Worldshaker: The Ruiner

I first started working on my worldshakers after reading some of Thoughtcrimes designs for Worldbreakers which are, I think, themselves a variant on the Icons of 13th Age.  I know very little about 13th Age (almost entirely through what I’ve read about it on Thoughtcrime, actually), but I suspect that the worldshaker might be fairly similar to that idea.  Essentially these are intended as a kind of force of nature, with personality.   The worldbreakers at Thoughtcrime are meant as bosses but these here aren’t really meant to be confronted directly.  Or if they are, it’s an endgame activity (one way or another).

A Worldshaker is a force of destruction, akin to a tornado but with motivations that can be understood, a mind with which to reason, and goals PCs can engage.  Worldshakers are meant to be something inevitable, an element of the world to work around or deal with rather than oppose directly.  A better metaphor than the tornado – there are certainly PCs who could stop a tornado – might the weather conditions that spawn the tornados.  PCs might be able to stop one tornado, but they would have to break the world themselves to keep tornados from happening ever again.

Here, then, is my first:

The Ruiner

The Ruiner believes art is held back by its past, scorns imitators, and wishes to see a world of creators.  Towards this end, The Ruiner destroys and obliterates anything that is in danger of becoming too admired, that has been copied or replicated by artists who should be creating their own work instead.  

The Ruiner does not care about function, merely admiration, and is mostly dangerous to the public when destroying works of art that are still in use.  However, as time has passed, the Ruiner has been expanding its definition of art.  Now almost anything admired is to be destroyed, including the artists themselves and especially those who would teach their technique to others.  

Rumor has it that the Ruiner is beginning to eye the elves.  Far too many human nobles seem to be trying to appropriate elf culture.  That probably has to go, too.

Conflicts with the PCs when:

  • The Ruiner sets its sights on a mosaic of the ancient world, the same map the PCs need for the secrets it contains to the location of a hidden tomb.
  • The Ruiner has begun systematically destroying the architecture of the great Klovis Presidio.  It has already reduced to rubble the Grand Coliseum, the Floating Gardens, and now approaches the Oroborian Colossus.  The fourth work, considered Klovis’s greatest, is simply called The Aqueduct and an entire city depends upon it for drinking water and irrigation.
  • The PCs’ last heist was amazing, a one-in-a-million success, pulled off perfectly, flawlessly, a true work of art.  The PCs should pray the Ruiner never learns who managed it.
  • Agents of the Ruiner have been seen in the same city where a PC’s [family member/mentor/patron] will be performing their masterpiece at a public ceremony.  How can the PCs keep the Ruiner from learning just how skilled their friend is … without ruining the relationship?
  • The PCs need an artifact but learn that the Ruiner destroyed it many years ago.  However, there are rumors that The Ruiner always keeps a piece of what it destroys.  Even a fragment of the artifact could help in their quest.  The PCs need to find the Ruiner’s vault, and loot it.

PC Opportunities:

  • The Ruiner’s agents offer bounties on fine art gathered from the dusty halls of lost cities.  The bounties are higher if the agents get the first look and highest if the explorers can lead the agents back to the original site.
  • The walls of the enemy are impervious to mortal efforts.  Can the Ruiner be convinced that those walls are a work of art in their own right?  And what will it cost the PCs to come to its attention?
  • The Ruiner only gets directly involved for works of the highest beauty, true masterpieces.  For the rest, especially works derivative of that which the ruiner has already destroyed, well… the Ruiner’s organization is ALWAYS looking to hire.
  • The Ruiner is rumored to be seeking the Dontrigan Harpsichord.  The PCs need the Dontrigan Star.  Odds are good they’re in the same place.  The Ruiner is likely to lead them just where they need to go, but do they try to rush ahead and ransack the cathedral before the wrecking begins?  Or do they hold back and try to find the Star in the ruins left behind?

What is the Ruiner?

