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Fantasy Heartbreaker Retrospective Part 3 – Mage & Priest Classes

Let’s talk Classes. This is a breakdown of my design and process for coming up with the classes for Myth & Malice, my fantasy heartbreaker RPG I designed some time ago now. This is part 3, find part 2 here and part 1 here. I have posted a discussion thread on this topic, on the r/RPGDesign subreddit like last time. Onwards!

Classes

The classes were where I began with Myth & Malice. I was frustrated with the spell caster classes I was playing/running in my games and felt I wanted to provide players with more control over the magic they cast. Enter; The Mage, (AKA the Arcane Magic User originally) my first foray into RPG design, a custom class for Lamentations of the Flame Princess.

Dug up from the archives, this is the original hack I wrote for Lamentations.

The Mage

The core concept behind the Mage is a character who doesn’t cast pre-defined “spells” from a book, but instead can construct their own unique spells by combining different predefined components. I settled on a system that asks a player to pick from a base set of elements to define a spell’s overall theme, and a selection of effects to define its general function, then leave the rest up to player and GM fiat.

The idea here is to provide just enough rules and structure as to produce “balanced” or at least consistent spell power levels, while leaving enough space for creativity and imaginative problems solving.

The incarnation of the Mage in Myth & Malice is a refined and attempted “simplification” of the original Arcane Magic User class. The class’s core mechanic remains the same, and uses a pool of dice, the size and composition of which is dependent of level. Called Power dice, these are the class’s “spells per day” equivalent. Each dice represents a spell the Mage can cast, with bigger dice representing more powerful potential spells.  The mechanic is fairly simple, though requires a few steps;

  1. Pick a dice
  2. Pick one or more Aspects
  3. Pick one or more Forms
  4. Roll equal or over the number of Aspects + Forms

If the roll succeeds, the spell works and the player describes the effect. If the roll fails, nothing happens, and the player keeps the dice. The “Effect” can be mostly anything the player wishes, so long as no direct mechanical benefit is gained. However, if the player wants a mechanical benefit, the value of the mechanical benefit is determined by the size of dice they used to make the roll.

Already, re-reading what is laid out in Myth & Malice, this isn’t very clear. Instead of breaking down these steps clearly, the rules are spread about through the various paragraphs, interspersed with “fluffy” description. Also, I refer to a spell “Difficulty” which is effectively the number of Aspects plus the number of Forms in the spell. This is certainly a hold over from a time when the Forms had different costs, something that should have been caught in an edit.

Now that I hope you have a decent grasp of the concept, let’s talk about its execution

The Mage Breakdown

My aim with these mechanics was to make the “power level” of a spell determined roughly by the dice the player chooses to use to cast it. Thus, my conceit was that the more complex a spell was (that being the more things it was doing) the more powerful the spell was. So, I set about deconstructing what a spell could do into a series of components for players to recombine later.

Inspired by Ben Milton’s Maze Rats, I split spells into the two core components; Aspects (A spell’s overall theme) and Forms (A spell’s purpose or effect). Aspects determine what kind of effect a Form might have based on common sense or GM/Player fiat.  I.E., a spell with the Fire Aspect will burn things, a spell with the Light Aspect will provide illumination. If the meaning isn’t 100% clear, that comes under fiat, a part of the OSR playstyle the Myth & Malice system already leans into.

Forms were a little more difficult to design. I tried the make my list is as exhaustive as possible, while remaining fairly short. I’m fairly happy with the result, but I understand that I’m inherently adding soft limits to my spells providing a defined list, a conceit I was willing to make for the sake of simplicity.

This is probably the only area of the game where I actually considered probabilities. Something which I very likely should have done for other areas. My goal with the spells was for a “reasonable” spell at each power dice size should have a ~75% chance of success. I think I just about achieved this. The below table shows the probabilities of 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6 components (that’s Aspects and Forms) added to a single spell, and rolled using each of the power dice sizes.

% Success 4 6 8 10 12
2 75% 83% 88% 90% 92%
3 50% 67% 75% 80% 83%
4 25% 50% 63% 70% 75%
5 0% 33% 50% 60% 67%
6 0% 17% 38% 50% 58%

Deciding how many power dice a Mage gets at each level was a little trickier however. To do this I initially used the LotFP’s magic user spells per day and D&D 5e’s Wizard/Sorcerer as guides but the results were not received well during playtesting. Players simply felt they had too few spells, and wanted more to do. This is why Mages don’t lose Power dice unless the spell succeeds, and why the number of d4 Power dice a Mage can use are unlimited. Both of these changes I’m not happy with now I’m looking back. I think I too easily caved to my players’ demands. I should have stuck with my initial design decisions and simply tweaked the numbers until it felt fair. Outright changing mechanics as I did destabilised other elements of the game too much in the end, and the Mage began to feel too powerful in my later playtests.

