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Friday, November 12, 2010


Since James Maliszewski at Grognardia has raised a discussion of Vancian magic again, I thought it might be useful to look at what what the LBBs actually say about it, especially since this is going to affect the defaulty interpretation in Liber Zero. There's really not that many details on the way Vancian magic works, compared to what later publications add. It begins with Vol. I, page 18:
The number in each column opposite each applicable character indicates the number of spells of each level that can be used (remembered during any single adventure) by that character. Spells are listed and explained later. A spell used once may not be reused in the same day.

What's interesting here is that, although it refers to remembering spells during an adventure, it doesn't refer to preparing them in advance at all; it doesn't even say that the spells must be selected in advance. It does, however, say that each spell may only be used once. Since there's no clarification of this as "A prepared spell used once may not be reused in the same day", this suggests that a Magic-User can't cast multiple Fireballs in a single day. This would explain why scrolls and wands exist; they are ways of circumventing this limitation.

There's also a specification that the numbers represent how many spells can be used per adventure, not per day, which means that Magic-Users were originally not intended to renew their spells on a daily basis. However, one consequence of this interpretation is that, if an adventure lasts longer than a day, an M-U can in fact cast Fireball more than once; the M-U just can't cast it more than once a day.

That's clearly not the way I or other people play it, but I'm going to make it the default interpretation, with the more common interpretation listed as an alternative.

This leads to the interpretation of what spell books are. They are mentioned on page 33:
Characters who employ spells are assumed to acquire books containing the spells they can use, one book for each level. If a duplicate set of such books is desired, the cost will be the same as the initial investment for research as listed above, i.e. 2,000, 4,000, 8,000, etc. Loss of these books will require replacement at the above expense.
The text clearly applies to both Magic-Users and Clerics. Interestingly, there's no mention of individual spells being contained in the spell books; a Magic-User can basically just spend money and do 1 week of research per spell level to replace an entire spell book. Spell books can contain notes on unique spells, perhaps, which would make stealing a dungeon-dwelling sorcerer's books worthwhile. And presumably a spell-caster can't renew spells without spell books, even though this is not mentioned. Spell books only seem to be a "money pit", by the books.

But spell books can't be interpreted without Read Magic, right? Here's what page 22 says about the spell:
The means by which the incantations on an item or scroll are read. Without such a spell or similar device magic is unintelligible to even a Magic-User. The spell is of short duration (one or two readings being the usual limit).
This seems to restrict the intention of Read Magic to the use of scrolls and magic items. An M-U who doesn't have Read Magic can't use a scroll or wand found on an adventure.


  1. You might be interested to compare the above to what Gygax said in a couple of issues of The Strategic Review, where he clarifies the D&D magic system. Here's a quote from his FAQ article in Vol. 1, No. 2 (Summer 1975):

    "Spells: A magic-user can use a given spell but once during any given day, even if he is carrying his books with him. This is not to say that he cannot equip himself with a multiplicity of the same spell so as to have its use more than a single time. Therefore, a magic-user could, for example, equip himself with three sleep spells, each of which would be usable but once. He could also have a scroll of let us say two spells, both of which are also sleep spells. As the spells were read from the scrolls they would disappear, so in total that magic-user would have a maximum of five sleep spells to use that day. If he had no books with him there would be no renewal of spells on the next day, as the game assumes that the magic-use gains spells by preparations such as memorizing incantations, and once the spell is spoken that particular memory pattern is gone completely. In a similar manner spells are inscribed on a scroll, and as the words are uttered they vanish from the scroll."

    He devotes a whole article to the subject of Vancian magic in D&D in the final issue, Vol. 2, No. 2. (April 1976), which is well worth the read.

  2. ... and that's the way everyone played it, including Gary. But I'm thinking that, to make Liber Zero distinctive and to make it a good base for house ruling, it might be paradoxically wise to go with the implied minimum ruleset. I think it was on the OD&D forum that Rob Kuntz said Gary ran D&D essentially by Greyhawk rules even at the time the LBBs were published, but he had different goals for the first core ruleset: it needed to be a simple add-on to Chainmail which could be modified to taste.