Monday, July 3, 2017

Late-Era Gygax on Phantasmal Forces

I ran into an interesting quote from Gygax in the ENWorld Q&A thread, circa 2005. Noting that phantasmal forces started in Chainmail by conjuring a phantasmal force of fighting-men (see here), he seems to assert that it still works the same way in AD&D (link):
The illusionary force can be of any sort, but it must be a force--anything from a great swarm of insects to a herd of animals, a company of knights or a battle of pikemen, a tribe of bugbears or a flock of wyverns.
This seems to rather directly contradict the rule given in the AD&D PHB that allows "any object, or creature, or force" (including examples of missiles and a pit with spikes). That exact phrase was copy-pasted forward throughout the 2E and 3E rulesets. Looking at OD&D it may be slightly ambiguous: there it says "anything the user envisions" without further detail.

But for me this highlights that in Gygax's mind, the different game editions were very much a continuum of one long work (and not a series of discrete, standalone works). It reminds us of the numerous instances of a rule in OD&D that refers back to Chainmail; or many in 1E that only makes sense in a fuller context given in OD&D, etc. Gygax very frequently overlooked providing some important elements in OD&D and AD&D because -- I think -- in his mind they were obvious rulings based on familiarity with the prior game(s).

This does give some amount of credence to the argument that "you can't learn D&D from just reading the books" -- even though I always resist that, because it's exactly how I entered the hobby myself (not having any mentors available in the rural locale where I grew up).

The other thing I notice, lower down on that web page, is his use of the construction "A/D&D". Which reminds me of someone referring to programming in "C/C++" online, which in my experience usually triggers a hundred programmer voices crying out in horror that "there's no such programming language!".

Another random thought: Surely there's a D&D PHD to be had in going through the ENWorld Q&A and comprehensively analyzing all of Gygax's comments about the game from that time frame. However: My archived PDF copy, containing only Gygax's post and nobody else's, runs almost 2,500 pages! (In, admittedly, a fairly large font.)

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An interesting open question might be -- If this was Gygax's instinct in his own late-era play, then is this an attractive ruling for phantasmal force in D&D? Might it not be a much easier spell to judge, without all the misery of disbelief, and falling into empty spaces that don't really exist (i.e., always a squad of homogenous creatures)? I can see a certain clarity and charm to that. What do you think?


19 comments:

  1. Oh, so that's why it is called Phantasmal FORCE. :)
    It would for sure be a cleaner spell to adjudicate (mostly*), don't know if it would be a better spell. I would have to look at it in relation to other spells of its level to consider if it is a spell that would actually be used. Or if it is too single purpose.
    * I could see some issued around "forces" of oddball creatures, very tall, very small, odd movement capabilities, etc.

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  2. I have never really been happy with Phantasmal Force. (Being most familiar with the oAD&D version.)
    On the one hand, it almost seems too open-ended.
    On the other hand, tha lack of any sound makes it seem too limited. Even a static object would need to make sound when interacted with to be convincing enough to cause damage. Or even convincing enough for reliable lesser effects.
    Dropping the “no sound” limitation but limiting it to a military unit or similar group of creatures... I’m not sure that it makes it significantly easier to judge, but I do think it makes for a more interesting spell. And leaves more room for other illusory spells to be created.
    On books: I may have learned a lot of the game from the books, but I certainly learned a lot more once I found Dragonsfoot and the Pied Piper forums. Those forums were just text as well, though. Everything I learned there could have been in the books.
    The real point about learning the game from books is this: The game can be learned more efficiently through play than through books.
    Although maybe books + play is even better.

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    1. sigh I’m so use to most web forms taking some variant of Markdown, I forgot to add paragraph markup.

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    2. Great observations. The addition of web forums & online sites has definitely been a huge plus to the resources we have to learn about the game. (And also to broadcast our own thoughts about it. :-)

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  3. Very insightful. I always assumed that "force/forces" in the name of the spell referred to eldritch energies (as in a "force field"). Having it pointed out that it refers to military forces is a helpful clarification.

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    1. It's one of may favorite clarifications I got from reading OD&D!

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  4. That is interesting... If I had time to do some research, I think there is a lot of reference material of "phantasmal forces" being conjured to aid.

    Well... Looking that your post on Phantasmal Forces through the ages, there is two references in the comments.

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    1. http://deltasdnd.blogspot.com.br/2012/02/spells-through-ages-phantasmal-forces.html?showComment=1492952643888#c6618337462966122626

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  5. I think I roughly agree with Gygax here. I just ran a game for my nephews and when they asked what it did, I said they could make it look like anything attacking. So re MU picked it. He made it look like fire-ball firing cannons. Which I thought was rad. But he didn't tell the other characters. So as the whole place went up in illusory flames the ones who failed their I or W checks had to save for ½ dmg! Fun times.

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    1. There's, like, no way to dislike that. :-)

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  6. I have a problem with the interpretation, as there are no other illusion spells to fall back on in OD&D (or B/X) if you want to do something besides a "force of creatures." I suppose some effects might be subsumed under a liberal interpretation of HALLUCINATORY TERRAIN (making a hovel appear to be a mansion or vice versa), but simple illusions disappear from the game. As such enchantments are a staple of fantasy, folklore, and S&S tales, I find this narrow view of the spell irritating.

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    1. This is an excellent point. Perhaps if we include other spells at higher levels that are more generalized (and also longer-lasting?). For example, the AD&D PHB has illusionist-class spells spectral forces at 3rd level, and permanent illusion and programmed illusion at 6th.

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    2. Sure...but the illusionist class doesn't appear in OD&D.

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    3. Well of course you're right. This would presume some added spells to the magic-user's list in that fashion. Taking the Gygax interpretation would also require the Gygaxian expectation that there are other spells out in the world permitting those kinds of superior effects seen in dungeon trickery.

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  7. I like it being specific, because that opens up other spell types for Illusionists (illusory wall comes to mind), which restricts their power a little and gives them more interesting choices to make. This also makes it more palatable for the DM to adjudicate illusions more generously, because the illusionist is working within some restrictions already. It also leaves more room to rule that the illusion operates independently unless specifically directed by the caster, because the spell was constructed with some built-in assumptions about what the spell could do (like having different computer programs to do different tasks). So while JB and I are looking at the same issue, I see it as a positive because there are opportunities for new spells and refinement of the Illusionist.

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    1. However, I could totally see Gygax answering the question with "what goes in my game regardless of edition" which is a different position from answering what is the rule FOR that edition. People get their wires crossed sometimes. Like how the comparison of "Steve's game" to "Gary's game" has as much to do with standing adjudications and house rules as the content of the adventures.

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    2. I broadly agree. On the specifics of Gygax's responses, I think I've read enough of his writing that I'd expect him to get sarcastic if someone tried to draw a definitive line between RAW and how he played.

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  8. I have no opinion on the topic of Phantasmal Force, but on books, I too was someone who learned by reading the books (in my case, my neighbor's 1st edition AD&D books). I do find the historical delving into the intent of Gygax et al to be of great interest, since my interpretation did not always match his intent. Since I don't have any experience with Chainmail or Wilderness Survival, learning where there are assumptions of familiarity help me fill in the gaps in the games I play.

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    1. Thanks for the comment! I'm so glad you feel the same way to appreciate what I'm writing about. It totally fascinates me all the time.

      Consider also getting Jon Peterson's book Playing At the World. He's done such a great job at telling the history of gaming in the century-or-so up to D&D from a number of different perspectives.

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