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

Tales and Chronicles

Jewel of the North, formerly know as vincegetorix
Having read Vance fairly recently, it strikes me how idiosyncratic and bizarre the "magic" system he picked was. It's a very odd approach, one that's completely at odds with virtually every take on magic in mythology, and almost more like super-science than "magic" as we know it.

The equivalent would be, I think, if say, D&D was created today, and the creators decided to model the "magic" system on Brandon Sanderson's Mistborn series. It's a wildly idiosyncratic take, has no real connection to mythology, and in that case resembles superpowers more than "magic".

I don't really believe they particularly "thought it through", either. I think they just grabbed a system which was easy to implement and which they were fans of. Implementing something like a more Earthsea-esque take on magic would require a whole entire approach to rules-making which didn't even really exist at the time.

As for the influence on other RPGs and fantasy videogames and so on, I think it's been curiously limited. You can really split them into two groups - those directly emulating D&D, which often have Vancian systems, and those not emulating D&D, where close-to-none have Vancian systems. In videogames literally only D&D/Pathfinder games have Vancian systems, and not even all of those!

The vast majority of other games, tabletop top or video, go for spell-point-type systems, where spell-points can come back either extremely quickly or extremely slowly, and where pool depth varies greatly as well.

I think it's kind of weird and unhelpful that D&D has stuck to the system so tightly, and I also think that, if D&D did abandon Vancian magic, it would not meaningfully impair D&D's popularity, and would probably gradually and slightly increase it. People are obsessed with certain spells, but very few people actually care about the Vancian aspect. As 5E showed by moving hard away from "standard Vancian". Also D&D hasn't done a good job of emulating Vance, because D&D Wizards can cast dozens of spells, whereas Vance's ones often have like 1-6 spells memorized (and when they're used, they're gone, no more "using slots" on that spell). The only TTRPG I know which really does that is Worlds Without Number.


I mean, this is really only true of a very specific set of spell point rules.

Those that:

A) Are intended to be retrofitted directly to an existing edition of D&D.

and also

B) Are designed around a very deep, long-rest replenished spell-point pool.

If you design an RPG to use spell-points or another related mechanism from the outside, you don't get these problems. If you design a retrofit spell-point system that doesn't use a very deep, long-rest pool, but say a more shallow pool that replenishes on shorter rests or continually, you don't get the the same issues.

So it's completely solvable. As countless other RPGs show.

It's also of note that, in the early days of D&D, one of the most successful and long-running D&D variants used spell points (and a number of other "before-their-time" rules, like non-casters having actual defined abilities in a way not really seen until 4E/5E, well or Earthdawn I guess), and I think it's very easy to envision a timeline where, perhaps, that became the dominant style of D&D, and this conversation wouldn't even be happening.
Quite right.

There's also the solution to simply make the spell balanced and useful in certain specific situations. No more ''fireball is overtuned because its classic!'' nonsense. Of course if you use spell points and make some spells categorically better than other of the same group, you'll end up with casters spamming them with all their available spell points, never going close to using those points on lower level spells. Why use 6 spell points on a Tidal Wave when you can use the same amount of a Fireball?

The designers just to make spells mostly equal in power/usefulness with the others in their group/spell level and make upcasting better. A upcasted Burning Hand and a Fireball should be in the same ballpark, just not usable in the same situation!
 

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Oofta

Legend
So what are the options?
  • A complicated system to see if you can even cast a spell? So if you can crank up your odds of success (people will usually find loopholes) you can cast any spell you want? In addition, it's going to add extra time and overhead to play while simultaneously making it frustrating to play a caster.
  • Spell points or mana? That sounds great and it works well enough in video games. The problem is that it can be a lot of extra tracking and overhead. It also leads to weird situations where people can spam relatively powerful spells because they have enough mana to cast higher level spells.
  • Just describe what you are doing and let the GM figure out if it works? Sounds like a massive headache for the DM and incredibly inconsistent.
  • Something else?
 

