The Vancian magic system is the popular term for the traditional Dungeons & Dragons spellcasting paradigm, in which players must memorize or prepare spells ahead of time.
The magic system used by the original Dungeons & Dragons (1974) drew inspiration from the Dying Earth novels by Jack Vance, for whom the Vancian magic system is named. In those books, wizards need to memorize a spell to use it, which wipes itself from the caster's mind after it was cast.
Vancian casting differs from the majority of videogame RPGs inspired by Dungeons & Dragons, which typically use a mana points system or a cooldown system.
The origins of D&D's magic system are described in issue 6 of The Strategic Review, The Dungeons & Dragons Magic System, by Gary Gygax.
Dungeons & Dragons used this system of memorizing spells from the original 1974 game (Men & Magic (1974)) until AD&D 2e (Player's Handbook (2e revised) (1995)). For example, in the AD&D 2nd edition rules:
- Both wizards and priests use the same rules for casting spells. To cast a spell, the character must first have the spell memorized. If it is not memorized, the spell cannot be cast.
Dungeons & Dragons 3rd edition made two notable changes to the Vancian system. Characters no longer memorize spells, but prepare them, a thematic difference but functionally identical. More significantly, several character classes cast spontaneously, whereby they may freely cast from a list of spells known, although they are still limited to a certain number of each spell level per day.
Post-Vancian casting systems
Dungeons & Dragons 4th edition abandoned the Vancian magic system. The core spellcasting classes in this edition cast spells which can be cast with a frequency defined as one of at-will, encounter, or daily. This system somewhat resembles the "cooldown timer" system used in videogame RPGs of the time.
Dungeons & Dragons 5th edition introduced a more flexible derivative of the Vancian system. Spellcasting characters prepare spells each day, but may spontaneously cast those, up to a limit of a certain number of each spell level per day. This system strikes a balance between Vancian and spontaneous casting.
Reception and influence
Many players of the original Dungeons & Dragons system either rejected the Vancian casting limits or misunderstood how it worked. In The Strategic Review #6 (Apr 1976), p.3, The Dungeons & Dragons Magic System, Gary Gygax explains:
- "The principal error here is that the one 1st level spell allowable to a 1st-level magic-user could be used endlessly (or perhaps at frequent intervals) without the magic-user having to spend time and effort re-memorizing and preparing again after a single usage. Many players also originally thought scrolls containing spells could be reused as often as desired." ...
- "To further compound the difficulties, many dungeon-masters and players, upon learning of the more restrictive intent of the rules, balked. They enjoyed the comic book characters, incredible spells, and stratospheric levels of their way of playing.
In the letters pages of Dragon #216 (Apr 1995), p.93, reader Donald Hoverson argues that the Vancian magic system fails to emulate the broader genre of fantasy fiction sufficiently well, as the majority of fantasy works do not work on a Vancian system. He recommends a spell point system, but with the caveat that certain particularly useful low-level spells should have a higher cost. In Dragon #218 (Jun 1995), reader Robert Melvin responds by defending the Vancian system as easier to use and track, and rewarding players for wise preparation.
Use in video games
The Vancian magic system appears in Final Fantasy (1987), a computer RPG inspired by Dungeons & Dragons and released for the Nintendo Famicom and Nintendo Entertainment System. Its sequel, Final Fantasy II (1988), changed to a spell points or MP system, which was a common magic system in video game RPGs of the late 1980s and onward.
The Vancian system was never common in video game RPGs, aside from those based directly on the Dungeons & Dragons rules, such as Baldur's Gate.
- Player's Handbook (2e revised) (1995), p.111.