A review series in The Onion's AV Club called "I Watched This On Purpose" takes a look at presumably awful movies for the sake of reviewing them (or, in their words "…to spend time with trashy-looking yet in some way irresistible entertainments, playing the long odds in hopes of a real reward."). I recently decided to try a related experiment, albeit with far, far better material -- a sort of "I Read This On Purpose" when it came to gaming classics. I've owned it long enough for the pages to break free of their binding after years of flipping to various sections, but I decided -- for the first time -- to completely read through the 1st Edition Dungeon Master's Guide, cover to cover.
It might have been a recent Legends & Lore column that prompted me (Fighters & Wizards), wherein Mike Mearls mentions 1st Edition's recovery rules that came into play after a character reaches 0 hit points. The rules are right there on page 82, but that was a section I'd never read before and never referenced in play. What other secret miscellany (of which I already knew there was plenty) did the book have to offer?
Not surprisingly, I didn't make it very far -- not past the credits and acknowledgements -- before finding my first curiosity. Along with presumable designers, developers, artists, and playtesters (among them, Dave Arneson, James M. Ward, Ernie and Luke Gygax, Skip Williams, and more), Gary Gygax singled out one author for special mention: Jack Vance.
Later in the book in Appendix N: Inspirational and Educational Reading, you can find a list of books that influenced the game, including Tolkien, Fritz Leiber, Robert Howard -- and Jack Vance. But why, of all these luminaries, did the Dungeon Master's Guide single Vance out in the acknowledgements? I never found the answer, but in this installment of D&D Alumni, we'll look briefly at Vance's inspirations in the game, notably where they intersect with the coming season of D&D Encounters. A connection does exist, so let's get to it.
Who Is Jack Vance?
For those of you who haven't read Vance -- shame on you! Author of sci-fi, fantasy, and mystery, Jack Vance had a major influence upon the game largely due to his Dying Earth stories. As the name suggests, these stories are placed in a far-distant future, with the sun on the decline and the world in a state where science and magic coexist. The magic system in these stories, with their "fire-and-forget" spellcasting, has since come to be known as the Vancian magic system.
For starters, aside from direct mentions in the texts, the game's creators had a penchant for hiding their names in the names of characters: Zagyg Yragerne for Gary Gygax, Drawmij for James Ward, the hill giant Chief Nosnra for Dave Arneson (and a more comprehensive list can be found at greyhawkonline). As an added callout, Jack Vance had his name immortalized in the game in the anagram Vecna (though Vecna owes much to Michael Moorcock's Corum).
Then you have the spells and artifacts from Vance's works.
Last month, we spoke at length about the multitude of sources for the game's monsters. The same holds true for its magic items. Boots of striding and springing, flying carpets, dancing swords -- these and so very many more came straight from fable and legend. Other magic items came from pulp influences. Grognardia recently noted the cubic gate's origins in L. Sprague de Camp and Fletcher Pratt's story "The Carnelian Cube."
Ioun stones, likewise, originated in Jack Vance's Dying Earth series. Dragon 174 even offered a backstory to the ioun stones as they first appeared in Vance's short story, "Morreion":
This tale reveals that these magically enhanced gemstones are created naturally, deep inside the hearts of stars, being found in abundance within burned-out stars. These stellar husks possess immense gravitational fields, protecting the stones they contain. As these stars penetrate the leading edge of the expanding universe, they encounter a barrier, known as the nothing. Collision with the barrier causes the star to vanish, layer by layer, gradually exposing the glittering cargo that is hidden within the core. Here lie the ioun stones, nestled in pockets of black dust on a vast glistening plane that is known as the shining-fields.
The now-revealed gems are then collected, at great risk, by a race of blue-scaled, demonlike creatures, the archveults. Harvesting is achieved by hovering above the star's vanishing surface, safely suspended on specially made rafts called slideboards that protect them from crushing gravity. From these platforms, the archveults greedily remove the stones from the surrounding loose material. Using arcane and physical means, and being careful to remain within the dust area (stepping outside of the dust is instant death), the archveults quickly gather the gems. Remaining overlong on the surface is risking deadly contact with the nothing, a horrifying death as the victim slowly vanishes.
The underlying theme through all of these novels is the fact that stones are of enormous magical value. These gems are the most highly prized and jealously guarded magicks that a wizard owns. Some of these wizards, notably Morreion, possessed a veritable cloud of stones that followed them about at all times.
The article went on to create several more versions of ioun stones, as well as potential explanation for their appearance in the D&D universe. (A comprehensive list of ioun stones can be found at Jonathan Drain's d20 Source.) Although their specific magic might not have been mentioned in Vance's works, the game took it upon itself to assign the ioun stones powerfully desirable properties (ability score bonuses, spell absorption, level gain), and these stones circled the user's head in glowing orbits. A few stones reappeared in the current game (the clear stone as the ioun stone of sustenance, the pearly white as the ioun stone of regeneration), and new ones have been added (the jet black ioun stone).
