As promised in our guide on the Wizard Class, there are loads of ways to play and portray your magic-user.
In this guide, we will discuss how to make an Illusionist. More than just a stage magician, the illusionist is a one-person rave party, a sound-effect board, and a CGI fountain of wonder all rolled into one.
The downside of fireball is that everyone dies at the end. With an illusory fireball, your targets can escape to grow your reputation. And reputation is the biggest illusion of them all.
What Is an Illusionist Wizard?
An illusionist specializes in the Illusion school of magic. Their illusion magic is so finely tuned that they can add special effects and even cause real consequences with their spells.
Like all wizards who specialize in a school of magic, Illusionists can copy and add illusion spells to their spellbook for a reduced time and cost.
Nor are they limited in what spells they can cast as they were in 3rd edition. They can gain spells from any school.
Instead, an Illusionist wizard gains extra abilities and improved versions of their illusion spells.
The Illusion Wizard’s Defining Abilities
- Improved Illusion
- Illusory Self
- “Real” Illusions
The early abilities of an Illusionist work specifically on improving the flexibility and range of your illusion spells.
Improved Minor Illusion allows you to take your favorite cantrip, minor illusion, and double its capability. Typically, you can only do sight OR sound with this cantrip. As an Illusionist, you will be able to do both.
Flashing red and blue lights make a much stronger impression if there is a siren to go with it, right?
At 6th level, your Malleable Illusion ability allows you to switch illusions inside of a single spell.
Normally, if you want to change how an illusion looks or sounds, you have to cast it again. This ability allows you to simply change it, provided you can keep your concentration.
Consider this scenario:
You are an illusionist trying to stealth your way into the dungeon to bust your impulsive Rogue friend out of jail.
You can’t go in there lobbing fireballs because you are outnumbered and outgunned.
But that’s just fine. You are an Illusionist, which means you are one of those rare wizards with a brain.
Two guards are flanking the hallway you need to go down. So you get a mischievous idea.
You craft an illusion of a buxom serving wench carrying a tray of cookies.
Now, normally, you could have her carry the cookies, wink seductively at the guards, and motion for them to enter into an open cell for a mid-work snack break of pleasantly puff pastries.
There’s one problem, your illusion would carry no sound at all. No shuffling of feet, no flirty words, no straining of bodice leather.
With Malleable Illusion however, you can have her drop the tray and make a clatter, you can make the aroma of sweet, sweet baked goods fill the room, or you could have her ask for help carrying those big, heavy cookies.
No matter how you proceed from there, so long as you don’t activate more than two sense experiences at a time, you could potentially lead your guards into an open cell and lock them into it.
You gain the ability at 10th level to create an illusory double of yourself.
Normally, you could do this with any illusion spell, but what makes this ability different is that you can do so as a reaction after you’ve been hit with an attack.
The attack automatically misses, granting you a free get-out-of-pain card you can use once per short rest.
This is a simple ability, but as a feature, this is very useful to you, oh mighty wizard with no armor and very few Hit Points.
When you gain this ability, make sure to keep catnap prepared. That spell gives you bonuses of a short rest, which will reset this ability and make some enemy very, very frustrated with you.
At 14th level, you get the holy grail of all illusion abilities. Your illusions become real.
When you cast an illusion spell of 1st level or higher, you can choose one inanimate object of any size, and it becomes real. This means it can be manipulated without triggering the saving throw in your target.
The Player’s Handbook gives the example of an illusory bridge you and your party can use to cross a chasm. Not only is that a huge illusion, but it is incredibly useful.
The only restriction here is that the inanimate can not cause damage, so an illusory piano falling from the ceiling, while hilarious, must not cause damage.
This means the targets will “automatically pass their saving throw and take no damage” *wink *wink.
That bridge, though? When the bad guys try to cross the bridge, you can simply wink it out of existence. The bridge didn’t cause the damage, the fall did. See how to do that?
So when you toss the macguffin to the villain, make sure you toss an illusory one that is real enough to pass inspection.
The Illusion Wizard’s Limitations
- You are still a wizard
- Illusions are still illusions
You Are Still a Wizard
Yes, wizards are cool. That’s why they exist in this game!
