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?

Spell Law Deconstruction: Base Lists

RM Spellcaster Professions are defined by 2 game design factors: skill costs and base list. Skill costs are only significant for levels 1-8th (due to declining rank bonuses and professional rank bonsues), while Base Lists have since taken on a disproportionate share of Profession identity and ability.

I have two issues with Base Lists: the “forced-learned” aspect and the “all-profession” trend that started with the Rolemaster Companions. (further explanations forthcoming..)

First lets consider the “force-learned” angle of Base Lists. It’s argued that Professions, and their associated skill costs, model aptitudes of learning. While I don’t particular buy that argument, I at least understand it. But how does one’s aptitudes apply to spell lists? Isn’t any education/learning dictated by what’s available to learn? Whether that’s through books, tutors, mentorship, institutions or guilds, education (skills) should be driven by availability and access. So yes, I can see that a character may have an aptitude for spell casting in general, and even maybe an aptitude for a specific spell realm, but I can’t get my head around the idea that by merely selecting a Profession then mandates a specific set of 6 spells lists they are inclined to learn. Of course the larger argument is that game design requires that a Profession template drives skills and spells, and in return skills and spells reinforce the template. A virtuous loop.

My second issue with Base lists is the “all-profession” trend that I feel has crept into the design process. What do I mean by that? It feels that new Base list builds are driven by the desire to balance all aspects of the character–regardless of traditional non/pure/semi trade-offs. In other words, many newer spellcasters have a mixture of offense, defense and utility spells that make the Profession independent of group balance-they basically have no “flaws” or shortcomings! Starting in RMC I, this idea has been wholly adopted without a second thought. What are some examples:

  • The inclusion of a “Self-Healing” spell list. What’s better than not having to rely on a Healer, Cleric or Lay Healer!
  • The addition of a elemental spell list with major attack spells. Everyone wants at least one directed spell or AoE elemental spell.
  • Use of spell lists and spells that just give significant bonuses to skills or actions. Instantaneous spells that give +25 to the next melee attack? Very nice.
  • “Potpourri” spell lists that are a grab bag of the most useful or effective spells in category spell lists. Why bother with 2, 3, or even 4 Open or Closed lists when all the best spells are distilled into a single Base list!

I think there are many reasons for this:

  1. “Power Creep”. Many new classes were designed to improve upon original RM professions that were deemed too weak or game ineffective.
  2. Blank slots. If you have older spell lists with lots of empty slots it makes sense to fill them in. Making new spells is NOT that easy–so it’s a quick solution to just drop in spells that replace core skills OR spell abilities that flesh out the profession.
  3. “Balance”. For some, each Profession should be internally balanced: have a mixture of skills, abilities, combat effectiveness and defensive capabilities that make them balanced.

Rolemaster already allows Professions to build non-core abilities, at a cost, through the skill system. My concern is that there is an easier path to just build Base lists that replicate expensive skills or abilities without the associated costs or skill ranks.

In the end, a lot will come down to the GM’s perceptions on “balance”, but when reviewing new Profession base lists let’s ask ourselves if the Base Lists are supporting the Profession theme, filling in the traditional weaknesses of a given class or just making an “uber class”.