Totem Paths: The Evolution of Subclasses

Loren SmallDeep Dive, Game Dev, Game DevelopmentLeave a Comment

mammoths on a hill

When I first envisioned a world where every class could embrace any path, I knew I was onto something exciting. I wanted players to feel liberated, unrestricted by the confines of traditional subclasses. In my last blog post, I talked about designing a new class system, and alluded to this Totem Paths system. Let’s dive in and take a closer look.

Breaking the Molds: From Subclasses to Totem Paths

One of the major design points of classic 5e is that you are locked in to a play style from the moment you select a class. Each class fulfills a role, and the subclasses presented are variations on that theme.

In Born from Ice, I want to offer flexibility. Classes embrace a large theme: strength, charisma, intelligence. They provide the core of a character idea. This character is a thinking character, this one is a muscle character, this one is really good at talking to people.

But that is just one aspect of a person, and the subclass system seemed like a good place to experiment and really allow customization. Enter Totem Paths. Instead of being stuck in the mold of subclasses, Totem Paths opened up a universe of possibilities.

Embracing Flexibility

No more are you confined to the rigidity of traditional subclasses. Whether you’re a stalwart Mighty Champion or a charismatic Silver Tongue, the Cave Bear Totem Path is as much an option for you as the Otter Totem Path. It’s all about what resonates with you and how you envision your character’s evolution.

This gives players a huge amount of choices and customization, and also ensures that every class feels fresh, dynamic, and loaded with potential.

The Three Pillars: Specialization, Utility, and Focus

The core of Totem Paths revolves around three pillars that I believe are essential to character development in Born from Ice.

Rethinking Specialization

With Totem Paths, specialization isn’t just about combat or skills; it’s about embodying an ethos. For example, choosing the Mammoth Totem Path isn’t just about harnessing strength; it’s about channeling the ideal of a mammoth’s legendary endurance, becoming a beacon of resilience on the battlefield.

Each Totem Path provides a class with specialization, but it does it in a way that is connected to building character identity. This is where the term Totem Path came from.

In animism (the belief system and worldview at play in Born from Ice), a totem is more than just a symbol; it’s believed to be a spirit being, sacred object, or symbol that serves as an emblem of a group of people, such as a family, clan, lineage, or tribe. Totems resonate deeply with the idea of a guiding force or spirit, reflecting ancestral lineage and representing particular attributes or qualities. It’s this rich, spiritual backdrop that made “totem” the perfect term.

So, a Totem Path becomes a reflection of the character’s beliefs, aspirations, and innermost essence. The choice of a Totem Path isn’t merely strategic; it’s deeply personal. It symbolizes the character’s alignment with a certain ethos, making their journey more immersive and emotionally resonant.

Extra Utility

Every primary class had to solve a major issue: can this type of character have interesting things to do in all of the main 5e pillars (combat, exploration, social). Obviously each class will lean towards different aspects of those pillars more, but all classes include ways they interact with them.

The Totem Path system allows additional utility, customized through player choice. For example, a Mighty Champion player who wants more social skills might choose the Otter Totem Path. Just as otters navigate their surroundings with a mix of playfulness and cunning, this path offers players the chance to master the art of social dynamics.

Otter Totem Path
A playful and social otter

Another Mighty Champion player could choose the Aurochs Totem Path, inspired by the mighty (but sadly now extinct) bovine herds of the Stone Age. This path provides medicine and healing, allowing the Mighty Champion to exist as both a fearless warrior and a compassionate healer, capable of supporting their companions and ensuring their well-being.


If a player doesn’t want to expand utility, then they can focus. The Totem Paths were designed keeping in mind that not everyone wants to be a jack-of-all-trades. Some players want to hone a particular set of skills, to be the best at a specific thing.

Looking again at a Mighty Champion player, they might want to double down on their combat ability. In that case, one option would be to choose the Cave Bear Totem Path, gaining additional combat skills and features. This choice aligns with the ferocity and might of the Cave Bear, allowing the player to dominate the battlefield, becoming an unstoppable force that enemies fear and allies rally behind.

Alternatively, a player might choose the Wolf Totem Path, focusing on combat prowess and form a deeper bond with nature simultaneously. This path isn’t just about harnessing the power of the wolf; it’s about fostering a profound bond with an animal companion who fights alongside you.

Evolving Class Synergies

Born from Ice is about evolution of 5e gameplay, reimagining what a class and subclass can be to offer fresh perspectives on beloved archetypes.

A Fresh Coat of Ice

While building a character will feel very familiar to anyone who has played 5e, the interaction between Classes with Totem Paths makes it feel brand new. It’s like meeting an old friend who’s been on a transformative journey, familiar yet full of new stories.

With the freedom to pair any class with any Totem Path, the gameplay possibilities are exponentially vast. Imagine a Silver Tongue with the Mammoth Totem Path—a charismatic leader with incredible resilience. The combinations can be as strategic, bizarre, or lore-rich as you want them to be!

Unified Progression: Growing Together

The key to making this all work was unified progression of all classes. In core 5e, different class features and subclass functionality come online as characters reach different levels. In Born from Ice, all classes share a common unified progression.

What does this mean? It means that all characters, no matter their class, choose Totem Path features at levels 3, 6, 10, and 14. This allows every Totem Path to be built knowing that functions will begin at certain points for a character choosing to use it, and so power and functionality can be reasonably balanced.

Balance, Unintended Interactions, and Game Breaking Combos

Since there are so many potential combos, it is possible there are some unintended issues in the current iteration. We have been internally playtesting the game already and have squashed some bugs, and there will also be a public playtest phase where the systems can be really poked and prodded.

Conclusion: Embracing the New Era with “Born from Ice”

Creating Totem Paths was a labor of love, passion, and countless hours of brainstorming. It is an attempt to bring fresh air to the 5e world, to give players a sense of freedom and endless possibilities. With Totem Paths, the game offers a fresh, flexible, and deep approach to character customization, making every decision, every battle, and every interaction a unique story waiting to be told.

I can’t wait for you to see it and have your chance to adventure in the Stone Age.