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How Many Spells Does a Wizard Need?

GMMichael

Guide of Modos
As we all know (/snark), Gandalf knew only three spells: speak with moths, continual light, and force charm (or was that Obi Wan?). The rest of his magic required his epic-level staff (just ask Wormtongue). So why do some wizards need 10-pound spellbooks? Isn't three spells, plus a staff, enough magic?

The question arises, if you're curious, while I'm looking at the Modos 2 skill system and remembering that a single spell counts as an entire skill; one can gain skill in the casting of a particular spell. But since skill points are hard to come by, spells are traded with scrolls, recorded in spellbooks, and cast from wands (for those still in wizarding school), albeit at lesser proficiency than those with skill.

In addition, a character with only one or two powers might be considered a savant, or supernatural, before being mistaken for a wizard. So how many spells would a spell-slinger sling, if a spell-slinger could sling spells?
 

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The answer is "none" if magic works through sheer force of will pushing around the fabric of reality, which is the primary system in Eddings' Belgariad novels to name just one example. That system didn't have spells, and what you could do with it was more a matter of experimentation and practice (with some tutoring) than anything else. Certainly none of the gimcracks described in the original post, nor do you need gestures or incantations (and Polgara gets criticized by her dad/teacher for waving her hands around at one point - a bad habit she got into early that she never broke). It's closer to the Force out of Star Wars than D&D. The setting has some other magical systems (eg the demon-summoning thing practiced by shamanic type up North) but they're all seriously inferior by comparison and are arguably misunderstandings of or disguises for what the user is really doing - exerting their will on the universe.

Or "a few, but they're less important than general arcane vocabulary" if you go by Ars Magica, where there are some fairly narrow-purpose "rote" spells but most real wizardry relies on a language of broad verbs and nouns. You want to make a wall of fire, there's a rote for it, but anyone with decent skills in (IIRC) "Creo Ignem" can do it as well or better as well as every other thing you could think of with "create fire" as a basis. Rotes are quicker and easier, but they lack versatility and can't really be modified without rewriting the whole formula from scratch. Again, there are many, many other systems and even different schools of wizardry approach the art differently, but that's the core mechanics. You'll have grimoires and reference books - probably a whole library of them, which stays at home - but they're research aids for improving your "vocabulary" skills and copying down rotes for others to use, not the source of your power. Same goes for most components and wands and whatnot - they're tools to make casting easier, and some might have power unto themselves waiting to be drawn forth, but a wizard should be able to do without them for most effects - and improvise around a need for the rest.

And then there's Vancian magic. Not the D&D nonsense, the stuff from the actual Dying Earth books. Yeah, you have spells that do one specific thing that you have to memorize again each time you use one, but those are petty magic. Even a chump like that dabbler Cugel might be able to jam one of them into his head, although he'd probably botch the casting, which usually does require gestures and incantations. There are supposedly about a thousand such spells, some of which are lost or very rare. All of them function the same way - casting one contacts and gives specialized instructions to otherworldly entities that enact the actual effect - but dabblers and ill-trained magicians may never even realize that. This sort of spell is usually written down, so sure, spellbooks galore, but even if you collected hundreds of different spells the human mind can only carry a few of them at once and memorizing one takes hours of effort.

A dedicated, mid-tier magician like Mazirian might be able to carry somewhere between 5-7 of those one-shot spells at once and have a library with dozens of them, but by the time they're that skillful they'll have started delving into other interests. The limitations of memorization put a real plateau on how powerful you can be if you rely purely on them, and true magicians don't. Instead they collect or create all manner of handy magical artifacts (some of which are probably Clarke-level technology), build strongholds full of magical/technological amenities, and spend a lot of time on specialties like creating custom lifeforms in their labs, creating automata, figuring out how that cryptic gadget they found in an ancient ruin works, and occasionally creating marvels for wealthy or powerful patrons in exchange for filthy lucre, favors and recognition. But most their energy goes toward spying on, stealing from and bickering with their peers and rivals, because magicians don't get along well.

