Making Vancian Spellcasting Concrete

Over at the Eiglophian Press, G. Benedicto has a noteworthy series of posts about Vancian crunch, which is being discussed over at Finarvyn’s OD&D boards. I fully agree that the way that Vance describes spellcasting is much more evocative and inspirational than its presentation in any old-school ruleset. This, and later quotations in italics, is from his short story “Mazirian the Magician,” published as part of The Dying Earth (1950) – not the sole Vancian source for the concept of prepared spells, but a good and convenient one:

Later, when black night lay across the forest, he would seek through his books for spells to guard him through the unpredictable glades. They would be poignant corrosive spells, of such a nature that one would daunt the brain of an ordinary man and two render him mad. Mazirian, by dint of stringent exercise, could encompass four of the most formidable, or six of the lesser spells…. 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.

I think that G. Benedicto’s impulse to “clarify what’s happening in the wizard’s study” is an excellent one, and that it can usefully begin with looking to Vance to help imagine what a magic-user is doing when he or she memorizes spells. However, I take issue with two of his assertions.

Here we see Jack Vance contemplating whether to release one of the many spells filling his brain to capacity, which would cause many-colored stabbing lines to split your blundering body in a thousand places.

First, I disagree that the number of spells a magic-user is able to prepare is one and the same as the number of spells in their spellbook from which they can choose when deciding which to memorize. The OD&D thread shows there are folks who play this way, and not without textual justification. Like any holy text worth its salt, you can find support in the Three Little Brown Books for just about any position you want to take! However, Vance seems clear that magic-users may know many more spells than they can fit in their brain at any one time:

…at this dim time, with the sun dark, wilderness obscuring Ascolais, and the white city Kaiin half in ruins, only a few more than a hundred spells remained to the knowledge of man. Of these, Mazirian had access to seventy-three, and gradually, by stratagem and negotiation, was securing the others.

Second, I think that the use of the term “crunch” is ill-advised, and not only because some old-schoolers don’t know that this new-school term of art refers to game mechanics that quantify the narrative fluff. However, it’s possible for both crunch and fluff to be completely divorced from gameplay, and in fact it’s a rational economic activity for freelancers who are paid by the word to spend lots of time fluffily describing and crunchily quantifying things that the PCs will never actually interact with during the game.

What I find really inspirational about the Eiglophian post is is the idea that Vancian spellcasting can be made more vivid and compelling by providing more ways for it have a concrete impact on play. In the comments, Booberry suggests two great examples – first the suggestion that, by  increasing magic-users’ focus and mental discipline, potions and elixirs might increase the limit on the spells that they could cram into their brain, and second that the death of a magic-user might cause these spells to come shooting out again! (Some honest-to-goodness crunch is provided for the latter – at 0 HP, the M-U must save vs. spells to avoid all remaining memorized spells firing off at random. There’s no attempt at a pre-ordained blanket quantification of what this would mean ahead of time, which I think is wise.) G. Benedicto also suggests the awesome idea of memory-stealing substances.

Before I suggest some additional ways to give Vancian spellcasting a more concrete presence in play, let’s look at the existing game consequences of the idea.

  1. Memorizing spells takes time, concentration, and access to books. Of Mazirian, Vance tells us that “Midnight found him in his study, poring through leather-bound tomes and untidy portfolios“. Events in the game that disturb the magic-users’ study or deprive him or her to access to books will thus demonstrate the practical limits of Vancian spellcasting.
  2. Because preparation is lengthy and effortful, not every magic-user will have taken the effort to memorize spells on any given day. When Vance’s protagonist tells a Deodand “Answer my questions, and I undertake to feed you much flesh,” it sizes him up and replies “You may in any event, Mazirian. Are you with powerful spells today?” The fact that magic-users and knights both must gird themselves for battle, such that catching them unprepared gives an enormous advantage,  is highly significant to gameplay. (Note that by this analogy the 3E sorcerer, who never uses memorized spells, is as much a missed dramatic opportunity as a martial artist who fights only with his fists; the most awesome moment in many kung-fu movies is the point where the hero’s sword breaks and he continues to kick ass despite what would be a crippling disadvantage for a normal fighter.)
  3. The details of Vancian spellcasting determine when a magic-user is potent. “For all Mazirian’s magic he was helpless. The mesmeric spell had been expended, and he had none other in his brain. In any event he could not have uttered the space-twisting syllables with that mindless clutch at his throat.” Being able to shut down a spellcaster with a silence spell demonstrates an aspect of the way magic works.

