Friday, May 20, 2016

Vancian cows, part 2

So if after reading my preliminary post here, you were perhaps expecting a full, 20-level non-Vancian caster class for 5e, I may have to disappoint you. That would take some serious deconstruction, though I might actually work my way up to it (The warlock is a good start, fwiw). What I can do is share some ideas of how to limit daily resources without resorting to spell slots or "once per day" type limitations. Amazingly, 5e does a good job of sort-of implementing all these ideas, without ever committing to them fully. Maybe I was wrong in the last post; perhaps the folks at Wizards chafe against Vancianism as much as I do, but feel obliged to keep those elements for legacy reasons. Or maybe they just haven't realized what they've stumbled upon, or some combination of these things.

Anyway, here are some basic concepts for anti-Vancian homebrewers, with examples of how 5e uses them, plus some ideas on how to expand on them further.

1.) No limits!

I remember an observation about early console video game design, the gist of which was that it took designers years to get out of the mindset of designing for arcade machines instead of for the new console medium. You had things like lives and failure screens that made sense when you were designing for arcade quarter-grabbers, but less sense for the home market. It was a habit that was hard to shake even though it was bad design because that's the way they always did it.

I think sometimes RPG designers put caps on usage of certain powers for similar reasons; not because it is thoughtful design, but because it's just something you do. They should stop this! Luckily, a lot of 5e cantrips have broken this habit of design. You would almost never take something like Prestidigitation in 3e D&D because there were better ways to use your limited 0-level spell slots. But in 5e you can use it as often as you like, and I couldn't imagine playing a wizard without it. What you can do with the spell is just so neat!

One could take this a little too far such that one's power design really should use some sort of resource. But it's a good question to ask: does this power really need to be capped? And if so, how should it be limited?

2.) Skill check

This is a good limitation for short effects. 5e attack cantrips usually work this way: you make a "spell attack" check against AC, just like a combat class makes a regular attack. The limitation here is that you can always attempt an effect, but there is a chance it won't succeed.

This could work with some other concepts besides attack. Think of something like detect magic: in Pathfinder they made it a cantrip that worked automatically and made sensing magic trivial. In 5e it's a spell slot for that reason. But why not make it a specialized use of the Arcana or Perception skill? The wizard can always try to detect magic the same way a rogue can always check for traps; she just might not succeed. Or consider charm person: it already has a chance of failure if the target makes a saving throw, so why limit it further? It's no fun attempting to charm, failing, and losing a spell slot for your trouble. You can always include language like "if the target succeeds its saving throw, it cannot be charmed by you for 24 hours" so you can't just keep spamming it. And if you're worried about casters charming tons of dudes, just use...

3.) Concentration

I really like the concentration mechanics in 5e, the idea being that casters can only focus on one effect that requires concentration at a time. There are various ways one can involuntarily lose concentration, but I'm less interested in those; it's more the idea of a power being limited by the other powers in effect.

For example, picture a caster class whose spells all rely on certain zones he creates where his magic emanates. They could be summoning portals, teleportation portals, areas-of-effect, all sorts of things. He can cast any of these any time he wants, but he can only maintain so many at a time. Unlike the 5e concentration rules, he may be able to maintain more than one effect, but the point is he'd still have a reasonable cap on his powers. There's a little bit of accounting, but an order of magnitude less than if he were using spell slots or the like, because they are being managed round to round, not throughout the adventuring day.

4.) Stances

This is a little similar to point 3. You enter a stance or state of mental focus that grants you a certain power but keeps you from using other abilities. The classic is the Barbarian's Rage: you get bonuses to Strength and damage and some other things, but you can't cast spells (I think a few more limitations might be in order). Cleverly (I say, because I swear I had a similar idea years ago), Rage in 5e is maintained not by tediously counting the number of rounds you have raged, but by attacking something each round. This, coupled with maybe needing an action to resume your Rage after it has ended, I believe would obviate the need to limit the number of times you can Rage each day.

A few other examples of stances in 5e include the Dodge action, the Great Weapon Master feat, and the Sharpshooter feat. Pathfinder has a Stalwart Defender prestige class that lets you enter a stance that give you an AC boost and some control effects, at the cost of being unable to move. The stance concept has a lot of interesting possibilities.

5.) Free powers as resources

The playtest for "D&D Next" (i.e. 5e) included an interesting idea related to the Rogue's sneak attack, the classic ability where the Rogue gets bonus damage dice by exploiting certain tactical situations. In the playtest you could forgo using those dice to fuel certain powers; maybe you could attempt to trip a target, for example, or give advantage to the next attack against it. In other words, the Rogue can use Sneak Attack whenever she can, but she can also always choose to give up Sneak Attack in exchange for something else. I guess they decided the Rogue didn't need any powers like this, but that doesn't make the idea unsound. I wish the Battlemaster Fighter worked this way; instead of treating Superiority Dice like disguised spell points, have them deal some amount of damage every attack (or every round, depending on the size of the die). You can then use the Battlemaster's powers by forgoing this extra damage. It's a cost, but the resource is something that feels "free," so you can always try it without feeling like you're losing something.

