25 comments on “A Brief History of Vancian Magic

  1. My most memorable experience with D&D 3.5 was when we discovered that a party need only two rogues, two magic users, and some kind of healer. Every situation boiled down to a routine:

    1) rogues infiltrate and get an easy instant kill. Stupid high stealth and perception and boots of spider climb made that easy.
    2) alarm would sound and guards would have a round to surround the rogues.
    3) Artillery style casters would target the rogues and rain fire on the crowd. Fireball was the preferred spell for the job. Rogues would make a dex check that they could not actually fail, and guards would die.
    4) Random clean up
    5) healer would heal anyone who needed it.

    In retrospect our GM was very tolerant of how quickly we could shank encounters that were out of a module because we tried to bend or break the tank/healer mold in any way possible.

    • We had one player who refused to fit into this mold. He made fighter after fighter, which all died in different silly ways. Then he tried a healer and was disappointed by being useless in combat.

  2. Pathfinder does a better job of dealing with the power disparity between high level casters and fighters, but it is still there. Also, your complaint of “I could just cast spell X” to get past obstacle Y isn’t necessarily as big a deal as you make it out to be; a wizard almost certainly doesn’t have enough castings of a spell to get the entire party (barring scrolls, but those are a pretty limited resource) and a sorcerer would likely be able to do so, but then would be mostly tapped for spells of that level. Also, duration is an issue. An invisibility isn’t going to last forever, nor is a fly. Needing to recast as many as 5 spells to leave the situation is pretty likely to break the party. Finally, a lot of the time spells like flight and invisibility are used to get past obstacles and deal with encounters that no other class has a specific answer to; I’ve run through 8 scrolls of fly on my current wizard, and now prep two per day despite the fact that I’ve got overland flight going on myself for 12 hours. All of those scrolls were to deal with obstacles mid combat or flying threats. Really, I find my wizard spending so many rounds making his allies better that I don’t often have time to actually do the earthshaking stuff.

    Oh, and ritual magic seemed like a cool concept, but it sucked. The rituals took forever even for the more mundane things (taking a day to make a plane? Sure. Taking 10 minutes to do things that a low level 3.5 wizard could do in a standard action? Lame.) and cost too much. Plus, since it is exceedingly rare for a PC to fight in an area of his choosing with time to set up, making all of the rituals that change the battlefield in interesting ways only marginally useful to PCs. And finding scrolls for specific ritual X has just the same annoying factor for the non-ritual casters in 4E as it did for non-wizards in previous editions. Though I do love Linked Portal; it fixes the problem of “Lets just teleport there!” while giving out story hooks like “What’s this code lead to?”

    • I wasn’t really addressing the quality of rituals in 4e. I was simply mentioning that non-combat magic was not really present prior to 4e. I happen to think that rituals in 5e/Next should be cheaper and easier to use.

      Also, I found the phrase, “Finally, a lot of the time spells like flight and invisibility are used to get past obstacles and deal with encounters that no other class has a specific answer to.” especially troubling. Giving a character a chance to shine is not the same as requiring them to be present and to have a specific tool. It feels as though you’re describing a situation where the GM has already decided that those spells are the “correct answer.”

  3. Wow, really great writeup! Since so much of it is simply backstory/history, I don’t have a direct response. Although, I’m going to sleep on it and then give my thoughts on Vancian in general and as it has existed in D&D. Thanks!

  4. I’m not a fan of Vancian magic either, but with respect to the goal of “modularity” expressed for DnDNext, I suspect Vancian magic could easily coexist with the 4e system. I’m not saying it would be trivial to balance them, but I suspect it would be doable. If someone else is playing with a Vancian character and enjoys it, I have no reason to object to it.

  5. Spells, especially the wizard and to some extent the cleric spells, definitely solved a host of challenges quickly. It may have been cool the first few times, but after a while, the wizard having the answer to everything or nuking everything there was to kill in one round starts to rub the rest of the team the wrong way.

    It is a team game after all, and in team games everyone wants to contribute.

    The closer to everyone having impactful contributions, including on the battlefield, the better.

    Book of Nine Swords towards the end of D&D 3.x started to balance all classes into Vancian types, which was pretty cool. Got one of my players, a sworn spellcaster powergamer, to actually go melee for the first time in a long time!

    I think the uniqueness and coolness or appeal of Vancian magic is better presented in 3.x than 4e, where it spells and powers more mechanical and less unique to a class or theme. But, and this is a big but, more recent material started to change that, thank goodness. And 5e looks to continue that trend, so we should be excited! More story, more flavor, same class balance, faster combat… sign me up!

