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On Vancian Magic

When it comes to magic in tabletop role-playing games my opinion is a bit conventional in the sense that I dislike Vancian Magic, a system of RPG magic inspired by the Dying Earth series of books and stories authored by Jack Vance. I do acknowledge its importance in not that it was essentially the first codified system but that it is vital to the formation of the tools and ideas in turning magic towards tabletop gaming from whence most current RPG magic systems spring, the magic system I authored included. I don’t particularly care for it because it tends to be trite in my opinion and restrictive as well as losing the mystery or ‘fluffy’ aspects of magic. It treats spells as pre-packaged single purpose weapons which the wizard “fires & forgets”. The ‘spells as ammunition’ mindset probably owes its inception in the roots of tabletop RPG’s, namely War-Gaming. Aside from justifications for the in-game impact of a Vancian magic system such as the Surgeon Metaphor and the Alzheimer’s comparison, I think it’s also generally not great for mystery or atmosphere and definitely more afforded to war and video-gaming. Though to be fair the descriptions of magic used in the Dying Earth, from whence it is inspired, are definitely apart from the gaming adaptations of Gygax & Arneson. It is more conducive to the fiction of Jack Vance (of course) than role-playing a mage character and more-so in a setting much less like Vance’s Dying Earth.

‘Vancian’ magic is too artificial and strict for my taste but provides a stepping stone when it comes to game design. It does, as is one of the popular arguments against this strain of gaming magic, turns spell-casters into field pieces to be pointed at the enemy as mystic artillery. Don’t get me wrong sometimes I like this aspect of the good ‘ole fire-ball slinging type wizard. My preference for magic includes a healthy dose of mystery and risk involved as when I play a mage I like to experiment with my abilities even if I might get burned in the end, or blown up which has happened. Game magic does need its well-defined or ‘hard’ aspects to be playable. If magic is too ‘fluffy’ or ill-defined it makes the in-game use of it too esoteric though if it is weighed down by too many rules and calculations then the learning curve for players becomes a bit too steep. A Game-Master should keep the player characters questioning exactly what an enemy mage may be doing or what they may be pursuing due to the softer aspects of magic and know that it can’t be good or have at least a rough idea motivating them to take action against their enemy as the ‘hard’ aspects will be known to them at least in a ‘meta’ sense and these if overly defined may give the game away in the knowing.

The ‘hard’ aspects of an RPG are the bits of the game defined either in broad terms or in very quantified ‘Hard’ terms creating elements that can be manipulated in game terms allowing players and thus their characters to work with that game aspect, in this case magic, easily due to its consisting primarily of either clear cut rules and/or numeric values. They are also a necessary and operative part of the system and cannot be removed without breaking the system. Another frequently used name for these ‘hard’ bits is ‘crunch’ but that is also applied to refer to additional more optional bits as well so I will be using the former term throughout this article. In contrast a ‘fluffy’ aspect refers to a soft/fuzzy aspect or something not solidly defined in game terms but may be covered by a broad rule requiring the GM and/or players to interpret it in respect to game-play if it becomes necessary but which still has some sort of impact on game play. Basically anything not solidly or explicitly defined by the game system but still operative in-game which is not outside of the game system. The workability of magic or what makes something ‘workable’ for a game are the ‘hard’ aspects defined within the game system allowing the participants (Players and Game-Master) not only to understand the general overall concept behind them but also how to use them while still being able to play with the ‘soft’ parts lending some demi-officiated “wriggle room”.

The ‘hard’ gaming aspects of magic allow the participants to grab a hold of the concept like handles and manipulate it as if it were a system of dials, switches, and levers. Now this is exactly how Vancian systems operate but the condemnation, I believe, belongs to the sorry fact that it’s also how most Vancian-based magic systems feel especially if they’re not steeped in the proper atmosphere. They feel very mechanical. “[M]agic, when present, can do anything, but obeys certain rules according to its nature. Generally ideas as to its nature are left undefined. Attempts to write a system or define the rules […] can produce shallow and simplistic fantasies.” [Clute & Grant. 1997. The Encyclopedia of Fantasy. New York, St. Martin’s Press. Magic] This core problem with Vancian magic can be traced back to Vance himself and his possible attitude towards the idea of magic if this can be extrapolated from his highly influential work. “Magic is a practical science, or, more properly, a craft, since emphasis is placed primarily upon utility, rather than basic understanding.” [Vance, Jack. 1998. The Compleat Dying Earth. SFBC edition. pg. 582]

