25 April 2013

V is for Vancian Magic

“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 the 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 the 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 page as if frantic to leave the dark solitude of the book. Turjan closed the book, forcing the spell back into oblivion. He robed himself with a short cape, tucked a blade into his belt, fitted the amulet holding Laccodel’s Rune to his wrist. Then he sat down and from a journal chose the spells he would take with him. What dangers he might meet he could not know, so he selected three spells of general application: the Excellent Prismatic Spray, Phandal’s Mantle of Stealth, and the Spell of the Slow Hour.”
No other mechanic in D&D history has ever been so argued over as Vancian magic. But I'm not here to argue, I'm just here to say that it's the best! (Warning: this entry features lots of proud grognard flag-waving)

You can read almost anywhere that the concept of Vancian magic came from an author named Jack Vance and his Dying Earth series of books. In them, magic is a difficult art to master, requiring study and memorization of spells and formulas, and then casting the spell using command words. Once cast, however, the spell is immediately forgotten by the caster, requiring him to once again spend time re-learning it. His mind could not hold the power of the arcane, and as spells have somewhat a mind of their own in this setting, they escaped free the moment they were cast. This method of magic was used in a few video games, perhaps most note-worthy being in Final Fantasy, which was essentially a D&D game. But long before that Dungeons & Dragons picked it up and it has been the magic system ever since.

If I had to guess what people's primary problem with Vancian magic is, its that they have tried other magic systems from things like video games and somehow want to integrate those systems into D&D. The thing is, this is D&D's system. Its what it uses. If you don't like it, don't play. Sure, some books like Unearthed Arcana have alternate methods of dealing with magic, but whatever you end up playing it will not be Dungeons & Dragons. To me, Vancian magic is an irremovable part of the game and the setting. Magic users are meant to struggle through the early levels, because everything is made up for at the higher levels when they are literally breaking the entire game with their godlike powers. The term Linear Warriors, Quadratic Wizards is iconic of D&D for a reason.

I've always viewed magic as a power beyond the control of man. It uses the forces of the universe, and we as frail mortals can only begin to tap its potential by bending it to our will, however temporarily. This idea of magic being too powerful for us is as ancient as the first cavemen, when we gazed into the starry night and felt how small and insignificant we were. To truly grasp magic would drive us mad, tearing our tiny minds to shreds. When a wizard casts a spell, he has put the time and effort into attempting to bend reality, and the ability to do so is his reward for that effort. As a result, he has neglected other studies, such as weapon training. Magic to me actually is too easy to cast, and I enjoy going back to an even more archaic form of magic, one that takes a toll on its wielder for casting it.

The players in my campaign had been unable to stop a mad god from assassinating the goddess of magic in her sleep. As a result the Weave, the source of all magic that the goddess held domain over was broken, affecting all arcane casters and even divine casters. I concocted a complex system where being connected to the weave for more than a standard action was draining to the character, and would actually drain their life force. Mechanically, this meant that for every spell that took a round or more to cast, every two spell levels above first would drain 1d6 years of life from the arcane caster, and every four spell levels above first would drain the same years for divine casters. I had every caster calculate their maximum age (another mechanic that rarely gets used) and told them that if they died of natural causes (i.e. old age) that they would be irretrievably dead. No raise dead, no resurrection, no nothing.

Painstakingly I went through every spell in the Player's Handbook and found that this was 76 spells of 371 total spells for a wizard, making it roughly 20% of their spells; 57 of 219 total spells for a cleric, making it roughly 26% of their spells; and 4 of 44 spells for a paladin, making it roughly 9% of their spells. These were the only casters I had so I didn't bother with ranger, druid, sorcerer, or bard spells. Admittedly this was a larger portion of cleric spells, but since their magic was funneled to them by a god, the process was slower. Some casters didn't mind as much, on account of them being demihumans with naturally long life spans, but my wife was a human cleric. She started at age 18 and now I believe she is in her 50s. Alternatively, a dark form of the Weave called the Shadow Weave existed, that only arcane casters could access, but it dealt them damage and accrued something called Taint that would stain their very souls. Too much Taint and they would become so evil I would take their character away from them, as I do not allow evil characters in my campaigns.

The true purpose of this was not only to make magic more intense and a harder path to take, but most importantly to make my players think and make choices. At high levels they could not simply teleport from location to location, or summon massive fire storms and dominate the minds of the weak. They would have to judge whether the assault on their natural time on this world was worth the spell's effect. Magic had to be thought through and considered. To me, that is what magic should be, and Vancian magic is an extension of that thought process. A player's spells are limited, he must choose for himself what he wishes to do, planning and deciding the best course of action. A system of magic points or recharging magic doesn't carry with it the danger of failure. It doesn't reward the player for thinking ahead or fit the idea that magic is a force beyond his comprehension. That is why I will never adopt or support another magic system in Dungeons & Dragons. It already has the best system.

If you're at all interested in reading more about the system's history, refer to the links section for a fantastic article called A Brief History of Vancian Magic. The Evil GM doesn't have a high opinion of Vancian magic, but he delivers the history quite well, and I learned a lot. Interestingly enough, despite not liking the system, his summation merely convinced me how much I like it even more! Thanks for reading, stay tuned tomorrow for "W is for Wondrous Item".

Relevant Links
Linear Warriors, Quadratic Wizards
A Brief History of Vancian Magic

1 comment:

  1. I rather like the "magic could break you"concept. I've always been a bit ambiguous towards the vancian system, myself, but that's an angle you could really play up. Like how powerfull spells are sometimes described in Pratchett's discworld novels, where they possess some kind of weird sentience, beings of their own who see wizards as vessels they can use to be spoken into the world. Or like in the Call of Cthulu rpg's where you basically pay for spells with Sanity points.