Practical Magic (D&D Month Part 1)

Greetings, friends!
This year marks the 40th anniversary of Dungeons and Dragons, the granddaddy of all modern roleplaying games and my personal reigning favorite. I owe a lot to D&D, as we’ll discuss in the coming weeks, and if you’ve enjoyed this site, you owe at least that much to it too because in the long view, none of this would be here without me having gotten into it in college.
The entire month of February’s blogs are going to be dedicated to various aspects of D&D, how it relates to my writing, and just generally how awesome roleplaying is in general.
To kick of, however, I’m actually going to talk about something I don’t like about D&D. Given forty years of history, the game has picked up its share of traditions, sacred cows and iconic elements. And, as is natural for any collection of such things, from April Fool’s Day to human sacrifice to Jimmy Olsen still appearing in comics, some of those… stink on toast.
Many of you have already heard about my rant on alignment. That could be an entire blog post unto itself, really. That’s not going to be what this post is about (he said as if you hadn’t read the title). No, this is going to be about Vancian Magic.
For those of you who are not into D&D, or who are just casual players, not up on the lingo, allow me to explain:
Vancian Magic is a ‘fire and forget’ magic system. Wizards study and construct spells, which have certain incantations and components required to make them work. That’s fine. However, the wizard has to ‘store’ these spells in their head by memorizing them each morning. They can only store a certain number and if they want to use a particular spell more than once, they have to store multiple ‘copies’.
How this works in-game is that you have a list of spells you know and have in your spellbook and every in-game day, you have to submit and itemized list to the DM of all the spells you have prepared for the day. That’s all well and good when you’ve only got a handful of spells and slots, but eventually, you’ll know dozens of spells and have dozens of slots and it turns into a combination homework assignment and guessing game.
Because of this headache, I never bothered to play a wizard and opted instead for a sorcerer. In 3rd Edition D&D, a sorcerer was what was called a ‘spontaneous caster’. Instead of memorizing spells, they had a few spells that were just something the knew naturally and they have a number of spell slots to cast those spells with. This means, if you know magic missile and sleep and have four first level spell slots, you can cast four magic missiles or four sleeps or any combination in between. In theory, this made them more flexible…you know, than the wizard, who in theory can know every spell in the game at once. In exchange for this flexibility, not only did sorcerers not know as many spells period, but they were also worse at augmenting their spells with the ‘metamagic’ line of feats.
I guess the point is that you have to pay for convenience.
Finally, whether you were a sorcerer or a wizard, you could (and would) just straight up run out of magic. Run into something badass first thing in the morning and have to throw everything at it? For the rest of the day you’re a load your friends have to carry, shooting and missing things with your dinky crossbow while cowering behind the rogue because an orc’s belch could kill you instantly.
This is one of the reasons why, when the arguments over editions start, I’m all-in for 4th. There, I never run out of magic missiles and my hit points aren’t even such that I dissolve in hard rain even at 1st level. There’s still some element of Vancian Casting there, but good gods is it nice to be rid of most of it because Vancian Magic is a dramatic magic system, not a gamist one.
Wait, What?
You didn’t think this whole article would be about me bitching about Vancian Magic, did you? Oh ye of little faith; of course there was a greater purpose to be illustrated. I’m the guy that took my all-consuming hatred for a stupid, stupid book and turned it into a blog post on writers’ pathological need to be ‘original’ above ‘making sense’, remember?
No, herein we get to the meat of the article because, as it turns out, Vancian Magic was not designed for a fun roleplaying game: it was designed to be an interesting and dramatic concept for a fantasy series.
Meet Jack Vance, Hugo award winning scribe of over 60 books and the man who is second only to JRR Tolkein… in terms of people whose work Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson mined during the conception of Dungeons and Dragons.
His novel series, The Dying Earth, is the origin of many staples of the Dungeon Crawl genre, from worlds filled with monsters created by ancient wizards and later turned loose upon the world, esoteric magic items (like ioun stones), and the basic system that makes D&D wizards such a nonsensical pain in the ass. I used to curse his name and blame him for not being able to be a bear who controls other bears and has no need of the rest of the party at all ever (you might know this is a ‘druid’) without all that stuff I complained about, but I’ve done some more reading and he is not only not to blame (he didn’t intend for anyone to retrofit his book’s magic system to gaming), but his system includes a lot of the elements that make good magic systems.
