Thursday, November 15, 2012

Vancian Magic – How is this a Variant?

It might seem strange to declare that your variant magic system for D&D is Vancian, but bear with me a moment.

As most of you reading this probably already know, the magic system of D&D is based on the Dying Earth short stories of Jack Vance, in particular the first two or three collections (depending on who is counting). Vance himself later treated magic differently in his last collection of tales, but by the time this appeared D&D was fully formed.

Now the truth is that de Camp and Pratt’s Harold Shea stories had as much to do with the D&D magic system as The Dying Earth tales – just ask Joseph Goodman.

Vancian Magic as described by Jack Vance is somewhat different from D&D MU spells. In short, Vancian magic represents the powerful spells of a long-lost aeon, which can no long be completely understood or created; all that remains are the folios of the ancient wizards, and those who control them, who struggle to be able to cast them. A spell must be memorized, and once cast, the force of magic releases the knowledge of the spell from the mind. The best among these modern wizards may perhaps memorize as many as four to six spells at once.

And these spells are powerful indeed, for none of them ever seem to be resisted (except by amulets or magics which nullify the spells themselves). Most spells intended to hurt someone kill the target, more or less immediately. They are usually very specific, and there are no spells which offer a truly general utility, like, say, Teleport.

Needless to say, these are generally not the spells of D&D.

·         No saving throws.
·         No creation of new spells.
·         No creation of magic items, most likely.
·         No copying of spells.
·         A limited set of spells, no more than a hundred, contained in an ever-shrinking supply of ancient books.
·         Each book has a different set of spells, with few or no overlaps.
·         No spells of extreme general utility.
·         Lots of instant-death spells.
·         A very small set of casters, mostly those casters who have been around for a long time, and collected most of the available librams.

Alright, for the sake of discussion, let us take a given the admonition that I have heard from other members of the OSR community that spells of 7th, 8th, and 9th level are spells of ancient power, more like great rituals than most of the spells currently on the list.

Magic-users in S&W can cast at most four spells of each level. A fifth or sixth level mage gets as many spells as Turjan of Mir or Mazirian the Magician get (these are two best examples of mages we have from The Dying Earth). So the amount of spells that a MU gets in the game seems about right, so now we just have to get the spells correct.

So, every beginning mage gets a single grimoire when they begin their career. This has about 9-16 spells in it, usually one to three spells of each level from 1-6. If you want to randomize this process, roll 1d3 for each level.

Next, come up with the spells themselves. Here’s a sample grimoire that the player who was running the mage got.

Irtaxes’ Compendium

This volume is a quarto (12’ x 9’), bound in ebony and leather with iron fittings. Irtaxes’ symbol is embossed in a small leather disk on the front of the book.

Contained within its 132 pages are various spells, alchemical recipes, and notes on various elements of arcane lore.

There are 16 spells using 56 pages, 12 alchemical recipes over 38 pages, and 32 pages of notes. Six pages are blank.

Learned at 1st Level:

The Incarnadine Incitement to Probity
Spell Level: Magic-user, 1st Level
Range: 100 ft
Duration: Immediate

Multiple violet particles stream forth from the mage’s finger, which is pointed at the target. The target must be made of living flesh; spiritual entities, constructs, and the undead are not harmed by this spell. The particles strike the target infallibly, but all particles must be must be directed against the same target; they may not be ‘split’. The target is struck by 1d6+1 particles, each of which does 1 point of damage.

The Conjuration of the Ebon Embracement
Spell Level: Magic-user, 1st Level
Range: 60 ft
Duration: Immediate

Upon utterance of this spell, shadowy vapors emerge from cracks in the earth and grasp at 1d3 enemies that lie within 60 ft of the caster. These vapors hold their victims immobile for 1d3 rounds before the vapors melt away.

The Evocation of Illumination
Spell Level: Magic-user, 1st Level
Range: Personal (Caster only)
Duration: 10 minutes (one turn or ten rounds)

For the duration of the enchantment, The Magic-user’s eyes glow weirdly; his vision is augmented, and he may see in perfect darkness for up to 30 ft.

As mentioned in the description there are also invocations and alchemical recipes; these will be covered in a future post.

You might have some questions about how this sort of thing works in play. Let me try to anticipate some of your questions and concerns.

Aren’t these spells more powerful than normal 1st level spells?


Isn’t that an issue?

No, because, generally speaking, only PCs will have access to this magic. Most minor casters in the world rely on curses, alchemy or invocations. Very few have access to true magic (Vancian spells). I expect that players will have conflicts with maybe three or four true mages by the time the campaign ends, but such bigwigs can be customized with some time and effort. 

What about monster casters?

Use the standard spells, including saving throws, for things like Demons and other-planer beings. They are supposed to be weird anyway. I would avoid using the excessively D&D spells, like fireball and magic missile. Stick to the more subtle stuff. For minor casters among mortals, use the aforementioned curses, alchemy, and invocations (again, to be covered in a future post).

That sounds like a lot of work.

It’s not, trust me, I am the laziest guy I know. I am definitely not into more work for myself.

What about the higher level spells?

Don’t worry about that now. Tell the player that they are there in the book, but won’t ‘unlock’ until he gets high enough level to be able to cast them.

And what do I do then?

Either check back here to see if I have posted some higher level spells, or make ‘em up yourself from the lists of Vancian spells floating around on the internet. Or better yet, buy a book or two from Pelgrane Press, and use the spells therein to figure it out. They could use the money.

What about if a player want to create spells or magic items?

In thirty years of gaming, I have known exactly three D&D players who created their own spells or magic items, and I was one of them. If you have a bunch of players like this, why aren't you playing Ars Magica or Fantasy Wargaming with them? I would be.

What about Scrolls?

No fire and forget scrolls in my campaign. I do have magic scrolls, but they are used in a different way. More on that in an upcoming post.

Doesn't this wreck game balance?

Maybe. Who cares? 


  1. Perhaps not entirely in the spirit of what you have come up with here but I think combined with your variant, John's Dying Earth Spells for D&D would make for a nice, flavoursome magic system.

  2. I agree. I think I have seen this before, but been unable to download it. I note that some spells are altered from their original, but to please myself I would prefer them to be dupes of Vance's spells or completely original as possible.