Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Just so you know, THIS is Vancian magic

Selections from Jack Vance's The Dying Earth.
The tomes which held Turjan's sorcery lay on a long table of black steel or were thrust helter-skelter into shelves. 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 Violet Cloud. He stared down at the characters and they burned with an urgent power, pressing off the page as if frantic to leave the dark solitude of the book.

Turjan closed the book, forcing the spell back into oblivion. [...] 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.
Spells are almost alive with power. Memorizing a spell is kinda like putting a demon in your head.
In this fashion did Turjan enter his apprenticeship with Pandelume. Day and far into the opalescent Embelyon night he worked under Pandelume's unseen tutelage. He learned the secret of of renewed youth, many spells of the ancients, and a strange abstract lore that Pandelume termed "Mathematics".

"Within this instrument," said Pandelume, "resides the Universe. Passive in itself and not of sorcery, it elucidates every problem, each phase of existence, all the secrets of time and space. Your spells and runes are built upon its power and codified according to a great underlying mosaic of magic. The design of this mosaic we cannot surmise; our knowledge is didactic, empirical, arbitrary. Phandaal glimpsed the pattern and so was able to formulate many of the spells which bear his name. I have endeavored through the ages to break the clouded glass, but so far my research has failed. He who discovers the pattern will know all of sorcery and be a man powerful beyond comprehension."

So Turjan applied himself to the study and learned many of the simpler routines.

"I find herein a wonderful beauty," he told Pandelume. "This is no science, this is art, where equations fall away to elements like resolving chords, and where always prevails a symmetry either explicit or multiplex, but always of a crystalline serenity."
Magic as hyperdimensional mathematics, similar to Lovecraft's The Dreams in the Witch-House.
The Magician climbed the stairs. Midnight found him in his study, pouring through leather-bound tomes and untidy portfolios... At one time a thousand or more runes, spells, incantations, curses, and sorceries had been known. The reach of Grand Motholam--Ascolais, the Ide of Kauchique, Almery to the South, the Land of the Falling Wall to the East--swarmed with sorcerers of every description, of whom the chief was the Arch-Necromancer Phandaal. A hundred spells Phandaal personally had formulated--though rumor said that demons whispered at gus ear when he wrought magic. Pontecilla the Pious, then ruler of Grand Motholam, put Phandall to torment, and after a terrible night, he killed Phandaal and outlawed sorcery throughout the land. The wizards of Grand Motholam fled like beetles under a strong light; the lore was dispersed and forgotten, until now, at this dim time, with the sun dark, wilderness obscuring Ascolais, and the white city Kaiin half in ruins, only a few more than a hundred spells remained to the knowledge of man. Of these, Mazirian had access to seventy-three, and gradually, by stratagem and negotiation, was securing the others.

Maziriam made a selection from his books and with great effort forced five spells upon his brain: Phandaal's Gyrator, Felojun's Second Hypnotic Spell, The Excellent Prismatic Spray, The Charm of Untiring Nourishment, and the Spell of the Omnipotent Sphere. This accomplished, Maziriam drank wine and retired to his couch.


  1. Unsurprisingly, I approve of this post. Mind you, The Dying Earth is one of my favorite books, so I'm biased.

  2. And in this passage we also see Vance using the word "libram," which as far as anyone can tell, he made up...

  3. @ed
    Yep! Libram rocks as a word, but I was so surprised not to find it in the OED.

    Come to think of it, I think a lot of gamers take many of the words in their vocabulary for granted.

    More brainfood here:

    From the Dungeon to the Dictionary

  4. And yet this still reads to me like it was based around and trying to justify a game's magic system. I guess the D&D association is just too ingrained.

  5. @ed, ktrey: Vance is a master at using obscure or invented names and words in evocative yet plausible ways: e.g. Sivij Suthiro, the venefice from the planet Sarkovy, master of the deadly poison cluthe.

    And his dialog and sometimes plotting has a droll wit that often reminds me of Wodehouse (who is in fact very much admired by Vance).

    Question: Vance's legacy in D&D is obviously well-known, and there is a Dying Earth RPG. What of his space opera milieu, the Galactic Reach? I've wondered often why it hasn't got a game or setting book of its own. And lacking that, what game best simulates it? I don't know from space games.

