What’s Normal in Savage Worlds?

Since this is never explicitly spelled-out in the core rulebooks as far as I can see, it’s probably worth a post.  (I originally worked this out in a comment thread that I doubt anybody but Russell is reading by now…)

The default assumption in Savage Worlds is that typical Joe or Jane Citizen characters have a d6 in each Attribute, and a d6 in each skill that’s relevant to their profession and daily life.  Character generation gives you enough points for a d6 in every stat, and you shouldn’t put a d4 in one unless you intend that your character be wimpier than an average adult at it.  You shouldn’t start with a d4 in a Skill unless it’s something the character hasn’t had much practice at up until now.

In the SW:Explorer’s Edition rulebook, the evidence for this is slim, but it’s there:  the Youth Hindrance and the Elderly Hindrance both represent less-than-physically fit adult specimens, and neither drops any Attribute below a d4.  An 8 year-old girl has a Strength at minimum of a d4, as does a 90 year-old grandmother; they could be stronger… even a lot stronger, but they can’t be weaker by the core rules.  There are Hindrances that can give you an effective die-roll even worse (e.g. Anemic, which subtracts 2 from many Vigor rolls), but d4 is the rock-bottom for an Attribute.

The Toolkits add more direct evidence: the “Typical Citizens” entries in both the Science Fiction and Fantasy toolkits have a d6 in each Attribute.  The Pulp toolkit doesn’t have a citizen entry, but has a fair number of everyday sort of archetypes such as Snitches, Typical Mechanics, Nosy Reporters (as distinct from Plucky Reporters) and they all fit the pattern of at least a d6 in every Attribute, with only notably stupid characters such as Thugs having a d4 Smarts, or notably young characters such as Wise-Ass Kid having a d4 Strength and Vigor.  Even Professors are assumed to have a d6 Strength and Vigor.

The Toolkits also provide the only real evidence of the assumptions about what’s a typical Skill level.  The SW:Ex core has few examples of normal people, and orcs and cannibal islanders are just different enough that while they might represent typical opposition to the heroes they aren’t necessarily indicative of what the random soda-jerk, janitor, or dung-spattered peasant is capable of.  Basically, Citizens in the SF and Fantasy Toolkits have at least a d6 in every skill that’s relevant to their daily lives, and a d4 in either Fighting or Shooting depending on the typical weapon of their culture (and Guts, if the setting uses it).  What they don’t have is very many skills: Notice, some Knowledge Skill representing their trade, and either Driving or Stealth, plus the aforementioned combat and Guts, and that’s it.

While the point-buy system encourages PCs to dabble in a lot of skills (adding a new Skill at d4 after character creation is as expensive as raising two other skills by a die type), it seems pretty clear from the supplementary material in the Toolkits that having merely a d4 in a Skill isn’t intended to represent a competent practitioner.  A random NPC that you meet who has that skill as his trade will likely have a d6 in it.  Now, because PCs are Wild Cards, their chance of success on a d4 plus the Wild Die is significantly better than the random Extra’s chance of success on a d6 (62% vs. 50%), but my interpretation would be that represents something like raw talent or luck, not training.

RPG Systems and Granularity

Dr. Checkmate, guest blogging over at Uncle Bears, writes:

    • On a related note, d4 to d12 (or d4-2 to d12+2) doesn’t allow for a whole lot of granularity. You’re basically talking about all traits being on a scale of 1 to 5. Even some how making it a scale of 1 to 10 would be an improvement.

I know what he means about granularity, but my experience is that more than about five doesn’t actually make much of a psychological impact.  Too fine a gradation, even if statistically significant, tends to get lost in people’s mental model of how things work.  Despite D&D 3+ grading attributes on a 3-18 scale, what actually matters is the -2 to +4 that usable characters tend to end up with.  Similarly, even though each Skill rank in D&D “matters”, the difference between 7 or 8 ranks in a Skill tends not to get noticed.  Even in systems like Hero and GURPS, which have you rolling 3d6 against a stat, the bell-shaped curve means that some points are more equal than others.   In my own home-brew before I switched to Savage Worlds I used a 1 to 10 scale for both Attributes and Skills, but realistically PCs had about 3-8 in anything the actually did (except for some combat monsters that I actually kind of wish weren’t so crocked).  Having a smaller spread in the general stuff but extra Disadvantages/Advantages actually seems to help players think of the characters as having distinct strengths and weaknesses, as well as opening up more actually playable characters. E.g. middling Dexterity stat but Fumble-Fingers Disad giving a minus to fine manipulation is more memorable and easier to work with than an rock-bottom Dexterity score, which in many systems is a death-sentence.

