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Bringing Rituals Back Into Dungeons & Dragons

Written by Expy - Published on September 22, 2010

Ritually Speaking: 4 ways to bring the magic back

Barret bowed his head for a moment, as did all of them, then raised his emerald eyes heavenward to a crystal sphere suspended from the center of the dome by a long, golden chain. The sphere trembled slightly in the still, silent air, and when Barrett spoke it was in the low, liquid syllables of ancient Deryni ritual.

“Now we are met. Now we are one with the light. Regard the ancient ways. We shall not walk this path again.” He paused and lapsed back into the vernacular. “So be it.”

-from High Deryni, by Katherine Kurtz

Rituals. They’re something to interrupt. Something that the bad guys are right in the middle of when those meddling PCs arrive on the scene.  And, really . . . for a lot of D&D games out there being played right now, that’s about it.

The frustration is that ritual magic is the sort of magic that really matches the literary magical traditions that are out there. 4E D&D has been a huge revelation in game play in combat encounters, and the skill challenge system. When well used can turn an unstructured RP scene into another challenging game segment of your adventure, but Rituals are the old non-adjustable wrenches in the DM’s toolbox. They don’t get used often, and settle down to the bottom of the pile.

When you get right down to it, Rituals are hard to use. As an adventure writer, especially preparing an adventure where you have no way of knowing what sort of PC classes will try to complete your adventure, using a scene that requires a ritual to complete creates a roadblock that some parties will have no way of passing, and other parties will breeze past without thinking about it. As a writer, then, you avoid using them because they just complicate your adventure in ways that don’t improve the game experience for the players.

If you’re a DM, your situation isn’t really much better. You may have a PC who has decided to invest in ritual magic. And, really, to reward that player, you want to make sure that you prepare situations where that PC will have the opportunity to use those rituals.

And now, Martial Power 2 has brought Martial Practices to the table, giving us a very martial, non-magical sort of rituals that your PCs can invest in and complete. before that we had Alchemy, another variation on the theme. But in a game that really rewards players for making combat monsters, it’s hard to get your players to invest much in Rituals — which then makes it hard to use them in the game.

A couple of house rules could make it a lot easier for your players to get engaged in rituals.

1. Napster for Rituals.

All you really need to do is eliminate the cost to copy a ritual into a spellbook. Require an arcana check based on the level of the spell (try DC = 15+1/2 ritual level). Now, Certain NPCs may still charge for access to the ritual to be copied, but PCs can copy freely from each other’s books, from captured books, and so on. This eliminates much of the cost of trying to collect rituals.

Once PCs can share rituals around, gain new rituals for free from allies and friendly sources, the number of rituals available to them will grow, making it more likely that they will have the right ritual on hand when they need it.

Optionally, if this seems to be too free-flowing, you might limit this to just exchanges within power sources or even within classes. It’s easy to imagine that a ritual cast by a primal character would look very different from one cast by an arcane character; it might also help bring out the flavor differences of the classes if rituals were class-specific. After all, a warlock draws his power from a pact with a powerful being, a wizard manipulates elemental energies, and a bard weaves music. The methods by which they cast and complete their rituals should be just as distinctive as their other powers.

2. Some Rituals are Skill Challenges

One of the tricks with skill challenges is that they don’t engage the player enough in the process of completing them. Some, but not all skill challenges require skill checks, and that’s just a single roll. By making some rituals a skill challenge, you can bring some of the game back to rituals.

I wouldn’t do this for every ritual — it could become tedious quickly. But rituals within 2 levels of the caster’s level would be new and difficult enough that the caster would need to complete a skill challenge to complete the ritual. A ritual that requires a skill check to determine the effect could either use the highest roll from the skill challenge, or the final roll to determine the effect of the completed ritual.

3. Creative Ritual Magic

Imagine that ritual magic is like music. Musicians are not limited to the melodies and compositions in their scores — most can and do improvise, either creating variations on a theme or entirely new pieces. Ritual magic might very well work the same way.

