Designer’s Diary Entry #3: What Do You Mean, “Vancian”?Or, Spellcasting in DCC RPG
Listen to any experienced D&D gamers talk and you’ll hear the term “Vancian” bandied about. In the 1950s and 1960s, Jack Vance wrote a series of stories, now published as Tales of The Dying Earth. These tales are populated by a coterie of delightful wizards whose power is measured, in part, by how many spells they can memorize; the most powerful can remember more spells, and more complexity, and thus maintain a higher spellcasting ability than their peers. D&D adopted something close to this system, and magic-users ever since have gained class ability to memorize more spells as they progress in level. D&D gamers call this system “Vancian.”
But something is missing. The magic in Vance’s world didn’t always work as predicted. In fact, when Cugel the Clever (one of the models for what would eventually become the thief class) attempts to inflict upon his enemy Iucounu the Laughing Magician the same baleful spells that were inflicted upon himself, he fails – twice – in two ways – and winds up causing himself the problems he attempted to cause others.
Granted, Cugel in this case is a thief, not a wizard, equivalent to a D&D thief casting spells from a scroll (guess where that ability came from?). But unpredictable spell-casting, which is present in Vance, is not unique thereto. L. Sprague de Camp and Fletcher Pratt wrote a series of stories that were also very influential on the D&D magic system – perhaps so much so that we could have called the system “Camp-and-Pratt-ism” if “Vancian” weren’t so catchy. In their series on Harold Shea the enchanter, they present a logical magic system derived from recipe-like combinations of materials, motions, and chants (including “somatic” components). Unlike certain other literary magic systems that D&D did not favor (such as Moorcock’s demon-sponsored magic of Elric and Arioch), Harold Shea’s magic is organized, memorizable, and logical – but also unpredictable. Shea refers to this as “getting the decimal point right,” and in his attempts to summon a dragon he winds up summoning a pseudo-dragon (or 0.1 of a dragon) and, later, 100 dragons instead of a single one.
So what commonality is shared by the magic of Jack Vance, L. Sprague de Camp, and Fletcher Pratt – as well as Moorcock and many other Appendix N authors – but not by D&D?
Lack of predictability in spellcasting.
Any effort to re-imagine D&D as it appeared in Appendix N – which his the goal of DCC RPG – must acknowledge this fact. Much of the literary source material includes a “margin of error” on spellcasting – and not just the authors listed above. But we ended up with a very predictable spell system with no margin for error. It’s fun, as we’ve all experienced over the preceding three decades – but what if it had been done differently?
The Dungeon Crawl Classics Role Playing Game uses a Vancian magic system, which really is Vancian. The core mechanic of the game is the d20 roll (as in D&D 3E), and the core mechanic of spellcasting is the spell check. The caster, whether wizard or cleric, must roll 1d20 and add his caster level. He also adds the appropriate ability score modifier. He must beat a result of 10 + (2x spell level). A roll of less than this causes failure, and, in the case of wizards, the caster forgets his spell. (More on clerics later.) A roll of 1 is a fumble and can cause horrible things to happen – most likely to the caster. A successful roll causes something to happen – but not always the same thing. A high-level wizard casting magic missile
can achieve a much more impressive result than his level 1 brethren – not just “more missiles,” but a fundamentally more powerful spell result.
Because magic missile
is a D&D staple, it provides a good example of what I mean by “lack of predictability in spellcasting.” In traditional D&D editions, magic missile includes a modicum of unpredictability: for example, in 3.5, each missile did 1d4+1 damage, and a higher-level caster receives a predictable number of additional missiles. In DCC RPG, magic missile is fundamentally more variable. Here is the table of spell results. Remember that the caster rolls 1d20, and adds his caster level and Intelligence modifier, so a level 1 wizard is usually adding +2 or +3:
1-11: Lost. Failure.
