mage etc.

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