Project Arcana: Illusion Spells 3

In the first discussion of Illusion, I worked hard to show that illusion is a magic that directly affects the mind instead of affecting the environment. In this installment of Project Arcana’s investigation of Illusion, I’m going to be analyzing Illusion’s spells to see how well they conform to that basic mechanic.

Illusion is going to break down into three Forms: Blind Spots, Sense Manipulations, and Mind Injections.

Illusion spells deceive the mind or senses of others. They cause creatures to see, hear, and smell things that are not real, or to overlook those that are real.


Blind Spots take advantage of the quirks of the visual system.

Sense Manipulations
create illusory sights, sounds, sensations, and smells,

Mind Injections
tap into a creature’s mind and create sensations directly in the mind.

The Illusion Spell Table

Blind SpotMind InjectionSense Manipulation
BlurAlarm (*Abjuration)Disguise Self
Color SprayDreamHallucinatory Terrain
Greater InvisibilityFearIllusory Script
Hypnotic PatternPhantasmal KillerMagic Mouth
InvisibilityWeirdMajor Image
MisleadMinor Illusion
Mirror Image
Phantasmal Force
Programmed Illusion
Silent Image

Let’s break the spells down by form.

Blind Spots

Let’s start with a subtype of Illusion spells that take advantage of the quirks of the visual system. I’m going to call these ‘Blind Spots‘: Color Spray (1), Blur (2), Invisibility (2), Hypnotic Pattern (3), Greater Invisibility (4), Mislead (5).

Blur, Invisibility, Greater Invisibility, and Mislead leverage the tendency of the mind to overlook things that it doesn’t find interesting, and to fill in gaps where it doesn’t have enough information. Color Spray induces temporary blindness by saturating the visual system with ‘noise’. Mislead combines Invisibility with Mirror Image (A Sense Manipulation spell.), and it makes sense that a higher-level spell would combine multiple lower-level spells for a more advanced effect.

That leaves Hypnotic Pattern (3). The description of this spell makes it clear that it is a visible effect, as if the spell creates a holographic image. Therefore, it doesn’t at all fit the concept of an illusion, because illusions happen in the mind. But, if we do away with the idea that there is an actual visible effect that somehow charms the victim, it fits here as a brain hack via direct manipulation of the optic nerves. Sort of an illusory version of ‘snow crash’. With this slight tweak, we can add it to this group and keep it as an Illusion spell.

“Both. Neither. What’s the difference?”

Sense Manipulations

The next subtype is focused on illusory sights, sounds, and smells, which I’m going to describe as Sense ManipulationsDisguise Self (1), Illusory Script (1), Silent Image (1), Magic Mouth (2), Mirror Image (2), Major Image (3), Hallucinatory Terrain (4), Programmed Illusion (6). These spells are more intricate illusions, some of which affect multiple senses. All of these spells provide a way to suggest realistic sensory experiences to creatures. These also leverage the tendency of our brains to flesh out details and ignore inconsistencies, but they’re far more elaborate than the Blind Spots.

Some of these also tickle two other senses: hearing and smell, both of which are more difficult to spoof than vision. Major Illusion can also project illusory hot and cold. Programmed Illusion (6) is another example of combining lower-level spells. In this case, it combines an illusion with a trigger (and some sort of way to ‘store’ the magic).

Sure, that seems legit. I believe!

Mind Injections

The last grouping of Illusion spells spells tap into a creature’s mind, place sensations directly into the mind, and sometimes both. The Mind Injection spells are: Fear (3), Phantasmal Killer (4), Dream (5), and Weird (9)Fear, Phantasmal Killer, and Weird all pull dark fears out of the creature’s mind, then project those fears back into their minds. Phantasmal Killer and Weird actually cause the mind to damage itself!

As stated in the first sentence of the school’s description, illusion is a magic that works on the mind and uses the mind’s shortcuts against it. The Mind Injections show this very clearly. This makes illusions closely related to enchantments, which also directly affect the brain. The effects of illusions are sensory in nature, where enchantment affects emotions and thoughts.

Those following along closely at home may have noticed that not all Illusion spells were listed above. There are some spells that 5e tags as ‘Illusion’ that simply don’t fit in with description of the school or the other spells. Which leads me to wonder…

What the hell, Illusion?

Here is where 5e Illusion and I part ways. Hard. The remainder of the spells specified in the School of Illusion clearly do not work by “…[deceiving] the sense or minds of others”. 

Three Illusion spells involve creating actual physical objects: Phantom Steed (3), Mirage Arcane (5), and Creation (5).

Phantom Steed might as well be renamed Tenser’s Magnificent Stallion. It goes into Evocation.

Mirage Arcane Screw it, I’m not going to talk about Mirage Arcane again. Frankly, at this point we don’t know what to do with it. We’re going to put it at the bottom of the spell list with an asterisk and pointedly ignore it.