I sometimes wonder if something like the seven-plus-or-minus-two rule is at work here.  If a player can’t distinctly visualize all the steps at once, do they just chunk it until they can?

Not Everything Can Be Near

…because where would you put it?

In the previous post, I talked about Near and Far thinking in RPGs, and recommended that the GM try to make as much as possible in the game amenable to Near thinking.  As much as possible doesn’t mean everything, though; there are situations where it’s either not possible, or not desirable.

  • If the GM and the players don’t know (and can’t be expected to learn) enough details.  E.g. open-heart surgery, or starship hyperdrive repair.  In the former case it’s conceivable (barely) that in a game that’s about being a surgeon it would be worthwhile to learn enough about surgery to not only provide accurate description, but enough real choices of the sort that surgeons face to make Near thinking possible; in the latter, the details just don’t exist, and while the GM could certainly make them up and try to teach them to the players, the amount of effort involved to get the kind of free-wheeling thinking of fully grasping the problem-space as when a player thinks about searching an ordinary desk doesn’t seem like it would pay off, even in a campaign about starship engineers.
  • If the situation is about performance, not decisions.  When the task at hand is something like playing the cello, it doesn’t really matter exactly what the GM or the player knows about cellos, or even music in general, because it’s the character’s physical skill that’s called on.  Now, if you were to search a cello…  Note that this is often going to be true of the physical activity of combat.  The strategy and tactics are decisions that can be carried out by the player, the physical activity of shooting the bow or swinging the sword is all the performance of the character.
  • If it’s about the character’s skill at making certain kinds of decisions.  Even if the GM and the player both understand what’s involved enough that they could go into detail, sometimes it’s about what the character can think or understand, not the player.  It’s often the case that the character is supposed to be better at thinking about certain situations than the player (sometimes the other way around).  In these cases it’s possible to use a skill roll to backstop or supplement the decisions that the player makes, but much of the time you should just substitute Far thinking.  Even if the GM and the player both know how to play chess, actually playing out the match between the character and Death isn’t likely to be a satisfying way of resolving it.
  • For pacing reasons.  There’s only so much time in a session, so sometimes even if the characters would have time to go through all the gory details the game is better off if you hand-wave it.  You don’t want to do too much of this, though.  It’s easy to imagine that you’re getting more done in the game when you fly by everything at 30,000 feet, using Far thinking all the way, when actually you’re just leeching out all the color and vibrancy and eliminating potential decision points.   You should only use this as an excuse when spending the time in Near mode is going to freeze out the other players for too long, or you know that they find that particular activity boring to think about in detail, or it lets you get to a different and more interesting Near mode episode immediately.

Near vs. Far Thinking in RPGs

    • The latest Science has a psych article saying we think of distant stuff more abstractly, and vice versa.  “The brain is hierarchically organized with higher points in the cortical hierarchy representing increasingly more abstract aspects of stimuli”; activating a region makes nearby activations more likely.  This has stunning implications for our biases about the future.

      All of these bring each other more to mind: here, now, me, us; trend-deviating likely real local events; concrete, context-dependent, unstructured, detailed, goal-irrelevant incidental features; feasible safe acts; secondary local concerns; socially close folks with unstable traits.

      Conversely, all these bring each other more to mind: there, then, them; trend-following unlikely hypothetical global events; abstract, schematic, context-freer, core, coarse, goal-related features; desirable risk-taking acts, central global symbolic concerns, confident predictions, polarized evaluations, socially distant people with stable traits.

Robin Hanson wasn’t thinking about roleplaying games when he wrote this, of course, but if he and the Science article are right about how minds work–and I think they are–then it has implications for how we play these games.  For one thing, it means that providing detail and concreteness isn’t just a matter of atmosphere and aesthetics, it literally changes the way we think about events in the game.

Take an example near and dear to my heart, the act of searching in-game:


The GM determines there is a desk with three side drawers and a middle drawer, and taped to the underside of the middle drawer is a key.  The desk otherwise contains papers from old cases, none of them relevant, a gun in the top right-hand drawer and a bottle of rye in the bottom right hand drawer.
: I search the desk.
: How?
: I look in all the drawers.
GM: You find a gun in the top right hand drawer, a bottle of Rye in the bottom right hand drawer, and a bunch of papers.  They seem to be old case files.
: I flip through them and see if any seem relevant.
: Based on a casual flip through, none seem particularly interesting.
Because the player didn’t specify any action that would have uncovered the key, it’s not discovered.


