Friday, 11 July 2014

D&D 5e: The Workings of Magic

Like many other people in the RPG world, I've been reading through the new D&D Basic PDF. I might write some more detailed thoughts on it at some point, but broadly I'm discovering that there's really a lot to like about this new edition of everyone's favourite game. (Obscure as it may sound, I am totally in love with the "downtime activities" section, for example.) The only major gripe I've come across so far is, unfortunately, the wizard spellcasting system. Now, I've not played a game using these rules, so my concerns may be purely theoretical, but I find the rules of wizardly magic confusing and mishmashy -- an unholy mix of at-will, Vancian fire & forget, and spell points. Not immediately to my liking.

Chatting with some people on G+ about this, I realised that a major gripe-element for me is that I don't have a good in-game rationale for the new spellcasting system, unlike the trad Vancian approach, upon which one can read volumes, both in the D&D canon and in the _Dying Earth_ books. In comparison, the new system seems somehow groundless.

Until this morning, when the following slight twist on the Vancian approach came to me. I think this explains all of the intricacies of the 5e system:

Wizards are able to contact and control a particular type of vorpal known as dweomers (or, in common parlance, spells). These disembodied entities, which natively inhabit dimensions orthogonal to our own, exist in many forms, the most significant distinction between the types being their rank (or level). The lowliest dweomers are known as cantrips, while others are ranked from the first to the ninth level.

One peculiarity of dweomers, when compared against other vorpals, is their symbiotic relationship with the minds of mortals. A dweomer can take on a quasi physical form, manifesting as a byzantine complex of modulations in the neural structure of its host. This symbiosis comes about in one of two ways.

Firstly, a dweomer may take up permanent, cooperative residence in a magician's mind. Typically only dweomers of the lowest rank (cantrips) are open to this deep symbiosis, but very experienced magic users possess the force of mind to join with more powerful vorpals also. Once bound in this way, dweomer and magician are inseparable.

Secondly, and more commonly, a dweomer may be temporarily and forcibly bound, by the speaking of its true name. It thus remains in the magician's mind until he or she sees fit to release it. (The true names of myriad types of dweomer can be found recorded as intricate sequences of arcane characters which magicians store in their spell books.)

In both cases, the magician may arouse a resident dweomer by the performance of a series of gestures and vocalisations to which it is sympathetic. The arousal of a dweomer in this way causes the manifestation of a supernatural effect -- magic.

Two further facts bear mentioning.

The nature of the neural modulations caused by the presence of dweomers in a mortal mind is such that only a limited number of the entities may be resident at a time. The mind simply cannot handle more without permanent rupture. (Though note that, as a magician increases in power, his or her mind becomes accustomed to the presence of vorpals and is thus able to accommodate more of them.)

Dweomers which are bound by force exert a constant strain on the magician, as he or she battles to keep the vorpal in place. Every time such a dweomer is aroused, the magician's tether on it and all others which are confined lessens. If a magician were to lose complete control of a dweomer during the process of arousal, the consequences would be dire -- complete neural disintegration being the most typical fate. Thus each magician learns the delicate balance of the frequency with which he or she may arouse entrapped dweomers, using periods of rest to regain control over the volatile other-dimensional entities.

Take that, 5e magic system.


  1. "Dweomers which are bound by force exert a constant strain on the magician, as he or she battles to keep the vorpal in place."

    This also is a good call-back to the line from one of the first Dying Earth stories about the spells straining to leave their page. Apparently, if the dweomer is powerful enough, the mere act of scribing the symbols representing its true name can summon its power in a small way.

    1. Right. I didn't think of that specifically when I was writing this, but that's exactly the kind of vibe I was trying to conjure. I'm all for Vancian to the max! ;)