Creation is a load of crap! That spell has the Illusionist pulling ‘shadow stuff’ from the Shadow Realm to create an actual physical object. Creating physical objects is to an illusion what baking a cake is to being a butcher. (Yeah, I went there.) Plus, reaching into other dimensions is a conjuration! Not only is the butcher baking your pastries, he’s doing it using mechanic’s tools. Clearly Creation, with its cross-dimensional shenanigans, is a Conjuration.

Project Image (7) is a spell that almost works as an Illusion. Creating an image with sound in the minds of creatures is obviously Illusion; that’s exactly what Major Illusion does. But where Project Image wanders off the straight and narrow is the ability to see and hear through the projected image. Seeing and hearing at a distance is absolutely a Divination ability (Clairvoyance, in fact.). Plus, the spell description is just stupid: “Physical interaction with the image reveals it to be an Illusion, because things can pass through it. … If the Illusion takes any damage, it disappears, and the spell ends.” If things pass through this illusion, then how does it take damage? I’m not sure what to do with this one, but it’s not an Illusion, and it’s really not a Divination, either, because of the projected image and sound. Perhaps it’s an compound spell made of Major Image (3,Ill), and Clairvoyance (3,Div), in which case it should be available to both schools. (This goes into the whole concept of ‘connective’ magic that I’m all excited about.)

Nystul’s Magic Aura (2) is a simple and low-level spell that fools Divination effects. We’ve established that Divination is a magical expansion of the impressions that are delivered to the senses, so we’re not messing with the senses of the caster, but rather we’re messing with the magic of the Divination spell (et al). Clearly magic affecting magic, so it goes into Neutrum.

Simulacrum (7) – This spell creates a semi-sentient creature from snow and gives it skin. Creating the creature is obviously Vitae, while the skin is clearly within the realm of Illusion. In this case, the lion’s share of the magical effect is the creature’s form and life, which is a Vitae effect. Into Vitae it goes.

New Illusion Spells

Feather Touch
0-level Illusion Cantrip (Sense Manipulation)

Casting Time: 1 bonus action
Range: 30 feet
Components: V,M
Duration: 1 round
This cantrip causes the sensation of a light touch on a creature the caster can see within range. The touch can take whatever form the caster chooses, but it must be light, such as the stroke of a finger, a breath of air, or the tickle of insect legs. It can only affect the outside of the creature, but the target area does not have to be exposed.

1st-level 1 Illusion (Blind Spot)
Casting Time: 1 action
Range: Touch
Components: VS
Duration: 1 turn
By casting this spell, the caster or a willing creature that the caster touches gains a chance to be overlooked or ignored by anyone in within 100 feet who sees him. Observers who fail to make a Wisdom saving throw will simply not notice or will disregard the target and everything he carries, provided the target isn’t bringing attention to himself by acting oddly, or wearing or carrying anything unusual.

At Higher Levels. When you cast this spell using a spell slot of higher than 1st level, you may target 2 additional creatures for each additional level of the slot above 1.

Obekalp’s Feast
1st-level Illusion (Mental Injection)
Casting Time: 1 action
Range: 50 feet
Components: VS
Duration: 1 turn
You tap into the memories of a creature you see within range and the food they’re eating takes on the smell, flavor, and texture that you desire from within their memories. The spell will not radically change the experience of eating the food; it will not make fine food taste foul, or vice-versa, nor will it make inedible objects appear to be food. It can make decent food excellent, and make good food unpleasant.

3 thoughts on “Project Arcana: Illusion Spells

  • Scott

    “Not only is the butcher baking your pastries, he’s doing it using mechanic’s tools.”
    Love it. Well-executed multi-metaphor showing just how absurd the spell description is. 🙂
    Personally, with that one I disregarded the conjuration aspect and went Transmutation all the way; much simpler that a Conjuration/Transmutation mashup that the description requires…

  • Scott

    Also, why did 5e take Phantom Steed out of Conjuration? It made sense there… more than in Illusion, at any rate.

    • Shawn
      Shawn Post author

      Hi Scott.

      I suspect that there was an attempt to rebalance the schools for 5e, although considering that the spells aren’t divvied up among the casters with any relationship to the schools, I wonder why that was important. I can see putting Phantom Steed in Conjuration, but to us the description read more like it was a simple expression of force, rather than a creature conjured from another plane, so we put it into Evocation. I can also support Creation as a Transmutation spell, doing away with the pulling of ‘shadowstuff’. But, that’s kind of what Fabricate is. Of course, Fabricate requires that the base material be the same, so it’s more like magically molding the material than trasmuting it. And it’s a particularly weak spell when you consider that there’s a lower-level spell that creates 45 pounds of food – complex organic compounds – from literally nothing.

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

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