Finding the right system

I was watching a post a few days ago where people talked about science-fiction role-playing games (RPG).  Sci-fi is so broad that most people believe there is no go-to game for it in our hobby.  They intimated that for the fantasy system it was always Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) or a lesser extent, Pathfinder.  Immediately that sent up red flags to me.  Sure, they are the first thought about but this was not really my experience of late.  If I want to play a game with a lot of players I will run Pathfinder but it has long disappeared from my favourite game list.

Historically speaking

D&D was certainly the first game of this type on the market.  It is based on a very Tolkienesque style of fantasy.  Everything is fantastical and detailed giving it that real feeling.  Elves, Dwarves, Halflings, Gnomes, Dragons and all other sorts of beings live shoulder to shoulder with the average man.  A beautiful fantasy world that sparks adventure and mystical lore.  As time went by other genre’s spawned from this reality.  People wanted more than just fantasy or they wanted to try something new.  Sword and Sorcery, Fantasy Horror, low magic, high magic, how was this system expected to cope with it all.

What am I looking for?

I am after the holy grail I suppose.  A non-Vancian magic system.  I love fantasy novels where magic is a thing that is negotiated.  It is tested by the skill of the magician.  Moorcock’s Elric series stays with me today and even as I read them for the first time, Howard’s Conan stories are compelling.  The magic represented here is magic bought from bargaining with spirits.  It is not the natural energies manipulated into arcane energy that Vancian magic calls for.  Sure, D&D, as well as Pathfinder, has classes whose flavour mimics this. Unfortunately, they are still Vancian in all other senses.

Which have I seen that does it well?

In my years of playing, I have come across a few games that break the Vancian compartmentalisation problem.  Even some of the big name games have tried to step away from it.  Pathfinder’s Word’s of Power was one such attempt that fell short of the mark.  Most that succeed put the power of magic into the player’s hands.  What do they want from this spell?  The Games Master (GM) then interprets the difficulty and rolls are made.  A beautiful example of this is the game Maelstrom from the mid-80’s.  Stormbringer (the game based on Moorcock’s Elric) even attempts a similar setup all to do with the negotiation with demons and spirits.

Maelstrom RPG from the 80’s got the non-Vancian system right

Games promise so much

Many games have attempted the jump to non-Vancian magic.  Third parties have attempted to apply it to games like Pathfinder.  Other systems even have classes that should all be about the to and from of spirit negotiation that just fall back to Vancian effects.  The once that do truly make a break from Vancian magic often attempt to contain that creation with more rules than is practical.  This makes for a slow and disappointing system.

Is there a system that gets it right?

The main systems that have got this right in recent years are our new Universal game systems.  FATE and Cypher do non-Vancian magic very well.  Going back I would say that Maelstrom did it very well also.  Maelstrom did not deliver in a lot of other areas, unfortunately.  These systems throw Vancian magic out the window and handle it with impressive brevity.  Dungeon Crawl Classics also makes a Vancian magic system feel far less Vancian by its application of a myriad of effects based on power and success levels.

Conan, Adventures in an Age Undreamed Of also utilises a Vancian like system.  In this, it applies effects to make it less Vancian however.  On the roll, the sorcerer can turn effects into ways to manipulate and change the spell as though the player character had negotiated well with their patron.  Spending momentum or altering the spells with effects rolled gives a huge variety of spell effects from the one spell.  This is the key to Howard’s view of magic and they have done it well.  It is a core mechanic that cuts across all skills and tests and just makes sense.

My final choices

The choices I make for my fantasy styled games is strongly influenced by getting away from Vancian magic.  I used to be OK with it and was happy with Pathfinder but now my tastes have changed.  FATE is certainly a staple in my go to games but I like it for stuff other than fantasy.  Cypher is great but I never did manage to get a game of it going.  I am playing Conan at the moment and enjoy the system, but Dungeon Crawl Classics also has a lot to offer.  It is great to have a number of choices at any time as my tastes vary a lot!  I encourage you to explore the games that contain the mechanics that support the style of game you want!


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  1. I always had a thing for the magic system in Swordbearer, which was elemental nodes based. You could chain nodes to build more power etc.


    1. I can’t say I have even heard of Swordbearer – how old is it?


      1. Very old, and no follow up materials after the game came out, so it vanished quickly. Must have been in the 80s as it was an early addition to my collection.
        About the time of Fantasy Trip.


  2. You could always go with GURPS, although there’s some work to be done ahead of time to assemble the setting. Their Thaumatology series outlines several different magic systems, some of which are actually pretty amazing.


    1. My experience with GURPS is very limited. The only time I played with it I found the character generation system very limiting and so did not go very far with it. Side note – this was in the early 1990’s so I have 0 experience with the current format of the game.


      1. Most people say the opposite: that there are so many options and details, it’s intimidating. But limiting character generation is a function of whatever setting you’re playing, and that may have been the issue.


  3. Blood of Pangea has a free-form system, based in part on low magic fantasy like Conan. The only restriction is that spells cannot permanently damage or destroy. So there’s no magic missile or fireball, but that doesn’t prevent you from hurling a boulder at a target, or untying the rope that your foe is swinging from, or levitating a pot of hot cauldron and dumping it on a foe.


    1. Sounds interesting. I shall put it on the wish list! Thanks for letting me know about it.


    2. I meant “pot of hot oil” or “cauldron of hot oil” but somehow I put the word cauldron in there. Either pot or cauldron, but not both! 🙂


  4. Take a look at Atlantis: The Second Age. Very non-Vancian and very free-form.


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