Thursday, May 30, 2013

Vancian Wizards and Creating Life

Preface part 1: Resquiescat in pacem Jack Vance. A grand master has passed.

Preface part 2: Sorry I haven't updated regularly this week. Life's been hectic, work's been busy, it's a short week, and my kid is sick. May has been a really successful month for this blog and I appreciate the people who've been reading and giving feedback on the articles here.

So this post is occasioned by the passing of Jack Vance, one of the true grand masters of science fiction and fantasy. Despite the title, it has nothing at all to do with the subject of wizards memorizing spells. It's about what those wizards actually aspire to, and in a few cases, succeed at.

The first time I read The Dying Earth it was in the paperback pictured to the right. I remember very vividly the story "Turjan of Miir" and Turjan's vain attempts to create intelligent living creatures in his vats. This kind of drive is alluded to in some of D&D's stranger moments, such as the idea that an owlbear was created by some long-ago wizard, but on the whole there isn't much present for magic-users actually creating monsters.

Of course, Turjan promptly turns to creating women, but he isn't as odd of a wizard as is Pandelume. (Pandelume's concept of equal exchange is a good basis for NPC magic users, as a side note.) I can't help but think that wizards who create odd creatures in nutrient vats are more interesting, perhaps ones resembling Turjan's earlier attempts:
It was a thing to arouse pity—a great head on a small spindly body, with weak rheumy eyes and a flabby button of a nose. The mouth hung slackly wet, the skin glistened waxy pink. In spite of its manifest imperfection, it was to date the most successful product of Turjan's vats.


He considered its many precursors: the thing all eyes, the boneless creature with the pulsing surface of its brain exposed, the beautiful female body whose intestines trailed out into the nutrient solution like seeking fibrils, the inverted inside-out creatures ...
In terms of how to interpret this, I tend to think that a set of rules for magic-users to learn life-crafting as a separate art would be in order. Creating creatures of given hit dice, size, and special abilities would take more time, more resources and a higher character level. This is analogous to the rules in OD&D about creating magic items, but obviously could use firmer description.

One factor that I hadn't thought of much until I went to the original story to check the pull quotes was that Turjan's specimens were basically human. The one at the start of the story is more human than I had thought of it; the details more of an imperfect man. I think that this could really be expanded - the specific designs dreamed up by the individual wizard, more monstrous, some perhaps doing the unlikely and combining something like say an owl and a bear, or a man, a bear and a pig.

But to get the feel right, I think this needs to have a set of rules for deformities and accidents due to imperfections in the design or in the solution that the creation grows from. My personal penchant is for a big chart, which would double as a set of monster variations in a pinch.

Indeed, the whole thing would be simultaneously a set of rules for designing your own creation in-play - if PCs want to play Dr. Frankenstein or Turjan of Miir - and for coming up with the kind of monster where "a wizard did it" is the only logical answer.

And with that I've figured out the monster feature for Dungeon Crawl #3.

1 comment:

  1. "some perhaps doing the unlikely and combining something like say an owl and a bear, or a man, a bear and a pig."

    I see what you did there :)

    Nice post!


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