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.


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 fan; 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.
Vecna

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".
 
Last edited:
Michael Tresca

Comments

billd91

Hobbit on Quest
I have not read the Elric books, but I did enjoy Corum when I read them many, many years ago. For some reason I remember the hand being silver, almost like mercury - maybe a misrepresentation in a comic tainted my imagination.
If I remember correctly, Corum does get a silver replacement after the first trilogy when the Hand of Kwll is gone. So your memory is probably correct, just displaced a bit in the chronology.
 

Aaron L

Adventurer
Yeah the Eye/Hand does seem more Corum than Elric, especially with the Vance -Vecna link being so referential. I’m wondering if the Elric link is legit or just speculative.
Considering the similarities between the Hand and Eye of Vecna and the Hand of Kwll and Eye of Rhynn, I am quite certain that were fully intended as an homage to the Corum stories. It would just be far too much of a coincidence to be otherwise, and Gygax was quite free with his borrowings, adaptations, and homages to various magic items from the stories he listed in Appendix N. :)

Actually, I am quite certain that this was one of the reasons why Gygax included Appendix N in the first place, so that AD&D players could go back and the read the original inspirations for the various magic items, so as to better understand the original circumstances and context from which the items originated. I actually think that is an extremely important element of RPG gaming that is usually just absent today: for players to go back to read and understand the original sources and context of many D&Disms, which for far too many D&D players today are nothing more than game elements divorced from any connection to earlier stories and/or real world mythologies. I've written before about how way too many D&D players today don't have any understanding of the origins of most D&Disms and game concepts, such as how the concept of Bardic Colleges and Schools of Magic are completely misunderstood by a great many of today's D&D players (and even by a lot of today's D&D writers!) as being actual physical learning institutions, because of the confusion between the modern use of the words School and College as institutions of learning, and the actually intended classical use of the words as collection, association, and grouping. College, as its use in the term Bardic College, has nothing to do with the modern colloquial use of the word College to mean an institute of higher learning (a term that is actually misused and misunderstood by a lot of people) but rather actually means an association of like-minded people (as in a group of colleagues.) And the word school in School of Magic also does not mean a place of learning, but instead means a collection of similar spells, as in a school of fish. A School of Thought isn't a place where students go to learn how to think, it's a particular way of thinking shared by a group of like-minded people. The term old school doesn't mean an old building used to teach students, it means an older, more traditional paradigm of thought. A Bardic College isn't an institution of learning where Bards go to study the skills of their profession, a Bardic College is an association of like-minded professional Bardic colleagues who share a similar mindset and approach to the Bardic arts (an association which could establish their own academy to teach their own Bardic tradition.) This lack of familiarity with the source material, and the resulting lack of basic understanding behind the original intended meaning of many of the terms, phrases, and concepts used in the game, leaves too many D&D players today with a completely distorted view of what these terms and concepts even mean on a fundamental level.

It would be like if D&D players had no idea that the Cleric class was derived from religious knights like the Knights Templar, but instead thought the term Cleric was derived from clerical work(!) and that the Cleric class was all about accountants and book-keepers! (The terms actually do share origins, as medieval Clerics were some of the only literate people around and so did a lot of record-keeping and clerical work, but the current separate meanings diverged centuries ago.) Or if players thought that casting a magic Spell meant literally spelling out the words! These kinds of misunderstandings may seem ridiculous to some, but are they really any more ridiculous than the widespread misunderstanding of two different terms that actually mean a collection of colleagues and a grouping of similar things to instead both mean an institution of learning? I certainly don't think so. (And seriously, the fact that actual authors of D&D books had such a fundamental lack of understanding of the term Bardic College (or just College in and of itself) so badly that they thought it meant "a place where Bards go to school" is really pretty awful.) Just look up the original Roman use of "school" and "college" and you'll find everything from scholarly associations to warrior societies, and other really interesting things.

