No, We Shouldn’t Bring Back Vancian Magic

When a bunch of crabs are placed into a bucket, there’s no need to use a lid because they’ll never be able to climb out. It’s not because crabs lack the physical capability to lift themselves to freedom. Rather, it’s because those at the bottom will constantly pull down the crabs at the top so that they can climb to the surface themselves.

This is the plight of spellcasters in Fifth Edition: cursed to be pulled down beneath peers who are jealous of their benefits and ignorant to the fact that everyone is just another crab in the same bucket.

One common way such misguided individuals propose to bring down spellcasters in Fifth Edition is by bringing back so-called Vancian magic. In this article, we’ll demonstrate this whole thing to be an utterly terrible idea.

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What Is Vancian Magic?

If you’ve never heard of Vancian magic, you’re probably new here. It is the firm opinion of this publication that Vancian magic should have been left behind in Second Edition, and we are not shy about sharing this opinion loudly and with great frequency. In any case, we’ll gladly explain what we’re talking about.

The basic ideas of Vancian magic are conveyed in this excerpt from The Dying Earth by Jack Vance:

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. […] [H]e 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.

This book was written in 1950 and sparked a franchise that was extremely popular around the time Gary Gygax was working on the rules for D&D. We don’t want to say that Gygax outright stole D&D’s entire magic system from Jack Vance… but he outright stole D&D’s entire magic system from Jack Vance. Like, down to spell names like prismatic spray.

In Vance’s world, wizards don’t cast magic, they cast spells. The mechanisms of the spells are immutable; a wizard can’t tone down a gigantic blast of fire to light their pipe, nor use the same magical mechanics to ad hoc such a spell in the moment. Instead, they need to sit down and prepare their spells, a process that involved casting 99% of the spell and holding the final trigger at the ready for when the spell was needed. It’s like if Harry Potter had to sit down in the morning and decide he was going to be ready to cast the Patronus Charm that day over, say, the Mending Charm. And if his glasses broke that day, he was out of luck until the next morning when he could swap the spells around.

Players should already recognize this as the way magic works for many classes in D&D, and in the game’s earlier editions Vance’s influence was far more noticeable. All the way up until Third Edition, most spellcasters had to prepare their spells to specific spell slots. Thus, if a wizard wanted to cast a spell more than once per day, they needed to prepare it more than once, using multiple spell slots. This led to a tedious exercise every morning whereby wizards had to estimate how many times they were going to be able to cast fireball or fly or even mage armour. And once they exhausted the number of fireballs they had prepared, they couldn’t cast any more, even if they still had unexpended 3rd-level spell slots, because those slots were already taken up by other spells waiting to be cast. This could—and did—lead to spellcasters exhausting all their offensive spells and becoming dead weight to the party.

“no give and all take”

Part of the reason why this system of magic wasn’t a wholesale disaster in earlier editions was because spellcasters had more spellcasting resources.

In Second Edition, this was mostly a plethora of magic items like rods, wands, and staves that granted additional spells. Unlike Fifth Edition, there was an explicit expectation that spellcasters would use such resources to supplement their repertoire. There were so many magic items, in fact, that it grew to be a problem, and the designers were obliged to come up with a different strategy for the next edition.

In Third Edition, items were still present, but the solution to spellcasters having to have enough spells to get through the dungeon was more straightforward: grant them more spell slots. A lot more. Spellcasters didn’t just get more base spell slots, they gained bonus spell slots for having a higher spellcasting ability score. In Third Edition, a wizard with Intelligence 16 would get an extra slot for each spell level up to 3rd. With Intelligence 18, they’d get an extra slot for each level up to 4th. Remember, this was an edition where scores weren’t soft-capped at 20.

