Thursday, March 8, 2012

Vancian Magic

After yesterday's dreadfully long post I'd like to keep this one short and to the point.  It will also give me time to work on the series of posts I plan on writing about merging Saving Throws and Ability Checks.  In the meantime I'd like to talk a little bit about Vancian Magic.

Jeff Rients asked the community what they would like to see in a magic system that Vancian magic does not promote.  Here are some of the responses that I think particularly stood out:

  • A1: I'd love to see PC wizards collapse from exhaustion because they pushed themselves past the limits of their powers.  [Jeff]
  • A2: I don't want players to not know exactly how many spells they'll be able to get off before they run dry. [Jeff]
  • No Multiple spell copies memorized. [Roger the GS]
  • A1: Variable spell powers, not of the "d6 damage" type, more like "spark to nuke"  [Lasgunpacker]
  • Wizard Duels [Tom Fitzgerald]
  • Microlite20 has magic users having the same hit dice as everyone else, and burning HP to cast spells. To me this connects magic directly to one's life force and opens up a lot of possibilities as to how to use magic. For example, an evil wizard might choose to use victims as the sources of his power, literally sacrificing a minion or captive to fire off a powerful spell. Equally a druid in a desperate situation might be able to cast by sapping the life from a plant instead of themselves.  [tpmoneyGregor Vuga]
    • Using hit points as a source of mana simply turns clerics (or other healers) into mana batteries. Even worse, healing potions become an easy way for Magic Users to sustain lengthy battles. Most groups have house rules, but mana as hit points would seem to be a pretty radical change.  [Counterpoint by Anonymous]
  • There are a few things from Vance that I wish D&D better represented:
    • 1. Too many spells per day: According to The Dying Earth, the greatest wizards can only fit six spells into their heads. Of course, Vance's magi never struck me as physically inept (unlike the D&D wizard), so they aren't as entirely reliant on their magical abilities.
    • 2. Anyone can cast, but not everyone can do so reliably: Like Cugel using Iucounu's spellbook, spells should not be limited to MU. However, it is only those who dedicate themselves to the practice and study of magic who cast with little risk of the spell backfiring.  [Robert Parker]
  •  the situation where the fighters have to protect the wizard from attack while he draws his circles and completes his incantation for the "big spell" [Cole]
  • magical research (both inventing new spells/items and learning about quest hooks)
    taking desperate risks (ideally by inventing magic on the fly or having some extra bag of untried tricks up your sleeve) [richard] 

First off a big shout out to Jeff for gathering so many valuable responses.  It's very interesting to see the variety of ideas and what many people agree on.  Unpredictability seems to be key, making it actually Vancian is nice, magic being magical and also awe inspiring is something to strive for and lastly consequences either from fumbled syllables or pushing too much appears to be desired.  I'm specifically highlighting this post because for me in particular a lot of these ideas were running in my head when I started working on my spell system.  It's always nice to know people are thinking of the same solutions to the same problem.

Researching the Source Material
With that being said I'd like to discuss what my spell system aims to do and how it tries to accomplish a few of these items.  [So much for a short post eh?]  I first starting crafting this system immediately after I finished Jack Vance's Dying Earth series.  I had this goal in mind when I started reading so I had the foresight to take notes as I went along through this magical and nihilistic world.  I looked at the way spells worked, the method of casting (mostly auditory), the number of spells powerful magicians had on hand, the output of spells as well as their quirks (and of course naming conventions), and what purpose magic items (and magic itself) fulfilled.

From my notes I gathered that magic was something anyone could do provided they had the talent and the gumption to get it right (and live to tell the tale).  Magic produced a number of neat effects like growing an extra pair of arms, having your belongings float behind you above the canopy or turning into a bird to fly away.  It also included the many ways to exact a petty vengeance on one's rivals such as massively increasing the size of a single toe.  It was also used to literal effect like turning the inside of a cave (it's occupants) outward or for much devastation like the "Instantaneous Electric Effort" which produced "a tremendous many-pronged dazzle which not only shivered Xexamedes but destroyed Rhialto's aviary, shattered his antique way-post, and sent poor old Funk dancing across the sward on stilts of crackling blue light."

Wizards could memorize only a small amount of spells, Mazirian could have up to 6 of the lesser spells and I believe it was mentioned that Turjan could press 5 into his mind. The key part of that entry was that Mazirian could press 6 of the lesser spells but only 4 of the most formidable meaning that a formidable spell carried more weight.  This isn't too surprising if we think of spells as math (which Vance himself hinted) the longer the equation (or law) the more difficult it is to remember.  If you've experience with calculus, L'Hopital's rule is very easy to remember whereas if you hadn't spent the majority of your years memorizing the quadratic equation it'd be unlikely that you could recall it now.

The most striking feature, aside from the wonderfully oft-archaic words such as "Arnhoult's Sequestrous Digitalia" or the "Interminable Interim", was the absolute volatility of spells.  Where a misplaced syllable, reversed word order or missing inflection could cause the spell to have the opposite effect, most prominently displayed at the tail end of "Eye's of the Overworld" better known to many as Cugel's unending folly.

