In a recent Dungeons & Dragons blog post, Monte Cook (one of the designers working on D&D5) discussed returning to a “Vancian” style magic system for D&D, at least as one possible option. This has led me down a couple of avenues of thought, game design-wise.
Options For D&D Magic
The first is, I’m glad to see that the design team (or at least part of it) is considering the idea of options for the D&D magic system. For the first four editions the game basically came with one magic system — take it or leave it. And for the three editions with which I’m familiar (I haven’t played any 4E, unfortunately), that magic system so colored the nature of the game and game play that it made it impossible to break out of “the D&D Fantasy mold.” Indeed, D&D in many ways redefined what Fantasy fans thought of as “High Fantasy” through the way it included magic in its settings.
The publishers of D&D tried to do a few licensed Fantasy settings here and there over the years, such as their take on Lankhmar (1985) and the Wheel Of Time (of which I was one author, 2001). The problem with this is that D&D can’t really simulate existing Fantasy settings well because its magic system affects everything. It can’t do any Swords And Sorcery — not Lakhmar, not the Hyborian Age, not even the Elric stories — because magic in even the most magic-heavy S&S stories doesn’t approach the commonality or level of power seen in D&D. It can do Low Fantasy if you ignore the magic system entirely, but that’s extremely unsatisfying because so much of the game revolves around magic. For example, there’s no way to become really, really good at being stealthy unless you use spells or get yourself a cloak of elvenkind and boots of elvenkind.
D&D works a little better for simulating High Fantasy settings like the Wheel of Time, but even there discrepancies and disconnects arise because magic just doesn’t work the same. Trying to force another magic system into the D&D mold is a disaster. Trying to change the D&D magic system/rules to fit an existing setting more precisely never seems to work out the way you want it to and results in a game that doesn’t “feel” like D&D.
So I like the idea that the D&D’s designers are thinking about options for magic — ways to structure magic to better fit a given type of Fantasy, rather than having magic force you to play “D&D-style Fantasy” and nothing else.
Of course, if they’re going to go down the route of providing players with lots of options and customizability they really ought to just use the HERO System, but we all know that ain’t gonna happen. ;)
True Vancian Magic
The second train of thought Monte’s blog post kicked off in my mind was, “What if a D&D (or some other RPG) had a magic system that was even more like Vance’s early magic system?” D&D took from Vance’s early writings — primarily The Dying Earth and The Eyes Of The Overworld — the idea that magic was so potent that a wizard could only “memorize” a certain number of spells at a time. Once they were cast, they were gone, forgotten, and the wizard had to (to paraphrase one Vance story) “force them into his brain once more.”
(In Vance’s later works, notably Rhialto The Marvellous, he expands upon or redefines his magic system to explain that a spell is an “instruction” given to various sorts of summoned magical beings who then do what they’re told. The more advanced of these beings are sentient, individual, and willful enough to argue with the wizard at times, or pervert his instructions, making for some intriguing fiction. But the idea of “memorizing” spells is gone entirely, and wizards become much more powerful as a result. One could perhaps assert, as Pelgrane Press’s fine Dying Earth RPG does, that this represents not a change but two different levels of magical power. That may be, but for purposes of my pondering here I’m basically just ignoring the later, more powerful Vancian magic system.)
Where Vance’s work departs from D&D is that that spells wizards learn/memorize are often very powerful, and as a result they can only learn a few of them. Mazirian the Magician, presented in a way that suggests he’s a pretty powerful wizard, can only “encompass four of the most formidable, or six of the lesser spells.” (When he picks the spells with which he’ll pursue T’sain, he memorizes five.) Turjan of Miir “could know but four [spells] at a time.” We’re not told how many Iuconou the Laughing Magician can carry, but presumably it’s at least as many as Mazirian, and quite possibly one or two more. In any event, the point is that they’re not like D&D wizards, who by even the midpoints of their careers have dozens of spells memorized at a time.
The kicker, as I said above, is that the spells are often much more powerful than typical D&D spells — in D&D 1st Edition terms I’d say they mostly tend to be 6th-9th level spells. There are some fairly modest ones, of course: the Charm of Untiring Nourishment, which permits underwater breathing (and presumably some other survival abilities); Phandaal’s Mantle of Stealth (invisibility). But the really notable ones are, in gaming terms, unbalancingly powerful. The Excellent Prismatic Spray, for example, seems to be instant death for anyone it’s used on. The Omnipotent Sphere offers protection against virtually anything.
Gygax and Arneson wisely changed this. A large number of less powerful spells works better for gaming than a small number of very powerful ones. Nevertheless I find the thought of trying to design an RPG with just such a system — vast magical power in small amounts — intriguing. Obviously this has been done; I mentioned the Dying Earth RPG previously. But as part of my thought experiment I’m overlooking that game and considering how to introduce “pure Vancian magic” into some other setting or style of game play.
I think the real onus here would fall on the GM (or scenario writers) to create adventures where frequent spellcasting wasn’t required. I’m sure many old timers such as myself remember the days of starting a D&D 1st Edition campaign as a “magic-user.” Since the games revolved around combat encounters, once a mage had cast his one, perhaps two, spells for the day (almost certainly Magic Missile and Sleep ;) ), he was largely useless. He could fling daggers or flaming oil, but with his pathetic attack table that wasn’t necessarily much help.
So instead, the adventures for a “few powerful spells” game would have to be designed around two key concepts: one, wizards can only cast about half a dozen spells per day; and two, when they do cast, the spells are going to be so effective that there’s not likely to be much opposition (unless it’s from another wizard). Personally, I would probably take my cue from a lot of the early “tournament” modules that TSR published for D&D and try to plan specific encounters/events where the use of a given spell is “optimal” — where it’s most likely to solve the problem confronting the group, be that a monster, a trap, a riddle, or something else. Obviously there’s no perfect way to do this, since a wizard’s “spell load” can vary from game to game (and even day to day), but I bet most GMs would quickly get a feel for the preferences of the wizard PCs in their campaigns and could plan accordingly.
Like Vance’s stories, I suspect that many adventures in such a game would shift away from pure combat to social interaction or “problem solving.” The non-stop battles of the dungeon environment (or the like) would deplete a wizard’s spells so quickly he’d soon end up feeling like that useless D&D1 magic-user. (In fact, we see this in Vance’s best-known Dying Earth story, “Mazirian the Magician,” in which the titular character one by one uses up his spells to avoid his quarry’s attempts to kill him, then gets killed when he unwisely walks right into one more dangerous situation.) After all, an instant-death-for-my-enemy spell doesn’t have nearly as much potential to unbalance an RPG campaign if the adventures don’t use the opportunity to kill people as such a central element. If someone insults you at the Overlord’s Cotillion and you break out the Excellent Prismatic Spray on him, being offended by a rival is soon going to be the least of your worries, after all. ;)
So... have any of you out there tried running a game like this, or played in one? If so, how’d it go?