But to get back on track; considering the way that Artifacts were presented in 1st Edition AD&D with the powers of each Artifact being determined separately for each campaign via the Dungeon Master choosing a selection of powers for each Artifact from Tables I-VI, the DM could have actually shaped his Hand and Eye of Vecna to somewhat closely emulate the abilities of the original Hand of Kwll and Eye of Rhynn by choosing such abilities from the Table V: Prime Powers as Cacodemon; Gate; Summon 1 of Each Type of Elemental; Summon Djinn or Efreet Lord; and/or Monster Summoning VIII. This would have allowed that campaign's version of the Eye of Vecna to see deep into the Planes of Existence, and the corresponding Hand to reach through and pull in a selected creature to serve the holder of the Artifacts. That would have been a pretty cool ability for the Hand and Eye, and a nice homage to the original story versions of the items :)
 

cbwjm

I can add a custom title.
That depends. I was only aware about the Vancian spell casting relationship, so someone forgot to tell me about the rest of them. The title works for me!
Same with me. When I first read the title I thought "no one has forgotten about vancian magic." but I had no idea about all the other contributions his writing inspired. Vecna being an anagram of Jack Vance's last name is a nice touch.
 

billd91

Hobbit on Quest
I've written before about how way too many D&D players today don't have any understanding of the origins of most D&Disms and game concepts, such as how the concept of Bardic Colleges and Schools of Magic are completely misunderstood by a great many of today's D&D players (and even by a lot of today's D&D writers!) as being actual physical learning institutions, because of the confusion between the modern use of the words School and College as institutions of learning, and the actually intended classical use of the words as collection, association, and grouping. College, as its use in the term Bardic College, has nothing to do with the modern colloquial use of the word College to mean an institute of higher learning (a term that is actually misused and misunderstood by a lot of people) but rather actually means an association of like-minded people (as in a group of colleagues.)
A bard college is a group of colleagues, but its origin from 1e actually does point to an educating institution and not merely a group of like-minded people. 1e bards needed to pay tuition to their colleges when gaining levels and spend time with their instructor (a druid). It ultimately feels a bit more like a fraternal organization or guild than an actual institute of higher education, but any association with the modern usage of college is perfectly understandable.
 

pemerton

Legend
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.
I think it's that second bit that D&D has often struggled with - what, in Vance, is either a light morality tale or ironic hijinks becomes superserious mercenary play in the spirit of Advanced Squad Leader.

I don't know Vance's work terribly well, but I think it's the Turjan stories that are closer in feel to serious, dungeon-beating D&D play.
 
I think it's that second bit that D&D has often struggled with - what, in Vance, is either a light morality tale or ironic hijinks becomes superserious mercenary play in the spirit of Advanced Squad Leader.

I don't know Vance's work terribly well, but I think it's the Turjan stories that are closer in feel to serious, dungeon-beating D&D play.
The first roleplayers were wargamers. Their impact on what D&D is should never be underestimated.
 

pemerton

Legend
The first roleplayers were wargamers. Their impact on what D&D is should never be underestimated.
Sure. I'm not questioning that. But keeping it in mind is important when we consider whether or not D&D can replicate the experience or feel of REH Conan, Vance, etc. Precisely because of those wargaming origins/influences I think it sometimes has trouble.

A parallel in another early RPG is Classsic Traveller. Zero chance of doing Star Wars in that system, even if you write up stats for all the tropes (like light sabres, blasters, X-Wings, etc).
 
Though Vance's tone can be light and airy, there's some terrible stuff going on. As mentioned before, Cugel is a terrible person that does some awful things.

I think it's important to include elements of humor and whimsy in the game. Though there's a place for adventurers with a "thousand-yard infravision stare" (to quote Labyrinth Lord), having some modulation in tone is a good thing.

I think it's that second bit that D&D has often struggled with - what, in Vance, is either a light morality tale or ironic hijinks becomes superserious mercenary play in the spirit of Advanced Squad Leader.

I don't know Vance's work terribly well, but I think it's the Turjan stories that are closer in feel to serious, dungeon-beating D&D play.
 
Sure. I'm not questioning that. But keeping it in mind is important when we consider whether or not D&D can replicate the experience or feel of REH Conan, Vance, etc. Precisely because of those wargaming origins/influences I think it sometimes has trouble.

