What I'm Backing on Kickstarter:

What I'm Backing on Kickstarter:
Codex Egyptium

Friday, February 3, 2012

Problems with the Magic System

When you look at the system of magic in D&D since the beginning, it has always been influenced by the writings of Jack Vance. Well most people who have been the hobby a while know who he is though, sadly, new comers will wonder where the term 'Vancian' when referring to the magic system comes from. Put simply, it's the 'fire and forget' method of casting spells. The caster needs to memorize and prepare the spells to enable them to cast the spell at a later point. There is nothing quite like it but it was a great way to build in a way to limit spellcasters and allow them to grow as the 'level up' by gaining the ability to cast more powerful spells and a greater number of spells to boot.

The first spells introduced to the game were classic spells such as 'Sleep' and 'Magic Missile'. As the game got further developed and revised, more and more spells were added. At some point, game balance and a semblance of 'method' was evident when you looked at newer editions and revisions of spells in the 3rd Edition era of the Game. Some classic fixes to replace the system are spell points. Less powerful spells require fewer points than the higher ones but you are typically still limited by what level you can cast (like the classic Vancian system) but you don't necessarily have the problem of preparing a set list of spells. Of course, the 'Sorcerer' class from 3rd Edition also did away with preparing the set list of spells and exchanged freedom and spontaneous casting for fewer spells able to be used per day.

Now, while there is a distinct charm with a set spell list -- especially if you look at the older 'grandfathered' spells (a bunch of which are in the SRD), a Vancian system of magic can be cumbersome and restrictive. It's perfectly ok to want to limit your spellcasters and preserve a sense of balance in your game but given the fact there hasn't been many other viable choices, it can leave some people a bit frustrated or even bored with the prospect of playing a spellcaster. WOTC really decided to largely do away with it with 4th Edition and while the concepts of Rituals were cool enough, some thought it did the archetype of a spellcaster a disservice.

Personally, regardless of the approach one wants to take, it's the quality of the material on hand that makes or breaks the game. While I love D&D and the wealth of games that derive from it, one of the things that has remained a bit of a disappointment was how magic was approached in the first place. When looking at the wealth of information they could draw from (going from published setting to published setting), very little is concerned with magic. Sure, there is clerical or divine magic and then there was what wizards play with (arcane magic). The Dragonlance setting is probably one of my favorites since it gives a slightly better explanation that the other published settings. There is the influence of the three moons to the three branches of magic (white, red, and black robes) which are associated with three different deities. Depending if the particular moon was waning or waxing, the mages would get penalties or bonuses to their magic. They also had their centers of power (the towers). Divine magic was a bit simpler and was granted by individual deities to their clerics. However, even then, there was a point where this channel was not accessible and this reinforced the idea that power and favor from the gods could be cut off.

But with that said, other settings didn't go beyond this level of detail and many didn't come close to providing this MUCH detail. It was largely up to the DM to provide if they chose to. The creation of specialist schools (largely second edition) was just a way to differentiate but little else in terms of thought was put into systems of magic and the underlying foundation for the purposes of story telling was concerned. Things like spell research and spell components seem almost as a concept just thrown in at the last minute more than anything else. In the end, very little differentiates this system of magic from some of the newer video game take on magic.

Vancian magic is just one step away from power ups.

So, until a suitable alternative presents itself -- give some thought to magic, the divine, and other trappings fit and work together in your campaign. As for alternatives... I'm working on one which may work out for a bunch of people and this will be showcased in the forthcoming "Ballista Companion Rulebook".

Thanks for reading.