Deciding on the lists of Aspects was fairly straightforward. The classic 10 elements seen in most D&D-esk Fantasy works well and I liked the symmetry they provided. Looking back, the extended table of Secondary Aspects by combining Aspects is probably fairly redundant. Most GMs would probably be happy to rule these themselves.  As presented, the table takes up a lot of space and probably overwhelms an already confused new player even further. On the point of redundant information, the referenced Clash tables here do exist, and were intended to be in the GMs guidelines I so often refer to. In truth however, they never came up during play, so I’ve no idea if they were any good.

The list of Forms was produced using a bit more of a scattergun approach. I stole a load of words I liked from the aforementioned Maze Rats tables, before refining them again and again based on existing D&D spells, trying to isolate core themes like “Transport” and “Harm”.

My goal was to provide a fairly comprehensive list, so that players were able to make a vast array of spells. In many ways I think having a defined list actually encourages more inventive spells, as I’ve heard it said before that creativity can be stoked by limitations.

Ideally I also wanted a bit of overlap between the Form’s functions, as I wanted players to be able to create the same effect with different combinations of Aspects and Forms. An example may be a flight spell;

One way of producing it could be Air + Transport, which could move a person with air, perhaps with a gust of wind. Alternatively, Insects + Bind could have a character grow bug wings and use them to fly. Both produce the same end result mechanically, but the in fiction context may make one favourable over the other.

The final table for this class is the Form Mechanics. The intent behind this part of the design is to provide another limitation on spell power. By aligning the Power dice size to the actual numbers of a mechanic, the idea was that effectiveness of a spell is reigned in. While it doesn’t ensure players cannot exploit these loose rules to produce “overpowered” abilities, it does force them to be more inventive.

Overall, I think my solution is still too clunky. There are too many tables a player must consult to produce a spell, the Form Mechanics feel fairly arbitrary and also too specific compared to the rest of the system. 20 Forms seems like too many. I think fewer, with more overlap is potentially more easier for players to digest, and could create more instances of players producing similar spells with different fictional positions.

The Mage Playtesting

I ran a few playtests with the Mage class in a couple of dungeon crawls and a wilderness exploration. I received positive feedback overall for this class (more than the others), and people very much liked the freedom of creating their own spells.

What I found was that people approached the ability in a couple different ways. Some wrote down a list of spells themselves beforehand, and others just made things up on the fly. I hadn’t initially thought players would create spells in advance, but it ended up working just as well, but gave more of a traditional D&D wizard feel to the class. The first playtest quickly found that the number of spells was far too low, this was an iteration that started with 2 d4 spells and 1 d6. In the second playtest I increased the number of spells, and had them only expire upon a filed roll but found people still felt like they had too few spells.

Having spells only expire of a successful casting has its problems however. It meant that there was basically no downside to simply re-trying the spell. Something I did not try was to use the “Clash Tables” hinted at in the text. If I rolled on this table on a failed spell casting, it would provide more gravitas to a player’s decision to cast them, and potentially solve the issue.

I settled on an infinite number of d4s but I’m not certain that was the correct call. Giving the class such a powerful ability makes balancing the other classes to feel as powerful difficult, if not nigh impossible, something which we will cover when we see the Warrior and Adept classes.

The Priest

Next let’s look the priest, I’ll do these in the order they were designed for the sake of chronology.
If it’s not already clear, my approach to class design is to provide each one with its own “core mechanic” that defines the class’s special ability, unique to it. For the Mage, that was the Power dice system. For the Priest, we have Favour dice.

This class was largely inspired by Mystics from Logan Knight’s blog Last Gasp Grimoire. In contrast to Logan’s class, I didn’t want the Priest to require a separate playbook that defined their abilities, unique to each religion. Instead, I lifted the core concept from the Mage, of constructing unique spells from a series of components.

However, the difference is where the restrictions on the spells lie. Mages run out of spells as their Power dice are used. The Mystic by contrast can cast any number of Prayers, and is limited instead by how favourable their God views them, and their Religion’s themes.
At least that’s the idea.

The Priest Breakdown

Instead of a player constructing spells from well defined Aspects and Forms, the player is a devout follower of a certain deity. This Deity has a collection of core beliefs or “Principles”. These work in much the same way as Aspects, but are intended to be more specific to the Character’s religion. In place of Forms, we have Invocations, similar but with a more “miracle” like flavour. Also, in theory any Priest can use any Invocation at Level 1 (however practically, that’s not possible).
In terms of actual mechanisms, casting works totally differently. Priests have a pool of dice, the number of dice is determined by level, and the size of all the dice (from d4 to d12) is dynamic, and has a maximum again determined by level. The “dynamic” element comes from the ability to lose and gain “Faith” through play. “Faith” is the in-game term for the size of dice with which the player rolls. By performing priestly duties, and witnessing holy events, the Priest increases their Faith, and can cast more powerful miracles. However, by witnessing their Deity misunderstand them, or perhaps neglecting their religious duties, this power decreases.