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  7. As I have played every edition of D&D, I can say that Vancian system does have its flaws and they are only amplified when a party is allows to repeatedly rest so their spellcaster(s) can regain the use of their spells. editions after 1st tried to repair this in assorted ways but they also fed the fire by allowing spellcasters access to more spells per day based on superior stats.

    I think 4.0 did a decent job with balance during the heroic tier by providing the players just enough healing and magic resources to be able to press on.However during the paragon tier I noted that the players PCs either went through a battle fast with very lite loss of resources or suffered a lot during longer battles and one or two PCs chest lights would be blinking do to only having 1 or 2 healing surges left.

    Looking at the previous editions I normally found the party stopped adventuring once either the Cleric or Magic User ran out of spells esp during Org, 1st and Basic/expert D&D. Second edition used a quite a similar system but with a much more refined spell system. When 3.x came out it partially solved the healing resource issue allowing a party to continue on adventuring for sometime and many parties stopped once the Wizard/Sorcerers ran out of magic. Don’t get me started on the 3.x Warlock.

    I experimented with a magic system during 2ed edition that used a points system sorta like 3.x psionics did, however players only recovered so much magic energy based on their level and closeness to a magic resource such as a ley line or magic font per hour/day/week. Also only so many points could be used for more powerful spells.

    4th edition was nice with the at-will, encounter and daily resource management. However when a player used one of those dailies that they were expecting to hit the target and it missed normally caused combats to last much longer, no matter what players PC daily power missed. If you have a number of players miss with those powers you could be bogged down in one combat for a whole session and that no fun for anyone.

    The editions previous to 3.x most spells would automagically hit and then it was up to the creature hit to make a save. So I like parts of both systems. Perhaps giving spell casters the ability to invest in making their spell hit more often or being able to produce the spell more times because they have a greater natural talent/skill level with a spell per memorization slot, and once they reach a certain skill level with a spell they could based on the spell level or ruthlessness/utility/etc be able to cast it at-will?


  8. Great article! Was passing by and had no intentions of reading the writeup but was hooked instantly. Probably Charmed me…

    Vancian magic is baller, let’s face it. If you’ve tried designing other systems you’ll realize there are only a few that can exist peacefully and with such versatility. You have Vancian magic, a mana/power point type pool, or 4e’s bastardized version of magic. Oh and the warlock system, I guess that’s pretty cool too.

    Sure, 4e has at-will’s, encounters, and dailies, but do you really want to choose between running and jumping? Or how about swimming and climbing? Drinking and eating? You can only choose one! As an avid magic user player, I’m simply fascinated by the sheer choices I have, even if my selected repertoire of spells is limited (e.g. Sorcerer).

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  11. I’m running an OD&D game, and just recently told the mages they no longer have to pick their spells… they’ll have to spend game-hours a day reviewing their books and notes, but can cast what they decide they need at will. This is part of my ongoing modifications of the rules that was expected back when I first began player!

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  13. I’ve been playing DND since 1976. I’ve tried all the flavors and some other RPG games as well(lots). I havent touched on Pathfinder yet, and I’ve only read thru and picked at the DND Next materials.

    As a lover of Casters, I agree with the Linear Fighter, Quadratic Wizard chart above. there is a sweet zone, that all players feel like they are being productive and have their niche. Now as a Mage, I often memorize my spells so I am not the Showboat of the situation, but I am a utility belt, waiting to be used at the right moment. Knock spell? We have a Rogue, I’ll keep some scrolls for those magic doors he cant take. Invisibility and fly? I need an escape plan, but I’m not using it unless I have to.. I’m squishy. The Fighter and rogue have a bottleneck but the enemy have found a route to circle around the party. Wall of.., fireball to toasty things and allow for a regroup against the 2nd wave.

    The groups I play in bring up stories of how we barely survived, 1 player standing.. because i pulled a rabbit out of my hat. 0 hit points, I sacrifice myself with a color spray, go to -1 and pass out and then the paladin who was about to die with 2 full hitpoint shocker lizards on her… coup de grace the foe and stabilizes everyone. Not all Wizards are ‘showstealers’, but we have our place.

