These spells scare me to death! Phantasmal force and phantasmal killer have scared plenty of my NPCs to death, anyway. These two spells are some of the more unusual illusion spells in the game, since they directly and aggressively assault the minds of other creatures, rather than creating a harmless, illusory sensation. These spells are a must-have for any illusionist wizard, but are also broadly available to many different classes and subclasses. They may seem sadistic, but characters who believe that evildoers deserve their comeuppance, or that the ends justify the means, will find a bevy of delightfully terrifying uses for these phantasmagorical spells.
What do the Phantasmal Spells Do?
There are two “phantasmal” spells in D&D: phantasmal force and phantasmal killer. In past editions of D&D, there were many other phantasmal spells too, such as phantasmal thief, phantasmal injury, and phantasmal strangler. While these other spells haven’t been updated to D&D’s current edition, all phantasmal spells have something in common: they create an illusion so realistic and frightful that the target believes it is capable of being harmed by it.
Phantasmal force is the weaker of the two spells; a 2nd-level illusion spell available to bards, sorcerers, wizards, Arcane Trickster rogues, and warlocks of the Archfey and the Great Old One. Simply, this spell allows you to craft an illusory object perceivable only by the target of the spell. As long as the spell lasts, the target interacts with the object as if it were real, and justifies away any event that would suggest it isn’t real. If the illusory object is harmful, it can harm the target—dealing psychic damage, of course.
Phantasmal killer is a deadly spell that not only debuffs a creature with the potent frightened condition, but also deals psychic damage each turn until the target makes a successful saving throw and ends the spell. If your party is able to impose disadvantage on that creature’s Wisdom saving throws, it might never be able to escape the nightmare you’ve woven for it!
Note that phantasmal killer has some slightly confusing wording. In the past, some people have posited that the ongoing damage occurs even if the target succeeds on the first saving throw and resists becoming frightened. To clear up any confusion, the spell ends if a creature succeeds on any of its saving throws, including the initial save. Jeremy Crawford has confirmed that this was how the spell functions by rules-as-written. If you’re willing to introduce a house-rule to your game, however, I would recommend removing the initial saving throw. This guarantees that the spell deals at least 4d10 damage and frightens the target for one turn. Otherwise, in my opinion, this spell is a bit too weak compared to other 4th-level spells.
Using Phantasmal Killer
Another major difference between phantasmal killer and other illusion spells is who decides what the illusion looks like. While phantasmal force and most other illusion spells allow you to craft a specific object, phantasmal killer allows you to “tap into the nightmares of a creature…and create an illusory manifestation of its deepest fears.”
Whenever I’ve played with this spell, this has meant that the exact form of the phantasm is either glossed over entirely, or determined by the Dungeon Master on the fly. That makes sense; the DM shouldn’t be expected to simply tell the caster the creature’s greatest fear, since that’s beyond the purview of the spell. And besides, it’s easier and quicker for the DM to simply come up with a scary thing like a dragon or a clown with a knife than for the DM to tell the caster the creature’s deepest fear, then wait for the caster to come up with something suitably scary.
That said, if you’re the DM and you do want to tell the caster the creature’s deepest fear and allow them to come up with a cool phantasm, you probably haven’t though too much about what any random hobgoblin’s greatest phobia is. If you can’t think of anything off the top of your head, here’s a random table of common phobias you can roll on to determine that creature’s fear.
|1||Arachnophobia; the fear of spiders||A monstrous spider near the target|
|2||Hemophobia; the fear of blood||The target bleeding uncontrollably|
|3||Lepidopterophobia; the fear of butterflies||A swarm of countless butterflies flying at the target|
|4||Pyrophobia; the fear of fire||A ring of fire, slowly constricting around the target|
|5||Thalassophobia; the fear of the sea||A giant wave, engulfing the target|
|6||Dracophobia; the fear of dragons||A dragon flying high in the sky, shrieking and threatening to descend|
|7||Claustrophobia; the fear of enclosed spaces||A dome of transparent glass, slowly constricting around the target|
|8||Cynophobia; the fear of dogs||A massive black dog looms on the horizon, gazing ominously at the target|
|9||Necrophobia; the fear of death||The flesh of the target and all creatures it can see, rotting away|
|10||Astraphobia; the fear of thunder and lightning||A rumbling storm gathering and flashing in the distance|
|11||Ornithophobia; the fear of birds||An unusually large flock of birds alighting upon nearby trees and buildings|
|12||Selenophobia; the fear of the moon||The moon appearing bright and large in the sky, regardless of time of day|
Phantasmal Spells in Your Game
How do you use these aggressive illusions in your game? Do you have any great stories of terrifying a creature with phantasmal killer or tricking someone with phantasmal force? Tell your stories in the comments!
James Haeck is the lead writer for D&D Beyond, the co-author of Waterdeep: Dragon Heist and the Critical Role Tal’Dorei Campaign Setting, the DM of Worlds Apart, and a freelance writer for Wizards of the Coast, the D&D Adventurers League, and Kobold Press. He lives in Seattle, Washington with his partner Hannah and their sweet kitties Mei and Marzipan. You can usually find him wasting time on Twitter at @jamesjhaeck.