GM: How?
Player: I look in all the drawers, then I take them out one by one.  I check the bottoms, and I look for false bottoms, and I check the holes, reaching around if necessary.
GM: That will take about fifteen minutes.
Player: I’ve got time.
GM: Ok, taped to the bottom of the middle drawer you find a key.  You also find a gun in the top right-hand drawer, and a bottle of rye in the bottom right-hand drawer.  There’s also a bunch of papers, that seem to be old case files, none particularly relevant.

Not as Near

GM determines the same set-up as before.
: I search the desk, looking in all the drawers.
Because the player didn’t specify actions that would uncover the key, the GM rolls the Player’s Search skill as a “save”, and gets a success.
GM: You find a gun, and a bottle of rye, plus some old case files.  On an impulse, you check under the drawers, and find a key taped to the bottom of the middle drawer.

Even Less Near

Same set up as before.
Player: I search the desk.
GM rolls vs the character’s Search Skill, and succeeds.
GM: You find a key taped to the bottom of the middle drawer, a gun in the top right-hand drawer, a bottle of rye in the bottom right-hand drawer, and some old case files.
If he had rolled a failure, the Player would still have found the gun, the files, and the booze, but not the key.


The GM determines that the desk contains a gun, and a hidden key.  He doesn’t bother to think about where.
Player: I search the desk.
GM rolls, and the character fails.
: You find a the gun, but nothing else of interest.

Even Farther

The GM determines that the desk contains a gun, and a key.  He doesn’t bother to think about what the desk looks like, where the items are or whether they’re hidden.
: I search the desk.
GM rolls, and the character fails.
GM: You find nothing.

Really Far

The GM doesn’t bother to determine anything about the desk.
: I search the desk.
GM rolls, and the character succeeds.
GM: You’ve got 1 success.  You need 2 more before you get 1 failure.

Just Plain Wrong

The GM determines the details as in the near cases.
Player: I look in all the drawers, then I take them out one by one.  I check the bottoms, and I look for false bottoms, and I check the holes, reaching around if necessary.
GM rolls, and the character fails.
GM: You find nothing.

Also Wrong

The GM doesn’t determine any details, but does determine the desk contains a gun and a key.
: I look in all the drawers, then I take them out one by one.  I check the bottoms, and I look for false bottoms, and I check the holes, reaching around if necessary.
GM rolls, and the character fails.
GM: You find nothing.

The thing about Near vs. Far is that it’s (probably) not a continuum, where you gradually lose detail and concreteness as you dial up the abstraction: at some point there is a modal shift in the kind of cognition you do.  I think that wherever possible, you want to keep things in the game world as Near as possible, so that the players remain grounded in the situation. This lets them reason about the game world, and not just about the rules.  It also provides more specific details to make the story more vivid, because it’s more like what we do when we’re faced with such situations in the real world.  Using Far abstractions is like having a scene cut to a placard that says “They search the room” and then cut back to show what they discovered.   If the GM doesn’t provide enough details that they could reason concretely (even if he backstops them with abstract game mechanics), then the players just move through a sort of fog of abstraction.  Everything their characters do seems to them to be more distant in space and time, and they’re more likely to group things mentally into larger, coarser categories, which can make it harder to keep their interest and attention since more stuff will be regarded as “the same old same old.”

Providing enough detail to make Near thinking possible in an RPG is more work for a GM, but I think it’s really important work, and pays off in making the experience much richer for everyone concerned.  When budgeting your effort in preparation, try to spend it on the details that the players will actually interact with to make the setting more concrete, and less on figuring out the broad strokes of distant event and times that shaped the game world.  A list of ten things that they can find in the desk beats 10,000 words on the lost empires of the Hyperborean Age.

