Spell Trees – Abandoning RM Lists

A lot of the frequenters of this blog have diverse approaches to their concepts of RPG magic. As we wait for RMU to become a finished product, I continue to struggle with the spell list approach to magic. Brian has written about the balance between thematic and mechanistic concepts in list design, so the model I’m currently reworking borrows heavily from HARP’s scaling system, using Rolemaster’s traditional spells.

Here’s a simple modification that can clean up what I consider to be a bloated, repetitive list system with something a little more streamlined.

Experimental character sheet using the Spell Tree model.
  1. A player spends DP to purchase ranks in a “tree”. A player’s skill in this tree determines their overall power in this particular branch of magic.
  2. A player then spends DP to purchase spells. Each spell on a tree has two numbers (X/Y) associated with them:
    • X is both the number of ranks required in the tree to cast the spell as well as the PP cost. It also determines how much a spell can be scaled. For example, if a Firebolt costs 6 PP to cast, and increasing the range costs an additional 3 PP, in order to cast a range-scaled Firebolt, the player needs 9 ranks in the spell tree to do so.
    • Y is the DP cost to purchase the spell. As currently designed, this number is half of X, rounded down.
  3. Several spells on each list have become Cantrips, which can be cast without a PP cost. The first two cantrips on a tree are free, but any cantrips after that cost 1 DP to learn. Many of these effects are relatively minor spells such as Heat Material, Ignite, and Projected Light. Here are some of the classics, with scaling options that essentially match the levels a traditional spell list would allow the effects:

These spell trees I’m using are a little broader in scope than lists, but players can pick and choose which spells they wish to purchase. For example, the Mage lists have been combined into three spell trees unified by concept: Energy Law (Fire & Light Law), Fluid Law (Air & Water Law), and Solid Law (Earth & Ice Law). Between the cost of developing ranks in the tree and purchasing spells, the cost of mastering all the spells is comparable to the traditional RM system.

None of this is particularly innovative if you are familiar with HARP, but I feel like this helps streamline the whole concept of spells. I have always felt that the RM system is a little “forced” in places and, even with the new RMU Spell Law, many (not all) of the spells that have been added to certain lists are simply fillers. Where am I going with this? In theory these trees can be expanded as needed. If you come up with a new spell, simply add it to the tree and assign it a level and cost.

I should note, that in using this system, I am also essentially “squishing” levels a bit in RMU. If you look at the spells from level 20-50, most of them are repeat versions of lower level spells: Mass, Lord, or True versions which essentially just add targets or range — this is now covered in the scaling options. Many of upper level effects I either omitted, or re-leveled down to 25th (I’m treating 25 as a new “soft” level cap, similar to the old level 50). I personally don’t feel like getting a level-50 spell like the ranger’s Dolphin Speed is a game-breaker at 25th level. Once characters hit level 25, they are pretty powerful already.

One side effect of this system is that if a character chooses to put two ranks into a tree each level, he can access higher level spells faster. However, this comes at the cost of ignoring other spell trees or areas where the character should be spending DP.

Any thoughts? I’m not sure if the explanations do the concept justice, but the more I look at the traditional layout of Spell Law some of the carryovers from the old system, the more this appeals to me.


Note: This revamped magic system also goes hand in hand with another modification I’m working on: Generalized and Specialty ranks. Characters can develop 1-2 ranks each level in a general skill set (such as Social) for a +3 bonus each rank which apply to all of the specialties with a skill, and then 1 rank each level into each specialty (Influence, Leadership, etc) for a +5 bonus. This makes characters more skilled in a general, but specializing is more cost-intensive.

More on this last concept in later posts, but I wanted to include it for the sake of seeing the direction I’m going in altering the core rules.

7 Replies to “Spell Trees – Abandoning RM Lists”

  1. I’m travelling so just took a quick glance but I think it’s very cool. I’m not familiar with HARP, so I can’t gauge how similar it is.

    However, does the number of spell “lists”/”trees” increase over RM, stay the same or does consolidation reduce them?

    –also, i think you have a link/comment to approve on one of your older posts

  2. My approach so far has been to try to combine 2 or more lists into one tree, and I try to combine lists which compliment each other thematically. For example with a Druid, my Animal Mastery tree combines:
    – 10 spells from the Animal Mastery list
    – 1 spell from Nature’s Law
    – 2 spells from Nature’s Protection
    – 6 spells from Mounted Ways

    Typically each profession gets 3 trees to start (equal to 6 lists) That being said, so far I have multiple professions with 4 or 5 trees to choose from in order to allow for build diversity. My Druid currently has 5 trees to pick from, ranging from the RM2/RMU ones, to trees made from some of the expansion material (Shapechanging and Druidstaff from RoCoI, an attack list that uses some of Hurin’s Stone Mastery spells, etc).

    Ultimately I think it does a decent job of compressing spells, dumping fillers, and tightening up things overall, but there’s still some logistics I’m trying to square away, such as should there be a cap on the number of spells/cost to each tree; for example, so far my “universal” trees, comprised of Open and Closed lists from various realms have some wildly different costs.

  3. This is super cool to see. I like the look of that screenshot for your Ranger Spell Tree. Are you making that into a web/tool of some kind?

    I couldn’t agree more that lists with fillers feel kind of bad. It’s better to give casters the options to generalize or specialize. Seems like you are handling that well.