But Illusionists carry with them all the problems of wizard-dom. They have few and precious hit points, typically low armor class, and very little in the way of nonmagical offensive ability.
Illusionists can make up for this with great spells like blur and shadow blade, but those are limited in duration and concentration.
To make up for this, get a cloak of displacement as soon as possible as well as any other magic items that can keep you out both the frying pan AND the fire.
Carry a sling. For real. 1d4+1 is better than a 1d10 firebolt if the target has fire resistance. Any multiclassing you do can be helpful when it comes to armor and weapons to make up for this.
This limitation can be overcome, especially if you remember what you are when you aren’t loaded down with magical gear and play to your strengths, which is to say, be mischievous as hell!
You need to make your DM say, “What exactly is your goal here?” Keep the DM on their toes and confuse the bad guys.
Illusions Are Still Illusions
The tough thing about illusions is that when the target interacts with them, they are granted a saving throw.
Furthermore, you can rarely make an illusion have more than one sensory effect at lower levels.
So, yes, you can make an image of a locked door in a hallway. Using your Improved Minor illusion, you can even make the target feel a locked door when they touch it.
But as soon as they juggle the handle? There is no sound to go with it, thus granting a saving throw.
Should they shoulder up to the door and try to push through? Another saving throw. If they try to swing an ax at the door, the ax will go right through because the ax can’t see illusions. Saving throw.
This is a problem you will have to overcome. But no worries! I talked to one of the expert
liars illusionists here at the Citadel, and this is what they had to say:
Crafting successful illusions is about managing your target’s expectations. When you know what they want to believe, it is much easier to make them believe it.
This means you will have to be wittier than the average wizard. You’ll have to play to your opponents’ expectations and let confirmation bias make their decisions for them.
Consider the local news in your real-life meatspace. Weave a narrative with illusory details around a true structure, and your target won’t question what they are primed to believe.
Illusions are not about outright deception. They are about letting your victims deceive themselves through a lack of healthy skepticism.
Consider this weakness, and play accordingly. Let your target’s assumptions do the deceiving. You are just there to confirm what they already want to be true.
So next time, instead of using an image of a locked door, use a 2D image of an empty room so they can just glance at your magical painting and run on by.
Black Citadel’s Ranking and Tier System
Color and Tier ranking is very helpful when you’re trying to digest a lot of information. In our ongoing series of 5e class guides, we use the following color-rating scheme:
Red – C Tier. Red options can sometimes be situationally useful and might make for an interesting narrative choice but are largely less effective than other tiers.
Green – B Tier. Solid but nothing that is absolutely critical for a build, or Green can be very good but only in very specific situations.
Blue – A Tier. An excellent choice. Widely regarded as powerful in some way, useful, highly effective.
Purple – S Tier. The top of our rankings. Objectively powerful or transformative in some way. No choice in D&D is essential, but these options are worth strongly considering when you create your character.
Our goal here is to provide scannable but comprehensive guides for you as you develop your character.
While we might sometimes make reference to unofficial or homebrew content to illustrate a point (or just because it’s too cool not to talk about), every option we suggest is legal in the official rules for D&D 5e as published by Wizards of the Coast.
Building Your Illusionist
What follows are the step-by-step tools you will need to build the best Illusionist you can build. While you will surely want to customize your character instead of taking our word for it blindly, keep these suggestions in mind.
These options will decide what ROLE YOU PLAY IN YOUR PARTY. Check out our guide on that here.
When building your illusionist, you will obviously need to make Intelligence your highest ability score. Your spells depend on it, and you depend on your spells.
But what about your secondary ability? This choice will define, more than any other, what kind of wizard you are, how you will apply your abjuration spells, and what your position on the battlemap will be.
Dexterity – This stat is the best choice if you do not intend to multiclass. Your Illusory Self ability will save you from getting hit once, but if you are still getting hit every turn, you won’t live long.
With a high dexterity, you can improve your defensive spells, mage armor, shield, and blur while using a decent finesse weapon. Furthermore, the best options for multiclassing an illusionist depend on Dexterity. We will get to that later.
Charisma – This stat can also be your best choice to keep high. Charisma can help you in illusion-adjacent skills like deception and intimidation. In addition, there are other great choices for multiclassing that use Charisma.
