Monday, July 7, 2014

Vancian Magic Redux

So, I just finished a year and a half long slog through Jack Vance's Tales of the Dying Earth (the purported source of the much-maligned Dungeons and Dragons magic system and much hyped in the infamous Appendix N). I also just noticed that I begin a lot of paragraphs in these posts with the word "So". Whatever, I'm not out to win a writing award, just get my thoughts in text. Anyways, I cannot un-recommend these novels enough. They had some of the most opaque prose I've ever seen, and barely qualify as readable.

For all that I disliked Vance's writing, and the stories were just okay, reading them gave me a new love of the idea of magical spells as a limited resource to be husbanded and the sheer interestingness of preparing different spells every day (something I've always been a fan of, but D&D got me into fantasy, not the other way around). This line in particular from The Dying Earth sums up Vancian magic quite well:
Mazirian stroked his chin... Later, when black night lay across the forest, he would seek through his books for spells to guard him through the unpredictable glades. They would be poignant corrosive spells, of such a nature that one would daunt the brain of an ordinary man and two render him mad. Mazirian, by dint of stringent exercise, could encompass four of the most formidable, or six of the lesser spells.
It also made me realize that magic in D&D is actually NOT Vancian. Note that the character Mazirian the Magician is clearly a high level mage by D&D standards: he crafts unique monsters and plants in his vats, he experiments with creating sentient servant races, and his favorite spell "The Excellent Prismatic Spray" is defined as a 7th-level spell in most versions of the game. Yet, despite begin able to cast (at least) 7th-level spells, he can only prepare "four...or six of the lesser spells." Likewise, the protagonist of many of the books, Cugel the Clever, works for more than a year to master a single spell. 

Based on his title, Mazirian "The Magician" should be a 6th-level magic user according to the LBBs Men and magic (OD&D), which is powerful by that system, but certainly not "Prismatic Spray" powerful. Still, by comparison a 6th-level LBB magic-user can prepare 8 spells per day, almost double what Mazirian is capable of. Thus, we can conclude that even in the oldest editions of D&D, the wizards have much more power at their disposal than any of the casters in the Vance oeuvre.

Many older players speak of D&D as being a game largely about resource management (and the mythical 5-minute workday).  What follows are some notes for making a more definitively "Vancian" magic system for the Pathfinder game (since that is what my group usually plays) and making magic a resource to be husbanded even more than it already is, while also making it available to all characters (Cugel was clearly a rogue after all) and making all characters relatively equal in terms of their ability to keep adventuring (because, after all, even Gandalf used a sword). These will certainly be tweaked further in the future, but this is the first draft. Thoughts are welcome:


The Goals:

  1. Spells should be available to all player characters, but should be highly limited in terms of numbers, and should also be awesome. Magic is the trump card in your back pocket, not your everyday mundane toolbox (no Mending at will).
  2. Combat should be emphasized, interesting, and valuable even at high levels.
  3. Randomly generated ability scores should be an AID to character creation, not a barrier to entry for the character you want to play. There should be no such thing as a dump stat.
  4. Characters should be roughly but not religiously balanced (with room for random variation).
  5. While we're at it...let's throw away classes entirely. Adventurers are a versatile lot after all.  A lot of this is a digression from the core let's get more Vancian concept, but I got carried away, okay...

Spellcasting is based on two factors: mental abilities and level. No single ability score dictates the entirety of a character's capacity for magic: smart, wise, and charismatic characters are all able to cast spells, archmages are those that are highly talented in all three areas. The specifics are as follows:

