"What is going on with magic?"
More specifically, it finally sank in that sages could cast virtually any spell simply by being well-read. Huh.
Now, I have mentioned how the existence of sages and what they can do and how freakin' WEIRD that makes AD&D before, more than once, but this was the first blush and it led to me doing some investigation through the books. And it led to me noticing something interesting (this short piece). My sons and I discussed it in the car yesterday while prepping for this article and that talk led to something that will be the NEXT article.
And I am sorry I didn't have my recorder running to turn that talk into a podcast.
So.... Magic in AD&D....
There is a lot of ink and pixels about talking about how it is 'Vancian' (i.e., based, sorta', on how spells work in Vance's Dying Earth books. Sometimes). There is a fair amount of 'it sucks! I now use X' as well as a fair, if lesser amount of 'it is just a way of treating magic like arrows meaning it fits neatly into the resource management paradigm of everything in Old School D&D that isn't roleplaying'.
I am firmly convinced that D&D is 'logistics plus amateur theater, the game'. And I love it.There are also many discussions about game balance, balance between characters, how to change magic without changing balance, etc. It might, just might, be the most popular topic of discussion when it comes to mechanics.
Thing is? In the universe of AD&D most magic isn't Vancian.
That's right - in the universe of AD&D most magic is NOT Vancian. Only most of the magic available to PCs is Vancian.
Think about it for a minute.
Dryads? 'Innate spell abilities'. Demons? Devils? Will O' Wisps? 'Innate spell abilities'? Firefriends? Titans? Slaad? 'Innate spell abilities'.
When you look around the vast majority of creatures that can "do magic" do not use Vancian magic. Even among humans only a vanishingly small percentage do Vancian magic, as well. As I mentioned about some time back in an AD&D world only about 0.0002% of the population is a magic-user or illusionist, so only about that percentage of humans can use Vancian magic.
To put that in context, if the entire United States was an AD&D campaign setting all the magic-users and illusionists could fit in Eden Prairie, Minnesota. If it was the UK, all the magic-users and illusionists in the entire country could live in the Saint George Wharf Tower, if snugly.
That isn't many people!
So most humans can't use Vancian magic, either. Nor can most elves.
Let's look at monsters. A few do use Vancian magic. A few dragons. Xvarts. Looking at witch doctors you have several humanoids. A daemon. Sylphs. But these creatures all seem to share a rather - unusual trait.
They seem to all be either very human in appearance or to be interfertile with humans.
Gold dragons can polymorph into human form. Ultrodaemons can sire cambions. Sylphs can mate with humans. Gnomes are demi-humans. While I haven't taken the time to do a full analysis, the initial impression is pretty strong and it doesn't really fade over time.
In my AD&D 2e S&P campaign, Blackstone, part of the backstory is how humans conceived of and developed 'formal magic', i.e. Vancian magic, as a way to gain parity with the elder elves and other races that are naturally magical.
In this campaign what Vancian magic does is temporarily transform a non-magical creature (the spellcaster) into creature with 'innate magical abilities' temporarily. You don't 'memorize' a spell, you 'alter your essence'. The spell is not really something learned so much as something injected like a capsule under the skin, or a bullet into a chamber.
Derived by and for humans, these processes are tied to the essence of being human in some ineffable way so that only creatures somehow similar to humans have any chance of doing it at all. Even then, since they are not truly/fully human they can never reach the heights of the process that a human can, at least potentially.
While not truly part of AD&D itself, this outlook on magic has good explanatory power and 'makes sense' of the idea that 'innately magical' races like the elves wouldn't be as good at Vancian magic as the more mundane humans.
Next - where is magic coming from?