The Magic Of Gaming: The Vancian System
November 6, 2013

The Magic Of Gaming: The Vancian System

Magic is a fundamental part of fantasy, and the same is true of fantasy gaming. Magic-users, those able to bend the very energies of creation to their will, have always fascinated us. From characters like Gandalf in J.R.R. Tolkien‘s The Lord of the Rings to Harry Potter from J.K. Rowling‘s books of the same name, wizards of all sorts have a way of enthralling us. In tabletop games, magic-users tend to be one of the more popular archetypes, and many times an adventuring party simply does not feel whole without their resident wizard at hand. Looking at the crunch aspect of gaming, there are many different systems of magic out there, nearly one for every game that has magic in it, and none are without their merits and flaws. Today, we will be examining the oldest of these: the Vancian magic system.

The Vancian system comes to us from the original Dungeons & Dragons, the first tabletop role-playing game to ever exist, though the name itself (and the concept) comes from a series of fantasy novels titled Dying Earth written by Jack Vance. Hence the name. In the Vancian system, magic-users have a number of spells they are able to memorize each day of each level of power, selected from their Grimoire, or “spell book.” Based on the character’s level and power, they will have more uses of spells from the varying levels each day. The number of spells they have access to is nearly limitless, as a wizard is able to copy nearly any spell they come across into their Grimoire, but the wizard is only able to use so many spells per day. This same system is used in Pathfinder, as well.

In many ways, a magic-users number of spells per day works like having a set amount of ammunition per day. A low-level magic-user may have something like four first level spells, four second level spells, and one third level spell they are able to use each day, and thus must prepare their choices each day by studying their Grimoire. If they are anticipating a lot of fighting, such as when they and their party are readying to attack an orc camp, the magic-user will likely prepare multiple combat spells, such as Burning Hands, Scorching Ray, and Fireball, as well as protective spells like Mage Armor, Shield, and Globe of Lesser Invulnerability. However, should the magic-user be taking the time to examine some ancient relics they recently found, their spell choices for the day might include things like Identify, Legend Lore, or Read Magic. A character who uses Vancian magic is at their best when they have had time to prepare for what lies ahead, and they are at their worst when things go awry.

Playing a magic-user in a game like Dungeons & Dragons or Pathfinder is all about planning ahead and being able to anticipate the unexpected. It can be very daunting for new players to try and come to grips with having to select what spells they are going to want throughout the day beforehand and not being able to change their selections on the fly. The Vancian system works well for level-up based games, but is hard to integrate into point-buy progression systems. It has its flaws certainly, but I have become quite fond of the system, myself. For many players who were introduced to gaming through Dungeons & Dragons, the Vancian magic system is the one most commonly encountered.

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