Alternatives to Vancian Spellcasting

D&D is the archetypical RPG system. I love it (except for 4th edition which I’ve sworn never to DM again) but Vancian Spellcasting is a bit old hat at this point. Also it’s a highly specific and slightly weird concept. Wizards imprint spells on their brains and forget them after they’re cast. I can see the play balance appeal, it’s a fantastic way to limit the Magic-User and force the player to think ahead carefully when picking a spell list. It definitely worked for The Dying Earth series, but now it’s spread into all kinds of other worlds.

It is a very Hard Magic system (see Sanderson’s First Law for a rundown of Soft vs Hard magic). All of the rules are there and a wizard knows down to the feet or yards exactly how big his fireball will be. And it is exactly the same every single time (discounting for the moment the rare fumble or critical success). For the sake of a coherent game system this is an excellent thing, but for portraying magic as a dangerous, unpredictable, mysterious force it is terrible. I tend to lean towards a Soft style of magic in my world-building, but how does one incorporate that into something as inherently mechanistic and well defined as a set of role-playing game rules?

DCC addresses this issue with insane amounts of randomness. All possible effects of a spell are described in terms of exact rule mechanics but there are so many of them that the Wizard or Elf never knows what’s going to happen when they tell the GM “I’m casting a spell”. This is really fun, but it makes writing new spells a headache.

Lamentations of the Flame Princess has less randomness in the spell casting but the severity of the magic fumble tables is really something magnificent to behold, especially the last two Free RPG Day supplements (Vaginas are Magic and Eldritch Cock). Any time a wizard announces that they are casting a spell, all of the other players should reach for a new character sheet and the GM should be slightly worried (and sadistically gleeful) because some of those fumbles can easily end the world or fundamentally re-write reality.

Both are terrific for the gonzo, over-the-top style of play that they are trying to capture, but realism suffers when every magician has a rhino head and seven eyes. I’m looking for something a little less larger-than-life and a little more gritty and down to earth. Something closer to Wagner’s Kane rather than Moorcock’s Elric (Chaos Butterfly anyone?). A spell point system like in Stormbringer or Openquest at least gets rid of the Dying Earth vibe, but perhaps makes things even more mechanistic.

Balancing the level of uncertainty seems to be the key issue. The rules have to be complete and fair, but the more the players are certain of how magic works the less magical it becomes.

So what is one to do? My answer for Demons of Light (at least currently) is to expand the crit / fumble rules into a full system of their own. Extending the crit range (rolling a crit on a “19-20” for example) will be a vital component. Both crits and fumbles can have their ranges increased in various ways. I also like the LotFP no spell level idea. I want anyone regardless of class or level to be able to attempt casting any spell no matter how powerful it is. I just want it to be risky as hell.

This brings in the long-shot dynamic of player agonization: I’m a second level fighter and a Chaos Lord just burst into reality. Everything’s a few minutes away from going to shit. But wait! I can grab the Arch-Mage’s grimoire off the lectern and start reading…. It will almost certainly make things much worse, but does that even matter at the moment?

I like giving players bad final resort options that they don’t have to ever touch, but they’re there, just waiting for a desperate player to dust off. So let’s bring this all together. Each spell has a number of requirements that must be met to cast it normally: caster class, caster level, astrological timing, location, rare components, ceremonial regalia, etc.

For summoning spells this gets full-on goetic. Dozens of magical implements are needed to call a spirit down to earth and chat with it. You need virgin parchment, a sword to threaten the demon with, a black-handled knife quenched in poison and blood to cut the circle into the ground and also threaten the spirits so more, a white-handled knife to cut herbs and carve with, a lion-skin belt with holy names written on it, a wand cut from a lightning-struck oak at dawn on a certain day with a single stroke of the knife, an ebony rune-etched podium to hold the scrying crystal that needs to be set into a rune-etched gold monstrance, planetary incense with animal parts and rare herbs, a ring of power and crown and probably half a dozen other complicated things. Each implement has to be acquired in a specific way or made by the caster at a specific astrological time. There is a separate spell for consecrating each implement that has to be performed in the right sequence. None of this gives bonuses on the demon summoning or control checks. All of it just lets the mage meet the basic requirements of the summoning spell (this was an extreme example, most spells are much easier). Getting bonuses and increasing the critical success range require going above and beyond all that.

If all requirements are met the spell can be cast with a normal fumble chance (5% or “1” on a d20). For every requirement that gets ignored the fumble chance increases by another 5%. It maxes out at 95% since a “20” is always a crit. This makes a player abusive spell system suddenly playable. The player can always say, “Screw that! I’m summoning Jublex with a 65% chance of fumbling because I’m tired of questing for spell components.” That’s a legitimate strategy and it ratchets up the tension at the table.

The fumble tables are bad by the way…. Very bad. Not exactly gonzo-end-the-world-bad (like LotFP) but bad enough to fuck up a PC and ruin their whole day. If they were summoning a demon lord it will probably ruin the whole party’s day as well.

The key idea here is that the average person can attempt any spell (provided they find a copy) but the base chance of success is very low. The more effort they put in, the closer to square one they get (in this metaphor they start well into the negative squares, so getting to square one in a vast improvement). At low level, insane amounts of preparation are needed to make sorcery not kill you when you try to use it. This models real world historical demonology and makes magic feel dangerous. It also gives the players a way to mitigate some of the danger if they work at it and immerses them in a long list of quests. Of course they could always find a Master Summoner and steal all the super-involved spell components in one go, but that leads to its own consequences….

And it gets better with experience. High level wizards have class features that allow them to ignore a certain number of requirements for each spell they cast. They’ve gotten to the point where they can make up for the missing pieces of the arcane puzzle through force of will and sheer personal power. This incentivizes taking a magic-user class in a world where anyone can attempt to use magic and keeps things from getting tedious late in the campaign when the players have better things to do than hunt down rare components.





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