Designing New Classes for Born from Ice

Loren SmallDeep Dive, Game DevelopmentLeave a Comment

prehistoric man dressed in furs

Creating a new 5e game without magic created some major hurdles. The first major hurdle is that classic D&D is entirely tied to the magic systems, and all of the classes are built around magic as a core of the game. To that end, it became clear very early on that Born from Ice needed entirely new classes that could stand on their own. Since so much of gameplay comes from the player characters, designing new classes for the game became a top priority.

Designing to Fit the Setting

The Born from Ice setting is a prehistoric realm, devoid of arcane magics but rich in raw power and primal energy. Any class designed for this world needs to fit organically with the setting, both in storytelling and in game mechanics.

Fitting the theme of the setting is the easier task. D&D does this well. It offers high level concepts like Wizard, Paladin, Rogue. From the names you get a sense of the type of character, what they bring to the table, and probably how they fit into the world. They all have a unique roll and bring something unique to an adventuring party. They all craft the story of the setting; obviously, a place with wizards and paladins and rogues is magical and full of mystical adventures, places of shadow and dark dealings, and evil that needs to be smitten.

D&D also uses game mechanics to build setting and story. A Wizard character has guidelines for tons of evocative spells, Rogues have special rules for making sneak attacks and special options that let them be better at nefarious deeds, and Paladins get holy powers to vanquish their foes and help their friends. As you build a character, you begin to envision the world that character lives in and what sort of adventures they will have.

Born from Ice is a different setting, but it needs to accomplish that same class connection to the world. This is more difficult than just designing a new magical 5e subclass, because I’ve chosen to step away from the magic. That means re-envisioning what a class can do. Here are just some of the things I had to consider:

  • A class in Born from Ice has no magic, so in combat what makes each class unique in a battle? If everyone is just swinging a club, combat will get boring.
  • Without magic, what big effects can happen in combat? In typical D&D, a big fireball can change the tide. Is there a way for classes to still have big cool things they can do?
  • In D&D, there is a lot of discussion about the power divide between martial and caster classes, which basically means people consider magic classes much more powerful and providing more utility than the martial classes. Without magic, what happens to a class built around the ability to hit hard? Is it much more broadly useful than it was when magic could eclipse it?
  • In that same vein, what about players who want to play a class that isn’t just about swinging a weapon really good? How do they fit in?

Let me use the new Mighty Champion class (one of the six new classes in Born from Ice) to demonstrate how I approach some of these design challenges for the game.

Designing New Classes: The Mighty Champion

The first class I wanted to design was for a character type who embodies the strength and the resilience of early humans. It isn’t merely about brute strength but about endurance, resilience, and the relentless spirit to survive. This isn’t just a class; it has to inspire players and contribute to the storytelling of the setting.

Carving Out Uniqueness

It was essential that the Mighty Champion (and all classes) had a unique voice within the game. The first way that I found this was to use the Primary Attributes (Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma) as the basis for the new classes. This met a few design goals:

  • First, it meant that each class would fill a different roll, since they each would at their core be focused on a different ability. This would provide players with an option right up front to think about how they want to engage with the game world.
  • It provided specific focus for the class. I could ignore ideas that didn’t harken back to that core idea.
  • It made me analyze the 5e Primary Attributes, which are truly the core engine of 5e, and really understand how they fit within my very different setting. This helped me make sure the 5e engine was actually worth developing for or if I needed a different game engine.

Once I knew this would work, I set about thinking of what type of character would be defined by the concept of “Strong”. These are some bullets I came up with:

  • A skilled warrior who uses a massive club to crush opponents in close combat
  • A fearless hunter who risks their life to bring down dangerous predators
  • A laborer who can move large objects with ease and can build sturdy structures with their bare hands
  • A strong-willed leader who rallies their tribe with their sheer force of personality
  • A skilled climber who can scale steep cliffs with ease, searching for prey or avoiding danger

These ideas covered combat, but also a lot more. All the pillars of 5e play are covered in that list: combat, exploration, social.

Class Feature Design

Now that I knew the class I was working on would fit the setting, I had to look at mechanics. Much of 5e mechanics revolve around combat, as much of the social and exploration pillars are often left to Ability Checks. A core goal for me in building this game is for exploration and survival to be a bit more a focused element, so I wanted to make sure I represented that more in my class designs, and I of course want to make sure combat will still work well.

I began by looking at what worked well in existing 5e classes and feats. Working with a Strength character, there are a lot of good mechanics already in the game. The Mighty Champion class makes use of a lot of these ideas.

  • They gain extra attacks, like a 5e Fighter.
  • I loved a lot of elements of the Barbarian class, so features like Reckless Attack show up.
  • They are Strength based so they get abilities that allow them to do more damage with their weapon attacks, or hit so hard they shove an enemy.
  • They also get abilities that just let them do Strength stuff better; there are abilities that provide Advantage on Strength based checks, or gain the ability to carry more and break things more easily.

Breathing Life Beyond Combat: Totem Paths

A class is not just about battles and abilities. While designing new classes, I envisioned the Mighty Champion not just as a warrior but as a leader, a protector, a beacon of hope. To accomplish that, I realized that classes in Born from Ice needed to be more modular to fit into the style of play that someone wanted. So, instead of designing subclasses for each class, I made sure that all classes had the same progression (getting specific benefits at certain character levels), and created Totem Paths.

Totem Paths are basically subclasses, but they can be used with any class. This means you can add utility to your character as you see fit. Some players will want the most powerful warrior, and can choose Totem Path options that enhance the combat power of the Mighty Champion in ways that may seem familar. For instance, the Cave Bear Totem Path is similar to a 5e Barbarian, allowing for rage to enhance combat. Or the Cave Lion Totem Path presents fighting styles that allow for precise combat control.

But other players may want to take their character in a different direction. An Eagle Totem Path choice can make your Mighty Champion specialize in ranged weapons. A Fox Totem Path choice provides stealth skills. Or the Otter Totem Path could provide extra social interactions and skills.

For min-maxers, there are lots of options to build a powerhouse character, and for role-players, there is a ton of utility that can be built into any character.

I’ll talk about Totem Paths more in a future article.


Creating the Mighty Champion (and all the other new character options) was not just about designing new classes; it was about capturing the spirit of Born from Ice. Making this game is about crafting a setting that is both fresh and familiar, ensuring that the essence of 5e remains intact for easy familiarity and play while introducing new thematic layers. The Mighty Champion, in all its rugged glory, encapsulates the spirit of early humanity—endurance, determination, and the raw tenacity to survive against the odds. Through the lens of the Mighty Champion (and the other character classes in the game), Born from Ice hopefully becomes not just a game, but a small window into another time, a reflection of human resilience and imagination.