You did not actually prepare any sonic energy spells today, did you? Vaarsuvius:
Not as such, no. Leeky Windstaff:
Truly, more wizards have been laid low by the writings of Jack Vance
than by any single villain. Vaarsuvius:
On an unrelated note, would you consider a brief pause in the battle? Say, about eight hours or so?
Vancian Magic is a specific form of "rule magic
" that conforms to these functional rules (along with whatever other metaphysics the writer chooses):
- Magical effects are packaged into distinct spells; each spell has one fixed purpose. A spell that throws a ball of fire at an enemy just throws balls of fire, and generally cannot be "turned down" to light a cigarette, for instance.
- Spells represent a kind of "magic-bomb" which must be prepared in advance of actual use, and each prepared spell can be used only once before needing to be prepared again. That's why it is also known as "Fire & Forget magic."
- Magicians have a finite capacity of prepared spells which is the de facto measure of their skill and/or power as magicians. A wizard using magic for combat is thus something like a living gun: he must be "loaded" with spells beforehand and can run out of magical "ammunition".
This tends to create the problem that the mage must somehow know
(or at least predict) which spells will be most useful in the near future. If you are expecting combat, then you (probably) aren't going to prepare a "talk with animals" spell that day, which may leave you up a creek if that's precisely what you need to do later. (And if you use up all your spells too quickly, you may really
be up a creek later.) To work around this problem, some writers use a Mana
or "spell points" system, where the mage can cast any spells they know at any time as long as they have a large enough reserve of energy at the time, which they can replenish later (either by Regenerating Mana
or with a Mana Potion
Naturally, this approach to magic is a lot more common in non-interactive media than it is in video games, which, while often inspired by Vancian Magic
, stretch its rules quite a bit since demanding a lot of magic preparation in a game could easily become annoying and/or create pacing issues. As such, most games that involve magic base its rules around the much simpler Mana Meter
A frequently used fourth rule is a naming convention
: Possessives and variations thereof — e.g. Sumpjumper's Incendiary Surprise. In a series of spells that is often the same or slightly varied, e.g. "Bigby
's X Hand
" (...Grasping, Pushing, Clenched).
The name comes from the late Jack Vance
, writer of exotic Science Fiction
. Vancian magic first appears in his Dying Earth
. Gary Gygax
and his collaborator Dave Arneson subsequently "borrowed" the basic ideas for the magic system of Trope Codifier Dungeons & Dragons
The disapproving term is "Utility Belt
Magic" (you load it, then have N buttons to press).
Compare Powers as Programs
, Fantastic Science
, Ritual Magic
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- In Mahou Sensei Negima!, Weasel Mascot chamo often shows up to bring up concepts such as magical limits and exertion, which Negi tends to push. Also, some wizards in the series like to subvert the "Magic-bomb" variety of spells by overpreparing them: wizards who chant a spell — depending on its power and complexity — are said to be able to hold said spell for at least 20 seconds, effectively eliminating the weakness of enemies knowing what they're about to be attacked with (RPG-style interruption becomes a full-on plot-point when fighting speedy warriors because of this). For a good example of this in action, see the fights with Takamichi and Rakan, but mainly the former.
- Certain scroll techniques seem to be used this way in Naruto, most frequently paper-bombs.
- In Bleach, this is exactly how shinigami magic works. Doubles with Calling Your Attacks.
- Magic: The Gathering, in that the "ammo" is represented by cards — you can only cast a spell if you have a card for it, and each card is used up once its spell is cast.
- Depending on the writer, this can turn up in the books: in one instance, Barrin is mentioned as having prepared only certain spells, though this is probably an attempt to explain one of the game mechanics within the universe.
- Used by the White Witch, in the pre-boot Legion of Super-Heroes.
- In Comics Scene #9, Chuck Dixon noted that he wrote magic users in his Conan the Barbarian stories as having similarly restricted by stringent parameters for magic, with users required to make at times painful sacrifices and efforts.
