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The world of science fiction and fantasy lost a giant on Sunday, May 26th. Jack Vance passed away at the age of 96 in Oakland, CA. He began writing prolifically shortly after World War II and well into the early 2000s. He started by contributing many stories to pulp magazines like Startling Stories and Thrilling Wonder Stories. He went on to write many, many novels, most in the series format, publishing works like The Demon Princes series, the Lyonesse trilogy, and The Cadwel Chronicles. But it was his first novel, The Dying Earth, published in 1950 and the first in a series of four books of loosely connected stories that firmly cemented him as an icon in the world of nerd culture. Even if you’re like me and have never had the pleasure of reading any of Vance’s works, you may still be very familiar with his name, as it was this particular series that made the largest impact on the world of roleplaying games.
In The Dying Earth magic was a very complex thing and required a great deal of study and concentration on the part of the wizard, and once the energies were expended to power the spell, the incantations and words of power were wiped from the wizard’s mind until he was able to rest, effectively limiting how many spells he could know and cast each day.
This should sound very familiar to anyone who has played a wizard or magic-user in Dungeons and Dragons, as Gary Gygax took the same approach to balance spellcasters against those that used less esoteric, but less powerful methods to solve their problems. In fact, the magic system became dubbed the “Vancian magic system” by gamers after Gygax continued to name Vance’s works as inspiration to his game
There were other notable influences to the game, including the thief character class, who was built as an homage to Vance’s Cugel the Clever. There were other additions, including spells inspired from Vance’s works and magical items from the Robe of Eyes to the ever popular Ioun Stones, magical stones that orbited a person’s head and gifted them with special abilities.
Gary himself wrote a short essay detailing his admiration of Jack Vance as an author and listing the numerous influences that his works had on the game that became Advanced Dungeons and Dragons. It’s definitely worth a read and gives some really great insight into design decisions that I won’t get into here.
The world lost a good one on May 26th. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go and roll up a magic-user to bring to my next game session.