28 February 2024

Actual Test: House of Illusions (RPG Blog Carnival)

tl;dr: a forewarned party will make mincemeat out of your illusionist.

I table tested the approach to illusions from Bluebard "Death by Illusion" lightly adapted to 3.5e (Illusion save became Will Save) and it worked pretty well. This is also a return to Illusory Sensorum's Illusions & Delusions prompt for the RPG Blog Carnival. I tried to put it into practice and it... kind of worked, kind of went clunk but in a good way.

The background was that the party, children of a noble house, had figured out one of their cousins was being held on their own lands incommunicado by parties unknown. Scrying on them they saw the location they knew with the fittings of a neighbouring realm. Communication attempts through message were interrupted by the scry being countered until someone Sleep'ed their cousin and they saw them being dumped into bed with their also slumbering new wife. Further scrys on known servants revealed them all asleep in the potato cellar. The party deduced that something was going on involving illusions that made the cousin think all was well - they rounded up an 'illusion specialist' by way of the local mages guild and set off down river on a borrowed skiff using their Spelljamming saddle.

From the opposition side - they knew they were blown so they had some time to prepare. They had hostages and were at a fortified chateau, but one they knew the heroes were familiar with.

Philosophical question one - running this somewhat old school should the foes in place be of equal level to challenge the players or should they be of the level equivalent to when this hook was first set up - a force sufficient for the task by the opposition based on the last news the opposition had?

To set this all up I:
First off - I grabbed a map of a fortified chateau as my baseline
Second - I figured out the hostile forces, what they were and what they were disguised as
Third - I gave myself a random roll table of illusionary hazards

As things played out the party flew overhead and Invisibly Feather Fell into the gardens - they were surrounded by traps both illusory and illusion-hidden but both were revealed to the sorcerers Detect Magic. The Bard, Sorcerer and Henchling Illusionist snuck in through a doorway, brute forcing the trap they found there - an illusory Chain Lightning that fizzled. Inside they got some cover from the noise of the opposition withdrawal but are detected by sharp-eared batlings. Evards Black Tentacles makes a mess of the workshop and those guards, allowing the party to escape while the alarm is raised (by dying screams) behind them.

They race upstairs, surrounded by the Bards mothers art collection too 'avant guard' to be allowed at the Palace, threading a few more illusory traps with an en-Light-ened coin being used as the test trigger before they find their hostage cousin, ill and woozy, without their bride. Scrying the bride they see her being loaded into a carriage in the entryway by what looks like their cousin. Detect Thoughts tests the cousin before them and reassured they have the real one, they Messaged the Cleric out in the garden with a Staff of Fire to implement The Contingency Plan.

A Fireball blows up one priceless antique bridge onto the chateau grounds and the cleric sneaks across the garden, arriving at the gravel path in time for much of the opposition to emerge from the entryway to confront who/whatever is out there. The Cleric seized the initiative, and recognising one of the bears facing her is just a guardsman, barges through that 'gap' in the line into the gate house. Attacks of opportunity lash out to low-medium effectiveness. The Bard and Sorcerer dash down through the house to reach the entryhall but the Cleric holds their own enough to Fireball the main drawbridge and prevent the opposition fleeing. The magic-users among the opposition find that enchantments are not so effective while Magic Missile is always a good option. The Bear/guards and Hellhound/dogs leapt to the attack, with the false-hellhounds being the most effective, landing a number of critical hits before a Soundburst stuns enough to buy time.

The Bard and Sorcerer arrive on scene, deploying their own Magic Missiles and then another Black Tentacles to quell the opposition (the guards failing a morale roll while their leadership is stunned/tentacled). The tentacles serve as a barrier to block the remaining effective foes while the heroes mop up within the gatehouse.

Looking at how it played out, the opposition illusionists careful placing of real and fake traps was utterly ruined by the sorcerors Permanent Detect Magic and profligate deployment of Evards Black Tentacles and the clerics willingness to shoulder charge through a line of foes and ridiculous will save. The party was somewhat concerned about property damage (it is their property) but chose to sacrifice some bits of real-estate to shape the conflict as they wanted.

I ran this as rolls on the illusory trap table I cooked up every time the party transitioned between a space (doorways, corridors) combined with a noise/alert driven list of opposition some of whom were wearing illusory disguises anyway. With infinite time one could place all the traps specifically in a detailed map but with a large location and highly mobile PCs experience has shown I cannot prep content efficiently that way. I knew where the mobile opposition were and then when the big noise of the bridge getting fireballed happened that drew everyone towards it.

The most effect was achieved by layering in shape-shifters into the opposition - a second layer of 'are you seeing what you are seeing' - and some elements of the opposition were blocked behind the Tentacles and again slunk away to fight another day - something I note has happened before in encounters I run.

From the point of view of running illusions I think in hindsight the jig was up when the party knew they were walking into reality bending - everything was questioned and they made some twitchy and smart tactical calls. Illusionists thrive where folk do not know they are there, once you know you are storming a house of illusions, half the battle is won already.

Feedback from they players was good on Bluebards rule of DM-rolled saves on first encounter with an illusion; I will be adopting this as standard approach from now. Tagging to Will saves makes 3.5e mid-level PCs good at passively disbelieving but then save DCs in 3.5e also get preposterously high so in some cases it will be needed.

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