- As noted above, originated in Jack Vance's The Dying Earth, hence the name of the trope. It was not structured into "levels," and it was possible for anyone to attempt to use it, although with the possibility of backfiring. Spells that killed people instantly (such as The Excellent Prismatic Spray) were quite common and every wizard knew them. Of course, the Dying Earth series was not exactly about people killing each other — they were often too petty and vain to take the simple route to their troubles. It is unclear whether the hundred or so spells still known to most magicians included less-powerful choices compared to the ones we see in the books. We might assume that less-powerful magicians couldn't handle or didn't know the more-powerful spells. We aren't really introduced to a wide selection of them. The Dying Earth represent only a few books and the Vancian Magic system wasn't present in Vance's other works.
- Also used in Roger Zelazny's The Chronicles of Amber mythos: Merlin, hero of the later novels, explicitly prepares and "hangs" spells to be used later. However, prepared spells decay over time and must be prepared again even if not used. There, it's a matter of pre-constructed spells allowing more efficiency, and a [properly trained] sorcerer can use magic anywhere on a spectrum from Vancian magic to realtime improvisation with the raw forces of the universe. It's not that a wizard can't come up with a spell in the middle of a battle, it's just that a wizard who comes prepared can spend less time worrying about the most elegant formulation of a spell and more time not getting fried by the opposition. The "hanging" spells take this a little further: if you want to use a highly complicated spell in battle, it saves everyone's time if you've already cast most of the spell in advance.
- In the Discworld, wizards are sometimes shown using this form of magic, and the series takes the third rule to an extreme — for the first two books, Rincewind has one of the eight spells of the Octavo in his head, and it's so powerful that other spells just don't fit (or are too scared to stay). Although once it's ejected, it turns out he still can't learn any useful magic.
In addition, spells follow the law of conservation of energy: with few exceptions, a wizard must expend as much energy learning or preparing a spell as it uses to do its task. Therefore, impressive spells could take many lifetimes to prepare and simply aren't worth it. And once a wizard finally finds out how summon nubile virgins, he's way too old to remember why he wanted to do that.
This is demonstrated with the various transportation spells used in the series: In one book, a character who wants to ascend to the top of the tower first has to use magic to knock loose a stone from the top, and use its energy and momentum as a lever in the spell. In Interesting Times, they teleport Rincewind to the Aurient, but have to exchange him with something from his landing spot and of approximately the same weight. At the same time, in Equal Rites, levitating a staff a handful of feet is extremely physically taxing because there isn't anything nearby to use as a counterweight, so the wizard in question has to do all the heavy lifting with his mind.
This is subverted in a fashion in Sourcery, when a character who is a literal conduit of magical energy is present, wizards are capable of overriding the usual restrictions of conservation of their own bodies by using the excess energy floating around. This also allows them to perform highly tricky transmogrification of turning people into newts without the usual floating bag of flesh containing all the parts that are too big to fit.
Also, the whole idea of spells taking so much energy to prepare is now sometimes being passed with "well, it was the least competent wizard in the world claiming that". (This was in GURPS Discworld, probably.)
- Joel Rosenberg's Guardians of the Flame series, which features a set of D&D-playing college students who are transported into the actual D&D world, uses the same trope, though note that D&D is not mentioned by name due to trademark concerns. It's definitely supposed to play like D&D, but he even mushed up some of the mechanics (attributes are rolled with 5d4 (reading 0-3) and class levels are on an alphabetical scale (A to whatever) for example. Importantly, it has rules for going berserk (which D&D of its era never did), which is a plot point.
After the first book, Rosenberg sort of moved away from Vancian spell-casting — the next one that features really extensive use of magic by a viewpoint character (the wizard in the first book having given up wizardry to pursue the far mightier power of engineering, which has begun to radically change the nature of the fantasy world in which the heroes are stuck) is the sixth, The Road to Ehvenor, and I don't recall any references to Andy-Andy having to prepare spells, or forgetting them after she casts them. You get the impression Rosenberg didn't much like Vancian magic, or writing in detail about magic in general, given the focus of the books on the warrior and thief-types, and the fact that Andy-Andy also loses her magic at the end of Book Six. In the later books it becomes very clear that magic has a strong tendency to consume the sanity of those who use it -- the more powerful wizards are, the crazier they get. And it's also addictive.