A parallel in another early RPG is Classsic Traveller. Zero chance of doing Star Wars in that system, even if you write up stats for all the tropes (like light sabres, blasters, X-Wings, etc).
5E is an interesting version of the game in that while it is itself a good game, with a lot of elements that make it fun to play, it isn't terribly good at emulating either the gritty, deadly versions of the game (1E) or the super-complicated, granular versions (3.x). It makes a really great modern 0E, 2E or BECMI, though.
 

Maxperson

Morkus from Orkus
The new bit of information for me was the Morcockian influence on the Eye and Hand of Vecna.
I didn't KNOW this, but I assumed it. I've read the Corum books and he eventually gets the Eye of Rhynn and Hand of Kwll put on and they have powers relating to undeath. I figured it had an influence.
 

lowkey13

I'm sorry, Dave. I'm afraid I can't do that.
5E is an interesting version of the game in that while it is itself a good game, with a lot of elements that make it fun to play, it isn't terribly good at emulating either the gritty, deadly versions of the game (1E) or the super-complicated, granular versions (3.x). It makes a really great modern 0E, 2E or BECMI, though.
Hmm.

I would say that OD&D is deadlier than AD&D (1e). By quite a bit.

IMO, 5e is ... fine ... when it comes to 1e and B/X (or BECMI). I can run those modules in 5e "on the fly" - something that isn't very hard if you have some knowledge of 1e and 5e, and have run 1e a lot.

Whereas I don't think it would be nearly as easy to run 3e or 4e modules on the fly- you'd have to do more prep work in advance.

But, yeah, 5e (without adjusting the settings) can easily often function as 1e / 2e / B/X in, um, easy mode.
 

dave2008

Legend
5E is an interesting version of the game in that while it is itself a good game, with a lot of elements that make it fun to play, it isn't terribly good at emulating either the gritty, deadly versions of the game (1E) or the super-complicated, granular versions (3.x). It makes a really great modern 0E, 2E or BECMI, though.
I disagree that it can't do gritty/deadly (and fairly easily), depending on your definition of gritty. However, there is almost no way to add emulate the granular nature of 3e/PF. The closet we can get is if they add all the feat and alternate feature UA material.
 
Sure. I'm not questioning that. But keeping it in mind is important when we consider whether or not D&D can replicate the experience or feel of REH Conan, Vance, etc. Precisely because of those wargaming origins/influences I think it sometimes has trouble.
I'm not sure it really tried that hard. The impression I've always gotten from D&D was that it wasn't trying to emulate the sub-genres it pulled from, which included science-fiction and horror as well as fantasy & mythology, but to subvert the tropes of those genres and "do it right." That is, if you've got some immortal (or/and amoral) quasi-human wielding barely-limited (barely defined, but extrapolated from what's displayed in a pseudo-scientific way) supernatural power, he should mop the floor with the inadequately dressed primitive screwheads who are just swinging swords around. Like, every time.
(Someone posted a link to a shortstory, the 7th Geas or something, that well, had Geas working something like D&D, but also subverted the genre in that same way, with the stereotypical heroic warrior batted about like a trivial plaything by supernatural beings.)

But that's just Garthanos's "revenge of the nerds" theory, again. ;)

A parallel in another early RPG is Classsic Traveller. Zero chance of doing Star Wars in that system, even if you write up stats for all the tropes (like light sabres, blasters, X-Wings, etc).
Interesting digression about that. As a dumb kid who'd been into Star Trek and Star Wars (and Space:1999 among other things, but the key is, movies & TV), I was quite at a loss with Traveler. Why were interstellar civilizations using machine guns instead of ray guns? Why were computers so huge?
...then I read H. Beam Piper's Space Vikings, and found out there was a lot of other stuff like it out there. A whole sci-fi sub-genre I'd been ignorant of. Really, kinda a huge one, just mostly literary (OK pulp, whatever, stuff y'read rather than watch). Did Traveler have something like D&D's appendix N, with Piper, EE Doc Smith, Asimov, Goulart, Harrison, Dickson, and others from the 30's through the 60s, stopping abruptly right before the New Wave? It might've helped.
 

pemerton

Legend
Interesting digression about that. As a dumb kid who'd been into Star Trek and Star Wars (and Space:1999 among other things, but the key is, movies & TV), I was quite at a loss with Traveler. Why were interstellar civilizations using machine guns instead of ray guns? Why were computers so huge?
Ditto to all this. (Though maybe I wasn't a dumb kid!)

