D&D General It's all Jack Vance's fault

niklinna

Legend
I was prompted to start a thread on this so here it is!

Jack Vance wrote entertaining fantasy stories that often highlighted odd societies with silly unworkable customs, and a stranger passing through who would just wreck their day by exploiting or undermining those customs. His stories also featured magic whose principles were long forgotten and perhaps nonexistent; whose effects were often crazily powerful, idiosyncratic, and specific; and which were so taxing to use that, once cast, they erased themselves from the caster's memory. In other words, his magic was as silly and unworkable as the customs of those societies.

Out of all the kinds of magic in fantasy literature, that's what got chosen as the way magic works in Dungeons & Dragons, and by extension a large amount of other roleplaying games. Some games did things differently, offering general spells that could be customized with details, or laying out principles by which spells could be constructed from scratch in the course of play (sometimes even on the spot), but those models never eclipsed the arbitrary formulary of very specific spells.

Now, people who actually practice magic(k) do follow some general principles or laws, which have been recognized by practitioners and anthropologists for quite a while. Isaac Bonewits wrote a little book called Authentic Thaumaturgy that tried to apply such things to magic in roleplaying games, and Sørensen's A Cognitive Theory of Magic* is quite an interesting read. But many traditional approaches to magic do not lay that stuff out explicitly and instead have a collection of spells or rituals handed down from "time immemorial". Those traditions generally don't involve slinging fireballs around, but still.

And then there's the viewpoint that magic is somehow contrary to science, so using laws and principles to describe or adjudicate magic goes against that. The mystery of it all must be maintained! (Except when balance is an issue.) Some witches in folklore could kill with a glance, no need for a fireball—but clearly they must have been very high-level witches. And rupturing a vital artery, while taking much less energy than even a basic magic missile could be expected to, is ever so much less magical. (Also hit points aren't meat.)

Coming back to Vance—whose fault it all isn't, of course; it's just a consequence, of the choice of a certain pair of guys who adopted his fictional magic system for their hugely-influential game—it's curious to look at that fictional magic system, devised in and for a context of the exotic and absurd, and consider the huge influence it's had. It's also curious to see how the system has been adjusted with each passing edition. Spells no longer erase themselves from memory, for example.

Well, that's only five paragraphs but there's a lot of launchpoints in there. What do you think about Jack Vance'd Dying World, and its magic? What do you think about how it's influenced roleplaying games? What do you think about how it was adopted, and how it was changed over the years? What do you think about conceptions of magic between real-world practitioners, anthropologists/folklorists/storytellers, and gamers?

* Note: If you find that title interesting, be aware that you first need to read The Way We Think: Conceptual Blending And The Mind's Hidden Complexities, by Fauconnier & Turner.

Edit: Minor clarification.
 
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Dioltach

Legend
I haven't got very far in my reading of Jack Vance's fantasy (I've much more of his sci-fi, which I enjoy more). But I always got the impression that the magic spells were like living entities, or spirits, that the characters chose to bring along like weapons or equipment.

Which might make for an interesting take on D&D magic, now that I think of it.
 

niklinna

Legend
I haven't got very far in my reading of Jack Vance's fantasy (I've much more of his sci-fi, which I enjoy more). But I always got the impression that the magic spells were like living entities, or spirits, that the characters chose to bring along like weapons or equipment.

Which might make for an interesting take on D&D magic, now that I think of it.
I think his later Dying Earth stories expanded on what we know as "Vancian magic" and had wizards compelling demons and such to do things for them. I haven't read those ones yet. But even some of the "classical" spells summoned demons to haul people long distances and such.
 


So can we take away from this that the fundamental components of Vance you are discussing to be...
  1. That each spell is affixed in the mind ahead of time, and once cast, is lost from this rather limited reservoir, and (perhaps more importantly)...
  2. That each spell is a rather specific, relatively well defined set of outcomes. There isn't a systematic theory about what is and isn't in-bounds for magic per se, just that there is this spell and it does ABC and this other spell and it does XYZ and effect LMNO seems less powerful than either of them and thematically fits what magic has been shown to do, but since no one knows spell LMNO it effectively doesn't exist.
Is that somewhat close?


FWIW, and to clarify-- Vance was apparently Gary's darling. He changed Arneson's magic system (which IIRC was more about preparing reagents and might have ended up with each spell being like a one-use magic item) to the 'Vancian' system (which honestly always deviated from Vance quite a bit. Particularly in that with Vance even the highest echelons of magic users wouldn't have dozens of spells prepared at once). He also supposedly resisted Dr. J. Eric Holmes suggestion of converting it to a spell-point system for the Holmes Basic edition.
 


fuindordm

Explorer
I seem to remember Gary Gygax explaining his decision to incorporate "Vancian" magic in a Dragon column. To paraphrase (with all suitable caveats), he thought it would be more interesting play if wizards had powerful spells even at low levels, but had to choose carefully when to use them, rather than giving them a weaker form of magic that they could use most of the time.

