Gaming Tonic

3.5 Killed Vancian Magic, Can 5E Raise Dead?

Spell Book

So as we have read in Legends and Lore back in February from Monte Cook, 5th Edition Dungeons & Dragons will include vancian magic either in the core or a modular addition.  That is a good idea when you consider the mission to draw elements from all editions to build a game that fans of all editions want to play together.  Vancian magic was the mechanic in all editions but 4th edition, and should feel comfortable to most fans of Dungeons & Dragons who have been playing for five or more years.  I have to admit that one of my reasons for burning out running 3.5 was this magic system.  It was fine for the first few levels but as wizards, clerics, sorcerers, and other spell casters began to climb in number of spells that were available to cast daily and the numbers of spells that were available per level, the pace of the game could slow quickly.

There are several reasons vancian magic can negatively impact the pace of your game and a few changes that the designers of the next edition may consider to allow players a different way to use the venerable magic system that doesn’t take the game over.  Don’t worry for every problem there is a solution, just sometimes not the right solution for everybody.  Sometimes it wasn’t even a problem in the first place for anybody.  With that in mind let us continue.

The first problem I have seen in my games is that a party will take a tremendous amount of time to arrive at a plan because the party has a lot of options for the magic wielding characters to consider casting before executing the plan.  The magic wielding characters may also have had to sift thru spell options while gathering intelligence to formulate the plan.  The decision of what spells will have to be layered and what are their durations so that they can be cast for maximum effectiveness during the coming events has to be given some thought as well.  That is a lot of a game time that can be dedicated to the magic aspect of D&D.  The non-spell casters can contribute as well by stealth, preparing an ambush point, and other things but these are usually handled quickly since they are often not covered in the rules and require quick descriptions with a couple of dice rolls to complete.

The easiest way to address this and pick up the pace of casting is to limit the amount of spells that a caster has running at one time.  Allowing a maximum amount of spell levels to be running simultaneously equal to the caster level +1 will help the pace not drag and allow the non-spellcasters more opportunities to get involved in the game.  Caster level +1 allows a first level caster to have two first level spells working at the same time.  Every time the caster gains a level he gains in his ability to control more magic power at one time.  A rogue who is stealthy will still be a valuable scout at 10th level because the wizard will not be able to cast fly, invisibility, protection from normal weapons, blur, mirror image, and stoneskin, all at the same time by 7th level.  That was in 3.5 D&D, so you could adjust the levels of spells a bit in D&D Next but I think players have become accustomed to the levels of their fireballs, magic missiles, and flamestrikes.

This allows the other characters to perhaps get involved in the game a bit more.  The wizard is much less likely to sneak on ahead and have a look if he can't layer up like a magical stealth tank.  Watch the rogue get their jobs back.  If 4th Edition taught us anything it was that a spell and a ritual could be two separate ways of casting magic.  The rogue's Open Locks skill is still a great skill that can get a lot of use if the wizard doesn't have a knock spell available with the flick of a wrist.  When the rogue can't pick the lock or a door can't be opened by picking or bashing the party takes ten minutes and the wizard handles the obstacle.  The cleric does not tend to do too much in the way of overlap at the the lower levels but at mid levels can begin to duplicate fighter pretty well in 3.5  D&D.  Teamed with the other caster characters, they can combine for twenty minutes of real world time spent layering before opening a door.  That is time that the non-spell casting players don't really get to play the game.  

Sure they can talk with each other in character at the end of the table but after a few minutes it is distracting to the DM who is trying to keep track of the spell stack being built in a few game rounds but way too much real world time.  They can describe themselves as sharpening weapons or polishing armor but it is really just filler until their characters get to play again.  The other night one of my players kicked an ancient, ornately carved door in that was seemingly valuable without a second thought and I was excited that the party would actually adventure instead of overwhelming the encounter with superior spell stacking.  I hope the designers of 5th Edition remember that defensive spells as interrupts took care of the need to stack magic before a fight.  Interrupts are good for defensive actions!