Again… At least that’s the idea…

The intent of Faith is two fold:

Firstly it is to provide another alternative to the “Spells per day” Vancian magic system from traditional D&D. The Priest can make any number of Prayers per day, the limit instead is how much they are willing to risk, and how well they can convince the GM that what they want is in the interests of their religion.

Effectively, when a Priest prays, they choose a Principle and an Invocation like a Mage would choose an Aspect and a Form, and come up with their desired effect. Then, they roll all the dice from their Prayer Pool and count the number of dice that roll equal or over the Target (determined by the Invocation), and tell the GM. Depending on how well aligned with the Characters religion the GM rules the request to be, the Prayer may succeed or fail.

By having better Faith, the Priest is rolling bigger dice, and is therefore more likely to succeed a Prayer Roll, and may try asking for something less aligned to their Religious beliefs. However, as Faith dwindles, the prayers become less and less likely to work, thus the player is reluctant to ask for things outside their religion’s direct desires for fear of rejection.

The second intention was, to give the GM an interesting way of framing failed Priest Prayers, as either their Deity misunderstanding them, or simply snubbing them. This brings the Character of Gods into the forefront much more directly than in usual play. I intended to make “Misunderstandings” much more thematic that is demonstrated in the rules. Again, inspired by the Mystic class from Logan Knight, a misunderstood prayer could be horrific and hilarious; such as a snake god causing their Messiah to vomit forth several snakes instead of spitting venom.

I wanted this to encourage a certain way of roleplaying. I wanted to make the Priest feel more like a religious character, pining for their deity’s attention, but fearful of the repercussions of upsetting them.

In actuality, the priest felt thematic, but as a result of the Prayers, not because of the mechanics I’d built around it. As I discovered when playtesting…

The Priest Playtesting

I did a fair amount of playtesting of this class, more than the others. I had the same 3 Playtests involving the Mage, in addition to a character in an on-going campaign running the class before I moved to a different system. In all cases, the results were the same. Thematically, they were adored. Players loved how much they were embodying the religion, and creating spells was enjoyable and often hilarious. However, the actual mechanic was often misunderstood, or felt disconnected from the fiction.

I created a few religions for the class myself, outlined in the rules. I wanted them to be used as templates, as I think the class is most effectively used when the GM has a good idea in their own heads how the Deity behaves and what it represents. That way, coming up with fun misunderstandings or required religious rituals is easy to improvise. However, any guidance on how to GM the Priest isn’t covered in the rules as is which is a problem.

A Failure of Execution

Re-reading my design notes, and what I put into the actual ruleset now, I can’t help but feel like I pretty heavily missed the mark with this class. The idea behind it, of a very thematic character based almost exclusively on their religious beliefs still excites me. However, I do not think what is presented in the rules comes close enough to evoking the feeling I wanted.

Let’s break down where I think I went wrong, and what I could do to improve it.

  • The Mechanic

It’s needlessly complicated, and unlike any other part of the game. I should unify this with the other mechanics in the game, and make it more robust. Currently, Prayers feel too similar to Mage Spells, and are in some ways far more limiting, with little benefit compared to them. (Especially since Mages get infinite d4 power spells now.)

  • “Misunderstandings” need to be more explicit

I think these are key to making the class feel different. If I let the Prayers be more powerful, and make misunderstanding a more interesting and enjoyable risk-reward system, Players have a tougher choice as to what prayers they may ask for.

  • Gaining and Losing Faith

This needs a rework and a rethink. Currently at low levels it doesn’t have much of an effect in play. Heck at levels 1 & 2 it’s literally pointless. Faith needs to have harsher consequences for losing it, and better definitions about regaining it.

  • The Religions

I loved the ones I came up with. However, that’s not terribly useful for other GMs. I’ve already said that to most effectively use the Priest, a GM needs to have a good “headcanon” about the Religion of their Priest Player(s). Thus, they should really create their own unless they get really inspired by my own. I should make this clear, and create better defined rules around their creation. (More tables, etc.)

To be continued…

Wow! Ok, I had a LOT more to say about these classes than I thought. Hopefully this breakdown was insightful.

As always, please do tell me what you think, discuss this on Reddit, in the comments below, or just think about it a bunch.

Last time again had a great discussion on Reddit, so do check that out if you haven’t already.

Next time, we shall continue to clamber through the Classes, and have a final thoughts summary on their interactions!!

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