OK, now I will (finally) suggest some more ways that PCs could interact concretely with the concept of Vancian spellcasting during play. Many of these take their cue from the sense of spells as possessed of independent vitality and agency that comes from another story in The Dying Earth, “Turjan of Miir”:

Turjan found a musty portfolio, turned the heavy pages to the spell the Sage had shown him, the Call to the Violet Cloud. He stared down at the characters and they burned with an urgent power, pressing off the page as if frantic to leave the solitude of the book. Turjan closed the book, forcing the spell back into oblivion.

  1. Memorizing the same spell more than once may cause the copies to fight in your brain. In the White Sandbox thus far I’ve discouraged this without further explanation, but on reflection I think it’s coolest to give players a choice between the reward of being able to end multiple fights with sleep and the risk of horrible Vancian consequences that are known but unlikely. At first glance it makes sense to have these arise while the spell is being memorized, but that tends to happen outside the focus of play. Players will be unhappy if dire consequences mean Blastum is found dead over his spellbooks before the day’s adventure even begins, while DMs will be dissatisfied if milder effects mean the adventurers just spend another day drinking in the tavern while their magic-user gets her mind untangled. I think it’s better if the ill effects come about at the time that one of the duplicate spells is cast. Perhaps there’s a chance that they have become stuck together and all come out at once when you utter the syllables hoping to release one of them, with unintended and likely adverse effects.
  2. Upon reading a magic scroll, the spell it contains floods into your brain and fills up all available space. If you have multiple empty spell slots, you inadvertently run the risks of memorizing duplicate spells. A lesser version would target only a single spell level, while a more versatile spell could put versions of itself into whatever level slots are open. An especially virulent version would replace the spells already memorized, either by causing you to forget them or by firing them all off randomly! This is a good way for DMs to have fun watching magic-users find creative applications for a spell too dangerous or whimsical for them to ever consider memorizing under other circumstances.
  3. A cursed scroll contains a previously undiscovered spell, the effects of which are tempting enough to entice magic-users to copy it into their own spellbook. This spell is unusually eager to flood into the magic-user’s brain, taking a tenth the normal time to memorize. It does indeed perform as promised when it is cast, but it becomes voraciously jealous when it is passed over in favor of other spells. Each time the magic-user prepares spells from that book and does not memorize the spell from the cursed scroll, over the course of the following day it copies its own runes over those of one other randomly selected spell in the book. Most likely, this is not discovered until the magic-user attempts to prepare one of the over-written spells.
  4. An arrow toxin causes magic-users to lose the discipline necessary to resist the pressure of the spells stuffed into their brain. For the next 1d4 rounds, they must  speak the syllables to cast one of their spells (of their choice or randomly determined, depending on the horribleness of the toxin), groaning with relief as each one is released from its confinement.
  5. Entering certain anti-magic fields causes some or all of a magic-user’s spells to escape from their confinement in his or her brain. This is not immediately apparent due to the suppression of the anti-magic field. When the effects of the field are removed, the result may be as if all the spells had been cast at once, or the spells may gain some independent existence of their own, such as the excellent concept of the living spell Keith Baker created for the Eberron campaign setting in D&D 3.5.
  6. A magical substrate such as an enchanted blank is so receptive a home for spells that on each round a magic-user views the page, he or she must make a saving throw to avoid having a randomly chosen memorized spell escape and take up residence in the new substrate. This could be a useful item for a magic-user who wished to simultaneously disable enemy spellcasters and enrich his or her own spellbook.
  7. A symbol or creature is so abhorrent to arcane principles that a magic-user in the presence of this provocation must make a saving throw each round to resist the demands of his or her memorized spells to be hurled at the offender. A magic-resistant character might want to paint such a symbol on a shield and draw fire away from more vulnerable members of the party (aka aggro, as K. Bailey’s comment here leads me to believe they’re calling it in these new-fangled graphical MUDs).

