The elements of the "Vancian" wizard

We've all seen a lot of discussion about the pros and cons of "Vancian" magic in DDN.  But what is it?  In my eyes, there are at least five distinct mechanical elements of the wizard's magic system that have been argued about under the name of "Vancian".  Sometimes the arguments jump between them or otherwise conflate them, which is unjustified because each of these elements could be preserved or removed independently of the others.  So I've started this thread, not to take a position for or against this magic system, but to pull apart these elements and exhibit them separately, so that hopefully people can be clearer about what exactly they like or don't like about the wizard as it has existed in 1st through 3rd Edition.

The elements are:

A.  Preparation of specific spells before casting.  This is the feature of wizard magic that I personally think of as "Vancian", because it's the distinctive feature of magic in Vance's Dying Earth stories.  But that's beside the point.  We have already seen many classes that do away with this element while preserving the others, most obviously 3E's sorcerer and bard.  We could also in principle see classes that preserve this feature while doing away with the others - imagine, for instance, a class that only casts magic by scribing scrolls.

B.  Magic as a daily resource.  This one seems pretty straightforward.  A class like the 3E psion produces its effects through a daily resource but doesn't have the other elements of the wizard.  And there could also be a wizard-like class that prepares spells over a shorter or longer interval.  The DDN playtest warlock sort of does this, though it doesn't prepare in the "Vancian" style described above.

C.  Magic quantized by discrete "spell slots".  One spell, one slot.  The universal rule of D&D magic until challenged by 3E psionics.  Psions produce spells from a single pool of power points instead.  And there are also classes like incarnates and binders that use a resource that could be described as "slots", but in a very different way.

D.  Individual spells scaling in power with level.  This is the "quadratic wizard" element:  increasing power of individual spells times increasing number of spells makes a quadratic function.  It, too, could be discarded separately.  Turning once again to the 3E psion, that class requires a larger expenditure of power points to scale its powers, thus reducing the number of powers it has available.  (Though I'd be the first to admit that the math still worked quadratically in the end, the way the psion gained power points.)  And there is also the possibility of scaling an individual spell without continuing to expand the class' repertoire.  The 3E warlock is another imperfect example, having just one major spell, the eldritch blast, that scales as the class does.

E.  Access to a large and diverse spell list.  This strikes me as another straightforward one.  A class can have a spell list as broad or as narrow as the writers want to give it, irrespective of the other mechanics of its magic.  The 3E warmage has a very narrow spell list, for instance.  And the 3E binder has a broad list of effects but accesses them though its own unique mechanic.

Do note that I began this post thinking that there were four elements, and found a fifth just in the course of writing it.  There may well be others.  Don't take this list as canonical; use it as a starting point to thinking about how to critique the wizard clearly (and, by extension, any other classes you may want to comment on).  My basic point is this:  be precise about what element of the class you like or don't like, and be aware that that element may be separable from the rest, so that you don't have to throw out the good with the bad, or preserve the bad with the good.
Nice post. Stimulates thought, but does not attack.
YouYoung might want to add one, or modify e).    Many people on the forums, when criticizing classes as non vancian, talk about vancian as having "flexible yet powerful" spells.  At best, this allows for players to creatively synthesize theiri spells into new uses ("create water" to overload a stream, allowing for safe passage. ).   At worst, the text onlydescription of the effects allows for broken interpretations,leading to nerfing, rules lawyering, etc.  (create water to drown and entire dungeon).  
A very good initiative, and a good categorization of the 'vancian' traits.

Personally I would like a A, B, E 'vancian' wizard.
C removed
D removed or reworked into something that scales appropriately (for instance by requiring more power points to cast a higher spell-level of the same spell, like the UA wizard spellpoint option).

YouYoung might want to add one, or modify e).    Many people on the forums, when criticizing classes as non vancian, talk about vancian as having "flexible yet powerful" spells.  At best, this allows for players to creatively synthesize theiri spells into new uses ("create water" to overload a stream, allowing for safe passage. ).   At worst, the text onlydescription of the effects allows for broken interpretations,leading to nerfing, rules lawyering, etc.  (create water to drown and entire dungeon).  



