Vancian Magic: Love it or Hate it?

Elminster by Clyde Caldwell

Monte Cook hase revealed that Dungeons &Dragons (D&D) Next would feature Vancian magic, at least in some form. Before we get to our thoughts, here’s a little history on the subject.

The rules for spellcasting in D&D, prior to 4th Edition, said that after a wizard casts a spell, it is erased from his mind and he must wait until the next day to cast it again. This concept comes from the Dying Earth series by  Jack Vance, fantasy author and anagrammed namesake for Vecna the Arch-Lich of the Tomb of Horrors. In these books, as in D&D, a wizard’s brain can only hold so many of the arcane formulas that control magic. Each day, you memorize a limited number of these spells and then forget each one as soon as you’ve cast it.

Later in D&D history the designers slightly tweaked the “lore” description of this mechanic–for the better, in my opinion–when they suggested that wizards wake up in the morning, study their spellbook, and ritually prepare each spell. As they cast those spells during the day, they are completing the final few incantations and gestures of the ritual, unleashing the stored power of that spell.

Also called “fire-and-forget,” once you’ve chosen your spells, you are generally locked into those choices until the next day. This was a core pillar of the D&D legacy from the early days all the way through 2008.

It’s obviously quite different from most of the fantasy genre, but it has its own quirky charm. Vancian magic takes a firm position on how spellcasting works and says, “Gandalf didn’t have a spellbook and Harry Potter can cast magic all day. You’re neither of them. This game is so much more than a book simulator.”

So what do we think about all this? What can you say about the fraught relationship that many D&D players have with Jack Vance’s legacy? A lot apparently, but in a nutshell: it’s complicated.


Something that I really like about Vancian magic is that it encourages the idea that wizards–those diligent students of the arcane–carefully manage their magic. What I mean by this is that your wizard knows the names of his spells and they exist to him as discrete pieces of magic, just as they do to the player, and that he can consider against each other and talk about with his fellow mages.

The list of spells on your character sheet matches a corresponding list in his spellbook. When he studied magic he attended a class called Evocation 301: Fireball. When he learns power word: blind, it’s not because he got a little more powerful and learned how to blind people; it’s because he found a dusty scroll labeled power word: blind and copied it into his book. 4th Edition wizards (and other spellcasters), by being non-Vancian, have an array of powers at their fingertips and, upon finding an opportunity to use one, simply lob a gob of magic at an enemy and it does something. It may have a name (or it may not), and you can describe it compellingly, but ultimately it’s more in the arena of player knowledge than character knowledge.

Don’t get me wrong: I don’t think all characters should wax nostalgic about where they learned the Improved Cleave feat or debate the merits of tide of iron versus reaping strike. Those terms should be player knowledge, but not character knowledge. For the magic system, though, I really enjoy the thought that spells and magic have such funny-sounding names because that’s what they’re called in the world itself. Rob Schwalb talked about this after last year’s D&D Experience Convention when he talked about 4th Edition removing “concreteness” from the game world. It’s a mixed bag of positive changes and negative changes.

My tentative optimism notwithstanding, I do have a few pitfalls that I hope the designers avoid in returning to Vancian magic:

Jealousy destroys friendships, people.

Infinite Spellbook: In a system where mages fill spellbooks with every spell they get their hands on, wizards can carry around every spell in the game and potentially do anything, limited only by the need to buy enough pages to contain them all.

Conversely, in 4th Edition, no matter how many enemy mages you slew, you weren’t going to get more than two daily spells per level in your spellbook. In this regard, Vancian magic lends itself rather dangerously to the “Linear Fighters, Quadratic Wizards” problem (warning: TV Tropes link). If you collected enough spells, you could prepare for any conceivable situation. And if that wasn’t enough, you could research new spells and fill tomes with your own creations. It was fun in those days, but it may have been too much favoritism for wizards.

The 15-Minute Workday: This is what happens when a party of heroes enters a dungeon and the wizard uses up all his best spells, then has to take an eight-hour nap to recharge. Obviously, it’s not a lot of fun to stop the adventure just because your bearded friend goes trigger-happy.

Some DMs resort to wandering monsters that interrupt the party’s ability to rest in dangerous areas in the hopes that this will force players to conserve their per-day resources more carefully, but this solution is more stick than carrot. 4th Edition took on this issue in two ways.

First, classes have been carefully balanced against each other so that the party wasn’t reliant on the preparation level of one superstar adventurer in order to survive. Secondly, and more significantly, at-will and encounter powers make sure that no one is ever completely out of whoopass after a single fight.

