Sunday, February 5, 2012

Rituals in D and D: The gift of Now


There is a saying from Kung Fu Panda which explains why the time we live in is called the present. I really like it, and I was reminded of it when I started writing this post about rituals. I’d like to take a look at what I liked about spellcasters in earlier editions and how that plays into ritual use and I’d also like to talk about some things DnDnext that I have heard in the twitter rumor mill. But rather than focus on the past or the future I would like to live in the now and enjoy the gift of the present, even if that means I need to rewrap it a bit.

I have always been attracted to spellcasters. Since I started playing I have played mostly spellcasters. Occasionally I played against type, even going so far as to play a character who was afraid of magic. What really attracted me to spellcasters was their versatility. I always enjoyed having a magical answer to situations. Whether it was asking The Powers That Be for answers to life’s big questions or flying over canyons, I liked my wizards to be able to do awesome magical things.

It was a bummer having to choose between something like Levitate which could be very useful and a Fireball which was almost always useful. To alleviate this problem I always tried to find a way to make my non combat spells useful even in combat. For example what would happen if I levitated an orc and then let it drop? Why it would fall and get hurt that’s what. That’s one of the things I miss most about the older editions.

No door can stop me for I am the master of Knock!
I think its ok for spells to be used in ways that aren’t immediately obvious. That was part of the fun of playing a spellcaster. When you were up against the wall and the red dragon had just eaten the paladin and the rogue was just knocked down from the breath weapon you know you only have one chance to save the day. What do you do you when you look at your spellbook and you have just one magic missile left in your combat spell section? You polymorph the dragon into a rat, which then explodes and leaves rat/dragon guts all over a disgusted looking Paladin.

In 3e and 4e you can’t do things like that. The spells and there effects started to become more clearly spelled out and you couldn’t use them as creatively anymore. The trade off in 4e is that you don’t have to fire a crossbow five minutes into the day, you will always have something magical and awesome to do, which is nice. The problem is that you lose out on some of the non combat awesomeness as well. A plus five bonus to your next diplomacy check is more specific than you make friends with the target, but it’s not nearly as much fun, unless you make it be so. To be fair I have had a couple of experiences lately where I have been able to bring a little bit of the creative spellcasting back into D and D and it made my day when the DM’s let me do it. In fact, one of the things that excites me about DnDnext is that they seem to be bringing back some of the creativity and exploration to the game.

Yes! I have completed my summon Lassie
ritual. Now we can save Timmy!
Where 4e really shines in this regard is the often overlooked ritual system. By divorcing the combat spells from the non combat spells 4e made it possible to be effective and magical in combat and still have interesting magical things to do outside of combat. The problem is that because of some of the costs inherent in the system it often gets completely ignored. Many classes get ritual casting for free, and some other type of benefit when using them. Other classes however have to pay a feat to have access. A problem here is that some classes that really need access to rituals to do their jobs like the warlord don’t get ritual casting for free. In fact it’s pretty common now to have no ritual casters in the party at all. It is certainly possible to play that way, but you are really missing out if you do.

There are a couple of must have rituals. First, unless you have an artificer in your party you really need the Comrade’s Succor ritual. I recommend cure disease and the other healing magic related rituals. You never know when you are going to need to bring someone back from the dead or get rid of a horrible curse. The Linked Portal and other similar rituals are good for helping you get where you need to go. Another favorite at low levels is the Eye of Alarm ritual. You never have to be surprised from sleep again if you make good use of this ritual.

The major problem for me with ritual casting is the material cost associated with casting them. Not only do you have to pay to get the rituals, but you also have to pay to cast them. On top of this they usually have a significantly long cast time. It’s not that you are really giving anything up. The cost of casting low level rituals is usually negligible especially compared to magic items of similar levels. The problem is that I have never really enjoyed the logistics resource management in D and D. I hate tracking ammunition, and I despised tracking spell components. So, often I don’t use a ritual even when it would be perfect to use it. Even worse sometimes I even forgot to use rituals I could have used for free because I forget about them among all the other options I have on my sheet they kind of get lost.

I have had a couple of ideas for making ritual casting a part of your game. First if you are really concerned about the costs, see if you can use the inherent bonuses system. If you distance the expected math of the game from magic items it frees you to spend your gold on other things. You could also keep a list of your rituals handy. One of my friends actually has copies of his rituals in a folder he keeps with his characters. Another thought I have had is asking for, or handing out rituals or ritual components as treasure. If you have some ideas how to use rituals in your game or want to recommend some must have rituals of your own feel free to post them in the comments below. Until next time remember, don’t let your DM tell you no. It’s always, “Yes and…?” 


  1. As you know, I'm not one of those who overlook Rituals. In fact, I probably looked on them too much.

    On the whole, I like them. To my mind, however, there are three problems with Rituals.

    1. Niche protection. To my understanding, Rituals are designed to enforce niche protection - for example, the reason Knock type Rituals have to be so damned useless is that thief type characters have something to do.

    Problem is, there may well not be a thief in the party. The thief may not be good at thieving. The thief player may not be good at playing a thief or may not want to focus on thieving.

    Finally, in my opinion, it's the thief player's job to handle his own damn niche protection!

    The other two problems I have with Rituals stem from the niche protection idea.

    2. Components are very expensive, making it expensive to use Rituals.

    3. Casting times are often way too long.

    In my games, my answer has been: [bleep] that noise! The casting costs you see in the Rituals is actually for a permanent focus and materials - buy it once and they're yours. And look at the Ritual. Use your knowledge of D&D. You're a big boy now, so if the casting time shouldn't be an hour, it isn't. Come up with something reasonable. - John

    1. Thanks for the idea John, I actually like that a lot. How do you address the casting time problem? And do you have any favorite rituals, or any tips for organizing them so you remember to use them?

  2. I say, "You've been playing D&D for a while. You've got some ideas about how long this should take. long does it take?" And then, on the off chance the player says his Resurrection Ritual takes just three minutes instead of hours, I say, "That doesn't sound quite right. Why are you suggesting it takes just three minutes?"

    Commrade's Succor, as you noted, is a must. I can't remember specifics, but I like ones that allow for planar travel and that have generic effects you can use in a variety of ways. You remember my use of the Floating Disk, right?

    As for organization, I print them out and make a "Ritual booklet." - John

    1. That's cool I like the idea of letting the player into the decision loop. I remember your ritual book. For the use of the Floating disk do you mean the elevator to the floating pyramid? Yeah that was pretty awesome.