12-13: You can throw 1 missile that does 1 point of damage. You must have line of sight to the target. The missile flows unerringly and never misses, though it may be blocked by certain magic (e.g., magic shield).
14-17: As above, but 1 missile does damage 1d4 + caster level.
18-19: As above, but 1d4 missiles that each do damage 1d4 + caster level. All missiles must be aimed at a single target.
20-23: As above, but 1d4 missiles that each do damage 1d6 + caster level. You may aim each missile at an individual target.
24-27: As above, but one extremely powerful missile that does damage 4d12 + caster level. Range is increased to 1,000’, provided line of sight is maintained.
28-29: As above, but 1d8 missiles that each do damage 1d8 + caster level. Range is increased to line of sight, as long as missiles travel in a direct path.
30-31: As above but 1d10 missiles that each do damage 1d8 + caster level. Each missile may be aimed individually. Range is line of sight, regardless of whether a direct path exists; e.g., the caster may launch a magic missile through a crystal ball or other scrying device. These missiles have limited ability to defy magic shield and other protections; compare this spell check against the spell check used to create the magic shield. If the magic missile check is higher, the magic shield has only a 50% chance of absorbing the missiles (roll individually for each missile). Any missiles that make it through do damage 1d8 + caster level, as noted above.
32+: As above but 1d10 missiles that each do damage 1d10 + caster level. The caster may direct these missiles individually as a single action, or may direct them all at a single target who is not present or visible, provided he has specific knowledge of that target. In this case, the caster must have a physical memento of the target (hair, fingernail, vial of blood, etc.) and spend 1 turn concentrating to cast the spell, then continue concentrating as the missiles seek their target. The missiles will aim for this target even if it is concealed or invisible, though they have a maximum range of 100 miles. The missiles will turn, curve, re-trace their route, and make every effort to reach the target, although they cannot cross planes. The missiles can travel up to 10 miles per second provided no obstacles are present, but speed is much lower if, for example, they must navigate underground caverns. Provided a direct route exists, the missiles will strike the target unerringly.
This spell effect table is the first and most important element of spell variability in DCC RPG. In actual play, it makes wizard spellcasting extremely exciting. No player is ever quite sure if the wizard will succeed on his next spell attempt. A successful roll means the wizard not only casts the spell, but retains it for casting again in the future. A failure means the wizard loses the spell – and a roll of 1 can result in a spell failure or the corruption of the caster. Conversely, a natural 20 is a critical success, and grants the most powerful result on the table. I have been in games where the wizard character has single-handedly pulled the party from disaster with a series of great rolls – and other games where the wizard just had a really, really bad day.
While Vancian spellcasting is one school of Appendix N, and “Camp-and-Pratt-ism” is another, there is a third approach which has probably received more reader attention but rarely been manifest in D&D. The sorcerers of Robert E. Howard invariably draw their power from alliances with supernatural creatures, as does, to a lesser extent, Michael Moorcock’s Elric, and select other archetypes within Appendix N. This element of spellcasting is reflected in DCC RPG as spellburn and patron magic. Spellburn and Patron Magic:
“Blood aids great sorcery,” quoth the mummy, and it was right. The spellburn mechanic allows a magic-user to harness more magical energies if he is willing to make mortal sacrifice: offer part of his soul to a demon, foster a demi-god’s greedy growth by leeching his strength, or even burn the very life energy in his own cells. Before rolling any spell check, a wizard or cleric may declare he will attempt spellburn. In attempting spellburn, the wizard temporarily expends points of his Strength, Agility, or Stamina score to enhance his spell check. For every ability point he expends, he adds +1 to his spell check. The ability score loss is temporary, but the act committed must be role-played: the wizard must exchange something
with a demon, celestial, ghost, or other supernatural power capable of granting arcane favors, and that act is not always without subsequent consequence. I have been in games where the players are perfectly willing to take a hit to their ability scores but balk when the role-played exchange comes into play.
