Wednesday, December 5, 2012

I Miss Vancian Casting

Man, I bet that's not a sentiment you hear often.  Actually yeah, google searching that string doesn't turn up much.  Neat.

For those unfamiliar, Vancian casting is the default means of spellcasting for editions between 1st and 3rd, where a spellcaster chooses his spells at the beginning of the day, picking both which spells he has prepared and how many of each, subject to some fairly tight limitations.  Lots of folks hacked together their own "spell point" systems during this period, some of which were officially released during 2e, while 3e's Sorcerer class was the first official 'spontaneous' hybrid to my knowledge, which chose a small set of spells known and could then cast them interchangeably using slots rather than spell points.  This achieved a flexibility somewhere between spell points and proper Vancian casting.  3e's psionics brought spell points back, and then in late 3.5 we saw a huge proliferation in alternate magic systems (stuff like incarnum and truenaming, which just ran on completely different mechanics from normal casting).  4e, for its part, did standardize things again, but to a new at-will / encounter / daily paradigm which bore little resemblance to anything preceding it, and which severely limited strategic flexibility.

ACKS, on the other hand, uses something very much like a back-port of 3e's sorcerer.  Each mage has a spellbook, which contains the formulae for his spells, and also has a repertoire of spells which he has readily available for casting.  Each day he receives a number of spell slots of each level, which he can use to cast any spell from his repertoire on the fly.  The place where he beats the sorcerer is in his ability to change out the spells in his repertoire; while this is a slow and expensive process, it is a capability which the 3.0 sorcerer lacked entirely, and which is very limited for the 3.5 sorcerer.

There are a lot of things to like about the ACKS mage.  It has a degree of tactical versatility, and also some strategic versatility, but the spells you learn when you level are (usually) acquired at random from other mages in the area.  This means that getting the spells you want is hard, and puts mages on constant lookout for scrolls of spells they want.  Better still, it provides a motivator for mage-vs-mage conflicts; to the victor go the spellbooks.  It brings back something of the old Magic: the Gathering vibe, from back around Arena (sidenote - this is the best of the MtG novels I have ever read), where you duel for the rights to spells (which translated into the long-abandoned ante rules of the card game).  The summoning spells in the Player's Companion really reinforce this feeling, and it pleases me.  Likewise, the inability to choose spells on levelling means that mages aren't always picking the same handful of optimal spells; as I've mentioned, sometimes you're the evoker because you rolled all offense, and sometimes you're the dooromancer because you rolled Wizard Lock and Knock.  Spell acquisition is its own game within the game, and casters are sometimes known by their own custom signature spells, which are not easily learned by others.  It's really a pretty neat thing to have going on, and I think both of our mages are having fun with it.

The thing I miss about Vancian magic, though, is the planning and cunning that it entails.  As a Vancian wizard, you have to make measured guesses about what you're going to encounter on this particular day, and then hope that you guessed right.  An ACKS mage, on the other hand, must estimate how many more things he will encounter in a given day, in order to decide how to conserve his spell slots, but need not plan for particular expected threats to the same degree.  I argue that having to plan in the Vancian manner causes players to think more like high-int magicians, whereas with ACKS-style spontaneous magic, mages are cautious due to their fragility but rarely play to the full capabilities of their nominal intellects.  Roger has previously mentioned the "impulsive vs analytic" dynamic between fighters and wizards, and I think that Vancian casting reinforced that role for wizards.  I recall from my time playing a Vancian wizard back in 3.0 that it was all about contingency planning.  You have your combat spells, and stuff you might need at a moment's notice like Invisibility or Teleport, prepped with your actual slots.  You have Scribe Scroll for a reason - scrolls are for all the stuff that you probably won't need today, but might reasonably need out of combat this adventure.  Knock, Levitate, those sort of utility problem-solving capabilities.  At later levels, you probably pick up Craft Wand, and shift some of your low-grade offense and frequently-used utility spells, like Detect Magic, out to those.  If you're complaining about the ten-minute adventuring day as a 3.x Vancian wizard after 5th level, it's because you're managing your strategic resources poorly.

Now, you may remark, magic item creation in 3.x is terrible because it costs you XP.  And this is true, and that is a bad rule, but I have a theory as to why it is there.  I think, though I have no corroboration from any official source for this belief, that the motivation for magic items costing XP to create in 3.x is that it serves to slow down spellcaster levelling.  It's a workaround for the uniform levelling curve introduced in 3rd edition, with the intent of restoring some degree of the old differences in levelling rate for classes which were clearly different in power.  Because in Core 3.0 at least, playing a good wizard meant either scrolling it up or complaining about the ten-minute adventuring day.  Sadly it would seem that the complainers have won out.

In any case, we do not see this same push to magic item creation in ACKS.  Our wizards have not been creating potions or scrolls of utility spells with the same frequency observed in casters of similar levels in 3.0, and I believe this is due in part to the fact that they do not have to choose between fly and fireball, or invisibility and knock, in the same preparatory way.  Created charged magic items are now useful because they permit you to use more slots in a day than you would otherwise be able, or with potions they let your fellow party members use actions to generate spell effects, which can confer an action-economic advantage.  But the opportunity cost to create these items is quite steep; you need monster parts and many weeks and many gold pieces and a lab.  Our mages have certainly not been jumping on the magic item creation bandwagon.  Part of this, I suspect, may be that they just recently acquired the capability at 5th level, rather than 1st as would happen in 3.x.  Perhaps I should just give it more time...

