A (hopefully) comprehensive look at the pros and cons of Vancian magic

I know, I know, yet more virtual ink being spilled on the topic of Vancian magic. However, a lot of the blogs and forum posts I have read have either had very emotional responses, or have taken the conversation in different directions. I’d like to just keep the spotlight on the pros and cons of the system itself and its impact on players and playstyle. So here are some of the strengths of the Vancian system as I understand them and – in the interest of full disclosure – also some of my own ideas as to why I do not prefer it as a system (or at the very least, why I will not use it in my home game).

Definition of “Vancian Wizard”: To clear up any confusion, I use “Vancian wizard” to specifically mean “fire and forget” wizards who memorize most if not all of their particular magical spells  at the beginning of the day, casts them, and then forgets them until the next day. Those were the rules for wizards and some other caster classes in every edition of D&D up until 4e. They don’t have any kind of mechanism to swap or spontaneously cast any spell; what they cast is what they memorize at the beginning of the day, and that’s it. 4e happens to call this mechanic a “daily”. However, true Vancian wizards of the old school only had memorized spells available to them, without many fallbacks, and that’s what I am referring to. It sounds like D&D Next wizards are headed in this direction (depending what whatever feat trees they get for possible at-will powers).

In the recent DDXP seminar about classes, Monte Cook gave a couple of compelling reasons for going back to the Vancian system:

1) The Vancian wizard is iconic to D&D. The D&D wizard is unlike any other wizard. It is not Gandalf. It is not Dumbledore. A D&D wizard, among other things, is bound to their spellbook and uses it to their absolute fullest advantage. It’s been that way for nearly 40 years (especially if you play Pathfinder), and getting rid of the Vancian system would be akin to chucking AC, hit points, or any of the other little bits that make D&D distinct.

2) Vancian magic rewards players for careful forethought and planning. Wizards who knew where they will be adventuring for the day would (and should) prepare accordingly. If they will be delving in a tomb of some long-forgotten civilization, perhaps a Comprehend Languages, a Knock spell, or other exploration-focused spells would be useful. If they are fighting kobolds, some Magic Missles should do the trick. Tenser’s Floating Disc was a life saver in a dragon’s treasure lair. As the wizard goes on adventures and crafts his/ her spellbook, they constantly refer to their experiences in order to keep the very best spells in their book and, by extension, in their minds. How wonderful it was when the wizard prepared well and had the best spell at hand for the situation!

3) Vancian magic is a check against spellcasters getting too powerful. Mr. Cook did not mention this point in the seminar, but it definitely lurks in the background. Spellcasters who got too powerful really dwarfed other classes in earlier editions. Why have a rogue in the party when the wizard could cast Invisibility, Knock, Sense Traps, and all the stuff a rogue does? Why have fighters or other damage dealers when a wizard can nuke monsters before they knew what hit them? Rather, if wizards had to choose at the beginning of the day what they could do, then by definition they couldn’t do everything in a given day. It didn’t stop wizards from being able to do everything over the course of a week, but at least it gave other classes a chance to shine in an adventuring day.

I think that about covers the pro side. Here are my counter-arguments:

1) The wizard with a spellbook is iconic to D&D, not necessarily the Vancian one. I played a bunch of 2nd ed. D&D when I was younger, and I didn’t meet a single DM who used spell memorization right out of the book. My DMs usually used a spell slot system where a wizard could cast whatever spells in their book, or some kind of mana pool system (still drawing from the book), or a limited memorization system where the wizard devoted a spell slot to a certain school, like divination or evocation. Maybe I just didn’t happen to meet the many DMs who used it and loved it, but I think it is fair to ask whether spell memorization is truly iconic, or simply old school.

Similar to this point is that maybe D&D players want to play wizards from different fantasy genres. In the words of one poster on the official boards, it “fails to evoke the feel of the broader fantasy genre.” Maybe players want to be Gandalf, or Dumbledore, or Harry Dresden, or any other wizard from cinema, literature, or anywhere else. They all had limits and got tired, but none of them memorized particular spells before the day.

2) Vancian magic involves as much guesswork and getting lucky as it does planning and forethought. Sometimes adventures are straightforward, where the kobold cave is really just a kobold cave, or a social situation that could use an ESP or a Tasha’s Uncontrollable Hideous Laughter was on the plate. However, what if the day’s adventure defied expectation? What if the kobolds happened to be squatting in a tomb of ancient goblins who left inscrutable writings on every wall? What if a wizard was challenged to a magical duel to the death at sunrise, then the enemy pulled a fast one and made it a social challenge? There were LOTS of times when, if my 2e wizard had been stuck with memorization, I as a player would have felt really dumb and useless for memorizing the “wrong” spells. On the contrary, I LOVE when adventures take strange turns that I am utterly unprepared for – for me, that means the DM is doing a good job. Then when I pull out a spell that adjusts to the situation, I feel smart for being so adaptable!

3) There are other ways to limit the power of spellcasters.  The danger that a wizard did the job or a rogue or fighter better than those classes did is a very real one. However, I think the Vancian mechanism takes a hammer (you shall memorize these spells, and no other!) to a problem that might be better addressed with other tools. Limited spells per day, limited spellbook space, spell failure, the dangers of combat casting, some kind of fatigue system, or a hundred other mechanisms that others know better than me would seem to address the same problem.

Key Playstyle Question: So, is it more important for a wizard to be prepared before an adventuring day or adaptable during it? In essence, this is a playstyle discussion. There’s a ton that can be said about the “feel” of magic in D&D, the metaphysics of how it should work, and what not. But I am mainly concerned with the experience of my wizard players at the table, and also my own experience when I play a wizard (or cleric!). I am firmly in the latter camp, where I like to be adaptable and react to stuff in the moment. However, I acknowledge the good parts of the Vancian system, particularly that it appeals to older players of D&D who were put off by 4e, so I would settle for a core system of magic that embraces either preparation or in-the-moment flexibility, or somehow both!

I think that’s about it. Have I covered the pros and cons of the debate? Obviously I favor one side over the other, but I would like to represent the pro-Vancian side as faithfully as I can. I would love to know what everyone thinks.

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