- Used partially, with well-defined parameters, in Lawrence Watt-Evans' The Legends of Ethshar series. There are many different forms of magic, the Vancian one being Wizardry. This is heavily dependent on ritual and materials or foci, uses the naming convention almost universally, and most significantly, structured into levels: spell "orders", a second-order spell being eight to ten times as hard as as a first order spell, and so on. There are at least twelve orders referenced, so small wonder that major wizards use an eternal youth spell so they have studying time. Unlike traditional Vancian magic, the spells are cast as soon as the ritual is completed and the number of times a spell can be cast is limited only by material components consumed and casting time.
Also subverted in Taking Flight. There two fire-and-forget wizardry systems are introduced, both with severe drawbacks. The first one lets wizard prepare any one (but only one) spell in advance, to be used once at his convenience, with practically zero casting time. Can be useful, as some spells need days to cast. The drawback is, until the spell is used, the wizard cannot do any other wizardry. The second system is a plot point: wizard prepares about a dozen of spells, to instantly cast later as many times as he likes. The drawback? No other wizardry ever for that wizard, except for these spells.
- In Matthew Stover's The Acts of Caine series, spells can be patterned into a variety of items and then used as necessary, essentially creating this effect. As the world is a very Low Fantasy take on the Forgotten Realms, the inspiration is likely a direct one.
- In Diane Duane's Young Wizards series, Kit and Nita often use this method of spellcasting, and even sometimes "pre-load" their spells (i.e., "writing" all but the last word of the spell so that it can be used at a moment's notice.) Of course, Kit and Nita have favorite spells, so presumably it's easier for them to remember those words. And of course, at one point Nita actually carries a utility bracelet of spells.
- In Patricia C. Wrede's Enchanted Forest Chronicles the Society of Wizards has a magic system that is very similar, though not identical, to Vancian Magic. Some of the other magic users in the same world use a similar system; spells must be prepared through ritual beforehand, and cast on the spot through the use of a magic word which is set up during the ritual as a trigger. However, in those cases (such as "Argelfraster") it appears that the ritual only has to be performed once, and the trigger can then be used repeatedly.
- In The Obsidian Trilogy, the term "cantrip" refers to a spell of the High Magick that has been prepared in Vancian fashion. High Magick spells are mostly long, complex, and cast all at once, but if a Mage has need to leave his workroom and time to prepare, most of the casting for certain spells can be done in advance.
- Mages in the Dragonlance Chronicles, by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman, are shown to use this magic. At least once the mage Raistlin has explained that each spell must be read and re-read until it is thoroughly memorized, and that upon being used, is forgotten and must be relearned again. All of the Dragonlance Chronicles are explictly set in a Dungeons & Dragons world.
- At least some magic in Garrett, P.I. works this way. Though Garrett knows no magic himself, he is frequently given a handful of spells by a helpful witch or wizard. They come in different forms — a folded piece of paper to open, a phrase to speak, a potion to throw — but they are always single-use and single-purpose.
- The original Dungeons & Dragons rules adopted this form as one that would be relatively simple to implement for a game, that wasn't part of any real-world belief structure and easily balanced. Since then, it has become a bit of a sacred cow in later editions, retained even when the game adapts a licensed property (such as Robert Jordan's The Wheel of Time books) that itself uses a completely different type of magic.
And, well, Gary Gygax was a big fan of Vance, so not only D&D obviously was influenced, but its lore contains shout outs to Vance: the evil necromancer turned God named Vecna, said to have been the most powerful mortal wizard ever; also, Robe of Eyes from The Dying Earth.
Starting in AD&D, and continuing through 3.Xe and 4e D&D, the game began to allow some flexibility to the Vancian system. Examples are as follows:
- Psionics have been in since as early as AD&D, and use Mana-style 'Power Points' (or similar) that can only be refreshed by resting. Psionic powers tend to be more flexible and long-lived (rather than falling by the wayside and going unused as the psion unlocks higher-tier powers) given the ability to 'augment' them by pouring in more power points but in 3e were less efficient than spells because their unaugmented effects didn't scale with level.
- AD&D 2nd Edition rulebooks has enough metamagic spells to compose a (semi-official) "school", allowing more flexibility in using — if not memorizing — spells.
- Spell-point systems of all official products were used only in Netheril setting note and Players Optionsnote ; plus, of course, homemade variants — in The Net Wizard's Handbook alone 3 of 6 systems were spellpoint-based.