"The tomes which held Turjan's sorcery lay on the long table of black steel or were thrust helter-skelter into shelves. These were volumes compiled by many wizards of the past, untidy folios collected by the sage, leather-bound librams setting forth the syllables of a hundred powerful spells, so cogent that Turjan's brain could know but four at a time."
—Jack Vance, Tales of the Dying Earth
Yet when we think of Jack Vance's intersection with the Dungeons & Dragons game, what springs to mind for most of us, of course, is the "Vancian" system of spellcasting. In Vance's stories, wizards and mages needed to study their spellbooks each night, selecting specific spells to memorize, but with these spells then forgotten immediately upon casting. If this sounds familiar, it should -- it pretty much defined the game's spellcasting system through several editions.
The 1st Edition Dungeon Master's Guide stated that players wishing to understand the system should consult Vance's The Eyes of the Overworld and The Dying Earth (as well as John Bellair's The Face in the Frost—though having read it, while this book is wonderfully descriptive it offers virtually nothing in terms of a spellcasting system). The system held true even for clerics, who received their spells through prayer instead of study, but lost them just the same:
All magic and cleric spells are similar in that the word sounds, when combined into whatever patterns are applicable, are charged with energy from the Positive or Negative Material Plane. When uttered, these sounds cause the release of this energy, which in turn triggers a set reaction. The release of the energy contained in these words is what causes the spell to be forgotten or the writing to disappear from the surface upon which it is written.
—Dungeon Master's Guide, page 40
In the same Legends & Lore column mentioned above, Mearls writes about the balance between fighters and wizards -- with fighters being stronger in the early game and necessary to protect the wizards, who in turn became stronger in the late game. Spell memorization also served as a balancing mechanism, designed to mitigate the spells' powerful effects by requiring magic-users and clerics to spend time recovering them -- much time, in some cases. For example, 1st-level spells required 4 uninterrupted hours of rest, on up to 12 hours for 9th-level spells, plus a quarter of an hour per spell level in study or prayer to then memorize them.
An entire column could be written on the evolution of the game's spell systems -- how the 3rd Edition sorcerer presented a paradigm shift in spellcasting with their steady supply of magic. And now 4th Edition spellcasting has since (theoretically) moved further away from a Vancian system, largely due to a shift from resource management and the limitations this imposed on the "adventuring day." At the same time, it could be argued that although wizards now always have a spell to cast in battle, they (and every other class, for that matter) must still marshal the limited resources of their encounter and daily powers.
"Mazirian made a selection from his books and with great effort forced five spells upon his brain: Phandaal's Gyrator, Felojun's Second Hypnotic Spell, The Excellent Prismatic Spray, The Charm of Untiring Nourishment, and the Spell of the Omnipotent Sphere."
—Jack Vance, Tales of the Dying Earth
Whatever the pros and cons of each system, Vancian spellcasting remains a cherished part of the D&D game's rich history. This includes the convention of certain spells having proper names, which is attributed to Vance's story element that one can discover only a finite number of spells in the world (slightly over a hundred). These spells are then amended with the name of the wizard discovering them. The naming convention carried over to spells in the game such as Bigby's grasping hand, Tenser's floating disk, and countless more.
One supplement, Netheril: Empire of Magic, went so far as to give proper names to formerly unnamed spells, so that disintegrate became Aksa’s disintegrate, fireball became Noanar’s fireball, and power word: kill became Xanad’s killer; it even went so far as to provide the year they were introduced into the world. (Another site, it should be mentioned, has given Latin names to several spells as well.)
While there was never a restriction on the number of spells that existed within the game, the story element of spell value (and of magic-users avariciously hunting new spells for their spellbooks), certainly carried over:
…(T)he ramifications of spell scarcity are bound to aid your campaign, and not only with regard to excess treasure and magic items. A scroll of but a single spell becomes highly meaningful to the magic-users in the game, especially when it is of a spell heretofore unknown. The acquisition of a book of spells from someplace in the dungeons or wildernesses of the campaign is a benison beyond price! PC and NPC alike will take great pains to guard scrolls and spell books. Magic-users will haunt dusty libraries and peruse musty tomes in the hopes of gleaning but a single incantation to add to their store of magic.
—Dungeon Master's Guide, page 39
However many spells a magic-user would learn on his or her own would always look to be supplemented by acquiring scrolls and books for any source; so much so, that the DMG devoted a section to handling players seeking to cozen spells from their hirelings and henchmen.
"Shadow lives in the gaps. It fills them in, bridging the breaches between assumptions and reality, solid and ephemeral, light and dark, life and death. It is the heart of all my arts: illusion, nethermancy, and necromancy. Shadow is the most powerful force in creation, and it existed before the world. If one counts darkness as deeper shadow, it is far greater than light. Only a fool fails to acknowledge this. I am no fool. Are you, dear reader?"