The System
With all that in mind I wanted to create a spell system that adhered to the naming conventions, one that either assailed the wit with dictionary-reaching words or ones whose effect or at least display could be easily surmised by name of the spell.  Spells like "Thasdrubal's Laganetic Transfer" would fit the former definition while spells named "The Excellent Prismatic Spray" or "The Charm of Wonderful Brevity" would fit the latter.  Spells would also fall into two categories, Lesser and Formidable.  A lesser spell would be for very specific things; one thing I kept noticing was that people in the Dying Earth were quite lazy and there always seemed to be a specific spell or magical device for evading a hard day's labor.  On the other hand a formidable spell would set the eye's ablaze with wonder and strike fear into the heart's of your opponent.  Here is how that is currently enshrined in the rules
  • Lesser spells are for very specific or whimsical things.  As such you are not required to memorize them ahead of time but like all spells you may not cast them more than once per day without risk of your brains turning to mush.
  • A formidable spell must be chosen and memorized at the start of the day, such powerful arcana cannot be read or reproduced on the fly.  Spells of this caliber produce such great effects that without careful precautions and proper application could easily turn against you and backfire.
Fortunately it would seem I have already fulfilled lasgunpackers and  Robert Packer's ideals here.  I should note that Mr. Packer's second point is addressed in my current game of LL where anyone is capable of casting a spell provided they have a high enough Intelligence score (As a consequence of the setting the Magic-User class does not exist).  This is extended into the rules system I am devising where anyone can attempt to cast a spell but only those with the proper training can do so without worry of backlash.

A Fistful of Scrolls
With regards to Wizard Duels this is actually ingrained into my system by way of how Magic User's cast their spells.  You see, to cast a spell you must first have a scroll of that particular spell.  Unlike typical convention the scroll is not used up when cast like a consumable resource, instead think of it as your mobile library.  You may cast any spell you have a scroll of and needless to say the best way to acquire more scrolls and thus more spells is to either perilously journey into the unknown seeking ancient troves of knowledge -or- to take it from other Wizards. 

The magic-user class in particular is expected to be able to invent or reclaim through research and spellcraft a single lesser spell to add to his repertoire at each level but as we see in the works of Rhialto the Marvellous, even a cabal of Wizards will not hesitate to steal from their fellows should they expose the slightest weakness.  The allure of untold power is simply too great to deny.  Through playtesting many a Wizard would concede and offer up a scroll from their library rather than fight to the death or risk further destruction to their abode.  As for an actual mage duel system I'm afraid I have nothing of substance worked out yet.

Words of Power
As for richard's request, casting spells on the fly is a key feature of the magic-using class named "Words of Power".   While lesser spells generally fall into the category of fulfilling some ancient need that only some lazy cooky wizard would want I did not plan on covering the massive range of spells this would require.  Words of Power allows the magic-user to construct some neat rhyme for an unexpected and utilitarian power to be determined by the Judge and other players.  It doesn't have to be limited to a rhyme, depending on your play group a Limerick, Haiku, Song Lyric, Prose, Sacred Verse, Rap Battle, or specific musical scale may be an adequate substitution and also opens the doors for reflavoring your Magician into a Bard, Scribe or Sage.

Actually thinking of something the fits Words' criteria takes quite a bit of concentration so it isn't normally used when time is of the essence such as during combat or when you are trying to stop the walls from closing in on you.  Furthermore, the laws of magic are punishing for anyone that tries to use the same combination twice.  For even the slightest perversion, missed syllable or reversed order of a participle could spell out downfall for the intrepid mageling.  Magic is fickle in this way, you may be trying to save your bacon by turning your fall into a feather's flight but instead you may end up hurtling towards the ground like a streaking meteor(ite) because of a hastily recanted verse.  Fun fact: to be deemed a meteorite rather than a meteor it must survive the impact with the Earth's surface.

Jeff, tpmoney and Gregor Vuga's idea that the caster expend part of themselves in the casting is a neat idea that I would like to explore further.  I had it in a much, much earlier revision of the rules but it currently does not fit magic specifically.  Cole's imagery of the Wizard taking time to cast a massive spell while his companions hold off enemies is great for building up tension so I'll have to see about the best way to implement that.

That's enough for now, next time I'll post a trio of Vancian inspired spells using the rules I've laid out here.  I promise it will be far shorter.


  1. Great summary.

    Regarding number of spells, capping levels lower than is standard could help here without needing to modify other aspects of D&D. (It would also keep things at more of a swords & sorcery genre level of power.)

    For example, I was just looking at the 1991 basic set, which takes PCs to level 5. At level 5, magic-users have 2/2/1 spells, which is enough to have some variety (and up to the power of fireball and lightning bolt) but still only 5 total. Playing this as a complete game, perhaps with custom spells rather than the standard D&D spells might be fun. (I hear the Pathfinder Beginner Box is also up to level 5 and is simpler than standard 3E era rules, so that might be another interesting option.)

    1. Yes I've heard the Sword and Sorcery feel can be preserved if you stick to E6. Where after level 6 there is no more level based advancement (in HP, Saves and possibly attack/defense). Players still advance by accruing feats/skills and whatnot. It sounded like a very interesting premise at least, and if I ever run SW: SAGA again I'll certainly be adapting it.

      I still haven't decided on an easy spells/day equation as I'm not all that satisfied with the tapered growth of the standard M-U. Earlier on I considered having Formidable spells occupy two spells slots but that would mean your average Wizard of renown would need an abundance of slots (6-8). Currently I've been considering 3+mod lesser spells per day, and the number of Formidable spells you are able to cast is dependent on your Ability mod. In my latest take on ability modifiers this can be anywhere from 0-3. I think this might fit thematically as Vance's Wizard only seemed to press the maximum amount of spells into their memory when they knew they would need every last one.

      Speaking of Pathfinder, one of my favorite things they did was severely limit the spells/day at each level which goes a long way towards removing the omnipotence from spell casters. Although I've never had the chance to play it (outside a low level playtest) so I don't know how well the entire system holds up.