Vancian Magic, and why it needs to go!

Just as a quick primer for those unfamiliar with the term, Vancian Magic refers to game systems that employ magic spells that are learned in advance of use, are extremely specific, and cannot be ‘tuned down’ into a lesser form. Also known as “Utility Belt Magic”, this was first used in the stories of Jack Vance (thus the name), and popularized in the gaming zeitgeist by Gary Gygax, when he adopted it for “Dungeons & Dragons”.

Okay, that all said, Vancian Magic sucks, and needs to go! It is frankly stupid, feels less like magic than a collection of special abilities a character can pull out of their hat, and is really hard to balance against other character classes. As an RPG developer, I much prefer magic systems that allow players to create their own spells, tune them to the needs of the moment, while still being balanced against the relative power of other characters (to some degree).

Here’s the thing: Vancian magic systems are great for keeping Magic Users on scale for other characters, in terms of basic damage dealing, but that’s all. Magic Users shouldn’t be balanced, though. Magic Users are supposed to be rare and powerful beings, wielding the might of Creation in their hands, and able to smite with near godlike power. Even neophytes, just learning of their abilities, should be able to accidentally summon mighty forces. See “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” in “Fantasia” for a proper example.

In a game I am working on now, Magic Users are limited not by how many spell slots they have (in fact, spell slots aren’t even a thing), but by their ability to channel magical forces through them. Basically, casting a minor spell like lighting a candle, that takes no effort at all. But casting more powerful spells require the caster to make an effort to summon and control those forces. Failing to do so may result in unforeseen effects, insanity, and possibly even death.

That’s the price of nearly unlimited power. It makes swinging a sword or shooting a bow much more preferable in most circumstances, leaving magic as the power of last resort. In my opinion, that’s how Magic should be. Those who foolishly abuse their power will quickly burn out, go insane, be crippled or die outright. But those who use their power with care, or do so with safeguards (totems, circles, rituals, etc) included, won’t have an issue, but they will also only perform amazing feats of magic quite rarely.

Thus, balance is achieved.

Anyway, Vancian Magic is stupid in my opinion, and I’d like to see it fall out of favor in gaming systems, both Tabletop and Video games.

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