Personally, I appreciate the rationale, and I think that "Vancian" casting is one ingredient in the secret sauce of D&D. However, in the end GG was wishy-washy about the idea that even low-level spells should be powerful and interesting, so we ended up with a list of 1st level spells that includes some powerful or unusual options worthy of the Dying Earth (sleep, floating disc) and others that are barely better than cantrips (affect normal fires).

It's a tough balancing act, but in the end when I play a game with always-on, all-day magicians, it doesn't feel much like D&D!
 


Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
..., but those models never eclipsed the arbitrary formulary of very specific spells.

And understandably so. Very specific spells are a much easier to balance as a game design element than freeform working. Not that they did so terribly well early on, but the point remains regardless.

This can be seen when you get to one of the earlier forms of game-magic that stepped away from specific spells - Mage: The Ascension. The game has no set spells, but left GMs to fend for themselves in applying the logic of the system, leading to the semi-apocryphal issue of turning powerful vampires into lawn chairs via a very simple magical working and a twist of logic.
 

RealAlHazred

Frumious Flumph
Vance actually explains his magic system in the foreword to Rhialto the Marvellous. A spell, in Vancian magic, is a series of words, thoughts, and actions that attract a response from a supernatural entity that can sense them. These entities aren't necessarily intelligent, or even sentient. They range in power from minor madlings, through the quarrelsome sandestins, to the lesser daihaks. Temuchin classified the daihaks as a category including both 'demons' and 'gods.' When the magician constrains a spell in memory, the words in the brain throb with energy; this is the entity noticing that the first part of the operation has been completed. When the caster releases the spell, the entity performs whatever action the spell was related to, perhaps infusing an area with fire or a deluge of acid, or perhaps it merely removes carbon dioxide from the caster's lungs and replaces it with oxygen.

Each spell is different and precise. You can no more "modify" Rhialto's Green Turmoil to produce fire, than I can suddenly turn my sweat into drops of gold. Experimentation is fraught with dangers; while many of the more popular spells call on entities with the mental power of plankton, more potent entities can provide more potent effects, and are generally more mischievous and unreliable.

As a result, the most powerful magicians reduce their reliance on spells in favor of direct control of the supernatural entities in question. Different methods are required for each entity, and many remain unknown; Temuchin's disappearance (and the sudden reappearance of different body parts identified as coming from his still-living body, that have appeared in myriad places in the thousands of years since then) is believed to have been caused by his experiments regarding control of the daihaks. Most sorcerers prefer to use sandestins, who can be controlled by the use of chugs*, although not often with perfect success.

* chug: a semi-intelligent type of sandestin, which by a system too intricate to be presently detailed, works to control the sandestins. Even use of the word 'chug' is repellant to the sandestins.
 



James Gasik

Legend
Supporter
So can we take away from this that the fundamental components of Vance you are discussing to be...
  1. That each spell is affixed in the mind ahead of time, and once cast, is lost from this rather limited reservoir, and (perhaps more importantly)...
  2. That each spell is a rather specific, relatively well defined set of outcomes. There isn't a systematic theory about what is and isn't in-bounds for magic per se, just that there is this spell and it does ABC and this other spell and it does XYZ and effect LMNO seems less powerful than either of them and thematically fits what magic has been shown to do, but since no one knows spell LMNO it effectively doesn't exist.
Is that somewhat close?


FWIW, and to clarify-- Vance was apparently Gary's darling. He changed Arneson's magic system (which IIRC was more about preparing reagents and might have ended up with each spell being like a one-use magic item) to the 'Vancian' system (which honestly always deviated from Vance quite a bit. Particularly in that with Vance even the highest echelons of magic users wouldn't have dozens of spells prepared at once). He also supposedly resisted Dr. J. Eric Holmes suggestion of converting it to a spell-point system for the Holmes Basic edition.
I wasn't familiar with Arneson's magic system, it sounds like how magic worked in the Ultima games (4 and after).
 

RealAlHazred

Frumious Flumph
One of the things I really liked about Vance's system was specificity. I would have magic-user players tell me, "I'm memorizing three burning hands today." And I'd say, "Okay, Jabberwocky's a short poem. I want you to memorize Jabberwocky before next session, but I want you to memorize it twice, in different parts of your brain." I got the point across. It encouraged caster players to find similar spells with slightly different effects that were nevertheless different spells. It only works if the GM actively makes sure there are alternatives that can be found.
 