Usually, I refer to the works of Brandon Sanderson when it comes time to talk about magic systems, but this being D&D month and me having not talked about Vance’s work before this, we’re going to use the Dying Earth as our example, along with some magic systems I have up on the blocks for currently unrealized projects.
First thing’s first though:
Gamist Magic Systems and Dramatic Magic Systems Don’t Mix
Some of you have already flown to the comments or the forums, full of flame and horror at me for daring to call myself a D&D fan, then dissing Vancian Casting – why that’s like insulting Garyand Dave! Well,you ar of course free to disagree with me, and hell, baiting more people into the comments is always good.
But I would counter that, even if Vancian Casting was the best magic system for a game ever, Gygax and Arneson were essentially inventing roleplaying from the ground up and some of the things they came up with were bound to be both be awful and long-lived. Dwarf used to be a class, for example. And rogues have been and increasingly are again relegated to light and ranged weapons even though, if you asked me, the bastard sword is the rogue’s best friend (high native damage for when you’re fighting stuff that doesn’t take sneak damage, one and two-handed to allow the use of bucklers or strength bonus as needed, etc…) and they still missed the actual best parts of Vancian Magic.
First of all, in the Dying Earth setting, it’s highly implied that magic is magitech. Derived not just from magic but by applying physics and mathematics to an existing universal force. There are also signs that each complete magical spell, while memorized, is like a living entity living in the caster’s head that ges unleash as much as it gets cast. There are reasons for these things and the wizards make up for this shortcoming by acquiring magic items.
It works because it serves the narrative and is an interesting concept. These wizards never tapped out and became albatrosses around everyone’s necks, or if they were, it was to serve the drama of the story. Further,they never felt like a dumbass because they prepared for underwater adventuring and then found out that their ship just put in on a desert island. The magic of the narrative kept the magic system from being tedious or anticlimactic.
Translate that into a game system where the dice rule everything that might be an unforeseen variable and the person running the universe is not the same as the one running the wizard and… there can be problems. Ideally, every character should stay useful and fun to play, but the parts of the magic system meant to make a story exciting and dramatic can kick in at the wrong time in game and seriously screw the player.
On the flipside, it doesn’t go so well going the other way either. Some of the complaints about 4th edition is the removal of all of the drama-enhancing effects that work great in a game, but can cause anti-climaxes in a game. The wizard can’t ‘run out of magic entirely anymore. Cantrips can be cast indefinitely and at-will, bad luck can no longer instantly kill or just ruin a character. And at the same time, there are artificial limits (per encounter or per day) limits on some spells and actions that would take a lot of explaining on the part of the author to justify. I find that to be a perfectly okay break from ‘reality’ (such as it is) because, hey, I’m playing a game for fun and don’t want to be screwed out of fun. When I want fun, I like the 4e way of doing things, when I want drama though, I think in terms of 3e or Pathfinder (also, when I want to game online, I pick Pathfinder because movement rules just aren’t as fun without a physical battlemap).
Now that we’ve got that out of the way, what even makes a good magic system? Well I can’t answer that definitively, I can only answer it in terms of what makes me enjoy a magic system. It boils down to a single truth:
A Magic System is Defined By Its Limits
I’ve talked before about how I like reality-warpers as characters. The thing about reality-warpers though is that they’re like ninjas: they get less effective and less interesting the more you have in one place. If a bunch of people are re-writing reality at their whim with no limit, things stop making sense real quick.
This is why we have magic systems at all: so that magic isn’t just arbitrary reality warping. Therefore, the important thing isn’t that you limit magic, it’s how you limit magic. These limits come in the form of who can use magic, what that magic can do and how often that magic can be used.
Personally, I’m not a fan of limits on the ‘who’, though I do like the idea that ‘who’ has some effect on how good one is at majicking. The typical, lazy way of doing this is with the Witch Species trope, ie: there are people born able to use magic, this ability breeds true and no one else gets any. You can also have magic tied to a certain, more random attribute, or be completely arbitrary in the form of magic being part of being the ‘chosen one’ of one flavor or another.
It’s in the ‘what’ that I feel the most variety and interest can be derived. In The Dying Earth, there are only a few hundred spells. Period. There used to be more, but they’re lost at the time of the setting. That’s not all that exciting, but you have to understand that for the longest time in Fantasy, that was probably as good as you could expect. Spells were just A Thing and wizards could cast them and that was that: no explanation, no discussion of where spells came from and why they could only do a few things.