I dont know what edition or spell you are talking about here..  I think I remember that the cantrip create water actually specified an amount. And you could not have more than 5 memorized. And even if you could spam it it will just be a little trickle of water.

Even if there is not clear description its a DM's call.
Letting some things be up to the DM is a good thing, not a bad thing.
YouYoung might want to add one, or modify e).    Many people on the forums, when criticizing classes as non vancian, talk about vancian as having "flexible yet powerful" spells.  At best, this allows for players to creatively synthesize theiri spells into new uses ("create water" to overload a stream, allowing for safe passage. ).   At worst, the text onlydescription of the effects allows for broken interpretations,leading to nerfing, rules lawyering, etc.  (create water to drown and entire dungeon).  


Would you say this is an element of the magic system, or just a result of vague or otherwise poor writing?
I am not really an avid wizard player so I don't know all the tricks and unintended uses of spells that players have gotten away with over the years. The only one I can recall off the top of my head is crushing enemies with blue whales or walls of iron.

I don't think you could flood a dungeon with the create water cantrip, but the decanter of endless water?

www.d20srd.org/srd/magicItems/wondrousIt...

Many whacky hijinks there. Particularly with the 3rd edition wealth tables and the ability to create magic items. Many a dungeon flooded... that is when people weren't using them to propel air ships :P

I've actually been wondering how people felt about this in regards to 5e.

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YouYoung might want to add one, or modify e).    Many people on the forums, when criticizing classes as non vancian, talk about vancian as having "flexible yet powerful" spells.  At best, this allows for players to creatively synthesize theiri spells into new uses ("create water" to overload a stream, allowing for safe passage. ).   At worst, the text onlydescription of the effects allows for broken interpretations,leading to nerfing, rules lawyering, etc.  (create water to drown and entire dungeon).  


Would you say this is an element of the magic system, or just a result of vague or otherwise poor writing?





It was very much an element of the system in 2nd edition, somewhat toned down in 3rd edition, and deliberately abandoned in 4th edition.

There was a post I wanted to make about the sorcerer's "dragon strength" power, but I think I'll use it here. The spell says that you channel the might of your dragon ancestors, but the only effect listed is bonus damage on your next hit.

My question - if the spell increases your strength for a single "act", is that limited purely to dealing damage or is that just the most obvious default effect?

If Dragon Strength was...

2nd edition spell:
It would go without saying that the strength of your dragon ancestors could used for strength related tasks other than melee damage. (left up to DM adjudication and player wilyness). Knocking down a door? Sure! Pushing a stone pillar onto your enemy? Even better!

3rd edition spell:
It's likely the issue would be addressed, though the answer provided will likely just be "no". Otherwise it would probably DM adjudicated with the assumption that the DM shouldn't allow the player to do anything "more powerful" than the listed effect. Knocking down a door? Maybe... Pushing a stone pillar onto your enemy? Um... let me see what the sage says...

4th edition spell:
Do exactly what it says, nothing more.


Not every flexible use of a spell is a game breaking abuse - for instance using cone of cold to freeze the surface of a small body of water so that you can walk over it. (hardly overpowered for a 5th level spell) And that goes both ways - a player pulls out of cone of cold during a rain storm and unintentionally creates a huge swatch of slippery ice on the battlefield.
I have never had any problems allowing my players to use their powers creativly.  Heck the vague one line fluff of 4e makes it easier to veto gamebreaker ideas.

I would say that this is an issue of presentation more than mechanic.  4e went for a very clean and efficient presentation and a lot of people weren't used to that and never got over it.

I actually mourn the loss of the 2e spirit in magic. I loved the crazy interpretations for spells and my group has actually brought many of those things back into the game as a response to trimming them back.


I think having a strict definition is probably important for larger games where you don't have time to mediate an outcome for everyone, but I would love to have some kind of sidebar on alternate effects for spells and collateral damage.