    I honestly wished I could cast more often, not less. LOL I HATE picking up a crossbow? I remember 1st edition 1st level… having to fight with a dagger? Bah! 😉 I dont care if I get a free Magic Missile per round, that requires a ranged hit roll.(My 4th edition Tiefling Sorcerer with lighting strike… oh yeah!) At least its magic and not a freaking crossbow. Same result, but its the story of it…

    So then came 3.5e Residual Magic. Very Warlock class styled.. If I have a Fire spell memorized I can cause 5 foot bursts of fire 1d6/SL of the memorized spell. It made Magic a little more than just artillery slots. Now within 30 feet I can use a ‘fiery burst’ feat to cause damage, like Mages in stories. Wicked! LOL The rest of my spells are now all utility, and I dont feel useless. I always keep a Fire spell memorized and uncast. Now I have the party begging me to cast my fireball… 😛 hahaha

    For those of you who don’t know the feats that I am speaking about Complete Mage pg36+.
    Acid Splatter: 5ft/SL in distance throw acid doing 1d6/SL spell memorized
    Fiery burst: 1d6/SL damage, within 30 feet.
    Invisible Needles: 1d4/SL, 5ft/SL away… ranged attack roll.
    and more…

    Not really game changing, but they give the mage a feeling of being a unique caster.

    Then someone breaks it with Human Wizard using Precocious Apprentice + fiery burst. feats. Shooting 2d6 Fire at first level. A young mage to be feared for sure. LOL (smacking forehead)

    these feats, just as the Quadratic Wizard chart show, will make the Wizard a smidge more on the top end, but it made his early years easier to handle. Less “I’m out of spells”.

    At 6th level, I found myself using the Fiery Burst less, because targets are further than 30feet away. I have wands which do waaay more. As the levels progress, this will be more and more of an occurrence. Especially as enemies have Fire resistance.

    Looking back,,,1st or 2nd edition?…I played with a group that turned Spell slots into mana points pool using a dragon magazine article. The Wizards could read their books each morning and know their spells, but using full round casting, cast any spell they knew without sticking to whatever slot they memorized. This is likely the precursor to what sorcerer’s were designed from. The mage wasnt having to carry around tons of scrolls for those rarely used spells. We allowed the Cleric to do the same thing. Thus the casters became dynamic and able to handle different situations without saying “didnt memorize that”? and hearing “Why not?!?”… because i have options to balance when memorizing. 😛 This Dragon variation was one of my most favored.

    Not sure how I’m going to like 5th editions preparing 4 spells /day? Ugh.. hampering the mages even moreso.

  14. I stumbled into this while questing for a good definition and explanation of Vancian Magic. This was great! I could really get an image of the spells being living things inside the head of a wizard, channeled through expertise into reality instead of some kind of arcane arithmetic that you mysteriously forget about. It’s a pretty cool idea.

    As for your later comments on the problems of the Vancian magic system, I would like to offer some counterpoints. First and foremost, my personal bias: I have only ever played 3.5, Pathfinder and 5e. I am actually only roughly familiar with 4th edition. I will therefore try to keep any comments about that edition to myself.

    It seems to me from what I’ve been told about earlier editions that several of your problems come from those editions, and not the more recent ones. By this, I mean problems like having to find all of your arcane spells, and spells that age you. I know that aging as a side effect of spells like wish and haste got phased out with 3rd edition. As for having to find all of your wizard spells, you are granted two at each level so that you can sustain your spell-casting abilities without having to quest about. If you manage to raid an ancient library, however, you can discover new spells and add them. The only “quests” you might have to do in order to gain new wizard spells are when the spells are mcguffins, like recovering a sword of truth or dragon-slaying arrow might be. “The spell which can close the portal into Hell has been lost for 400 years. Perhaps this map might give us a clue to its location.” No erroneous questing required.

    You also mentioned that Vancian magic is hard on casters. I began in an edition that had trade-out casting for clerics. The whole point of that addition, in my opinion, is so that clerics can do other useful things during battle, and then heal afterwards. Why waste a spell healing a fighter from a grievous claw would from a demon when you can use your holy powers to smite the bejesus out of that same demon with a spell of the same spell slot, thus stopping it from rending the fighter in the first place?

    This leads into the issue of poor agency. It can certainly be a real problem. I can think of two ways that this problem is dealt with: one in the rules and one by the players. The rules limit the spells of a wizard, so that he has to be selective in what he chooses. If he spends all of his slots on spells that replicate other players’ abilities, he can’t do any cool wizard stuff. He can probably buff himself up, use Tenser’s Transformation, and wade into battle, but at that point why not be a fighter or barbarian? He can go invisible and charm and mage’s hand stuff out of people’s pockets all he wants, but why not just be a rogue?

