as it was in Grand Motholam

A partial list of game design consequences which arise from Vancian casting:

  1. Refers to Jack Vance’s The Dying Earth, never a bad thing.
  2. Introduces a pacing mechanic: oops, time to retreat I’m out of juice.
  3. Introduces suspense: did I pick the right spells?
  4. Allows new ways to measure skillful play based on how well you manage the gamble of spell selection.
  5. Rewards gathering information to make wise spell choices.
  6. Encourages repeated delves to improve casters’ efficiency.
  7. Creates a market for more reliable classes, and thus an adventuring party, to hedge against bad spell selection.
  8. Implies a very mundane (board-gamey?) aesthetic: magic is a commodity like torches, food, and arrows.

Naturally other magic systems might be better at these same goals, or achieve different goals entirely.  But the existing system is pretty far-reaching in its effect on the game.

16 Responses to “as it was in Grand Motholam”

  1. April 22, 2010 at 4:13 am

    1-7 sure, 8 I don’t see how that follows from Vancian. Commoditiness depends on how common magic is not its method of application.

    Also, even if everyone could cast spells, each caster is limited by their slots. No matter how many spell books, time or gold spent they can’t bring along more spells than their slots, unlike torches, food, and arrows.

  2. April 22, 2010 at 4:18 am

    I don’t have anything to add really. I just like this list.

  3. April 22, 2010 at 12:25 pm

    Harman, #8 is probably the most debatable of the lot, but I do think it follows:

    * Vancian spell casting is essentially inventory management. The main thing you do in the system is allocate spell slots, and then cross them off as spells are cast. The spells themselves are fire-and-forget and the casting pretty much always works by virtue of the fact that the spell is in your inventory. (Whether the spell accomplishes what you’d like is another question, but generally there’s no question that it gets cast.) They’re no different than torches.

    * Vancian spell casting largely comes down to a strategic question: given my limited resources, does the current situation warrant spending a slot? This is a classic board-game type question.

    * Vancian spell casting is off-the-shelf, without improvisation or customization. This implies that Clerics and Magic-Users don’t really know what they’re doing. (If you understand how something works, you can tinker around with it.) You’ve got this extremely specialized, 100% reliable pseudo-technology, and the people who have studied it the most can only recite formulas without any understanding. I’m fine with the idea of magic being beyond human comprehension, but when it’s BOTH beyond comprehension AND a matter of picking from a several-columned menu, I think that’s kind of funny – it says less about the nature of magic, and more about the people who cast it.

  4. April 22, 2010 at 12:47 pm

    > Vancian spell casting is off-the-shelf, without improvisation or customization.

    Ah, I can see #8 from that angle. Thanks for taking time to respond and cogently too. I agree with GB, good list.

  5. April 22, 2010 at 1:36 pm

    I note that you start by describing these things as “consequences” but end by describing them as “goals.”

  6. April 22, 2010 at 2:02 pm


    Yes, in the context of substitute systems. Typically I’ve seen substitute systems cobbled together from an aesthetic point of view, where the unspoken design goal is to do everything the old system did, just without the somewhat clunky “non-magical” feel of the Vancian approach. If so, then these points should be (part of) the spec.

    I’m all in favor of substitute systems, but they’re very likely to skew the game around in fundamental ways.

  7. April 22, 2010 at 2:31 pm

    By saying these things are goals, you’re saying that they’re both intended and desired. And as Norman did, I’m focusing on #8, which I do not think was a desired or intended consequence of the ruleset. Accepted? Often. Acceptable? Maybe. But I don’t think that Gygax and Arneson et al looked at Vancian magic and said, “This makes magic quotidian and dull—SUCCESS!”

    It’s like finding that your new puppy has left little brown piles on the living room carpet and saying, “Yes, in addition to love and devotion, one of my goals in acquiring a puppy was a poop-covered rug.”

  8. 8 Melan
    April 22, 2010 at 4:42 pm

    Insightful! I am not entirely sure about #8 – in practice, that’s a common consequence, but probably not a preordained one. The aesthetic can just as well be “technological”, and technology has a lot of potential to be cool in its own way. I have seen as many M-Us played as smug engineering graduates as inventory managers.

