This week’s “Trope Tuesday” is an interesting read: Vancian Magic. The name comes from sci-fi and fantasy legend Jack Vance, whose seminal work The Dying Earth – and related works inspired a generation of writerly greats like Neil Gaiman, Tad Williams, Jeff Vandermeer, Glen Cook, and George RR Martin, who all contributed to the tribute anthology Songs of a Dying Earth. Apparently tabletop guru Gary Gygax was a Vance fan as well and incorporated a lot of his ideas into the geeky tabletop RPG “Dungeons and Dragons.”
But what IS “Vancian” Magic anyway? Most fantasy works (and some sci-fi ones that include magic) have some rules for magic. Each set of rules is known colloquially as a “magic system”, which is a rather scientific way of looking at a phenomena that seems to transcend the laws of physics, but that’s another topic altogether.
Vancian magic is a magic system where “spells” (or whatever you want to call the effects) must be memorized in advance. The magician/wizard may only memorize a limited number of spells at a time. Finally, once the magician casts the spell, it’s gone from memory altogether. The brain is essentially a storage tank of magic that must be refilled at intervals.
Contrast this to Goodkind’s magic, whereby magic effects tend to be more specific but can be summoned at will. Or Jordan’s magic, in which users have varying degrees of access to five magical elements they combine to produce an array of desired effects.
Because of its influence in literature and gaming, Vancian magic has become a de-facto standard and almost a cliche to implement in a new work; I wonder if this is one of the reasons Brandon Sanderson is enamored with magic systems so original they’ve never been conceived of before – for example, swallowing various metals to fuel superhero-style abilities.
Even if a magic system isn’t very “systemic,” it still needs to be bound by some guidelines. Maybe there is only one rule: “there are no rules,” but this makes for rather a unbelievable world. When anything is possible, what’s to stop the hero from beating up the bad guys by snapping his fingers?
Conversely, what’s to stop the bad guy from making himself ruler of everything? Magic systems add plausibility to a bevy of otherwise implausible, unnatural phenomena, and our fantasy is more enjoyable because of it.