Tales and Chronicles

Jewel of the North, formerly know as vincegetorix
So what are the options?
  • A complicated system to see if you can even cast a spell? So if you can crank up your odds of success (people will usually find loopholes) you can cast any spell you want? In addition, it's going to add extra time and overhead to play while simultaneously making it frustrating to play a caster.
  • Spell points or mana? That sounds great and it works well enough in video games. The problem is that it can be a lot of extra tracking and overhead. It also leads to weird situations where people can spam relatively powerful spells because they have enough mana to cast higher level spells.
  • Just describe what you are doing and let the GM figure out if it works? Sounds like a massive headache for the DM and incredibly inconsistent.
  • Something else?
Remove spells entirely and let magic come from charged items or consumables!
 


So what are the options?
  • A complicated system to see if you can even cast a spell? So if you can crank up your odds of success (people will usually find loopholes) you can cast any spell you want? In addition, it's going to add extra time and overhead to play while simultaneously making it frustrating to play a caster.
  • Spell points or mana? That sounds great and it works well enough in video games. The problem is that it can be a lot of extra tracking and overhead. It also leads to weird situations where people can spam relatively powerful spells because they have enough mana to cast higher level spells.
  • Just describe what you are doing and let the GM figure out if it works? Sounds like a massive headache for the DM and incredibly inconsistent.
  • Something else?
I mean, this is a weird question, because it's so easy to answer, because other RPGs exist. Here are some options from other RPGs:

1) A simple system where you know certain spells and make a relatively simple test to see if you can cast them. There's no need for it to be complicated, frustrating, or full of loopholes.

Good examples would be tons of PtbA games, including Dungeon World (which is a good illustration of how you don't really need Vancian to do a D&D-emulating game), the extremely well-designed "Resistance"-systems games like Spire and Heart, or even certain editions of Shadowrun (which is a nightmare of a game, but not because of the actual spell system). White Wolf games also often take this sort of approach.

2) A spell-point system that is designed in from the ground up. It doesn't need to require "a lot of extra tracking and overhead", and the problem re: "spam powerful spells" literally doesn't have to happen - just have a shallower pool that is easier to refresh.

You can absolutely create those problems - but that's a design choice. Neither is inherent to spell-point systems.

Vast numbers of games have taken this approach and experimented with all kinds of different pools.

3) Various games present systems which allow you to essentially create magical efforts on the fly, and don't require the DM to "figure out of it works", because they have a well-designed and well-explained system to support that.

This often works best in a magic-centric game, or one where all the PCs are casters, but arguably 3E and 5E also work best in that situation! Still, loads of games have done it well.

4) An actual Vancian system, like say, Worlds Without Number.

5) A system where you burn endurance or some other resource rather than spell points or slots.

6) Some combination of the above.

I mean, @Oofta, do you really want this answered, because we could just make a giant list of RPGs and go through their magic/magic-equivalent systems, and I think we'll find most of them are pretty functional, and whilst you might not think they're "better" than quasi-Vancian slot-based (which 5E uses), they're certainly workable, and some are outright impressive.
 


Oofta

Legend
I mean, this is a weird question, because it's so easy to answer, because other RPGs exist. Here are some options from other RPGs:

1) A simple system where you know certain spells and make a relatively simple test to see if you can cast them. There's no need for it to be complicated, frustrating, or full of loopholes.

Good examples would be tons of PtbA games, including Dungeon World, the extremely well-designed "Resistance"-systems games like Spire and Heart, or even certain editions of Shadowrun (which is a nightmare of a game, but not because of the actual spell system). White Wolf games also often take this sort of approach.

2) A spell-point system that is designed in from the ground up. It doesn't need to require "a lot of extra tracking and overhead", and the problem re: "spam powerful spells" literally doesn't have to happen - just have a shallower pool that is easier to refresh.

You can absolutely create those problems - but that's a design choice. Neither is inherent to spell-point systems.

Vast numbers of games have taken this approach and experimented with all kinds of different pools.

3) Various games present systems which allow you to essentially create magical efforts on the fly, and don't require the DM to "figure out of it works", because they have a well-designed and well-explained system to support that.

This often works best in a magic-centric game, or one where all the PCs are casters, but arguably 3E and 5E also work best in that situation! Still, loads of games have done it well.