Keep Your Filthy Narrative Out of My Roleplaying

My friend Russell writes

I think this is exactly right, at least as far as my tastes go.  Broadly speaking, there are three commonly found attitudes towards what you’re trying to accomplish when you play a roleplaying game.  I don’t want to resurrect the taxonomy wars, so I won’t label them, but the basic breakdown is:

  • Roleplaying games are about experiencing what it’s like to X
  • Roleplaying  games are about constructing stories that are like X
  • Roleplaying games are about playing a game (often a war-game) that draws elements from X

The problem is that these modes are largely incompatible.  If you’re trying to experience what it might be like to be faced with situations and making decisions in the game world, the last thing you want is to have narrative control over the game that the character doesn’t have; how can you face any uncertainty over whether your arrow will strike true when you can just declare that it does?  If you’re trying to play a game to exercise your tactical judgment and formulate clever strategies, it’s damn well cheating when the referee just overrules them in the name of plot.  If you are collaboratively writing a story in your favorite genre, it’s madness to allow that story to be warped or even ended prematurely by something as arbitrary as a bad die-roll.

This isn’t just idle speculation or caricature, these are genuine and deeply felt objections by people who are looking for a certain kind of entertainment from RPGs.  Take this guy gal, for example:

    • In addition, I challenge the entire premise [that “Character death should be a normal part of a well balanced but challenging adventure with natural consequences for poor choices.”]. Books and movies are excellent examples of my point of view. The main character isn’t going to die and you know it the entire time. No matter how steep the cliff, how deadly the bullets, how invasive the poison, the hero lives and we still have engaging blockbuster films and New York Times Bestseller novels. Why? Because the Story is Just That Good.

Leaving aside  the question of whether blockbuster films and bestselling novels really are Just That Good, or whether they’d be even better if there was some actual uncertainty as to the outcome, this is clearly a guy gal who is not only looking for a way to construct stories, but doesn’t even have a glimmer that there might be people looking for other things, people who would therefor find the justification that something happens in films and novels to be unpersuasive, if not a complete non sequitur. (Or maybe I’m just reading to much into his her “challenging” the premise rather than simply disagreeing with it.)

What bothers me is not that the folks who are primarily about constructing narratives exist (de gustibus),  but the blithe assumption that everybody else who plays RPGs shares their tastes, even if they don’t know it yet. (BTW, I don’t intend to single out Viriatha above as an example of that.  I’m talking more about an attitude I perceive all over the place in posts on how to structure your roleplaying session as if it were scenes from a movie, how to design your villains to play up the themes of the story, how to drop detail and consistency from the setting if it doesn’t feed into the main narrative, and so on.) What I miss is any sense that “Your mileage may vary.”  It’s not that I want to see every blog post or forum comment come with a disclaimer “only suitable for certain tastes in roleplaying”, but that I think the advice would be sharper and more on-point if the authors kept in mind that they’re talking about a specific approach to RPGs.  For one thing, they’d spend less time running down the alleged flaws in other styles of RPGing, which should give them more time to devote to their particular style.  More than that, though, I think that the recognition that they are aiming to accomplish one particular kind of thing by playing RPGs would help them separate the wheat from the chaff for their approach; there are a lot of things that are carried over from game system to game system in our hobby because that’s what people are used to, but are irrelevant if not counter-productive for certain styles of gaming.  The result, it seems to me, is a lot of patching of things that get in the way when they should be jettisoned instead.

Take, for instance, Fate or Hero Points.  Such things are often added to systems that have important things, like character life or death, decided by a random die roll, to give players a measure of narrative control; the justification is almost always along the lines offered above, to make the game more like a blockbuster movie or bestselling novel.  The problem is that this is a band-aid.  If what you’re aiming for is a properly-constructed, satisfying story, having a limited number of times you can overrule a story-killing die roll makes no sense.  An unsatisfying end to the story doesn’t become more satisfying because at least you managed to avoid derailing it the first three times it happened before you ran out of Fate points.  You shouldn’t be rolling dice if you don’t want a random outcome.

On the other hand, and this gets back to my original point and the title of this post, if having a limited pot of Fate Points is insufficient to satisfy the legitimate desires of those who are playing for narrative, the existence of such things in the system screws up the legitimate desire of those who are playing for the experience of it to not be forced to confront profound game decisions that can’t be made in character.  I don’t want narrative control when I’m trying to imagine the experience of the character, because it screws it all up; if the character actually had that control, the story would turn into simple wish-fulfillment, if not an outright Mary Sue (as well as breaking a lot of settings where there’s no conceivable reason that a character would have that kind of power).  The more important and the more fraught with consequence the moment is, the less I want to be jerked out of it by meta-game considerations.