  • An archfey, attempting to guide the mayfly civilizations away from their lives of dull tedium, to inspire true creativity
  • An elf, one of the oldest of its kind, bored, so bored, and just so tired of watching the lesser races repeat themselves
  • A tarrasque with both intelligence and patience, delighted with itself for also finding purpose
  • An ancient and intricate golem of adamantium and wyrdwood whose last instruction has been corrupted by its own rise to sentience
  • An angel of beauty, implacable and determined to ensure mortal beauty never has a chance to decay into ugliness
  • A night hag coven, with a taste for the highs and lows their victims experience when dreaming of lost treasures

Other easy fits: beholder, dragon, giant, vampire


The Ruiner has a vast organization of critics, curators, and assayers.  Some know what their employer does with the information they collect.  Many do not.  There are even elements of the organization devoted to encouraging and promoting artistic growth.  As long as you’re not the best or brightest, they can be quite helpful.  It’s probably the only art school where competition is fiercest to be second best.


The Ruiner doesn’t have to be a worldshaker; there are definitely lesser, more approachable variants possible, against which PCs could triumph rather than simply work to mitigate.

  • A petty wizard or baron, jealous of their own lack of art
  • A duke or crime boss who measures their own power against the unique beauty they have seen and destroyed.  “I was the last to gaze upon such works”

The Shapes of Spells

Here are a few alternatives to spellbooks.  Mechanically, each of these ideas allows a wizard to record the spells they’ve learned in a physical object (or creature) and then study that object later to recall the spell.  In the world, however, they offer some significant differences in behavior.  Any wizard who stores their spells in eggs had better keep feather fall memorized at all times, but is in a much better position than an ink-and-paper wizard during a downpour.

I think I first started writing these ideas down after reading Goblin Punch articles about Catbooks and Alternative Spellbooks, but I have seen variant spell containers in a number of places.  Unfortunately, I did not note many of these as I ran across them.  I believe the ideas below are all my own, but if I’ve repeated something already posted elsewhere on the web, let me know and I’ll add the link.

In general, I tried to include a method of storing the spell (analogous to scribing the spell in a book), a portable object for the wizard to keep on their person (the book), and a means of using that object to prepare the spell (studying the spellbook).  Wizards who use these alternatives in my campaigns will still need to spend the same money and time for each of these actions that they would to maintain and use a spellbook, but will likely visit different merchants or resources for their specific needs.

They all work as scroll replacements, too.

Spiderwebs and Looms

Ettercap shroudwinders are known to mimic the weave of magic in the physical workings of their webs.  The famous witch Arachne claimed to have studied their works.  This has been impossible to verify, however.  While many of the weavings and scraps of cloth she left behind continue to puzzle, and injure, the sages who study them; ettercap creations have been much more ephemeral.  Whatever the truth of the webs, those who follow Arachne’s teachings weave a new fabric for every spell they learn and, when they wish to recall the magic later, find all that they need in the warp and the weft.


The Ovaturgists of distant Khartolla seek the unfinished spirit developing in an egg and bind it with runes and sigils of fine lacquer.  They steep these eggs in mystic oils and incubate them in holy smokes to twist the nascent being within.  The newborn spell is then released through a tiny hole in the egg shell, to live amongst the weave of magic itself.  Those who study the shells left behind can learn how to call upon the spell and compel it to their own purpose.

(This is one of the ideas I think I might have seen in variation somewhere else; I’m happy to remove it or add links if someone can help me figure out WHERE I saw it)

The Hive

On the eve of his death, Yid of the Three Whispers went to his fields to stand amongst the flowers of his garden.  He spoke his first whisper and the bees flew from their hives and began to circle his head.  One by one, they lit upon his outstretched finger, stilled, and then dispersed.  He spoke his second whisper and the butterflies rose from the petals to gather in his clothes, his hair, and his hat.  He stood completely still as one by one they flexed their wings and fluttered away.  He spoke his third whisper and what happened then no one can say.  When the soldiers of the Goldat Imperium arrived at his hut the next morning, they found the cold, stiff body of an old man, the two splintered sections of a long oaken staff, and none of the spellbooks for which they had been sent.


The true skill of the Tegluri scrimshaw artists is not in the image, it is in the layers.  Each piece of art is also a secret, a message meant only for those with eyes to see it.  Now that the Baergen empire is diminished, its holds no longer filled with Tegluri slaves, the need for espionage and subterfuge has faded as well.  But the art remains.


