Thursday, August 6, 2009

True Vancian Magic

From Jack Vance's The Dying Earth:

The tomes which held Turjan's sorcery lay on the long table of black steel or were thrust helter-skelter into shelves. These were volumes compiled by many wizards of the past, untidy folios collected by the Sage, leather-bound librams setting forth syllables of a hundred powerful spells, so cogent that Turjan's brain could know but four at a time.

Turjan found a musty portfolio, turned its heavy pages to the spell the Sage had shown him, the Call to the Violent Cloud. He stared down at the characters and they burned with an urgent power, pressing off the pages as if frantic to leave the dark solitude of the book.

...What dangers he might meet he could not know, so he selected three spells of general application: the Excellent Prismatic Spray, Phandaal's Mantle of Stealth, and the Spell of the Slow Hour.

Thus was inspired Monsieur Gygax in the creation of his magic system for Dungeons and Dragons. As has been written elsewhere, Mr. G. had very specific reasons for turning to a Vance inspired system, yet he tinkered with it in later editions due to what he perceived as too much power.

Personally, I think the "Vance system" of magic is both more powerful and less powerful than what Gary ended up with...'course this may well have been intentional (wanting a pastiche of Vance rather than actual Dying Earth magic). But if unintentional, if he truly wanted to have a "Vancian" system...well, I think Gary missed the mark.

Let's take a look at the passage above. Turjan's memorization of his spells is the best written example I could find on short notice in the Dying Earth book, but I think it works well enough for analysis.

Firstly, Turjan is a fairly powerful mage, in D&D magic-user terms. How can I tell? Well for one thing, his whole raison d'etre is working on magical construction (he is attempting to create "vat life") which in any edition would mean he was at least a 9th (Name) level wizard. He also has access to some pretty, "high level" spells. Slow Hour is the equivalent of timestop. The Violent Cloud spell is a specific gate or planeshift spell. And Prismatic Spray is somewhere of a cross between AD&D's prismatic spray and incendiary cloud.

And yet, he is only able to memorize four spells. The spells are so potent that Turjan's mind cannot hold more than that.

Certainly they are potent, high level spells in D&D terms, but a 9th level mage (or an 18th level one to be able to cast timestop) certainly has access to more than four spells per day. So designed Gary, so mote it be.

In D&D terms, the last time a character has access to only four spells is 4th level...when he has two first level and two second level spells available...certainly not 7th and 8th level spells!

And yet, the other thing that doesn't jibe with the Gygax design is the non-availability of LESS potent spells. Mantle of Stealth is pretty much invisibility (a 2nd level spell), yet Turjan has access to only one. Perhaps it is improved invisibility, but the fact remains that the D&D standard of many lesser spells/few greater spells is NOT found in Vance's work.

And yet this is definitely D&D. Spells are memorized. Spells may be cast...once...and then they are forgotten. As in B/X or OD&D there is no long casting time, nor spell components necessary for the spell to function. It is definitely NOT a measure of "magic points" or vitality, there is no fatigue involved, and no % chance needed to succeed.

So how to make D&D more Vancian?

Well easiest would be to create a system of spell memorization in which the caster's level of experience determines the specific number of spell levels that may be memorized, rather than use a list of "spells per level." For example, a 12th level mage could memorize 12 levels of spells (say four 3rd level fireballs, or two 6th level disintegrate spells, or two of the former plus one of the latter).

Variations might include: limiting the total number of spells (say to four, like Turjan), limiting the total number of spells by caster level (a 12th level mage can hold a maximum of 4 spells, while a 18th level mage can memorize up to six at a time), capping the maximum level of spell based on level of caster (for example, a 4th level wizard could not cast spells greater than 2nd level, so web, sleep, and shield might be memorized but not ice storm), or allowing magic-users to rememorize spells with an hour’s study, regardless of having slept or not.

Altering D&D’s magic system in this way would have several effects:
  • At low levels, not much change will be observed, unless a caster is allowed to memorize higher level spells than usual (for example, web at 2nd level, fireball at 3rd level).Even so, casting a 3HD fireball isn’t going to be any more effective than a sleep spell (the latter of which would take down an ogre, unlike the former).
  • If casters are allowed to memorize higher level spells than normal (say 5th level spells at level 5 instead of level 9) it will make magic-users much more versatile from an earlier level; more spells means more availability of choice.
  • At the same time, casters become much more limited in scope and have to maintain their strategic mindset at every level of experience. As it stands, a high level caster only has to be crafty with his or her higher level spells (which are more limited in number but more potent in effect), allowing lesser spells (magic missiles, fireballs, etc.) to be selected in abundance. Such will not be the case with a Vancian system. A 36th level wizard in BECMI has 81 spells available per day (9 from each level). In a Vancian system, the same wizard will only have 36 levels of spells (say four 9th level, nine 6th level, 12 3rd level or some combination). Even taking 36 1st level spells, the Vancian wizard will have only 45% of the standard D&D quantity…still powerful, but with power level greatly reduced without resorting to added spell constraints.
  • It will become easier to track how many spells a caster can memorize (less tables to review!).

