(originally posted at the WotC website here)
Gary Gygax loved fantasy fiction. One of my favorite stories from the early days of TSR involves Gary at a Lake Geneva bookstore, browsing through the science fiction and fantasy section. He has a stack of new purchases with him. Along comes another fellow with a similar stack. The two begin chatting about the books they have in common as well as those they do not. By the end of the conversation, Gary offers the man a job at his new company. That man, James Ward (who single handedly destroyed Crusader Magazine for the Trolls, but I digress), not only takes the job but stays with the company for decades and produces, directly or indirectly, hundreds of wonderful products that still shape the game today.
So yes, fiction was important to Gary. (Okayyyy... weird segue)
He loved the works of Jack Vance. Vance wrote all sorts of fiction, but the ones most important to D&D are the books in the Dying Earth (I actually have the RPG in dead tree format - can anyone tell me if it's any good) series. In these books, wizards prepare spells with names like “The Excellent Prismatic Spray.” These spells are so complex that a skilled wizard can keep the components—the words, the gestures, and the mystical aspects—of only a few of these spells in his head at once. And once used, at least as Gary interpreted it (well, as Gary twisted it into game form), the spell was gone until prepared again.
And that's where D&D got the “Vancian” magic system. Wizards (and most other casters) prepare their spells ahead of time and once used, the spell is gone.
As great of a writer as Jack Vance is, D&D is not The Dying Earth role-playing game (as I said earlier, Dying Earth has it's own RPG. I don't recall anyone ever calling D&D the Dying Earth RPG). For several reasons, other than just nostalgia, we are exploring putting Vancian spellcasting back into the game. It's good for gameplay. It requires casters to think about what spells they want to cast ahead of time. It requires them to use their abilities judiciously. In other words, smart play is rewarded (holy crap! D&D 5e is being designed to reward smart play? say it isn't so! heh). You need to have an idea of what kind of adventure you are about to undertake to optimize your character, which often takes planning and perhaps research. But some players don't like that kind of play. Some Dungeon Masters don't reward it. And some players just don’t want to use their spells judiciously. (Makes sense. So that means we'll have different classes that cast magic differently assume.)
As a result, we'd like to include Vancian spellcasting as only one type of magic in the game. And according to a recent poll here, a majority of you seem to agree—that we should incude both Vancian and non-Vancian spellcasting systems as part of the core. (You do know these surveys are bullshit, right? It isn't drawing from a random pool)
For example, inspired by 4th Edition design (wait? part of 5e is inspired by 4e? yes, I'm being facetious), we want to give casters something interesting to do when they're not using their limited spells (wait... we are giving at will powers to all casters?). Something cool and magical, but not spells. This concept is particularly intriguing, because it opens a door to the idea that expressions of magic other than spells exist in the world and are available to characters (wait a fucking second... all characters get magic powers? WTF?). It’s a fun notion to play around with both from a mechanical and a story perspective.
One idea we’re considering is a magical feat. These feats represent magical abilities that a character can use all the time. For example, we might have a basic feat called Wizard Mark. This feat could indicate that a character is an arcane spellcaster, and it might grant him or her a minor, at-will ability. Maybe a minor blast of force (my issue with this is no other character has a free ranged attack when unarmed that they can use at will, forever... or wait, maybe they all do. Magic Spittle Attack for the Fighters in the Party. Saweet! Not!). Maybe a telekinetic ability like mage hand. More potent feats could then be accessed later. Imagine a Disciple of Mordenkainen feat that grants a spellcaster a magical hound companion (a la Mordenkainen's faithful hound) (wouldn't that be a Familiar?) or a Disciple of Tenser feat that grants him or her a floating disk to use.
This concept accomplishes two things: First, it allows us to give new life to some spell effects that get lost in a traditional Vancian system compared to fireballs and magic missiles. (and sleep, burning hands, read magic, detect magic, color spray, rope trick, knock, wizard lock - the list goes on and on. certainly more than just two spells) Second, it provides a way for casters to be magical even when they're not using their limited resources.
One of the most interesting aspects of this system is that it allows us to design a class that relies entirely on these magical feats instead of spells. Such a class would be far easier to play than the wizard (wait a second. I thought Monte said folks played earlier editions of D&D because they had limited options and were in effect easier to play. Now he's saying the Vancian caster requires more skill and thought. See what happens when you let the marketing guys write your first few posts on 5e Monte?), with no spells to prepare, but would still have a number of interesting magical offensive, defensive, and utilitarian options to call upon. In effect, a non-Vancian caster with 4th-Edition-style arcane powers.
We see other possibilities that can live alongside casters that use the Vancian D&D approach. Casters that have other controls on their resources, such as the 3rd-Edition style sorcerer or a point-based caster like the old psion class, could easily exist in the same D&D world as a traditional wizard.
Monte's has posted far worse than this, but he still leaves me confused? Are we getting pure Vancian casters in 5e, or is he putting peanut butter in my chocolate?