Similarly, from the other direction, there are those who think that “something must be done” to prevent the horrifying possibility that some logical, perfectly consistent feature of the game world (such as encountering something unexpected when crossing the dangerous wilderness) could screw up the game balance, so that the set-piece encounter at the end of the journey is no longer a fair contest or the wealth-per-level guidelines get thrown out of whack.  Again, it’s not that they’re wrong to want the game the way they want it, but a greater recognition of what their particular desires are would probably help them narrow the focus of the game to what they actually enjoy.  If you’re going to remove the random encounters as being a pointless and potentially unbalancing distraction from the encounters in the dungeon, you should probably go ahead and remove the travel to the dungeon as well.  Why should there even be a situation “The PC’s are heading to the dungeon and will eventually get to the dungeon, but not this session, and they need a combat to get them moving.”  Just wave your hands and say “Three weeks later you arrive at the dungeon.”

You want a laser-like focus on what you and your players actually find fun, and you want to ruthlessly trim the things that get in the way of that.  But to do that, you need to understand what it is that your players actually want to accomplish by playing RPGs, and to do that you have to keep in mind that what they’re after might not be the “obvious” point of roleplaying to you.  Otherwise you might find that you’re trimming the reason that they enjoy playing, and focusing straight on what they are trying to ignore.

The Random Esoteric Creature Generator

The Random Esoteric Creature Generator for Classic Fantasy Roleplaying Games and their Modern Simulacra, by James Edward Raggi IV, published by Goodman Games.  32 pages, $12.99

The RECG is a set of tables for constructing bizarre D&D-style creatures, complete with Armor Class, Hit Dice, number of attacks, damage, special abilities, movement, morale, etc.  It’s not tied to any particular version of D&D, as indicated by the somewhat unwieldy subtitle, but it won’t produce creatures ready to play for 3e without at least some tweaking, and 4e is right out.  If you’re willing to do some more work to stat up the creatures, you can probably use the most interesting aspects (generally the description and special abilities) for nearly any game system.

When I say bizarre, I mean bizarre.  This is not a system for calling a rabbit a smeerp, not even a rabbit with frickin’ laser-beam eyes.  Maybe a flat rabbit-like creature that moves by slithering, attacks with its spiked tail, has a rubbery body that halves damage, and drains Charisma with a successful attack.  Exactly what is rabbit-like about the creature is left to the GM’s imagination and descriptive abilities.  The system is really good at coughing up things that you never would have imagined on your own.  It is somewhat less good (read, makes no attempt at all, except to advise the GM to try) at making it all hang together coherently.  The author’s advice seems to regard that as a feature, spurring the user to greater heights of creativity in trying to decide what “a 20-sided die with characteristics of a skunk, made of water” might actually be.

It’s good for creatures out of nightmare, or settings where creatures out of nightmare might be common such as an old-school dungeon.  You wouldn’t use it as a starting point for anything that makes a pretense of naturalism, even Gygaxian naturalism, or tries to fit into an ecology.  To be fair, the author is perfectly up-front about his disdain for that sort of stuff; most of the advice on using the charts is along the lines of “Monsters that are not unique are not mystical creatures of wonder.”  I’m not sure what I think of that; monsters of legend are a fairly mixed bag some being unique (the Minotaur, the Sphinx), others being something that anybody might run into on a lonely road at night (Will o’ the Wisps, boggarts, Hakutaku, etc.)  It’s true that players will be more wary of creatures that are new in their experience, but wariness is not the same as fear.  I’ve never had any trouble getting players to fear level-draining creatures like Wraiths, for instance.  It’s because the players know what Wraiths can do that they’re afraid of them.  I think if you follow the author’s advice on using the tables, you run the risk of turning encounters with the monsters into a game of Russian Roulette (because of the fairly high possibility of nasty special abilities that the characters can’t in principle know about or prepare for) and you rob your campaign of the opportunity to have a certain unique flavor.  Players who learn to deal with a kind of monster unique to a game world gain a sense of mastery over the domain that I think is rewarding.  If you followed the link to the description of the Hakutaku, note how the ancient Chinese text goes into detail about how to deal with them:   Make a peach bow, jujube arrows, and attach kite feathers to them. Shoot it with them. If Wolf Demon becomes Whirling Wind (piāo fēng 飄風), remove a shoe, throw (the shoe) at it, and it cannot transform.3 If there’s a kind of creature that’s been kicking their asses and taking their lunch money whenever they run into it, and the finally figure out it’s vulnerable to sonic damage, that can be a really satisfying and memorable moment for a campaign; in a single encounter they may never figure it out, particularly if such weaknesses are determined randomly as in the RECG instead of by theme (a crystal creature is vulnerable to sonics, a fire creature to water, etc.)  They also gain a mental hook (this is the game world where people burned by fire come back as Firewights) that distinguishes the game world from all the others that might be using the same source books…even including the RECG.  If every monster is sui generis then that flat rabbit stingy thing might have occurred in anybody’s campaign.

