Many thoughts, inspired by and in response to Brandes Stoddard’s article: D&D 5e Rituals & The Occult (Spoiler Alert: I haven’t yet figured it all out…)
The archmage chants and gestures from the center of an elaborate circle of silver dust and ground bone. Outside the circle, the adventurers throw themselves against the wizard’s minions again and again. If they can’t interrupt the ceremony, they won’t be facing an archmage for an enemy any more; they’ll be facing a lich.
Around the base of a sea-scoured pillar, cultists chant and sway. Atop the pinnacle, the high priest spills blood into the storm as he calls out the true name of an ancient cruelty. His cries go unheard by his sleeping god, siphoned away by his enemies in their own ritual in a ring of standing stones a few miles away. Power accumulates, bound and compressed between the competing magics, poised to crash down upon the first group to falter.
The wall of smoke and darkness races towards the tiny kingdom. Deep beneath the palace, in a room built centuries ago for just such an emergency, a queen offers her lifeblood to save her people. The sorceress collecting it in a stone bowl has worked with her companions for months to gather the necessary supplies, learn the rites, and prepare the chamber for this moment. Each of the companions now adds their blood to the bowl and their will to the ceremony, knowing they may already be too late.
Rituals, Great and Small
Last week, Brandes Stoddard (formerly known as Harbinger of Doom), started talking about rituals as part of May’s RPG Blog Carnival, the kind of ritual that can summon gods and demons. Used for good or ill, rituals play a significant role in many of the legends and tales that inspire fantasy rpgs. They figure prominently in stories of Conan, Fafhrd & the Grey Mouser, and even Narnia. The default D&D setting, from golems to liches, heavily implies the existence of rituals of great power. Much of the supporting fiction, from Drizz’t to Raistlin, portrays heroes and villains struggling to complete or disrupt powerful rituals.
Brandes proposed a mechanic to support this level of ritual and (I freely admit) I got a little too excited. I may have blathered a bit in his comment section. Rather than continue that, and with Brandes’s encouragement, let’s
blather talk about it here.
In which I paraphrase someone who has been doing this much longer than I have
Since this entire article builds on what Brandes started, let’s look at his goals first:
Brandes proposes a tool for managing large-scale rituals of great power, albeit with great risk. Brandes is specifically interested in a framework for rituals as conflict, something that can be disrupted. He wants a system that supports the fiction about the traditional roles of familiars and cult followers and to achieve that he wants a way to step out of the tight constraints of spells balanced for combat.
I intend to keep a lot of that, but not all of it. I would like a tool that will:
- Support the fiction and mythology around large scale rituals
- Permit all kinds of PCs to interact with the ritual, either supporting or opposing it, with multiple options for approaches
- Provide the DM with a clear reference for making rulings about Greater Rituals
- Provide players with a consistent system that affords exploration and discovery
- Feel like a consistent and natural extension of the existing rules
What’s a Greater Ritual?
A ritual is a set of specific arcane practices to shape energy to achieve a desired effect.
A spell is a tiny ritual that draws upon the caster’s own strength (i.e. spell slots)
Ritual casting uses preparation and performance to draw energy from the environment and not the caster (i.e. without using spell slots)
Greater Rituals, then, are ritual castings that require significant investments of time and resources to achieve effects on a grand scale that would be impossible for an unaided caster.
Rituals are time bound – they have a start and an end. They can be repeated or reinforced but those are individual and discrete actions.
Rituals are location bound – they occur in a specific space. This can be a series of locations (a king traveling to his holdings to reinforce his blessings on a kingdom) but each location is defined as part of the ritual.
Rituals are contiguous. You can’t start a ritual, pause it to do something else, and then come back to finish the ritual later.
Corollary: If a ritual is interrupted it is negated. A new ritual must be started from the beginning.
Rituals are part preparation and part performance. All the assumptions above apply to the performance. The preparation is what you do before-hand to make sure the performance goes well. They’re a bit like tests in school. Study however and whenever you want, but there are rules for how you complete the test itself.
Brandes’s central system, one that I will mostly keep as I adapt his initial proposal, uses five sequential ability checks – alternating spell attacks with ability checks – to determine the success or failure of a ritual and the consequences to the caster. The caster needs to succeed on at least three of the checks to achieve the goals of the ritual, but each check they fail incurs a cost or consequence.
