Magic-user versatility within a strict Vancian interpretation (now that’s a lame title if I have ever seen one.)

This post grew from watching a video by Aaron the Pedantic (Twitter: @cha_neg) I saw recently, where he mentions things he (as a new guy with that edition) likes about AD&D, second edition. One of them is the Vancian system of magic, with its well-known memorize & lose style of spellcasting. He believes that the restrictions imposed by such a system are a good thing, as they encourage more thoughtful gameplay rather than just “cast whatever you want.” But, paraphrasing from memory, he says that the system is “At the start of the day you pick up which spells you will memorize…”

Although that is, indeed, how most people play and how Vancian magic is usually explained and understood, the goal of this post is to explain that there’s (or could be) more to it than that, and that I believe (whether it was intended or not when the rules were written) that Vancian magic is very versatile if one follows the memorization process as explained in the Dying Earth books, which implies dropping the assumption of “at the start of the day.” Maybe this might help dispell the idea that Vancian magic is broken or doesn’t work in games, which might be of the reasons later D&D editions ignored it. The point is that people who claim such things are not exactly wrong, for Vancian magic can be unnecessarily restrictive, but I believe this comes from a mistranslation from the books to the games or a too gamey implementation of its logic. Also, I don’t believe my reinterpretation requires new, strange rules because what I’m going to say is implied, yet rarely noticed, in the rules themselves. It might be common-sensical for some people.

Now, this is not the first time I have said this. In fact, I wrote this post more than three years ago, but that’s what you do when you are a blogger, you repeat yourself. However, this time, I will focus on AD&D 2nd edition and will be more specific about the advantages and disadvantages of this interpretation.

First of all, I should say that I don’t care if this is not how it was “intended to be played;” I just believe it makes more sense and makes for much better gameplay and storytelling.

So, here’s my interpretation: I believe most people use the somewhat videogamey system of “press Rest button to recharge your daily quota of spells,” which is picking whatever spells you need for the day, then go to sleep, and then you wake up knowing them (or you go to sleep and then decide after waking up; it doesn’t matter as this is usually all done during downtime). There might be some “study” involved, but it’s considered flavor (despite not being considered so in the rules.) Basically, spells are like cooldown abilities but with a very long cooldown (daily.) Think of it as one of those oldish Infinity Engine games (e.g., Baldur’Gate,) where you sleep 8 hours and your spells are regained (interestingly, BG has no daily limitation as that would be more difficult to implement. You just need to rest 8 hours, which you can do more than once a day.) The frustration with this system comes from being forced to choose, usually before you even know what you will encounter, a complete (that is, to the maximum capacity) set of spells, all at once, and with no ability to modify it later.

Now, both 1E and 2E AD&D are very explicit: that memorization takes time and is not some kind of free action that happens automatically after “resting.” The difference seems small, but it has far-reaching consequences:

Memorization is not a thing that happens immediately. The wizard must have a clear head gained from a restful night’s sleep and then has to spend time studying his spell books. The amount of study time needed is 10 minutes per level of the spell being memorized. Thus, a 9th-level spell (the most powerful) would require 90 minutes of careful study.

Well, that’s more or less what everybody does (minus the memorization time,) you might be thinking. Not really. Notice that, not only does studying takes time (which is something a lot of people don’t take into consideration,) there is no rule, anywhere, saying that when studying you have to commit to the maximum of spells available to you or when it has to happen. It is implied by the “then” that both actions are closely connected, but I don’t think it has to be so (and as I will explain later, sometimes it can’t be so.) The only obligation is that you cannot pull an all-nighter. You need to sleep, then, you need time to study. There’s nothing telling you you have to study just after waking up. It could be at the break of dawn in the comfort of a luxurious room or… in the afternoon in the middle of a dungeon. Nothing explicitly says you can, but nothing forbids it.

