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In discussions of D&D, especially discussing older editions, the term Vancian sometimes comes up: "Vancian" spellcasting, "Vancian" magic system. But this word doesn't actually seem to exist in any Dungeons & Dragons rulebooks, in any edition, old or new. The word is apparently just common knowledge terminology everyone has picked up from somewhere outside the rulebooks entirely.

What is the "Vancian" magic system?
What editions of D&D use Vancian magic?
Where did the term "Vancian" even come from, and when did it start getting applied to D&D?

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    \$\begingroup\$ Does this answer your question? How does D&D Vancian magic make sense in-game? \$\endgroup\$ Apr 18 at 20:46
  • \$\begingroup\$ See also this answer and the better answer by Ace Calhoun \$\endgroup\$ Apr 18 at 20:53
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    \$\begingroup\$ @KorvinStarmast Slightly baffling for a question, that isn't even a duplicate of any existing question, to get 3 downvotes over a 'lack of research' when the question is self-answered, and all the research effort got put into the answer below. Are you supposed to put the answer itself into the question? \$\endgroup\$
    – user10063
    Apr 19 at 1:52
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    \$\begingroup\$ Mandatory TvTropes reference (with a nice explanation). \$\endgroup\$
    – Trang Oul
    Apr 19 at 10:55
  • \$\begingroup\$ No, you are not supposed to put the answer itself into the question. But you need to do the research, which you failed to do. Hence my comment. You have with some prompting remedied that. \$\endgroup\$ Apr 20 at 20:12

1 Answer 1

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Vancian magic is memorization-based

A Vancian magic system is one where a wizard memorizes a spell and then loses that memorization from his brain after a single use. It's termed "Vancian" magic because it's directly modeled on the depiction of magic in the works of Jack Vance, like The Dying Earth (1950). From the first two short stories in that book:

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.

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, Phandaal's Mantle of Stealth, and the Spell of the Slow Hour.

For all Mazirian's magic he was helpless. The mesmeric spell had been expended, and he had none other in his brain. In any event he could not have uttered the space-twisting syllables with that mindless clutch at his throat.

The 14th appendix of the AD&D Dungeon Master's Guide (1979), Appendix N, directly credited Vance as an influence.

The most immediate influences upon AD&D were probably de Camp & Pratt, REH, Fritz Leiber, Jack Vance, HPL, and A. Merritt; but all of the above authors, as well as many not listed, certainly helped to shape the form of the game. For this reason, and for the hours of reading enjoyment, I heartily recommend the works of these fine authors to you.

Gygax described D&D "Vancian" magic as early as 1976

Even this might not be the true first and oldest use of the term, but Gygax himself used it in TSR's The Strategic Review Vol. II No. 2 (April 1976):

The Dungeons & Dragons Magic System

by Gary Gygax

Because there are many legendary and authored systems of magic, many questions about the system of magic used in D & D are continually raised. Magic in CHAINMAIL was fairly brief, and because it was limited to the concept of table top miniatures battles, there was no problem in devising and handling this new and very potent factor in the game. The same cannot be said of D & D. While miniatures battles on the table top were conceived as a part of the overall game system, the major factor was always envisioned as the underworld adventure, while the wilderness trek assumed a secondary role, various other aspects took a third place, and only then were miniatures battles considered. So a somewhat different concept of magic had to be devised to employ with the D & D campaign in order to make it all work.

The four cardinal types of magic are those systems which require long conjuration with much paraphernalia as an adjunct (as used by Shakespeare in MACBETH or as typically written about by Robert E. Howard in his “Conan” yarns), the relatively short spoken spell (as in Finnish mythology or as found in the superb fantasy of Jack Vance), ultra-powerful (if not always correct) magic (typical of deCamp & Pratt in their classic “Harold Shea” stories), and the generally weak and relatively ineffectual magic (as found in J.R.R. Tolkien’s work). Now the use of magic in the game was one of the most appealing aspects, and given the game system it was fairly obvious that its employment could not be on the complicated and time consuming plane, any more than it could be made as a rather weak and ineffectual adjunct to swordplay if magic-users were to become a class of player-character.