4) An actual Vancian system, like say, Worlds Without Number.

5) A system where you burn endurance or some other resource rather than spell points or slots.

6) Some combination of the above.

I mean, @Oofta, do you really want this answered, because we could just make a giant list of RPGs and go through their magic/magic-equivalent systems, and I think we'll find most of them are pretty functional, and whilst you might not think they're "better" than quasi-Vancian slot-based (which 5E uses), they're certainly workable, and some are outright impressive.

But we still want it to follow the D&D style, right? Different systems have different goals, different options. It's water under the bridge now, D&D has it's own style and expectations.

Just saying "Game X does it better" doesn't really add much to the conversation. Believe it or not, many people do not have enough time or the options to get the equivalent of an undergraduate degree in game theory and design.
 

But we still want it to follow the D&D style, right? Different systems have different goals, different options. It's water under the bridge now, D&D has it's own style and expectations.

Just saying "Game X does it better" doesn't really add much to the conversation. Believe it or not, many people do not have enough time or the options to get the equivalent of an undergraduate degree in game theory and design.
What is "the D&D style" in this context?

You're asking "what are the alternatives to Vancian magic?". So if you're asking that in good faith, you presumably are willing to accept a non-Vancian system as being in "the D&D style", yes? Is the "D&D style" just being roughly compatible with existing D&D spell lists? Or is it something else?

But you listed a set of possibilities, and it's obvious from other games that those are very far from the only possibilities, and several things you seemed to think were inherent, are not.

As for "does it better", well I didn't really say that, did I? I think what I posted was a pretty helpful look at some other approaches, and I think you suggesting I'm not "adding to the conversation" is a bit odd, frankly. I'm saying "here are different approaches, many of them work well" (not all of them, to be sure!).

I do agree that I should probably have some kind of degree-equivalence though :) Then I could get some damn respect ;) (I am quite sure I would get none!)

EDIT - So if we assume in "the D&D style" means you cast mostly fire-and-forget spells, that are individual and well-defined, we could certainly adapt a system like Dungeon World, where you make a test when casting a spell, and get a result between you cast the spell and keep it, cast the spell and lose it, and just the spell fails. This is pretty different to D&D because it eliminates the biggest non-combat issue with spells - that being that they can't fail, they always succeed. Or we could adapt a spell-point system that didn't have the flaws you noted. Obviously we'd want to redesign D&D's spells a bit, but it wouldn't have to be drastic, fireball would still be fireball and so on (far less drastic than 4E, for example, perhaps less drastic than 2E to 3E).
 

Check out Spheres of Power, @Oofta. It started as an alternative to Vancian magic for Pathfinder that was meant to preserve the overall versatility and power of magic while reducing the individual versatility and power of any specific character. As you can surmise from the link, they adapted it for 5e, and I know multiple people who enjoy the 5e version thereof.

It is, technically, a "spell point" system...but one that works very, very differently from the way D&D magic works. It's closer to certain kinds of "rune magic," that is, each Talent you have within a Sphere is almost like a specific rune with a specific function.
 

Stormonu

Legend
If folks can track spell slots, I don't see the issue in tracking spell points, and I think the latter would be somewhat easier to track a single pool of points than X spells of Y slots.

I kinda wish Sorcerers were 100% spell point casters - it would make them more noticeably different than Wizards.
 

Oofta

Legend
What is "the D&D style" in this context?

You're asking "what are the alternatives to Vancian magic?". So if you're asking that in good faith, you presumably are willing to accept a non-Vancian system as being in "the D&D style", yes? Is the "D&D style" just being roughly compatible with existing D&D spell lists? Or is it something else?

But you listed a set of possibilities, and it's obvious from other games that those are very far from the only possibilities, and several things you seemed to think were inherent, are not.

As for "does it better", well I didn't really say that, did I? I think what I posted was a pretty helpful look at some other approaches, and I think you suggesting I'm not "adding to the conversation" is a bit odd, frankly. I'm saying "here are different approaches, many of them work well" (not all of them, to be sure!).

I do agree that I should probably have some kind of degree-equivalence though :) Then I could get some damn respect ;) (I am quite sure I would get none!)

