Thursday, June 4, 2009

Cugel the Clever or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Vancian Magic

A while back on this blog, Vancian magic was brought up. In an email resulting from the discussion, Norman J. Harman, Jr. of Troll and Flame, was nice enough to expound on his preferences and attitudes towards Vancian Magic. I asked if he'd mind doing a guest post on the topic, and he agreed. Here we go:

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:
  1. Unique named spells that are learned individually. Typically with fancy names, detailed descriptions, and disparate effects.
  2. Memorization of spells and subsequent "forgetting" of a spell after it is cast.
  3. Limited capacity to memorize spells. aka spell slots.
Second, it's not the only magic system I appreciate. For example, I'm very fond of Ars Magica's system. But, I do believe Vancian Magic is one of D&D's signature traits and I'm not sure I'd want to play D&D without it.

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.


Anonymous said...

In regards to keeping tabs: One thing that has always gotten me with RPG's is the lack of design innovation with the actual play area. From my first days in D&D for spell use the first thing I did was take business cards and write spell names on them (an level) so players could more easily keep tabs on what they had memorized at any given time, and what they had left. Remembering what spells people had was brutal.

Likewise for the game I run with mana now, I just use 2 colours of glass beads (ones's and five's). For hitpoints (well luck points) I use poker chips.

In boardgames, writing and erasing constantly on a scrap of paper is seen as terrible design. I take that philosophy to RPG's as well. If you are having trouble keeping track of something (or if you just keep going through paper) you need to redesign your play area. Thats what I did.


Giga boy said...

Am I the only one that has never ever had a problem with D&D's magic system?

Norman Harman said...

Thanks for the giving me the opportunity to guest post on your blog Zach. It was great fun and I encourage other bloggers to give it a try.

In the meantime go read Zach's guest post on my blog where we gives great advice on Failed Campaign Recovery.

Zachary The First said...

Thanks, Norman! Great job--we should do this again some time. Your post here is getting some favorable responses--

mxyzplk said...

I have to agree. Other magic systems are good too, but D&D is all about the Vancian. D&D is more than a brand name.

And really, very few magic systems are as entertaining and colorful and fun to play as D&D's. For every innovative magic system like Ars Magica, there's a dozen "blah, blast them with spell points" lamefests.

Donny_the_DM said...

But is D&D truly about the vancian? Or is it just that we've gotten so used to it that everything else feels wrong in it's place?

For such a bunch of smart people, we can be weird about that kind of stuff :)

Scott said...

A well-written post, indeed. But I take issue with this part:

"Too many players (and DMs) have forgotten that magic shouldn't be reduced to numbers and effects, shouldn't be mundane or well understood."

This may be true from the characters' perspective, but it should never be true from the players' and GMs' perspective. Vancian magic was not well understood by many players, and this sort of statement is perhaps more rationalization than justification.

(For proof that it was not well understood, one need only look at all of the essays -- not only in the rulebooks, but in sources such as Dragon and various magic-user-oriented game supplements -- that attempted to explain and clarify it.)

Vancian magic is pretty unique. It is also, depending on your perspective, a flawed design decision or a flawed execution of the intended design. Its lack of clarity is not the only reason for this, but it is an indicator.

That doesn't mean it doesn't have its points. For a certain type of game, and once the explanations are set into place, it serves better than any alternatives. It sounds as though that's the sort of game you enjoy, so more power to you.

dan said...

Nice post. I had just stumbled upon that campaign journal recently and was trying to find the original post the author was citing. It seems like a compelling interpretation of the magic system, even if it only has novelty value. Still, that there is a logic to the game is an amusing discovery.

Dave "Joyd" said...

This post has single-handedly adjusted my attitude towards the Vancian system from profoundly negative to slightly positive. Without the electron shells metaphor, the system seems profoundly nonsensical. The wizard can't remember how to cast the fire spell he just cast, but can remember how to cast a fireball that's a bit larger or a bit smaller than it? The sorcerer draws from several buckets of different sizes, and the spells produced by each bucket have nothing in common except for their metagame-determined power level? Metamagic making any kind of sense? Almost everything about the system now seems much more natural.