News broke today that Jack Vance passed away a few days ago. Jack was a hugely influential fantasy and science fiction author with a career that spanned six decades. His works range from the highly acclaimed The Dying Earth series, to the Demon Prince series, to countless short stories, and so much more.
How does this relate to role playing? For starters, Vance was listed in the 1st edition AD&D “Appendix N“. Anyone that’s been role playing for a decent amount of time may have heard of this mysterious appendix. It’s a list of many wonderful authors that had inspired Gary Gygax during his formulation of the world’s most popular role playing game. There are many luminaries and legends listed within Appendix N. It’s a great reading list.
More specifically to AD&D, the typical phrase used to describe the magic system is “Vancian.” I could find no direct quotes or references from Gygax to indicate he had directly chosen Vance’s works to base the AD&D magic system on. However, magic users and clerics within AD&D use a system of magic very similar to those found within The Dying Earth series. I don’t believe the intense similarities found within these two systems of magic to be a coincidence.
Each morning (or a certain time of day, depending on the cleric’s faith), the spellcaster must study (or pray) and choose spells from a select list they have learned and scribed into their spellbook. Then, once the spell is cast, the spellcaster “forgets” the spell for the remainder of the day. This, in essence, limits the ability of a spellcaster to choose spells on the fly because they must prepare a list in the morning for what they expect. If the spellcaster chooses poorly, it could limit their ability to support the group. However, if the spell choices merge in with the challenges faced for the day, then a spellcaster can be highly effective.
There have been many detractors to the Vancian magic system because they feel the rules impose an unfair disadvantage to spellcasters in general by requiring them to prepare for the unknown. Most recent versions of Dungeons & Dragons have taken steps to address these arguments. However, I’ve always loved playing spellcasters with the Vancian system in use. It always required more thought and strategy to my choices. I’ve enjoyed those challenges, and am not a big fan of rules that have removed those critical thinking skills from the latest version of D&D.
For better or worse, Vance’s influence on D&D (and many other role playing games) remains to this day. Every gamer owes, in part at least, their gaming memories to Jack Vance. Please take a moment of silence (except for the sound of clattering dice) in honor of one of our wonderful, creative minds who we have lost to the ages.
At least we still have his writing to reflect upon.
Rest In Peace, Jack.