The basic assumption, then, was that D & D magic worked on a “Vancian” system and if used correctly would be a highly powerful and effective force. There are also four basic parts to magic: The verbal or uttered spell, the somatic or physical movement required for the conjuration, the psychic or mental attitude necessary to cast the spell, and the material adjuncts by which the spell, can be completed (to cite an obvious example, water to raise a water elemental). It was assumed that the D & D spell would be primarily verbal, although in some instances the spell would require some somatic component also (a fire ball being an outstanding example). The psychic per se would play little part in the basic magic system, but a corollary, mnemonics, would.

All spells were assumed to have a verbal component. Each and every spell (not found on a scroll or otherwise contained in, or on, some magical device) would be absolutely mnemonic, magic-users would have to memorize the spells they wished to have available, and when a particular spell was recalled and its other parts enacted, then the memory would be gone and the spell no longer available until it was re-memorized (thus the magic-users’ spell books!). Most spells were also envisioned as containing a slight somatic and/or material component, whether in the preparation of a small packet of magical or ordinary compounds to be used when the spell was spoken or as various gestures to be made when the enchantment was uttered.

Magic-use was thereby to be powerful enough to enable its followers to compete with any other type of player-character, and yet the use of magic would not be so great as to make those using it overshadow all others.

This was the conception, but in practice it did not work out as planned.

Writing for the Sorcerer's Scroll magazine column in The Dragon #16 (July 1978), Gygax criticized certain houserules, like adding a “critical hit” to D&D, or entirely replacing his "Vancian" magic system with a spell points system.

Role-Playing: Realism vs. Game Logic; Spell Points, Vanity Press and Rip-offs

by E. Gary Gygax

With the popularity of DUNGEONS & DRAGONS increasing so dramatically, I fervently desire to put the matter of variants, particularly “realistic” variants, to rest once and for all, so as to get on to other more important things, but it keeps springing up every time a sound stroke is dealt to it. Additions to and augmentations of certain parts of the D&D rules are fine. Variants which change the rules so as to imbalance the game or change it are most certainly not. These sorts of tinkering fall into the realm of creation of a new game, not development of the existing system, and as I stated earlier, those who wish to make those kind of changes should go and design their own game. In order to make this clear, a few examples of destructive variants are given below.

Spell point systems are also currently in vogue amongst the fringe group which haunt the pages of “Amateur Press Association” publications. Now APAs are generally beneath contempt, for they typify the lowest form of vanity press. There one finds pages and pages of banal chatter and inept writing from persons incapable of creating anything which is publishable elsewhere. Therefore, they pay money to tout their sophomoric ideas, criticise those who are able to write and design, and generally make themselves obnoxious. * While there are notable exceptions, they are far too few to give any merit to the vehicles they appear in. From this morass rose the notion that a spell point system should be inserted into D&D. Strangely enough, “realism” was used as one of the principal reasons for use of spell points. These mutterings are not as widespread as the few proponents of such a system imagine. The D&D magic system is drawn directly from CHAINMAIL. It, in turn, was inspired by the superb writing of Jack Vance. This “Vancian” magic system works splendidly in the game. If it has any fault, it is towards making characters who are magic-users too powerful. This sort of fault is better corrected within the existing framework of the game — by requiring more time to cast spells, by making magic-users progress more slowly in experience levels. Spell points add nothing to D&D except more complication, more record keeping, more wasted time, and a precept which is totally foreign to the rest of the game.

A letter to the editor from Marc Jacobs touched on the topic in The Dragon #28 (August 1979):

I HAVE HAD ENOUGH OF FORGETTING SPELLS!!!!!!!

You reject spell points out of hand because one author uses a system whereby the spell is forgotten after casting. No other author uses such a system. To allow a mage to repeatedly cast a spell you make powerful implements such as wands, staves and rings. This makes two different magic systems (forgetting and storing) into one dubious believability and playability. I have seen dungeons where a mage walks in with a wand of magic missiles containing 20 charges that the DM used as a treasure because once the spell is used it is forgotten. For want of spell points one multiplies MU implement use incredibly.

Unfortunately for you, D&D was based, the magic aspect of it, upon Jack Vance’s concepts of magic in his “Dying Earth” books. That is the way it is designed. If you don’t like it, play something else, or design your own variant. Most people make mages far too powerful, and badly unbalance the game in so doing. As to the magic items extant in any given campaign, that is solely the province of the DM.