The Vancian Magic system originally appeared in Dungeons & Dragons and packages magic into strictly defined “spells” with mostly inflexible game applicable stats along with a description of effects. It is a rules-based magic system which is reliant on and mainly composed of functional rules. The spell-caster using Vancian magic must “memorize” their spells which allows them to cast a certain number of spells per day, this number being based on their caster experience level and the spell list from which they are allowed to memorize spells. The casting often involves certain “components” such as hand gestures and chants etc. and after the casting the memorized spell is essentially forgotten. “When subsequently cast – by speaking or some other means – the words or gestures, or whatever triggered the magical force of the spell, leaving a blank place in the brain where the previously memorized spell had been held.” [Gygax, Gary. 2001. Jack Vance & the D&D Game. The Excellent Prismatic Spray Vol.1, No.1. Pelgrane Press Ltd.] Which leads us to a major complaint about this system of magic is that of the memorization of spells and the ability to memorize multiple instances of the same spell which after casting are then forgotten which is often compared, unjustifiably, to a form of Alzheimer’s Disease. The Alzheimer’s complaint being that spell-casters after casting a spell completely forget it as if it were never in their heads similar in effect to an Alzheimer’s patient but only in a very selective (and superficial) manner which is not quite equivalent to the real-life disease. This manner expending of spell magic can be explained within the game system in several different ways but the cognitive dissonance that it can inspire takes some out of the game, me included. It is readily evident even during play that it is completely artificial, designed to work within a game. “To my way of thinking, the concept of a spell itself being magical, that its written form carried energy, seemed a perfect way to balance the mage against other types of characters in the game.”[Gygax. 2001. Emphasis mine.] Not to say that deliberately designing a magic system to function as a part of a game is inherently a bad thing; it just shouldn’t be too evident.

Like the rest of tabletop roleplaying the Vancian Magic System has its primordial origins in the world of war-gaming and was directly inspired by Jack Vance’s the Dying Earth, being adapted by Gary Gygax to Dungeons & Dragons. “Just what portions of these works, the subsequent AD&D game, stemmed from inspiration related to the writing of Jack Vance? Several elements, the unquestioned foremost being the magic system used in these games.” [Gygax. 2001] Essentially the current idea of the magic-user began with Dave Arneson’s seminal Blackmoor campaign which evolved from his miniature war-gaming sessions. Magic as a feature of war-gaming entered into the scene as a means to reenact fantasy battles found in fiction in particular those found in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and the desire to add in new features, most likely out of boredom, to war-games and move beyond just reenacting historical battles but it was not until the fantasy supplement added to the back of the first edition of the Chainmail miniature rules in 1971 by Gary Gygax and Jeff Perren that the course of RPG Magic was set. “Magic spells are the purview of the “Wizard” type in Chainmail. Although unexceptional as melee fighters, Wizards have two ranged attacks they can employ: a “fire ball” and a “lightning bolt”. The former explodes like a thrown bomb, creating a circle of carnage,…, while the latter extends in a straight line from the Wizard, annihilating those in its path.” [Peterson, John. 2012. Playing at the World. Unreason Press LLC. pg.42] A second edition quickly followed in 1972 due to the first edition being a hit. “Chainmail in its second edition thus set a precedent, a foundational one for the future Magic-user class, that Wizards may have inferior or superior levels of power relative to other Wizards, and that some powerful spells may not be cast by Wizards of lesser ability.” [Peterson. 163] Around the same time Dave Arneson began to apply the fantasy rules to his war-gaming sessions which soon mutated into the Blackmoor campaign setting. “By the time he brought his Blackmoor campaign to Gygax’s attention, Arneson had introduced a number of innovations in the Chainmail magic system, not all of which would ultimately become a part of Dungeons & Dragons.  Notably, Blackmoor wizards were ranked by numerical level rather than by hierarchical titles [.] … In addition to levels of Wizards, spells themselves were sorted into ranks representing difficulty or power [.]” [Peterson. 165] The first edition of Dungeons & Dragons later followed this in 1974 with its own integrated magic system. Ultimately though, it was gamers that gave it the name which persists today. “Because I explained this often, attributing its inspiration to Jack Vance, the D&D magic system of memorized then forgotten spells was dubbed by gamers “the Vancian magic system”.”[Gygax. 2001]

Vancian magic has a few readily evident strengths. Packaging spells into easily digestible bites rendering them infinitely useable in-game making that aspect of magic supremely ‘workable’ though limited in its mutability is absolutely one. Predictability is another easy to discern strong point in that it makes the GM’s job easier allowing them to have some fore knowledge of what’s at the players’ disposable at any given time. Its primary contribution to RPG magic is something that I myself have a penchant for, modularity though in a limited sense. It excels at the ‘hard’ bits of a roleplaying system due mainly to its creation in the war-gaming arena where wizards (and druids) were field pieces. Another bonus of a purely Vancian system is the forcing of players to think strategically when playing mages memorizing only the spells they think may need later. “Then he sat down and from a journal chose the spells he would take with him. What dangers he might meet he could not know, so he selected three spells of general application: the Excellent Prismatic Spray, Phandaal’s Mantle of Stealth, and the Spell of the Slow Hour.” [Vance. 1998. 5] Bad choices however, can lead to a Vancian wizard to become near useless left with nothing to do but either get killed or try to hide in an encounter especially in an unforeseen/unaccounted for one.

