A Vancian-inspired (re)interpretation of magic-users and heathen idol-worshippers (i.e. clerics)

You are playing some old skool D&D with your friends and decide that you want to play a magic-user. The DM tells you that level 1 magic-users can only cast one spell per day and, to add injury to the insult, “your starting spells are chosen at random.

You start sweating profusely, but being a hardcore masochist, you accept the ruling and allow Eris, Princess of Chaos and Dice-Rolling, to decide that your magic-user knows three spells (plus Read Magic) of astounding power: Detect Magic, Light, and Magic Missile. Unfortunately, your DM is an ass and does not even know that Light can be used to blind enemies, and, to make things worse, he also uses some weird rule for Magic Missile (1d6+1 of damage, but an attack roll is needed.) In practical terms, that means the destructive power of your character is similar to being able to shoot a single arrow each day. 10 years at the Magic University for this?!

Now, that does not mean the other spells suck. Detect Magic may come in handy if one suspects wizardry is afoot, and I guess light is useful if you want to draw attention to your group and get everybody killed. Still, the problem is obvious: they may be helpful, but that precious and unique spell slot is probably going to be used for a pathetic magic missile. What if I need Light or Read Magic (or Alarm, Detect Undead, or whatever) in the middle of my adventure? Do I really have to wait a whole day, choose the new spell, and sleep 8 hours so I can cast a ridiculous Read Magic and discover what that Cursed Scroll of Flatulence says? That seems… anticlimactic and “gamey.” Not to mention artificial. It’s the sort of stuff that if you read it in a book would make your eyes roll.

Is there a solution to this conundrum that does not imply giving magic-users (or clerics) more spells? No, you are stuck with being a low-level sucker who spent his youth studying useless magic instead of partying, but it can be alleviated.

Here I present you a simple reinterpreting of the rules for magic-users and clerics that makes them slightly more versatile and, I believe, closer to their literary archetypes and their original intent. Of course, as will all “this how it was meant to be played” posts, I don’t know how you guys play the thing and, perhaps, what I am going to explain is common knowledge, but in my (quite small, tbh) game experience, it isn’t.

This interpretation is inspired by a scene in The Eyes of the Overworld, a novel by Jack Vance, the author who is the source of the memorize&forget system of magic that D&D uses. In my edition of “Tales of Dying Earth,” this scene appears on page 271 (Chapter 6, The Cave in the Forest.) Cugel “The Clever” is trapped in a wizard’s room, and a band of creatures harasses him from the outside, thirsty for his blood. Cugel, always resourceful, combs the room and finds a compendium filled with spells. He decides to memorize one:

“Cugel opened and read; finding an appropriate spell, he held the fire-ball close the better to encompass the activating syllables. There were four lines of words, thirty-one syllables in all. Cugel forced them into his brain, where they lay like stones.”

Basically, magic is like mnemonics on steroids but without the ability to remember what you learned once the spell is unleashed.

Now, Cugel is not a magic-user, he is just an Asshole and, perhaps, a Thief, a combination of classes that allows him to accomplish astounding magical feats (in later D&D versions, he’d probably be a very unique type of Bard.) In any event, he managed to memorize a spell. Nothing special about it, right? Ahh, this is where you are wrong. Note what he did: he memorized it on demand. Basically, he filled an empty “spell slot.”

What’s the difference? You may ask. Well, in modern D&D gaming (tell me if I’m wrong, but most people seem to do this,) magic-users and clerics choose at the start of each day the spells they will be able to cast that day. It is assumed they memorized them before going to sleep the previous day or something like that. That means they have to fill their minds to the brim with magical incantations, and nobody would be fool enough to leave one slot empty, right? So, what happens if you need a Read Languages spell to read the instruction of a deadly (but somewhat slow) trap you just activated, but so it happens that you did not pick that spell because, after all, who the hell chooses Read Languages when dungeoneering?

With my Cugel-inspired new method, however, you can leave that “spell slot” empty and, when the need arises, you do as Cugel did and open “your” spellbook and memorize the spell you need. You are not cheating or doing anything illegal. In fact, I believe it was how the game was meant to be played:

spell recovery
Source: AD&D DM Manual, 1st edition, page 40.