  • A character's caster level is equal to his character level. Everyone has the potential to cast spells and the power of these spells scales with their experience, regardless of the path they choose.
  • There are no "class spell lists". All spells are potentially available to all characters. In those cases where a spell appears at a different level on different spell lists, it is always treated as the highest possible spell level. Example: Neutralize Poison (Druid 3, Bard 4, Cleric 4) is always a 4th level spell.
  • A character can prepare spells of a level equal to 1/2 his character level, rounded down. Thus a character must be 4th level to use 2nd-level spells, and 18th-level to use 9th level spells. 1st-level characters have access to 0th-level spells, but are not guaranteed to know any. There are no ability-score based limits on the level of spell you may know.
  • A character can prepare a number of spells per day equal to his Wisdom bonus (if any). Thus a character must have a Wisdom of 12 in order to cast any spells (this is the only barrier to casting), and a character with a Wisdom of 20 could prepare 5 spells any given day. These spells can be of any level the character has access to. Thus a 14th-level character with a Wisdom of 20 could prepare 5 7th-level spells (or any combination of 5 spells of levels 0th to 7th). Feats, Traits, or racial abilities that grant extra spell slots work normally.
    • Why Wisdom you ask? Well, these are spells that "would daunt the brain of an ordinary man and render him mad" after all.
  • All characters who desire to cast spells must keep and study Spellbooks ("would seek through his books for spells"). A character can "learn" a number of spells of a given level equal to one-half his Intelligence score. Thus a character with an Intelligence of 12 could learn 6 spells of each level. A starting character knows a number of 0th-level spells equal to his Intelligence bonus (if any), all other spells must be found and added to the character's spellbook in the "old-fashioned way". Feats, Traits, or racial abilities that grant extra known spells or extra spells in a spellbook work normally and add to this limit.
    • As usual a Spellcraft skill check is necessary to learn a spell (which, conveniently, is also Intelligence based).
  • Saving throw DCs for spells are based on the character's Charisma score. Bonuses for Feats, Traits, or racial abilities apply normally.

With these you could have (at least) three different styles of caster in a party based solely on their ability scores (obviously these examples define "low wisdom" as a 12 or higher).
  • High WIS, low INT and CHA: The character can carry several spells, but they have a limited selection and can't always get through an enemy's defenses. He tends to pack a good number of a few favorite spells, and is probably the guy loaded up with healing for the party.
  • High INT, low WIS and CHA: The character knows a lot of spells, but can only prepare one or two. He focuses on utility spells and spends a lot of time contemplating exactly the right spell to prepare for the coming adventure.
  • High CHA, low WIS and INT: The character can only cast one or two spells, and doesn't know that many either, but they punch through defenses well. This is probably the party's heavy artillery packing his one (hard to avoid) fireball or lightning bolt in reserve for the "Big Battle".

Basic Numbers:
All characters use the same basic progression, but there should be enough flexibility in the optional stuff to differentiate them based on their choices rather than relying on the numbers to do it.

  • Ability Scores:  Generated by whatever means the DM thinks is appropriate (though random is always better).
  • Base Attack/Defense Bonus:  All PCs have a base attack bonus equal to their character level (as a Fighter). They also gain a bonus to AC equal to their character level. This means that two 20th-level characters fighting each other have the same "to hit" probability as two 1st-level characters fighting each other. It also means that a high-level character is significantly advantaged against lower-level ones.
  • Saving Throws:  All characters have a bonus on their Fortitude, Reflex, and Will saving throws equal to one-half their character level, rounded down. This means that saving throw DCs (based on available spell-level) will progress at the same rate as saving throws with same reasoning as BAB and AC bonuses.
  • Hit Points:  All characters gain 2d4 hit points per level. Using 2d4 means that most characters will have similar hit points (thanks to the curve), it also eliminates that ever-dreaded 1hp characte (somehow players complain about having 2hp so much less than having 1hp).
  • Skill Points:  All characters gain 2d4 skill points per level. This gives the same range of skill points as the various classes (2 per level for Fighter up to 8 per level for a Rogue). These are randomly generated mostly to keep things interesting.
  • Traits/Feats/Ability Advancement:  All characters gain the normal starting traits (whatever the DM would normally use), and Feats and Ability bonuses based on his level. In addition, every character gains 1 additional feat per level. Thus a 1st-level human starts with 3 feats, whereas a 20th-level character would have a total of 30 feats (31 for a human). We'll discuss this wealth of feats further below.