And then there's the archmages, who pretty much stop bothering with memorized spells altogether because they aren't worth their effort. They still hoard artifacts and trinkets and works of art, have small armies of servants (often artifical and self-made) and live in enchanted palaces the way they did when they were mere magicians, but they've accomplished the greatest feat of magic by binding a sandestin to their service. These are extradimensional entities that function pretty much like genies (pettifogging, legalistic, sarcastic genies, but still impressive) and can grant most of an archmage's wishes with ease unless opposed by another archmage or entity of similar power. Or the writer, because their powers mostly work when the plot says they can. Archmages pretty much have a wish-granting servant on tap and look down on other magic as hardly worth the time. They spend their time on weird hobbies, collecting rarities, and one-upping their peers whenever possible. Their "spell books" matter more because they're something rare enough to interest a collector (especially a rival collector) than out of actual utility, and most archmages who've been at that tier for any extended period of time would probably need a refresher course to actually memorize any of the spells within them.

That's "real" Vancian magic, Dying Earth style. What most of the RPG hobby calls Vancian magic only reflects the bottom tier of a baroque magic system, something so limited and irritating to use the master practitioners don't even bother with anymore. And it's not even his only magic system - Lyonesse is its own entirely different kettle of fish.
 
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aco175

Legend
There seems to be a fine line between being limited in what you can do and having too many that you cannot make a choice. Some spells can double up and be either a ritual or be modified using a higher level spell. It seems that the higher level you get, the less spells you need at the higher levels.
 

bloodtide

Legend
This question is a bit vague as there are lots of magic systems. And the way magic works in a game or fiction really does matter.

For D&D, a wizard needs hundreds of spells. As the D&D wizard has one great power: they can memorize any spell they have and use it. If they have it in a spellbook, they can use it and switch out spells all the time.
 


GMMichael

Guide of Modos
The answer is "none" if magic works through sheer force of will pushing around the fabric of reality, which is the primary system in Eddings' Belgariad novels to name just one example. That system didn't have spells, and what you could do with it was more a matter of experimentation and practice (with some tutoring) than anything else . . . what the user is really doing - exerting their will on the universe.
I'm curious about these cast-anything wizards. It sounds horribly dangerous. I can see kingdoms tolerating and/or employing spell-based wizards when 1) they can use magic, but 2) at least the capabilities of this magic are known, because the wizard maintains a book of the spells she knows. So, for example, the king doesn't need to worry about the court wizard casting Replace King when she couldn't have her morning coffee one day.

This question is a bit vague as there are lots of magic systems. And the way magic works in a game or fiction really does matter.

For D&D, a wizard needs hundreds of spells. As the D&D wizard has one great power: they can memorize any spell they have and use it. If they have it in a spellbook, they can use it and switch out spells all the time.
Yes, lots of magic systems. These systems might function differently, but aren't the results the same? Cast spell: opponent dead. Cast spell: obstacle removed. Cast spell: knowledge gained. Are there hundreds of these results that a wizard needs? What if a wizard knew a spell for summoning a (friendly) dragon? That's the only spell I'd need, personally...
 

I'm curious about these cast-anything wizards. It sounds horribly dangerous.
Within the context of the Belgariad novels, it is but there are a lot of limits placed on them by the setting.

The Good Side wizards (and this whole stupid series if full of B&W morality) are mostly immortals apostles of a god from the dawn of time, and they're all working toward a cryptic prophecy to keep the Bad Side from winning and an evil god from controlling the universe forever, yadda yadda. The big exception is the POV character, who's the Chosen One of the first series and repeatedly pulls off magic that simply shouldn't be possible because the prophecy says so. Literally. It talks to him sometimes. It's pretty silly. Oh, and there's the mundane blacksmith guy who becomes a wizard after getting killed and brought back to life by a god, which is supposedly against the rules but was prophesied so it's all good.