I would never fault my players for using their heads and taking advantage of the resources available to them to accomplish their goals. That is exactly what I do when I play.  In fact I appreciate that my players ask questions about their environment, it makes me think of lots of things on the fly and work on my DM skills while filling out details of my homebrew world.  I think a few tweaks to allow a bit of the positive things from 4th Edition and a rule or two like the Level +1 active magic rule, 5th Edition can allow for adventure and diversity in the feel of magic that 4E lacked.  Only with a balance that shares the game time and spotlight with the rest of the players.  I am pretty sure some of you are going to tell me what you think and I appreciate your passion for your hobby.  Until next time, Roll Hard!






Comments (6) Trackbacks (1)
  1. If I might, I would respectfully disagree with your comments (for the most part), with a fair concession to agree on a second. That being that 3.5 DID NOT kill Vancian magic: Indeed, that was one of its flaws. The sorcerer and all of the classes that followed it simply codified what many people (and most digital games) had realized: Playing a spellcaster who had to memorize spells at the beginning of the day was little fun. Being able to swap out spells for spontaneous heals helped (a little), but the truth was that the golden part of playing a spell caster was the ability to have VARIETY: a second edition version of SHATTER might almost never be used, but as a treasure it was golden in your repertoire if you finally had one chance to use it — mind you, that one moment would be ruined if of course you had not precognatively known for that one session you were attacking a glass golem.

    Your complaints, actually, hinge on two very different problems of teh magic system:

    1. Layered spell effects that owuld be important for higher-level battles and tracking them. At higher levels, keeping track of effects always has been a problem — checking if certian bonuses overlap, tracking on which initiative certain effect start or end, and then tracking the resistances, bonuses, negatives, stoneskins. . . but one should hardly blame only the spellcasters. Barbarian rage has specific effects that are timed. People are going to use potions and oils and scrolls — quite frankly, limiting what a CASTER can cast only hobbles the caster and their ability to creatively use their spell arsenal, while still leaving the party activating armor effects, wondrous items, and so on.

    Fourth edition helped limit this by making arbitrary rules — you may only activate certain numbers of magic items per day, no matter how many items you owned. It was a simple solution, but whether or not it was the right way to cap character abilities is a worthy question.

    Higher level characters and fights by nature involve greater complexity. In strategy games, once one has a greater variety of units to play with, calculating their best usage, by nature, becomes more complex. But imagine a game like StarCraft where you would constructed at the start to only 3 pre-chosen units and never being able to change tactical or strategic choices to adapt to changing battle conditions.

    Some of teh problem can be solved in a group that is working together for a while to decide what their “standard battle preparations” happen to be. By having a list of pre-selected effects and tehir timing for encounters where teh party has the upper hand in surprise or preparation, this makes sense. After one long session of deciding their min-maxing, even the greyest fingered rules lawyers will have their combos picked. On encounters where the party is surprised, the limitations of the number of rounds and actions they have takes care of the problem for itself.

    In short: the Vancian system is a way to cripple the creativity and variety of casters without necessarily avoiding the problems you are concerned about. Your worry about how many STATUS EFFECTS might be layered before combat is a separate issue that does not require a return to the foollish rigidity of a system that robs casters of tehir most precious resource: creative variety and application of spells.

    • Thanks for the response Bill. It is appreciated. I am glad you could disagree in such a civil way because this is apparently like talking about a religious icon and I have been pulped for saying anything could be a problem with this system. You make some great points.

      First off the standard battle preparations always help to speed things up. I am running a playtest right now and things have kind of bounced around for a bit so characters have had change, new characters, and one of my group has just returned from Iraq so those are a few things that probably slow things up a bit.

      I think the Vancian system allows much more creativity than 4E. The text descriptions to describe the spell effects instead of the formula that 4E uses allowed for creative players (which mine are) to use the spells in ways that they were not intended. I love that. Some of my favorite memories of magic are from the years I spent playing 3.5 with my group.

      4E took great strides to speed up the combat but so many interrupts that were offensive in nature slowed the game as players set off other players interrupts and so on until the combats took incredible amounts of time. The massive number of monster hit points attributed to that some as well. When I only had the players handbook I had more fun than when I had access to the character builder and every option. That is true of both playing in the game and running the game, but it is only my opinion.

