If you’ve been paying attention to the news coming out of the D&D Experience, you’ve probably noticed the term “Vancian” come up, followed by a fair bit of tension. The Wikipedia article isn’t especially helpful, being nothing more than a list of various magic systems. The TV Tropes listing is somewhat better, as is the Arcana Wiki article (more information good, less neutral tone bad), but neither do much to explain the underpinnings of the concept.
My experience is that most modern gamers are largely unaware of it, both as a convention and as a design philosophy, which is kind of unfortunate.
What’s in a Name?
As you almost certainly already know, Vancian magic is named after the magic system found in Jack Vance’s Dying Earth novels.
“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.”
-“Turjan of Miir”, Jack Vance
There’s no evidence, however, that Gygax and Arenson based their magic system directly off the books. It seems to have been more of a “We have a square hole… oh, look, a square peg!” situation where Vance’s books coincided with their design theories.
The Strange Influence of Napoleon Bonaparte
I know it seems like roleplaying has been around forever, but chances are good that you’re playing with someone who is older than the hobby (that would include me, by the way). Dungeons and Dragons didn’t spring full-formed from the minds of Gygax and Arenson. It actually has its roots in historical miniatures games, most specifically Column, Line & Square. The most popular era was the Napoleonic period, probably because the uniforms were still outlandish and fun (as compared to the relatively boring uniforms of today’s armies), the generals were interesting (one of Napoleon’s cavalry officers, Murat, liked to eat grass with the horses before a big battle) and there was a wide spread of troop types, technologies, weapons and tactics.
D&D evolved out of these games and it shows. One of D&D’s contemporaries, Chivalry and Sorcery, shows it even more clearly. Basically, those first RPGs were guys saying “We don’t have to just simulate Waterloo. We could simulate Lord of the Rings too!” This is important to remember, because the core “look and feel” of classic roleplaying games derives from this mindset.
- Spells were perceived as ammunition. This makes sense, when you think about it. Both the early RPGs and miniatures systems used the same basic unit of tactical time: the day.
- Classes were treated like units and class identity was strictly maintained. To the military mind, a unit behaves in ways that fulfill a specific need. In this sense, early class development centered as much around role as story and it played into the traditional trade-offs of military units. You can’t have a heavily armored magic-user (swordmages and the like came later and remain contentious) because that’s not what an artillery piece is. It was an intuitive road to play balance because it fed into expected strengths and weaknesses.
- Mechanics and progression were handled with charts and tables. Take a look at old military or technical manuals and compare the formatting and structure with early versions of D&D. This was how information was stored and it had an effect on how the game felt.
- Randomness was used to simulate reality. Many modern miniatures games retain “weather rolls” or similar mechanics intended to introduce randomness as a form of balance. Many roleplaying games include random encounter tables and random loot.
Harry Potter, Meet Gandalf
When people talk about the “golden age” of fantasy fiction, they basically mean Lord of the Rings, Elric of Melnibone, Conan the Barbarian (and to a lesser degree, John Carter of Mars) and Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser. You could also include H.P. Lovecraft’s work, as it influenced perspectives on magic. These books have a few things in common:
- They were written by men, for men. While all of them were sexist, sometimes overtly so, it’s important to realize they also were written for an audience with some very specific ideas about masculinity that were reflective of the thinking of the time. Intellectualism and learning were not exactly important qualities for the heroes of yore. They all share a “where strength won’t do, cleverness and trickery win the day” esthetic. Sometimes being smart or gaining knowledge was actively punished.
- Magic was either exceptionally rare or on the decline. The notion that magic could be a part of everyday life is actually fairly modern. In my literary experience, it first shows up in The Incarnations of Immortality series by Piers Anthony. It’s never been all that popular outside of of books for younger readers like Harry Potter or Percy Jackson.
- Magic was usually bad for you and often a tool of the enemy. I’ve never seen a classic fantasy piece where magic was clearly a force for good. Even today, books in which the idea of a magical utopia is discussed always refer to it as something that once existed, but has been lost. In many ways, magic was imagined much like nuclear power (atomic bombs, stolen secrets, radioactive waste, nuclear winter…). Sometimes gaining magical power required personal sacrifices (Hand of Vecna) or weakened/harmed you (Raistlin).
- Practitioners of magic were either very powerful people who were in control or who lived in deliberate obscurity. Given the negative perception of magic, it’s not unreasonable that most of the people who used it were either power hungry or people who hid their dangerous power from the world. If you consider the Force in the Star Wars universe to be a form of magic (which it is), you can see this principle very clearly.
- Learning magic was always a difficult process in which the student was likely to make dangerous mistakes and was unreliable until the student gained further mastery. In the few light-hearted presentations, the apprentice was almost always presented as being something of a bumbler and his magic was likely to go perversely awry. Again, the books of Piers Anthony are helpful in seeing this at work.
