Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Vancian Magic vs. greater spell flexibility

I have always despised the Vancian magic system of D&D. During our play of Basic, AD&D, and 3rd edition we tried RAW in every case but over time they left us feeling unsatisfied. We gave up basic for AD&D. House ruled AD&D for spell points. House ruled 3rd edition for spell slots. Vancian magic never felt 'right' in our campaigns and we did not like the side effects on the game. Those who do not like the Vancian magic have written tomes on what is wrong with it. For us it was: 1. Takes too long to select spells 2. Spells other than standard never selected 3. The short adventure day: Forced to respell after a small number of encounters – come back next day (to be fair this is not entirely a Vancian magic problem) 4. Cleric has to save spells to cure characters and/or party needs to purchase curing power (wands, potions, scrolls) to use between encounters. So we devised house rules to change the game. (what a shock, huh) For us it works. It does require some machinations on the part of the DM; the game is just not designed for the power boost granted the players by that flexibility. I say so what. The magic system seemed alien to us and there was always a sense of something not quite right in the game. We are much happier with the change, and with careful DMing and some other house rules the spell casters do NOT overshadow the other characters. So my questions to you all: (regardless of edition you play pre 4th): If you could easily house rule the game balance, would you change to a more flexible spell learning/using system or do you prefer the flavor of the Vancian spell system? If you are a fan of the flavor of the Vancian spell system, is it because you are a fan of the Vance novels or a fan of the original flavor as you learned in the game?


  1. "If you could easily house rule the game balance, would you change to a more flexible spell learning/using system or do you prefer the flavor of the Vancian spell system?" -- You

    * I have also changed to a Spell Points system.

  2. I myself am completely torn on this issue. On theone hand, I grew up with the Vancian spell system, so it is still the one I am most familiar with. On the other hand I also agree with the "short adventure day" problem, which seems insurmountable when coupled with the fact that mages are sitting ducks once their spells for the day are done. I also am not sure about mages not being able to heal... I kind of like that idea, actually. All that power to monkey with the fundamental laws of matter and physics... and yet, you cannot create (or repair) life. I always found this as the fundamental difference between clerics and mages - clerics had the ability to manipulate biological material, whether through healing spells or stuff like polymorph other, while mages could affect matter in other forms, but could do very little to biological matter (not that the spells necessarily bear this out). I have toyed with spell point systems, bu I have also been doing some thinking on the possibilities of perhaps doing something along the lines of mages using either Vancian magic or spell points to define spells per day that they KNOW won't fail. After they expend these "sure-fire" spells, they can continue to cast spells, but they have a HIGHLY increased chance of the spell going awry... with bad results and low level, and SPECTACULARLY FATAL results with high level spells. I'm still trying to find a way to reconcile this.

  3. Like you, I think the change to spell points has worked well in our game. I've noticed it very little and I know the caster players appreciate it. It offers much more flexibility.

    In general, I do like the Vancian spell system because it's one of those things that make D&D unique. Part of my like for it stems from the weird names of the old spells ("Otto's Irresistable Dance," etc.) and even the fact that some of those old 1E spells were unbalanced (which makes them seem more magical). Sometimes, this was a problem too, however. Slow for example was way too powerful (no saving throw!)

    But I admit that as a system it has some serious flaws, especially at low levels, when magic users are a walking one-shot sleep spell. Once you're in levels 5-7, it seems to work as it should.

  4. @ Timeshadow - Was your group all comfortable with the new 'flavor'?

    @ Badger King - Its pretty obvious how I feel about Vancian magic. However, there are other ways to ease the 15 minute adventure day without tossing Vancian magic. You could tweaks to the amount of time it takes to relearn spells for example. Make it long enough that it interrupts back to back encounters but not so long that the day is done. You also need to give Wizards something else to do in the adventure besides casting memorized spells.

    @ Brian - Weird names do not have to be the unique domain of old D&D, and I do not think that is Vancian magic at its core. This is a great topic for another post. I do not agree that at level 5-7 it works as "it should". Many of the issues still exist at those levels, and are even exacerbated.


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