Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Spells and the Vancian Paradigm

Having read the various posts on Vancian magic, the stories that inspired the system, and some of the criticisms of the same, several thoughts have come to mind:

1. The core ideas --  that spells take up mental space, and that human mental space is limited -- can easily be rationalized in a setting. Whether it is because one can only memorize so many spells in a day, or because spells are semi-living things that take up certain amount of finite mental space in their hosts, or because spells are complex mathematical formulae that can be pre-cast in a finite amount of time and released with triggers, if that's the way magic works then it should be accepted as part of the setting... just like half-elves, massive underground dungeons, and a mysterious mint that continuously strikes generic gold, silver, and copper pieces for placement in treasure chests.

2. The criticism of Vancian magic seems to stem from the very specific mechanics, which vary from the portrayal of magic in stories and media that we're exposed to. In the Harry Potter universe, magic does require some learning, but once learned the spells seem to be castable at will -- and there are consequences for miscasting. In the Belgariad, the most common price of magic is to tire out the spellcasters, but there seems to be no restriction on which spells are available on a given day.

3. The wizard class itself seems to be restricted, given the restriction on swords and other weapons and armor -- which runs counter to the portrayals of spellcasters in fiction. Gandalf, of course, wielded a sword; while he may be characterized as a multi-classer, he didn't seem to be much of one and is still held up as a classic example of a wizard.

It seems that a lot of the criticisms, and the attempts to fix the magic system and magic-user class in general stem from the perception that D&D mages aren't really very generic despite their portrayal in the art.

Now, I've read somewhere in magazines (forgive my memory, this was 15 years ago) that there used to be a magic point system in the very early days of D&D, but there was a terrible effect on gameplay: mages became spell-slinging machine guns, which robbed the RPG of the flavor of mages.

These days there are many magic systems with different mechanics out there, so issues #2 and #3 are easily fixed (3E and 4E have both taken stabs at it, as have other retroclones).

How successful have they been in retaining the feel of a mage or wizard, despite / because of the chosen mechanics?


  1. I think that the tying of Spell Points with HP is the big limiting factor to making Spell Point systems work. Since HPs aren't 'real damage' their use as a commodity for casting spells seems to help rein-in wild casting. :: offers Microlite20 as proof. :: :)

  2. Interesting. I remember that in the old Kingdom of the Wheel games we encountered the Elven "King's Guard" who powered damage spells with hit points as well (with a x10 factor, of course).

    I shall contemplate this on the tree of woe...

  3. Interesting idea (linking HP with spell points). I guess the problem comes in in those game instances where HP are treated like real damage.

    I do think you're right--D&D magic isn't particularly generic, though a don't think a generic system is what people want, they just want a more versatile one. May if spellcasting had more optional implementations?

  4. It's funny but I can't really think of a generic magic system. I suppose the most generic is waving your arms around, saying words, and poof! something happens.

    I agree that it's not necessarily a generic system folks want, just something closer to the sources of their fantasy inspirations.

    It seems that when you get right down to it, though there has to be a price to bending the laws of reality and whatever that cost is, it has to prevent mages from overshadowing other PCs (or in the cases of games like Ars Magica, twisting the entire world to their whims).


That's my side of things. Let me know what you think, my friend.

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