The power and scope of the ritual determines how difficult the initial check should be, but the caster can reduce that difficulty or boost their own chances through preparation (site selection) or sacrifice (mostly represented by spell slots). This is where Brandes brings in the caster’s familiar and the cult followers, along with several other fictionally appropriate methods.
The success or failure of each check determines the difficulty of the next check. Each time the caster fails a check, the next check gets easier. Each time they succeed at their check, the next check gets harder. This is the key to Brandes’s whole approach and he adds at the end of his article that he’d like to explore it as a means to develop a skill challenge engine. Specifically (and here I AM quoting):
I’m also hoping that the engine of base DC, +5 for each success, -5 and a consequence for each failure, for somewhere in the neighborhood of 5 rolls, using more than one skill or kind of roll, can be a way to think about skill challenges in 5e.
I should note that I never got to play 4th edition and so I have no experience with skill challenges. Feel free to point out in the comments where my lack of experience with this setup is leading me astray.
Others can disrupt a ritual through violence by forcing concentration checks (good news for 10th level Conjuration Wizards) or by performing a counter ritual. The counter ritual starts at the same difficulty but the opposing team can make their own preparations to modify their chances.
Some thoughts and reactions to the initial proposal
Brandes’s engine has six end states but there are essentially three basic outcomes: perfect success (no consequences), success at cost (1 or 2 consequences), and failure (3 to 5 consequences).
The decision points for STARTING a ritual in this system occur in three places:
- The power and scope of the attempted ritual (higher risks for higher rewards)
- Preparations in the form of deciding how many boosters to pursue. The tension of this decision will likely depend on the pressures the players are under (keep seeking ways to boost percentages, or get started before time runs out)
- Whether to start with a spell attack or an ability check.
The decision points for OPPOSING a ritual in this system are almost the same except replace option 1 with “Direct Violence: yes/no?” The opposing group has no decision about power, that was made for them by the ritual casters.
The five checks, combined with the escalating difficulty scale, make the probabilities really tricky to calculate (for me, anyway). I put a basic version into Excel and came to a few conclusions.
- It’s very difficult to get a perfect success (you add +20 to the DC by the time you’ve achieved four successes)
- It’s essentially impossible to get a complete failure if you put in any preparation time.
Both of those are probably fine in the ritual experience but probably not fine for a skill challenge.
The five checks are relatively abstract, representing general progress in the ritual rather than a specific action. The caster’s decision to start with one kind of check or a spell attack does not tie obviously to a decision by the character.
I like the idea of the five checks but I’d prefer something more concrete to reference. I’m also not sure the escalation/deprecation is necessary. I believe Brandes is trying to create a sort of built-in yes-and/no-but structure that I appreciate. However, probability being what it is, simply repeating the same check five times is enough to almost guarantee some consequences and some successes. Even if each check has a 19 in 20 chance of success the caster still has a roughly 25% chance of failing one of the five checks. Now, of course, your archmage lich-aspirant is not likely to permit even so little as a 1/20 chance of failure but that just gives the adventurers something to do…
Changes and Adaptations
I’ll keep the five checks, but without the escalation. I’ll keep the idea of a DC based on the strength and scope of the spell being attempted, and the option (necessity) for casters to overcome that challenge through preparation and the assistance of their allies.
I want a little more structure to guide the ritual and my first thought is to do that by adding meaning to the five checks.
The Components of a Greater Ritual
In my version, the five checks for the ritual represent five elements that form the overall ritual:
- Specific Preparations
- A Guiding Will to shape the ritual
- A Source of Power to provide strength for the ritual
- A Ceremony to weave the separate pieces together
- A Focus or Receptacle to channel the outcome of the ritual
In narrative terms, a mage uses complex tools and actions to link together a source of magic and channel it through a prepared focus to achieve a powerful magical effect.
In game terms, there are five levers for a GM to use in guiding conflict between PCs and NPCs when one group wants to perform a powerful spell outside the bounds of the standard spell list or, conversely, stop someone else from doing so. As Brandes points out, “With the opposition of one or more other people, things get… interesting.”
