Spell Law Deconstruction: Building Spell Lists to 50th lvl.

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Now that I’m posting up some more spell lists–Mentalism primarily, I’m tracking comments and feedback on the forums and here at RMBlog. The number one issue I see is the desire for spell list reductionism, maybe build 10 spells per “list” and allow for creative scalability similar to or identical to HARP.

That is a compelling thought, but after writing a ton of spell lists I wanted to put my own thoughts in order.

  1. Distillation. Rebuilding classic RM spell lists typically requires some trimming. Many spells within a list are redundant: not just the spells that progress as I, II, III etc, but different named spells that do similar things. Distilling the essence of a list can really reduce the total number of spells which makes a scalable spell system very appealing!
  2. Spell scope. I’m not a fan of kitchen sink style spell lists, but do see a fundamental difference between the realms. Essence should be very tightly focused around a key aspect, Channeling should allow for much more variability based on the particular god and I see Mentalism lists following a shared mental mechanism. Using these basic rules provides different ways to build lists in different realms.
  3. Compatibility. A major motivation to maintain the 1-50th spell lists is basic compatibility with RM and Shadow World.
  4. Built in scalability. Many of my lists are built around 3-6 spells, that progress from I-V and maybe include a mass effect. If each spell repeats every 5 levels that takes up a chunk of the list, but also gives a repetitive appearance that seem suitable for scaling. However, the spell versions don’t just scale progressively, but change in target size, AoE, Range and other aspects that provide “more bang for the buck”. General scaling assumes increased power point cost/expansion of range, area, damage etc. So from an efficiency standpoint, higher versions of the spells in BASiL provide a better impact/PP than just linear scaling. “Spell II” isn’t just 2x better than “Spell I”, it can be 3x better or have expanded efficacy or powers as well.
  5. Opportunity and tactical cost. By having built in scaling, players can use higher or lower level spells based on the target, PP consumption and risk/reward calculations. Of course, that’s also one argument for Scaling spells, but the PP usage will be much different per #4 above.
  6. Level assignment. One of the more difficult aspects of designing a spell list is deciding what level to make a spell. Part of me wants to calculate an estimated “power cost”, while other times I’m thinking of utility and game balance. For instance, the big three: Charm, Fly and Invisibility can be very unbalancing to the game, but perhaps shouldn’t be based on “power needed” or some other arbitrary assessment. Some lists just can’t be distilled into 10 spells with scaling options. Some spells need to be higher level to reflect their real power and also make them unavailable to lower level players.
  7. Vertical versus horizontal acquisition. RM (and probably RMU) is build around horizontal model of spell acquisition. Generally players will know more spell lists than overall spell levels. For instance, a 5th lvl caster may have access to 5-10 lists but can only effectively cast to 5th level without risk of failure. In BASiL, it’s the opposite. I use a levelless system so players generally know a few spell lists to higher level. That gives them more powerful, niche abilities. It’s just the way I like my game to run–hard specialization versus the generalization of RAW.
  8. Keystone spells. I still like cool spells that can be found at 10th, 20th and certainly 50th level. I try to add something unique or interesting at these levels for players to look forward too, or to give the list a “bump”!

I guess sticking with RM I wanted to improve on the originally 35+ year old Spell Law and incorporate spell ideas and powers introduced since then. But if I were to start over, I would take a hard look at a HARP scalable system. Or maybe just use HARP rules?

Many of you also build your own spell lists. Do you have build guidelines, mechanistic philosophies or other design criteria that help you in the process?

5 thoughts on “Spell Law Deconstruction: Building Spell Lists to 50th lvl.”

  1. I’ve been building a lot of spell lists over the last couple of months (11 so far), so this article was right on point for me.

    I do wonder if spell scaling slows down play at the table. I can think of some players dithering about, trying to decide whether to spend +3 or +6 PP to increase damage, and another few PP to increase range or not. Some of the extra options seem to be rather overpowered too. Counterspell at 1 PP seems OP to me, and increasing the number of targets of a Lightning Bolt for just a few more PP seems ripe for abuse. You could say RM already allows some of that, and that’s true, but the fact that the more powerful spells have higher levels (rather than just costing more PP) provides some balance.

    Note too that RMU uses individual spell development by default. This means casters will have access to more spells in general: at first level, a Magician might have 6 or more 1st level spells, whereas a RM2 Magician would have at most 1 or 2. If all of those scale… well, that’s a bit of a balance nightmare imho.

    1. HARP’s scalable spells have more than just an extra PP cost.

      There’s also a DP cost (you can’t cast a spell if it uses more PP than you have ranks in the individual spell – e.g. you can’t cast a 9 PP spell if you only have 6 ranks in it), and there’s also casting penalty of -5 per extra PP of scaling (which means you should spend even more DP on extra ranks for the spell to offset some of that penalty). Finally, each spell takes 1 round per 5 PP (or part thereof) to cast.

      BTW, if you can afford to spend extra time to cast a spell, you can get a +5 bonus per extra casting round (to a maximum of +30). This is not much use while in combat, but is very useful for Utility spells outside of combat.

      Also BTW, in HARP you can have a maximum number of ranks in any skill (including spells, which are treated as and developed as skills) of 3 + 3 per level (so a 1st level char can have up to 6 ranks in a spell or skill, 2nd level can have up to 9 ranks, 3rd can have up to 12 ranks, and so on). Skill rank bonus progression is -25/5/2/1.

      Skill/Spell development in HARP is quite different to RM (because there’s only favored and unfavored skills at 2 or 4 DP), but you’re still making the same kind of trade-offs – every DP you spend on one thing is a DP you can’t spend on something else. Everything comes with an opportunity cost – that’s pretty much the core of HARP’s “balance” mechanism.

  2. By the way, I am almost done with my version of the Warrior Mage spells for RMU. Can we make next week ‘Warrior Mage Week’?

  3. I’ve had a little experience with making my own 1-10 Lists with PP spends for higher scale and effects. To build them, first I would compare my concept or theme to other published lists and also look for likely contenders from other systems. I’d arrange the Spells in a way that just felt “right” in terms of how I perceive “power level.” Often I find myself merging what had been individual Spell Lists. As I do this, I look for redundancies or close similarities; any found could be a candidate for Scaling.

    For these Scaling menus, I’d just brainstorm what I imagine could be done with such a Spell and assign costs from what I figured was approximate to Scaling options in HARP or VsD Spells. If an option got too crazy or fiddly, I’d figure that should be a separate Spell.

    For me, this process is difficult enough for Levels 1-10. I can’t imagine doing it with 1-50 (nor would I want to, of course!). It taxes the imagination.

    As a design philosophy, it also became difficult to find appropriate lines between Spell capabilities. Sometimes I would feel an entire List could be reduced to “one” thematic Spell with Spends; other times I felt I should just leave a “redundant” List alone. When I most recently pulled out an RM game, I just went with the original RM2 lists—much less of a headache.

    Next time I play, in fact (until VsD is printed and shipped, because I’ll try that next), I intend to use original RM2 with Scaling as a non-RAW option or innovation that could be negotiated at the table anytime it makes sense within the fiction. I no longer think that Scaling needs to be formalized so much as I think the the concept simply can inform emergent house rules and “in the moment” innovations.

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