  6. It becomes all too easy when looking at the cold hard stats on the page to become distant to the intentions of the authors. For too long I considered magic as a tool, passive to the whim of its manipulator, that could bend either way.

    The thought of magic itself has having it own will is all too often forgotten beneath the fireballs and magic missiles.

  7. I think magic doesn't mind if you set a few people on fire.

  8. Given how many DMs judged Fireball back in the day, I think "I think magic doesn't mind if you set a few people on fire." has far more truth to it than you know.

  9. Max: I have no first-hand experience, but a friend of mine once remarked that there was a (somewhat popular) 80s RPG named "Space Opera" which, while not explicitely set in the Gaean Reach, was perfectly suited for adventures in the vein of The Demon Princes or Ports of Call. They even had a supplement describing an eccentric interstellar casino - a place most Vance antiheroes would approve of.

  10. Anonymous9:27 AM

    He "forced the spell upon his mind", eh? I wonder if that means that if someone else came across his spellbook while he was out & tried to learn the same spell from it, it wouldn't work? Is casting a spell just turning it loose to go home to its book?

  11. @Mark: There's a thought, magic as some sort of semi-sentient force. I think Vance just means to convey the intense difficulty even a powerful sorceror has in learning the spell.

    In one instance he did write about someone trying to learn a spell from an pilfered spellbook. In D&D terms the result would be a critical fumble. (The passgae is excerpted in this post if you'd like to check it out.)

    @elgabor: Gaean not Galactic Reach, right! Thanks for the tip, I'll have to look out for that.

  12. Anonymous11:37 AM

    I like the magic he used in the Rhialto stories and the Lyonnesse series. This was usually performed by summoned beings called Sandestins. And you can't forget the ioun stones.

  13. Awesome post. I just finished re-reading The Dying Earth and Eyes of the Overworld, and was thinking about Vancian magic as it's represented in D&D. I was also thinking about how some games I played in my youth featured house rules with chances for spell failures and/or criticals. These rules never seemed to work well with D&D for me because of the memorization system, i.e. magic-users shouldn't need to roll to see if a spell fizzles because the memorization rules already constrain their choices effectively. To take away that first level m-u's sleep spell would be cruel.

    So now I'm toying with a house rule that agrees with exactly that aspect of Vancian magic you spotlight here. What if the standard spell progression table represents how many spells of each level a caster can safely memorize. A caster can try to memorize any number of spells of any level, but must roll d20 for every spell beyond what's indicated on the table.

    I'm thinking you want to roll a 20 or better on 1d20 + level + INT mod - spell level to succeed. And if you blow the roll by a big margin, something bad happens, just not sure what....

  14. "The Dying Earth" is an awsome book, and I hate all the nerd rage associated with so called "Vancian Magic" among people who don't know what they are talking about.

    That said, "Vancian" magic doesn't work well in a strict class based system. Turjan was very skilled with a rapier, though he wore no armour as I recall. Strict D&D wan't allow a magic user rapier proficiency, out of somewhat naive worry over "balance".

    The complaint is usually in old D&D you can't build a build a fighter like Conan, but I propose you can't build a mage like Turjan without some house rules.

  15. Turjan was very skilled with a rapier, though he wore no armour as I recall. Strict D&D wan't allow a magic user rapier proficiency, out of somewhat naive worry over "balance".
    Well, do I have the game for you: Fourth Ed. D&D!

  16. For those wanting another literary depiction of Vancian magic, I direct you to Joel Rosenberg's The Sleeping Dragon.

    It's the tale of a group of RPGers sent into the world they play in [yeah, I was new at the time tho!]

    In the book, Rosenberg lets the reader see, through the characters' unfamiliarity with magic, how spells can uncontrollably be released if the caster isn't prepared to stop them. As I recall, an unrepressed lightning bolt destroys their supplies upon arrival...

  17. Anonymous2:01 AM

    I've been playing D&D for almost 20 years, and the Vancian magic system always bothered me (not to the point of nerd rage...maybe a nerd tantrum). This article was the first time I've read anything referencing the original material and I must impression of it has changed completely. Undying Earth is now on my short list. Thank you Jeff!