Gygax later elaborated on his plans to nerf spellcasters, by adding requirements for verbal, somatic, and material components to spells, in the Sorcerer's Scroll column in The Dragon #33 (January 1980), which later got reprinted under the title "Make-believe magic" in Best of Dragon Vol. II (November 1981).

AD&D’s Magic System: How and Why It Works

©Gary Gygax

Working up rules about make-believe can be difficult. Magic, AD&D magic, is most certainly make-believe. If there are “Black Arts” and “Occult Sciences” which deal with real, working magic spells, I have yet to see them.

Mildly put, I do not have any faith in the powers of magic, nor have I ever seen anyone who could perform anything approaching a mere first-level AD&D spell without props. Yet heroic fantasy has long been one of my favorite subjects, and while I do not believe in invincible superheroes, wicked magicians, fire-breathing dragons, and the stuff of fairie, I love it all nonetheless! Being able to not only read about heroic adventures of this sort, but also to play them as a game form, increased the prospects of this enjoyment of imaginary worlds. So magic and dragons and superheroes and all such things were added to Chainmail.

This left me with two major areas to select from. The internal power, or manna, system where each spell-caster uses energy from within to effect magic, requires assigning a total point value to each such character’s manna, and a cost in points to each spell. It is tedious to keep track of, difficult to police, and allows Magic-Users far too much freedom where a broad range of spells are given.

Having read widely in the fantasy genre since 1950, I opted instead for the oft-used system which assumes that magic comes from power locked within certain words and phrases which are uttered to release the force. This mnemonic power system was exceedingly well articulated by Jack Vance in his superb The Eyes of The Overworld and Dying Earth novels, as well as in various short stories. In memorizing the magical words, the brain of the would-be spell-caster is taxed by the charged force of these syllables. To increase capacity, the spell-caster must undergo training, study, and mental discipline. This is not to say that he or she ever understands the words, but the capacity to hold them in the memory and to speak them correctly increases thus. The magic words, in turn, trigger energy which causes the spell to work.

The so-called “Vancian” magic system allows a vast array of spells. Each is assigned a level (mnemonic difficulty) rating, and experience grades are used to expand the capacity of the spell-caster. The use of this particular system allows more restrictions upon spell-casting character types, of course, while allowing freedom to assign certain spells to lower difficulty factor to keep the character type viable in its early stages. It also has the distinct advantages of requiring that spell-users select their magic prior to knowing what they must face, and limiting bookkeeping to a simple list of spells which are crossed off as expended.

The mnemonic spell system can be explained briefly thus: Magic works because certain key words and phrases (sounds) unlock energy from elsewhere. The sounds are inscribed in arcane texts or religious works available to spell-users. Only training and practice will allow increased memory capacity, thus allowing more spells to be used. Once uttered, the sounds discharge their power, and this discharge not only unlocks energy from elsewhere, but it also wipes all memory of the particular words or phrases from the speaker’s brain. Finally, the energy manifested by the speaking of the sounds will take a set form, depending on the pronunciation and order of the sounds. So a Sleep spell or a Charm Monster spell is uttered and the magic effected. The mind is wiped clean of the memory of what the sounds were, but by careful concentration and study later, the caster can again memorize these keys.

When Advanced Dungeons & Dragons was in the conceptualization stages some three years ago, I realized that while the “Vancian” system was the best approach to spell-casting in fantasy adventure games, D&D did not go far enough in defining, delineating, and restricting its use. Merely having words was insufficient, so elements of other systems would have to be added to make a better system. While it could be similar in concept to the spell-casting of D&D, it had to be quite different in all aspects, including practice, in order to bring it up to a higher level of believability and playability with respect to other classes.

The AD&D magic system was therefore predicated on the concept that there were three power-trigger keys—the cryptic utterances, hypnotic gestures, and special substances—the verbal, somatic, and material components, possible in various combinations, which are needed to effect magic. This aspect is less “Vancian,” if you will, but at the same time the system overall is more so, for reasons you will see later.

In order to expand mnemonic capacity, spell-users must do further study and be trained. Thus, the system is in some ways more “Vancian,” as such information and studies are indicated, if not necessarily detailed, in the works of that author. It might also be said that the system takes on “Lovecraftian” overtones, harkening to tomes of arcane and dread lore.