EDIT - So if we assume in "the D&D style" means you cast mostly fire-and-forget spells, that are individual and well-defined, we could certainly adapt a system like Dungeon World, where you make a test when casting a spell, and get a result between you cast the spell and keep it, cast the spell and lose it, and just the spell fails. This is pretty different to D&D because it eliminates the biggest non-combat issue with spells - that being that they can't fail, they always succeed. Or we could adapt a spell-point system that didn't have the flaws you noted. Obviously we'd want to redesign D&D's spells a bit, but it wouldn't have to be drastic, fireball would still be fireball and so on (far less drastic than 4E, for example, perhaps less drastic than 2E to 3E).

By style I was just referring to the fact D&D has very effective but constrained magic that is useful in and out of combat. It's 100% reliable in that you can always cast the spell, the effectiveness of the spell is almost always based on the target not the target. So I don't see how a system to see if you can cast a spell is better than a wisdom save by the target to see if they're dominated is that much different. It feels like the 4E "caster rolls all the saves" which had it's own issues. Or maybe it's not at all the same because you don't explain.

Many, if not most people don't have the opportunity to play multiple different systems. If you're going to say "Game X does it better" explain how. If I were to say that a bubble sort is better than a merge sort for a particular operation that doesn't really tell you anything unless you know the technical terms and mechanics of sorting, right? Why would saying that "a spell point system designed from the ground up..." be helpful if you can't explain what that means or how it would be different from the spell point system option for the DMG?

Maybe it's asking too much to ask people to actually explain how such things would work.

EDIT: I admit this is kind of a pet peeve of mine. People saying some other system does something better (or different anyway) happens a lot. It's also meaningless to people that do not know those systems.
 

The issue with (most) spell point casters is that they get spamtastic - either dropping as many of their points as possible into high level high burst spells to finish combats ASAP or dropping them into low level spammable spells like Shield. Whichever way it works it gets spamtastic compared to spell slots.
 


By style I was just referring to the fact D&D has very effective but constrained magic that is useful in and out of combat. It's 100% reliable in that you can always cast the spell, the effectiveness of the spell is almost always based on the target not the target. So I don't see how a system to see if you can cast a spell is better than a wisdom save by the target to see if they're dominated is that much different. It feels like the 4E "caster rolls all the saves" which had it's own issues. Or maybe it's not at all the same because you don't explain.
I'm sorry, but I did explain. See below:
So if we assume in "the D&D style" means you cast mostly fire-and-forget spells, that are individual and well-defined, we could certainly adapt a system like Dungeon World, where you make a test when casting a spell, and get a result between you cast the spell and keep it, cast the spell and lose it, and just the spell fails. This is pretty different to D&D because it eliminates the biggest non-combat issue with spells - that being that they can't fail, they always succeed.
If you're going to say "Game X does it better" explain how.
Why would saying that "a spell point system designed from the ground up..." be helpful if you can't explain what that means or how it would be different from the spell point system option for the DMG?
So just to be clear, unless we explain an entire spell-point system, with examples, from the ground up, you're not interested? But it's okay for you to make a couple of flip assertions about spell-point systems, you don't need to do the same? Or am I misunderstanding? I'm hoping I'm misunderstanding.
If I were to say that a bubble sort is better than a merge sort for a particular operation that doesn't really tell you anything unless you know the technical terms and mechanics of sorting, right?
I mean, I'd know what you meant, and it's relatively easy to explain the difference. You seem to asking for rather more than that re: magic systems.

In broad terms, spell point systems have a lot of variables you can tweak.

1) How deep the pool is relative to the cost of the spells.

You could have a very deep pool, which is effectively same as all the maximum possible slots a caster of X level in D&D could cast right now, or could go for really any depth less than that. Going for the "full depth" is unlikely to be balanced, because realistically, most casters end the day with a lot of spells uncast, and the flexibility of pools needs to be accounted for.

2) How the spells are costed relative to their power. If you wanted D&D-style spells, you could choose a wide variety of different cost models.

3) How the spells work and scale.

4) How many spells you know/have access to.