Collateral damage has got to be one of the most awesome things about magic, really. If someone throws a fireball down a dungeon corridor in my campaign then the player can expect a ragu effect as the blast is forced into the shape of the corridor. It might even blow doors off and hit rooms they didn't intend to hit and compound whatever issue they've got.



Such an awesome playground is magic.

The big flashy flexible spell is the best spell, but casting them would require to lessen a lot the number of spell slots, every slot being usable with the max power allowable for the current level.

The problem with old editions is not that the spells were open to interpretation, it's the number of spells you could cast that were open to interpretation.
Now, vancian spellcasting fans seem to not agree with a drastic drop in their spell slots number, so the only solution is to limit interpretation.

The power level of spells, and vancian spellcasting as a whole, is only a problem because it's a daily ressource. A day means nothing by itself, it's just what the DM makes it. And daily spellcasting forces DM to handle adventuring days in specific ways.

If vancian spellcasting was related to a strict game time parameter, then it would be far easier to design spells more open to interpretation.
But when you have to design a spellcasting system, when the devs have to decide what an adventuring day should be (4 encounters) and keep in mind that it may happens less or more encounters during a day, the result can't be anything than an unsastifying compromise.

As a side note, I didn't understand why the 2nd edition psionicist was ignored as the first alternative to the main spellcasting. The fact there was a check to use them and the lack of levels as prerequisites ?

If you think my english is bad, just wait until you see my spanish and my italian. Defiling languages is an art.

As a side note, I didn't understand why the 2nd edition psionicist was ignored as the first alternative to the main spellcasting. The fact there was a check to use them and the lack of levels as prerequisites ?


I don't have much experience with 2E, and I know it didn't much go in for alternative magic systems, so I wasn't really thinking about it when it came time to look for examples.  But if you think its take on the psion offers any additional insight in this matter, I'm more than happy to hear about it.
as far as i know they intended to remove D
replacing caster lever as a variable for spell effects with spell slot level.

and under the alternative magic systems i would like to see a system that has C removed.
you would just have spell slot points and max spell level.
for example at wizard lvl 5 you might have 12 points and max spell level 3.
so could chose to memorise 4 3rd level spells, or 12 1st level spells, or any other combination as long as the total does not exeed 12 spell levels.
 
As a side note, I didn't understand why the 2nd edition psionicist was ignored as the first alternative to the main spellcasting. The fact there was a check to use them and the lack of levels as prerequisites ?


I don't have much experience with 2E, and I know it didn't much go in for alternative magic systems, so I wasn't really thinking about it when it came time to look for examples.  But if you think its take on the psion offers any additional insight in this matter, I'm more than happy to hear about it.

Heh, there were vancian haters long before alternative was officially offered, and 2nd ed. psionicist was our saviour ! Wink

Like everything in 2nd edition, balance was just a skill.

It was something like that :
• Spell known, greater spells every two levels, and lesser spells every level with some bonus spells at low levels.
• Access to one school of magic at 1st level, 2 at 2nd, and another one every four level from this point (6th, 10th, and so on), up to a total of six schools.
• No spell levels. More powerful spells than others, greater spells most of the time, have prerequisites. The prerequisite is one or more specific spells. Very rarely, it's a character level.
• Magic, fluctuating ressource. Spell points that can be more or less slowly regained (or not), depending on the level of activity.
• Spell checks to succeed spellcasting.
• Each spell has his own cost and DC. A failed check means losing an action and half the required spell points to cast the spell.
• Fixed effects or determined by the roll to cast the spell.
• Spells allowing to maintain an effect give a maintenace cost of spell points.

There was a lot of ressource management, but it has the big advantage of not beeing a vancian spellcaster back then ! Laughing

Just to say that the psionicist is far more different from the wizard than the 3rd and 4th edition psion are.

If you think my english is bad, just wait until you see my spanish and my italian. Defiling languages is an art.