Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Vancian Magic: You're Dead To Me

Vancian Magic was the first magic system I ever used. But of late I've decided to scrap it, at least philosophically. That isn't to say that I haven't enjoyed games with spell slots (I have) or that they never work for a game (indeed, sometimes they do). It isn't to say that I've got something infinitely better.

But, here's my reasoning.

1) The Choice to Suck

As has been mentioned before, presenting players with choices that are just bad is not interesting. All it does is open the door to one player sucking it up a lot more than his peers, which is frustrating in a team-based game.

Check out the polling in these DF threads:

As you can see, some old standbys like Protection from Evil accumulate 53 votes out of about 53 voters. That means that 100% of respondents think Pro Evil is a good choice. Precipitation nets zero votes. That's right, a big goose egg. So, if its so woefully unuseful, why even give players the choice to select it? Magic-User spells are even more problematic, because a cleric can fix their mistake the next day, but a mage that picks unwisely is stuck.

There are two sub-problems here:
- Spells that are inferior to others of their level. This is the more minor issue. This just gives players a chance to suck. That's bad, but at least all the other spells remain viable options.
- Spells that are strictly better than others (Sleep, anyone?). There is now never a reason to memorize anything else. The one overpowered spell has basically made everything else a contender for first loser. Its even worse if said uber-spell is also a multifunction spell that can solve multiple problems (see below).

FIXES: Fixing "overpowered" spells is relatively easy. AD&D 3.5 did this with some notable selections like sleep. Applying the nerf bat -- even if you apply it too hard -- is good. You may create more inferior spells, but having an inferior spell is better than having an uberspell. Also, the DM often can help a sucky player pick more wisely, whether its by the deity just refusing to grant useless spells or by placing some very handy spell scrolls in good locations.

2) Multifunction Spells Are King

When given the choice between Zephyr (which is 100% effective at preventing cloudkill TPKs) and Invisibility (can be used to gather information, for defense, or even for offense), everyone will pick Invisibility. Likewise, consider Wall of Ice (which can be used as a defensive spell like a wall, an offensive spell to do direct damage, or a utility spell for problem solving) vs. Plant Growth. Sure, Plant Growth might be really useful sometime, but Ice Spell will at least be somewhat useful just about every day.

Barring exact intelligence on the threat (you know they have cloudkill), almost every player will choose the general-purpose spell that they can use every day. That means that some potentially cool spells get left by the wayside just because it is unlikely that they'll ever be used.

FIX: 4E's attempt to "silo" utility and attack magic is a good theoretical approach. GM-style, if you give players intelligence about what's coming up, they'll feel more willing to pick those oddball spells that are good in specific situations. If you keep them in the dark, the'll be compelled to go with the multifunction stand by.

3) It busts the rule of 7+/- 2 AND the rule of 3.

At the mid levels, the system works fine. Indeed, for me, the "golden levels" of 1E AD&D are around 4-7. There are about 3-4 spell levels to choose from and only about 8 spell slots to fill.

If you've ever played a high level caster though (name level or above), you know how much ass pain it is to fill out the spell roster. Literally hours can be spent coordinating a party's spell lists. As my playing time gets more limited, dealing with this sort of logistical nonsense has gotten tiring. Even in OD&D, there's more than 7 choices at each level. In combat, a high level caster has way more than 7 possible choices for what to cast. A higher level caster has more than 3 spells by far, making magic fell less special -- if you can spam Conjure Elemental 4 times then how special can it be?

Additionally, at lower levels, there are too few choices. Having only 1 or 2 spells lacks even the rule of 3 ("Start, Middle, End") feeling.

FIX: This is harder. I think 4E's At Will/Encounter/Daily silos make some sense. Interestingly, at upper heroic tier, you get 3 powers you can spam every encounter, and 3 powers you can use each day. The problem is that once you add on racial powers, utility powers, paragon path powers, magic item powers, etc, every round someone is doing something special. But philosophically its not bad. Reserve Feats from 3.5 fixed this somewhat as well, especially at lower levels.

4) It is too mechanical

Memorize a spell, get the exact same result every time. Not very magical, is it? That just turns magic into technology. It also stifles creativity.

FIX: Trollsmyth's OD&D Magic Hack is good. Some skill-based magic systems try to address this problem by making it possible for spells to fail, but that just introduces a binary variable to the system -- not as useful. 3.5's Reserve Feats encouraged themed casters, which is kind of cool and flavorful at least.

5) Clerics use the same subsystem

Because clerics use the same Vancian spell slot system as Magic Users, they do not feel clearly differentiated from their Arcane bretheren. Sure, the source of their power is technically different (they need to toe the moral line rather than lug around a tome) but 95% of the time it works out the same.

FIX: I haven't seen anything that really addresses this.

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