D&Dish RPG: Ruminations on a Replacement for Vancian Magic (Part 1)

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I hate Vancian magic.

The magic system in Dungeons & Dragons is influenced by Jack Vance’s Dying Earth series (did you know that the name of the famous D&D lich, Vecna, is an anagram of Vance). It’s the “fire and forget” system. It’s stupid:

  1. It makes wizards—I hate the old-school term magic-user— ridiculously weak at low levels. You cast magic missile, and then you are useless until you rest to re-memorize a low-level spell that you’ve probably cast several times before. Later editions attempted to address this via cantrips, but I don’t think they’re the best solution.
  2. Wizards at high levels are way too powerful, but I don’t like D&D’s typical balance-by-subtraction at low levels method.
  3. The whole concept of a spell being wiped from the wizard’s memory after casting is silly, but spell points are equally silly.
  4. Having to prepare spells in advance makes it a guessing game. The party’s thief dies, but you failed to memorize the knock spell? Too bad. Later editions’ use of spell slots is too metagamey and dissociated for my taste.
  5. Limits on casting based on spell level—how many you can memorize and how often you can cast them—seem silly have no real in-game justification.
  6. Other classes have to roll in order to do things, but wizards often don’t when they cast spells. Similarly, targets of spells often get a saving throw, but targets of melee or missile weapons don’t (as a side rant, this is a contradiction that proponents of a “unified mechanic” tend to ignore). Later editions muddy the waters with some spells requiring a roll vs. AC and some granting a saving throw to the target.

So what I want to do is to design a system that has the following characteristics:

  1. Wizards must always perform some sort of roll in order to cast. Failure would represent either the wizard failing to properly remember the spell or failing to control or focus its arcane energy. Alternatively, such effects only occur on a critical failure, and the spell caster is rolling against some sort of target value that is similar to AC.
  2. There should be some sort of mechanic for spell fizzle or miscasting.
  3. There are no explicit casting restrictions based on level.
  4. Higher level spells have a greater base chance of failure and negative consequences.
  5. Chances of spell failure (and perhaps its consequences) decrease as wizards gain levels.
  6. There are no saving throws; a different mechanic will be used.
  7. Perhaps include some model of cumulative fatigue from spell casting.
  8. Perhaps include some sort of counterspell mechanic other than a lame counterspell spell.
  9. Extremely powerful spells will be lengthy and potentially dangerous rituals.

Later posts will cover these in detail.

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4 thoughts on “D&Dish RPG: Ruminations on a Replacement for Vancian Magic (Part 1)

  1. I’ll be interested to see what you come up with. I too dislike Vancian magic, but for some different reasons (mainly the need for pre-ordained spells to choose from rather than determining magic use on the fly). Reading through your goals for a replacement system has made me wonder if ability should be tied to hit points in some way, reducing a caster’s capacity as he becomes more wounded/fatigued. I might play around with that for my own system.

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    • Microlite requires wizards to sacrifice hit points—the amount being dependent on spell level—in order to cast spells, but it also starts wizards start with more hit points. Now we’re opening up another can of worms: what do hit points represent? Does hit point loss simply indicate wounds, or does it also encompass things like fatigue? If so, why don’t fighters become fatigued by losing hit points when making an attack roll? Or is that handled abstractly when their opponent succeeds on an attack roll? I’ll have to do a future post on this. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I once tried to create a system of magic based the magic found in Garth Nix’s “Abhorsen” series; it used a set of magic runes (each with different properties) which would have to be (internally) invoked, but there were a number of benefits:
    1. New, novel spell creation (there are many, many possible runes (effects), some more efficient (powerful) than others).
    2. Spell casting time became a function of the number of runes which made up the spell.
    3. Failure could come in the form of incorporating a different or unknown rune, which would change the spell. Also, since each rune is associated with a specific aspect of the spell, the manifestation of the failure is also apparent.
    4. There are no spell points, but how many runes someone knows determines their effective power.
    5. Counterspells are now inherent to all casters, but the method is to counter or redirect aspects of the target spell (so a fire spell could be countered by water, or a single-target spell could simply be directed elsewhere and allowed to manifest).

    This is in no way a prescription for what you should do, but it is an idea I’ve explored enough to know it’s effective and adaptable.

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  3. I am thinking. You wrote an interesting list of desires for a magic system. Right now, I’m going to bed, but the bean of an idea is White d6s Red d6s…
    If the total on the whites > reds the spell succeeds. You roll the Whites first and then decide to roll Reds or let it fizzle. If the Reds best the whites: miscast.
    Harder spells are more Red; additional White dice are bought with exhaustion.
    The probability curve of strict Success/Failure is beautiful with long tails and a positive skew.

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