What I’m saying here is that most people interpret Vancian Magic as meaning that you have to make a full commitment to that day’s spells because apparently Magic conforms to human circadian rythms, and only the first hour after waking up (not my idea of the best time to study, to be honest) is the appropriate moment. The rules don’t say that (and even if they did, I would most likely ignore it.) You can wake up, not study anything at all, and then, if the need arises four hours later, pull open your magic grimoire, dedicate from 10 to 90 minutes to study, and memorize whatever is that you need. In gaming terms: you can leave your “spell slots” empty and fill them later by dedicating the required minutes to study.

There are two bits in the PHB that imply my interpretation is, if not the legal one, at least perfectly logical. First is that Table 21, where the number of maximum spells per level are shown, makes no reference to “study first thing in the morning.” It simply says:

They [wizards] also use Table 21 to determine the levels and numbers of spells they can cast at each experience level.

It doesn’t even say “daily,” although it’s most likely implied. What it shows is the maximum amount of magical stuff magic-users can cram into their brains since, it should be reminded, incantations and arcane formulas for Vancian spells are fundamentally gibberish that takes multiple pages even for the simplest spell:

“How Many Pages in a Spell Book?

Each spell requires a number of pages equal to its level plus 0-5 (1d6-1) additional pages.”

DM for AD&D 2nd edition, page 63

In other words, a simple first-level spell might take up to 6 pages of abstract nonsense, incomprehensible hieroglyphs, and bizarre mnemonics that are so alien to the human mind they cannot be remembered, only temporally hold as long as they are not unleashed.

Second, and most importantly, at higher levels, memorization takes so much time, there aren’t enough hours in the day to fill your “daily quota.” A 20th level magic-user, if he were to memorize every spell he can, would need 1620 minutes, or 27 hours. Assuming a limit to how many hours one can devote to study (say, eight,) that would take four days of intense, nerve-wracking study. So, obviously, this is not a “daily” quota of spells you regain after taking an 8-hour nap or a brief activity you can sandwich between brushing your teeth and your breakfast tea. In fact, even a moderately powerful wizard needs so much time, he’d need half a day to memorize his allowed spells. Meaning, that if he starts at 8 a.m and ends at 1 p.m., there’s nothing illogical in my reading that he might as well wake up, not study anything at all, and then, four hours later, because he needs a specific spell, he opens the book and studies it, and then does the same three hours later. It’s exactly the same thing (if anything, he’d be even fresher and more rested than the poor guy who has to spend 4 hours trying to memorize the equivalent of 30 pages of captcha… in Sanskrit.)

It is a bit silly to assume that study has to be crammed during the first hours of the morning, within a pre-defined time alloted for, and only for, adventure preparation, or that it’s an activity that cannot be divided (although at higher levels it has to be because there aren’t enough hours in a day.)

I believe logic, common-sense, the source material (Jack Vance,) and, well, fun, dictate that my reading and interpretation is better, whether it was or not the intended one.

To sum up, and to give you an example, what I’m saying is that magic-users don’t have to memorize anything if they don’t want to nor do they need to exhaust (i.e., fill) every possible spell “slot.” They can go around with their minds “empty” and, say, assuming they are not wounded or anything like that and if they are relatively well-rested, open their magic spellbook when they need it, dedicate from 10 to 90 minutes to memorize a spell, and then cast it. Players don’t realize how much not being able to do that restricts emergent gameplay as there as spells that are never picked and, since the DM knows that, no obstacles or challenges for them are ever created.

After all, who picks Comprehend Language as a daily spell? Almost nobody. So, DMs avoid situations where it might be needed. On the other hand, with this interpretation, if you encounter a tribe of strange cavemen that speak an unknown language, you can tell your bard to entertain them for 10 minutes, then you memorize Comprehend Language if you left an empty, first-level slot for it, and now you understand what they are saying. That makes a lot of sense, is more entertaining, and more logical.