Crossbow Wizards: A Vancian mage who casts all his spells is just an unarmored weakling with limited weapon proficiencies. Before wizards had at-will spells, they would eventually reach the point that all they had left in their utility belt of spells was a handful of identify and perhaps a detect secret doors. Then you stifle your tears and make ready to ping the enemy with a crossbow, wishing you had something useful to do. It might be hard for old-school gamers who skipped 4th Edition to accept, but a couple low-level at-will spells are your friend.

Combat Loadout: Vancian mages have to carefully weigh each of their spells against the others when they are preparing for an adventure. If you don’t get the balance right, disaster ensues. Without fireball and lightning bolt in your back pocket, you’re defenseless. On the other hand, if you only prepare evocations, you’re unable to knock open doors, get out of a tight spot with a well-timed teleport without error, or call the extraplanar advice hotline with contact other plane. I never cared for the guessing game of predicting what monster would attack me 12 hours from now.

Opportunity Cost: I have been to the other side. I have played a 4th Edition wizard whose utility spells were minor actions and who got to attack something every round. It is wonderful and I don’t want to give it up. It used to be that buffing and defensive spells took up most of a whole turn and you would have to choose between dealing some damage or making yourself less squishy. Metamagic feats from 3rd Edition helped cast them faster, as did a few well-placed buffs before opening the door, but still I can’t go back to the old days of “Round 1: mage armor. Round 2: blur. Round 3: protection from evil. Round 4: stoneskin. Round 5: The fight is over.”


The Vancian system is distinctive, no one can argue that, and it’s been in D&D from the beginning. I think Monte Cook is right that it’s pretty emblematic of the system, but I don’t think that counts for as much as people think. Other game systems do not handle magic like D&D does (not counting Pathfinder, of course) so keeping it will set the game apart.

Is that what we want? Having a specialized system will make D&D distinctive but a game which is distinctive but not successful is marginalized. I’m not saying that the Vancian system is going to ruin the D&D franchise. (Hear that, trolls? I’m not saying that.) If Wizards of the Coast is trying to pick up new players, though, then it has to be measured what the trade-off for this singular magic system is.

Players want to play characters that let them act out what they can’t do in real life. Plenty of players read books and watch movies, then want to create a character that matches their favorites from the story.

Making a Raistlin from Dragonlance is easier because that setting was written to reflect the rules of Dungeons & Dragons, but even so you end up with situations that would never come up in the novels. When the situation calls for a fireball, our golden-eyed antihero throws one into the mix. He doesn’t worry about whether he’ll need a fireball later on and if that situation might call for one more than this one. Raistlin is a lot of things, but stingy?

On top of this, there are those who haven’t read Dragonlance might pick something farther afield like Lord of the Rings, Wheel of Time, the Mistborn series, or even Star Wars. All of these book series involve magic that takes a toll on the user and requires rest to regain strength again, but it’s nothing like Vancian mechanics. And, of course, some people are coming from MMOs like World of Warcraft and Lord of the Rings Online who are used to cooldowns instead of day-based recharging. I think it’s a poorly-kept secret that Wizards wants to lure people from computer RPGs and back to tabletop ones.

It’s nothing new to say that Vancian magic is different from other systems, and the internet is full of haters. What would I do about it? In a phrase: exchange rate. From a game design standpoint, the need for resource recharging based on an easy unit of time is obvious. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with daily, encounter, and at-will resource management, but there should be a way to switch between them.

To return to the Raistlin example, the sickly mage gets tired and starts coughing when expends a lot of his spell power and has to rest. But he also starts coughing and has fits whenever he uses a lot of energy all at once even if he just finished breakfast. By the same token, Gandalf gets tired fighting off orcs and is no match for the witch-king, Rand al’Thor collapses after creating a storm of fire weaves, and Yoda sighs and rests after dragging the X-wing out of the swamp.

Let wizards have their at-will cantrips and their daily ice storms, but they should be able to trade them. If my faux-Raistlin chucks a fireball at the draconians who storm the camp and then later has ocassion to heave another fireball at the draconian warlord, let him! Afterwards, of course, he might not have the strength to even light a fire with a simple cantrip, something that was laughably easy before. On the other hand, he might want to trade in that fireball for added uses of lightning bolt once we see how narrow the hallways of the crypt are.

I don’t see any problem with saying that a wizard is able to cast such-and-such a spell once and then has to study, but if he wants to cast it twice at the expense of something else I think that’s still undeniably D&D. And, importantly, it’s right up the alley of the D&D Next modular approach.

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