VMIII Revised Memory Cell Chart & System Overview (Part 1)

Just what portions of these works, the subsequent AD&D game, stemmed from inspiration related to the writing of Jack Vance? Several elements, the unquestioned foremost being the magic system used in these games. To my way of thinking, the concept of a spell itself being magical, that its written form carried energy, seemed a perfect way to balance the mage against other types of characters in the game. The memorization of the spell required time and concentration so as to impart not merely the written content but also its magical energies. When subsequently cast—by speaking or some other means—the words or gestures, or whatever triggered the magical force of the spell, leaving a blank place in the brain where the previously memorized spell had been held. Because I explained this often, attributing its inspiration to Jack Vance, the D&D magic system of memorized then forgotten spells was dubbed by gamers “the Vancian magic system”.  GARY GYGAX, "Jack Vance & the D&D Game" (2001)

Memory Cell Chart
There are other flourishes to Vance's magical concepts that  did not make the transition over to D&D in any official sense. In the universe of The Dying Earth the spell is actually a sort of living entity with its own consciousness and will. Extremely powerful wizards work magics via extradimensional servants called sandestins. The larger perspective includes an invisible Overworld -- the source of a wizard's magical effects. One gets the sense that the Overworld is a densely populated realm of lesser and greater spirits who compete, torment and feed on one another.

It seems to me that Gary's approach to Vance's ideas could be a little more straight-forward and flexible. To this end I offer my MIII take on Vancian magic. I've ditched slots in favor of the honeycomb of cells you see on the chart.

You'll notice that the cells are tiered in groups of five. Each tier, from 1st to 15th, corresponds to the magic-user's level. The "*" tier represents his Long Term Memory (LTM), which we'll touch on later.

A spell uses a number of cells equivalent to its spell level (eg. magic missile takes up a single cell while fly requires three). Spells that use more than one cell can be arranged to the player's taste, provided that the cells used are adjacent to each other (see EXAMPLE 1). 

Each time the magic-user gains a level in experience, his memory expands upward to the next tier on his cell chart. Note in the example above that I used a red line to emphasize the upper limit of Spidertits' 3rd level memory. The cells beyond the magic-user's level limit are not normally accessible to him. The magic-user's memory reaches its full development at 15th level.

Additionally, when a magic-user levels up he gains access to a new spell level until he finally reaches 9th level spell mastery at the 9th level of experience. I like the simplicity of this 1:1 relationship between spell levels and experience.

So to summarize, as the magic-user gains experience, he develops greater memory and expertise in his craft. Adversely, higher level spells take up larger portions of his memory. This is fundamentally no different than the standard D&D system.

NEXT: Memory Worms and Lore


  1. Very cool...bring on the Sandestins!

  2. I'm really liking this, but what's long term memory about? Doesn't this overpower wizards (i.e. a second level wizard with 10 magic missile spells?)

  3. @-C: LTM is not normally used for spell storage, but in cases of dire need the magic-user can sac XP to open those LTM cells up. RE: Your second question -- The apparent wealth of spell-space is offset by Lore, which I'll talk about in the next post. Lore are areas of study, and just like spells they take up space in the magic-user's memory. Lore covers stuff like Magical Theory, Alchemy, Herbalism, etc. That's what the little pips are for in each cell (L for Lore and S for Spell).

  4. Is this what you use in your game? i.e. have you playtested this? I'm working on an alchemy/herbalism document, so it's of particular interest, especially since the origins are in vance.

  5. We've used it for the last few sessions, though the Lore component is something we have yet to implement. Each lore has a percentage associated with it that increases when the character reads books and increases his knowledge of the subject. I'm looking forward to your document! At this stage the various Lore areas are still pretty amorphous and undefined. I want Magical Theory to cover things like the use of magical devices, deciphering magical scripts (i.e. Read Magic), and analysis of magical materials and symbolism.

  6. Hmmmm. "Adversely, higher level spells take up larger portions of his memory. This is fundamentally no different than the standard D&D system."

    Well, I dunno. In the traditional D&D systems, a magic-user can fill his higher-level slots without having that impact on any of his capacity for cramming lower-level spells into his noggin. Thus, an LL 20th level magic-user can (if he has the stats for it) "know" four 9th level spells at any given time, but also still know the other 44 spells at the same time.

    As I read it, your system changes that, and walking around with a high-level spell ready to go necessarily impacts the rest of the magic-user's capacity for more spells of ANY level.

    Which is a change I like since it means high-level magic-users are still powerful but not the fantasy equivalent of walking gods.

    I probably read it wrong, though. I do that.

  7. I'm going to give the VMIII system a go for a CHAINMAIL/OD&D session I'm planning on running at the SoCal MiniCon this summer. I'm curious as to how your M-Us gain spells under this revised system - do you grant them a few spells to start with, or are they responsible for obtaining all of their spells through fair means and foul? I presume they still need to have a tome in which to keep their spells? How long does it take a Magic-User to place a spell in memory? Are spells still stored in Memory Slots until used, or must they be refreshed at certain intervals?
    I'm looking forward to reading more - I've been enthralled by this system since you first announced it.

  8. @Bigby: You read it right, I just expressed it wrong! What is fundamentally the same is that memorization and casting ability improves as the m-u gains experience. The fact that high level spells and low level spells now bump elbows in the m-u's memory banks is a new wrinkle. And you're right -- it will make high level mages less likely to be god-like.

    @Summerisle: RE: SoCal MiniCon -- very cool! I will address your questions with the follow-up post.

  9. Very cool system, and I agree, more Vanican. With your system powerful spells are more of a resource hog than many smaller spells, which feels right.

    However, it may make sense to have the memory cells measured in "catrip" size, i.e. magic missile or whatever already takes up 2. That allows for the really weak spells to be useful.


  11. It could be easier if you leave the chart and just use the limit. I don't understand what's the point of the chart, you can record the current spells in order with spell level.

    With your e.g.:

    Mage lvl: 3; Spell lvl. limit (slots): 15

    Current spells:

    Magic Missile: Lvl 1 pcs: 1 Occupied slots: 1
    Fly: Lvl 3 pcs: 1 Occupied slots:3

    All occupied slots: 4.

    Thats all.

  12. @roleplay: Dude, I just don't take you seriously. Sorry. You're not interested in discussion, bc you're a troll.

  13. Yes, I am from Troll Country, but you are from the land of the free and home of the brave. Please don't be simple. I asked you an ordinary question. I thoght, that the american people are brave and don't afraid of an average troll. :)
    I am curious. Why use you a coloring book for recording the memorized spells?

  14. @ Roleplay.

    Because the spells can be in interesting shapes that make them hard to fit in the magic users mind.