Wisdom – This stat can help you with the all-important insight check, which will allow you to better anticipate what your targets are expecting to see so that you can feed them false information more easily.
Constitution – Face it, sometimes you will get hit. Depending on where you are on the battlefield typically, you may consider boosting this stat to give you some extra cushion to your hit points.
Strength – Put the sword down, Illusionist. Just stop. You aren’t a warmage or a bladesinger, so quit playing around.
Your race is one of the most important decisions you can make. The extra abilities granted by this choice and the accompanying stat bonuses will determine what your main tactical decisions are.
Gnome – Generally speaking, gnomes make the best wizards in general. They have a +2 to Intelligence to fuel your spellcasting.
Additionally, the Forest Gnome subrace will grant you free illusion spells you can cast daily without taking up spell slots.
These spells, even though they do not come from your wizard class ability, will still be improved by your illusionist bonuses.
Glaysia Tiefling – Another great choice, this Tiefling subrace will grant you a bonus to your Dexterity and your Charisma. While this will not fuel your spells, it will give a nice bonus to your secondary role as a trickster.
Furthermore, you will get free illusion spells that, like the gnome, will benefit from your illusionist abilities.
Kenku – While Kenku do not get a bonus to Intelligence, their forgery and mimicry abilities lend themselves nicely to the illusionist flavor.
Additionally, if you have an open-minded GM, you could convince them to let you use those abilities in tandem for extra bonuses.
Furthermore, with the Kenku’s limited communication ability, the minor illusion spell can aid in non-standard communique.
For example, instead of saying, “Hey, there’s a trap here,” you could simply outline the trap with an illusory red light.
The Wisdom bonus will boost your insight skill, and if you do multiclass, Wisdom opens several doors.
Your background will grant you skill, tool, and roleplay features that will inform where and how your Illusionist functions in the party.
Criminal/Spy – This background grants you deception and stealth, which, as a trickster-themed character, will benefit you enormously.
The gaming set will give you a way to use your skills to make a bit of money. For example, throw the dice and use minor illusion to make them come up 7 every time. Well, not every time. You’ll get killed for cheating.
The Criminal Contact feature will grant you a network of employers with flexible morals who may have need of someone with your talents.
Charlatan – This background gives you deception and sleight of hand. Both of these work well with your deceptive practices, allowing you to pull cons and misdirections with your improved illusion abilities.
The forgery and disguise kits will give you real material to practice with as you amplify them with the finest illusions.
Finally, your False Identity feature will give you a premade disguise to adopt when you’re not out being mischievous con artist.
Entertainer – With this background, you’ll gain the acrobatics and performance skills which can be used to distract a crowd to either give your allies time or give yourself some coin.
You can spice up your performances with ready illusions, spreading your reputation far and wide.
The disguise kit will grant you anonymity when necessary, and you can use minor illusion easily to disguise your voice if necessary.
Finally, the By Popular Demand ability will make you a point of contact for prospective NPCs and social resources.
Wizards gain access to Arcana, History, Insight, Investigation, Medicine, and Religion. Of these, Arcana is the most important.
Arcana – Arcana will help you decide if a particular target will be susceptible to illusion or not. It is harder to fool constructs and undead because of their mindlessness.
Believe it or not, the dumber something is, the harder it is to deceive it.
Insight – This skill should definitely be one of your choices. A successful insight check can give you a sense of what your target is thinking or feeling, allowing you to better craft illusions to fool them.
Deception – Even though you are probably playing a trickster type, deception is not as necessary as you may believe. Only if you plan on outright lying with your words do you need to roll deception.
For illusions, it’s down to an Intelligence or Wisdom save.
Actor – This feat grants advantage on deception and performance when using your disguise abilities. Since disguise self is an illusion spell, this will be absolutely necessary.
Furthermore, the ability to mimic another person’s voice is very useful when confounding your enemies. Pair that with an illusionist’s ability to magically throw their voice, and you could sound like anyone coming from any direction.
Keen Mind – Another great choice, Keen Mind has the unique ability to remember accurately anything you have seen or heard in the past month.
Illusions are crafted straight from your imagination; so with this feat, you can literally play back a recording of what you remember happening.
