Sponsored By

Deep Dive: Designing a new dwarf race in The Last Spell

Introducing a new race in Dwarves of Runenberg meant paying careful attention to balance and putting weight in community feedback.

Robin Fau

June 27, 2024

10 Min Read
Image via DANGEN Entertainment.

Game Developer Deep Dives are an ongoing series with the goal of shedding light on specific design, art, or technical features within a video game in order to show how seemingly simple, fundamental design decisions aren’t really that simple at all.

Earlier installments cover topics such as how Techland centered player feedback in the development of Dying Light 2, how the developers of Insurgency created the architecture for console crossplay, and how League of Geeks created a complex asynchronous multiplayer in Solium Infernum.

In this edition, Ishtar Games lead designer Robin Fau outlines the challenges in introducing a new race into their tactical roguelite RPG, The Last Spell.

Hello, I’m Robin Fau, lead game designer for Ishtar Games.

The Last Spell is a tactical RPG with roguelite elements. In The Last Spell, the player defends the last bastion of humanity with a squad of heroes. Players fight to exterminate an overwhelming number of fiendish monsters with magic and brute force by night while also rebuilding their battered city defenses by day.

The Last Spell was first released in Early Access in 2021, and following months of implementing community feedback and growing the game, we released the V1 version in 2023. During the process of thinking about the content for the next DLC, Dwarves of Runenberg, which we released in 2024, we decided to integrate a brand new Game Design brick: a race system. An important point to begin: in The Last Spell, what we call a "race system" here concerns a character class mechanism, separate from the narrative implications that character races can have in fantasy games. Our deep dive is focused on gameplay and game mechanics.

Setting up and creating a new race in The Last Spell is a complex process that requires harmonious integration with existing systems, while bringing in elements of novelty and excitement. The goal is to ensure that each new race brings a unique and interesting gaming experience, while respecting the game's initial balancing. In this article, we'll take a step-by-step look at how we integrated this new system.


When you start creating a new gameplay aspect for existing content that wasn't originally designed to be modified, you need to answer a number of questions:

  • What is the current state of the game and what are our levers for action?

  • How can we create a malleable, iterative and sustainable system?

  • How can we weave the myths and clichés of a heroic fantasy race within The Last Spell gameplay?

  • How can we offer a new aspect of gameplay, without unbalancing everything else?


Step 1: Imagining the new race system

How did heroes work before the DLC?

In The Last Spell, heroes are mainly defined by 2 systems: Traits and Perks. These elements are essential for customization and gameplay orientation.

Traits act as statistics that give a hero a specific history and role, slightly orienting their build. They allow you to differentiate each character from the outset by assigning them unique characteristics.

Perks are powerful gameplay elements, the most exciting feature in character customization. They are chosen as you level up and allow you to customize your hero's build significantly. Perks offer passive advantages that can radically change the way a hero is played. There are eight perk collections available per hero:

  • Three fixed Archetype collections: Warrior, Archer, Mage.

  • Two Specialization Perk collections, chosen randomly from a pool of 4: Engineer, Plague, Hexer, Assassin.

  • Three miscellaneous collections, which select Perks from a pool.

How can we embed the Dwarf Race into this system?

We, therefore, have access to two powerful tools for customizing a hero. The first is changing attributes. By modifying them, we can better reflect the gameplay utility of the race. If we have a race with fewer hit points and a lot of dodging, we can easily project ourselves onto a nimble but frail race. However, certain Traits should be excluded for certain races, to avoid imbalances. For example, if a race has few health points via its attributes in conjunction with Traits that further reduce maximum health, you're going to have a major balancing problem.

For Perks, we decided on a collection based on the same principle as weapon collections (a collection of ten Perks, two Perks per tier), which will replace the "Miscellaneous" collection. The creative line of Perks should reinforce the unique identity of this race.

However, a change of attributes doesn't offer a distinctive enough gameplay right from the start. That's why we're introducing an additional race-exclusive element: the racial Perk.

Racial Perk

The racial Perk is designed to offer a unique gameplay experience right from the start. A hero of one race should feel and play differently from a hero of another race. This Perk, available from the outset, brings a significant modification to gameplay that reflects the fundamental characteristics of the race. As a result, the player must immediately understand and adapt to the specifics of the chosen race. The racial Perk is the key to differentiating each race and offering varied gameplay strategies.

What defines a race in The Last Spell?

A new race in The Last Spell is defined by several elements:

  • Race-specific starting stats: these stats give initial direction to the gameplay.

  • A racial Perk: this unique Perk fundamentally changes the way the hero is played.

  • A new collection of Perks: these Perks are designed to reinforce racial identity and offer rich and varied customization options.

Humans: before embarking on the creation of new races, it's important to consider the race that’s already present in the game: the Humans. Although character customization allows for many variations, the basic characters are Humans. After careful consideration, we've decided to leave Humans unchanged so as not to disrupt player habits and to maintain a solid base for balancing. Humans serve as a stable reference for the introduction and balancing of new races.

Step 2: Designing a race in The Last Spell

Imagining a race

To illustrate our process, let's look at the creation of the Dwarves of Runenberg.