11 Responses to “Making Vancian Spellcasting Concrete”

  1. January 30, 2010 at 11:59 pm

    Wow, this is awesome stuff, Tavis.

    “However, I take issue with two of his assertions… First, I disagree that the number of spells a magic-user is able to prepare is one and the same as the number of spells in their spellbook from which they can choose when deciding which to memorize.”

    Well, to clarify, my assertion was that all D&D does this. Judging from the feedback at the OD&D boards, I was wrong. However, it still looks to me as though AD&D and later editions are guilty of the memory expansion/spell acquisition conflation. Either way, we both seem to have the same general idea of what Vancian magic is supposed to look like.

    Did I mean something else by crunchy? Aren’t charts crunchy? Hmmm…

    God, I love reading over the ideas in this post.

  2. January 31, 2010 at 12:47 am

    Thanks! The inspiration is all yours.

    I think it’d be worth posting about different ways spell acquisition can increase with magic-user level. We do it differently in each of the Red Box campaigns, each looking to a mix of texts and ideas about how it should work.

    My (pedantic) point about crunch is that it’s neither necessary nor sufficient for gameability. My ideas were about things that might come up in play, but were unquantified except for a d4 here and a vague reference to saving throws. Contrariwise, combat stats for the Ineffable God of Ultimate Peace are crunchy but have no applicability to actual play.

  3. January 31, 2010 at 1:18 am

    “I think it’d be worth posting about different ways spell acquisition can increase with magic-user level. We do it differently in each of the Red Box campaigns, each looking to a mix of texts and ideas about how it should work.”

    I’m totally interested to learn how you go about this.

  4. January 31, 2010 at 1:44 am

    I’ve never had to deal with it until recently, since White Sandbox characters start at 3rd level and have spellbooks containing all the 1st and 2nd level spells in the LBB’s – when people make 4th (the highest for a M-U so far) they can just memorize one extra L2. Recently, though, Maldoor found a belt in Merlin’s Garden that lets him act as a M-U of one level higher (5th), which I interpreted to mean that he had room in his brain for a 3rd level spell. He was charmed by a higher-level magic-user, and was able to use her spellbook to memorize a 3rd level spell, and eventually in return for his assistance she let him copy her L3 spells into his own book. I think I’ve decided, though, that you don’t automatically add any new spells to your spellbook when you level up, you merely become able to prepare more spells from whatever books you may have.

    Eric will hopefully clarify his procedure, but I think the deal in the Glantri campaign is that having another M-U’ book doesn’t let you memorize from it, and copying spells from that book to your own is non-trivial; it costs half as much GP & time as if you’d invented the spell you’re copying from scratch. When you level up, you can either choose to copy a spell from another book you own for free, or you can roll randomly to see which new spell you discover (is it always true in Red Box that you only gain spell capability in one spell level at a time?) Starting characters in Glantri are L1, and I think M-Us get three spells in their book, randomly determined from a chart Eric made; elves get fewer ones to make up for their otherwise total superiority in a game that levels as slowly as ours. (Though that’s changing; my cleric leveled after one session!)

  5. January 31, 2010 at 2:28 am

    “I think I’ve decided, though, that you don’t automatically add any new spells to your spellbook when you level up, you merely become able to prepare more spells from whatever books you may have.”

    That’s the way I’ve usually dealt with it as well. The ‘automatic spell acquisition for leveling’ thing leaves a bad, video-gamey taste in my mouth.