Good Points

  • Does what it sets out to do, and provides good guidance in how the author intends the book to be used
  • Spurs creativity
  • Good looking, nice and evocative illustrations
  • Caters to Old School adventure gaming
  • Not directly tied to a particular edition of D&D

Bad Points

  • Pricey.  $12.99 is a fair chunk of change for 32 pages.  While I respect what Goodman Games is accomplishing by getting this in game shops at all, I would have been happier to have this at half the price via PDF; given its size and nature I probably wouldn’t even bother to print it out.
  • Charts are somewhat bloated.  There’s really no reason to have, say, the special ability to temporarily drain an Attribute point split into 24 entries (1 for each attribute times whether the attribute is drained 1, 2, 3, or 1d6 points); that should have been one entry with the attribute determined randomly and the amount drained being 1, 2, 3, or 1d6 depending on the roll of a die.  Similarly for various immunities (cold, fire, wood, etc) the creature might have and whether they do half or no damage, or levels of regeneration.


I’d give it 3 out of 5.  I like it, but I like Old School stuff and I like random charts as a brainstorming tool.  I think the people who will really enjoy this are the kind who know they want it just from the description of what it is.  They’re also probably the kind of people who immediately upon getting it and rolling up a few creatures say, cool, now let me do my own even more awesome charts!

Some Additonal Reviews

Ad Vance: To a More Vancian Magic

The tomes which held Turjan’s sorcery lay on a long table of black steel or were thrust helter-skelter into shelves. These were volumes compiled by many wizards of the past, untidy folios collected by the Sage, leather-bound librams setting forth the syllables of a hundred powerful spells, so cogent that Turjan’s brain could know but four at a time.

Turjan found a musty portfolio, turned the pages to the spell the Sage had shown him, the Call to the Violent Cloud. He stared down at the characters and they burned with an urgent power, pressing off the page as if frantic to leave the dark solitude of the book.

Turjan closed the book, forcing the spell back into oblivion. He robed himself with a short blue cape, tucked a blade into his belt, fitted the amulet holding Laccodel’s Rune to his wrist. Then he sat down and from a journal he chose the spells he would take with him.  What dangers he might meet he could not know, so he selected three spells of general application: The Excellent Prismatic Spray, Phandaal’s Mantle of Stealth, and the Spell of the Slow Hour.

The Dying Earth, Jack Vance (c) 1950

In RPGs people generally refer to “Vancian” magic to mean the “fire and forget” aspect of spells that Gygax and Arneson copied from The Dying Earth (as well as the notion that one spell = one effect, rather than, say, a range of similarly themed ones).  Each time you want to cast a spell, you have to “memorize” it anew.  It’s a bizarre notion, and one of the first things that subsequent systems tended to toss overboard.  Even if you want to limit the number of times per day somebody can cast a spell, doing it by making you forget how to cast it afterward is regarded as somewhere between strange and stupid.  Even later editions of D&D replaced “memorization” with “preparation.”  What’s often overlooked is that the idea of having to struggle to hold a spell in your mind and having it vanish once its been unleashed is meant to be bizarre, and to make the magic of the Dying Earth seem weird and other-worldly.  These weren’t super-powers, or psionic abilities that other pulp characters might have acquired…spells in the Dying Earth operated by rules that had nothing to do with physics, even science fiction physics.

Another complaint often leveled at “Vancian” D&D magic is that it’s too “prosaic”, or “not magical enough.”  You have your list of familiar special abilities, the number of times a day you can call on them, rules for their exact effects and chance of resisting them, etc.  I actually think that’s largely true, but the problem is not that D&D magic draws on Vance for inspiration, but that it doesn’t draw on Vance enough.  In the process of creating D&D Gygax and Arneson made spells too “war-gamey”…spells in D&D are in a lot of ways just another type of ammo you can equip your troops with, tracked just as if it were arrows, flasks of oil, or Greek fire.  What was lost, in my opinion, was some or all of the real weirdness of the magic of the Dying Earth.  I think that if you wanted some house rules to put the bizarreness back into magic, instead of looking at real world or fairy-tale magic, you could go back to the tales of the Dying Earth and start over from there.

