TSR Jack Vance's Forgotten Contributions to D&D

Renowned and influential fantasy author Jack Vance passed away at the age of 96 on May 26, 2013, but his books were highly influential on several aspects of Dungeons & Dragons in more ways than just spellcasting.

Renowned and influential fantasy author Jack Vance passed away at the age of 96 on May 26, 2013, but his books were highly influential on several aspects of Dungeons & Dragons in more ways than just spellcasting.


Picture courtesy of Pixabay.​

Co-creator of D&D, Gary Gygax, explained Vance's enormous influence on D&D in "Jack Vance & the D&D Game":
When I began to add elements of fantasy to medieval miniatures wargames around 1969, of course the work of Jack Vance influenced what I did. Along with Robert E. Howard, de Camp & Pratt, A. Merritt. Michael Moorcock, Roger Zelazny, Poul Anderson, J.R.R. Tolkien, P.J. Farmer, Bram Stoker—and not a few others, including the fairy tales Brothers Grimm and Andrew Lang, and conventional mythologies—his writing was there in my memory. Happily so. What I devised was based on the fantastic creations of many previous writers, an amalgam of their imaginations and my own, and it was first published in 1971 as the CHAINMAIL Medieval Miniatures Rules, the “Fantasy Supplement” thereto. Not much later, in 1972, I wrote the first draft of what was later to become the first commercial Role-Playing Game, DUNGEONS & DRAGONS, published in January, 1974.

'Vancian' Magic

The most indelible mark Vance left on D&D was his spell system, which would come to be known as Vancian Magic. I described how Gygax chose his spell system in The Evolution of Fantasy Role-Playing Games:
The Dungeons & Dragons wizard is actually inspired by the wizards of Jack Vance's Dying Earth series. Gygax explained the four cardinal types of magic in literature: those systems which require long conjuration with much paraphernalia as visualized by Shakespeare in Macbeth and Robert E. Howard in Conan, those which require short spoken spells (like Jack Vance's Dying Earth series), ultra-powerful magic typical of DeCamp and Pratt in the "Harold Shea" stories, and "generally weak and relatively ineffectual magic (as found in J.R.R. Tolkien's work)." Taking into account the need for speed and balance, Gygax chose the most expedient form of spell casting, Vancian magic.
Jon Peterson explains in further detail in Playing at the World:
This concept has a significant grounding in fantasy literature, most importantly in the Dying Earth novels of Jack Vance; Turjan of Miir, the subject (and title) of the first story in The Dying Earth possesses "librams setting forh the syllables of a hunded powerful spells, so cogen that Turjan's brain could know but four at a time." Thus, Turjan presumably makes a decision at any given moment as to which four spells, out of the hundred he might choose, he will have memorized. In Vance's Eyes of the Overworld, the untutored rascal Cugel the Clever raided the library of the great wizard Iucounu, where he managed to "encompass a few of the most simple and primitive spells," although "for Cugel, attaining even a single spell was a task of extraordinary difficulty."
Speaking of Cugel...