    I’d love to here about your skill approach as well. We have homebrew’d a new skill system that uses something similar sounding. We basically have a general skill for say lore, or crafting, or athletics. Then specialization skills that “stack”. Single ranks only for the specializations per level: ex: I can have 6 ranks in general lore, but then 3 stacking ranks in demonology. In addition, the specializations make it so you can more directly access higher tiers of success (ex: in the case of demon lore, you could actually know the name of the demon you come across, but only if you specialized AND rolled success). It’s hard to explain but easy to implement.

    Back to the spell system, I’d love to hear more about it. We’re also presently rewriting the whole thing in our game to make it blend better with the world setting. Which is tricky. But fun. But time consuming. Why do we all do this to ourselves!?!

    1. The screenshot is of my the Spells tab of my character sheet for this mod, done in Google Docs. You can see that it shows the spell names with the corresponding DP costs to learn. The trees themselves I’ve been converting into a massive document from various versions of Spell Law, Rolemaster Companions, and the like, using RMU as the most recent basis for power levels. Each page has a tree with all the possible spells, as well as scaling options for each spell. Lots of work to do still, but making good progress. Only a handful of professions left to convert (plenty of “universal” lists left to do though).

      I think I understand what you’re doing with your skill system and I believe mine is similar. I think it bridges the gap between the high specialization of RM and the generic feeling of D&D from just rolling “[Skill]” for anything [skill] related. Here’s a screenshot of how I laid it out:

      The premise in this example is that you can develop generalized skill in Environment, augmented by specialized development in Navigation, Piloting, etc, similar to what you mentioned you were doing. Below that you can see I have the “Inspirational” (read Artistic) category, which is one of several categories with skills that don’t have generalized options because they are sufficiently different to warrant specialization (a sculptor might not be a good painter).

      I’d be interested to see your examples and compare notes!

  4. Eladan sorry for the delay, was busy over the holiday here.

    Your skills spreadsheet is gorgeous. Looks like you took a lot of care in building it. Are you backing all that with scripts to automate/validate things? Do you use this in place of a VTT and use it for in person games?

    As for how our skill specializations work I think it is pretty much inline with what you are doing. Our main goals were to (1) reduce the total number of “filler” skills causing players to sink dev points for no good reason, (2) allow characters, that may not have a lot of spare points to specialize, to still have a useful skill in something generic without adding “similar skills” complexity math. We only have a few of these groupings, since like you said, some skills are indeed sufficiently different to warrant a separate investment. We call those “General Skills” for lack of a better word and it includes things like Appraisal, Cookery, First Aid, Lip Reading, etc. Basically those flourishes for a player to make their character more unique if they have DP to spare.

    For the ones that do stack (i.e. specialize), it is the usual suspects: Lore, Crafting, Athletics, and Perception. Our total skill count is ~60 and of these, 19 of them are for specialization only.

    For Lore there is a General Lore skill that lets someone fill in the blanks of their common world knowledge or background with random facts they may have read or heard through study. Then specializations skills include Monsters, Demons, Unlife, Engineering, Materials, Nature, Poison, Religion, and Mystical. The DM/player can add anything they want if needed for the campaign setting. Each of these deep dive categories can only have 1 rank bought per level. The skill is added on top of the General one. Right now it gives a large upper hand to lower level players, which seems fine to us. But the cost is high enough no one can afford to take many of the special categories (except perhaps a Bard or someone really into lore/knowledge/history). Again, if the party came across a Demon in an ancient temple and everyone rolled double open ended high but only had General Lore, there is only so much they could possibly know without having N ranks in the specialization. The student of Demonology would then have a chance to know distinct powers and weaknesses of the demon (with a good enough roll).

    For Athletics (which is also a generic skill) you can then deep dive into Climbing, Swimming, Acrobatics, etc. Again, someone who is sufficiently Athletic, can climb things fine or swim well enough. But for those certain circumstance where only specific study will do (ex: diving into a rough ocean surf near a rocky cliff to get into a cave) then specialization is needed.

    The thing we haven’t fully worked out yet are detailed Tiers per general vs specialization skill. We’ve done some custom ones to see how it feels and it is tedious (for the DM) but seems to work well. We’re slowly working on solidifying the rules to make them less subjective/arbitrary.

    Note for Perception, though it is a generic skill, we actually removed ALL perception related specializations for now. We had streetwise, lie detection, etc in there but we’ve slowly been moving away from RNG rolls on such things and instead forcing the players to role play it out and the DM usually rules in favor of the character’s action. It’s more fun. I never liked skills for acting, diplomacy, etc … better to make the character work for it.

    Last thing I’ll say, is we went to roughly the same tiering system for skill costs as Peter uses in Navigator RPG. It’s much cleaner and makes more sense to have core (1/3), preferred (2/4), basic (3/5), unusual (5/7), rare (7/10), and restricted (12/15) skills per class. This all tied into our gutting of all classes in Rolemaster and making 12 core classes from scratch (with nearly 45 “ascendancies”). It was nice to fix a lot of the old RMC stuff. Like a fighter that can actually, easily, learn all the weapons they wish. What a novel concept! And we balanced the “roles” for classes such that the DP sinks are nearly balanced between various archetypes. It’s still all work in progress but has been rewarding. Can talk about that some other time … but all tied into the reasoning behind skill updates!

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  6. Well, I replied with a rather large post but it hung around for a week, unapproved by anyone, and now is gone. I very much lack the energy to regenerate it as it took a while to put together.

    Punchline is, I’d love to talk to you offline Eladan as you and I are probably doing similar things and can brainstorm, even if ultimately for two different systems.

    No clue how to “PM” someone on this blog thingy. My handle on the regular RM ICE forums (https://ironcrown.co.uk/ICEforums/) is knasman.

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