Rolemaster Spell Design: Thematic or Mechanistic?

Since I’ve been spending quite a bit of my writing time on BASiL: Mentalism I’ve also been engaging with a few other writers about spell design concepts. As my blog title suggests, there are two approaches to Rolemaster Spell Lists.

Thematic. The spells within the list are unified by a concept, theme or purpose.

Mechanistic. The spells are unified by an underlying process, mechanism, or metaphysical force.

While I am firmly in the “Mechanistic” camp, there is compelling evidence that some spell lists in Rolemaster were driven by the “Thematic” approach. Why might that have occurred? I think Professions development is a top down process: you start with a professional concept, you define the skills and abilities that reinforce that concept and then you assign skill costs and spell abilities last. For instance if we want to model a Paladin profession we might then create broad spell list categories like this: “vs Undead/Evil”, “Healing”, “Buffs” and “Combat”. Then we would design and fill in spells under those thematic categories. That makes sense.

The problem is that you can end up creating spells that work on different operational principles. Good examples of this can be found in the expansion Professions in RMCI, specifically the Nightblade and Paladin lists:

Nightblade/Distractions. This list contains a number of spells that fit under the umbrella of “subterfuge” it’s a hodge podge of styles. Nightvision (a personal augmentation, Confusion (a mental effect), Smokeflash (a teleport with a elemental angle),Extinquish (cancel elemental). So the list is a bit of Magician powers and Mentalist powers all jumbled up.

Paladin/Holy Warrior. This spell list really covers three areas: self healing, buffs (Strength & Courage), and “holy auras”.

A quick review of almost any list will find at least half a dozen “outlier” spells that don’t really fit into the mechanistic’s of the spell list. I’m not suggesting that a thematic approach is wrong, and ultimately, you probably need a mix of both to create full spell lists.

When I try to create a new list (or clean up a messy Spell Law List) I start from the bottom and build the list mechanically. What is the underlying “power” of these spells? Are they similar that they support the fundamental idea of a Spell List? (Similar spells that increase in power). Sometimes I can build enough spells to form a new list to 50th level. Other times I need to include a spell that doesn’t fit well but is needed to support the list functionality. Other times I have 1 cool spell but it’s a dead end to building a full list around the idea.

While I mostly use a Mechanistic approach, it can also lead to less diverse spell lists, or ones that might be better served with a HARP scaling approach. That’s a valid criticism. For limited spell lists, like the Shadow World Messenger Lists, I used a more Thematic approach. I feel comfortable using Thematics for Channeling spell lists, given that they are arguably structured for use by a Diety/Being.

The Thematic approach appeals to my gut- it’s intuitive, it reinforces professional tropes and provides wide latitude to populating a spell list. But my mind finds the mechanistic approach a more orderly process to spell list creation. In the end, much of this will depend on your concept of a spell list.

What are your thoughts?

3 Replies to “Rolemaster Spell Design: Thematic or Mechanistic?”

  1. I would say that “mechanistic” is just a type of theme. And all spell lists are themed. In any case, why can’t magic act directly on a concept rather than a principle of physics? Is, for example, Truth less magically significant than Gravity? Are Paths less magically meaningful than Fire? We especially take this for granted in the spell lists associated with particular deities; the power is structured around the feelings and preferences of the deity rather than around a mechanism.

    From a game mechanics perspective, there’s room for a pure caster to collect a bunch of lists that are each themed mechanistically. But for a semi, in RMU especially, they’ll probably only have 3-4 lists (at least to their level – they might dabble a bit outside of those). For a semi, it’s much more helpful to have a list which, while even in some sense less potent than the list of a pure caster, is more diverse in what it can do. And if that list is held together by a theme, it also imbues the profession itself with that theme much more effectively than minor adjustments to skill costs.

    Slipping back into the in-world perspective, since semis tend to use their magic to enhance rather than replace their skills, it seems more reasonable for their lists to hold collections of rotes that have been custom designed for the profession. (How professions and base lists are created in-world is an open question of course.) There should be something holding them together but it doesn’t have to be quite so narrow.

    1. Not to talk to myself, but I was asked for clarification on Discord and thought I’d just copy those thoughts here.

      My point is that the power of a list is not just the power of its spells. It’s also diversity. Take a look at the Lay Healer base lists. Now compare the Paladin Holy Healing list. In terms of what you can achieve at each level, the Lay Healer spells are better. But Holy Healing covers wounds of all types with a single list, while a Lay Healer needs 5 lists to do the same thing. So the Lay Healer lists are more potent, and the Holy Healing list is more versatile. Which would you rather have? Well, a Lay Healer is better off with their base lists. They can easily pick up a half dozen other lists to give them other functionality. And a Paladin is better off with Holy Healing. That allows them to also afford some very different functions, and also skills, while not having to worry that there is some general class of injuries they won’t be able to deal with.

      RMU doesn’t (yet) have a lot of semi lists that overlap directly with the function of pure base lists, but as an example from RM2, the Warrior Mage base list Elemental Ways in ROCO2 has often been criticized as overpowered because it basically cherry-picked all the good combat functionality from the Magician lists while keeping the spells around the same levels. In that case the developer tried to keep the potency of the individual spells the same while adding versatility and the result is overpowered.

      On the other hand, if you compare the RMU Dabbler list Concealment Mastery with the Mystic list Hiding, the spells are more or less on par. That’s ok because they basically have the same scope, the Dabbler list isn’t more versatile. The specific spells are not identical, the Dabbler gets some tricks like concealing items and hiding thoughts, while the Mystic is better at hiding from magical detection, but overall they are reasonably balanced.

  2. I really like the point jdale makes about what “thematic” or “mechanistic” means depending on interpretation and the depth at which one is looking. I definitely build thematic lists when I make up new spell lists, and I do lean heavily towards the physics-related theme identification. But I also try to approach the list from the perspective of the culture or individual the list is coming from. A given religion will view the spheres of themes very differently from another religion, and my jungle culture’s unique spell lists are very different from my desert fire-plane’s unique lists. I sometimes recruit friends, usually games but sometimes not, to sketch out ideas for spells, monsters, or even adventures so that my players don’t get too channeled by my own biases and inclinations. This has definitely fed into some mechanistic-style lists.

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