Monday, October 4, 2010

Gedankenexperiment: Vancian Rarity

"In ages gone," the Sage had said, his eyes fixed on a low star, "a thousand spells were known to sorcery and the wizards effected their wills.  Today...a hundred spells remain to man's knowledge, and these have come to us through the ancient books..."
The Dying Earth, Jack Vance

We all talk about the Vancian magic system in Ye Auld Game, but 99% of the time we are talking specifically about "fire and forget".  Vance's strikingly original presentation of memorizing and forgetting spells is certainly one of the most unique in literature, but there is actually more to Vance's magic than just that.  The quote above is the one that always sparked my imagination.  These arrogant wizards know that, in fact, they have a tenth of the knowledge of their predecessors and, rather than convince them to pool their resources, it actually makes them guard the few spells they have both zealously and jealously.

Now, that's something I could do with more of in YEG.  So, imagine this:

Whatever iteration of the game you are playing, the 1st level Magic-User spells are the entire  syllabus of known spells.

Fly?  You wish.  Fireball?  Who can shoot exploding balls of fire; this is magic sonny, not comic-books. 

Of course, everyone knows that there are, in fact, other spells out there.  Every first-year sorcerer has read that bit of Laconius where he mentions the Miraculous Mantle of Obfuscation, which renders the user invisible, and the intemperate uses to which he put it in relation to the Witches' Coven of Outreterre  Or known the frustration of  studying that antique blabber-mouth Quinquarine, who, over the course of several volumes, promises to reveal the formula obscurely referred to as The Perambulatory Revelator of One-and-All, only to have no copies of the final volume survive the bonfires of the Irenian Orthodoxists.  Or  stared at the great tapestry at Biancule, depicting the turning of the invasion of the Mauvrian Hordes, and wondered what incantation allowed the fabled archimagus Villondro to enmesh the Mauvrians in gigantic spider-webs?

So, of course there are more than just these twelve spells.  That's why you are crawling down a hole in the ground with a party of cerebrally-challenged bravos, cut-purses, and roustabouts, facing death a hundred times over in the form of goblins, traps, and pneumonia, instead of staying in a nice cosy manse somewhere, casting Charm Person over and over for a hundred crowns a pop.  Because there are more spells out there.

And whoever finds even one of them, is going to be star among the thaumaturgical-set.  Seriously, people are going to be hitting you up right, left, and center for just a peek at your grimoire; the grimoire that contains the only known copy of Ariste's Vertical Realignment in the world (even if some slack-witted copyist wrote it down as Levitation.  But, hey, that error kept the thing lost all these centuries 'til you found it, so be nice to the guy).  You now become famous as "So-and-So the Levitator" and anybody who needs something vertically-realigned has to come to you; either to pay for the privilege or to try and steal your spell (recall, in this context, the bit in The Dying Earth where Turjan crashes the chambers of Prince Kandive).

The Referee is going to place far fewer scrolls containing spells above Level 1 in this game because even a single Level 2 spell is a major treasure.  Spell-Scrolls retain their value , of course, because of fire-and-forget.  The Referee is also much freer to cut off the spell list wherever he likes.  Don't like the Wish spell?  Fine; it never need come up.  In fact, if you don't like the whole concept of spells above level 6, say, then that's easy enough too.

One additional option is that one may want is to grant all MU's the entire Level 1 list in the books at start, in part for compensation and also because it sounds right to me.  I'm influenced here by Stephan Michael Secchi's Talislanta.   There were some thirteen "Basic Spells", including the Spell of Eldritch Power, the Spell of Conjuration, and the Spell of Radiance.  Anyone who had made it to 1st level had mastered those. As Secchi puts it:

The following list of spells forms the basis of Talislantan magical tradition, and represents a body of knowledge common to all practitioners of magic, regardless of race, nationality or profession. Apprentice spell casters spend years learning to master the complex verbal and somatic components of these powerful incantations, the origins of which date back to the Age of Mystery. So ancient are these spells that their authors' names have long since been forgotten.

Talislanta Handbook and Campaign Guide (1989)

At that point, one could have an entire career in magic with just those thirteen spells.  Anything beyond involved digging lost librams or stealing from someone else.  And then there were the big prizes: the spells of the Archaeans, the originators of magic, who were able to craft spells that far exceeded later ones in terms of horse-power and scope.


  1. I like this idea, also the resultant search for greater spells, because you don't want your rivals to be more powerful. maybe tie an xp award to learning the spell, or maybe just to the location explored

  2. I think this is a pretty cool idea.

  3. Ta. I think I'll try this next time I do a D&D game.

    I don't think I'd add an XP award for finding spells - the knowledge is its own reward.

    However, it occurs to me that the generally-ignored spell research rules might just be perfect here. Instead of trying to make up a new spell, you are trying to piece together an old one. That's a good reason why NPC magicians sit at home collecting vast libraries. The wizard-adventurer is trying to short-cut that arduous and costly process by crawling into a dungeon and hoping to luck out.

    Another thought occurs from that: it would make sense for established wizards to hire adventurers to explore dungeons and bring back any scrolls or librams they find. However, they wouldn't want a pissant PC magician sharing in their treasure (which is what any smart PC would do). So, would that mean that the big guys refuse to hire other wizards as explorers? Would the PC wizard have to hide his profession ("And this is...uh...our torch-bearer. Yeah, that's it.")? Or would you expect the archmage to just try and kill you after the adventure? :)

    I suppose that there might be a standard clause in the contract that the PC gets to share in the spell haul. The patron might or might not honour that.

