The tomes which held Turjan’s sorcery lay on the long table of black steel or were thrust helter-skelter into shelves. These were volumes compiled by many wizards of the past, untidy folios collected by the Sage, leather-bound librams setting forth the syllables of a hundred powerful spells, so cogent that Turjan’s brain could know but four at a time.
Turjan found a musty portfolio, turned the heavy pages to the spell the Sage had shown him, the Call to the Violent Cloud. He stared down at the characters and they burned with an urgent power, pressing off the page as if frantic to leave the dark solitude of the book.
Turjan closed the book, forcing the spell back into oblivion. He robed himself with a short cape, tucked a blade into his belt, fitted the amulet holding Laccodel’s Rune to his wrist. Then he sat down and from a journal chose the spells he would take with him. What dangers he might meet he could not know, so he selected three spells of general application: the Excellent Prismatic Spray, Phandal’s Mantle of Stealth, and the Spell of the Slow Hour.
— Turjan of Miir, Jack Vance
I have always really liked the idea of Vancian magic, but have never been sold on how D&D handles it. Don’t get me wrong, from a purely mechanical point of view, D&D does a good job of simulating the way Jack Vance describes how Turian of Miir uses magic. Unfortunately, it doesn’t have the feel. If someone had never read Jack Vance and had no idea of how he describes the spell as an almost living thing that frantically tries to leap off the page of a spell book, there is nothing in D&D that shows players that this is what the mechanic of memorizing spells is supposed to represent.
My other issue with spell casters in D&D is that I am someone who much prefers the utility spell over the combat spell; however, D&D almost dictates that a magic-user will always take Sleep over Read Languages. On an average dungeon delve, a player can almost be guaranteed to be able to use a combat spell, but that utility spell may or may not ever be useful. I find this boring, in a way.
To be honest, when I play a spell caster, it is almost always a cleric or a bard because I can get away with having utility spells more often because these classes can pull their weight in a fight sans spells. I have only ever played a straight-up magic-user once and a straight-up illusionist once. I much preferred the latter experience because of the sheer frustration about having spells like Enlarge in my spell book and having really good ways to use it, but having to go through the whole “I gotta rest, re-memorize spells and come back tomorrow” only to have the party try some other way to solve the problem. At least with the Illusionist, the very nature of illusion magic requires creativity and problem solving skills with every spell cast. I found it much more satisfying to take out a pack of gnolls with Phantasmal Force by “moving” a pit and getting them to fall in than I ever was shooting lightning bolts or fire balls.
When I got into the nitty-gritty of the classes in 5e, I really got excited bout the potential of the the Warlock as a utility/problem solving kind of spell caster. They have enough combat punch with Eldritch Blast to justify using utility spells. Couple that with the Pact Boon Book of Shadows and the ability to learn some Cantrips off any spell list and the potential to collect and use ritual spells from any spell list and you’ve got a spell caster I’d love to try and play some day.
Unfortunately, whereas the Warlock does a good job of making utility spells justifiable and does a good job of making magic feel dangerous, it largely abandons the Vancian model of magic. Therefore, in terms of trying to make a BX magic-user class that does Vancian magic “right,” the Warlock is inspirational, but not exactly what I am looking for.
I recently managed to get my hands on a second edition copy of Runequest. I have always wanted to love Runequest, but my experience of it was always tainted by the Avalon Hill edition, which is just badly written. I could never get my head around that magic system. The second edition, though, is a transitional version that bridges its OD&D roots and the Chaosium BRP system it would become. Here is a version of Runequest I finally get and its magic system is something I finally understand. Unfortunately, it, too, turns away from the Vancian model; however, it presents with a mechanic that makes magic feel really dangerous and could be coupled with a Vancian model. Certain types of spell casters capture spirits and bind them into items in order to help them cast spells. The danger is in the combat to capture the spirit: if the spirit wins, the caster is possessed and the PC becomes an NPC.
This got me thinking about how to incorporate this level of danger into a magic-user class while maintaining a Vancian model and allowing players fuller access to the utility spells that litter the spell lists. Normally, the limiting factors of spell use in FRPGs are one or more of the following:
- number of spells known
- power/mana points
- class level
Of these, the only one that is expressly Vancian is memorization. Therefore, if I am to move towards a magic user that satisfies my desires for an arcane spell caster like the Warlock does but remain true to the idea of Vancian magic, there needs to be a different limiting factor than one presented.
If one assumes that arcane spells are more of a living thing — a kind of semi-sentient energy being — and that spell books and arcane magic are a way of coaxing these beings to do what a spell caster wants, then there is a limiting factor available that is already suggested by the game: money.
The idea here is similar to the way scrolls work: the magic-user spends gold and time on getting the materials necessary to have a spell “in waiting” ready to cast without having to memorize it. Normally, this is relatively expensive (100gp and a day per spell level, for example) and, with some exceptions like Holmes, not an option for 1st level characters.
My thinking here is to couple the gold/time with spells known (as per INT in Holmes) as the primary limiting factor for magic-users. If they would be allowed to bind spells to disposable objects (like runes) for a relatively low price, then they could go into an adventure stocked up with all manner of spells. It would also incentivize adventuring as a primary occupation of magic-users. Right now, I am positing 10gp and about an hour for a 1st level spell. This cost would go up exponentially with spell levels, adding a zero for each level.Thus, a 6th level spell would require 1,000,000 gp worth of materials to bind.
There would also be an option for binding spells permanently to a magic-user. It would work like this: make a saving throw vs. magic and add the magic-user’s CHA bonus and subtract the spell level. If successful, the spell can be cast at-will by the magic-user. Failure, however, means that the magic-user has been possessed by the spell itself and is now a Chaotic spell-casting monster that will be hunted down and killed by Civilization.
The risk involved in binding spells this way could be mitigated by having other magic-users aid in the binding: they get to add their CHA bonuses to the roll. This, then, places a kind of cultural limiting factor on the practice. Whereas a Wizard’s Guild would have little issue binding a Detect Magic spell to a fellow magic-user, they might have something to say about a magic-user who was interested in binding a Lightning Bolt spell. This also implies that there would be magic-users out there that would seek alternative ways to mitigate these bindings in order to gain power. The whole idea of a magic-user just got a whole lot more dangerous: imagine an adventure hook where the Wizard’s Guild has put a bounty on the head of that magic-user who successfully bound his Lightning Bolt spell…
This way, I get my Warlock (bound utility spells) and my Vancian magic (prepared “burn” spells) all in the same class. Thoughts?