The Dwarves of Runenberg are designed around five keywords: Robust, Brutish, Festive, Group, Slow.

These keywords guide the entire creation of their characteristics and gameplay. Once we've defined our guiding principles, all we have to do is transfer them to our race system:

Starting statistics: Dwarves have fewer movement points but more defense, reflecting their robustness and endurance. This also echoes the "Dwarf Blood" Trait that was already in the game, reinforcing their unique identity.

Racial Perk: "Toss Me" - inspired by an iconic scene from The Lord of the Rings, this spell allows a nearby ally to throw a Dwarf, bypassing their natural slowness. This unique mechanic requires a nearby ally to activate, adding a new strategic dimension. "Toss Me" replaces the "Leap Frog" spell, an important skill (and highly appreciated by the community) for controlling your position on the battlefield.

Perk Collection: the Dwarves' Perk collection fully expresses their characteristics:

  • "Jolly Drinker" counterbalances their slowness with a festive aspect, reinforcing their stamina.

  • "Look At My Muscles" emphasizes their gruffness, enhancing their brute strength.

  • "Warcry" and "Heart of the Party" emphasize the race’s robustness and togetherness, offering buffs to all allies.

The Last Spell Perk Screen

These Perks have been designed to integrate seamlessly with Dwarf gameplay and offer unique customization options. But that's not all: care must be taken to ensure they also integrate with all other non-racial Perk collections without favoring one Perk collection over another when generating the character. For example, we avoided having a Perk collection that focuses too much on poison and ends up having too strong a synergy with the existing poison collection, pushing the race to perform only with the available poison collection. It's all part of the bigger picture of balancing.


Introducing a new race is a real challenge. One of the main ones is to ensure that the new race is balanced with the other races and does not create major imbalances in gameplay. To achieve this, we extensively tested the Dwarves in different game configurations, adjusting their stats and Perks as necessary.

The Last Spell can be broken down into several configurations or phases during a game. For example, there's the beginning of the game, the middle and the end. You don't want a hero to be too strong at the start of the game, nor do you want them to be too weak at the end. Scaling is an important part of a hero's progress in the game. Then there's another configuration element to consider: scenarios where the player has one hero located all alone on one side of the Haven to individually defend against a wave of enemies, while having their other heroes far away on another side of the base defending against a different mob. This is where the perks that boost other heroes come into play, as well as a hero's mobility, etc. Last but not least, there's defense near/in the Haven and defense outside of the Haven. These configurations are not mutually exclusive, so you'll need to test each case several times, and with different hero setups... but it's impossible to cover every possible case. We also have to rely on the data we have on our spreadsheets, which are very precise, to get an overall idea of our balancing.

We also took feedback from the community into account to fine-tune details and ensure that the race is both fun to play and competitive. The exercise is made all the more difficult by the integration of previously unknown mechanics. For example, "Warcry" and "Heart of the Party" are Auras, which are Perks that influence all Heroes on the map, not just the Perk holder. So far, there was no such mechanic, and it's a Perk that's cumulative and affects all the heroes on the map. We need to find a good middle ground. It's a fine balance, because you can quickly go from useless Perk to far too strong a Perk. This is where the testing and iteration phase comes in.

Iterating and testing

Every change made to stats or Perks is carefully evaluated for its impact on gameplay. We have used combat simulations and in-game tests to observe how Dwarves behave in relation to other races. These tests have enabled us to identify potential imbalances and correct them before release. However, you have to remain humble with your work and be open to criticism. Beyond the initial design intent and our tests, we still need to listen to our players and be ready to make changes if necessary.

Visual and thematic design

In addition to the gameplay aspects, the visual and thematic design of Dwarves was a key element of the creative process. We worked closely with our artists to develop designs that captured the essence of the Dwarves. Their morphology, faces, skill VFX and animations were carefully crafted to reflect their story and character. Their visual design reinforces the player's immersion and complements the gameplay aspects to deliver a coherent and engaging experience.

Community feedback

The community plays a crucial role in the balancing process. Their feedback has been invaluable in adjusting aspects of gameplay and improving the gaming experience. For example, following a private Beta and since the release of the DLC, we were able to fine-tune the Dwarf race and ensure that it met our community's expectations. And even today, we're continuing this work to ensure the best possible version.


In conclusion

By following this methodical and creative process, The Last Spell manages to introduce its first new race and enrich the game while maintaining balance and coherence with existing elements.

This was no simple task, as balancing such a game is a difficult one: you have to bring relevant and interesting novelty to a systemically complex and complete game. Players can thus discover new ways of playing and new strategies, making the game experience even more captivating and varied. The creation of races such as the Dwarves demonstrates our commitment to offering innovative content and continually improving the gaming experience for our community.

The successful integration of the Dwarves of Runenberg into The Last Spell illustrates how a thoughtful and detailed approach can give rise to rich and engaging gameplay elements, offering players new challenges to overcome. We look forward to seeing how our players will continue to exploit the peculiarities of this new race, and how we will continue to enrich the world of The Last Spell.

Daily news, dev blogs, and stories from Game Developer straight to your inbox

You May Also Like