6.) Time

This one may be a little controversial, or suitable for only the most dedicated anti-Vancian. So far we don't have a good way to cover high-level, high-power spells. Assuming we still want to include them, the best way to limit them may seem to be an arbitrary cap on their daily use; that is, the rules as written. In this case it even makes a certain amount of narrative sense; how many times have we seen magic-users in fiction "go nova" in some desperate strait and become exhausted or otherwise unable to cast any more spells?

But another possibility is using time as a resource. You want to perform a high-level scrying spell? Fine, but it may take you all day to focus on it. Want to cast a spell that can nuke a small army? Sounds good, but that might be all you do that day. This is also supported by fiction; picture the cabal of cultists trying to pull off some highly difficult summoning spell while the heroes try to stop them, or the heroic wizard maintaining a defensive shield while his allies in turn try to protect him from the enemy guerrilla bands that managed to sneak through before the shield went up. 5e already has a rituals system that could easily be adapted for this sort of thing just by increasing the casting time.

Again, maybe you don't mind the Vancian stuff at high levels like this even if you like some of the other ideas on this page. I totally understand that. Just be aware that there are other possibilities!

Epilogue on healing

The biggest challenge for the non-Vancian designer is how to handle healing and damage. From a mechanics standpoint, damage is a threshold of success. It represents how long an RPG party can perform poorly on a per-encounter basis and expect to continue their adventures without consequences. Not to mention that intuitively, unlike spells and abilities, damage is one thing for which one really feels ought to have an upper limit. If damage can always be erased by healing, what's the point of even tracking it?

There are ways to futz with healing so that it feels less Vancian, by making the ability to heal essentially unlimited but limiting one's ability to be healed. This is what 5e's hit dice are essentially about, and one could expand on that concept so that healing powers don't feel like as much of an exception to a generally non-Vancian powers system. But they still would be different, and it may be impossible to get around that.


  1. In my own limited experiences with Un-Vancian systems, my favorite has been the "Risk/Reward" kind of mechanics based on dealing physical damage or other unpleasant consequences to the caster if they should fail in their skill check/attempt More powerful spells could be attempted at any level, but your level/skill/wand size/whatever increases the chance of success.

    The Lovecraftian or Howard-esque thematic qualities of this are probably what I like best, giving the impression that magic-users are struggling to understand and harness powers beyond their control.

    This always has an exciting narrative feel to me, and your spellcasters are never without options as long as they are still standing. Spells that you may not be willing to risk using against against a troop of orcs may suddenly worth the gamble when your friends lay dead at the feet of a Lich or Dragon.

    Vancian Mages are just not fun to play for me. I guess there's a cool concept in trying to predict what you'll be up against and prepare your spells accordingly, but running out of spell 'ammunition' definitely kind of feels gamey. It is definitely not exciting to be out of level-5 slots right before you get to the boss-room and deciding where is best to nap before opening the doors.

    Do you have any comments/diatribes/rants about "Priestly Magic" vs "Arcane Magic"? Some system don't really differentiate the two, some have a kind of arbitrary distinction (4E?), but I wonder, should they be as mechanically different as they are thematically? Playing a Cleric often feels a lot like playing a Magic-User, and I sometimes wonder why they are even separated.

    1. Hey Alex, thanks for commenting! The Risk/Reward idea is maybe something I should have mentioned. It definitely works for some kinds of games, though I thinks it's usually a poor fit for the brand of high fantasy D&D tends to embody.

      I've often wondered about the Arcane/Divine distinction, which does seem pretty arbitrary without some mechanical differences to back it up. The potential problem there is that such mechanics would have to tie into roleplaying somehow, and I think D&D fans don't really want that sort of thing anymore, especially if it applies only to certain classes. That's why things like alignment restrictions were jettisoned in the first place.

      An alternative scheme I've thought about is dividing magic not by its source, but by how it's learned. You could either learn magic through scholarly study, through practical experience, or by natural ability. We could call them the arcanist, the hedge mage, and the wilder. In the Diskworld books, the wizards are clearly arcanists, the witches are hedge mages, and the "sourcerers" are wilders. In D&D both clerics and wizards are definitely arcanists even though their magic has different sources. I feel this approach has more potential for meaningful mechanical differences.

    2. I gravitate towards Low-fantasy kind of fare, so maybe that explains my bias. In a world where magic is mundane, a risk of death at each curse used may not make sense.

      The methodology/implementation of magic as a distinction makes sense. I did enjoy D&D's distinction between the Wizard and Sorcerer classes, as I felt the Sorcerer was a little more playable. Kind of extrapolating that concept into its various forms seems like it would be fun. The only Diskworld book I can remember now is "Equal Rites", and the distinction in magical practices was neat.

      On one hand I do agree that special mechanics for a priestly/divine spellcaster of some sort would imply more role-play, which isn't entirely my cup of tea either, but to be the Devil's advocate, couldn't you say that mechanics without role-playing implications are just...mechanical?

      Then again, magic is such a setting-dependent game mechanic that I don't know if there is a good blanket solution.

      An issue my group ran into with a Risk-Reward/Skill-Check system was with out-of-combat magics. It works splendidly for your curses and fireballs in a battle situation, but when there's ample time available it gets a little fuzzy. I suppose the implication is to make such spells Time/Resource dependent as well, and maybe consume said resources on a failed attempt.