Unlike some modern interpretations (probably inspired by D&D video games) where spells are memorized, and THEN the character goes to sleep and wakes up with his mind automatically filled with awesome powers, here the process is the opposite and follows the Cugel-Vance logic more closely. You sleep, and THEN (if you want) you memorize the spells (something that may take you a whole day if playing a very high-level character.) It doesn’t say when or how many. You could, in fact, not memorize a single spell and leave your mind “empty.”

Going back our first level magic-user, Eustaquio the Luckless, when your DM asks you “what spells will you use today?” you proudly answer “None!” and watch how the other players drop dead in awe. Then, if you need a particular spell or you suspect you are going to need one, you open your grimoire, libram, or whatever, and fill your mind with the arcane utterances (watch out for those wandering monsters, though.)

This also applies to clerics, of course (even more so.) If you need a particular miracle, you just kneel before whatever false god your character worships and “memorize” the spell. That works wonders and, in fact, makes the cleric a more versatile and convincing character, closer to the archetype of a miracle-worker who goes around healing the sick on demand, curing the blind, and smiting heathens. Unlike magic-users, who are restricted by an economy of magic scarcity, clerics already “know” all possible spells and are not limited by any “book.” So, if you need to pull a Moses and Part the Waters, just meditate for two hours or so (as long as you have an empty spell slot, of course) and do it.

OPTIONAL MANDATORY RULE: Clerics and Druids can overwrite already “memorized” (and unused) spells with new ones as long as they spend the required time praying, meditating, dancing in front of an idol, sacrificing cows, etc. For example, if your cleric character has only one 6th-level spell slot and you used it for a “Heal” spell but now you need to cross the Black Sea of Deadly Doom, the cleric can “forget” the already memorized spell, pray to his god, and “memorize” Part Waters.

Although this may make the divine spellcasters too powerful, I believe it fits the archetype of a miracle-worker because they don’t really “memorize” “spells.” That’s a Vancian interpretation that only applies to magic-users. Cleric may not even understand what they are “casting” or praying for. They are praying for an effect or a miracle, not memorizing nonsensical sylables of power from a magic book with a limited and known stock of incantations. Unlike magic-users, they don’t go around with their minds filled with magical words. It make sense then that they should be even more versatile than Vancian magic-users.

Now, not everything is perfect; there is a cost, of course. First of all, memorizing or praying takes time, which means that you cannot just open your spell book and, bam! fireball memorized! A magic-user going “naked” has some benefits, but also obvious costs (you won’t have offensive spells when you most need them.) A compromise can be achieved, of course. If your character can cast 4/3/2/1 spells, he could memorize some essentials:

1.Sleep, charm, magic missile

2.Invisibility (to flee if things get ugly) and another Area of Effect Spell (Web, Stinking Cloud, etc.)

3.Fire Ball or Hold Person


And leave the rest blank.

How much time does it take to memorize a spell or pray for a “miracle”? It’s up to the DM’s discretion, but I think 1 turn (10 minutes) per level may do the trick. For example, memorizing the previous 5 spells takes 100 minutes, and his whole magic repertoire takes 200 minutes to learn.

The only requirement is that your magic user or cleric must be well-rested (see the above illustration.) Also, obviously, you cannot study in the middle of a melee. That means you cannot be hurt in any manner, and you need a minimum of peace and quite. At the very least, you should not have people screaming, yelling, and hacking each other 10 feet from you (the cleric spell Sanctuary is very useful here.)

6 thoughts on “A Vancian-inspired (re)interpretation of magic-users and heathen idol-worshippers (i.e. clerics)

  1. chgowiz

    I do something similar, but I call it “ritual casting” – requires you have your spell book handy and that you spend a turn per level casting the spell. It doesn’t require an empty slot. It does put the mage’s spell books at risk!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. emperorponders

      That seems more appropriate for clerics somehow (asking for a miracle and al that,) but it’s also an interesting idea.


  2. I let my magic users and clerics choose whatever spells they want to cast at the time they want to cast them. They are only limited by their spell slots and spells known (for magic-users).


  3. Pingback: Roundup, announcement, and other stuff. – The Frisky Pagan

  4. Pingback: Magic-user versatility within a strict Vancian interpretation (now that’s a lame title if I have ever seen one.) – Emperor's Notepad

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