In addition to the strictures on locating the information for new spells, and the acquisition of the ability to cast (new, more powerful) spells, the requirements of verbal, somatic, and material components in most spell-casting highlight the following facts regarding the interruption and spoiling of spells: Silencing the caster will generally ruin the spell or prevent its instigation. Any interruption of the somatic gestures—such as is accomplished by a successful blow, grappling, overbearing, or even severe jostling—likewise spoils the magic. Lack of material components, or the alteration or spoiling thereof, will similarly cause the spell to come to naught.

Of course, this assumes the spell has the appropriate verbal, somatic, or material components. Some few spells have only a verbal component, fewer still verbal and material, a handful somatic and material, and only one has a somatic component alone. (Which fact will most certainly change if I ever have the opportunity to add to the list of Illusionists’ spells, for on reflection, I am convinced that this class should have more spells of somatic component only—but that’s another story.)

Although the word 'Vancian' doesn't appear in the rules of D&D, the memorization-based Vancian magic system was still in use in the 2e Player's Handbook (1989). From page 81:

Ultimately, it is the memorization that is important. To draw on magical energy, the wizard must shape specific mental patterns in his mind. He uses his spell books to force his mind through mental exercises, preparing it to hold the final, twisted patterns. These patterns are very complicated and alien to normal thought, so they don't register in the mind as normal learning. To shape these patterns, the wizard must spend time memorizing the spell, twisting his thoughts and recasting the energy patterns each time to account for subtle changes—planetary motions, seasons, time of day, and more.

Once a wizard memorizes a spell, it remains in his memory (as potential energy) until he uses the prescribed components to trigger the release of the energy patterns. The mental patterns apparently release the energy while the components shape and guide it. Upon casting, the energy of the spell is spent, wiped clean from the wizard's mind. The mental patterns are lost until the wizard studies and memorizes that spell again.

The number of spells a wizard can memorize is given by his level (see Table 21); he can memorize the same spell more than once, but each memorization counts as one spell toward his daily memorization limit. Part of a wizard's intelligence can be seen in the careful selection of spells he has memorized.

3rd edition did away with 'memorization'

The 3e Player's Handbook (2000) distanced itself from Vancian spellcasting, in 3e a wizard didn't 'memorize' spells, a wizard 'prepared' spells in 'spell slots,' and along with the terminology shift, an entirely different, new fluff explanation was given for the reflavored but virtually unchanged game mechanic:

WHAT IS A SPELL?

A spell is a one-time magical effect. Most spellcasting characters—wizards, clerics, druids, paladins, and rangers—prepare their spells in advance and use them when the time is right. Preparing a spell requires careful reading from a spellbook (for wizards) or devout prayers or meditation (for divine spellcasters). In either case, preparing a spell means casting the first and lengthiest part of it. Only the very end of the spell, its trigger, remains to be activated. After preparing a spell, the character carries it, nearly cast, in his or her mind, ready for use. To use a spell, the character completes casting it. Spellcasting might require a few special words, specific gestures, a specific item, or any combination of the three. Even though most of the spell was essentially cast ahead of time during preparation, this final action is known as “casting” the spell.

This different, non-Vancian, explanation, which doesn't involve a spellcaster instantly forgetting something upon casting, is just as limiting in practice, but probably resulted in significantly fewer frustrated reader letters like the one from Marc Jacobs!

3e not only combined non-Vancian flavor with the still-Vancian-shaped rules for wizards, it also added something new, the so-called 'spontaneous' casters, who didn't require preparing their spells at all, like the sorcerer class.

A sorcerer is limited to casting a certain number of spells of each level per day, but he need not prepare his spells in advance. The number of spells he can cast per day is improved by his bonus spells, if any. For instance, at 1st level, the sorcerer Hennet can cast four 1st-level spells per day—three for being 1st level (see Table 3–16: The Sorcerer), plus one thanks to his high Charisma.