The cliffwitches of Kernow hang strings of shell and bone, sea glass and stone from the eaves of their huts.  They sing their spells into the sweeping storms that pound the coast.  Then, when they need them, the wind will bring their secrets back, tangled in the clacking of the chimes.



Life is to life, to grow to harmony.  If you would live with the world, if you would shape it, you must let it shape you.  Merge your mind with the soil and the wind and the water and you will understand the secret shape of the world.
From the teachings of Tol Som the Enlightened

Every garden is a miracle, but the gardens of wizards are libraries of miracles.  The leaves and the seeds will share their wisdom with those who know how to seek it.  This may explain why the High Wizard of Windholme is never seen with a spellbook, but nor is he seen without his long-stemmed pipe.  Or perhaps why, when the Inquisitors offered the Grand Dame of the Silver College a last meal before her execution, she asked only for her tea.  That is, of course, only rumor at best, there being so few survivors to question.


Wizards are like cooks.  They work for hours to achieve moments, they constantly try new and weird things to improve their art, and they get really mad at you if you touch their stuff.  Also, if either one screws up badly enough, someone could die.  But the best ones can do some amazing things.

Mostly, though, I like the theory for the sour looks I get when I explain it to a new spellworm.  But it’s true, too.  And the best caster I ever served with was both.  She’d make this jerky, smoked and spiced with the strangest stuff.  She’d share some of the regular kind with the rest of us but every evening she’d pull out her own special pouch and just… chew.  Knew another who would bake bread and listen hard to the birds that came to eat it. But the jerky wizard was the best.  I asked her once about the special kind and she just grinned and let me try a taste.  Never trust a grinning wizard.  Damn.  I came out of it an hour later but I still smell apples whenever someone slams a door.

3d6 Orcs

What are these orcs up to? An exercise in converting the simplest of random encounters into something more memorable.

Training: Orc sergeants train young orcs how to survive and hunt in softskin lands
Homesteading: This band seeks an area of great danger for their new home; they want a place that will give them constant battle.  Should they encounter worthy enemies, two of them will break off the attack and retreat to the rest of their tribe to let them know a new home has been located.  The others will stay to consecrate the area in blood – theirs or yours, doesn’t matter.
Running: These orcs lost a battle with a wizard who then compelled them to run west and keep running. All are exhausted; several are near death. Their leader has been repeating a list of enemies in her head as she runs. The wizard is at the top of the list but she will seek vengeance on all who took advantage of them on their forced run.
Wedding Day. An orcish bride leads her wedding party on the traditional raid of the groom’s tribe.
Proselytizing. Orc penitents “cured” of their violent ways are now very aggressive about converting others.
Learning. Emissaries from a starving tribe are on a quest from their shaman to learn the human secret of Farming.
In Turmoil. 1d6 just ate something that set them raving against their fellows. The others are trying to subdue them. They will welcome help but you better not actually hurt their companions
Partying. Elven wine is strong stuff but it tastes like flowers. However, if you take the flowers out of it, dry them, and smoke them, then you can have some real fun.
Sabotage. Wielding elven weapons and carrying elven gear, they seek to stir up trouble between local humans and elves.
Right of Passage. The Hearteaters are on a quest to eat the heart of the most powerful enemy they can find. That might be the PCs, unless the PCs know something more impressive nearby.
Hunting. Dragon hunters seek to kill the beast that keeps raiding their homes. They are willing to pay for help.
Prisoners on parade. The local human ruler leads a band of orcish prisoners-of-war from village to village, seeking to raise funds and recruits for his war.
Dying. Orcs captured by the local ruler have been tied to stakes in the ground to die of starvation.  This act of humiliation is meant to convince other orcs that they won’t even get a good death in this land.
Seeking Redemption. Orc criminals act out the punishment for cowardice. They must attack everything that comes within their stone circle until one of those things kills them. If they die of starvation, they fail. If they die in violence, they are redeemed.

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.