- In 3rd Edition, a spell's effects can be fine-tuned with "metamagic feats", and sorcerers, a separate class from wizards, don't have to prepare spells (but can only know a very limited number of them).
- 3rd Edition also changed the default in-story explanation from "forget the spell when cast"(as mentioned with Dragonlance Chronicles, also used by Vance himself and mocked by Pratchett) to "finish a nearly completed ritual", more akin to the Amber example.
- The Warlock class, as it appeared in 3.5e's Complete Arcane, was completely non-vancian. Warlocks can cast Invocations at will, an unlimited number of times per day, without penalty. However, unless you go epic or invest in feats, you can only learn 12. In addition, the list of invocations is far smaller than the list of available spells. Oh, and something spooky owns your soul.
- Late into edition 3.5e, "reserve feats" were introduced, which grant non-Vancian abilities to the caster as long as he has not cast a particular Vancian spell yet.
- Many of the late 3.5e variant mechanics, from the Warlock on, were playtests for a new system to appear in 4e. The 3.5e Book of Nine Swords moved Vancian encounter powers onto non-magical characters, and at least 4E arrived which ironically both weakened and strengthened Vancian rules.
- 4th Edition gave characters of every class, magic or not, "at-will powers," similar to the 3.5e Warlock's invocations, that can be used as much as a character wants with no penalty. At the same time, the new edition gave every character class Vancian abilities, from Cleric prayers to Fighter exploits. The encounter power mechanic sort of splits the difference between Vancian powers and at-will one by having the encounter powers only refresh after a brief rest. The game still uses the Daily Power mechanic though; like the other two mechanics, it is used with every class (a point of contention amongst some fans – Fighters and Rangers who forget their best exploits after using them – but one that has been elaborated on and explained as the edition has advanced with new books such as Martial Power 2).
- In addition, 4th Edition has added a ritual system based in Hermetic Magic rather than Vancian, adapting some of the larger and more potent spells from earlier editions into something anybody can use if they take the feat to perform rituals and have the appropriate skill for the ritual (with the exception of Bardic Rituals, which require being a Bard). The irony here is that most of the fourth rule spells of earlier editions, like Tenser's Floating Disk or Bigby's Giant Hand, have been turned into Rituals rather than remaining as Vancian spells amongst one or more of the class powers. This is likely due to Rituals being a broader access, while each class has it's own, personalised power list, rather than drawing from a general exploit, spell, prayer, evocation, discipline, or hex list (corresponding to Martial, Arcane, Divine, Primal, Psionic, and Shadow Power Sources, respectively).
- As a corollary, Psionic powers, previously completely different from the Vancian system, have now been pulled somewhat closer in. Outside of the Monk's disciplines, the disciplines of the other Psionic classes are a mixture of at-will and daily powers — though the at-wills can be augmented with Power Points for better effects rather than requiring PP to utilise at all. This has made the 3 PP-using Psionic classes (Ardent, Battlemind, and Psion) only slightly less Vancian than other 4E classes.
- 5th Edition has reached a bit of a middle ground for spell-preparing casters. Now, they prepare a certain number of spells equal to (spellcasting ability modifier + caster level), but they don't assign those spells to specific slots—indeed, the number of prepared spells and the number of available slots may not even match up. They can cast any of their prepared spells as often as they want, so long as they have an unspent slot of the spell's level or higher.note
- The Slayers d20 adaptation averted this trope and introduced a more flexible (and arguably much more powerful) variant to coincide with the anime and manga on which it was based (the series using basically a mixture of Theurgy and Rule Magic). Spells per level were retained, becoming "spell slots", but these only affect how many spells a caster can learn in total; all the spells they know can be cast whenever they want and how often the way, at the cost of requiring Life Force (non-lethal damage and eventually lethal damage is taken each time a spell is cast, whether it succeeds or not).
- The Vancian system was completely scrapped for the D20 Star Wars game. Force powers have no limit on uses and are used by making a skill check, though your character does have a limited supply of Force Points you can use to make them more powerful or give yourself bonuses, and the powers themselves pull from the user's Vitality Points.
- Also scrapped for the d20 The Wheel of Time rulebook, in which most weaves can be used at varying power levels to do different things and characters can keep using the Power after they're out of daily weave slots if they don't mind risking headaches, nausea, death, and severing.