In any case the point was that playing Vancian casters generated a push towards gathering information about what you were going to face, and planning cleverly, which spontaneous casting does not to the same degree.  And in retrospect, it was kind of fun sometimes, especially when you do have scrolls and other charged magic items as your strategic flexibility reserve.


  1. During AD&D 2nd edition, TSR published some spell points systems in the book titled "Spells & Magic". The book "Complete Psionic's Handbook" gave psionic powers which you spent PSP (Psionic Strength Points) to use.
    Official point-based spell & power systems predate the 3rd edition of D&D.

    1. I kind of expected something along these lines to pop up... consider it edited! And yeah, my knowledge of 2e is basically nonexistent. Thanks for the correction!

  2. I had always figured that the magic item XP costs were there to offset the level drain acquired by fighters when they died (since presumably the rest of the party would just leave when the fighter died rather than continuing to fight, and all other party members have escape methods other than "run away"). The level adjustment thing is interesting, though.

    As for ACKS item creation, of course most of us aren't doing it. I haven't read all of the rules, but it sounds like it stinks. You have to be stupidly high level in order to have any chance of actually succeeding at item creation (and only one party member is so leveled at this point, and even that's debatable). You have to expend an enormous amount of out-of-combat resources in order to do it, putting your character on standby while the rest of the party has fun (which might work if you've got a wizard henchmen, but then they don't level anywhere near fast enough to get decent item creation rates). And finally, the things you can create are limited by the kind of monsters you've managed to defeat lately. Not even just defeat, either - you have to drag home specific monster bits along with all of the treasure you're already trying to lug out of there, and if you ask the rest of the party which is more valuable, everyone will agree that the treasure comes first. It seems to me like the designers did that _deliberately_ to discourage players from attempting to create magic items. Why else would you require so many resources to get a +5% chance to deal 1d6+2 damage, when you could get the same reward faster by using all of those resources you would have spent just dungeon-delving? Sure, the utility of having potions or scrolls could be useful, but having the wizard around to help with adventuring, _especially_ a high-level wizard, instantly offsets that.

    Actually, it may be the case that item creation is deliberately for retired wizards - if you've gotten to the King stage of the game and all of the former player characters are rulers and don't have any wars to fight, and you make a new character, then the wizard is the one that says "go out and bring me 10 orc heads and I will pay you 500 gold and give you a healing potion" or whatever.

    1. Ehh... the odds aren't _that_ bad on item creation. Alex just hit item creation level, and while he is basically optimal for it, he still has a a better than even chance to make first-level scrolls, potions, or other stuff. He's also at 12+ to copy the wish scroll, which is not too shabby... Samples and formulae provide a huge benefit in terms of time and gold expenditures. Making the sword +1 I think you're talking about is only 2500 GP and two weeks if you already have a sword +1. That's actually not terrible for +1 to hit and damage for a fighter; certainly you're not levelling every other week of adventuring, generally. Better still, because of some weirdness in the way magic item creation times are calculated, making a duplicate of the spear +2 would cost 7500 and take 9 days, and Alex would be on 9+ to create... even in expectation, this is a fair bit cheaper than what Tim bought it for.

      Also, the flip side of "you can only make things based on the stuff you've killed recently" is "if you want to make X, go find Y." The monster bits requirement can therefore serve as an adventure-motivator (also, pursuant to wish-copying, I have determined the location of at least one genie). Also, good thing there's about three months of mandated downtime per game year (nevermind recovery times due to crippling injuries to other critical members of the party). In any case, I don't think the magic item creation rules are punitively difficult; weird and annoying sometimes, yes. Stupid hard and necessarily terribad, not so sure.

      And yeah, retired wizards are totally supposed to send people looking for monster bits, or to clear out their dungeons. This is where quests of that form come from; there haven't been any in this campaign because there aren't a whole lot of high-level wizards around.

  3. I am a big proponent of magic item creation being available from level 1, for several reasons. 1) most games don't last into the high levels, so why hide all that interesting content? 2) In mythology, magic is more often stored in objects rather than just being power that can be thrown around. 3) Creation provides a very "sims-like" experience of being part of and affecting the game world.

    I'm still personally experimenting with various creation systems that are reasonably powered. For one thing, I use Holmes scroll creation rules (100 GP + 1 week per spell level) and allow magic-users to scribe scrolls of above-level spells, assuming they have a grimoire with the appropriate spell. This essentially turns high level spells into rituals for low level magic-users, which I like a lot.

    Also, as I only give XP for spending GP, players are constantly looking for ways to spend money, and creating magic items seems to give what feels like a good return on investment. In other words, character naturally become higher level through the process of making magic items rather than having only high level characters able to create magic items.

    1. That is a very interesting idea with the scrolls! I kind of like that. May have to steal and adapt; I like how it puts the focus on spell acquisition.

      And yeah, there are odd causal issues with magic item creation, even in ACKS. The whole domain income threshold thing means that it's very hard for casters to get appreciable XP for their creations unless they sell them, which is likewise nontrivial. Could use some work.