You might have heard that the magic used by the spellcasters of Dungeons & Dragons is “Vancian magic.” Just that is probably enough for you to discern that the magic of dungeons and dragons falls under a “type” of magic systems employed by fantasy writers and worldbuilders. But what is Vancian magic?
Vancian Magic gets its name from the speculative fiction author Jack Vance who won many awards during his life. A few of his stories include the Dying Earth Series, which has inspired an anthology titled Songs of the Dying Earth. In his works, Vance portrayed an Earth far in the future when the continents have rearranged, and the Sun has just a few million years left.
The wizards of this distant future are limited to knowing just a small handful of spells at a time. Two, three, maybe four if they work hard. Once they cast a spell, they forget it and have to memorize it again later. Why is this? It’s clear that memorizing a spell takes a great deal of mental effort, and some characters allude to these spells having a basis in math. Because only a handful of spells can be known at once, the wizards of this world spend their time creating things, and when they anticipate a need, they sit down and memorize spells that they think they might need.
From all this we can make a few “rules” to describe a Vancian magic system.
- Magic is a scholarly affair.
- Memorizing a spell takes a great amount of effort.
- Casters are limited to memorizing just a few spells at a time.
- Once a spell is cast it must be learned again.
Lastly, we have the flavor! One of my favorite things about Vancian Magic! Many of the spells in these systems will be named after their creators. I know many writers will probably use these names as throwaways without any deeper backstory, but I love the sense of history that the names imply.