Saturday, December 12, 2015

Vance (Take 37)

Vancian magic is so easy.

Which is probably why it's lasted as long as it has, being a staple of the D&D game through almost every edition (we'll forget that 4E experiment for the moment). The ease is, frankly, part of the brilliance of the original game offers yet another type/style of play for players of the Dungeons & Dragons game.

I'm sure I'm not the first person to have stated this, but it's worth noting: it's the asymmetry of play styles that gives D&D much of its charm. Look at the four basic character types:

Fighters are the most basic. They have no special skills, but they have no limitation when it comes to combat, having the best armor, hit points, attack ability, and weapon access of any of the classes. Sure, they are a "one-trick pony" but there is freedom in that. They are the foundation of the adventurer archetype.

Thieves (yes, I realize they were not a class in the earliest iteration of D&D...they became one of the four archetypes beginning with Holmes and extending through 2E) trade in fighting ability in exchange for some nifty options. However, they're options (skills) are extremely random, giving the character type a "gambler" aspect, as I discussed in a previous post. For players that like a little risk, and who don't feel the need to wade into combat (unless odds are on their side: see backstabbing), it's a different way to play. And yet their low-staying power (poor HPs, poor armor class, tendency to make more trap-related saving throws) requires a degree of smarts about how they gamble.

Clerics, like thieves, trade in basic fighting ability for additional abilities and, unlike thieves, there's little gamble involved. Spells always function and few of them are the type that give saving throws (being beneficial), and even their turning ability functions automatically as they go up in level. However, clerics also carry the additional burden of responsibility...a thief may not always be required to sneak ahead or disarm a trap (due to the potential for failure), but parties have an expectation that clerics will use their spells and abilities for the party's benefit. Indeed, while the thief's lowered combat ability is in staying power, clerics have excellent armor, hit points, and saving throws...they are supposed to "stick around" in order to fulfill their responsibilities in support of the party.

And then there's magic-users. Magic-users have almost no combat ability (compared to the other classes), but what they have is a number of versatile, powerful spells that automatically function, unless directly targeting a foe (who then usually receives a saving throw). There is no expectation of magic-users to fight well, no gamble in the use of their abilities, and little responsibility associated with their spells (other than to use them as they become viable options). Players of magic-users must be smart (and fairly good strategists) to play well due to the nature of the Vancian magic system.

Changing that magic system I did in Five Ancient Kingdoms, for example, or as recent editions of D&D have done...actually undermines one of the neat, asymmetrical pieces of the D&D game. I've been thinking about this a lot the few weeks (since doing that Holmes review) as I consider different magic systems for designs I'm working on. The system of linking power to (finite) power, but versatile power that functions without any sort of dice roll...balances well with the limitations of the magic-user class to make for a very different style of play.

And the more I think about it, the less I want to take away that option, that style of play...even though the Vancian system (so called) doesn't model the kind of magic system that I want in a fantasy adventure game. Magic-users in D&D don't look like anything but out of legends or fairy tales or S&S novels....not in the way their magic functions, that is...but they provide an alternative version of play, an unbalanced version that (when considered next to their other basic counterparts) makes for a nice stew of play types.

And the interaction of those play types, at the game table, helps give an organic feeling to the D&D game, very different than a game like, say, FATE or Savage Worlds where all the players are using the same mechanics, jockeying for ways to bring their strongest aspects to bear rather than working in a completely different fashion from their peers. Vancian magic, as designed, is part of the reason why D&D play has been able to sustain interest for as long as it has.

I just hate the way it scales.

So...working on that and (possibly) a few other minor tweaks, but will otherwise (for the foreseeable future) be scrapping any and all non-Vancian systems for my D&D-ish games. It hurts (a little) and means more spell lists (*sigh*) but the end benefit outweighs the discomfort. I think.

Crap...back to the drawing board.

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