What’s in a word? Spell Memorization

Recently I revisited The Nightmares Underneath (1e) as I was looking for an alternative OSR system to run Veins of the Earth, which was originally written for Lamentations of the Flame Princess. While assembling a chimera of a character sheet to add the quirks of VotE into the NE system, I came to the question of magic.

I have little interest in Vancian Magic, which is simply a matter of personal preference. I often attempt to slide an adjustment into any OSR system to shift the spellcasting away from it, but unfortunately The Nightmares Underneath’s spell system is littered with references and mechanics based on the process of memorizing and forgetting spells.

Many of my complaints about the Vancian system come down to certain aesthetic inconsistencies in my imagination – that is to say that I neither imagine wizards as the exhausted students in a fantasy world desperately attempting to memorize quiz answers which vanish after the test, nor do I imagine spells as the sort of quasi-living entities more akin to Vance’s actual writing.

While mentally chewing on what I was going to do about this – if I should choose a different system, etc – it suddenly dawned on me just how much of my problem revolved on the language (and my interpretation of it) rather than the mechanical system itself.

If I were to shift one word, everything I imagine would change instantly. I drop memorize, and replace it with attune. Every person has their own distinct associations with words, but for me this single change shifts the entire mental image instantly.

To memorize something is a mundane task we have all done at some point, and for me it conjures up the drudgery of flash cards and play rehearsals. That the memorization is typically done from books further cements this association in my mind.

Attunement is more abstract. What exactly does it mean to attune yourself to a strange power? Suddenly my imagination is given a blank canvas, and my inspiration runs wild. When I am not tied to the concept of memory my options expand:

A sorcerer focusing their internal energies using movements akin to tai chi, a diviner drawing cards to determine the will of fate, an astrologer focusing strange lenses to capture power from the zodiac, the supplicant performing daily rituals to renew their faith…

None of these ideas feel linguistically natural to call memorization, but all of them capture the same basic idea mechanically without any further rules. When the sorcerer’s internal energies become unbalanced, when the final card of destiny has come to pass, or when captured starlight loses it’s shine – to call any of these things “forgetting the spell” is a disservice.

It is fascinating to consider how much a single word can dictate my perceived limitations of the Vancian magic system, and by extension I find myself wondering what other words can be found in the default language of the OSR which may – via linguistic association – so strongly influence our creative experience working within a rule system.

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