Thursday, April 28, 2011

“True” Vancian Magic (and my 101st post!)

Wow! I noted only yesterday that I reached my 100th post. I never thought I would reach that mark, much less in such short time (for me at least). I just would like to thank all my followers and readers! And especially my multiclass love Mandy (high level girlfriend/wife); after all, it was due to her encouragement that I started this mad experiment.

“True” Vancian Magic

After having recently read Jack Vance’s masterpiece “Tales of the Dying Earth”, I’m convinced that calling the D&D/Pathfinder magic system of “vancian” is a premature assumption. I actually prefer to call it “gygaxian”, but in the end that’s just semantics. I don’t really know if it was Gygax or Anderson the main responsible for the original magic system, but I know that Gygax’s magic system for Chainmail was radically different (and, in certain aspects, closer to the way that spells operate at Vance’s novels).

But, as usual, I’m digressing. In the Dying Earth universe, magic is closer to a form of hyper mathematic (or some kind of fallen science), than an authentic occult lore. Each spell is a very precise and delicate formula directed, maybe, to a universal machine or (semi) sapient cosmic entity. A computer code for reality, if you like. Even a tiny mispronunciation (or hesitation) can spell doom for the caster (no pun intended). The fact that a spell is in fact a type of “meta-code” that our brain can’t normally store and process, thus creating the whole dweomer “memorization”, is one of the Dying Earth’s basic premises.

What I intent do here is a little “hack” for Pathfinder, emulating that idea (at last my vision of it). For example: differently from Pathfinder, Vancian spells can’t be memorized multiple times, there aren’t any level limitations and most dweomers are amazing specific in their effects (true magical versatility in the Dying Earth universe is left to a few archmages, like Rhialto or Idelfonse, normally through the use of sandestins).

The house rules below are necessarily short and (I hope) to the point. They’re more like guidelines and definitely not a new magic system.

"True" Vancian Magic in 10 Steps
  • Classes: Remove all spellcasting classes. Use the “spell-less” versions of classes like the paladin (from the Advanced Player’s Guide) and the ranger (from KQ #11).
  • Spells: Keep the spells from Pathfinder. All spells are of arcane nature and spell lists are kept just for Ability Score requirement purposes (check Step 4). Remove the Knowledge [Divine] skill.
  • Learning Spells: Require 1 month per spell, 2 months for spells of 5th level or higher and probably more for 8th level or higher. Literacy is required. Read magic is removed. Spells are usually in dead or supernatural languages (Linguistics can be used to decipher them normally). A Spellcraft check (DC 15 + level) is rolled at the period’s end. Cantrips can be learned by any character with ranks in Knowledge [Arcana] after a week of study and a successful Spellcraft check (DC 10).
  • Spell Memorization: Each spell can only be memorized once. An interesting side effect of this rule is that that multitude of damage-dealing dweomers will finally be useful. Grimoire (or better yet, Librams!) are the only way of memorizing spells. Each character can hold on his mind a number of spell levels equal to his Intelligence modifier. While there aren’t level limits to learn a spell, the spellcaster still must respect Ability Score requirements (i.e. Wis 15+ to cast raised dead and Int/Char 19+ to cast meteor swarm).
  • Spellcasting: Requires a Spellcraft check (DC 20 + level). Each “spell slot” left “open” can be spent to add a cumulative +3 bonus to this check. Spellcraft isn’t a class skill anymore. It requires a feat to correct this (and personally I would forbid Skill Focus to be used for Spellcraft). A second feat enables you to add your Spellcraft ranks to your Int modifier to determine the number of memorized spells.
  • Spellcasting Failure: Check the margin of failure and the following table.
The spellcasting isn’t finished. Keep casting and roll again next round. Caster is flat-footed.
Spellcasting fails and the dweomer is lost.
The spell is cast but one of its parameters is randomly changed. The GM determines the exact details based on the roll below.
Roll 1d6:
Changes the target;
Changes the effect, for example: number of targets, shape of the dweomer etc;
Changes the duration;
Changes the nature of the spell, for example: fire damage could be become cold, a charm could become a confusion etc;
The spell works normally, but the target is the caster. If he was the original target, pick an enemy or the closest appropriate target.
6. Spellcasting fails but the dweomer recast itself around the caster 1d4 times in the next minutes
By 16+
The caster suffer the spell level in points of ability drain (use the Ability Score linked to the spell’s DC) and the GM has full liberty to choose a random effect of the same level and inflict it on the caster (like the summoning of an outsider). Poetic irony and heartless humor should be guiding principles here.

Cantrips require a Spellcraft check (DC 10) to be cast, can be used at will (without memorization) and a failure doesn’t incur in any penalty. 
  • Spell Nomenclature: This is the most important rule! Add a fanciful name to even the simplest dweomer. In this system there are no magic missiles, only Xanadar’s Inerrable Force Darts.
  • [Optional] Spell Potency: To better reflect the impact of spellcasting (which will be rarer here) I recommend increasing spell damage.
  • [Optional] Rogue Talents: minor magic now adds +2 “slots” to your Int mod for memorization purposes, while major magic add +4.
  • [Optional] Magical Healing: Because we don’t see this kind of magic very often in Dying Earth I suggest using the house rule that all healing attempted through dweomer convert lethal damage to nonlethal damage. If you allow resurrection, you can also house rule some dire effect (like the target coming back with one extra age category).


  1. Fascinating. It looks workable but it would be a very different game from standard D&D.

  2. I love it. And I too recently finished Vance's Tales of the Dying Earth. I am struggling with one point:
    "Each character can hold on his mind a number of spell levels equal to his Intelligence modifier."

    So if I have Int 18 I can only hold 4 spell levels/day? I need to have a Int 28 for 9th level spells? (I can almost see that though.) Related to this point, is it the same to memorize 1 4th level spell vs. 4 1st level spells?

  3. Thanks for the comments!

    @Joe: Yes, the math is right. With Int 18 you can memorize 4x 1st level spells, 1x 4th level or any combination between.

    But see the "Spellcasting" session. The second new feat briefly suggested there let you add your Spellcraft Ranks to your Int mod for the purpose of memorization.