- However, retained for Pathfinder, save for bards and sorcerers of course.
- The Magus class released in an expansion has an interesting hybrid with their Arcane Pool class feature. At a fairly low level, they gain the ability to expend points from the pool to re-use a a prepared spell they already used that day. At a higher level, they can do this for less points, as well as being able to prepare a different spell for the same cost as simply re-using a spell in the weaker version of the skill.
- Played with in Warhammer: Battle Wizards (and sorcerers, shamans etc.) can have up to four "levels" of magic, each level representing a spell and a die to cast spells with. No normal wizard can then cast each spell they know more than once, so even the most powerful archmage is limited to 4 spells. However this limit refreshes each 'turn' rather than each 'day' as is common in other tabletop systems. Wizards can also opt to have a better chance of casting a given spell by neglecting to cast one or more of their others and using the power thus saved on their big kill-everything-within-fifty-feet spell. Of course this is still Warhammer; using more dice on a spell in this way increases the risk of mis-casting and something horrible happening.
It's also worth noting that the "Battle Magic" spells featured are simply the most powerful spells known to those schools of magic, wizards technically know a host of lesser spells as well, but these lesser magics are more the province of roleplaying games than wargames focusing on clashing armies.
- In Warhammer 40,000, while it's far from the case in the fluff, the use of psychic powers in-game fits:
- Psychic powers themselves fit the first rule and the first part of the third rule, as each power has a specific function and effect and a psyker can't use more powers than his/her psychic mastery level allows unless some specific circumstance changes that.
- Generating psychic powers fits the second rule, as a psyker's powers are determined by die roll prior to the game starting. The exception is those few models whose powers are rolled for each turn.
- The psychic phase covers the latter part of the third rule. Warp Charge pools are generated for each player by the offensive player rolling 1D6 and adding that to the sum of each player's psykers' mastery levels. The offensive player then has his pool's worth of die rolls to cast his psykers' powers, with the defensive player similarly using his pool to attempt to negate those rolls, or "deny the witch". Once either player exhausts his Warp Charge pool, he can't make any more such rolls until the next psychic phase when the process starts over.
- Many such lesser spells show up in Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, which obeys the first law but not the second and third. Wizards know a certain number of predefined spells, but can use them as often as they dare. In some editions, certain types of magic (mostly necromancy) can bypass these limits.
- GURPS: Thaumatology spends a few pages discussing how to make Vancian magic work with its system. The default magic is based more on Larry Niven than Vance, however, and Thaumatology consists mostly of a toolbox for inventing any magic system you want.
- The magic system in the Monster Hunters line can function like this, with magic users capable of creating a finite number of prearranged conditional spells and charms that can be used as "prepared spells." This isn't the only way they can use magic, but sometimes you don't have time to cast a spell from scratch when a zombie is trying to chew on your face.
- Slightly subverted, and then averted, in Unknown Armies. Adepts have to have charges to cast spells, but you can use one or more charges for one of a number of different effects (depending on the charge size), and, when all else fails, use it for a Random Magic effect, which is (mostly) determined by the GM. Meanwhile, Avatars don't have any kind of charge system: they just choose to do it, and they do (if they pass the roll, of course).
- TORG mostly uses more Hermetic magic, but in the more magical realms, mages can also learn Imprinted spells, which allows them to do the long prep of a spell beforehand, and then at some point later perform the one gesture final part of the spell to invoke it instantly.
- Rolemaster has a "power points" system. A character has, regardless of profession, power points according to their level, spellcaster professions tend to have good attributes for their respective magic types (intuition for channeling, empathy for essence, presence for mentalism), resulting in more power points than a fighter (although each character has to choose their magic domain when creating the character so that if they decide, for some reason, at some point, to try to learn spells they can't just pull it out of their arses).
- The Swedish RPG Chronopia has Librumages (who stores their spells as pages in giant tomes) as well as the powder based Cranemorts (essentially Vodoo priests) and Witchbarons (who use more standard spells). While both types require quite exotic ingredients to mix the ink/powder as well as much time and energy to prepare their spells, once they're loaded up however, the only real limit to their stored spells is their carrying capacity (and you can bet that they always keep more at home).