Surviving the best way I know how

The Player’s Handbook has this to say about the Survival skill:

The DM might ask you to make a Wisdom (Survival) check to follow tracks, hunt wild game, guide your group through frozen wastelands, identify signs that owlbears live nearby, predict the weather, or avoid quicksand and other natural hazards. (PHB, p. 178)

It’s also the primary skill to accomplish three of the five travel activities (p. 182 and 183): Navigate, Track, and Forage.  Noticing Threats is the only activity that requires something besides Survival, although that feels like an odd thing to say: “Oh, no dahhrling, survival isn’t about thrrrreats.”  The fifth activity, drawing a map, specifically does NOT require an ability check (which, along with the idea that Performance proficiency automatically earns a Wealthy lifestyle, is how we know we’re living in a fantasy world…)

There’s no general rule provided, just examples of what it does.  We get tracking, hunting, navigating, and reading an area for animals, weather, and hazards.  This is a tough skill to generalize, in part because it seems to overlap with Intelligence (Nature) and Intelligence (Investigate).   In a demonstration of exactly what I wanted to gain from this blog: I didn’t realize until rereading the PHB for this article that Nature is meant to be a facts-driven; here’s-what-you-know kind of skill.

Nature: That thing was a behir; they hate dragons more than anything else in the world.

Survival: Follow the behir back to its lair. Make convincing dragon-calls (okay, that would be a really high DC) to lure it into ambush so you can get your companion out of its belly.

We also know it’s specifically available to Barbarians, Nature Clerics, Druids, and Fighters or to anyone with the Folk Hero or the Outlander background.  Bards, Humans, and Half-elves can do anything, so they can get it, too, but that doesn’t help us define the survival skill.

The name “survival” isn’t super helpful, either.  As a word, it covers everything from Armor Class to zombies.  Without a general rule (“Your Wisdom (Perception)…measures your general awareness of your surroundings and the keenness of your senses”) or a clear identity (Stealth), I find myself treating it as a cover for things other skills don’t, and, as a result, only really calling for it when one of my PCs wants to track something.

But now I’ve written all these words about Survival!  Maybe that will help.  

The examples in the PHB read like it should be “wilderness” skill in most campaigns but they don’t actually mention wilderness.  You could build a concept of survival in a concrete jungle and the fiction often supports the idea that the lessons are transferable; see Crocodile Dundee, Tarzan, and, oh what the heck, George of the Jungle (wow, I need new cultural references).  I know there are fantasy examples, too (Drizz’t and Conan both sometimes do this) but I’m currently drawing a blank about more direct examples (feel free to enlighten me in the comments if you have some).  

I think, for my own, purposes, I’ll re-frame it as the untamed ecology of an area.  Survival is about reading into the emergent system rather than the designed one.  Survival lets you understand and benefit from that.  Insight is for understanding a person, Survival is for understanding an environment.  I say emergent because it feels like it should work better in urban decay or a shanty-town than areas of law and order.

So here’s my attempt to write the general concept behind survival:

Survival is about understanding your surroundings on an implicit level and your ability to take advantage of resources and avoid hazards that emerge from the local environment.

Some traditional examples:

  • Find a safe place to camp at night
  • Assess the tide and determine how much time you have to cross the sandbar
  • Navigate a dry(ish) path through the swamp

Some non-traditional examples arising from my interpretation:

  • Recognize that you’ve moved out of one gang’s territory and into another
  • Find a street doc who will sew up your friend’s injuries, off the books
  • Stake a claim for the night in an abandoned building that won’t be challenged by vagrants
  • Find a route to your target using only rooftops

Some of those could be done other ways, depending on how the character approaches it, but I think this works for me.  I’ll put it to use and let you know how it goes.


What is The Dragonsmith?

This blog is an exercise in exploration.  I’m writing to explore ideas, to convert the nebulous thoughts in my head into a more direct form of communication and, in so doing, evaluate and refine those ideas.  I want to be a better Dungeon Master and this blog is going to be a tool for that.  I’m writing essays in the original sense of the word, attempts to understand by writing.

