Greater Rituals, Part 2: Building a Tool

Greater Rituals can be used to accomplish feats of magic that have not yet been condensed into formal spells.  Sometimes the effect is too powerful for a single spell to contain.  Sometimes the effect has never before been attempted.  Brandes Stoddard proposed the idea in May and I attempted to expand upon it here.  I helped focus my own thoughts in that entry but I didn’t produce tools likely to be of specific help to others.  This article is further progress towards that goal.

Below, I propose my guidelines for running greater rituals.   Let me know what you think of this draft.  It’s going to be under continual revision for a little while and I’d love feedback.  I’ll do one more of this series (for now) with specific examples for how I would implement this.

The Greater Ritual

There is as much variation in Greater Rituals as in the effects they seek to accomplish, but each has a common core of five requirements.  Every Greater Ritual is the result of significant preparation, the guiding will of a determined spell-caster, a potent source of power, a complex ceremony, and a receptacle for the ritual’s effects.  The effort to complete a Greater Ritual tests the primary caster, referred to here as the ritualist, on each of these facets.  The ritual succeeds if the ritualist passes three or more tests.  Each failed test imposes a cost or consequence on those participating in the ritual.

The Test of Preparation. The ritualist must put in time, money, and effort to be ready to perform the ritual.  This test must always be performed first.

The Test of the Guiding Will. This test represents the individual skill and commitment of the person who takes on the greatest risks and makes the critical decisions to shape the ritual’s outcome.  

The Test of Power. The ritual tests the ritualist’s ability to manage and direct the extreme amounts of energy necessary to produce the desired effect.

The Test of Ceremony. The ceremony tests the ritualist’s focus and precision performing the complex and intricate series of actions that shape the magic of the ritual.

The Test of the Receptacle. The ritual’s power is directed into or through a specific receptacle, testing both the fitness of the vessel for the task and the ritualist’s skill in directing the gathered energy to this final point.  This test must always be performed last.

The tests are usually represented by ability checks, one for each of the ritual’s tests, although there are alternate means to approach them proposed below.  

The DM determines the rarity level of the ritual based on the desired effect, strength, range, duration, and area impacted.  The rarity level drives the base DC for the ability or skill checks and any minimum costs to complete the tests.

Rarity Spell Lvl Range Duration Area of Effect(Low Intensity) Area of Effect (High Intensity) Base DC
Uncommon 2-3 Building Hours Room Single Target 15
Rare 4-5 Town Days Town Group 20
Very Rare 6-8 Province Months Province Organization 25
Legendary 9 Kingdom Years Kingdom Culture 30

The Test of the Guiding Will and the Test of the Receptacle both use the caster’s spell attack modifier.  The other tests will require different ability or skill checks depending on the situation, but the primary caster may choose to substitute their spell attack modifier for one of them by expending a spell slot of the same rarity level as the ritual.

The ritualist has several options to decrease the DC of each individual test and the DM also has options to provide resources or challenges.  Each test has a minimum threshold that must be met.  After that threshold is met, the ritualist can reduce the DC by applying more resources as described below.

Alternatives.  The DM can also replace the ability check with an alternate requirement, such as possessing a specific object or getting advice from a specific sage.  See below for suggestions for alternatives for each test.

Costs and Consequences.  Failing a test imposes a cost or consequence.  The ritual accumulates these costs, regardless of the success or failure of the ritual itself.  These could range from inconvenient (small animals fear and hate you) to challenging (minor curses of limited duration) to debilitating (ability score reduction) or even deadly (disintegration) depending on the scale of the ritual.

The ritualist can choose to abandon the ritual at any time before completing the Test of Preparation.  Once they have completed the Test of Preparation however, abandoning the ritual will incur one more cost or consequence than have already been completed at the time they make the decision (design goal: get out early or see it through).

Rarity Base DC Preparation Guiding Will Ceremony Power
Material Cost Caster Level Ritual Duration Participant or Sacrifice
Min XP Min PC Lvl
Uncommon 15 101-500 gp 1st 1 hour 100 1
Rare 20 501-5000 gp 5th 4 hours 1,100 5
Very Rare 25 5001-50000 gp 11th 8 hours 3,600 11
Legendary 30 50000+ gp 17th 24 hours 8,800 17

The Test of Preparation

The ritualist must study the ritual, gather the appropriate materials, and prepare the space where the ritual will be performed.  For a ritual that has never before been attempted, the ritualist must experiment, research, and develop the ceremony.

The preparation has a minimum cost representing the materials, tools, and assistance needed to complete the preparations.  The Receptacle is part of this cost.  The ritualist can reduce the DC of either of these tests, the Test of the Receptacle or the Test of Preparation, by 1 with the additional investment of an amount equal to the minimum cost.  Each subsequent investment of that amount reduces the DC by 1 again.  This represents the ritualist using higher quality materials, employing better craftsmen, or spending more effort practicing the key elements.

The ritual caster can decide which test, Preparation or Receptacle, benefits from that reduction in DC.  For example, an Uncommon Greater Ritual costs 100 gp to prepare.  The ritualist puts in 400 gp of materials, 100 for the minimum cost and 3 more increments of 100 to improve the tests.  The ritualists applies these increments to reduce the DC for the ability check used to complete the Test of Preparation test by 2 and the Receptacle test by 1.

Alternatives. Another source of information such as a tome, a knowledgeable familiar, or a chamber already designed and prepared for such a purpose could reduce or eliminate the chance of failure entirely.

