Vancian magic revisited

One of the things that’s bothered me about D&D from its early days was that magicians forget spells when they cast them – the so-called Vancian magic system, named for the late Jack Vance, who developed it for his Dying Earth novel series. I have no problem with Vancian magic in its place – but as far as I’m concerned, its place is in the most excellent and bodacious Dying Earth RPG, and not in generic fantasy settings.

I’m not the only one. From the early days of the hobby, GMs have been developing variant spell point or fatigue-based systems, allowing magicians to repeatedly cast any spell they know, so long as they have the resources to do so. But these systems alter the nature of play quite radically, and are either too simplistic to consider the fixes to balance them or too complex to be playable (or too complex to explain quickly to new players, which is the same thing).

I developed my solution many years ago. It’s not the mechanics I dislike, it’s the explanation.

So in my games, magicians do not forget spells. But spell-casting is such a long, drawn-out affair that it’s impossible to cast a spell in the tactical environment – unless you cast most of it, leaving the last little bit to finish off when needed.

Naturally, no one can hold too many part-finished spells in their heads, but they do get better at it with practice. Slowly they can hold more, and more complex, spells in abeyance, ready for those last few words and gestures which will complete the casting and unleash the spell.

Once they’ve cast a spell, they have to prepare it for casting once more – that’ll require the standard 8 hours’ sleep and whatever preparation time your edition requires (for example, in 1st edition, it was 15 minutes per spell level; in Pathfinder, it’s one hour for all the spells you can cast).

The mechanics of this are exactly the same as the standard D&D or Pathfinder rules. No change whatsoever. A simple change in the explanation, the way I envisage what the mechanics represent, satisfies me.

As for those few spells which already take a long time to cast, well, they can’t be held in mind. If you know it, and have the time and a spare spell slot, go ahead and cast it. If you don’t have a spare spell slot of the appropriate level, you’ll have to clear one. A generous GM will likely let you seep the energy out slowly and safely. A harsher one might insist the only way to clear a slot is by finishing the last part of the spell and casting it – and take those 8 hours sleep before you can cast the new one.

To me, it seems an easy and obvious fix, but a few months ago another GM was complaining about how the Vancian system didn’t work for him; he beamed once I told him my solution, and said that’s the way magic would work in his game from then on.

Perhaps others who dislike Vancian magic outside Vancian settings will find it useful as well.

In a related matter, I regard Traveller’s 2D starmaps as a triumph of graphic design and visual presentation in much the same way as Harry Beck’s map of the London Underground is. Of course Traveller’s space is three dimensional; the starmaps distort and twist the reality in order to give a simple visual guide to people not versed in the multi-dimensional mathematics of jumpspace astrogation. Just like the Underground map, Traveller starmaps will show travellers where they need to go, and what star systems they’ll pass or visit, to reach their destination, but they won’t help you get around in real space, or pick out a star in the night sky.

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