Allow your PCs to invent variations on the rituals they already know to achieve new results. For example, taking a simple ritual like Tenser’s Floating Disk and allowing your players to invent variations on that idea (a disk of force) could suddenly present a wide variety of variations. A young wizard could create a movable barrier, for example, that could provide cover, block windows, and so on. This will require that the DM be willing to make some rulings on the fly, but with a few typical mechanics (+2 to the DC of any skill checks made for difficulty, etc) the mechanics are there to help DMs make those seat-of-the-pants rulings.

4. Just Do It.

The bottom line is this. Until we start to create the situations in our games that actually require rituals, we’re not going to see players embracing ritual magic as an important part of playing a spellcaster. Start small — don’t create situations where the PCs can’t succeed at the adventure without the ritual, but limit their success. Hold back a treasure parcel, for example, unless one of the PCs can come up with a passwall ritual.

In the end, these may not be the best ideas in the world, and odds are they won’t all fit into your game. With the idea that ritual magic, magic that takes time and effort and skill to complete, such an important part of the fantasy genre, it only makes sense to try to make an effort to make rituals a more important part of our games.

This post contributed by John P. Jones.

“John has been a player and DM/Gamemaster since the first edition of D&D.  He pays the bills as a web and new media developer in Kansas.  He posts in online gaming communities as Radiating Gnome (radiatinggnome.com), and is a member of EN World’s Rat Bastard Dungeon Masters club.”

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5 Responses to “Bringing Rituals Back Into Dungeons & Dragons”
  1. doombringer333 says:

    Good stuff, but as far as number 1 goes, players already can share their rituals and can already find rituals as treasure (if the DM chooses). The cost associated with rituals is the “market price.” For example, if you go to Ritualmart, it costs 10 gp to learn “Magic Mouth.” It costs nothing to actually write down Magic Mouth in your ritual book.

    You do need to buy components to use rituals, but it costs nothing to master them (the requirements are 8 hours to study the ritual and the Ritual Caster feat).

    I think the biggest reasons why rituals aren’t used is that 1) few published scenarios take them into account, 2) there is little guidance or advice on how to incorporate a character’s rituals into the game, and 3) players don’t like to spend money on the component costs.

  2. Yocewyn says:

    One advice I once got was adding ritual components in the treasure. When you regularly get ritual components, you’ll start using them. You can make matters better if characters can sell them only at 20% price. (Not sure about this)

    You could even allow players gathering body parts of some monsters as components.
    -> The heard of a blue dragon can be used as a component for “water breathing”
    -> The tongue of a basilisk can be used as a component for “magic mouth”
    This gives them a guarantee that they will get more components, the ability to hunt for more and a general impulse for learning / using rituals.

  3. I agree this was actually something I was thinking about posting about on my own blog. Despite how much I loved 4th edition one of the things I miss is all of the non damage oriented spells that wizards, sorcerers, clerics, etc used to have. Sure they didn’t come up that often but when they did they are one of the things that made casters so versatile and made up for their relatively low damage. Most of the rituals that have taken the place of those spells are too time consuming to ever be used in a pinch. One of the things I have have done is make it that casters can (on a case to case basis approved by me) pay 50 percent extra components and use a more difficult spell check to get the effects of some rituals as a full round or two full round action.

  4. Michael Erb says:

    I love rituals, and am working to make them more prevalent in my games. One idea is to, instead of having a gp ritual component cost, put limits on them the same as you would powers, such as at-will, encounter and daily. Only you could add weekly or session as limits to the higher level, more powerful rituals.

    The other idea is to have rituals cost player characters in different ways. Some would be fatiguing, causing that person to take a penalty to Will saves for an encounter after being cast. Or they could gain a vulnerability to a specific kind of magic/damage/energy for an encounter. Nothing big, just a +/- 1 or 2 with any of the penalties, but it would give the DM the ability to say “Still chilled from your conversation with the dead farmer earlier that day, the Wraith’s talons seem to sink more easily into your flesh, causing an extra point of necrotic damage.”


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