    I’m considering opening up the area of spell acquisition entirely and allowing M-U’s to beg/find/borrow/steal as many spells as they can get their hands on, regardless of levels. Here’s the catch: In order for a spell to be part of the M-U’s repertoire, it must be mastered first. Mastery could be a matter of a die roll — an INT check say, modified by the spell’s level. If the M-U fails the roll, he can try again when he moves up a level. Also, he wouldn’t be able to attempt to master a spell that is larger than he can currently memorize.

    I’m less concerned about “spellbook bloat” than pacing the M-U’s memory expansion. A 1st level M-U might have the biggest spellbook in the world, but since he’s able to memorize only one spell at a time, it makes him no match for the more experienced M-U who has the little folio but also has the capacity to memorize five spells at a time.

    Do you think such an approach is viable? I’m not advocating just handing the spells over. The M-U’s would have to put in the roleplay time trying to obtain their spells.

  6. January 31, 2010 at 6:22 am

    Yes, I think it’s fine if M-Us copy spells of whatever level into their spellbooks, in hopes of surviving to the point where they can memorize them. You’d want to set some guidelines about what it takes to do so and how many spells a book can hold.

    In 3E it takes 1 day and costs 100 gp per page to scribe a spell into your book, and it takes 1 page per level of the spell. As I recall each spellbooks has 100 pages. Those are good-enough guidelines for me and I find that most things in 3E are faithful to some old-school text or another – you might, of course, want to say that spellbooks are too bulky to carry (there’s no Vancian evidence for a traveling spellbook that I can see).

  7. January 31, 2010 at 9:29 am

    “guidelines about what it takes”
    “how many spells a book can hold”

    Excellent points. If a player wants an explanation for why the cost to scribe a spell is so exorbitant, how would you respond? What is actually going on and where does the money go?

    “(there’s no Vancian evidence for a traveling spellbook that I can see)”

    Which again — somewhat circuitously — brings me back to this notion of daemonic servants. In both the Lyonesse books and ‘Rhialto’ all the exceedingly powerful wizards are served by sandestins who are bound by contract under duress (they feared that the wizard might loose his chug on them). The need to have a traveling spellbook — to memorize and cast spells at all — is mostly eliminated when the wizard obtains such a servant. Which is not to say that it’s Easy Street for the wizard after that — but the nature of the game would definitely change for the M-U. He would start spending less time futzing with spells and more time trying to exact service from his daemonic helper. I’m thinking that part of the M-U’s end game could be gaining enough experience to be in a position where he could control daemons — perhaps in a similar fashion to how the evil cleric controls undead.

  8. January 31, 2010 at 1:56 pm

    I figure the exorbitant cost of scribing spells goes to exotic inks – giant squid ink, basilisk blood, crushed aquamarines dissolved in unicorn milk – and parchments, like doppleganger skin vellum or papyrus made from the reeds of a stygian river. Quills could also be something you need.

    Making this concrete can also create nice interactions with other game elements – can the M-U harvest parts of a killed monster for ink? (I think 1d6 gp worth per HD is a good rule of thumb here, maybe with extra dice for each level of rarity or appropriate.) When they run out of ink in town, who do they see to buy more? (Raiding an enemy caster’s sanctum is one possibility, since scribing components make good treasure.)

    The Dying Earth RPG makes a distinction between Cugel-level characters, who can dabble in magic and use enchanted items and cantraps; Turjan-level casters who use prepared spells and make magic items; and Rhialto-level characters who work their will by commanding sandestins (the game tracks indenture points as the mechanism for barganining with these guys). It’s a great source of ideas!

  9. January 31, 2010 at 9:31 pm

    Ha, you and Eiglophian got me thinking about Vancian again!

  10. 10 GW
    April 25, 2010 at 11:28 pm

    Interesting stuff! I was just reading a thing on another site that compared vancian spells to some sort of memetic organisms (http://feadad.blogspot.com/2010/04/alternative-magicks-ultra-vancian.html). That could be a way to work out the rules of this kind of magic.

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Past Adventures of the Mule

January 2010

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