If you can somehow put that recording into a magic item, then you have a permanent record of something that happened.
Sometimes the unfiltered truth is more powerful than a well-crafted lie.
Depending on your role in the party, multiclassing may be an option you want to consider. Below we have three options for you; each one will put you in a different place on the battlefield.
Rogue – The rogue is probably the best choice for an illusion multiclass. The skill set is varied, and you can use your illusion abilities to supplement whatever goal you have.
The Soulknife subclass will grant you a Psychic Blade, which is much better than any cantrip you can throw since it allows you to add sneak attack, which you can’t do with your spells.
Since the blade is immaterial and deals psychic damage like your illusion spells, it fits the theme and leaves your hands open.
The Scout subclass will allow you to stay mobile and create cover with your illusions, thus making you a virtually uncatchable ranged attacker and harrier.
Cleric – The first thing about Cleric that would benefit you is the access to armor and weapons. The second thing is the d8 Hit Die.
After that, choose the Trickery Domain. The Invoke Duplicity ability allows you to create an illusory double of yourself that you can direct as a bonus action.
Furthermore, when you cast a spell, it can appear as if the double is casting the spell instead of you.
Thus, using a disguise, the illusory double, and your improved illusionist abilities, you can keep everyone guessing. No one will know what is real and what is not.
Your victims won’t just need healing. They’ll need therapy.
Progression Example Illusionist Build From Tier 1 – 4
Mistfeather is a Kenku Illusionist who acts as a point of contact to the outside world for his community.
While not explicitly the leader of a thieves guild, trader’s guild, library, or arcanist’s enclave, his kenku clan covers all of those things.
At any point in his career, Mistfeather is most concerned with bringing knowledge and financial provision back to his family, and he covets anything that can be sold for food, recycled for shelter, or read for clues on how to help all kenku find their way back to the skies.
At tier 1, Mistfeather is still a lowly adventurer and pickpocket.
He is mostly concerned with bringing home valuables for his community or occasionally teaming up with an adventuring party provided he can get information about the outside world to bring back home.
Tactically, he prefers to be a ranged combatant, using shadow blade and summon shadowspawn in combat. Phantom Steed helps him to escape tricky situations, and blur is his main line of defense.
In general, Mistfeather prefers to avoid combat. He views his role in the party as someone who can achieve the objective while everyone else deals with the physical threats.
Mistfeather will most likely be the person who steals the item, rescues the prisoner, or accomplishes whatever the real goal is.
At tier 2, Mistfeather has gained something of a reputation both in his immediate community and in other kenku enclaves throughout the region.
His reputation is that of a professional who can stay focused on the task at hand and is trustworthy even though he relies on so much trickery and illusion.
Instead of searching for adventuring parties to tag along with, he is often approached with offers to go out.
Often, if kenku hear rumors about their shrouded history or of a tome or artifact that can grant them a fair bit of security in the world, word will reach Mistfeather, and he may or may not decide to pursue these rumors.
He can also be a source of information for the party if they show enough respect for kenku customs and are willing to be flexible in their communication.
At tier 3, Mistfeather is definitely a leader in his community and around the world among kenku. In addition, Mistfeather will often be the brains behind a massive heist in which the PCs can find themselves to be unknowing patsies.
More than a mere adventurer and thief now, Mistfeather is just as likely to be a patron or an important source of information for the party.
Although, should the adventure be too risky, he is more than willing to go himself instead of sending younger kenku into too dangerous a situation.
His tactics remain the same; however, he has added mass suggestion to his repertoire and will often create a large illusion to help convince large groups of people to take a specific action.
Nothing like an illusory fire on a large building with a mass suggestion to put the fire out to distract an entire village while Mistfeather’s associates rob the library, lord’s manor, and local bank blind.
At tier 4, Mistfeather has expanded his community to include changelings, shifters, tabaxi, and other marginalized people groups around the world.
He seeks to make a community where all can thrive underneath the domination of the larger racial/national empires.
At this point, Mistfeather has developed an entire philosophy on what is real and what isn’t and how things like law, economics, national boundaries, and cultural norms are the group illusions and delusions which people choose to live by for their own comfort.
