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Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Vancian vs. Non-Vancian

One of the questions that was not on the top ten troll questions list was "Vancian or non-Vancian magic?" Why, I'm not sure; it certainly gets asked enough. Many fiercely defend the Vancian system, but there's a significant number of people who vilify Vancian magic and will only play with non-Vancian magic systems -- by which they always mean "spell point systems". Which is not only short-sighted, but ironic, since Vancian magic is, technically, a spell-point system.

Consider this: spell point systems assume that you have a pool of spell points, which you spend to cast spells. When you are out of spell points, you can't cast any more spells. Pretend, though, that there are two kinds of magic, say Divine and Arcane, and each has its own independent pool (I played a version of D&D once that had "Piety Points" and "Magical Conductivity points".) That's still a spell-point system, right? It just has more detail.

Now pretend that you have six kinds of magic instead of two, with six pools of spell points.  You cannot trade points across pools, but you can have access to all six pools, and be able to cast spells of each of the six types.

Let's call those six spell pools ... "Level 1 Spells", "Level 2 Spells", and so on. That is exactly what is happening.

Perhaps it's the added complexity of having six pools of points that bothers the non-Vancian advocates. However, I've seen many single-pool spell-point systems that do not keep the spell costs simple, but instead have unique costs for each spell. This is what happens in the Fantasy Trip magic system, or its descendant, GURPS Magic. You have to look up each spell to find out what the spell point cost is. It's not a flat cost based on spell level, such as you see in the Microlite 20 spell point system. That, in my experience, is way more complicated than Vancian magic. So I really don't see why the non-Vancian proponents object so vehemently to what is, in essence, just another spell point system.


  1. I think the main objection is usually that they want to be able to bust out any spell, any time, rather than preparing selected spells. Which removes the most interesting part of magic-user gameplay for me, but each to their own.

  2. The Vance stories actually describe a process of stuffing spells into the brain until full. Which suggests a point and not level system, but one that has to be prepared.

  3. When I first read the title I thought it said "Vatican vs. Non-Vatican." Totally different post than I expected.

  4. well I like quasi-vancian system, I like grimoire, and spell-preparation, but I also like the possibility to improvise a spell (at risk), I like to have spell activation rolls for improved or lessened spell effect and the occasional fumble or critical.... I don't like the it will always work in the same way effect of spell preparation in pure "vancian" spell system

  5. The alternative to spell points is magic-as-skill, which is hard to balance and gamify satisfactorily. It would be closer to magic in folklore, mythology and fiction though.

    1. You're reading ahead! Friday, I was going to talk about the three non-Vancian spell systems that don't involve spell points. One of them is magic-as-skill, except maybe "roll to cast" would be a better name, since sometimes it's not imagined as a skill.