1. First of all, spells are much rarer in the Dying Earth.  Turjan is one of the more powerful and famous sorcerers of the (admittedly decadent and less magically potent) age, and he can master only four spells at once.  In the second chapter, Mazirian the Magician, who managed to capture and hold Turjan prisoner, was capable of five.  So step one is to cut back on the number of spells.  I would suggest limiting a Magic User to 1 + their Int Bonus (however calculated for the edition).  Moreover, though there were once thousands of spells, only 100 are now extant, and a magician such as Mazirian, who has made it his life’s work to aquire them, has about 70 of them.

2. Spells in the Dying Earth are potent.  The Excellent Prismatic Spray was a death sentence: multicolored lines of fire streak in from every direction, transfixing the target and killing it…. Phandaal’s Gyrator spell can lift the target off the ground, holding it and spinning it as the magician wishes, and can be sped up until the victim just flies apart. If you didn’t have a counter to the spells (such as the amulet with Lacondel’s Rune that Turjan possesses), you have no hope of escaping or surviving.  The Call of the Violent Cloud can transport you in moments (albeit uncomfortable moments) all the way across the world, etc.  It may be that there are lesser spells that the magicians of the Dying Earth seldom bother with, but the ones they’re actually shown using are powerful indeed.  So steps two and three are to eliminate the notion of a saving throw against spells (though you probably want to keep it for things like magic from wands or traps), and to get rid of spells castable by level.  If you have a spell and you’re not at your limit, you can force that spell into your mind.

3. It doesn’t seem to be possible in Vance to use two “slots” on the same spell.  If the Excellent Prismatic Spray is the only offensive spell you have access to, you’ll have to round out the spells you memorize for your adventure with others that might be useful.

4. Memorized spells still take time to cast, enough time that, for instance, a character verbally threatened by somebody who knows the Excellent Prismatic Spray can successfully counter-threaten to push a handy button and drop the caster in a pit faster than the spell could be completed.  Pretty much all editions of D&D can handle this, as long as you assume that casting spells isn’t instant.

5. It is possible to screw up casting the spell, with bad results.  If you accidentally transpose a pair of “pervulsions”, the effect of the spell can be reversed, or go off on you instead of your intended target.  Professional magicians such as Turjan, Mazirian, and Ioucounu don’t seem to worry about this much, but it happened to Cugel the Clever twice in succession. If you want to retain the idea of spell levels, you could require a roll for attempting to cast a spell greater than your current level, with penalties for just how far beyond your current abilities it is.  The roll is made when you actually attempt to cast the spell, not when it’s first memorized.  Or you could only apply a rule for checking for spell failure if a non-magician attempts a magic spell, similar to the classic D&D rules for thieves attempting to use magic scrolls.

6. Spells are something that can only be acquired through adventure, or from a mentor.  There are no generally accessible libraries, or magic shops that will sell you a book or scroll of them, and while magicians can share their spells with their colleagues, they guard them jealously from their rivals.

7. Spells are strange.  The Call to the Violent Cloud doesn’t just whisk the caster to his destination, it summons a strange and malevolent (or at least indifferent) being to accomplish the task, that must be addressed carefully according to ritual:

All was quiet; then came a whisper of movement swelling to the roar of great winds. A wisp of white appeared and waxed to a pillar of boiling black smoke.  A voice deep and harsh issued from the turbulence.
“At your disturbing power is this instrument come: whence will you go?”
“Four directions, then One,” said Turjan, “Alive must I be brought to Embelyon.”
The cloud whirled down; far up and away he was snatched, flung head over heels into incalculable distance.  Four directions was he thrust, then one, and at last a great blow hurled him from the cloud, sprawled him into Embelyon.

(Note, by the way, that Embelyon is either another planet, or perhaps another dimension entirely, not just a far-off place on the Earth.)

8. Because magic is so limited in applicability, albeit powerful when applied, Vancian magic users are capable of fighting with a sword or by wrestling if they have to.  They’re no Conans, but they get by.  I’d keep the hit point and armor restrictions, but lift the ban on using swords and other one-handed weapons.

