Vancian Magic
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"The guild council accepts that the deceased's use of Busby's Expressive Single digit was a violation of protocol and an open provocation, but does not find that it in any way justified a casting of Nakamura's Tentacles of Intrusion. Guilty!"

Basic Information

Vancian Magic is the depiction of magic found in Jack Vance's The Dying Earth stories, rather rich and arcane version of Rule Magic. Vance's books were a big influence on Dungeons & Dragons, which in turn influenced most every RPG since. As a result, a number of Roleplaying Games feature Functional Magic that has more in common with Vance than with real-world occult theory (or the sort of magic that appears in TV and movies). Even some games that deviate very far from D&D's other paradigms in other areas still subscribe to Vancian magical theory (example: the Sorcery system in Amber DRPG).

Vancian magic is defined by a few key traits:

  • Each magic spell does exactly one thing, you generally can't improvise a new effect.
  • Spells must be prepared in advance. Wizards can prepare only a fixed number of spells, and can use each one only once before having to prepare it again. Spells are like magical ammunition, and you have to reload.

The individual spells have names, which are often colorful and sometimes mnemonic or alliterative. The names also often credit the creator of the spell, being the magical equivalent of eponymous naming structures in science, like "Hawking Radiation" or "Lorentz Equations".

Key to understanding the system is to realise that Vancian magic is meant to be largely empirical - most wizards don't know how or why a spell works, simply that it does and that developing a new spell is typically the result of a great deal of time, effort and luck. Hence the name checks. Also, the "preparation" of a spell is actually a process of pre-casting: the caster performs most of a potentially long and complex ritual in advance and then triggers it when required with a short gesture or mnemonic phrase.

The Gygaxian implementation of Vancian magic also tended to require "material components" which, whilst not actually power components in the modern understanding, were still (be default anyway) vital to the spell. They were also something of a marmite mechanic as they tended to be thematic, which whilst possibly intended to be a cunning application of some of the laws of magic, came across as a series of bad puns. Also, early edition wizards were restricted enough by the game's very intentional restrictions on their access to fresh spells - a lack of (even fairly mundane) material components could handicap them further and was a common source of adversarial GM behaviour in the form of gleefully restricting access to some or all components.1


2. Novels: The Dying Earth series by Jack Vance.
4. RPG: Dungeons & Dragons - In general the earlier editions of the game are more distinctly Vancian, but Vance's influence can still be found in the current edition. - The "Bigby's Fist" series of spells in 1st & 2nd Ed probably best embodies what makes the magic system Vancian. Though similar in manifestation and principle (and creator), each such effect is a different unique spell, and must be practiced and memorized individually from the others. The original system with spell slots and memorization is far more Vancian than any "magic point" or "at-will" alternative systems that have popped up since. Also the really old school "one hour per spell level" to prepare spells will really horrify more recent players - rather than having all slots re-set as part of an eight hour rest a high level wizard might take days to recharge his arsenal.
5. RPG: Amber DRPG - Amber's concept of "micro-spells" technically gives a little more spell-design flexibility than a traditional Vancian sorcerer, but the need to "rack" spells and complete them later puts it back in very Vancian vein.
6. CCG: Magic The Gathering - The random deck-shuffling nature of this card game very much fits a Vancian concept where a caster might know just the spell for the situation, but not be able to cast it right this moment because they don't have it prepared.

Game and Story Use

  • One benefit of using Vancian Magic is that it provides an easy way for the GM to step up character power levels bit by bit, by providing access to scrolls or spellbooks that include new spells. This broadens the options for the character, without necessarily boosting the sheer day-to-day power level. They become more generally useful, but not always more potent.
  • The major hurdle the vancian wizard must overcome is how to predict which spells will be useful in the near future. You may find yourself in a situation where a seemingly trivial spell in your repertoire would work wonders, but because it's a minor or very situational spell, you didn't prepare it.
    • Another hurdle is the idea that you can't just repeat the same spell freely. You can end up in situations where you've got plenty of power left, but can't use it for the type of spell that would be most helpful right now. You already fired the armour-piercing bullet, so to speak, and all the other ammo you're carrying is useless now.
    • These issues are often compounded by the Squishy Wizard and Linear Warriors Quadratic Wizards tropes.
    • conversely, old school wizard players can be cunning buggers when it comes to finding unexpected uses for spells.
  • This system sucks vigorously when used to model any kind of channelling (e.g. priests channelling divine power) or any kind of shamanistic magic.
  • The fixed effects of most vancian spells, together with the relentless combat obsession of most RPGs also lead to the jarring illogicality of the wizard, specialising in fire magic, who couldn't light his pipe without levelling the tavern (or using a match like a mundane). This is the Ur example of vancian inflexibility and is usually (partially) patched by many systems but the underlying problem remains.
    • A lot of this is about expectation management - the wizard who specialises in fire magic doesn't know anything more about the nature of fire than one who doesn't … he just has a themed collection of spells. He cannot light his pipe with his magic because even if he theoretically knew a ritual for that, it wouldn't be worth the effort to perform it, let alone block up his limited capacity to store pre-cast rituals with it. Vancian magic was never meant to depict people with a deep understanding of metaphysics, just those who knew a limited number of cheat codes.
  • For a slightly more flexible magic system, see Spell Points. For much more flexible systems, see Improvisational Magic. In general, see Laws of Magic.
  • Some fun could be had in scenario design by using the limitations of the Vancian system concept, especially that each spell does one thing and can't be dialled up or down. Just take care that you balance things such that "complications" are still "fun". If you spend too much time making the PCs best powers not work, you'll only frustrate the players.
    • The PCs need to magically kick in the doors, but the only spell you have access to will level the whole castle (which is inconvenient because of the hostages inside, or something along those lines). Once the hostages are freed, though, you can blast the place.
    • You need to break a curse, but the only spell that will do so will also ruin all magic items within a 10-mile radius. A trip to the wilderness is in order.
    • An act of diplomacy (or getting a business deal to go through) is trivially easy as long as you're willing to rob the other party of all semblance of free will. You can be Master or Slave, but no where in between.
    • Some environmental effect is easily dealt with as long as there's advance warning enough to prep a few castings for it. But that means delays, and time is growing short.
    • A horrible blob monster can be easily defeated with a minor cantrip whose usual purpose would just be to knead bread dough without getting your hands dirty. For once those 0-level spells pay off!
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