Supernatural patrons are further reflected in the game with a strain of magic known as patron magic. In short, a wizard can utilize a spell slot to form an alliance with an otherworldly power, who serves as his patron. The patron aids the wizard when called…but he will ask for favors, exchanges, and gifts in return. “Blood for my lord!” as certain Appendix N heroes were wont to shout – and the same can happen in your DCC RPG games. A wizard can invoke help from a demon or celestial ally, but the aid that is sent may not be exactly what was requested. Patron invocation as a type of magic will be dealt with in more detail later, but in short, it is even less predictable than other spells, but potentially far more powerful. At a cost.
We now have Vancian and Camp-and-Pratt spell variability, and Howard and Moorcock style consultation with supernatural beings. What next? Well, Appendix N is nothing if not full of many models of fantasy. A third vein of Appendix N magic use concerns hereditary magic use. Whether it’s in Zelazny’s Amber series, or lesser-known titles such as Margaret St. Clair’s Sign of the Labrys, the literature contains a thread of “magical self-discovery” where characters learn of their powers. D&D has adopted this to varying degrees over the years, usually as a racial or class trait (e.g., the sorcerer or tiefling concept of “demon blood in your past”). I prefer to integrate it into the spellcasting mechanic. It is here that mercurial magic comes into play.Mercurial magic:
The firstborn son of a witch hanged at trial wields black magic adroitly. An orphan raised by satyrs is a precocious student of druidry. Cosmic caprice determines skill in magic: birth order, family lineage, horoscope, and matters even more abstruse have as much influence on a wizard’s spellcasting as his hard work and native intelligence.
As a result, the effect of a magical spell varies according to he who casts it. A magical rite invoked by one mage may be more powerful – or even different
– than the same ritual exercised by a peer. These variegations are not predictable, as the subtleties that produce them can never be fully catalogued.
In DCC RPG, this is known as mercurial magic. When a wizard learns a new spell, he rolls on a specialized table to determine how that spell manifests in his hands
. The mercurial element might mean that a cloud of ash appears whenever he casts the spell, or he swoons in weakness, or there is thunder, or toadstools grow around him, or he is wreathed in flame, or he is “strong with this spell” and makes spell checks with 1d30 instead of 1d20. There are many possible side effects, and it ensures each wizard’s magic missile
is unique – independent of the spell check roll.Taken Together:
Spellcasting in DCC RPG is a different experience than traditional D&D, but it feels very much like sword-and-sorcery, and, in my opinion, accurately reflects the amalgam of source material that many of us associate with the origins of D&D. When you play DCC RPG, you’re definitely not playing D&D – but it “feels” like D&D in many ways. The source is true even if the manifestation is different.
In actual play, wizards are tremendous fun. Their dice rolls on spell checks can make or break an encounter – and occasionally an entire session. At a recent con game I ran, one wizard continually rolled high on his invoke patron
spell results. In three combats, he managed to summon demonic aid three times, and swayed the combat every time. He utilized spellburn to pull this off, and wound up having to share his true name with a demon to get the aid he requested. But it worked…for a while. Near the end of the session, he rolled a natural 1 on a spell check. Spell fumble! Then he rolled a natural 20 on the spell fumble table: worst possible result! This was a wizard that lived fast…and then died young when his demonic patron claimed his soul prematurely.
In another game, I had a character roll up comprehend languages
with the mercurial side effect that the air around the wizard became freezing cold every time he cast it, causing 1d4 damage to everyone nearby. The wizard wound up casting comprehend languages
in combat for the side effect!
So, how is a wizard in the DCC RPG different from a wizard in traditional D&D? They both cast spells, they both forget spells, they both know more spells as they advance in levels. But the DCC RPG magic-user has a little more variability in his arsenal. His spells can go extremely well – or very poorly. Or just average. They’re not predictable, they’re not completely controllable, they’re not science experiments.
Hmm. I suppose this means magic feels more like – magic?