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The figment school rules state that:

Figments cannot make something seem to be something else.

However, many figment spells are clearly intended to do just that, and some of them even specify rules for such deceptions. An good example would be the classic illusion spell, Illusory Wall:

When the spell is used to hide pits, traps, or normal doors, any detection abilities that do not require sight work normally. Touch or a probing search reveals the true nature of the surface, though such measures do not cause the illusion to disappear. Although the caster can see through his illusory wall, other creatures cannot, even if they succeed at their Will save (but they do learn that it is not real).

This spell is clearly intended to be used to conceal pits, traps, and normal doors (and also hallways and the ends of rooms, if you use published modules as guides). It makes these things appear to be walls. That's sort of its schtick. Now, the figment subschool rule clearly says it can't do this. Specific trumps general, of course, but Illusory Wall doesn't grant itself any specific exemption to the figment subschool, above text possibly withstanding, and so it is, in general, quite unclear what sorts of deceptions are allowed by this spell.

Another example is Mislead. This spell essentially casts Major Image and Greater Invisibility in a single spell. The main point is this text, which saves you a turn, since you would otherwise need to cast Major Image first, and saves you some breath, since some GMs might otherwise distrust the idea that you can perfectly fit your illusions to your body without any effort, chance of failure, or skill required:

You can make the figment appear superimposed perfectly over your own body so that observers don’t notice an image appearing and you turning invisible.

In any case, this spell clearly makes you appear to be something, and probably somewhere, you aren't, and has the rules text to back up that this is definitely a figment and you can definitely do these things. However, since your illusory double functions just like you cast Major Image, the extent of the modification to the prohibition against deception is pretty important-- your double can explicitly pretend to cast spells, but can it deceive people with regards to their objects otherwise? For instance, it's clear that the double could pretend to cast fireball, and thus cause a stack of paper to be pretend on-fire or pretend burnt, since Major Image can pretend those things into existence (including pretend heat that pretend burns people who touch it, possibly causing them to go into pretend shock and pretend die), and Mislead seems to have an exemption to the figment rules for spellcasting. It's not clear, however, that the double could accomplish the same effect using an illusory flint and steel-- the exemption seems like it might apply only to spellcasting.

Another example is Village Veil, a 5th level spell that alters the appearance of a village such that it seems destroyed, abandoned, and worthless. The spell states:

You throw an illusion over an area to make creatures that view or interact with it believe it has suffered some great catastrophe or calamity that renders it utterly worthless for their needs. You must set a few general guidelines when casting the spell as to the nature of this disaster (fire, tornado, bandit raid, plague, etc.), after which the illusion fills in the remaining details to make it seem realistic.

Again, this spell seems to be granting broad exception to the figment rule. Everything in the region is altered so as to appear as if it had been subjected to the sort of disaster(s) you come up with. The illusion fills in all manner of details, altering existing structures, scenery, and objects to appear consistent with your chosen facade.

Another example is the spell Stolen Light. The spell creates a series of prerecorded illusions, but changes the apparent brightness of anything recorded at brighter than bright to bright, and also specifies that, in certain circumstances, the illusions will be 'less detailed' than the actual object shown.

Light sources brighter than bright light are reduced to bright light in the stolen image.

Another example is the spell Fearsome Duplicate. This spell alters your appearance to that of a horrifying monster up to two size categories larger than you (though it doesn't change your body. It takes your base appearance as a starting place and modifies it to make the illusion). This illusion then goes around and convinces people that you are something other than what you actually are.

You can make the duplicate up to two size categories larger than you are and determine a theme as to how it alters your original appearance. However, this duplicate always retains some vestiges of your actual appearance.

There are lots more examples, but this question isn't about specifics. What I'm trying to figure out is how these rules interact-- it seems pretty clear to me that the illusion spells weren't generally written with the fact they can't convince people the world is in some detail other than it is in reality in mind, and in fact near every illusion spell seems to generally be intended to do exactly that. Given that near every figment is going to be trying to ignore this rule, what is necessary for it to actually do so, and how can the extent of obliquely granted immunities be best gauged?

I'm asking for rules analysis based on existing text, not for suggested house rules with which to replace the actual text. Any such suggestions should be presented on top of, rather than instead of, answering the question.

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Schools and subschools are general guidelines and rules, built around supplying some ground rules around what certain types of spells do. I don't believe they are intended to be straight jackets, and as always, a specific spell description will always override what a general rule says. It's also an imperfect and inconsistent system, partly inherited from an older rules set, and not always consistently applied by different authors. These rules should inform new spell design, and should be taken into account by GMs or players creating new spells.

In the description about the figment subschool, the sentence about not making something seem to be something else is, I think, more about not being able to change the actual properties of an existing object, instead limiting the spells to overlaying new sensory stimuli over the top. In general, a figment spell creates an image or sound or feeling, but doesn't alter what is already there by default, but could make it harder to sense existing objects. Much like a real object (like a blanket, or wooden screen) could conceal another object, without changing the nature of the concealed object. On the other hand, a figment of a bridge over a river will not feel like a real bridge (unless that is exactly what the spell says it does). An auditory figment could not, however, cancel out an existing sound into silence (although it could perhaps drown it out in a louder sound, or make it harder to discern).

I think another limitation to spells of the figment subschool is that they are 'physical' sensations, as opposed to the mental illusions provided by a glamer, and as such, don't allow the fine level of control or believability some other illusions might.

Some more spells are also a combination of multiple types of subschool, specifically because the spell is doing something a simpler spell of a single subschool could not normally do. For instance, the Mislead spell effectively combines a moving visible illusion (figment) with an invisibility effect (glamer). This might allow the spell to interact with other spells or feats differently. For instance, the feat Shadow Gambit can potentially interact with Mislead, but could not with just invisibility alone.

In the end, a particular spell does exactly what it says it does, and nothing else. If a spell appears to contradict a more general rule, then that is usually just fine, since the spell description is the final arbiter about what a specific spell does.

As an interesting contrast, here is an article written for 3.5 in 2006. In the non-rules discussion of figments, it specifically says 'You cannot, however, use it to conceal a trap door since that would be making something seem like something else.' even though that is exactly the sort of effect that some spells of the era could produce, such as Illusory Pit.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I think the second paragraph is the key here; Illusionary Wall DOESN'T make something appear to be something else; it just puts something fake in front of something real. The opposite (an Illusionary Pit) would break the figment rule, but I don't think such a spell exists. \$\endgroup\$ – Erik Aug 23 '17 at 8:02
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    \$\begingroup\$ Yeah, I don’t think specific-vs-general actually comes into play here, because I think there is no contradiction in the first place. I suggest removing the first paragraph entirely. \$\endgroup\$ – KRyan Aug 23 '17 at 11:57
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Erik Illusory Pit is a 4th level sorc/wiz spell in 3.5, in Complete Arcane and Savage Species. \$\endgroup\$ – the dark wanderer Aug 23 '17 at 22:14
  • \$\begingroup\$ @thedarkwanderer That's 3.5, though, not 3.75, and from a later splatbook. \$\endgroup\$ – YogoZuno Aug 23 '17 at 22:17
  • \$\begingroup\$ @YogoZuno the rule for figments in identical. \$\endgroup\$ – the dark wanderer Aug 23 '17 at 22:18

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