EDITOR’S NOTE: My very first character way back in Third Edition was an 11th-level elven wizard with Intelligence 20, giving him 24 spell slots of 1st through 6th level (6/5/5/4/3/1), compared to the 16 (4/3/3/3/2/1) that he would have in Fifth Edition. Calculating and managing that many spells—deciding how many of them to make offensive versus utility, and guessing at how many of each I’d need that day—was a hassle and a half. When Unearthed Arcana (2004) introduced the spell points variant to give everyone spontaneous spellcasting, my group leapt on it and never looked back. Pages 153 to 157 became our new bible, and everyone we introduced this variant to quickly converted to the new paradigm. Spell points work so much better that if Fifth Edition had done the smart thing and made them the default system and spell slots the variant, I am absolutely certain that the total number of slot players would be even lower than the current number of points players. 

Fifth Edition strikes a remarkable balance by bringing down the total number of spell slots and almost entirely eschewing magic items while simultaneously allowing greater flexibility in the use of a spellcaster’s casting resources. It is a lightweight, versatile system. This careful balance would be utterly disrupted if Vancian concepts were reintroduced, especially if nothing was given back to the casters to help them do their jobs.

In spite of this, bitter armchair game designers wo want to bring back memorization of specific combinations of spells invariably balk at any corresponding concessions. They want no additional spells per day and no additional items. Their argument is no give and all take, and the end result of their misguided recommendations would be a precipitous decline in the performance of spellcasters and, therefore, of the party.

“cantrips are a stroke of genius”

One particular part of Fifth Edition magic with which Vancian sycophants take umbrage is cantrips. The way they go on about them, you would think that spellcasters in their game come to a knife fight armed with an infinite arsenal of tactical nukes and blast away every challenge with free supernovas fired from their arse whilst martial characters weep in the corner at their own inadequacy. Not since a middle-class white woman missed a sale on designer capris has there been a bigger victim in the whole wide world than these poor martial characters who are just so useless in comparison to spellcasters that they might as well not even bother.

To be brutally honest, we find the number of lazy or innumerate people (or lazy and innumerate people) who can’t or won’t apply basic arithmetic to their claims about cantrips to be truly disheartening. On top of that, we find it supremely dishonest that they would completely ignore the actual purpose of cantrips in order to construct an elaborate strawman argument to justify an ultimately flawed perspective. For these reasons, we’ll set the record straight on cantrips here.

Looking first at the matter of damage output, any moderately optimized martial character will completely blow a cantrip-spamming spellcaster out of the water. The following table shows the per-round damage of three characters: a wizard casting toll the dead (the highest damage cantrip), a longsword-wielding fighter with the Duelling fighting style, and a rogue dual wielding a rapier and a dagger. For simplicity, all are assumed to have 20 (+5) in their relevant ability.

Level Wizard Fighter Rogue
1 6.5 (1d12) 11.5 (1d8 + 7) 15.5 (1d8 + 5 plus 1d4 plus 1d6)
5 13 (2d12) 16 (2d8 + 7) 22.5 (1d8 + 5 plus 1d4 plus 3d6)
11 19.5 (3d12) 20.5 (3d8 + 7) 33 (1d8 + 5 plus 1d4 plus 6d6)
17 26 (4d12) 20.5 (3d8 + 7) 43.5 (1d8 + 5 plus 1d4 plus 9d6)
20 26 (4d12) 32 (4d8 + 7) 47 (1d8 + 5 plus 1d4 plus 10d6)

* Note that this table does not account for the magic weapons the fighter and rogue are likely to obtain.

As you can see, the point of cantrips isn’t to give a comparable basic attack to spellcasters so that they can ‘keep pace with’ martial characters, much less outdamage them. Aside from a narrow window where spellcasters get a boost to their cantrips a few levels ahead of the fighter getting their fourth attack, a spellcaster in a damage race with a fighter using only at-will abilities will lose by a 5–75% margin. And that’s completely fine because no spellcaster worth the name is spamming cantrips every turn like that. Cantrips aren’t there to replace the rest of a caster’s spells (or their martial friends). Rather, cantrips are a stroke of genius that significantly alleviate an entirely different problem that has plagued spellcasters throughout prior editions: the 5-minute workday.

