FrankenFourth: Go Full-Vancian Or Go Home(brew)?

I wrote an article over a year ago about various problems with magic in Dungeons & Dragons, that even to this day still receives the occasional comment from someone that somehow manages to miss the point/fails to address my criticisms. I won't repeat them here, but they have informed how we're handling magic in FrankenFourth.

We've overhauled cleric and sorcerer magic, each with their own unique system that feels more evocative of the flavor behind each class (instead of just making one system and shoehorning everything else in), and begun to think of ways to handle bard and druid magic (likely using something similar to our upgraded bard and druid classes for Dungeon World).

But, this post isn't about them; it's about the wizard class.

Before I get into it, I want to point out that there are rituals in the game (and currently they're one of the big reasons for a wizard to even have a spellbook): anyone can use them (even fighters), they just take time and materials, and characters trained in stuff like Arcana and Religion will be able to get more out of them/use them more quickly/reliably.

The current model in FrankfenFourth is that a wizard chooses from a number of talents at 1st-level (plus Detect Magic), which reflect what you know and can do. They're based on the usual Dungeons & Dragons schools of magic, so you've got Abjurer, Evocation, Illusion, Transmutation, and so on. As you level up you can either build upon what you know, or branch out into new areas.

For example, Illusionist lets you conjure static images: you need Animated Illusion for them to move, Solid Illusion to make them, well, solid, Ghost Sound for them to make noise, and Phantasmal Killer for them to deal Wound damage. You can keep ranking up the core Illusionist talent to expand on the size of your illusions, Ghost Sound to make the noises louder (and have multiple noises at once), Phantasmal Killer to deal more damage, etc.

Now, each time you use a magical talent you suffer a random amount of fatigue (similar to how wizards work in A Sundered World), and the more talents you utilize at the same time, the more fatigue you suffer. For example, the Evoker talent lets you make a ranged Intelligence attack, but you suffer 1d4 fatigue each time (the upside is that misses still inflict half damage). If you use Arcane Ordnance it becomes an area attack, but costs you an extra 1d6 fatigue.

So, using Evoker by itself will cause 1-4 fatigue, while using both will run you anywhere from 2-10.

Fatigue starts out by draining your "mana" (term subject to change), then your Vitality, and finally your Wounds. Mana and Vitality are replenished during a short rest (which is currently 30 minutes long, and might end up restoring a random amount with each rest), while Wounds require you to rest for several hours, and even then are only replenished incrementally (based on your Constitution and environmental factors).

This makes magic flexible, but also unpredictable and dangerous (even before you factor in the dangers of using them in combat): do you play it safe and just zap enemies with the basic Evoker talent, knowing that you've got enough mana and Vitality, or do you ramp it up and risk suffering up to 10 fatigue, which is enough to almost kill a 1st-level wizard?

Of course this isn't what people expect from a D&D-esque game, which is why I've also been kicking around...

"True" Vancian
With this system spells are individual things, ala Dungeons & Dragons, and are more or less treated as "encounter" abilities (or, in the needlessly verbose words of 5th Edition, "you must finish a short or long rest before you can use it again"). There would be no at-will or daily spells: you load a spell into your head, a process that takes about 10-30 minutes (maybe for all of your spells, maybe for each spell), and it stays in there until you release it.

(You could also cast them right out of the book, it would just take the same amount of time as readying it.)

The number of spells a wizard can have loaded at a time would be much lower than what you're probably used to seeing: I'm thinking one at 1st-level, plus another every 2-4 levels. Depends on how potent spells end up being. I'm not just talking stuff like damage, but whether they have automatic effects or require some sort of roll.

Spells might have something like levels (The Dying Earth role-playing game had simple and complex spells), but your mind-space wouldn't be strangely compartmentalized into leveled slots, which is one of the big reasons why the default D&D's pseudo-Vancian nonsense falls apart. Instead, you might have 4 slots of space, which you can fill with up to 4 levels of spells, which is more like how it works in Dungeon World.

Wizards wouldn't gain as many talents, instead being able to ready more spells, and they would focus on other areas, such as establishing a magical stronghold, being able to cast spells out of your book faster, ready spells faster, growing creatures in flesh vats, being more resilient to magic, making at least temporary magic items more quickly and easily, brewing potions faster, researching your own spells, and so on.

The upside to this is that wizards would have an added incentive to go after other wizards: snagging their spellbooks. As it stands, they're mostly used for containing notes, alchemical/magic item formulas, and rituals. Nothing to sneeze at, but I think players would be more excited to get almost immediate access to new spells (just gotta take the time to load them).

So, what do you think? Do you prefer one, or would you wanna see both, either as separate classes, like a wizard and "vancomancer", or possible options for one class? Any suggestions or criticisms?

A Sundered World is out (and also available in dead-tree format)! If you for some reason don't want the entire setting, you can just snag the races and classes.

The Gunner is locked and loaded.

Grave Goods is the latest magic item compilation in our 10+ Treasures line. If you want nearly 30 undead-themed magic items, some monsters, and advice on how to make your own, pick it up!

Lichfield is available for public consumption. If you want a concise adventure with a Silent Hill feel, be sure to check it out! Primordial Machine is also out, so if you want to catch a glimpse of A Sundered World, now's your chance! Finally, we've updated If These Stones Could Scream.


  1. I like both. From my own standpoint, I think the true Vancian would be fun to play, but I know several of the people I play with would hate it. They'd much prefer something closer to the high-fantasy, spell-slinging wizards they're used to. That and Vancian feels a bit more science-fantasy than the standard. So, I could definitely see myself using either/or depending on group/setting, and sometimes maybe using both.

    1. @Svafa: Do you think they'd hate it, even if spells could be recovered much more quickly after use?

      Like, instead of fire-and-forget-until-you-go-to-bed-for-6-hours-and-wake-up-the-next-day, you recover all of them after spending, say, an hour re-prepping them, or one every 10 minutes or so.

    2. My inclination is that they'd prefer several spells they can just throw out continuously (within reason) to the fire-and-forget system in general. We played 4E for several years, as well as FATE, and they've been somewhat spoiled on the versatility and reliability of spells. I know there are some I play with who'd be fine or enjoy the Vancian style, so would love to see both options.

      That said, the sorceror may offer plenty for the non-Vancian types, should they want an offensive caster.

    3. Currently all magic talents cause you to take damage, but during our Weds Shadowfell Keep game one of the players suggested a "cantrip" like ability, that only works as long as you have Mana on tap.

      For example, Firebolt (sorcerer talent) causes you to take 1d4 damage, then you make an attack against an enemy using Charisma. If you hit, they take 1d8+CHA damage, and if you miss they still take half.

      The proposed cantrip would be something like: make a Charisma attack, on a hit the target takes 1d6 (no CHA mod), and on a miss they take nothing.

      Wizards CAN be offensive if you focus on the Evoker trees, but currently the dragon sorcerer is all about burning things and gaining draconic features.

  2. I prefer Talents. I love it when magic is unpredictable; I love it when you can overreach your power and kill yourself (sacrifice your life in a great blaze of glorious power to save your friends!); I love having lots and lots of flexibility, but very limited resources. I, personally, have always found memorized, predictable magic too rigid and boring. My .02$.


    1. @Anon: Yeah, I really dig the talent structure, too, though the players are pretty stingy with their mana and Vitality. :-P


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