Thursday, December 5, 2013

Jack Vance Walks Into a Pilates Studio

So I read through Jack Vance's significant corpus this year. It was very edifying.  And satisfactory to finally be reading some Appendix N material.

Why if, you all knew how shallow my Appendix N exposure truly was, you'd punch a hole in your computer screen, break your keyboard over your knee, and urinate all over your hard drive. Then you'd put all of those things in a box, fill it with ox blood and the chimneysweep's curse, and mail it to me.

That's the singular reason why I don't post my address online.

Anyway, Jack Vance is awesome.  I get the appeal of Vancian magic.  I do, I really do.  It's a fantastic storytelling device.  Chekov's ammo, really.


Nowhere does he have spell levels. Vance's wizards are more flexible than that.

So here's my idea: a more flexible Vancian system. We take over the government and collapse all of those big Spells Per Level Per Day tables that wizards have into a Flex-points Per Day progression.  We'll call it MP for Magic Points, and they can be used to prepare spells of any level.

Let's say that a level 1 spell is worth one Magic Point and a level 2 spell is worth 2 Magic Points and so on.  A level 1 Wizard has 1 MP, because he can cast a single level 1 spell and nothing else.  A level 3 wizard has 4 MP, because he can cast a pair of level 1 spells and a single level 2 spell.

This is how we can convert the existing magic-user charts into equivalent MP-per-level.

I know, in my heart of hearts, that this system is flawed.  Spell power isn't linear.  A trio of level 1 spells are not as useful as single level 3 spell.  But it's close enough, to make this interesting, right?

We'll never know unless we try.

Let's start by looking at S&W and LL and adding up all of their spell ranks on a spreadsheet. We'll add in the spell progression from 3.5 as a control group, to see how much the game has changed in 30 years.  The "Goblin" column is a progression of my own devising, but I'll come back to that.

Level 3.5 style S&W LL Goblin
1 1 1 1 1
2 2 2 2 2
3 4 4 4 4
4 7 7 6 6
5 10 11 9 9
6 16 14 12 12
7 20 20 17 16
8 29 27 23 20
9 34 32 31 25
10 46 39 40 30
11 52 51 47 36
12 67 66 60 42
13 74 78 70 49
14 92 91 87 56
15 100 108 108 64
16 121 127 124 72
17 130 141 151 81
18 154 159 172 90
19 154 187 187 100
20 171 210 204 120

So this looks interesting.  3.5 style spell progression actually creeps up the highest of the three in the middle, but ends up limiting itself at the last minute.  LL and S&W seem to parallel each other nicely, at least in this respect.

(Also S&W spell progressions are a little weird.  I know they were drawing on the ancestral genome when they drafted themselves, but wow.  Also, S&W is all about giving you lots of mid- and low-level spells, while being very frugal with the level 7-9.  Seriously, as "low" as level 16, you can cast 5 spells from every level 1-6, but still no level 9 spells.  You never get more than a pair of level 9 spells.  Conversely, high level LL gives you more spells in the 7-9 range, but fewer in the 1-6. Is this important to anyone??? Totally yes.)

I was pretty excited by all of this thinking about spell progressions.  To be honest, I was getting a little sweaty. So I do what I always do when I get sweaty: make some graphs.

Then I made a semi-logarithmic graph and zoomed in on the areas of interest. You can sort of see the wiggles in the different lines.  Also noticeable is how the 3.5 graph jumps in power every other level, a product of it's extremely regular intra-spell-level progression.

Anyway, if you actually played a wizard using flexible MP, it would be a pretty big advantage to be so flexible (everyone go do pilates).  They'd be able to prepare a shit-ton of level 1 spells if that is what the day required, or just prepare a handful of their highest level spells.

So, a compromise was needed.  I made my own MP progression.  It's up there alongside the others, labeled "Goblin". Unlike everyone else's weird squiggly lines, my progression is mathematically perfect all along its length (except at level 20, where I gave them +10 MP, because level-fucking-20).  It's also yields a lot fewer MP than the other 3 alternatives.  Which is appropriate, since you are trading quantity for flexibility.

Unbalancing? Maybe.

Vancian? I think so. Rhialto doesn't roll up with a bunch of Magic Missile and Hold Portal. No! He brings 5 big-awesome-sexy spells that are all gamechangers (and coincidentally appropriate) over the course of his day.