  9. 9 Melan
    April 22, 2010 at 4:57 pm

    Addendum: although not all players can roll with it, the “I just picked inappropriate spells” moment can be turned into a “So how can I use what I have to maximum effect” one.

  10. 10 Lord Bodacious
    April 22, 2010 at 5:18 pm

    Not sure that I agree here:

    Thesis: Implication #8 was not only an intended consequence of Vancian magic, but the reason behind implementing it.

    Gary, Dave, et al weren’t looking for a system to realistically represent the fantastical, whimsical nature, of magic, but rather a way to fit magic into their rules system and game design philosopy (wargame inspired, resource mgmt aspects, etc).*

    It was less that they were moved by the Vancian system and integrated the rules structure into their games and more that they needed a magic worldview that effects finite resources, and JV just happened to allow for that.*

    While I do disagree with the connotation/word choice of magic being “mundane” – it is very much a resource.

    * the preceding statement is based completely upon conjecture and opinion. part of that opinion is that I’m right.

  11. April 22, 2010 at 6:47 pm

    Lord Bodacious, might it be that they liked Vance in part because his magicians expressed the same aesthetic as their game design? Bathos is one of Vance’s favorite effects: the contrast between characters who think highly of themselves yet are forever enmeshing themselves in low situations due to their base motives (however fancifully justified). I have to think that this moment of deflation – self-styled heroes tripping over their own feet in the rush to grab a few coppers – happened early enough in any actual play evolution that the D&D we know is meant to roll with it. (I also think this is why it’s a syncretic free-for-all and not an attempt at genre emulation).

  12. April 22, 2010 at 7:58 pm

    Eric, I may have telescoped too much into the original post. I’m not saying the Old Ones designed the system intentionally to achieve all of these effects; they’re consequences or epiphenomena of a design choice.

    But if you’re a designer in 2010, and you say, “I love 90% of D&D play, but this sub-system involving fire-and-forget spell slots is a loser! How can I replace the sub-system without affecting the rest of the game?” then these are some design goals to the extent you want to preserve the existing game.

    So: Stan Lee may not have intended to write corny dialogue, but if you’re going to play an ultra-faithful Silver Age comics game, corny dialogue is one goal among many.

    It’s entirely possible that a new designer won’t LIKE point #8 – frankly I dislike #8 rather a lot, and it’s the thing that kills Vancian magic for me. But getting rid of it is going to have an important effect on the experience of play. Magic in D&D isn’t perceived by players the way magic is perceived by players in, say, Sorcerer or Marvel Super Heroes.

  13. April 23, 2010 at 8:40 pm

    Something interesting about Vancian magic that may or may not be relevant… while the whole memorization of poorly understood magical formulae is faithful to Vance’s work, the spells themselves differ greatly, and this difference is what makes D&D magic appear to be mundane.

    In Vance’s stories, the spells available are much more wondrous, powerful or ridiculous than Sleep, Charm and Magic Missile. You’ve got incantations like the Spell of the Macroid Toe (victim gets a giant toe!), The Spell of Woeful Encystment (victim is in stasis deep beneath the earth), the Spell of the Sequestrous Digit (caster’s hand appears elsewhere, usually poised for groping someone attractive and/or picking their pockets).

    Is it really memorization/resource management that makes magic boring?

  14. April 24, 2010 at 3:20 am

    Magic-users get the Spell of Woeful Encystment, although it’s 9th level and called “Imprisonment”. This suggests that the thing that’s really unique to D&D is low-level play, the part where you’re a one-trick copper-grubber who’s not at all like anyone who’d be worth writing even a short story about.

  15. April 26, 2010 at 9:34 pm

    Tavis, I’d recommend reading some Hammett for some wonderful depictions of one-trick copper-grubbers. Mind you, said grubbers aren’t the main characters of his stories, but then neither is the typical 1st level character the “main character” of the game.

    Also, game =/= story. But you knew that!

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Past Adventures of the Mule

April 2010

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