5) When and how the pool refreshes. Does it refresh constantly? On a Short Rest? Every X hours? On a Long Rest? These all require different balancing/design concerns.

The issue we've seen typically in D&D is that most spell-point systems presented in official work are extremely low-effort things not intended to be used, and with apparently little/no effort being made to balance them. In professional 3PP products, a better job is sometimes done. Homebrew systems run the gamut, but most people homebrewing are indeed amateurs with little grasp on (and often little interest in) balance or preventing exploits, because they're intending to just house-rule out exploits.

If you want to be educated about TTRPG magic systems, we can do that, it's a lot of work but it can be done, but here's my issue with asking for that. In my experience, when a person asks to be educated about a certain thing, in a post, online, approximately 80% of the time, unless they're extremely positive, they either:

A) Just leave the thread, and never show any evidence of having read what they asked for.

or

B) Literally ignore the post(s) with all the information in, and just try to nitpick some unrelated point.

So essentially asking to educated tends to turn into a form of trolling. I'm not saying you're doing that or intend to do it, but I am leery of putting a lot of effort into in-depth explanations of magic systems because I've been burned this way before. It's often not entirely useless - often someone else finds value in it, but it is a little vexing.
The issue with (most) spell point casters is that they get spamtastic - either dropping as many of their points as possible into high level high burst spells to finish combats ASAP or dropping them into low level spammable spells like Shield. Whichever way it works it gets spamtastic compared to spell slots.
What spell point systems are you basing this assertion on? There are ones which have this flaw, but you can design shallower pools and steeper spell costs, or just redesign specific spells to prevent this being an issue.
 

RealAlHazred

Frumious Flumph
By two "levels" of spell you mean two categories, right? Since later on you explain spells do not have levels. So a wish is 1.5 levels of memorisation while an affect normal fires is 1 level.
Perhaps there are other requirements necessary to cast certain spells - INT score, class level...etc


And once cast, can they relearn them during a short rest?
By them not being "equal in power" the trick then comes into how casters acquire new spells.
In the document I made for my table, I call them "types" of spells. The only levels I refer to are class levels. Since there's no multiclassing, it means the word "levels" refers to just one thing on the character sheet, which is nice. And Vance doesn't generally do "dungeons," so I don't expect to need to refer to "dungeon levels." Really, TSR should have invested in a thesaurus.

Well, this is in OSE which doesn't do short rests. And OSE also generally doesn't have spells like wish and time stop -- in the core rules magic caps at 6th level spells.

And my system also doesn't have spells like wish, because that wasn't in Vance. It does have the Spell of Temporal Stasis (also called the hiatus) which freezes Material-plane corporeal creatures nearby in time, while the caster is able to move as normal; ghosts, and summoned creatures like demons and such, are able to move freely during this time. It's one of the formidable spells.
 

RealAlHazred

Frumious Flumph
The obvious retort would be "If I memorize Jabberwocky, and then recite it, it doesn't disappear from my memory. In fact, the act of reciting it will if anything solidify it in my memory, making it easier to remember and recite again without having to study it again. So it seems this is not analagous to this spell-casting system."
Sure, you might remember the words, but the charged power has been spent. Vance implies mental exercises and the like. It's like a super-Saiyan charging up a Kamehameha blast -- except it doesn't take multiple sessions where the only thing players are doing is standing around talking while the magic-user is starting to glow and grows his hair.
 

Runequest offered a brilliantly flexible, interesting, tactically nuanced magic system which didn't overshadow martial characters or relegate the usefulness of skills in 1977.

I'm astonished at the claims being levelled at magic point systems in 2022, and the willingness to make them without evidence of any kind, but while demanding evidence to the contrary. Standard hypocrisy.
 

RealAlHazred

Frumious Flumph
Back in the my college days, my DM had his own magic point system for AD&D 1E. I've lost touch with him, and tried to find where he got it from -- he was in the Navy, and a lot of his stuff was West Coast stuff, foreign to our East Coast ways.