The Bad Side has relatively large number of priests of the evil god (who's mostly napping till the last book) who can do the same "will stuff to happen" magic but for no adequately explained reason are individually much weaker than any of the Good Side wizards, so they have to operate collectively to provide effective opposition. They tend to be kind of factionalized and prone to backstabbing each other, which may explain why they're so weak compared to the literal undying ancients on the other Side, but nebulous "native talent" seems to be a big factor. Some folks' just have stronger will than others, and sometimes gods empower people who weren't able to do a thing beforehand. The rules are...mushy, to put it mildly.

If I'm making this sound kind of stupid, it is. Didn't stop it from selling a bajillion copies, and there's a whole direct sequel series that renders the first five books and the big climax and fulfilled prophecy almost meaningless which sold almost as well.

But what works in a book doesn't make a good game. For practical purposes, you're better off treating "will magic" like Force powers, or Traveller-style psionics, and add some shape-changing magic on top of it - the Belgariad chumps could easily assume natural animal forms (favoring one particular type like a wolf or an owl) and there's at least one incident of changing someone else (into a snake, specifically) against their will. That might have required the assistance of a god or two so turning a squad of soldiers into mice is probably off the menu. You can do some big stuff with enough will behind it (changing the weather on a regional scale by moving masses of air around was doable but took practice and some understanding of how weather patterns form), but PCs probably need some fairly low upper limits that slowly improve with time. Using this stuff all took some concentration but not enough to keep you from talking, travelling, or noticing that jerk with a sword coming toward you, and maintaining an effect (like "don't notice us sneaking through your territory") long term was wearying both mentally and physically - we're talking days or weeks, not combat rounds. Presumably a potent will-user can just not sleep for extended periods when they want, although it's not really called out. In a game you probably need something more restrictive - a power point currency to spend and recover, or tests to resist exhaustion like Shadowrun uses.

One thing's for sure, there's no equivalent to Replace King here. You can kill one through any of a multitude of techniques if they don't have magical protections, you might be able to temporarily control their mind to make them do what you want - like stepping down and putting you on the throne - but rewriting the universe so that everyone sees you as king and doesn't see any problem with that is too many details for a human mind to juggle.

You want that effect, go over to Dying Earth (which is much better written anyway), bind a sandestin and have them do it for you - and then don't be surprised when they twist your desire to make the experience as ironically unpleasant as possible until you reverse yourself. Or another archmage notices what you did and undoes it, or worse, blackmails you to keep quite about it around the other archmages because cripes, being a king is really petty and beneath you. Or some overworld patron of the king steps in, slaps your sandestin down for messing with a greater power and you wind up reincarnated as a muck-shoveller in the royal stables.

Vance would have made a much better GM than Eddings. :)
 

bloodtide

Legend
Yes, lots of magic systems. These systems might function differently, but aren't the results the same? Cast spell: opponent dead. Cast spell: obstacle removed. Cast spell: knowledge gained. Are there hundreds of these results that a wizard needs? What if a wizard knew a spell for summoning a (friendly) dragon? That's the only spell I'd need, personally...
There are a few systems where a wizard can just "do anything", like having an unlimited wish power. Though they do get limits on power in various ways.

But most magic systems have set spells. And each spell does a fairly specific thing. And a wizard can only know a small number of these spells.

Can a dragon do anything for you? Guess it depends on what it can do? And what you want?

And the list of things is a lot more then three you mention. How about read or speak a language? Read someones mind? Telepathy? Telekinisis? Travel in Time? Plolymorph? Alter objects?
 

GMMichael

Guide of Modos
One thing's for sure, there's no equivalent to Replace King here. . . - but rewriting the universe so that everyone sees you as king and doesn't see any problem with that is too many details for a human mind to juggle.
Well, that should put the king at ease. Although, Replace King doesn't need to go as far as rewriting the universe; there are plenty of political operatives and think tanks today who will tell you that.

And the list of things is a lot more then three you mention. How about read or speak a language? Read someones mind? Telepathy? Telekinisis? Travel in Time? Plolymorph? Alter objects?
As you say - hundreds. But why does one wizard need to know all of them? That's like saying the barbarian needs to carry/own 27 axes with various cutting/cursing/damaging powers.
 

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