This is a general summary how I reached the decision that I needed to get rid of Vancian magic in Five Moons RPG, and how magic works as a result of that change.
What is Vancian Magic?
D&D’s spellcasting system (where you “prepare” a limited number of spells each day and cast them out of your head like expending bullets from a gun) is called “Vancian magic” by fans because it’s lifted from how magic works in the Dying Earth stories by author Jack Vance. Vance’s wizards work just like D&D wizards: they can prepare a limited number of spells, a more powerful wizard can prepare more spells than a novice, and the spells are expended when cast. The connection to D&D is obvious, as Gary Gygax was a fan of Vance’s books (they’re listed in the 1E AD&D DMG’s “Appendix N: Inspirational and Educational Reading”), and Gygax even put a direct homage to Vance in the Greyhawk setting: the arch-lich Vecna is an anagram of “Vance.”
Balance Issues With Vancian Magic
The initial balance between fighters and magic-users in D&D was:
- magic-users had a very small number of spells they could cast each day, but those spells were usually the most powerful attacks available at that character level
- the opportunity to learn new spells was rare and expensive (the “learn two new spells each time you level up” rule is new as of 3E)
- spellcasting was easy to disrupt (being hit in combat while casting ruined the spell)
- once all the prepared spells were expended, the magic-user was puny
- fighters didn’t expend their limited resources and could fight all day, so they’d be able to keep adventuring while the magic-user had to cower in the back of the party
In practice, however, this actually meant that the magic-user was incredibly powerful in the encounters where they had spells to cast, and then useless when those spells were gone. Nobody likes playing a useless character (even a part-time useless character), so over the years more kept being added to the caster class to keep them out of that uselessness for as long as possible. Things like making it easier to learn new spells and magic items that invalidate putting ranks in mundane skills, which meant the factors that made the magic-users balanced against the fighters were being taken away, resulting in a class that’s more powerful with the wizard. Add to that the fact that the adventuring party is more effective when the magic-user has spells, there’s a strong incentive to stop adventuring when the mage is out of spells, which also negates the “but the fighter can keep going” balance.
Martial classes and skill classes have abilities they can use over and over again, all day. If the caster classes were like martial classes and had abilities they could use over and over again, all day, you could balance all of those unlimited abilities against each other and create balanced classes. You’d have to take away all the limited-use abilities (spells) the casters had so all classes were working from the same paradigm. You could convert the existing limited-use spells into at-will abilities, but you’d have to radically reduce their power level to compensate for this increased access, otherwise you’d take away the last limitation to caster power. (Cantrips and witch hexes are aspects of this magical “I’m not very powerful but I can be used at will” setup.)
However, if all of your abilities are at-will, that gets kind of boring in play. Scarcity as a game mechanic can make some encounters exciting, whether it’s a one-use magic item, calling in a favor with a powerful NPC, or casting a Vancian spell–the question of “do I expend this now, or should I save it for a future encounter?” So if would be more fun if characters–whether martial or caster–had some kind of limited resource that allowed for those decisions.
The Five Moons RPG Solution
Here’s what I’m doing.
1) Every class has access to a selection of at-will abilities. Some of these are more appropriate for martial characters, some are better for casters, and some are better for skill casters, but any character can select any of these at-will abilities.
2) The abilities available to low-level characters are minor effects that are power-appropriate to the character’s level, regardless of character class (in other words, caster abilities aren’t automatically better than martial abilities “because they’re magic”). To use D&D terminology, things like Iron Will, magic missile, and Power Attack would be low-level at-will effects, and they’d work like this:
Iron Will: Add +X to your Will saving throws.
Magic Missile: Shoot a blast of force at one target within 30 feet, no attack roll, deal X points of force damage.
Power Attack: Take a –X penalty to your attack roll to add +Y to your damage roll.
3) Each character also has a limited resource pool called a boost pool. A typical character can use boosts 5 times per day.
4) Each of the character’s at-will abilities also has a variant effect which only happens if the character spends a boost. Some abilities might have more than one boost option available, and the character chooses which one boost to activate at the time it it activated. With the boost information included, the ability descriptions would look like this:
Iron Will: Add +X to your Will saving throws. Boost: Reroll a Will save you just failed and use the result of the second roll.
