Saturday, March 3, 2012

Making Vancian Magic Work in 4E (Updated)

A few weeks ago I pointed to a wikipedia link for a description of "Vancian Magic." This week Monte Cook expanded on the idea of Vancian Magic a little more (here) and included his thoughts on it as it applied to the design process going forward into DnDNext. I have stated my preference for magic user types following a different path than, say, a fighter-type, but I would also prefer to avoid the "15 minute workday" problem prevalent in pre-4E versions where a magic user would expend all their known spells in the first encounter and were then essentially useless until they took a full rest.

Could there a way to take the idea of "spell slots" and tie them into an at-will/encounter/daily type of power structure? Certainly there must be a compromise in here somewhere, some model that can fuse these two different systems into a workable version that touches both the 4E and the pre-4E worlds. How about something like this:

Cantrips = At-Will Powers, similar to the way "Magic Missile" is played in 4E today, although some could easily fall into the Minor Action category as well.

Spells = Encounter Powers, the higher level spell slots fitting in here.

Rituals = Daily Powers, the more-or-less once a day kind of things that aren't necessarily encounter or combat  related.

Your choice of verbiage may vary here, but the idea would still be the same. When using the DDI Character Builder (CB) tool to work up a magic user character you could be presented with a spell slot table to fill based on your appropriate attribute (intelligence likely I suppose, but maybe not always). You would then fill your slots with the available choices as presented in the tool, similar to the way a fighter picks their powers choices in the CB tool now. The number and types of choices could even be adjusted by choice of magic school(s), deity, or alignment. Each character sheet would then have a power card with the appropriate text description and numbers that would be adjusted as the character moved up levels, again, similar to what Magic Missile does now.

This still would leave plenty of possibilities. What might be an encounter power (spell) at level one might be an at-will power (cantrip) at some higher level. Feat choice might allow a magic user to select multiple schools of magic to expand their potential magical repertoire as well as add bonuses dependent upon Feat selection. Magic users would no longer have to say things like "I'll fill two of my spell slots with Magic Missiles," and for those who liked to change their selection of known spells from day-to-day doing this via the CB tool would be no harder than doing it via pencil and paper as in the previous versions.

I started to mention "Cure Light Wounds" in the previous paragraph when I realized I had completely excluded cleric-types and their lines of magic use, or prayers if you will. I am not going to re-write the entire post to try and fit them in now, but for discussion purposes this same model would fit them as well with some minor tweaks to verbiage.

As for the cantrips or spells themselves just look in any old Players Handbook for a list and then covert the text of the spells to 4E language, i.e., a Hold Person spell would now use the word "Immobilize" to describe its result. Most spells have a very specific and limited use to begin with and I would expect that to remain true as part of any potential conversion as well.

So how will magic really be played in DnDNext? It's early March now, we know that an early version of the playtest was used at DDXP in late January, and we know that a wide-release version of the playtest is going to be distributed some time this spring. I would guess we will know more about this in the next two months or so.

Update: Just for grins I decided to test build a 15th level Essentials mage after I wrote the above post. It came complete with 28(!) cantrips, at-will, encounter, and daily powers, and I got to make spell selections at each level along the way. At 15th level I got to add in a second school of magic as well. It wasn't exactly what I had in mind, but it came a lot closer than I had anticipated.


  1. Trying to fit Vancian magic into the 4E At-Will/Encounter/Daily paradigm keeps you wedded to the 4E model that (almost) everything is combat. The whole idea of an "encounter" only exists in combat. In prior versions of D&D, you could spend most of the adventure outside of combat, and MUs (and clerics) had plenty of interesting ways to use their spells, many of which were useless in a combat situation.

    I really like the direction DnDNext seems to be going with moving back towards a D&D game that isn't just a tabletop WoW. But that's going to require something that transcends the notion of encounters as the fundamental unit of gameplay.

  2. Our group regularly uses the current 4E version of the "Mage Hand" at-will power in an out-of-encounter context, ditto "Tenser's Floating Disk." Another example would be using "Healing Word" in a post-encounter context.

    I guess I am saying I don't see this being as locked into a strict in-encounter context.