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?