The Test of the Guiding Will

The Guiding Will expresses how well the ritualist understands the complex arcane elements of the ritual, how finely they can control the gathered power, and how deftly they handle complications.  The primary caster, the ritualist, must be of a minimum caster level to handle the strain involved.  Other casters can participate to reduce the DC of the check.  Each additional group of casters whose collective caster levels add up to the minimum required level reduces the check another point.  These casters are tied intimately to the ritual and will suffer its costs and consequences along with the primary caster should they fail.

Alternatives.  The ritualist’s familiar or an agent of a higher power can make a deal with the ritualist to grant them insight and greater control over the ritual.  The more powerful the ritual, the greater the likely cost of the bargain.

The Test of Power

Every greater ritual draws power from somewhere. A ritual that draws power from itself requires a minimum number of participants or sacrifices to generate that power, represented as a cumulative experience point value.  Intelligent sacrifices count double and Intelligent, willing sacrifices count triple.  Willing participants are only counted if they are able to participate fully in the ritual for the duration.

Alternatives. Power can also be drawn from locations, magic items, or events.  Ley lines, volcanoes, planetary alignments, and old stone circles often offer more power than most rituals would ever need (and more than many ritualists can handle). It’s also possible to sacrifice an object of great power to drain it of its essence or to stand in the heart of a clash of armies to draw on the fury, pain, and despair swirling at its center.

The Test of Ceremony

This test includes the motions, chants, and arcane manipulation required by the ritualist to direct the flow of power into the receptacle.  It can be a series of precise, controlled motions by the ritualist, a call and response exchange with supporters, or a rhythmic performance of dance and movement.  Whatever form it takes, the ritualist must complete it correctly and accurately without interruption for the time listed on the cost table.

This one is best improved by practice.  The ritualist reduces the difficulty of this test by 1 for each ritual of the current or next lower rarity that person has previously completed successfully.

Supporting casters can also run sub-rituals separately to assist the primary ritualist.  Each sub-ritual of the next lower level reduces the DC of the main Ceremony test by the number of successes it accumulates in its own tests.  This benefit is reduced by half for each additional step removed from the main ritual rarity.  For example, assistants supporting a legendary ritual could lower the DC of the ability check for completing the Test of Ceremony by 5 with a perfect very rare ritual, two perfect rare rituals, or four perfect uncommon rituals.

Alternatives. The Test of Ceremony can be made easier if the ritual uses an existing event, such as Beltane, or a well-known behavior whose original purpose is hidden such as a children’s game (think Ring Around The Rosy) or a folk dance (a Morris Dance fits quite well).

The Test of the Receptacle

The receptacle is the focus that absorbs or channels the final output of the ritual.  It is the clay body of the golem awaiting its shem, the prepared phylactery that will anchor the lich’s unlife, the wicker man woven from the remnants of last year’s harvest, or the magic circle that will contain and trap the demon.  It can also be a person or a plant or a song or… anything you can think of that will represent the ritual when it is complete.

As described above, the Receptacle is part of the cost of the Test of Preparation.  The ritualist can reduce the DC of either of these tests, the Test of the Receptacle or the Test of Preparation, by 1 with the additional investment of an amount equal to the minimum cost.  See the Test of Preparation for additional details.

Alternatives. The ritual can require a specific object or individual to serve as the Receptacle.  One ritual might call for the Holy Chalice of Lord Inverre.  Another might place the mantle of the ritual on the ruler of the kingdom to be saved.  If the ritualist produces that item or person during the ceremony, they automatically succeed at the Receptacle test.  If they do not have the pre-defined receptacle, they fail the test.

Some Design Thoughts

Much of the base structure – 5 checks, pass 3 to win, costs and consequences for individual failures – came from Brandes’s original proposal, along with a few other ideas such as relying on spell attack bonuses for at least a few of the checks.  I defined the context for the checks, added minimum resource requirements and restructured how the DCs are managed for the checks.  I’m ignoring for now the competing rituals, for reasons of time and space, but without spending much time thinking about it, I believe Brandes’s original proposal would fit into this version just fine.

Most of the alternatives are suggestions meant to enable campaign design around ritual encounters, either performing or preventing them.  The alternatives for the Test of the Receptacle, for example, encourage scenarios for a supporting mission – to retrieve a specific relic before the enemy can reach it – whose failure would be a setback rather than the end of the campaign.  While one side does make progress by taking possession of the receptacle, the conflict still has room to continue between those attempting to complete the ritual and those attempting to disrupt it.

Legendary Rituals are meant to require significant effort and resources to even have a chance of success.  You don’t become a lich unless you’re determined, skilled, and patient; and even then you have to be willing to take great risks for that reward.

The Math

If you’re interested in checking my math, this is the program I used at to check my sanity on the DCs.

function: ROLL:s count N:n and above {
 result: (ROLL >= N)

loop L over {10..20}{
output [5d20 count DC and above] named "DC[L]"

Change the numbers between the {} to modify the DC range (running the full range took up too much processing time).  I’m assuming that any character considering a Legendary Ritual is going to have around +10 or higher with their proficiency bonus.

Next steps

I am going to work up examples to share and I’m going to start using it in my campaign.  I’m sure much will change once theory meets practice, but now I at least have a theory.

I also plan to refine this and share it via Google docs.  I’ll post a link to the folder on the sidebar once I’ve set that up.


2 thoughts on “Greater Rituals, Part 2: Building a Tool

  1. This is really useful, thank you! I read Brandes’ post and your first one a while back and really liked the way you broke down rituals, and it’s great to see it in a more systematised form here. The current arc for one of my groups is attempting to stop a tyrant from performing a great ritual that will consolidate his power, so I should get a chance to use it soon!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s