Postmortem: Shadow Magic

In the past, I created a shadow magic wizard that focused on using quasi-real shadow illusions to fake evocation and conjuration spells. I did a couple revisions and planned on coming back to it, but ultimately I think its dead.

But the question remains… why? So today I’ll be taking a look at why shadow magic didn’t work, why it exists in the first place, and why it inherently doesn’t fit in modern Dungeons and Dragons.


A Shadowy Summary

To begin, lets do a quick rundown of what the School of Shadow Magic was. At heart, this subclass was a second interpretation of the illusionist, different from the School of Illusion found in the Player’s Handbook.

The School of Shadow Magic was based on older concepts from 2nd Edition or so, which centered on “quasi-real” spells that drew on energy from the Demiplane of Shadow. These quasi-real spells were of the Illusion school, but mimicked the effects of Evocation spells.

Now, there are several reasons that shadow magic doesn’t work as well in 5th Edition. It has balance difficulties due to the design of saving throws and damage types, but its biggest problem is that it has become irrelevant. Why learn a crappy, illusory version of a spell you could learn the real version of just as easily?

So let’s begin with that.


Shadow Opposition

As a primer, lets talk briefly on specialist wizards. In Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, 2nd Edition, wizards could choose to become a mage (or generalist), or to specialize in a single school of magic. Specializing had several benefits, and one significant drawback.

A specialist wizard was allowed to cast a higher number of spells per day than a generalist, provided the excess were all spells of the specialist’s school. They also had a better chance at learning spells of their school, and even got a spell of their school added to their spellbook for free at each level.

So a specialist wizard could easily expect to end up with a much fuller spellbook, and many more spellcasts per day than a generalist. This was quite good, obviously. I also can’t understate the benefit of a bonus to learning spells; back in 2nd Edition, each time you wanted to learn a spell, you had to make a roll for it. Failing meant that you just couldn’t figure out the spell, and needed to level up again before you could re-try. So getting a bonus to that chance (and a quite significant one at that) was a huge benefit.

Now, what were the drawbacks? For one, you had a slightly lowered chance to learn spells that were outside of your chosen school. Far more serious, however, was the fact that you straight up could not learn spells of certain schools. These “opposition schools” were the ones that were most alien and strange compared to your chosen school. So, want to be an Evocation specialist? Cool! No Enchantment or Conjuration spells for you then. Boo hoo.


What does this have to do with shadow magic? Well, the Illusionist, a specialist wizard in the school of illusion, had several opposition schools. Among them was… Evocation! So that’s right, if you’re an Illusionist, you flat out cannot ever learn fireball. Period.

Illusionists also couldn’t learn necromancy or abjuration either. The former isn’t a huge deal, most necromancy spells were… unusable due to moral constraints. Missing out on abjuration is a bit worse, but not impossible to deal with.

Now… missing out on evocation? Bit of a problem.


Introducing… Shadow Magic!

To counteract this issue, AD&D included a spell called shadow magic, and its higher-level counterpart, demishadow magic. Together, these two spells sought to fix the issue of Illusionists.

The shadow magic spell was a 5th level illusion spell that let you partially replicate the effects of any 3rd level or lower evocation spell. Basically, it allowed an Illusionist to cast a 3rd level fireball by expending a 5th level spell slot. This is obviously still a drawback. To make matters worse, creatures had to fail an initial saving throw against the illusion and then fail the saving throw against the spell. Basically, it was easy to avoid the damage of this spell. An enemy could save against the illusion and take 1/4th damage. If they failed that save, they could still save against the fireball itself to take half damage. And only if they failed both saving throws would they take full damage.

Needless to say, this is a bit complex. The demishadow magic spell worked exactly the same, but was a 6th level illusion spell that could replicate any 4th or 5th level evocation spell. It still had the same double saving throw drawback.

Regardless of its weaknesses, the concept of shadow magic played an integral role in 2nd Edition. Without it, the Illusionist might well have been the absolute worst specialist school, besides Diviner which was actually in the book recommended to only be useful for NPCs.

So it had a use then. But what about now?


Shadow of the Past

Many things have changed in 5th Edition when compared to 2nd Edition. One major difference is in the treatment of specialist wizards. Since all classes now have subclasses, the different variations of wizard can just be subclasses instead of “specialists” like they were back in 2nd Edition. In fact, you can’t even be a generalist wizard any more.

Furthermore, the concept of “opposition schools” has been totally removed. Any wizard can learn and cast any wizard spell of any school without issue. Thus Illusionists no longer need a “replacement” for evocation spells.

This ties into the biggest problem with the School of Shadow Magic; why learn the crappy, partially fake version of a spell if you can just learn the real version of the spell?

Back in 2nd Edition, this wasn’t a concern because you couldn’t learn the real spell. But now, any Illusionist who wants to sling around some fireballs can easily do so. No quasi-real shadow plane energy required.


And there are other issues as well. For one, all illusion spells generally use Intelligence saving throws. This is problematic; very few creatures have good Intelligence saving throws. And many creatures that are particularly appealing to use fireball and other evocation spells on have abysmal Intelligence to begin with, in addition to lacking proficiency in Intelligence saves.

Imagine a cloud of kobolds. This is the ideal situation for a fireball. However, all things considered, kobolds have fairly decent Dexterity saves. On the other hand, they have very terrible Intelligence saves. Thus a shadow fireball is inherently more likely to hit than a real fireball would be.

Added to this was the fact that most damage-dealing illusion spells deal psychic damage, which is not commonly resisted. Meanwhile, fire is one of the most commonly resisted damage types. In effect, switching the save of fireball from Dexterity to Intelligence makes it much more likely to hit, and switching the damage from fire to psychic makes it much more likely to deal its full damage. This is a dangerous combination.

To counteract this, you would have to ensure that the shadow magic version of a spell is somehow weaker than the normal version. It has to either do less damage, or be of a higher spell slot. But in both of those cases, the real question becomes… why not just take the real spell?


In the Shadow of Greatness

Only two current classes occupy the same conceptual space as the 2nd Edition Illusionist did; the bard, and the arcane trickster rogue. Both are conceptually very talented with illusions, but lack many directly damaging spell options.

Except in this case, they don’t need them. Bard actually does have some damaging spell options, even if they aren’t as robust as the wizard’s. They also have Magical Secrets and the ability to pick up any spell they want. They don’t need a shadow magic fireball because again, if they really wanted it they could just have fireball.

And the arcane trickster rogue is the same. Like the bard, it does have damage-dealing spell options, and it can also pick up wizard evocation spells at certain levels just fine. Plus, rogues definitely don’t need more damage options; that’s what Sneak Attack is for.

Ultimately, the only reason for the School of Shadow Magic to exist today is nostalgia. The mental image of the shadow mage is fixed in the RPG mind, thanks to decisions made to counterbalance a game mechanics choice made in the earliest versions of D&D.

You could make a separate shadow mage class or prestige class, sure, but it isn’t necessary. The School of Illusion already provides plenty of support to make a character that feels the same, and you have even more options now thanks to the sorcerer and warlock.


So that’s the School of Shadow Magic. The original is still available here if needed, but it likely won’t be receiving any updates. All the same, though – let me know what you think!

Leave a Reply