Spells 4/?: Vance’s Revenge

Blogs with far more tenure than mine have discussed the legacy of Jack Vance and the Dying Earth series. If Ol’ Gary Gygax had been reading something else when he was dreaming up Dungeons & Dragons, we’d have something different. There’s nothing stopping you from giving Vancian Magic the boot and swapping to spell points (there’s even a guide to doing this in the 5e DMG I think), but one way or another Vancian Magic is in the DNA of D&D. For more on the basics, check out the Trope article.

So instead of wrestling with that, let’s try cleaning up some of the loose ends from our last article. 1) How do wizards “Memorize Spells?”

In traditional Vancian magic, a spell is a pattern of energy so vivacious and animated it almost has its own life. Per the 3rd edition books, every morning a wizard goes through the process of casting each spell they want to prepare, gathering up the energy and binding it into a pattern and almost–but not quite–releasing it. Instead, they bind up that energy in their own minds. A wizard with uncast spells is constantly distracted by the magical patterns in their own head, almost demanding to be let out. Their head buzzes with energy. Under this model, when a wizard “casts” a spell, they are actually completing the spell–uttering the last incantation, presenting the final component and making the gestures that unlatch the power bouncing around in their own heads and giving it form and purpose. In this case, memorizing is really storing.

This model does a couple of things. One, it makes for some fun roleplay. Why is the absent-minded wizard a trope? Because they’re brimming with barely contained energy that’s distracting, maybe even exhausting to withhold. It’s likely that wizards in their sanctums, surrounded by wards, equipped with magic items and otherwise safe, wouldn’t memorize their full allotment of spells each day–it gives them a headache! Wizards in this world would gladly make use of magical items, simply because they offload the mental effort of storing all that power.

Second, it helpfully explains rituals. A ritual is simply a wizard performing a spell in its entirety without storing the energy pattern in their own mind. Their spellbooks contain complete instructions for how to gather up the power, form the pattern, and release it to produce the desired effect, but there are probably two versions–one for a ritual and one additional step to lock the spell into their minds without completing them.

However, all of this leads back to our second question from the last blog: Can anyone become a wizard through hard work and study, or is a certain special magical talent required?

If a magical talent is required, Wizards in your world operate under rules one might find in Harry Potter, Star Wars, Avatar TLA–any world where supernatural gifts are inherited. Alternately, the gift might strike at random, without any particular lineage.

My justification for this magical talent would be that while anyone can perform a ritual (as long as you’re trained on the intricacies of magic), what sets wizards apart is their capacity for containing spells. Only someone with innate magical power might be able to do this.

Conversely, one of my readers brought up a good point–if being a wizard is a matter of mental discipline and study, it’s not unlike being an aerospace engineer or nuclear physicist. Can anyone become one of those with enough hard work, or does it take a certain sort of mind? In that case, becoming a wizard is not a matter of some mystical prophetic talent (though it’s likely people see it that way). Instead, it’s just a matter of intelligence and aptitude.

Next time: We ramble and meander about points 3 and 4: Why does saying magic words, making weird gestures and playing with bat guano make things explode? And does anyone actually know that in game?

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