—Evard, Legendry of Phantoms and Ghosts
And here's where we finally get to Evard. As Gary Gygax noted when writing for the Dying Earth RPG, Evard's black tentacles was a spell influenced by Vance's short story, "The Bagful of Dreams" (and thus, our connection). Although the story came out too late for the spell’s inclusion in the 1st Edition Player's Handbook, it did make it into Unearthed Arcana:
Evard's Black Tentacles (Conjuration/Summoning)
Level: 4 Components: V, S, M
Range: 3" Casting Time: 8 segments
Duration: 1 round/level Saving Throw: None
Area of Effect: 30 sq. ft. per level of caster
Explanation/Description: By means of this spell the caster creates many rubbery, black tentacles in the area of effect of the dweomer. These waving members seem to spring forth from the earth, floor, or whatever surface is underfoot -- including water. Each tentacle is 10' long, AC 4, and takes as many points of damage to destroy as the magic-user who cast the spell has levels of experience. Furthermore, there will be one such tentacle for each of the levels of experience of the spell caster. Any creature within range of the writhing tentacles is subject to attack. If more than one target is within range of a tentacle, the probability of attack on each is determined and the result found by die roll. A victim of a tentacle attack must make a saving throw versus spell. If this succeeds, the victim takes 1-4 hit points of damage from initial contact with the tentacle, and it then is destroyed. Failure to save indicates that the damage inflicted will be 2-8 points, the ebon member is wrapped around its victim, and damage will be 3-12 points on the second and succeeding rounds. Since these tentacles have no intelligence to guide them, there is the possibility that they will entwine any object -- a tree, post, pillar -- or continue to squeeze a dead opponent. Once grasped, a tentacle remains wrapped around its chosen target until the tentacle is destroyed by some form of attack or it disappears due to the expiration of the dweomer's duration.
The component for this spell is a piece of tentacle from a giant octopus or giant squid.
Evard's past history established him as enemy of the mage Mordenkainen, crafter of spells, and author of the Legendry of Phantoms and Ghosts (originally a spell research book presented in Dragon #82 containing information on phantom armor, phantom steed, phantom wind, Evard's black tentacle, and wraithform). His black tentacles have also appeared in every edition of the game since then.
Evard's Black Tentacles
Level: Sor/Wiz 4
Components: V, S, M
Casting Time: 1 standard action
Range: Medium (100 ft. + 10 ft./level)
Area: 20-ft.-radius spread
Duration: 1 round/level (D)
Saving Throw: None
Spell Resistance: No
This spell conjures a field of rubbery black tentacles, each 10 feet long. These waving members seem to spring forth from the earth, floor, or whatever surface is underfoot -- including water. They grasp and entwine around creatures that enter the area, holding them fast and crushing them with great strength.
Every creature within the area of the spell must make a grapple check, opposed by the grapple check of the tentacles. Treat the tentacles attacking a particular target as a Large creature with a base attack bonus equal to your caster level and a Strength score of 19. Thus, its grapple check modifier is equal to your caster level +8. The tentacles are immune to all types of damage.
Once the tentacles grapple an opponent, they may make a grapple check each round on your turn to deal 1d6+4 points of bludgeoning damage. The tentacles continue to crush the opponent until the spell ends or the opponent escapes.
Any creature that enters the area of the spell is immediately attacked by the tentacles. Even creatures who aren't grappling with the tentacles may move through the area at only half normal speed.
Dark Legacy of Evard
4th Edition has since reestablished Evard as a great shadow wizard, and his grimoire -- Legendry of Phantoms and Ghosts -- as an authoritative text on shadow magic and the Shadowfell. Naturally, his black tentacles have also returned to the game (and its creature incarnation, withering grasp), along with Evard's ebon bindings, dreadful mist. You'll also see in Heroes of Shadow his wrenching darkness, all-seeing worm, and black gate spells.
Evard's Black Gate
Enigmatic Mage Attack 20
A black disk yawns wide, expanding like an eye's pupil in the dark. From its dull surface emerge writhing black tentacles, which ensnare your foes and drag them into oblivion.
Effect: You conjure a wall that lasts until the end of your next turn. The wall can be up to 2 squares high, and its squares are totally obscured. While in the wall, a creature is dazed and can attack only creatures adjacent to it. While the wall persists, you can use the secondary power at will.
Sustain Minor: The wall persists until the end of your next turn.
Secondary Power (Arcane, Implement, Necrotic, Nethermancy, Shadow)
Standard Action Close burst 5 centered on a square of the wall
Target: Each enemy in the burst
Attack: Intelligence vs. Reflex
Hit: 2d8 + Intelligence modifier necrotic damage, and the target is pulled up to 2 squares toward the wall and into it, if possible. The target is restrained (save ends).
All of which leads us, of course, to the upcoming season of D&D Encounters: Dark Legacy of Evard. We hope this has given you some background on the mysterious mage -- and we look forward to seeing you Wednesday nights at your friendly local game store!
Bart Carroll has been a part of Wizards of the Coast since 2004, and a D&D player since 1980 (and has fond memories of coloring the illustrations in his 1st Edition Monster Manual). He currently works as producer for the D&D website. You can find him on Twitter (@bart_carroll).