9. It’s never explicitly spelled out, but it seems that there is no particular limit on memorizing a new spell once one has been cast…neither casting the spells nor memorizing them is particularly taxing.  In their lairs, where they have all their spell books and time to memorize and cast at their leisure, magicians seem limited only by the relatively small (minutes perhaps?) amount of time it takes to memorize a spell.  It does seem that is it extremely difficult to create copies of existing spells.  While the magicians do eventually acquire them, and even teach them to each other if on friendly terms, it seems to be an unthinkable risk to carry an extra copy about in case of need.  They select the spells they venture forth with carefully, and husband them wisely if they can, but they never ever are seen to have a spare or even to have contemplated the possibility.

You can find spell name generators for Dying Earth-style spells here and here, as well as some additional discussion of Vancian magic, but while the name of the spell is an important part of its flavor, the thing you really want to concentrate on is that the effects be potent and memorable. With all due respect to one of my favorite bloggers, Dr Rotwang of I Waste the Buddha With My Crossbow, simply attaching Vancian names to existing D&D spells isn’t good enough. D&D spells are constructed with a war-gamer’s notion of balance, both against the abilities of other classes and the toughness of opponents. A Vancian version of Sleep, for instance, ought to at least cause the target to sleep forever, preserved and unchanging, until countered (much as the Spell of the Forlorn Encystment sinks the target deep within the Earth to remain alive and trapped, but unaging and undying, until the spell is broken, bringing them alive and blinking, with their clothes rotted to dust, to the surface once more). The spells in the Dying Earth are limited by whether there is a spell applicable to the situation (and whether you’ve memorized it), but where they do apply their effects tend to be absolute. Knocking out 2d8 hit dice of creatures until they waken naturally or are awakened by force is just weaksauce.

So, if you make all those changes to D&D magic, will Magic Users still be a playable class?  I think so.  At low levels, a spell like Sleep is an encounter-ender against a lot of foes anyway, just as at mid-levels Fireball can be.  What tends to happen in D&D is the number of truly potent spells (relative to the scope of the adventure) that a wizard can use during a single day remains fairly constant, while the scale of enemies ramps up…  what a truly Vancian system would tend to do is just get rid of all the minor spells that the wizard ends up with (often more than he’ll ever cast in a single day), and eliminate the process of “trading up” from Magic Missile to Fireball to Meteor Swarm (or whatever).  The problem, if there is one, would be that a beginning mage armed with the Excellent Prismatic Spray or something similar would be a threat against an ogre, or perhaps a dragon or other big nasty, possibly even including a much higher level character.  To the extent that this is a genuine problem, and not just blind allegiance to the leveling treadmill concept in D&D where everything scales up in power as the PCs do, you could certainly solve it by restricting the spells available to the PC magic users until they reached a level where you thought a single-target instant-kill spell was appropriate, or by giving special opponents abilities and items such as Laccondel’s Rune to counter it.  Personally, if I were to try this, I would try very hard to just live with it, and design my adventures so as not to assume that 1st level characters are ants compared to high level characters and monsters, and that under the right circumstances even the powerful can be threatened by the lowly.

What about Vancian magic in non-D&D systems?  I think most of the same principles apply, though the mechanics might differ slightly.  In Savage Worlds, getting a new spell “slot” might be an edge, with the limit that you can’t take the Edge more than once per Rank, while individual spells would be acquired by adventuring.  The Arcane Background would probably grant 1 slot and the knowledge of 3 initial spells and casting the spells wouldn’t require Power Points or a casting roll.  In some ways, adding this kind of magic is easy in almost any system (except perhaps ones like HERO, that expect exact cost-accounting for every aspect of every power), since the rules on how many times you can cast a spell are perfectly clear and the effects of each and every spell are sui generis.  As long as the GM is prepared to deal with the consequences of allowing a certain power in the game, there’s really no limit or constraints on what a spell might do.

Encounter Savage!

  • Update: previous link is dead, so you can get it from here:

    • The complete Encounter Savage! is now available as a FREE PDF! This supplement provides rules for adapting the groundbreaking Encounter Critical for use with Savage Worlds! It’s fully illustrated by the man someone might have once called “the modern day Erol Otus”, Xose Lucero! It’s approved by the keeper of the EC flame, S. John Ross! It’s got a Savage Worlds Fan License!

Plus, I appear in the credits!  What more reason could you want to check it out?!!

Actually, one additional reason to check it out might be that Encounter Critical is one of the inspirations for my Elves & Espers setting.