These days, things a lot more formal and designed, inspired heavily by actual, real world science. Typically, when a wizard does X, Y will reliably happen and magic is unable to create or destroy matter or energy. The practical limitations are still arbitrary, but there’s at least an explanation (or attempt at one): that particular reaction simply either doesn’t exist or hasn’t been uncovered. I like this approach because it allows for cool sciencey things like fire spells ripping the heat out of the local environment or my own deal in Rune Breaker, where akua, the water energy can be used conjure ice crystal, which in turn refract and split light to create optical illusions and vin energy of air manipulates sound waves.
The limitation on where magic comes from, however, is just one aspect and the one that gets the most attention. As you know, I juggle a lot of ideas in my head and some of them are magic systems looking for a story and it just so happens that one of these orphan systems is based on an oft-ignored limit that can be put on magic: who or what you can target.
In a setting I’ve been calling BoonWorld for lack of any sort of creative spark for it, magic is all of the type gamers might recognize as ‘buffs’ or ‘de-buffs’ and they can only be cast on people incapable of using magic. These range from Boons, long term, large scale alterations of a person up to and including giving them effective superpowers, to gifts, which are short term enhancements, afflictions, which are negative gifts, and Burdens, ie baleful polymorph. Casters get their power from mediating in certain places of the world—which are naturally constantly disputed territory, meaning they need to assemble diverse parties of badasses and promise to make them even more badass in order to make any use of their abilities at all. The idea that the caster literally can’t use their powers on themselves or trade powers with them quickly explains why they don’t rule the world, and the idea that they can Burden your ass explains why they aren’t slaves. The limitations, therefore, not only defines the system, but had a clear effect on how the world works—as it should.
Another idea I’ve played with is delivery. D&D has a couple basic delivery types: touch, rays, spheres, cones… and potions. I always felt potions get the short end of the stick. No one specializes in potions. In fact, they pretty much exist ‘in case the casters can’t heal/buff us right now’ emergency equipment. In fact, all potions are just liquid versions of an existing spell.
What if…? Potions weren’t all liquid? And they were the only magic in town? And also, they were food.
There are two influences here. First, and to my deep shame, there was this dopey anime called Fighting Foodons. It was as compelling and sane as its name, but the concept went like this: if you’re skilled enough, when you cook a dish, it doesn’t just lay there on the plate, it becomes sapient and a capable pokemon-like fighting creature.
There were no other videos or images just to maximize your horror.
No, you’re not high right now. That was actually a thing Fox Kids was allowed to show me on Saturday mornings. And no one stopped them.
However, to wash the taste of WTF?! Out of your mouth, my other inspiration in this is Alton Brown of Good Eats, who is, to put it frankly, a food wizard (or scientist. Arthur C. Clarke says there’s no difference. If you’re not familiar with the show, Good Eats is a cooking show where the cook explains the history and science of the day’s dish and exactly why you’re cooking something the way you are. He also sometimes does them in the form of glorious movie spoofs, for example, a show on meat pies… Spoofing Sweeny Todd
You’re still not high by the way. Unless you are. I don’t blame you. (Now that Colorado has legalized it, I’m no longer dancing around pot. Considering I’ve never smoked and don’t actually want to, this might seem a bit odd).
So the idea here is that cooking well is magic. If you pick your ingredients correctly and cook them well, you can produce food with literal metaphysical properties. Condiments, spices, herbs and things like wine pairings can enhance the effects—or negate them completely if done wrong or out of proportion. Salt, of course, is the most valuable spell enhancer in the realm, being a universal amplifier, while saffron is ludicrously powerful, but only for certain applications.
Chefs in this setting become valuable assets, not only for ensuring the power and health of their people, but also for pushing the frontiers of the Culinary Arts, seeking new, more powerful or useful dishes and always seeking the legendary, immortality granting dessert: ambrosia.
In limiting the medium in which magic works, I make it more of a backdrop then the main event. We can follow the life of a chef and go more in depth into what he or she has to do for their craft more than the actual effects. Not that the effects can’t be pretty awesome. I’m thinking fuscilli drills, explosive hot sauce that gives you a heat touch that can melt metal, and tea so relaxing that it’s an effective anesthetic.
… Yeah, you’re probably high now.
Next Week: How Dming got my Writing Groove Back.
Questions, comments, verbal abuse? Please post them below in the comments, or the forum.
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About Vaal

Landon Porter is the author of The Descendants and Rune Breaker. Follow him on Twitter @ParadoxOmni or sign up for his newsletter. You can also purchase his books from all major platforms from the bookstore
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