Sunday, August 12, 2012

Killing Vancian Magic (Part 3)

[continued from here]

The spells in Dungeon! are limited to two categories: combat (fireball and lightning) and movement (teleport). The combat spells are the most effective means of combat in the game (except against evil wizards and witches, perhaps due to an unwritten, “counter-spell” ability). This is balanced by the finite nature of the spells: each spell is recorded on a card, and spell cards are discarded with use. A wizard player starts the game with a certain number of spells (in my 1981 edition, this is 7-12 cards) and part of the “advanced play” of the wizard role is nursing that finite resource and expending it wisely. In some editions of the board game (including mine) the wizard can return to the starting chamber and spend turns to regain spell cards; in other editions, they never receive more. However, even without spells wizards are formidable in the upper works of the dungeon, and are no easier to kill than any of the other character types.

The First Fantasy Campaign provides a sketchy description of Blackmoor and its operation without providing much in the way of hard, fast rules. For example, it does not discuss the exact magic system used (the subject of this post) but it DOES discuss the justification for Arneson’s magic system. And while it appears obvious that wizard spells in Blackmoor were limited (just as they were are in D&D or the Dungeon! board game) it wasn’t based on any Vancian literary justification:
"In Blackmoor, magic followed the "Formula" pattern for most magic. The reasoning behind limiting the number of spells that a Magic User [sic] could take down into the Dungeon was simply that many ingredients had to be prepared ahead of time, and of course, once used were then powerless. Special adventures could then be organized by the parties to gain some special ingredient that could only be found in some dangerous place."
Here magic-users appear to be of a more traditional (cinematic, mythological) tradition, using magic formula requiring specific ingredients (Eye of newt? Bat wings? Alchemical concoctions?) that had to be prepared prior to entry into the dungeon. Expenditure of spells (i.e. discarding “spell cards”) represented expenditure of those prepped magical ingredients…and when gone, the mage would be left bereft of magical power.

What’s evident from examination of Dungeon! and the FFC is that Arneson found it necessary to limit the number of spells available to player character magic-users. After all, he started with the Chainmail rules and spell use in Chainmail is NOT limited as a finite resource…if a mage knows a spell, it may be cast over-and-over again (though perhaps needing a successful die roll to go off). Personally, the whole “die roll for spell-casting” thing works well for me, but remember that this doesn’t apply to the wizard’s “automatic” abilities: fireball/lightning bolt, invisibility, viewing in darkness. Those “spell effects” (for lack of a better term) could simply be used at will. And while their use was limited on the battle field of Chainmail (who cares if you can auto-kill a handful of opponents with a fireball…there’s still an army bearing down on your now revealed wizard!), in the SMALL SCALE, TACTICAL SKIRMISH game of D&D these effects…if adapted straight…would be devastatingly over-powered.

See, for me, I see yet another gross design oversight leading to years of dissatisfaction and “tweaking” ever since:
  • Rules are developed for a table-top fantasy wargame (Chainmail)
  • A person (D.A.) designs a small-scale fantasy adventure game (Blackmoor)
  • DA adapts the wargame rules to the fantasy adventure game
  • Over time, actual play shows the (wargame) magic rules to be too powerful on the small scale
  • Gradually, the magic-user character is “nerfed” for balance.
The nerfing includes the following:
  • Limiting the defensive capability of wizards (no armor, less hit points)
  • Limiting their offensive capability (attack tables, weapon selection)
  • Limiting their spell effects (“damage” infliction instead of auto-kill)
  • Limiting their spells carried (in-game justification: prepping ingredients)
  • Limiting spells based on complexity (some spells require ingredients only found in the dungeon, per the FFC book) and character constitution (also per FFC notes)
And eventually (with the advent of levels and experience points; remember the game didn't start with these things):
  • Limiting the spells that may be known AND the spells that may be cast based on level of character.
Whether this last was an idea of Gygax or developed by Arneson’s group doesn’t much matter (though I’d lay the “credit” for this development and the foot of Gygax as a formulaic organizer). Was it simpler and easier to limit spells in this fashion? Yeah, probably (use Chainmail “complexity” as a basis for D&D “spell levels;” award a new degree of spell level mastery for every two character levels advanced; give up messy spell ingredient requirements, etc.). Very safe and easy and more consistent, math-wise. And this IS just a game, right? Playability is important in a game.

But, even accepting that D&D is a game (and thus de-emphasizing any importance on actually modeling the literary or real-world mythology surrounding “magic”), we still find the system wanting. Even accepting “this is just how it works” most folks are still dissatisfied with the mechanics of the magic system and how the magic-user class functions in the game. Which I’m sure is at least part of the reason why so many fantasy heartbreakers (note: NOT the “new Old School heartbreakers” discussed earlier) junk the Vancian magic system in part or completely. I’m not the only one who sees it as being in need of a rebuild.

Next up: Building a Better Magic-User


  1. I like the history lesson and accompanying analysis, but I can't wait for your rebuild!

  2. I've heard, but cannot verify, that the Chainmail mage chooses fireball or lightning is actually choosing a wand. That's why it's use was unlimited. But since all the other powers were as well, I'm not sure I buy it. Unless, it was a ring of invisibility, etc. as well.

  3. A "wizard" in Chainmail would be equivalent to an 11th level D&D character. So unlimited fireballs (in the context of a single battle) isn't that different from D&D power levels.

    Also, in OD&D it a magic user knows all the spells and can select them as needed. It wasn't until the Greyhawk supplement where MUs were limited in the number they could have. In addition, the OD&D MU has about 70% of the hit points of a fighter compared to half for OD&D + Greyhawk/Classic D&D and less then half for AD&D.

    It seems that MUs where more powerful in Arnesons games (which is what OD&D was based on) and weakened considerably by Gygax.

  4. I've taken a few cracks at rebuilding the magic-user (or, more precisely, the magic system) myself, none of which have been completely satisfying, so I'm definitely interested in seeing what you've got cooked up here.

  5. Thank you, thank you, thank you! I HATE Vancian magic and what it does to my favourite character class. I'm interested in your redesin.

  6. @ Hedge:

    Indeed, MUs using the OD&D rules used the entire list as their "spell book" (though each spell level was completely contained in its own volume, making a rather hefty satchel to carry). However, it's important to note that:

    "A spell used once may not be reused in the same day."
    (p. 19)

    Thus, no "doubling up" on sleep or charm or hold spells. On the other hand, it appears that there was no "memorization needed;" the number of spells listed were the number "remembered" from the spell books.

  7. Have you looked at Pathfinder's "Sorcerer" class when considering a new build of magic user? Not so much for the "fiddly bits" of feats/bloodline, etc, but for the non-Vancian spellcasting (from the Pathfinder SRD): "Unlike a wizard or a cleric, a sorcerer need not prepare her spells in advance. She can cast any spell she knows at any time, assuming she has not yet used up her spells per day for that spell level."