The 5-minute workday (sometimes called the ‘8-hour adventuring day’) is a byproduct of having limited resources that are essential to advancing in the adventure, such as spell points (or spell slots if you’re still using those inferior things). A wizard who can only cast a spell twice before they’re tapped out of magical ability for the day quickly becomes dead weight. At early levels this can be somewhat offset by proficiency with certain conventional weapons, even if it’s just a basic sling or a quarterstaff, and in previous editions it was obligatory for low-level spellcasters to carry crossbows and the like for this reason. However, this not only fails to fulfill the theme of spellcasters being able to rely on their magic, it also doesn’t allow them to be useful at higher levels once their spells are exhausted. A single crossbow shot might pose a threat to a goblin at level 2, but the shadow dragon that resists nonmagical piercing damage won’t even feel the 4 damage of your futile missile as it casually sweeps you aside with its tail.

Because spellcasters from earlier editions had limited combat spells prepared, they would try to save them for the big boss battle. Most DMs grew wise to this after the first few times their party went from zero to 100 in the climactic battle of the adventure, and would try faking out the boss battles to burn character abilities, such as by bringing in a tough lieutenant before the final battle. This inevitably made the problem even worse because the spellcasters would hold onto their spells even while facing the Big Robot Crab Boss, fearing that in the very next room would be the Even Bigger Robot Crab Boss. And if the spellcasters exhausted too much of their arsenal, the whole party would have to stop and rest until everyone had all their abilities back, putting a serious damper on adventure pacing.

And this is where cantrips come in. While not truly a substitute for limited-use spells, cantrips provide two important benefits. First, they allow spellcasters to remain moderately effective in combat on those occasions where using a more powerful spell on their turn would be a waste. Secondly, they provide spellcasters with the ability to output modest damage if they have exhausted their more powerful spells, which significantly alleviates the need to hoard those spells like a lich hoards souls or Boomers hoard bottlecaps and financial equity. The end result is that spellcasters now expend their resources more evenly throughout the adventure, allowing for a more steady growth of drama and a marked reduction in decision paralysis about using spells.

“it’s a team game”

Overwhelmingly, people arguing for imposition of Vancian magic do so not only from the completely flawed perspective that spellcasters are ‘overpowered’ in comparison to other characters, but that there needs to be a 100% completely level playing field. They might not outright say it, but it’s manifestly clear that they view martial classes and spellcasters as being in competition, rather than on the same side.

Like the crabs who keep their peers from rising to the top, people who pull down others in the same bucket reveal that they are incapable of thinking beyond themselves. It’s entirely valid for someone to want their preferred class to offer more versatile and compelling options, especially when it’s a relatively straightforward class like fighter or barbarian, but to argue that other classes should be made inferior to sate one’s own insecurities is nothing short of petty and sad. Instead of fixating on their own feelings of inadequacy, people of this perspective ought to recognize that D&D is a team game and everyone is working together toward the same goal using their respective strengths.

Martial characters are far tougher than the average spellcaster, and by soaking up attacks they allow the spellcasters to maintain battlefield control, either with effects like gust of wind to move enemies around or by dishing out splash damage to clear mobs who would overwhelm the party in the action economy. Both martial classes and spellcasters need each other, and they need each other to do the things that the other does best. Yes, as the game continues to expand there is inevitably going to be additional options for classes to try out different roles, but at the end of the day each class has its own strengths that will always be there for you to enjoy.

The versatility of spellcasters doesn’t diminish the versatility (or existence) of martial classes, and the smart thing to do is to work with the spellcasters to devise battlefield strategies rather than begrudge them their strengths. Remember, it’s not a competition, it’s a team game.

“not all spellcasters are sorcerers”

There is one and only one argument that people make against the current magic system that has even a single ounce of validity, and that’s how Fifth Edition sorcerers have lost some of their distinctiveness.

