January 27, 2012

Vancian Magic in 4E

One of the recent announcements about D&D Next coming out of The Dungeons & Dragons Experience (DDXP) was that the Wizard class would be seeing a return to Vancian magic casting. For those out of the loop, Vancian casting refers to science fiction author Jack Vance's stories. The magic-users of those stories spellcasting came from memorizing vast, intricate formula that were so complicated only a handful of spells could be memorized at a time. Simply not enough room in the brain, as it were. This was the D&D spellcasting method du jour since the 70's, and was largely abandoned in the 4th Edition.

Largely, but not entirely. Vancian spellcasting can be equated exactly as if every power a 4E character has is treated as a Daily power. It's then a pretty easy jump to whip together a quick and easy option to introduce Vancian Wizards into your 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons game.

To create a balanced Vancian Magic Option for your 4E Wizard, simply do the following:

  • Refer to all Wizard 1st Level At-Will Spells as "cantrips". It's way cooler and more fun this way.
  • Increase the damage output of all Wizard Encounter Attack Spells by a damage die or two. Some examples are provided below.
  • Change the frequency of all Wizard Encounter Attack Spells to Daily. Change the frequency of all Wizard Utility Spells to Daily. Increase dazes to stuns, and stuns to dominate, etc. You've got to really use your brain here and make intelligent changes, there's no quick and easy fix. This isn't actually so bad, as most Wizard tility Spells are already Daily.
  • On a case by case basis, change all Encounter and At-Will Wizard Utility Spells to be more powerful, in-line with an equivalent Daily Utility Spell of their Level.
  • Optional: Allow a Wizard to select a Ritual (of the appropriate Level or below) to cast as a Standard Action in lieu of a typical Utility Spell when he or she receives a new Utility Spell.

Done. I've used this in actual play; it is really fun, brings the feel of the older edition Wizards, and is perfectly balanced with the 2008-era 4th Edition Wizard.

Example Spells:

Ray of Enfeeblement
Wizard Attack Spell (Level 1)
You point three fingers at your foe, curling them like talons. Weird green mist streams from your enemy’s flesh, carrying away its strength.
Daily ✦ Arcane, Implement, Necrotic
Standard Action
Ranged 10
Target: One creature
Attack: Intelligence vs. Fortitude
Hit: 3d10 + Intelligence modifier necrotic damage, and the target is weakened until the end of your next turn.
Miss: Half damage.

Burning Hands
Wizard Attack Spell (Level 1)
A fierce blast of flame erupts from your hands and scorches nearby foes.
Daily ✦ Arcane, Evocation, Fire, Implement
Standard Action
Close blast 5
Target: Each creature in the blast
Attack: Intelligence vs. Reflex
Hit: 4d6 + Intelligence modifier fire damage.
Miss: Half damage.

Lightning Bolt
Wizard Attack Spell (Level 7)
Brilliant strokes of blue-white lightning erupt from your outstretched hand.
Daily ✦ Arcane, Evocation, Implement, Lightning
Standard Action
Ranged 10*
Target: One, two, or three creatures
Attack: Intelligence vs. Reflex
Hit: 5d6 + Intelligence modifier lightning damage.
Miss: Half damage.
* Optional: Change the range to a close line 10 (creatures in line)

Wizard Attack Spell (Level 27)
You magically compel an enemy to attack its nearest ally.
Daily ✦ Arcane, Charm, Implement, Psychic
Standard Action
Ranged 20
Target: One creature
Attack: Intelligence vs. Will
Hit: 6d10 + Intelligence modifier psychic damage. On the target’s next turn, you control its actions: You can move it a number of squares equal to your Wisdom modifier, and it then makes a basic attack against its nearest ally.

Wizard Utility Spell (Level 2)
You or another creature you choose can suddenly leap great distances.
Daily ✦ Arcane
Minor Action
Ranged 10
Target: You or one creature
Effect: The target makes an Athletics check to jump with a +10 power bonus, and the target does not have to move to make a running jump.

Wizard Utility Spell (Level 16)
The recipient of this spell appears to be standing slightly to the left or right of his actual position, making it harder for enemies to hit him.
Daily ✦ Arcane, Illusion
Immediate Interrupt
Ranged 5
Trigger: An attack hits you or one ally in range
Effect: The attacker must reroll the attack roll with a -2 penalty and take the lower value.


  1. Hmm, I feel like I got a preview version of this today over twitter! Good to see it in writing, I'd be interested in implementing it myself.

  2. A good way to implement Vancian magic if wanted. Though some of the powers (i.e. displacement) really should last until the end of the encounter, so you get as much bang for your buck as an arcane character IMO. Makes the transition of everything into a daily a little easier to swallow.

  3. For me the appeal of vancian magic is having a bunch of known spells (ie a spellbook) and then deciding which of your various spells you are going to memorize based on what threats you expect are coming up.