For me, it would all be worth a play-test. I would run it as a straight “memorize up to your caster level in total spell levels” to give those lesser magic users a little extra versatility at low levels. If the guy wants to memorize TWO sleep spells at 2nd level, he’ll still be able to do so…but he’ll have the option of getting knock or web or something else as well. I would consider allowing magic-users to memorize spells with a simple hour or so of study…at least until higher levels (when rest may be needed to offset the invasion of the mind by such potent magic). In a dungeon setting, an hour out of the expedition means the party will be using up more torch light and lantern oil, as well as requiring more wandering monster rolls, so I think it’s a fair trade-off.

Anyway wouldn’t you like your Name (9th) level wizard to be able to open a gate? Why wait until 18th level to step off into THAT particular type of adventure?
: )


  1. I think magic-users already have kind of a raw deal until they get to name level... I'd make the spells far more potent to make up for it. (Check out many times is someone able to avoid a spell? In the only instances I can think of, it is because they have a magic item to deflect magic.)

    Also, I just finished reading Eyes of the Overworld, and unless I misread, Cugel was able to memorize a spell in mere moments. (Though he could hold only one spell in his mind, being that he is not a wizard...that opens an entirely different can of worms, though)

    I had actually been meaning to post a passage from Rhialto the Marvelous that explains the nature of Vancian magic further. Perhaps I will do that this weekend.

    Are you familiar at all with the Dying Earth RPG? I'm not, but I'd be curious to see how they handle Vancian magic since they are actually trying to emulate the source material.

  2. It could work. It would also make for more careful spell selection and use. I'd want to apply a similar restrictions to clerics as well.
    Likely there would be the play benefit wherein players of high level MUs would actually remember the capabilities of a tighter repertoire of spells.

    I might be a softie and allow cantrips (minor magicks) as it gives the MU a bit more magic without an overabundance of power and is also present in the Dying Earth stories.

    The importance of magic items would certainly rise for MUs as being able to command them may give a MU greater power then his own spells alone

  3. "It will become easier to track how many spells a caster can memorize (less tables to review!)."

    This alone, makes it very attractive to me. Easy and elegant. I don't have enough experience with play at high levels to know how it might change the flavor of the game, though. Any Grognards try this back in the day?

  4. I used something similar in devising a magic item (runic orbs - posted blog entry last month) recently.

    I'd love to hear actual test play reports from anyone who uses or has tried this method with their magic users - and agree with Telecanter that the tracking of spells alone makes it attractive. A good point by JDJarvis too - magic items would seem to become more valuable, and would add that maybe a device that would be a battery to store magic power or spells (such as a wand or said orb) would become a more standard part of a magic user's equipment. Such an item could help offset any major game or class imbalance that was noticed after testing.

  5. @ Ryan: I still haven’t gotten around to reading Rhialto, so my basing Vancian magic on Turjan alone may well be misplaced. I DO own the Dying Earth RPG, though I’ve never played it. It’s magic system is complex and clunky compared to the rest of the game, but most people seem to play “Cugel” level sans magic unless they’re buying the supplements. Honestly, I haven’t read that section in awhile, and would have to check to see how it works…more like D&D PLUS spell point pools if I remember rightly.

    @ JDJ: the less access to spells provide, the more important magic items (and magic item creation!) becomes. In designing my B/X companion spell list I have specifically neglected spells that duplicate magic item effects (for example blasting or extra-dimensional holding) because I want enchanted item creation the only way to access some types of magical effect. Limiting the number of total spells per day also accomplishes this somewhat.

    @ Telecanter: You and I are on the same page. I have never run my games like this in the past but I don’t see why it wouldn’t work. Even at high level, the number and variety of spells cast by a magic-user was never too huge in my games…old Lucky would probably use two or three lightning bolts, a couple of (multiple) magic missile spells, continual light, and maybe teleport. What is that…18 spell levels total? Of course he always LOVED the opportunity to rattle off a chain lightning spell.

    By limiting the spell levels, it would force a magic-user to be more thoughtful about spell selection, EVEN at high levels (no stocking up on offensive spells to simply mow through encounters). If you want to contrast the power level with clerics, have clerics only able to use spells at ONE-HALF their caster level (rounded down). This continues the grand tradition of clerics NOT getting spells at 1st level, and not being able to raise the dead until Name level (10th , actually)!
    : )

  6. Cross-post with ze Bulette: what he said!

    In addition, this continue to make wands and staves useful to wizards at higher level…they can memorize more utilitarian spells, while keeping that wand of fireballs handy!

  7. Dude you just fixed high level magic users! both mechanically and fluff-wise, nice, I'll definitely playtest this (will be in around 2 months, but still, awesome).

  8. Please do, Felipe! And let me know how it goes!