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Developer Diary: Creating the Illusionist

Developer Diary: Creating the Illusionist


The Feydark Illusionist Tree started with one word - Familiars. It was on our short list of guaranteed wins for Universal Trees, next to Drunken Master and Revenant, and it fit the Feywild theme perfectly. But how did it happen? Why Illusion magic? Why Shadowblades? To understand the tree, we must first go back, back to May 1st, 2020, and take a look at an idea that never was - Wildhunter.

Wildhunter was a bit of a mixed bag of a tree, to put it lightly. It focused on Bow combat, Quarterstave combat, had a subtheme of Ice-Based Arcane Archery-inspired-imbuement, and involved a Hunting Companion that you could direct to attack your enemies. Its abilities had names like Fury of the Frigid Storm and Wildlands Chill. It was meant to be a sort of generalist tree that greatly enhanced ice spellcasting and ice Arcane Archery/Eldritch Knightery. 

Now, if you’re reading that and wondering “how on earth do you get that all into one universal tree?” - well, you’re probably stumbling into the reason why we changed directions. Wildhunter wanted to do everything, from pet combat to ice casting to dex-to-hit-and-damage to movement to both melee and ranged combat. It wouldn’t be feasible to get its component parts together on any sort of timeline, and even if it were, a universal tree that is too universal would make it almost ubiquitous. Plus, we had Bow Changes lined up… but they’d be hitting the live servers months after the release of the tree. We couldn’t speed up the bow changes themselves, as they involved entirely new animations (and we’ve learned from experience that simply asking animators to “work faster, gosh dang it” doesn’t actually make the art appear any faster at all). We knew that it’d look like we were holding back bow changes for a bow universal tree, which isn’t how we wanted to solve the underlying bow problems at all. So we shelved our designs and went back to the drawing board, which led us back to Familiars again.

A Familiar increasing in level over time

The first draft of the tree we internally called “Familiars” to hit the Player’s Council was far more of an offensive-based magic tree than you might have been expecting. It had its Force Damage theme, but the Familiar took a far more active role, and the list of Familiars was far more general. Familiar choices included Frog, Bat, and Spider, and the active SLA attacks were far closer to the construction of the Archmage force damage SLAs than their own unique thing. The feedback we got from this first pass was very simple - this is just Archmage 2, the Universal Tree. We need something better.

The second draft ended up a little more generalist. It included a list of general magical SLAs early in the tiers to help specialized mages get a utility boost. However, it still felt too much like Archmage, so it moved on to the third draft, which cut the familiar active spell attacks entirely in favor of more utility. It also included an active familiar attack by the name of Hijinks, which read “Your familiar blinds and makes helpless a single enemy as they comically run around in a circle.” The idea would be that your familiar gets on top of a monster and sort of steers them around as they flail helplessly. The third draft was certainly comedic, but what it wasn’t was thematic. It became clear that just having a familiar is not enough for a universal tree to be cool, it has to do something more. 

Enter draft four, codenamed Shadowcrafter and themed entirely around Magic... Stage Magic! Abilities with names like For My Next Trick, Nothing Up My Sleeve, and Look Over There! appeared alongside the first revision of the Shadowblade SLAs. The word “confetti” appeared in this revision. This particular revision had a lot of improvements from the previous three, but still had a long way to go. It seemed like we were closing in on an end goal, though, and this direction has a lot of upsides. It was a thematic niche we hadn’t really explored, it opened up illusion spellcasting to more casters in general, and it expanded upon Force damage, something that has historically had badly scaling spells that were generally underutilized. We knew we were close, we just had to finish the job.

The fifth and final revision of the tree (at the time codenamed Shadow Savant) eventually stumbled upon what became its release-candidate name - Feydark Illusionist. The Feydark is an area of the Feywild that acts like the Underdark. It’s an area of darkness and evil, and is closely associated with the Svirfneblin - which is to say, Deep Gnomes. Since our Deep Gnomes are illusionists, that’s another easy flavor win, and another reason why this tree seemed to fit so well within DDO. This revision also introduced the idea of conjured Shadowblades, and thanks to the quick suggestions of the Player’s Council, I also managed to find the time to rework the base Flameblades as well.

Summonable Shadowblade weapon

ring of Shadowblades

This is when the tree hit Lamannia for public feedback, and I began to further refine based on the much larger and wider variety of suggestions that were given. Abilities were moved or reworked, and new ones were designed, and after two rounds of Lamannia we had the finished product. Looking back, I am incredibly happy that the tree ended up the way it did. I feel like it set the stage for a new type of casting, provided much needed support for an underutilized school, and helped increase the variety of builds available in a fun and interesting way. 

Quentin "Lynnabel" Cantor


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