There are some fundamental weaknesses. The first is also one of its strengths the nifty packaging of spells which makes them easy to use also makes them fairly inflexible without some special caveats being added into the game (the Feat mechanic being an example). Another inherent in such a mechanical system of magic is that it is unrealistic (so-to-speak) being based on strange logic used in and more appropriate to Jack Vance’s fiction where it is a narrative device as it naturally would-be and was meant to be in the first place; narrative in a work of fiction and that in an RPG being very different. It’s over-definition not just disallowing for in-game flexibility but it also restricts subtle variation. In fact, variation requires that brand new spells be authored. This ‘rules based’ form of magic also seems to lack in consequences even for the “over-use” of magic leading to a few in-game questions such as the question of technology and wide-spread utilitarian use of magic but those will not be addressed here.

Jack Vance’s Dying Earth fiction is peculiarly suitable for adaptation into the realm of gaming due to its belonging to a certain strain of fantasy fiction known as Rationalized Fantasy. In Rationalized Fantasy “stock fantasy elements are given a rationale that provides them with internal consistency and coherence. In such works the laws of MAGIC may be carefully codified, often through elaborate systems of mysticism[.]” [Clute. 801] Basically it’s where something fantastical is explicable in mundane terms. Jack Vance definitely quantified spell-casting and sorcery in this work. “Mazirian, by dint of stringent exercise, could encompass four of the most formidable, or six of the lesser spells.” [Vance. 19] He even seemed to invent the idea of naming spells in effect packing them and their effects into solid armaments equivalent, but much more powerful than, a standard weapon such as a sword rendering libraries as potent as armories. “Mazirian made a selection from his books and with great effort forced five spells upon his brain: Phandaal’s Gyrator, Felojun’s Second Hypnotic Spell, The Excellent Prismatic Spray, The Charm of Untiring Nourishment, and the Spell of the Omnipotent Sphere.” [Vance. 23] This is not to say the wizards and magicians found in his fictions could not wield swords and daggers in fact, they routinely did; a decided difference between Vance’s fiction and the “Vancian” system of magic.

In effect with Rationalized Fantasy, the atmosphere of mysticism and mystery which I feel should surround magic in an RPG can be diminished by overly technical game terminology or mundane in-game explanations and too complex a construction of game-mechanics. RPG magic systems should try to maintain atmosphere as well as provide some easy to use and understand ‘hard’ aspects not to mention provide some flexibility. The main points which are important to an RPG magic system are a sense of ‘workability’, an element of risk to the caster in addition to those on the receiving end, flexibility in its in-game use, and details helping along the atmosphere which should hang over magic and spell-casters like a pall. RPG magic requires definition but that shouldn’t absolutely define its every edge – magic requires certain ‘hard’ meta-game aspects required to be made use of in-game these should be kept to only the necessities for ease of use and on top of that, a certain measure of risk to the caster and their companions. Hard aspects should be spare but allow ‘workability’ in a meta-sense more than in-game as that can be explained with mythology or a character-eye view of the game world adding even more color to the game. Risk is essential and provides a sort of ‘internal questing’ the mage character can do providing a thrill with just the casting of a spell as well as all the other potential arcane and enigmatic risks when on the search for or even just perusing certain esoterica. Magic should also have a sense of its own volition. The artifice shouldn’t be inside of the magic present in a game but should be a structure on top of it through which the magic-user conducts their craft mostly consisting, within the game, the belief system from which they pull their explanations for it. Magic itself should be a nearly autonomous, amorphous mass writhing just underneath the surface of in-game reality.