- Used with slight variations in Legend of the Five Rings. Spells must be learned in advance (generally from scrolls) and are divided according to their rank and element. However, spell slots are tied directly with the caster's "rings", which measure affinity for a given element, rather than to specific spells. So a particular caster might be able to use, say, three fire spells in a particular day, choosing from any fire spells they've previously learned. The exception is maho or "blood magic", which has no per-day limit; its drawback is that blood must be spilled for each spell cast.
- Magic works just like this in The Magic Candle. Spells are strictly verbal, but once cast, a spell fades immediately from the caster's memory. Wizards prepare for battle by memorizing their spells over and over, apparently compartmentalizing the "copies" somehow.
- Final Fantasy VIII works like this. Each character has a Magic stock which can contain up to 32 distinct spells with a maximum 100 uses each. But instead of resting, characters gain spell charges by Drawing them from opponents and certain objects, or by using various abilities to extract them from items or upgrade other spells. By contrast, sorceresses can apparently use magic at-will, although the character who becomes a sorceress only does so as a Limit Break (presumably to avoid being a Game Breaker).
- Elona follows this to the letter. Quite unfortunate considering how easy it is to fail most high-end spells, and how rare their books are.
- The Enchanter trilogy from Infocom plays this almost completely straight, as far as the mechanics go. The spells themselves are very tongue in cheek, with "fold dough 13 times", "balance checkbook", and "turn original into triplicate" being several examples. Or, for that matter, "turn purple things invisible".
- The game Balances by Graham Nelson was written as a demonstration of how to write Vancian magic in the Inform programming language, and is explicitly based on the Enchanter series. As befits its status as a demo program and source of code snippets, it takes Vancian magic Up to Eleven — spells can be reversed, work on almost every object and NPC in the game (and fail gracefully when they don't), and one spell even provides an example of a spell that can only be memorized once.
- Earlier versions of NetHack had a similar system, where reading a spellbook would give you a finite number of uses of the spell. An unofficial patch, later integrated into the main game in version 3.3.0, changed spells to be forgotten after a sufficient amount of time had passed.
- In Wandering Hamster, Bob the Hamster, who is a Cute Bruiser Magic Knight, uses this type of magic in the form of his Magic Smite spells.
- Solomon's Key has a very simple version: fireball spells are used up when cast, and are stored on a scroll of limited length.
- Diverging from it's spiritual predecessor's Mana Meter, Dark Souls and its sequel follows this model. Each spell has a given number of uses, which replenishes when resting, and takes up one or more "Attunement Slots." The number of slots can be increased by leveling your Attunement stat, or wearing a couple of rings. If you have aquired more than one "set" of spell uses, you can put more of them into slots to increase your total capability of casting that specific spell.
- Rin Tohsaka from Fate/stay night uses gems which store prana in them. They act as prana bombs and are an equivalent of an A-rank spell. This allows her to cast powerful bursts of magic in one go... but it took her ten years to store up enough prana for only twelve of these gems, which puts just how powerful an A-rank spell is in perspective. And Saber is able to completely No Sell one of Rin's fireballs without even noticing, which demonstrates just how outclassed normal humans are against Servants.
- The Order of the Stick: As a D&D parody.
- Rusty and Co.: Another D&D parody. Lampshaded with a "VANCE!" Unsound Effect for a Color Spray spell. Prestige underscores the problem late in the level when she lets loose a Fireball, resulting in the page-image seen above.
- In 8-Bit Theater, Black Mage started being able to use the Level 9 Hadoken once per day, and nothing else. Or at least, nothing else he's in the mood to use, as "not-level 9 spells aren't [his] idiom".
- In a rare example that is unrelated to D&D, magic in Kubera works like this. Mages can cast any given spell a limited number of times per day, though the numbers for each spell improve with practice, and the baseline numbers vary based on your elemental affinity. A triple fire-attribute mage will be able to unload a large number of fire spells from the start, but she'll only be able to use spells affiliated with every other element once per day until she practices with them. On top of that, however, is Vigor, which is basically mana, and is also needed to cast spells and use magic items. Most spells use a relatively low amount of Vigor, but are hard to cast. "Buff" type spells are typically the opposite, being pretty easy to cast, but draining Vigor very quickly.