Archive for January 31st, 2010


Spellbooks Without Spells: A Vancian Variant

In a recent post, Tavis discusses Vancian magic, both in terms of Jack Vance’s original work and its translation into the familiar Vancian spellcasting found in D&D. I’ve done some tinkering with the magic system in my Red Box campaign. I hope that you, gentle reader, find something useful in this implementation that you can take away for your own game.


I: A Magic-User’s Own Idiom

In this setting, magic is idiosyncratic. One’s spells must take into account all the elements of one’s magical nature: one’s true name, the astrological signs ascendant at one’s birth, the peculiar alchemical affinities of one’s own blood, the entities that one’s magical lineage has pacted with, etc. Thus, no two magic-users employ the same version of a given spell.

To use computer programming as a metaphor, view each spell as a program and each magic-user as an operating system. Unlike the real world, no two of these operating systems are identical! Whenever one magic-user wishes to learn a spell from another, he must revise the spell so that it works on his “operating system”—his personal magical idiom. Still, it’s easier than researching a new spell from scratch.

II: Initiations and Pacts

This magic-user is performing an initiatory rite to add a new spell to his repertoire.

The power for spells comes from extra-planar sources: gods, demons, elementals, fairies, timeless arcane intelligences, etc. It is not enough to know the words and gestures of a spell. One must also perform an initiation into the mysteries of the spell, forging a pact with an extra-planar entity to power the incantation.

Such initiations are complex rites. The magic-user must draw intricate diagrams with pastes made from crushed gems, burn exotic woods and incense, don ritual garments sewn with gold and silver thread, and so forth. Whereas most of the time involved in performing spell research goes to devising the spell itself, procuring the components for the initiatory rite takes up most of the money. (When one acquires a “free” spell upon leveling up, this may be justified by one’s mentor or another friendly magic-user supplying the components needed to perform the initiation.)

Sometimes these rites are unsuccessful. They might not be devised properly or executed correctly. Hence the possibility of failure—even catastrophic failure—in spell research.

III: The Spells Themselves

Unlike the magics used by Rhialto the Marvellous, Iucounu the Laughing Magician and their fellow thaumaturges in Vance’s work, these spells have no volition; one does not struggle with them lest they wriggle out of one’s mind and into the world. But they are not simply “memorized,” either.

A spell is a matrix of magical forces that exists within the magic-user’s mind. In a sense, it is a single-use magic item, and it obeys similar principles in play. An enterprising magic-user might even find ways to strip away an opponent’s prepared spells, although it will take something more impressive than a mere dispel magic to do so.

For a good example, look at how spells are “hung” by Merlin of Chaos in Roger Zelazny’s second Amber quintet. “Then I spoke the spell, slowly and clearly, leaving out the four key words I had chosen to omit. … The spell hung before me like a crippled butterfly of sound and color, trapped within the synesthetic web of my personal vision of the Logrus, to come again when I summoned it, to be released when I spoke the four omitted words.”

IV: Spell Scrolls

A magical scroll is not simply a bit of writing. It is essentially identical to a prepared spell, except that instead of keeping the spell matrix inside her own mind, the magic-user binds the matrix to a roll of parchment. Now, instead of reciting the trigger words from memory, the magic-user reads them off the scroll—or gives the scroll to another magic-user, who can do the same.

V: Spell Valences

One does not simply cram spells into one’s head willy-nilly. They must be fitted together into lattices. As magic-users grow more powerful, they can accommodate increasingly larger configurations of spells.

Much like electron shells in an atom, each lattice contains a fixed number of spells of each level. Thus, a conjurer may encompass no more than two first-level spells and a second-level spell; the first-level spells may not be replaced by a second-level spell nor vice versa. Scholarly magic-users may refer to the nodes of the lattice as “valences,” a term shamelessly stolen from Sepulchrave’s Tales of Wyre.

These spell valences are of a fixed order of power and complexity. Thus, there are no “third-and-a-half level” spells.

VI: Spellbooks

A page from a wizard's compendium.

Magic-users don’t generally have “spellbooks” in the sense we think of in D&D, with each page filled in with the specifics of a given spell. Instead, they have compendiums of magic: occult encyclopedias full of information, diagrams and formulae regarding alchemy, astrology, necromancy, theurgy, and all of the other recognized schools of sorcery. When preparing a spell, one pores through one’s compendium for the specific elements of the spell—the appropriate diagrams and formulae—and impresses the magical matrix of the spell upon one’s mind.

Some magic-users do take the time (one day per spell level) to transcribe the exact formulae involved in their spells, thus creating a “spellbook” much like the typical AD&D spellbook. Such spellbooks are often used by magic-users when traveling or adventuring, or to loan out when trading spells. Not every wizard the party defeats will have one, however, and if a PC magic-user steals or borrows one from an NPC, he must still research the spell to translate it into his own magical idiom and perform the necessary initiation.

A spellbook that only contains a few spells is much smaller than a full occult compendium, as it contains only a few specific formulae. Beyond a certain point, however, a spellbook becomes larger than a compendium, as a given occult chart or diagram may be repeated a dozen times for use in a dozen different spells. Thus, magic-users with large repertoires may not wish to rely on spellbooks!

One may attempt to prepare a spell from memory if one has neither compendium nor spellbook at hand. This is very dangerous! If one constructs the spell matrix with even one incorrect glyph or syllable, the spell will go awry. If one is lucky, it will simply fizzle when cast; worse, it may come out warped, backfire on the caster, or even provide an opening for an extra-planar entity to enter the world.


New “Red Box” in the Works

Looks familiar?

Wizards of the Coast has announced a new introductory boxed set for 4E. As you can see from the picture, the boxed set is red. And according to WotC’s twitter feed, they’re calling it the “Red Box.” (You may have to scroll down a bit to find it.)

What does this mean for old-school players? Possibly some confusion over the term “Red Box” in the context of Dungeons & Dragons. Maybe even a lot of confusion. What happens when you advertise a Red Box D&D game, expecting people of an old-school persuasion to show up, and you get players who’re expecting to play Fourth Edition? (Or vice versa?)

Past Adventures of the Mule

January 2010
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