Illusions in RPGs are a sore spot with me. They offer so much potential, but rarely meet their promise because game masters use them poorly. This article is my attempt to add some reality to your campaign’s illusions. Whether through holography, magic or mental might illusion creation exists across the genre spectrum from sci-fi to high fantasy. Real objects magically or technologically constructed (e.g. the Star Trek Holodeck) are beyond this article’s scope. Today’s article focuses on true illusions, not constructs with tangible, quantifiable mass and density.
This article is about faith and how to make players, not PCs, but players believe in your false reality. Gamers my age all played at least one game where an illusory critter attacked and we failed our “disbelieve” check and so we kept fighting, usually playing an older D&D version. The mechanic is fine, but too often the meta game sucked the life out of the encounter. The PCs that made the saving throw walked right through the creature and the non-saving party members just failed to notice that the rest of the party was not doing anything and not getting injured. So the unlucky player gets clobbered with damage (sometimes illusory, sometimes real depending on the game) until he saves or the illusion ends.
It is far, far more entertaining to actually trick the players into believing the illusion. Many systems require player-driven checks to discern a potential illusion, so convince the players that they are facing a “real” object/encounter. My idea really only works for these systems, but the mechanic is widespread enough to make it valuable.
Palladium Nightbane has an NPC character class called a “Night Prince.” Powerful illusionists, Night Princes are literally a one-trick villain. Once the PCs figure out this fact the princes have little value. Every encounter starts with “I role to disbelieve….” That said, if you believe the illusions they do damage sufficient to kill or incapacitate a PC, but you need belief.
I decided the best solution was to combine reality with the illusion. The PCs burst in on a prince and after exchanging a few words, throw down. The prince draws a plasma rifle and promptly fires at a PC, incinerating flesh. Now, the plasma rifle appeared in a previous game session and scared the living bejesus out of the party with its massive damage. The players rightly feared it. There was just one thing they did not know…
The rifle only fires twice per mêlée round, which in the Palladium system greatly limits its utility. The NP had seven attacks, so I just mixed in illusory shots with the real ones. The first shot was real, followed by a fake shot (doing illusory damage) and then a real one doing real damage. No one even considered making the “disbelieve” roll. A player using good tactics severed the plasma rifle’s power cable (it had a backpack power unit) and rejoiced in his seeming victory. The night prince promptly “repaired” the unit and continued firing. It was all illusory, but the players bought it completely and kept the fight going, dodging deadly shots from the night prince’s non-functional hand cannon. Good times.
Ultimately it is about player expectations on a meta-game level. Yes, I know many gamers frown on meta-gaming, but I see nothing wrong with enhancing the game by exploiting your players expectations.
Trask, The Last Tyromancer