Did Traveler have something like D&D's appendix N
No - at least not in the core books, or even the early supplements as far as I know. I've just yesterday or the day before downloaded the first 24 episodes of Journal of the Travellers' Aid Society, so maybe there is stuff in there but so far I haven't read much of them (though I did find an essay justifying the inclusion of hand-to-hand combat and the prevalence of regular guns over ray guns).

I still don't know any of the books you mention, though I am aware that there is a literature that Traveller draws on. Also some series involving a guy who fights in an arena - I'm going to look it up in the White Dwarf article that references it - OK, I'm back:, the character in the series is called Dumarest.

There is a brief book/pamphlet from GDW, from 1981 according to Wikipedia, called Understanding Traveller which asserts (p 4) that

Traveller, in the hands of a good referee, can duplicate any science fiction you have ever read or seen. Star Trek. Black Hole. Star Wars. Battle Star Galactica. Dune. Alien. Tron. Foundation. E.T. The Demon Princes. Or any situation that the players make up themselves.​

I think this is barely true for Star Trek, and not true at all for Star Wars, Dune, Tron or ET. I can't comment on BSG, Foundation or The Demon Princes. Based on my memory of the Black Hole it could perhaps do that (though it's weak on robots). And I know from my last session that it can do Alien.

When we started our current Traveller campaign we treated the rules as our starting point, and the setting they imply - with an imperial navy and marines, nobles, risky low beths, etc - was enough to get going.
 
I still don't know any of the books you mention, though I am aware that there is a literature that Traveller draws on. Also some series involving a guy who fights in an arena - I'm going to look it up in the White Dwarf article that references it - OK, I'm back:, the character in the series is called Dumarest.
Don't recognize that one.

There is a brief book/pamphlet from GDW, from 1981 according to Wikipedia, called Understanding Traveller which asserts (p 4) that

Traveller, in the hands of a good referee, can duplicate any science fiction you have ever read or seen. Star Trek. Black Hole. Star Wars. Battle Star Galactica. Dune. Alien. Tron. Foundation. E.T. The Demon Princes. Or any situation that the players make up themselves.​
That's all on the "good referee" (kinda charming, seeing 'referee' actually).
Just like D&D or most any 70s TTRPG.
 

pemerton

Legend
Don't recognize that one.
I don't know it outside of the reference in the Traveller context, but have seen it mentioned (on these boards, maybe?) in that context.

A quick Google takes me to the Wikipedia entry on the Dumarest saga - skimming the first couple of paras tells me that "Dumarest of Terra is a 33-volume series of science fiction novels by Edwin Charles Tubb. . . .The stories are set in a far future galactic culture that is fragmented and without any central government."

That last quoted sentence fits with Traveller.

kinda charming, seeing 'referee' actually
I have a hobby (habit?) of putting together my own compilations of RPG rules systems. In the case of AD&D this was/is mostly just for interest and to try to work out what is actually in there (bottom line - a lot of rules text which supports only a rather narrowly-focused play experience). But in the case of Classic Traveller this kicked off our current campaign. And one thing I discovered about Traveller is that a relatively modest amount of rules text (less than AD&D even ignoring spells and item lists) supports quite a wide-ranging play experience. Once it is re-edited (eg pulling rules for social encounters or vacc suit use out of individual skill descriptions and compiling them systematically) it turns out to be pithy and powerful (and having a relatively definite implied setting).

As part of this process I compiled all the statements on the role of the Traveller referee. And like the rest of the rules they are impressively coherent and eminently cogent. They could easily be from a contemporary game. I mostly follow them when GMing our current campaign with one exception - I use a more "just in time" approach to establishing the starmap (which the rules allow for, but envisage as a component of a referee-less rather than refereed game).
 

talien

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