    Or - and here's yet another thought - you use the Chance to Learn Spell rules. The patron, being an arrogant wizard, assumes that the PC won't be able to make use out of any spells he finds. He might be right. He'll certainly get suspicious if you are gone for weeks, trying to make that darn roll.


  4. But if you end up with a 10th level mage who only knows say, two 2nd lvl spells, that might be as fun to play. You may need either to modify the spell-casting classes so they are not left behind in terms of abilities or just things to do (or gimp the non-mages in some fashion to keep everyone even), or somehow scale up the 1st level spells (they tinker with magic missile over time and it now does 1d8...). Otherwise you may end up with a 10th level party with a 3rd level magic user. That point aside, I very much like the idea of a very low/rare/scare magic milieu.

  5. Fair enough. But I woudl liken it to a Fighter's magic weapons, say: you could have a 10th level Fighter with nothing better than a short-sword and some leather armour. It's possible. Presumably, the Referee will give out some treasures that are appropriate to the level and Fighters will get wicked cool swords and Wizards will get wicked cool spells.

  6. I'm a big fan of making magic more interesting, colourful and obscure. Without that, spells become commonplace and lose their ineffable mystery.

    Other than certain circles or special groups (People of the Black Circle) wizards should be insular and uncooperative with other spellcasters...

    I allow wizzes to describe and rename their spells (so we end up with green fireballs that explode with the sound of a great bell tolling, for example). Surviving witnesses are much less likely to be able to identify the spell, but much more likely to recognise that wizard's style if they meet him later.

    More burbling here:

  7. If gaining anything over the first level of spellcasting required arduous dungeon-crawling and/or spell research, one thing worth re-jigging would be the MU experience table.

    When fireball and similar is no longer a surefire thing to acquire, penalizing MUs for their assumed power at higher levels makes less sense.

  8. This is a great post, and a solid idea to put a twinkle in the eye of jaded Dungeon Crawlers.

    You may need either to modify the spell-casting classes so they are not left behind in terms of abilities

    I think that overall, for high level MUs, combining a "Yes unless I must say no" attitude to interpreting spell use with a level-based multiplier anywhere you can get away with it (range, AOE, HD, etc) will get you where you need to be.

  9. It's a little late in the commentary, but I think this would be an excellent premise for a mages-only campaign. The key is that they can actually start at a more survivable level and still be quite limited in spellsall higher than 1st level slots are empty. this search for spells would drive a n MU only game quite effectively

  10. Don't forget that in Eyes of the Overworld, even Cugel the Clever can cast spells (though they tend to backfire horribly), so you can run a mixed party campaign, with a chance of failure attached to non-MU spellcasting, for instance.

  11. Also, guys, just because an M-U only has 1st level spells doesn't mean he sucks as bad as a 1st level M-U. He has:

    More gold and magic items
    More HP
    Better saves

    And most importantly, those 1st level spells often scale up for quite a while. Sleep might not work well against 5th level monsters, but that Magic Missile keeps getting better until you hit 9th level (5 missiles) in 1E / 2E. Shield lasts 5 rounds per level in 1E, which is just one fight at first level but might span several fights at 10th level.

    Take a pair of 9th level PCs. One is a Fighter, one is an M-U. Average HP, no special stats.

    FTR: HP 49.5 / AC 2 / Damage 1d8 / Thac0 12
    Plate, Shield, Longsword
    Average damage output per round vs. AC 0: (4.5 x 45% x 1.5 att/rd) 3 HP

    M-U: HP 22.5 / AC 10 / Damage 1d3 / Thac0 18
    No armor, Darts
    Average damage output per round vs. AC 0: (2 x 15% x 3 att/rd) 0.9 HP

    BUT that M-U could cast Magic Missile and do (3.5 x 5) 17.5 HP without an attack roll.

    Assuming he doesn't disrupt the spell, the M-U can kill the Fighter in 3 rounds using Magic Missile (and he has 5 first level spell slots). It would take the Fighter 4 rounds of average damage to kill the M-U.

    This assumes there are no magic items. If there are, it just helps the M-U even more. Bracers of Defense and Rings of Protection will extend the time it takes that Fighter to kill him, while the Fighter's bonus damage from the magic sword won't help as much. And his magic armor / shield AC bonus is meaningless. If the Fighter has a +3 sword and the M-U has AC 2 from magic items, here's how much average damage the Fighter does:

    FTR: damage 7.5, 70%, 1.5 att/r: 7.875 hp/rd

    We're now down to the Fighter killing the M-U in 3 rounds. It's still a matter of that initiative roll on the last round.

    But what if the M-U did Charm Person spells instead? The Fighter has 3 rounds to kill that M-U before he goes down under the Charm. He has a spell save of 11, which means exactly a 50-50 chance of losing each round. The M-U has two chances free and clear, and the third chance is based on the initiative toss. This seems like a better choice for the M-U since he has a solid chance of ending the fight before the Round 3 roll-off. Color Spray does the same job, but knocks the guy out, and can catch multiple opponents.

    This assumes the M-U isn't taking advantage of his spells in general outside combat. He should have several heavily armored low-level bodyguards Charmed with him at all times. He could have Armor cast on himself, which lasts day to day and gives him base AC 6, until he takes 17 HP of damage whereupon it crumbles. This should help any M-Us who don't have Bracers yet.

    An M-U with the Mount spell can, at high levels, summon Elephants and even Griffons. At that point the fight has too many variables to consider (can the Fighter even reach the M-U? Is there enough room for an elephant?) but it certainly doesn't hurt the M-U's chances.

    I think it would be interesting to play in a game where the M-Us got spells at a rate roughly one per character level, but you couldn't predict which ones you got.

  12. Yep - lots of ways to make this fun, I think.