What can I say about the poor illusion? AD&D wrongfooted it with Phantasmal Force, spawning a thousand cries of "I disbelieve!" No, the illusion couldn't just mess with minds; it had to do psychosomatic damage. Yeah, everything had to do damage in those uncreative teenage combat-dungeons of yore, which is why the "2nd level damage gap" quickly got filled with black tentacles and flaming spheres when Unearthed Arcana came around.
But anyway, what can a wiser DM and players do with a mere non-damaging Phantasm? The possibilities are endless, and it becomes a contest of wits between players and DM. As the illusionist here, you are not just trying to create something, but do a psychological bank shot - show a thing that will have an effect on someone or something else. What would a hound made of shadow do when a small fluffy white cat saunters across its field of sight? This is the phantasm a certain gnome conjured up not so long ago in a dire situation, and being on the Faerie Roads (which are halfway already to Toontown) I allowed that a 5+ on d6 would plausibly distract each hound from the combat. I place this spell at first level because it rewards creativity, aids distraction and escape - vital for the puny starting party.
The Harden/Soften spell seems at first glance to be the weakest of the first level lot - a straightforward buff/debuff. But consider that in my system, chain mail plus shield gives AC 16, to which +3 adds a very formidable barrier; kobolds can only hit that 10% of the time.
Consider further that the spell is not just written as a buff/debuff, but as a physical effect. This is crucial to encouraging creative uses. What can you do with an iron flag ... a rope turned rigid ... a rubber sword ... in the name of all that's holy, think of the hairdressing implications!
Researcher in social science and appreciator of hexy wargames, role playing games, interactive fiction, board games, and CCGs. I've learned a lot doing design and rules editing work on the side for the Legend of the Five Rings CCG. But this blog is mostly about other things.