If you want all of this wrapped up in a neat package, Lawrence Watt-Evans wrote a series of books that started with Lure of the Basilisk (it’s technically called The Lords of Dus Series, but I couldn’t have told you that with a gun to my head). Not only are they excellent reads, but every single one of these tropes is presented there.
The Vancian System
So the early RPG developers built a magic system based on their understanding of fantasy magic tropes and miniatures game balance, but how did it work?
- Spells were split into (spell) levels that a character could gain access to as it went up in (character) levels. Sometimes a class started with spells, sometimes it would not gain them until later. Sometimes the same spell was listed as being different levels for different classes.
- Characters could learn (or gain access to) a large number of spells. Traditionally, arcane casters had to go out and find copies of spells, then pass a check to see if they could actually learn them. Gods granted divine casters access to most, if not all, of the spells of the appropriate level.
- The caster would memorize (or select) a certain number of these spells for the day. Let’s say that a 2nd level AD&D Magic-User (the equivalent of today’s Wizard) knows Burning Hands, Comprehend Languages, Detect Magic and Write (I could have sworn that I remembered that every Magic-User got Write and Read Magic automatically, but I’m too tired to make sure). Looking at the chart below, he can prepare two spells. He decides that he’s expecting a lot of fighting, so he decides to prep two Burning Hands.
- When a spell was used, it was lost until it was replaced by memorizing. The system did not include methods of recovering expended spells until much later. Most magic items had either a per-day usage restriction or charges that had to be tracked (This was especially true of wands. Scrolls, salves and potions were always single-use items).
- Casters were not given at-will spells. This led to situations where Magic-Users would pick up a crossbow or other simple weapon to use when they were out of spells.
- Casters were not permitted to dynamically swap spells until later editions. This was mostly restricted to healers, who could turn in a combat spell for something that could heal.
- Most of the spell design was “top down”. Vancian magic centers around the idea that spells are very rare and very powerful. The designers started with the most powerful things they could imagine a caster doing and worked down from there to the most routine magical tasks. This is why you have Wish on one end and Read Magic on the other.
- Power balance was attempted through mechanics external to the spells. GMs were encouraged to make certain spells difficult (or impossible) to find. Some spells had rare or expensive components. Requiring spell components was also a way to place external limits on a spell (Fess up, how many of you tracked the number of holly berries your character was carrying?). Some spells cost you experience, caused you to lose attributes (or risk losing them) or aged you.
- Rituals did not exist until later editions. Admittedly, there were non-combat spells that you could memorize and cast during what you hoped was downtime.
And the Wheels Come Off…
Thus far, I have tried to keep the tone neutral, despite the fact that I’ve always disliked the Vancian system. This section is more of my personal opinion, most of which is going to be negative. As always, if you disagree with me or have a different perspective, please feel free to comment.
- Vancian magic was often hard on the healers. Even after they made it so that you could “trade-in” for a heal, very often a healer’s turn consisted of nothing more than casting Cure X Wounds. 4e’s system of having the majority of healing come from minor actions allowed healers to do something more than just spam.
- The mechanics of Vancian magic forces specific themes and stories. There’s simply no way to do the Harry Potter universe (among others) under a Vancian paradigm. Also, having to find spells for your casters makes non-caster characters go on adventures that benefit others more than them.
- Scarcity is generally a bad way to attempt balance. Keeping track of components is tedious. Also, if something is overpowered or unfun, the fact that the character can only do it every so often doesn’t make it any less so (this problem is present in many systems, not just those that use Vancian magic, but the way spells are designed in Vancian systems often makes it worse).
- Vancian magic is very difficult to balance with characters that don’t use magic. This problem is sometimes referred to as “linear fighter, quadratic wizard“, though I prefer the term “banding”. In 3.5 the “sweet spot” where casters and non-casters were mostly equals was levels 6 – 11. Many campaigns dissolved after that point.
- Vancian systems are also notorious for poor agency. This is a separate concept from balance. Imagine this conversation:
GM: You guys need to get into the keep.
Bard: I’m going to talk the guards into letting us in.
Wizard: … or I could just use Charm Person. Far more reliable and we can have them give us their stuff!
Rogue: They might throw off the enchantment. Best to let me sneak in.
Wizard: … or I could just use Invisibility.
Fighter: I’ll bet they have some kind of magic that prevents that. I know I would. How about I bend the bars on the portcullis that leads into the sewers underneath the keep?
Wizard: … or I could just fly us over with, you know, my Fly spell.
Rest of the party: *sigh* Whatever.
Now, I’m not going to pretend that other systems haven’t had this problem, but Vancian systems tend to have the worst time of it.
Whew! I’m spent! What are your thoughts?