Is the Vancian system of magic a fair equivocation to magic as presented in Jack Vance’s work? A little, it is somewhat starkly defined in the Dying Earth books but is not as sharply defined as it is within the Vancian system adapted from his work. It is from his work that libraries and moldy old tomes have become synonymous with the RPG magic-user not to diminish the influence of Gandalf the Grey. “The tomes which held Turjan’s sorcery lay on a long table of black steel or were thrust helter-skelter into shelves. These were volumes compiled by many wizards of the past, untidy folios collected by the Sage, leather-bound librams setting forth the syllables of a hundred powerful spells, so cogent that Turjan’s brain could know but four at a time.” [Vance. 4] In most Vancian systems magic grimoires, the spell books of wizards, are nigh useless to non-mage characters, unless they know whom to sell them to that is, but in the Dying Earth non-mages could make use of the magic though  not to the extent as a dedicated spell-caster. The Vance character Cugel the Clever, from which certain aspects of the D&D thief class were taken aside from Fritz Leiber’s the Gray Mouser, and whose specialties are self-absorption and being picaresque rather than anything akin to Vance’s disciplined craft but in a pinch he too can cram a few spells in his skull. “Cugel opened and read; finding an appropriate spell, he held the fire-ball close the better to encompass the activating syllables. There were four lines of words, thirty-one syllables in all. Cugel forced them into his brain, where they lay like stones.” [Vance.271] In his fiction unlike in games that make use of a Vancian system books of spells are useful to anyone who can read, very similar to such items found in lore and more in line with the popular idea of the wizard. “In the popular imagination, magicians always had books, or libraries of books, containing all their magical secrets. These books were jealously guarded, for if the knowledge they contained fell into the hands of the unwise or the unworthy, anything might happen.” [Cohen, Daniel. 1985. The Encyclopedia of the Strange. New York. Dorset Press. pg.216] The Dying Earth stories do indeed keep to this idea better than the “Vancian” magic system model. This brings us to another complaint about Vancian systems which did not originate from Vance’s fiction, the ability of mages to memorize more than one instance of the same spell. In the Dying Earth, Mazirian the magician after casting a spell at a homunculus which he was extracting from his vats but to no effect and quickly found himself within its grip. “The mesmeric spell had been expended, and he had none other in his brain.” [Vance. 1998. 20] In fact, none of his mages “encompass” (memorize) more than a single copy of any individual spell in any of the stories. Of course as stated before, the narrative of fiction and that of an RPG game are very different animals.

RPG magic should have flexibility. Modularity in this respect is probably the best way to go from a design standpoint allowing the participants to make use of whatever parts of the system they require at that moment. Modularity also encourages mixing and matching. Game-magic should encourage PC-mages to explore in-game magic not just in its casting but in the formulating of new spells, altering old spells, and hunting down legends, mythical spells and items as well as hard to find components. Players and thus their mage characters should feel as if they’re penetrating the deep mysteries of the (game) universe encouraging exploration. Also, do not count out the consequences of magic as well not just to counter any perceived in-game over-reliance on it but the effects of magic accruing over-time within the setting as well, where spell-casters may be responsible for some of the supernatural woes found in the game setting shaping non-casters’ opinions about mages and magic. The side-effects of spells, the warping of the world and dimensions, magical residue and even magical contamination are other such approaches to the consequence angle.

Details add flavor and lend to the atmosphere tied to magic and can help make ‘fluffy’ bits of the system to be a little more coherent and help to steer players towards certain decisions when dealing with the softer aspects of a system. Atmosphere is built from not only the GM’s words at the table but also added to by certain details such as specified components and description of ceremony etc. and use of the ‘fluffy’ bits. Keep in mind strange and mostly non-functional details that can evince reactions from players and/or their characters are very important. Players may know how their mages work their magic in-game from a mechanics standpoint but certain details especially those that accumulate over time from an array of game components within the magic system not all or any of them need be functional in-play either. However, over-use of this tactic may diminish the impact of this strategy and so it should be used sparingly but not so sparingly that it can be ignored. These details can seem, in the minds of players and perhaps even GM’s, to amount to a puzzle to which no one has all of the pieces or a riddle with no answer hinting at something stranger just beyond understanding.

Though RPG magic essentially came from war gaming and evolved into quantified Vancian Magic then began to be adapted into various systems of game magic with varying ‘fluffy’ and ‘hard’ aspects/quantities it does not mean that RPG magic should always be strictly defined in its execution all the time. Vancian magic was necessary that it gave a baseline for what was necessary to make magic a ‘workable’ aspect in RPGs by quantifying it in game terms. The original purpose of the spell-slinger was to serve as mystic field artillery on the field of battle in war-games later becoming the “swiss army knife” characters of OD&D. I find Vancian magic too clear-cut and inflexible, I desire a magic system that allows for flexibility and variation; magic that can serve as its own quest maybe even its own self-contained world within the world of the game.

Spells should be more than ammunition, magic can be a quest unto itself all wrapped in an air of mystery providing yet another avenue of adventure besides Dungeon Crawls, MacGuffin Quests, Bug-Hunts, and Monster-Slaying. RPG magic should be ‘workable’, should carry risk in the practice if not by its mere presence, should have flexibility, and should carry a certain air or atmosphere. When I run a mage I want the arcane power and knowledge that they wield to be something extraordinary and supernatural invoking wonder and trepidation in those not so inclined (or talented). Magic however does need to be ‘workable’ in-game and not just by the GM but also by the players so it may be fully explored, its mysteries penetrated, and the unfathomable risks experienced.