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Dev Diary #2: Designing Subclasses

Hello again from Istanbul! This is our second dev diary, and it will be about creating subclasses for a published 5e setting.

I’m pretty sure that like every D&D player or dungeon master, you get excited about new subclasses introduced in new materials such as Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything or follow the news about Unearthed Arcana now and then. Some of us have even ventured through the depths of forums to find cool homebrew subclasses to meet our imaginations about a new character.

Most of the setting guides come with their own subclasses, and any title Historica Arcanum is no exception. If you had the chance to take a peek at The City of Crescent, we have many subclass options based on the history and culture of Istanbul, for almost every class. Our second project will also introduce many new subclasses (we are even considering a ranger subclass this time, shocking right?).

So, how are we doing it, and what tips can we give out for creating a well balanced and inspiring subclass to create for your sourcebook?

How Do We Do It: From History to Fantasy

Historica Arcanum is an alternate history title: as any Assassin’s Creed game needs its hidden blade, every Historica Arcanum title needs its own touch on player characters.

In order to fit the timeline and feel as if you are part of that era within the mechanics of the game and not just with the narrative, the Janissaries needed their Ottoman Slap, or they wouldn’t be the Janissaries we remember from history.

For a game that is set in the 13th century Silk Road, we were inspired by historical military organizations such as the steppe warriors of the Mongolian Horde, religious aspects such as Shamanism and Ancestor Worship, merchants of the trade routes, and stories of the archaic times such as One Thousand and One Nights and more. The idea for Druid’s Circle of the Eternal Sky came from the ancient shamans of Tengriism, and we get the concept for the Masked Warrior from the Cuman warriors and their dreadful masks.

Other than playing in a historical setting, we also aim that these options would be playable for any games, rather than just Historica Arcanum specific. Janissaries could easily be an organized military corps in a fantasy setting or a Stargazer Wizard could serve as an aspect for an order of wizards. And most certainly, a young woman who’s a paladin in a D&D setting may have seen enough of this world and she can vow to never speak again, thus making her an Oath of Silence Paladin.

D&D Aspect: Balancing it out

History has many treasures up its sleeve, and as a historian by education, it was kind of my job to dwell in the deep to find them. However, most of the time I’m writing subclasses, I wear my game designer hat, not the historian one.

As D&D has many subclass options for the existing classes, balance is an important issue. Even the official ones have a hard time doing it (I’m pointing at you Hexblade Warlock!), so third-party developers may have a harder time doing so.

Our first aim is to make them fun. Basic, plain additions to spells or advantages in attack rolls or ability checks wouldn’t cut it. It must be distinct from other subclasses and reflect what this subclass is about. For example, a Masked Warrior should reflect the terror they unleash in the game, as they have done so in history.

Two Tricks to Balance

For balancing, we have two very specific tricks. First is the boring one: test it out, countless times. Get a dice set, a map, a set of minis, and run encounters, at different levels. Even better, ask your friends who do not know of this subclass to run them - so it is unbiased. We are going down this route for a reason. Relying purely on maths will fail to reflect the feeling of the subclass on the table, and may make you miss out potential game breaking combos.

The second trick is easy to implement. Just take a look at all the other official and other official feeling 3rd party archetypes for the class. Now, the goal is to make sure that this subclass is not the “go-to choice” for the class and overshadow the existing ones. Push the subclass’s stats up, and stop just below before it becomes the most powerful one of the bunch.

Finishing Up, what else are we working on?

I always felt like long roads have been a major problem in home campaigns. So, we are designing a whole new system, Overhauled Land Travel. And to populate the open world of this type of land travel, we also have another card up our sleeve. Well, around a couple hundred cards: Decks of cards for all the journeys!

These will resemble event cards from most board games and will represent the random events & encounters in game sessions. The cards will also serve as hooks for the storylines or optional quests, leading you into major side content, should you pull the right card! You can address the cards for ideas, inspiration, monsters, new NPCs, and more. The cards will be divided by geographical areas: such as mountains, deserts, urban areas and farmlands.

(Some WIP card designs)

That’s it for these two weeks folks! Stay tuned for more news about the Silk Road in upcoming weeks!

- Onur "Card" Kart


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James Shipley
James Shipley

Is there any chance you can do "Designing Professions"?


Péter Bokor
Péter Bokor

This not to-be-the-obvious choice technique for a new subclass sounds pretty right. Good to read it!

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