Thief Class

Vance was also influential in helping shape the nature of the Dungeons & Dragons-style thief. It all started when a dwarf tried to pick a lock with a dagger, according Shannon Appelcline in Designers & Dragons: Platinum Appendix:
The solution to this dilemma was a thief class inspired by J.R.R. Tolkien’s Bilbo Baggins and Jack Vance’s Cugel the Clever. It was something that was rather shockingly missing from the original D&D game, which only included rules for clerics wizards, and fighting men. The thief class created by Wagner and the rest of the Auranian crew was a bit different from what would soon appear in OD&D and AD&D (1977–1979): its skills were designed like magic-user spells; a character got new skills with names like “pick locks,” “find traps,” and “disarm traps” as he went up in level. A player didn’t roll against these skills, but thieves did need higher-level versions of them to do more difficult things. Otherwise, the thief was built using the basic foundation of the cleric class.
Peterson shares how the Thief class came to be on his blog, inspired by a fan's conversation with Gygax:
He adopted the idea from a fan who he spoke to over the phone; he gives the name here as Gary Schweitzer, but most likely he meant Gary Switzer, who played with the Aero Hobbies crowd in Santa Monica, California (see Section 5.2 of Playing at the World for a bit more context about Switzer).
Appelcline puts this historic call in context:
This might seem a minor thing in the modern day, but in 1974 communication across the country was much more costly. If Switzer talked to Gygax for 10 minutes, he easily could have run up a bill of $20–40 ($100–200 in 2014 dollars). Nonetheless, Switzer was eager to talk to the creator of this strange new Dungeons & Dragons game — and along the way he discussed the thief class that the Aurania gang was working on. Gygax was excited about the idea. He quickly reconstructed his own version of the class based on the bits and pieces that Switzer shared. Gygax similarly took inspiration from Jack Vance’s Cugel the Clever, but added in Roger Zelazny’s Jack of Shadows. This consistent use of Jack Vance as the source for D&D’s thief is notable; people usually talk about the Vancian magic of D&D, but Vancian skullduggery is no less important.
The thief has some elements that seem out of context with a traditional sneaky (and presumably uneducated) rogue, like the ability to use magic items and read scrolls, but placed in the proper fantasy setting, that of Cugel the Clever in the Dying Earth setting.

Ioun Stones

Gygax explained how Vance gave permission to use his ioun stones in the game:
Anyway, later on when I got in touch about the Ioun Stones, permission was graciously given, and so a new and unique set of magical items was added to the AD&D game. Indeed, what mage did not long for those 14 different colors and shapes to be circling his head? Mordenkainen, my own chief spellcaster PC, went on many a harrowing expedition searching for them, eventually wound up with an even dozen. What did the creator of the concept for these marvelous magical stones ask in return for adding them to the game? Only what I was planning to do in any event, mention his books in the work. Not only is Jack Vance a great author, but he is a very nice guy too.
Jonathan Drain further explains in "The History of the Ioun Stone":
There’s a surprising amount of background story to the ioun stone. The ioun stone actually predates Dungeons & Dragons, appearing in Jack Vance’s 1973 short story “Morreion”. Vance’s works had a major influence on D&D and the ioun stone made its way into Dungeons & Dragons through The Strategic Review, TSR’s gaming magazine.


Bart Carroll & Steve Winter explained in their D&D Alumni column the true origin of Vecna, an infamous lich who would become a deity in Dungeons & Dragons:
While Vecna's first iteration was solely through his eye and hand (all that remained of him after being destroyed in battle), he progressed throughout the editions from arch-lich all the way to god of undeath. But why, it must be asked, did his eye and hand remain? Something of his story, no doubt, owes to the game’s literary influences (not to mention his very name, anagram of Jack Vance). The Eye and Hand of Vecna owe much of their inspiration to Michael Moorcock's first trilogy of short novels on the eternal hero Corum: The Knight of the Swords, The Queen of the Swords, and The King of the Swords. Corum is the last survivor of his race, a vaguely elf/sidhe-like people who were hunted down and butchered by the humans. Corum himself is captured by humans, whose idea of fun is gouging out his left eye and chopping off his left hand. Corum escapes before they can finish him off and survives with the help of a different (and much kinder) group of humans.
And now you know Vecna's secret: "Vecna" is an anagram of "Vance".

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Michael Tresca

Michael Tresca


These are not forgotten contributions.
I wasn't sure what to expect when I followed the link from the front page. I knew of all these Vancian influence - although I think the thief class, and its ability to use scrolls (not other magic items until 3E), is also influenced by Leiber's Grey Mouser.

The new bit of information for me was the Morcockian influence on the Eye and Hand of Vecna.


I knew about Vance's contribution to magic but the other details I didn't know. Cool stuff.

A few years back I tried getting into the Dying Earth stories but had a difficult time. I found the writing to be very flowery and just didn't grab me. Just not my style I guess.

I think it's fair to say that the influence of Vance (along with Leiber and Tolkien) on D&D is massive. One thing I'd add is that Vance's characters also are an influence on the sort of self-interested, greedy, and amoral play seen in certain styles of PCs. Of course, Cugel is rarely better off for it, continually ending up in predicament after predicament.

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