Friday, October 3, 2008

On Vancian Magic

With this post, I realize I'm going into territory that some OD&D fans would consider heresy, but it's something that I feel needs to be explored. I want to examine the whys and wherefores of Vancian magic, and how it appeared in OD&D and how it came to be used.

To be clear: the magic system was not necessarily "intuitively" Vancian in the 1974 rules. The Magic-User and Cleric classes had a number of spells per day determined by level, and that was about it. With subsequent clarifications, it was made clearly and determinedly based on the ideas in Jack Vance's Dying Earth stories, where spells were "memorized" and stored for later use. Elements of other fantasy were also added, with verbal, somatic and material components making spells slightly different from a strict Vancian take. For purposes of paperwork and record keeping, it's a very workable solution with a sound basis in the source literature, and was used in every edition of AD&D and D&D up until the 4th edition, when it was done away with.

That is, in the published rules. Unofficially, the Vancian magic system was never all that popular. Early issues of Alarums & Excursions reveal that the magic system was considered seriously flawed and referees were reworking it from the very early days. Entire game systems developed around alterations, mainly, to the combat and magic rules from OD&D. But Gygax soldiered on with Vancian magic and it became a staple of the game from that point onward. I would think that an AD&D campaign without Vancian magic would be sort of like a Call of Cthulhu campaign without SAN — it's possible, but would be missing the point a bit.

However, one of the things I intend to emphasize in this blog is the idea that OD&D isn't AD&D, and that what is right for one is not necessarily right for the other. The magic rules in OD&D are simply a sketch of the fleshed-out system in AD&D, and I think they ought to prove vital and legitimate ground for tinkering. One of the things I will be looking at in coming posts is old-school approaches to magic, which actually are quite plentiful in print — there is a mana point system sketched in Arduin, discussion in A&E, and the systems of Chivalry & Sorcery and Tunnels & Trolls that I intend to look at for ideas, and adaptation into something of a cohesive alternate system.

The reason for this is not that I'm not happy with Vancian magic as such. As I said, I think it's a quintessential part of AD&D. The reason I'm interested in exploring alternative magic systems is tied into a particular vision of OD&D that I think is perfectly valid, one that looks outside of the AD&D / Gygaxian tradition for solutions to rules questions. I do believe, strongly, that OD&D is not AD&D lite, or with fewer of the specific rules and a trim; what attracts me is the idea that it's possible to build a D&D as one sees fit. The reality is that, when OD&D was at its newest, magic was not bound to any single interpretation but open to wild interpretation and creation. I think the old school renaissance needs to embrace this spirit if it is going to thrive.


  1. Excellent article; well said!


  2. Three-book OD&D isn't "AD&D lite," I agree, but once you embrace Supplement I, the die has been cast, so to speak.

  3. I have no problem altering the magic system of AD&D to make it less "Vancian". I think you make some good points here about OD&D having more room for interpretation, though. The question is really how you use AD&D [i.e. as a cohesive rule set, or as a mine for "advanced" rules ideas].

  4. The reason I'm specifically talking this way about AD&D, for clarification, is that I think a lot of specific play style and ideas about fantasy were built into the textual corpus of AD&D. My vision for OD&D is that it is the ultimate builder's game, where the role of the referee is to construct D&D as he or she sees fit. I think that AD&D is something of a stumbling block for this: it's too easy to lean on its conventions when you could be doing something that is ultimately better for your game, and that there are areas where it's best for referees to draw a line between what they consider fair game from AD&D and what isn't.

  5. My vision for OD&D is that it is the ultimate builder's game, where the role of the referee is to construct D&D as he or she sees fit.

    That's exactly right in my opinion.

  6. I think you make some very good points; points I, myself, have pondered. Do you know of any sources in the internet with some well-written alternative magic systems for OD&D? (and yes, I know I can google but I thought you might know of some reasonable alternatives)


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