But can we make it more Vancian?  Can we give the class even fewer MP so that they'll only cast handful of spells?  And give it a stupid name?


Hit Die: d6
Armor: as Thief
Weapons: as Thief
Attack Bonus: as Thief
Everything Else: as Magic-User

The Vancomancer learns, prepares, and casts spells in much the same way a Magic-User can (including the spell levels that are accessible).  However, a vancomancer is not limited to any particular number of spells per day of a particular level. Instead, a vancomancer has a pool of magic point (MP) that they expend each morning when they are preparing their spells. It costs a number of MP to prepare a spell equal to the spell's level.

Level MP
1 1
2 2
3 4
4 6
5 8
6 10
7 12
8 14
9 16
10 18
11 20
12 22
13 24
14 26
15 28
16 30
17 32
18 34
19 36
20 40
You'll notice that this chart is very limiting, compared to the vast pools of converted MP the magic-users got in LL and S&W.  A level 5 vancomancer has a mere 8 MP.  They might prepare a single level 3 spell, a pair of level 2 spells, and a single level 1 spell on a particular morning.  Or they might prepare eight level 1 spells, depending on their need.

At the same time, they're slightly less useless in a fight, with a little more hp and attack bonuses.

I feel like Vance's wizards only wore huge robes because of how comfortable and luxurious they were. Sort of like lounging around in gilded pajamas. The whole "wizards can't wear armor" thing seems to be an exercise in niche protection. Or maybe people just like the preserve the iconic glass cannon.

But heck, even Vance's wizards swung weapons with some alacrity. Gandalf had a sword!

Alright, I feel justified enough.  I can hit the submit button now.


  1. There's a spell going back to AD&D (at lets that lets wizards function somewhat likw this ) Ray's Enhancer or something. It cost a high level spell slot but gives the ability to remember more low level spells. The thing is, some if those low level spells (Like Magic Missile) become super dangerous at higher level (or at least still very useful). I think it's a balance. Not that your suggestion is bad - just that players will game the system for fun a lot of the time. Add the caveat - a magic user may only memorize an individual spell once per day and you have a bit of a fix.

  2. Oh, I think somewhen somewhere someone blogged about a brainmap solution to "real" Vancian magic... with different spells having different sizes and forms to be placed in your free brain places like a puzzle, with the highest level spells having the most difficult forms to place, if I remember correctly (not sure about this...). I really liked that approach, but don't know anymore where and who and what became of this idea, in the end...

    1. That's an awesome idea. A minigame of packing the suitcase that is your brain. As long as your players don't get tired of it. . . and I guess you'd probably need physical tokens to represent the spells.

    2. That would be the Ggmlk, that glorious bastard, who devised such a system:

  3. Also check out the DCC RPG approach.
    Every time you use a spell you make a skill check, add INT bns for mages+lvl. If you pass it with a high enough roll you cast & keep the spell. Or you might fail horribly, lose the spell and be tainted by the backlash of magic and grow scaly skin and lizard eyes - And draw the attention of your supernatural/demonic patron witch normally is not a good thing- Wizzards can spellburn -sacrifice temporary stats to get bonus to these rolls- witch conversely requires roleplaying the means of that sacrifice-i.e. cutting a pound of your own flesh,cutting the symbol of your chaos patron in the forehead with a knife-...And don't even get me started with the mercurial nature of magic...

    I feel It kind of captures both Vance's, Moorcook's an Good Old D&D magic and mixes it in a very interesting melting pot.

    And by all means take a peek at the game, It is a notorious good read and It has a heap ton of cool stuff in it too. Even if you don't dig the old school renaissance it's worth the reading...

    1. I've read the DCC rules, but I'm ashamed to say that I've never played it.

  4. My DM decided that metal armor messes up the flow of energy from the ethereal plane as a solution to why being a magic user makes you unable to wear decent armour.

  5. In "rêve de dragon" a game in Wich all players are dreamed characters of a collective dragon dream, the game have been published in France, but I don't know if an English version exist, casting spells is somewhat scary.

    You see mages are kind of aware that they are only dreams, and can create a lot of spells effects that is like pushing your own dream inside someone else's. To do this the mage have to travel in his head through The dreamland to bring forth the desired effect, the further the travel, the more dangerous to cast the spell is.

    Failing could cause the mage to vanish or worse, waking the dragons Wich means everybody's death.