    The other part is just being a team player. You could load up on all of the fancy “save or die” spells, but what fun is that. Either BBEG makes his save and you wasted a round, or he fails and everybody else feels cheated. A real Good Guy Wizard takes the buffs to make the fighter stronger and faster, takes the stealth to make the rogue sneakier (“I’m going to make the rogue invisible so that he can sneak across the room full of guards and unlock the tiger’s cage without anyone noticing) and stopping bad guys from hurting anyone too much. Clerics are kind of the same: instead of “wasting your turns” healing, use your spells to help the party win and get less hurt in the first place. I love being a caster, especially in 3.5 and Pathfinder. I focus on making my allies better and making it harder for my enemies to hit them (or me). My fighter can take to the skies to battle off a harpy, and I can create walls and pits to stop my party from being overwhelmed. It lacks a dramatic boom, but how fun is that really?

    Finally, a lack of at-will spells forcing a caster to carry around a crossbow. “Back in my day” (though your day could have been before mine for all I know) low level casters not built for normal combat would arm themselves with low-level wands. Fairly cheap to come by, they would be 50 charges worth of extra spells for when your limited pool ran dry. This worked really well until casters had enough spell slots that they didn’t run out. Then pathfinder added “zero-level spells are at will”. That fixed that problem.

    This isn’t to say that there are no problems with Vancian Magic. My biggest problem is actually one of immersion: The more spells I have, the bigger my spellbook, the more time I have to spend on the technical aspects of my character and the less I can spend role-playing. While my friends the fighter and bard can spend time talking tough in taverns and negotiating treaties, have found myself with my nose in the gaming books, trying to remember exactly how each spell works for if and when anything goes down. Too many spells and abilities detracts from the roleplaying experience.

    Also, you don’t always have a Good Guy Wizard in your party. Sometimes, you have the powergamer, the munchkin. You have the guy who casts hold person on the BBEG in the middle of his monologue, and gets the rogue to coup him in the lamest anti-climax to your two year game. Maybe the fighter’s nemesis and his band of brigands show up for a battle, and the wizard drops a maximized fireball or finger of death on the guy. Totally not cool.

    Finally, it can definitely be limiting. Being a dedicated healer really isn’t that fun. No, you can’t have a Harry Potter type system of magic. Every system has limits. It’s hard to be an effective dagger duelist fighter by any system I’ve played so far. It just isn’t as good as a fighter with a bigger weapon. As for different genres, no system of magic that I can think of fits every genre. That’s why different games have different systems. Wizards’ “Unearthed Arcana” had a whole mess of alternate rules systems including corrupting magic and rules for armorless combat (without getting automatically cut to pieces), which fit different worlds from the Vancian one from which Vancian magic originated.

    Vancian magic has the potential for overuse and abuse, making the game not fun for everyone involved. Alternatively, it has the potential to be a all-use utility tool for making games more awesome. Letting your fighter fly up to the top of the tower to save his princess (or her prince) wil make him love you, and using your powers of divination to give cryptic hints about where the Mcguffin is will make you a DM’s best friend. It’s not a perfect system, but I don’t think you quite gave it justice. I hope this helps a bit.

  15. Interesting post, and comments.
    I would like to point out an interesting aspect of Vancian magic that is actually present in both Jack Vance’s books and OD&D rules but is widely ignored or bastardized:

    Both FINDING and LEARNING new spells is supposed to be hard.

    This isn’t supposed to mean that the party goes on a special quest to satisfy the wizard’s munchinising urges for Fireball and Lightning Bolt; it supposed to mean that wizards don’t get to munchinise their spell book at all. If this is refereed properly it really does improve both balance and agency — and can also help with story-telling and characterization.

    That is, you can sometimes get much more interesting game play if the wizard doesn’t have any area-effect mass destruction spells, and instead tries to get the most possible use from Clairvoyance and Water Breathing. Exactly what you make available should be tailored to your campaign style.

    • While what you say is true of most game systems, it’s telling that 5e does not use this balance mechanic, despite a hard lurch toward their AD&D roots. That’s because there’s a a big difference between telling people that they don’t find a magic sword and that they can’t access game mechanics.

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  17. Thanks for this article. I’m trying to put together a video on magic in Roleplaying Video Games, and how AD&D influenced it, it’s limitations, and how it’s balanced against other types of play. This hits on a lot of those points.

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  21. not a fan of vancian systems. more into mana pools myself. the problem with tracking spell slots by level rather than tracking mana costs is you generally have 9 or 10 resource pools to track while the Mana pool uses 1.

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