Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Picking Nits From Monte's Latest - Putting the Vance in Advanced

(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?


  1. As for Non-Vancian magic systems I might describe them as of a similar color to chocolate, but there the similarity ends.

    What is a magic-user, especially a low level magic-user to do when his spells are gone? I say they can think and advise and role-play. The trick is that you cannot roleplay intelligence if you don't have it. An intelligent player can play a meat-headed fighter, but an unitelligent player is going to be mis-assigned to practically any magic-user.

    I will say that I disagree with the 7th level minimum for scroll and potion fabrication. Personally I start off at 3rd level and make it a very time consuming, fatiguing and expensive process, but it also provides something for M-U's to do on adventure, an that is the search for components.

  2. I think (I hope) what we'll wind up seeing in this "modular" approach are plenty of options for both styles of play. I think the Vancian system will (hopefully) be reserved for more powerful, game-changing type spells. Regardless, we'll all houserule it to fit our specific campaigns anyway ;)

  3. What does the Magic-user do when out of spells? The same thing the Fighter does when down to 1 hit point or with armor and weapons rusted or broken. Find other ways to make themselves useful than just casting spells/fighting stuff.

    Obviously, what Monte's saying here is a whole lot of nothing. The entire premise of 5E has been that with the "modular" approach, you'd be able to have a variety of different systems harkening to the way things are done in the various editions.

    So everything he's telling us here is basically, there will be options to play Vancian casters, and options to play non-Vancian casters in 5E. Something I had assumed would be the case from the first announcements of a "modular" approach.

  4. Give cantrips as "at will" powers. And when I say cantrips I mean the old 1e and UA cantrips spells. Problem solved wizards are now magical. Pathfinder already does this.

    They don't "unbalance" anything and give the wizard the "magical" feel.


  5. And wait, didn't 3.X introduce to us the Sorcerer class? Is this what Monte is talking about?

    Sorcerers basically had a limited spell list to cast from at will a number of time per level, per day....Did Monte forget that?


  6. "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."

    It's no interpretation on Gary's part, that's exactly how it works in Vance. If you read Mazirian the Magician it's clear that wizards have only a limited number of spells that they can "impress on their brains" (Mazirian could only memorize 5, and he was one of the most powerful magicians around), and that once they're cast, they're gone, until the wizard can re-memorize them. The only thing Gary did that's different is that he allowed multiple simultaneous memorizations of the same spell. I can't find that anywhere in Vance.

    As for the rest of the article, it serves only to reinforce my absolute lack of interest in what they're up to at WotC. They may have the name, but they don't have the game.

  7. Sounds more like mustard in marzipan to me.

  8. All these articles are trying to cover more angles than a dicebag.

  9. Whenever I read one of Monte's posts, my hopes for 5e -which weren't much to start with- go down a notch. Not because I want one particular "flavor" of D&D, but because it sounds like an ungawdly muddle.


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