James Gasik

Legend
Supporter
One of the things I really liked about Vance's system was specificity. I would have magic-user players tell me, "I'm memorizing three burning hands today." And I'd say, "Okay, Jabberwocky's a short poem. I want you to memorize Jabberwocky before next session, but I want you to memorize it twice, in different parts of your brain." I got the point across. It encouraged caster players to find similar spells with slightly different effects that were nevertheless different spells. It only works if the GM actively makes sure there are alternatives that can be found.
Or that the alternatives can roughly fill the same role. A guy who wants burning hands x3 either needs an AoE to deal with multiple foes, or needs a source of fire damage. Telling someone they can't memorize burning hands more than once unless they have access to another AoE or fire damage spell is kind of like telling an archer he can only have one arrow; if he wants more ranged attacks, he should carry around a dagger, a dart, a javelin, and a crossbow.
 

One thing to note: Vancian magic as used in DnD has some helpful balancing effects - specifically, you're forced to spread out your power budget on a mix of different level spells (well, after 5th level or so). You can't just save up your points and only cast fireball. This is a good thing, and most spell point variant rules either end up being overtuned because the caster can always fire on full automatic (well, with a 5-minute work day but they're heavily incentivized to do that) - or they try to recreate this with additional limitations on high-level spells but those rules always seem kludgy.

It's not the only way to get the result... but it does get at least one positive result.
 

Charlaquin

Goblin Queen (She/Her/Hers)
I seem to remember Gary Gygax explaining his decision to incorporate "Vancian" magic in a Dragon column. To paraphrase (with all suitable caveats), he thought it would be more interesting play if wizards had powerful spells even at low levels, but had to choose carefully when to use them, rather than giving them a weaker form of magic that they could use most of the time.

Personally, I appreciate the rationale, and I think that "Vancian" casting is one ingredient in the secret sauce of D&D. However, in the end GG was wishy-washy about the idea that even low-level spells should be powerful and interesting, so we ended up with a list of 1st level spells that includes some powerful or unusual options worthy of the Dying Earth (sleep, floating disc) and others that are barely better than cantrips (affect normal fires).

It's a tough balancing act, but in the end when I play a game with always-on, all-day magicians, it doesn't feel much like D&D!
I seem to recall reading somewhere that he chose “Vancian” style to limit the potential flexibility of magic. Though I don’t recall where.
 

RealAlHazred

Frumious Flumph
Or that the alternatives can roughly fill the same role. A guy who wants burning hands x3 either needs an AoE to deal with multiple foes, or needs a source of fire damage. Telling someone they can't memorize burning hands more than once unless they have access to another AoE or fire damage spell is kind of like telling an archer he can only have one arrow; if he wants more ranged attacks, he should carry around a dagger, a dart, a javelin, and a crossbow.
Not quite the same. The archer's arrows are physical items, and if you actually looked at each arrow, I bet you'd find they're not 100% identical to each other -- at the very least, they are made of different pieces of wood, metal, etc. For the example to work, the archer character would need to tell me he wants to fill his quiver with 20 identical arrows, made from the same one arrowhead and the same one shaft of wood, and the same three feathers. If you memorize Jabberwocky, you are using neurons to store that information; memorizing it more than once would require using different neurons, which humans are generally not capable of distinguishing to that degree...

EDIT: Also, it generally acted as a minor limiter on the power of magic-users, who became far too powerful late-game anyway.
 

Charlaquin

Goblin Queen (She/Her/Hers)
And understandably so. Very specific spells are a much easier to balance as a game design element than freeform working. Not that they did so terribly well early on, but the point remains regardless.

This can be seen when you get to one of the earlier forms of game-magic that stepped away from specific spells - Mage: The Ascension. The game has no set spells, but left GMs to fend for themselves in applying the logic of the system, leading to the semi-apocryphal issue of turning powerful vampires into lawn chairs via a very simple magical working and a twist of logic.
To be fair, Ascension’s system was intentionally both very powerful and very flexible. The horror of mage is of the “no one should wield such power” variety, so being able to do absurd things is very much on-theme. Basically, WoD in general and Mage in particular are not really aiming for game balance in the first place.
 

nevin

Hero
I think his later Dying Earth stories expanded on what we know as "Vancian magic" and had wizards compelling demons and such to do things for them. I haven't read those ones yet. But even some of the "classical" spells summoned demons to haul people long distances and such.
Yep, also brought us ioun stones and the infamous timestop scene which was fabulously written.
 

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