Mistfeather says to let them play their games. In this community of liminal creatures, they will also find a way to flow between the cracks of empire and thrive between the boundaries.
When the PCs encounter Mistfeather, he is a national and philosophical leader that guides his community to safety through the various stages of oppression and liberation that can flow in all kinds of nationalistic and imperial cultures.
Through educating his people on magic, the limits of reality, and how perceptions change and flow through time, Mistfeather leads a powerful community with plenty of resources.
Consider Mistfeather to be a powerful NPC, a possible patron, or even a freedom fighting activist, depending on the needs of your story.
A Beginner’s Guide To Playing an Illusion Wizard
Most people think that a brand-new player ought to play a human fighter. The logic behind this is simple: fighters are easy to understand and don’t require much on the fly thinking.
I disagree. With a fighter, you need to know better than anyone else the order of actions and turns, how and when to use your various weapons, and how to manage armor and shields.
There are too many choices involved.
My recommendation to every brand-spankin’-new player is to play an illusionist of any race (probably elf or half-elf).
When it comes to illusions, there aren’t many rules to know and memorize. The most complicated part is parsing out between the various sensory inputs for your illusion.
You can’t just make an illusion of a charging boar. It can be the image of one but not the sound or the smell or anything else about it. Just the image.
But most reasonably clever people can work with that. With an Illusionist, however, you can add one more sensory input, which makes the whole situation easier.
You can have red and blue flashing lights with sirens coming around the corner.
You can have the image of a charging boar and the sound of its hooves striking the concrete.
You can have your cake AND eat it too! Literally. You can taste the cake while seeing it remain whole after a cut.
This, in my view, makes Illusionists the easiest class to play for newbies. They don’t have to worry so much about rules and need only think of what weird and wild things they can do to trick the bad guys.
How To Use Illusion Magic
As an illusionist wizard, your spell selection will define your personality. The cool thing about illusion spells, though, is how you can combine them.
Make sure to prepare color spray. This spell will blind those closest to you, allowing you to run behind your nearest meat shield.
Barring the presence of a convenient tank, you can then cast minor illusion using sound and smell – perhaps that of gunshots and powder or fire and smoke.
Since your targets are blinded, you are free to utilize other senses to complete the illusion in your target’s mind.
Think of it like this, there are five senses in a typical creature: Sight, Sound, Smell, Taste, and Touch.
As a low-level illusionist, you can target two at a time. If you can blind your targets with color spray, or even a well applied blindness/deafness spell, then you have eliminated one sense entirely.
What was originally a 40% (2/5) sensory experience becomes a 50% (2/4) sensory experience, plus the added anxiety of having lost one of your dominant ways of perceiving the world.
And that, my friends, is what you are really after. You want to trigger your target’s fight/flight/freeze/fawn response. If a creature can’t trust their senses, they will naturally freak right out.
When you can activate their adrenalized nervous system, they will stop thinking rationally, and as long as they are playing into your plan and reacting to your moves, you have the upper hand.
Illusion Is Psychology Applied
As an Illusionist, you are a psychologist, predicting behavior and applying the right sensory input to get the right behavioral output.
You want your foes to run in fear? Cast a shadow on the wall that looks like an approaching dinosaur.
You want them to get confused? Create sound and light shows so think they can’t see past it.
Do you want them distracted? Anticipate their beauty standards and create an illusion they will struggle to look away from.
Consider yourself a Pavlov, a Skinner, a Goebbels, a Soros, or Murdoch, even. Your job is to take the truth they live in and make them think it is something else.
At Higher Levels
At higher levels, you will start to think about adding psychic damage to your illusions or about how to apply the little bit of created reality you can make with your Illusory Reality ability.
Put some thought into how much of what you create needs to be real.
Is it the bridge to cross the chasm, as the Player’s Handbook suggests? Is it the rope to save a falling comrade?
Is it the lock on a door? At this point, you will be so good at anticipating reactions that you can start targeting your allies with beneficial illusions instead of manipulating your enemies.
The only limit is that the illusion can’t cause damage or other harmful effects. That’s simple enough. You can create a coin, a jewel, or a forged document.
Anticipate needs, get creative, take notes on what works and what doesn’t, and above all, have fun!