Spells: A bard casts arcane spells from the bard spell list (page 159) according to Table 3–4: The Bard and Table 3–5: Bard Spells Known. He casts these spells without needing to prepare them beforehand or keep a spellbook. All bard spells have a verbal component (singing, reciting, or music). Bards receive bonus spells for high Charisma, and to cast a spell a bard must have a Charisma score at least equal to 10 + the level of the spell (Cha 10 for 0-level spells, Cha 11 for 1st-level spells, and so forth). The Difficulty Class for a saving throw against a bard’s spell is 10 + the spell’s level + the bard’s Charisma modifier.

4th edition mentions wizards forgetting some spells, but not all

4e classes with an Arcane power source, like the wizard and the warlock, are described as forgetting their daily powers as the flavor reason for why e.g. a warlock can't simply cast Armor of Agathys a second time in a single day. There's no mention of a warlock doing any kind of extensive memorization, or even daily preparations, in the first place, though.

An encounter power can be used once per encounter. [...] If you’re an arcane or divine character, these are spells or prayers of such power that they take time to re-form in your mind after you unleash their magic energy.

A daily power can be used once per day. Daily powers are the most powerful effects you can produce, and using one takes a significant toll on your physical and mental resources. [...] If you’re an arcane magic-user, you’re reciting a spell of such complexity that your mind can only hold it in place for so long, and once it’s recited, it’s wiped from your memory.

The 4e wizard's Spellbook class feature says:

After an extended rest, you can prepare a number of daily and utility spells according to what you can cast per day for your level. You can’t prepare the same spell twice.

A spell like Burning Hands is an encounter power, never gets written down in a wizard's spellbook, requires no daily memorization routine and inflicts only temporary memory loss upon casting.

5th edition has minimal detail but has very un-Vancian rules

In 5e, they don't even bother giving long detailed in-universe explanations for the game mechanic limits on spell castings per day, there's only the game rules, with no particular why or how beyond a vague mention of it being 'physically and mentally taxing.' And at this point, 5e spellcasting rules are closer to the 'spell point system' that Gygax disliked than they are to Vancian magic - and the 5e wizard class hints at something more akin to an 'internal power, or manna, system' at work than anything mnemonic:

Arcane Recovery

You have learned to regain some of your magical energy by studying your spellbook. Once per day when you finish a short rest, you can choose expended spell slots to recover.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I think you’re perhaps making too much of “prepare” vs. “memorize,” since prepared spells exist within the mind (read: within the caster’s memory). It’s still pretty much the same as it ever was—for Vance and earlier editions, too, magic power is involved in the memorization. That aside, it may be worth noting that 3rd edition—well, the “v.3.5 revised edition” to be precise—included the spellthief, a class capable of stealing prepared spells. This demonstrates that a prepared spell is a “real” thing, something that exists and can be interacted with, and that disappears when the spell is cast. \$\endgroup\$
    – KRyan
    Apr 18 at 20:26
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    \$\begingroup\$ Oh, and 3rd edition’s introduction of spellcasting without preparation—in the bard and sorcerer, at start—is also probably worth going into. 4e may warrant more mention for being the odd one out. I also certainly disagree that 5e is more like spell points than it is to Vance. (But to be clear, +1 either way; this is an excellent answer, and my 2¢ here are not meant to detract from that.) \$\endgroup\$
    – KRyan
    Apr 18 at 20:27
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    \$\begingroup\$ This answer would be improved if relevant portions of the lengthy quotes were extracted to focus on the key points of the question. \$\endgroup\$ Apr 19 at 12:19
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    \$\begingroup\$ @AllanMills No. Sorcerers as a class were a 3d edition feature. The name "sorcerer" was for a level of Magic User (IIRC 8th or 9th) from OD&D to 2.5e AD&D, but the class was Magic user or Mage. There's an article I may be able to find from the 3e devs who described their thought process on arriving at the Sorcerer for 3e. \$\endgroup\$ Apr 19 at 14:42
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    \$\begingroup\$ Consider if it's helpful to cite Gygax's AD&D DMG (1E), where Vance is named a number of times. E.g,, in the Spell Casting opening section, "For background reading you can direct campaign participants to Vance’s THE EYES OF THE OVERWORLD and THE DYING EARTH as well as to Bellair’s THE FACE IN THE FROST" (p. 40); and in Appendix N, "The most immediate influences upon AD&D were probably de Camp & Pratt, REH, Fritz Leiber, Jack Vance, HPL, and A. Merritt". \$\endgroup\$ Apr 19 at 15:07

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