Skills and Proficiencies:
Skills and Weapon/Armor proficiencies work basically as described, but a few relevant changes are worth noting, as well as some mechanical alterations for equipment.
  • All player characters are proficient with all Armors (light, medium, and heavy) and Shields. While it can be argued that using armor and shields correctly requires special training, anyone sticking his neck into a monster's mouth has probably learned that. While armor and shields are available to everyone, they work a little differently from standard Pathfinder:
    • Armor does not improve AC, but instead provides damage reduction equal to the AC bonus the armor would normally grant (thus a Chain Shirt grants DR 4). Note that Dexterity limits still apply, so characters in heavy armor are usually easier to hit (and therefore worth Power Attacking).
    • Shields grant the usual AC bonus and also shall be splintered. A shield can be sacrificed (as an immediate action) to intercept a blow, negating a single attack but giving the shield the broken condition. An already broken shield cannot intercept blows in this way.
    • There is no such thing as Arcane Spell Failure. Rules like this were introduced as a way to balance warriors against spellcasters. Since we don't have distinct classes, this is unnecessary. Likewise, characters have very few spells already, having a % chance for their one spell per day to fail outright is just asking for frustrated players to throw dice at you.
  • All characters are proficient with all Simple Weapons. Characters can spend skill points to become proficient in additional weapons at the cost of 1 skill point for a Martial weapon, or 2 skill points for an Exotic weapon. Bonus proficiencies based on the character's race or traits apply normally.
  • All characters have access to all Skills. Since there is no penalty for learning "non-class" skills in Pathfinder, no skills are Class Skills. This means that almost all characters will have a bonus equal to +1 per point spent on the skill (plus other modifiers). Woo easy math!
    • Feats and Traits that grant a skill as a Class Skill still work normally. This effectively grants the character a +3 bonus in that skill for their choice of Feats/Traits, making such feats much more beneficial and desirable than they would be in a normal Pathfinder game, where such Class Skills can easily be made redundant by the choice of class(es).

With no class-based abilities, Feats become the standard method of differentiating the tactics and abilities of various characters. Thus, characters under this method get A LOT of feats. While the use of Feats is mostly strait-forward and "as written", one significant exception must be made.

Many feats are limited based on class or class abilities, since we have no classes, this would rule out a lot of feats and a lot of potentially interesting options. Therefore all such requirements shall be waved, but the character must still find a way to power or use the ability granted. Feats such as Extra Rogue Talent are fairly strait-forward in this way, but others may not be or may require interesting combinations. Here are a few examples (players and GMs are encouraged to consider their options and possible combinations that might make such feats viable): 

  • Example 1:  Turn Undead requires that the character "use one of your uses of channel positive energy" to activate the feat, but, obviously our character does not have those. Extra Channel grants 2 uses of channel energy (but nothing to do with them). Alone both feats are useless, together they grant the character one of the classic Cleric abilities.
  • Example 2:  All Rage Powers require that the character be raging, so Extra Rage Power doesn't do anything for a character that cannot rage. The Extra Rage feat grants 6 additional rounds of rage per day, but as written does not define what that rage does. Taking these two feats together (and possibly additional Extra Rage Power feats) gives the character a potentially unique "Rage State" (with cool special effects but none of the +4 Strength nonsense).
Plenty of such combinations exist to be exploited. Alternatively, a particularly friendly DM might rule that "Extra X" gives the character full access to that class ability (Extra Rage gives the standard Barbarian's Rage class feature for 6 rounds per day, Extra Channel lets the character use the standard Channel Energy ability twice per day, or Extra Arcane Pool gives the Magus ability of the same name). So long as the DM is upfront about how this is being applied and does so consistently throughout a campaign, balance is maintained (if you care about such things) and players will have plenty of options for making unique and interesting characters.