From the beginning D&D has used so called Vancian Magic inspired by the "Dying Earth" science fantasy novels written by Jack Vance. Throughout the D&D editions Vancian Magic has been both loved and hated. Personally, I couldn't stand it. But, I've since warmed to it and this post explains why.
First, Vancian Magic is defined by the following major traits:
- Unique named spells that are learned individually. Typically with fancy names, detailed descriptions, and disparate effects.
- Memorization of spells and subsequent "forgetting" of a spell after it is cast.
- Limited capacity to memorize spells. aka spell slots.
My transformation from hater to admirer happened over many years in small bits and pieces. Picked up from play experience, learning a great many other magic systems (I suffer Gamer ADD), and reading many insightful articles on blogs and forums. I can't tell you when exactly I became a convert. But, in hindsight, there were three epiphanies.
I learned about Dying Earth (via Pelgrane Press's eponymous RPG, no time for books, remember that Gamer ADD) and how baroquely, awesomely atmospheric Vancian Magic could be. Although, D&D (esp latter editions) have failed to live up to the source material some of the mysticalness is still present and a crafty + dedicated DM can enhance that.
I discovered a "fantasy realistic"* explanation for spell slots, spell levels, memorization & forgetting, the whole Vancian System! A post of the Tales of Wyre campaign journal mentioned valence levels --
"...spell levels are analogous to the quantum shells occupied by electrons orbiting the nucleus of an atom, in that they can only have discrete numbers (1,2, etc.)"Casting a spell releases the quanta of arcane energy represented by that spell/valence level thus wiping memory of that spell from the caster's mind. Memorization is required to again "fill" that valence with magical energy. Through practice and experience a caster may expand his mind to hold new valence levels (more spell slots). This all gave a fairly bitchin and elegant in game reason for what I had previously seen only as an odious meta-game mechanic.**
I read several forum threads and blog posts (I forget exactly where, Grognardia? K&K Alehouse?) the gist of which was: That having each spell be it's own little set or rules with weird names and wildly varying power/effects instead of some unified & coherent system where for example the higher level fire attack spell is the same weak fire attack spell just with more power applied. Makes Vancian Magic more phantasmagorical and mysterious, less mechanical and logical. All things that greatly appeal to me as I try to escape rules-heavy, min-maxed, mechanical focused games. Too many players (and DMs) have forgotten that magic shouldn't be reduced to numbers and effects, shouldn't be mundane or well understood.
[Bonus epiphany] Power/mana points seem cool until you actually have to track them in game.
In short, Vancian Magic is a Puissant Thaumaturgic Artifice because
1) It's not just some stupid system bolted on from a naval war game or something.
2) It has a cool in-game explanation which adds depth and verisimilitude.
3) While not being great mechanically/rule/crunch wise, it is very good from a game play and style/atmosphere perspective.
* Fantasy realistic is my term for in-game explanations of game rules/systems/mechanics that make sense within the framework of the setting. i.e. they maintain suspension of disbelief and enhance verisimilitude. This disaster is the opposite of fantasy realistic.
** Not having arbitrary meta-game mechanics intrude into my fantasy is one aspect that sets RPGs apart from other games. And it really irks me when I'm forced to deal with them, esp if they're for game balance reasons.