Sunday, June 28, 2009

Vancian Magic: They Know Not What They Do

From my readings of Vance, it seems that magicians don't really get magic. They can learn spells by rote, and mostly they learn their spells from finding, capturing, or trading with other magic-users. Think about it: in the D&D Cyclopedia, there are 117 magic-user spells. A magic-users learns, what, one or two when he advances a level? If a magic-user started with three and advanced to 20th level, gaining two spells at every level, he would know only 43 spells. Even if he advanced to 36th level, he would know only 75 of the 117 commonly known spells. Most magic-users don't make it to 36th level. My point is that a magic-user who does nothing but his own research and reaches the pinnacle of human ability will still know less than 75% of all magical spells. A wizard must beg, borrow, steal, and cajole if he ever hopes to learn them all, much like Mazirian the Magician planned to do.

Where I am going with this, and it is stated as much in Vance, (can't remember the story or actual quotes) that there are only 100 spells or so known to mankind, out of the thousands that once apparently existed. In addition, magicians of the Dying Earth only know their rote-spells and are generally incapable of devising their own. (Unless you're one of the great ones like Phandal, but he lives in another universe for crying out loud.) In the rules of D&D as written, a magic-user has to use a spell to decipher a discovered scroll or spell book; even spells that he has in his own spell book are not recognizable when first encountered. (I have changed this in my AD&D game, as posted previously under house rules.)

Magic-users are simply that; users of magic. They do not have a deep understanding of the principles behind magic. They scavenge and steal spells because their limited ability to learn means they must devote a lifetime of research if they hope to even understand most spells, and they will never know a spell well enough that their mind can hold onto it after the energies are discharged, nor will it ever be familiar enough that they can spot it in another wizard's spell book.

Now, in my campaign, magic-users can decipher spells without resorting to read magic, so long as the spell is within their ability to cast. Read Magic can, however, decipher spells which are beyond the magic-user's ability. Magic-users do understand some of the basic principles of magical runes, but a lot of magical lore/science has been lost over the ages. For the most part, magic-users still do things by rote, but in my campaign, magic runes and writings are consistent enough that you can figure out a spell you know, even if the other wizard arrives at the same spell through different applications of magical runes and formula. Magic is simply not something for which the mortal intellect is suited, and even the wisest magic-user is a babe in arms when faced with the totality of magical lore. where did all that lore come from, and what led to the loss of it?
We shall see, both in further readings (perhaps) and in my campaign.


  1. In my World of Cinder campaign magic is the operating system of the Asimovian Planetary ACs left over from a previous epoch of galactic civilization. A magic user knows just enough to be able to click on an icon to launch a program, but the vast amount of theorietical knowledge needed to do anything more than that has been lost.

  2. Similar to Jeff's, above, magic is a debased form of Imperial Psionics which taps into gargantuan machiebery deep in the Aether and other Primal planes of existence, and the MU simply combines small routines to create magical effects.

    In this sense, there are certainly more than 100 spells, but that's just a matter of which have become systematically taught in each region/culture, and during various eras.

  3. Great article, Ryan!

    Mages are the hardest class to play. I don't know of many tables that have ever ran them as is. I find it interesting that you made the changes that you did. To me, I always felt that each wizard has his own unique script, runes that he devised after learning hundreds of different ones from his teacher. I also felt that each spell was more then magic words, it is pictures and codex which the mage must visualize in order to cast the spell. Each spell would be unique to each mage. While one mage could write down the basics of a Fireball spell in the minimum space required, another would require 10 pages or more to record the same spell.

    Finding new spells is a reason for adventuring. I think that, if it were up to me, which it isn't, that I'd instead institute a spell research system beginning at 9th level.

    With only that few of spells out in the world, there is definitely lots of room to experiment and play. I can't imagine why the Cyclopidia took that out, or was that brought about in 2e?

  4. I'll join the chorus of appreciation here!
    I have magic as an energy field generated by 8 stationary stars. These
    are AIs that are often venerated by the populace of the world below. The AIs release spell formulae to common knowledge - to wizards that write them down, to priests essentially download them. These kinds of detail though rarely comes up in play.