From what I've been able to reconstruct from my character sheet and what I remember, only magic-users and illusionists used it -- divine spellcasters got their spells the normal way. Your arcane caster had a pool of spell points equal to his level, times his Intelligence, divided by a factor derived from his Intelligence. So, for instance, if you had an 18 Int, at 1st level you had 18 spell points -- 1 times 18 divided by 1 (the factor for an 18 Int). If you had a 17 Int, you had 8 spell points -- 1 times 17 divided by 2 (the factor for a 16-17 Int). Races and stats were rolled randomly, although you did get three rolls for race and got to pick one.

My character was a Gray Elf magic-user with a 19 Int. The factor for a 19 Int (which only NPCs and monsters were supposed to have) was 0.5. So, I started at 1st level with 38 spell points, breaking the game.

It cost you a number of spell points equal to the spell level to memorize a spell, and then it cost you a number of spell points equal to the character level you wanted to cast it at to cast the spell. So if I only wanted a single magic missile to hit somebody as a 5th level caster, I could just spend 1 spell point to cast magic missile at 1st level, I didn't have to spend 5 spell points each time. It was a nuanced system, because you would have to balance "Do I want to memorize all these spells?" versus "How much power do I need to reserve for later?"

Unless you broke the game at 1st level like I did. I even multiclassed as a druid for a truly powerful character...
 

What do you think about Jack Vance's Dying World, and its magic? What do you think about how it's influenced roleplaying games?

I've only read a couple of Dying Earth stories (not books) - they were idiosyncratic, and not my cup of tea particularly. The magic of the books is strange and unintuitive, which is fine.

But what D&D takes is not strange and unintuitive - it's a fire and forget system where the authors then took every magical thing they could think of and like diligent book-keepers assigned them a level and some components and a range and area of effect and packaged them up and stacked them on the supermarket shelves for purchase.

So petrification is no longer the preserve of the dreaded and mythical basilisk or medusa - it's in aisle 7. Need a wish? You don't need a genie in a lamp, you need aisle 18. You might need the stepladder. This, for me, is the worst aspect of the system - the spell list doesn't respect the uniqueness of myth, magic or legend, it commodifies it.

(And this, as an aside - may help explain its popularity. What the magic system represents isn't magic, it's consumerism).

I find the magic of Runequest, and later HeroWars and Burning Wheel - and in fact other systems which don't turn every last heroic, mythical or magical thing into a spell - to be more satisfying and evocative, even if people will tell me they were less commercially successful (yawn).
 
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Back in the my college days, my DM had his own magic point system for AD&D 1E. I've lost touch with him, and tried to find where he got it from -- he was in the Navy, and a lot of his stuff was West Coast stuff, foreign to our East Coast ways.

From what I've been able to reconstruct from my character sheet and what I remember, only magic-users and illusionists used it -- divine spellcasters got their spells the normal way. Your arcane caster had a pool of spell points equal to his level, times his Intelligence, divided by a factor derived from his Intelligence. So, for instance, if you had an 18 Int, at 1st level you had 18 spell points -- 1 times 18 divided by 1 (the factor for an 18 Int). If you had a 17 Int, you had 8 spell points -- 1 times 17 divided by 2 (the factor for a 16-17 Int). Races and stats were rolled randomly, although you did get three rolls for race and got to pick one.

My character was a Gray Elf magic-user with a 19 Int. The factor for a 19 Int (which only NPCs and monsters were supposed to have) was 0.5. So, I started at 1st level with 38 spell points, breaking the game.

It cost you a number of spell points equal to the spell level to memorize a spell, and then it cost you a number of spell points equal to the character level you wanted to cast it at to cast the spell. So if I only wanted a single magic missile to hit somebody as a 5th level caster, I could just spend 1 spell point to cast magic missile at 1st level, I didn't have to spend 5 spell points each time. It was a nuanced system, because you would have to balance "Do I want to memorize all these spells?" versus "How much power do I need to reserve for later?"

Unless you broke the game at 1st level like I did. I even multiclassed as a druid for a truly powerful character...
This sounds like it might be one of the versions "Caltech D&D" which I was referring to earlier, aka Warlock. I haven't been able to find a complete rules-set for it - ironically the link someone set up in 2012 to preserve the 2000 version of it is now dead.
 

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