      I hope the designers of the new edition keep in mind that players enjoy playing all kinds of characters and some characters shouldn’t be so complicated that much more game time has to be devoted to the character. This is true of any class, race, power, spell, and monster. Thanks for the excellent feedback I will ponder some of your points for awhile.

  2. I, like you Christopher, prefer vancian magic for a couple of reasons. I don’t think 3.5 killed it, I think they(WotC) were trying something different

    1. Character development: Wizards, sorcerers and all the magic using classes could all be different based on the spells they memorize.

    2. Rapidity of combat: Those that played the classes properly, were quick to get the round done.

    Great article.

  3. I agree with you, the best way to keep vancian magic is to limit the maximum number of spell a magic-user can “memorize”/prepare, in my homebrew I went for a different limit but the idea is similar to yours (I went for maximum 4 spells at 1st level + 1each 3 level, and no more than 4 spell in levels 1st-3rd, 3 spell in levels 4th-6th, 2 spell in levels 7th-8th, 1 spell in level 9th)

  4. Chris:

    Thank you for your detailed response. I think you misunderstand me: While I am an advocate for the removal of the Vancian system, I am not an advocate for most of 4th edition. indeed, I find 4e to be little more than WotC attempting to have made a pen and paper Diablo game. too much was borrowed from the computer genre and too little that identifiably remained of the previous system remained. Pathfinder is my baby — with, of course, homebrew thrown in.

    Consider this — with the addition of so many feats, fighter types always reaped a double benefit — not only could they get extra benefit from their abilities, but they could activate most of these abilities at no cost. That allowed both your ranged damage dealers and your front line fighters to be extraordinarily creative in the use of their attacks.

    Most melee or ranged feats also work regardless of the weapon held — with notable exceptions being weapon specialization trees. Blindfight, whirlwind attack, cleave and great cleave, rapid shot, manyshot (just to name a few) are usable for all of their class of weapons, without cost. In some cases, they are simply passives.

    Compare that to metamagic feats: they cost, and cost extraordinarily high in something that is already a limited resource — your spell levels. Add that to the curse of Vancianism, and you have to PRE-DETERMINE which spell might be best to be used? Even Monte Cook admitted that in retrospect, metamagic costs were far too high; add that to predetermining which spells might need extra oomph pt not cripples the caster’s choice of feats.

    After all: A fighter may fluidly choose whetehr to disarm or trip or engage in come other combat maneuver. but what if you told your fighters they had to choose which 5 combat maneuvers they can ONLY use in the next day, and that they were limited to those only? And yes, it would have been nice if you wanted to bull rush your opponent off that cliff — but sorry, you chose three uses of improved disarm instead.

    But a caster cannot physically overbear someone off that cliff — but maybe they might use avisual illusion to mask its danger, an audible glammer to startle them off it, a telekenetic push to launch an item into them at a velocity to topple them, perhaps combined with a greased surface below them.

    Of course, only if they memorized those spells.

    So, again, if I might respectfully suggest, taking the freeflow of magic away from teh casters does not enhance the caster. As for Alton';s suggestion — yes, it is true if you only have 7 spells to work with, you are going to be more unique than other casters — you also will engage in teh same combat behaviors combat after combat after combat. What all you have is a hammer, all problems look like nails; when all you have is a fireball, every combat is measured in 20 foot radius increments. :)

  5. So, let meoffer this challenge, if indeed the Vancian system leads to the virtues you suggest: try limiting your fighters and rangers and thieves and what have you to pre-selecting a limited number of types of attacks per day. They must pre-select which types of weapon swings they must do. The rogue must choose how many attacks are melee versus ranged , and they must pre-choose if they are sneak attack bonus attacks to be used or not. they also must, before gameplay starts, decide which weapons they will use and which attacks will be poisoned and may have no battlefield adaptability to changing poisons on the fly (after all, it is unfortaunte you choose to poison an attack you know your enemies are immune to) and unfortaunte you didn’t select enough sneak attacks (or too many!) and find you can’t use an attack because they still have their dex bonus.

    Would such a scenario lead to more creativity? Would your non-casters endorse and embrace such a system?

    And if not, what does that imply about the system in a magical context? :)

    Thanks again for hearing me out! :)

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