'Dungeons and Dragons' Magic Came From The Mind Of A Boat Captain
“Magic isn’t real” you say. But different schools of magic used for narrative purposes do exist, if only in literature. There’s Cthonic magic, the mysterious, cultish magic of the underworld found in Greek mythology. The subtle and understated (and most commonly copied) magic of Tolkien, and whatever hot mess we’re calling the nonsense they use in Harry Potter. And then there’s Vancian magic.
The dungeon is lit by flickering torchlight. The stone walls are cold to the touch and etched with strange runes of a forgotten language. This ancient tomb has not been disturbed by the outside world for centuries. A halfling rogue has carefully disarmed the traps littering the hallway so that they and their compatriots can reach the resting place of the cursed sarcophagus. All the traps save one. As the unseen axe descends to slice the unwitting rogue in half, a sudden, blinding light fills the dim passageway. The axe stops inches from the halflings neck and clatters to the ground. A wizard holds their hand out, their mind now blank of the very spell they just cast. They must study the spell once more and magically sear it into their memory if they wish to cast it again. But their sacrifice was worth it, the party is safe.
That’s how Vancian magic works. It’s the narrative basis for why spellcasters in Dungeons and Dragons must relearn spells and it’s a pretty creative way to put constraints on an otherwise wildly powerful game mechanic. And it all stems from the mind of a pretty cool boat captain. Jack Vance was a California native whose imagination would change pop culture forever. He worked as a seaman *giggle* and would pilot his own vessels until failing eyesight left him legally blind and only able to write with the help of special software. His Dying Earth stories introduced the idea of one and done spells which would be erased from the caster’s mind after being cast. Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, the creators of D&D were familiar with Vance’s work and decided to make Vancian magic the basis of their spell casting systems in the game.
Check out more magic with big bads from Magic: The Gathering, these dating profiles of magical blondes, and that time Sid Meier made an MTG game.