Magic Missile: Attack one target within 30 feet with a blast of force, do X points of force damage. Boost: Your spell hits two targets; roll damage separately for each. Boost: This attack does an additional Y points of force damage.
Power Attack: Take a –X penalty to your attack roll to add +Y to your damage roll. Boost: This attack does not have the –X attack roll penalty. Boost: This attack deals an additional +Z damage.
5) Monsters have boost pools, too. Some monster abilities can be boosted, others require a boost to work at all (for example, a dragon’s breath weapon attack or a medusa’s gaze might require spending a boost instead of waiting for a recharge or being automatic).
This allows characters to have character-thematic abilities that they can use over and over, and still have a scarcity mechanic that lets them “go all out” against certain opponents,” and the “all-out” ability is something related to the character’s existing abilities.**
Obviously you’d gain new abilities when you level up, and you’d have the opportunity to learn new spells, fighting styles, and techniques outside of that leveling criterion. Now, in the Vancian system, once you’ve gained a few levels, your character sheet eventually gets cluttered with lower-level spells and abilities that you really don’t care about any more (just to use spell examples: like levitate even though you have fly, or invisibility when you have greater invisibility, or burning hands when you already have fireball). I want to avoid that sort of clutter (especially for NPC stat blocks), and not having to write down all of those choices each game day would save a lot of time at the table.
Limiting the number of special abilities you have available at a particular time helps avoid choice paralysis–we’ve all been in a game where a spellcaster’s turn comes up in combat and the game grinds to a halt as they look over their entire list of 20 spells prepared to decide what to cast that round.
So we get this:
6) As you learn more and more abilities, the number of abilities you know will eventually exceeds the number of abilities you have easy access to each day. Each day, your character studies, refreshes, practices, or otherwise focuses on a subset of their known abilities. (This is akin to a Vancian caster preparing a specific set of spells known for that day, or a martial character practicing some judo and tae kwon do in the morning instead of Greek wrestling and capoeira.) These are called the character’s readied abilities: the subset of at-will abilities the character can use that day.
However, it’s lame if your character doesn’t have some way to access those non-readied abilities (after all, it’s not like you forgot them, you just didn’t practice them that day), so:
7) A character can spend a boost to add one of their non-readied abilities to their readied abilities for that day.
Did you spend all your readied slots on combat spells, but now you need to make the entire party invisible? Spend a boost to add your non-readied invisibility spell known to your readied abilities.
Did you prepare yourself for brute opponents and are surprised to find out their leader is an enchanter? Spend a boost to add your non-readied Iron Will to your readied abilities.
Did you prepare for a stealth mission, but things have gone sour and you need to scram? Spend a boost to add your non-readied Fleet to your readied abilities.
And so on. Ditch the legacy Vancian magic system, balance the at-will abilities against each other and for the character level, introduce a scarcity mechanic for more exciting encounters, reduce choice paralysis, and allow for some spontaneity.
In Five Moons RPG,
- Every class gets at-will abilities that are balanced for your character level (regardless of class).
- You can boost your at-will abilities a limited number of times per day.
- Boosts can be used for other things, like a monster activating its special abilities or a PC “remembering” a spell or ability they didn’t have ready that day.
If you like this post and where these ideas are going, please check out the kickstarter for my Five Moons RPG, which uses these ideas. Thanks!
Later this Week
An overview of the World of Five Moons setting, a video showing the game in play, and a PDF with some basic rules for 1st-level characters.
* If you’re a gamer, especially a D&D gamer, and you haven’t read the Dying Earth books, you really should. Not only are they thick with inspiration of the linguistic weirdness that informed the original D&D, and are the source material for many D&D spells and magic items (such as the most excellent prismatic spray spell and IOUN stones), but they’re really clever. Also, Robin Laws wrote the Dying Earth RPG, which really nails the feel of the books, you should read that, too.
** As compared to 4E D&D, where your at-will, encounter, and daily powers might have nothing to do with each other. If you’re a “glue wizard,” and your at-will power is glueing an opponent in place, it’s much cooler if your “all out” ability is still glue-related (like glueing multiple targets, or suffocating the target with glue, or adding fire damage from hot glue) instead of some ice power you learned because there weren’t any cool glue encounter or daily powers.