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.


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

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Corum was a Moorcock character.

Grey Mouser was a failed wizard's apprentice into deciphering obscure languages, so the whole using scrolls thing fits neatly, too.
Right, the thief class, as written, appears to be exactly tailored in every detail to reproduce Grey Mouser. Much like the ranger is basically in every detail Aragorn. However, it still fits Cudgel pretty darn well, since he also (badly) reads magic books and attempts to use spells from them.

Ditto to all this. (Though maybe I wasn't a dumb kid!)

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 would swear that some comment exists in the section on weapons about how "kinetic energy is still the simplest and one of the best ways to kill someone" being the justification for 'slug throwers' as a major weapon class (though give Traveler credit, there are plenty of PGMPs and laser rifles in there too, they are just not easily accessed by your average space hobo).
You could sorta do a 'Star Trek' analog, though the Traveler jump drive isn't exactly going to produce exactly the same narrative logic. The mechanics do somewhat hand you the setting of Traveler though, with Social Status as a core stat, etc.
Anyway, it is certainly less flexible IMHO than the quote you have there indicates. I think it does draw heavily on early space opera, Foundation, the works of Andre Norton, etc. more so than later stuff. The computers and such are pretty understandable, they are simply what people could imagine future computers being like in the early 70's! Nobody really quite imagined back then the ubiquity and miniaturization of such technology. Honestly, Star Trek was pretty strong on this point compared to most, and even its computer is a huge thing that runs a ship, though it can be talked to and perform tasks, sort of like 'Alexa'.

I would swear that some comment exists in the section on weapons about how "kinetic energy is still the simplest and one of the best ways to kill someone" being the justification for 'slug throwers' as a major weapon class (
I seem to recall something about the danger of holing the skin of the ship between you and hard vacuum as a reason for using snub pistols and blades in boarding actions by pirates (since a fat passenger liner wouldn't put everyone in vacc suits and depressurize at the first sign of hostility) or for other shipboard altercations.


I would swear that some comment exists in the section on weapons about how "kinetic energy is still the simplest and one of the best ways to kill someone" being the justification for 'slug throwers' as a major weapon class
Yes. But the essay in vol 4 of JSAT elaborates on this further, emphasising the energy supply necessary for effective laser/energy beam weapons.


I seem to recall something about the danger of holing the skin of the ship between you and hard vacuum as a reason for using snub pistols and blades in boarding actions by pirates (since a fat passenger liner wouldn't put everyone in vacc suits and depressurize at the first sign of hostility) or for other shipboard altercations.
There's nothing in the core rules, or any of the supplements I've read, about this particular issue. Though it is one of the reasons in our game that we posit for the use of blade weapons. In the JSAT article I've mentioned upthread, blade weapons are attributed to tradition and to low tech levels.

Snub pistols, on the other hand, are for zero-G combat. Likewise accelerator rifles. Neither has featured yet in our current game, whereas most other weapon types - blades, normal guns, lasers and high energy beams - have.

I played Traveller quite extensively in the 80s into the early 90s, and have done Doctor Who (Exterminate) and Aliens (which is a 100% match) in that setting.

But for Trek, is can't beat FASA's Star Trek RPG space combat, with it's A3 "bridge stations" with cardboard sliders to transfer power from shields to phasers (etc).

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