It’s no secret that sorcerers were done dirty by Fifth Edition. In previous editions, their spontaneous spellcasting helped make them feel different than wizards, with whom they already shared their spell list. But while some (overly dramatic) individuals decry other classes becoming spontaneous casters as some sort of death blow to the class, there are a number of problems with their argument. In fact, when you look at the whole picture of changes to sorcerers in Fifth Edition, it is plainly evident that the problems with the class run much deeper than how they cast their spells.

Firstly, sorcerers were not the only spontaneous spellcasters in previous editions. In Third Edition, there were Spirit Shamans (Complete Divine), Duskblades (Player’s Handbook II), Favoured Souls (Complete Divine), Dread Necromancers (Heroes of Horror), and many other classes used spontaneous spellcasting, so it wasn’t a unique feature to sorcerers, and sharing it with other classes in Fifth Edition doesn’t really have the impact many people claim. Arguing that sorcerers were defined by their spellcasting style is as inaccurate as saying that oranges are defined by being citrus—true, they aren’t pome fruits like apples, but lemons, grapefruits, and tangerines are all citrus fruits as well and their existence doesn’t diminish an orange’s uniqueness.

Additionally, there were three other differences between wizards and sorcerers that were arguably even more damaging to the sorcerer class to lose: (1) they knew far more spells, sometimes even more than a wizard could prepare; (2) their class spell list was far more expansive, including all the spells wizards could learn; and (3) and they could cast more spells in a day than any other spellcasting class. The last of these is still the case after a fashion, as sorcerers can convert sorcery points into new spells, but doing so takes away from the metamagic options they were given exclusive access to as a meagre concession for their troubles (though most sorcerers sadly go their whole career only knowing two options).

EDITOR’S NOTE: If you thought my Third Edition wizard had a lot of spell slots, the party’s sorcerer will blow you away. Though she didn’t have 6th-level spells yet at 11th level, her 1st- to 5th-level slot total was 36 to my 23! A Fifth Edition sorcerer would have 16—fewer than half their Third Edition counterparts.

When looking at all of this together, it becomes apparent that the plight of sorcerers is far more complex than other spellcasting classes becoming almost as versatile as they are, and it is inappropriate to re-apply deeply unpopular and unwieldy Vancian mechanics to other classes in some harebrained attempt to redress this wrong. Sorcerers needing a buff doesn’t make nerfs to other classes appropriate, especially when the improvements to those classes was guided by overwhelming player demand.

Putting It All Together

Magic in D&D has had its detractors since the very first edition of the game, and the persistence of such nonsense even in a low-magic edition like Fifth merely proves that these folks will never be happy and should simply be ignored. Magic is an integral part of D&D, and spellcasters are an important part of any D&D party. Across all the editions of D&D, Fifth Edition has managed the most ideal balance of versatility and lightweight rules. It has done so by consistently moving away from Vancian magic mechanisms, much to the celebration of those who gravitate towards spellcasting characters.

All pro-Vancian magic arguments ultimately boil down to the same flawed idea: that there’s something wrong with spellcasters having abilities that X other class doesn’t get. Like crabs in a bucket, naysayers pull down their fellow crabs rather than work with them to rise up. They’re so preoccupied with their own insecurity that they ignore the benefits offered by having allies with different skill sets. The entire issue would stop coming up if people would just consider which would they rather have: an ally who outdamages them, or an ally who is useless half the time?

At the end of the day, if you simply prefer the awful, unwieldy mess of Vancian magic for the narrative flavour, then admit to it. Stop trying to cloak your preference in some sort of objective reasoning that basic logic and popular opinion both soundly reject. And if you just hate spellcasters and want to bring them down, consider playing another game. Magic has always been a part of D&D and it always will be.

But most importantly, don’t be a crab. Don’t pull down others who are in the same bucket just because you want to feel like you’re on top. It’s just going to ruin everyone’s fun.

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