Naturally, there’s a trade-off here. You get extra versatility at the cost of becoming less of a walking atomic bomb (not sure why that’s a bad thing, though.) It’s a risk. Yet I believe this makes magic-users more interesting, less, well, gamey, and more fun to play and roleplay, both inside and, especially, outside traditional dungeon areas. Most importantly, this subtle change has far-reaching consequences as the ways to solve problems have now increased considerably. Most DMs clearly don’t want to design problems that might need non-combat magical solutions, so with each edition, the wizard has become more and more like the character who just deals AoE damage, and that’s it (or, alternatively, the entire concept of Vancian Magic is ignored because it’s frustrating.)

But one should to use foresight to choose the approppriate spells for every conceivable situationthat’s the fun!, I can hear some people say. Well, first of all, my interpretation here doesn’t deny that magic-users should absolutely memorize most of their available spells. It just gives them more freedom and room for maneuver. Secondly, since RPGs are cooperative games where the DM consciously or not designs things with what the player can (and most likely will) do in mind, “every conceivable situation” slowly morphs into “what is most likely to happen” and then “what they can reasonable be expecte to solve” with little room for improvisation or player’s intelligence. Both the players’ and DM’s choices reinforce each other, and you can eventually end up with quite bland magic-user whose only purpose is to do area damage, immobilize enemies, and so on.

How many of you have used any of these more than once (or even once): Affect Normal Fires, Comprehend Languages, Dancing Lights, Erase, or Jump (this is obviously a very contextual spell)? And that’s only first-level. What about Fool’s Gold, Leomund’s Trap, Rope Trick, Invisibility to Animals, Heat Metal, or Snake Charm (why, yes, today I will surely encounter a snake! I will pick this one!)? A lot of these can give you highly memorable solutions…but to unforeseen problems (and those are the best.) It seems obvious to me that if memorize-only-at-the-beginning-of-the-day/session (and at full capacity) is enforced, then situations that might need such solutions will have a tendency to disappear.

I haven’t directly mentioned Clerics, but this applies to them too. In fact, even more so. A lot of people houserule so that Clerics don’t need to “memorize” their “spells” since it kinda sounds (and is) a bit silly. After all, the entire point of miracle-workers is that they pray to a higher power and then get (or not if they have been naughty) a blessing. The problem this blessing aims to fix is most likely contextual. How the hell is one supposed to go around healing the blind if one has to predict whether or not one will find blind people today?

But with my interpretation, there is no issue here (or it becomes less important.) As clerics have no spellbook, they are even less limited, so it makes sense for a cleric to go “naked” and don’t memorize anything except those miracles needed in an emergency (like those involving poison, foreseeable combat situations, insta-charming gullible local yokels, etc.) For everything else, it makes sense that the cleric would leave the “slots” empty and pray/chant/whatever for what is needed at the moment—as long as he can invest the required time, of course (which might be impossible inside a dungeon.) In fact, I’d go so far as to say that without this interpretation, the whole “going to the town cleric to get healed” or the entire business of civilian magic-users for hire makes little sense, or are we supposed to believe that the miracle/spell that is required might not be available not because it’s too powerful but because, sorry, the local magic-user today decided to fill his mind only with Create Water. To me it makes more sense that, in a civilizan context, most magic-users of one kind or another would leave many of their spell choices empty. Besides, who wants to spend five hours a day trying to remember magical gibberish.

This logic is useful to fantasy writers too. I have mentioned a few times that I believe magic-user protagonists or main characters are not a good idea in fiction, but I also mentioned that Jack Vance is one of the few exceptions. If you write stories following something close to this (his) system, they will make much more sense than the usual D&D fanfiction that reads like a transcription of a gameplay session, including all its tinny, gameplay-related absurdities or, alternatively, you will be forced to igore the Vancian system even when it’s the foundation of the setting.

Speaking of which, WoTC should just hire me to write their magic-flinging dime novels. I think they ditched Vancian magic in the fourth edition or so, but that’s not an issue. I can ignore that and pretend it never happened.

One thought on “Magic-user versatility within a strict Vancian interpretation (now that’s a lame title if I have ever seen one.)

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