The Preparations could include special ingredients or materials (unicorn’s blood), details of timing (during the planetary alignment), or specific participants (a vile wizard and a pure-hearted cleric). This is probably the DM’s best lever to constrain the opportunities to perform the ritual. Players opposing a ritual won’t feel successful if their enemy can just try again tomorrow night.
The Guiding Will is the caster. This is the person responsible for the ritual and the person most at risk if the ritual comes apart. I expect it’s going to require someone with the ritual casting ability (acquired through feat or class) and the associated check is going to focus on raw magical strength (i.e. their spell-attack bonus)
Brandes wrote that part of his intent using the spell attack was to ensure that wizards and sorcerers are not pushed out of this role by ability-focused characters like bards or caster-rogues. This is one place that shows up in my version but we should probably come back to that.
The Power Source provides the energy the caster cannot. These are often places – an active volcano, a sacred grove, a conflux of ley lines – but it could be something more portable – a holy relic, the continuous prayers of chanting worshipers, or the ever-popular humanoid sacrifice. This could be the target of an adventure itself, or a good place for player ingenuity (“if we can bind the Dreadnaught Golem, would that provide enough power? You know in a two-birds with one stone kind of way?”)
The Ceremony includes the precise actions to activate the ritual. If the preparations are the stuff, the ceremony is the motion. I started by calling this the Performance, but that term already has a role in 5th edition D&D.
The Focus is the Special Thing that becomes the heart of the ritual. This is the lich’s phylactery, the demonic contract, or the portrait kept in the attic. I’m the least happy with this option. It’s often present in the fiction but not as recognizable as the other four. It’s here partly as a means of giving the Greater Ritual physical embodiment after the ceremony is complete, something for opponents to disrupt once the ritual has taken hold.
With a loose context and structure, a DM has constraints for ritual design and players have a handle on how to evaluate what they’re attempting or opposing. These also start to provide guidelines on how to establish appropriate ability checks for each component.
Costs and Challenges
Trade-offs are a key feature of my approach to DMing. If the decision is easy to make, it’s boring (of course, there’s nuance in where to actually put that kind of challenge but I don’t think many people will argue that something that can turn you into a lich is a good place for tradeoffs).
How, then, do we define that in a useful way for DM’s to use as a tool?
- A greater ritual is difficult to complete because it is costly in time and resources
- A greater ritual is difficult to complete because it is technically complex
- A greater ritual is risky because it is dangerous in failure
The character or NPC choosing a Greater Ritual seeks great power but will need determination, opportunity, skill, and luck to get it. With enough determination they can reduce the luck factor, but it’s still going to rely on opportunity and skill.
This is where my approach starts to break down. I have a model in my head but not the math to support it yet. It starts by assessing escalations in power and scope:
- Precedent: Ritual Spell > Non-ritual Spell > No existing spell
- Range: Self > Touch > Room > Building > Town > Region > Country > Continent > Plane
- Duration: Instantaneous > One Minute > One Hour > One Day > One Week > One Month > One Year > Permanent
- Area: Target > Room > Town > Region > Country > Continent > Plane
The number of escalations would determine the difficulty, the minimum cost, and the potential severity of the consequences. The difficulty can then be lowered by adding more resources (possibly equal to the original minimum cost in a category?). If I can tune the system right, the local necromancer could try to animate a cemetery with the help of five of his best cultist buddies, or a kingpriest could attempt to eradicate evil on a continent by invoking the devotion of an empire (don’t screw this up, btw, the consequences are pretty steep).
I am struggling, however, to find an elegant structure to support that, which was the whole point of starting this article to begin with. That’s uh, that’s where the hard work is and after several pages drafting options, I still don’t have an answer. I have enough that I can wing it for myself but I specifically want to move away from “winging it” and provide a recommendation for other DM’s, the ones who didn’t just brainstorm sixteen pages of possible structure (as I continue these entries, you’ll start to understand just how much I drift towards system complexity and wordiness).
I WILL return to this thought .. with math! and tools! For now, though I’m glad I finally got myself started on this blog and I hope you saw some kernel of value that will bring you back as I continue.