The Dragonsmith blog is also an exploration in the sense that I’m going to learn what it is by writing it.  I tried planning what it would be, but I’ve been doing THAT for years and, well… I wrote the first article a week ago because I sat down and DID it without stopping to plan.  So here is what I hope to accomplish with this blog but we’ll both have to wait to see how well these intentions match the outcome.

One caveat: I’m going to work hard not to polish these entries.  I have a tendency to let thinking get in the way of doing.  I’m committing here (and warning you) to getting words out rather than getting them perfect.  Maybe I’ll recant later, once I’ve established the habit of writing regularly.

Second caveat: I tend towards wordiness; suppressing my internal editor is not going to help with that.  The adage “I would have written you a shorter letter if I only had the time” applies strongly here.


One of my professors introduced me to the concept of Distributed Cognition.  I appreciated the usefulness so much I made it a fundamental part of my thesis (that thesis won’t be showing up in anyone’s citations, but it was meaningful to me) and I’ve used it as a lens for understanding tools and processes ever since.

It has been many years since I studied this topic, and things change often in science so please don’t take my word for any of this.  Seek out other sources if you want to learn more (and come back and let me know where I’m wrong).  For now, though, here’s how I understand the term.

Distributed Cognition is a metaphor for viewing our ability to think.  Thought, in this model, is not contained purely within our brains but is also spread (distributed, if you will) across time, tools, and people.  When I write a list, I’m distributing my cognition across time – thinking about what I need when I’m within reach of my pantry, where it is easiest to form those thoughts, and then carrying those thoughts in my pocket to the grocery store where I implement them.  When I discuss these ideas with you, and you respond with your own, we are distributing our cognition between ourselves and, together, are able to come up with better ideas than we could on our own.  When I make a circular template to represent an area of effect, I’m doing the slow part of the thinking out of view of my players and then embodying it in a physical tool so I never have to do it again.  Every time I use that template to map the wizard’s fireball, I don’t have to pause the game to count squares.  We can get right to the important business of working out the enemy-to-ally ratio within that circle.

DCog is one lens I use to focus my DM efforts.  And now this blog will become a part of that distribution.  If I do it right, we’ll get all three: time, tools, and people.

Annotated Adventures: Post Mortems

I want to talk about what I’m doing, where it’s working, and where it’s not but the venn diagram of “the set of friends interested in talking about D&D” and “the set of friends playing in my campaign” is just one big circle, all overlap.  Since that conversation is essentially about spoilers, my players are the absolute wrong group for it.  I’ll do that talking here, instead.  Even just formatting my inner thoughts for communication will help me, but I’m also hoping some of what I have to say will help you, and from there we can turn this into a conversation (distribute that cognition!) and all will benefit.

The Forge & The Encyclopedia Fantastica: Rules Hacks, Tools, and New Things

If you can take a device apart and put it back together, you understand the device.  If you can build a new one on your own, you understand the principles behind the device.  Also, sometimes I need tools or items in my game that I just don’t have, and sometimes I just have a cool idea I want to try. So we’ll do that here, too.  That moves us into the Synthesis stage of Bloom’s Taxonomy.  (And the rest of you are absolutely welcome to engage in that final stage – Evaluation – and tell me what works or doesn’t, how you’d apply it, or what changes you’d make.)

Forge entries are going to focus on the game aspect: structures, rules, and tools of play.

Encyclopedia Fantastica entries are going to focus on narrative and world-building.

Next Up

I’m hoping to present two to four entries a month.  I want one a week, and will strive for that, but I’m lots of things besides a blogger and I haven’t yet demonstrated a solid skill in juggling all of that effectively.  Wish me luck.

June’s theme for CreativeMornings is Survival.  Sounds like an excellent topic for D&D discussions.  I’m also still struggling with the system for Greater Rituals (I maybe bit off a bit more than I could chew there, but hey, it got me actually writing).  I’ll have articles about one or the other soon.

Greater Rituals

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…)

Greater Rituals

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.

Brandes’s Goals

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.

My goals

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?

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.

Some assumptions

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 Proposal

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:

  1. The power and scope of the attempted ritual (higher risks for higher rewards)
  2. 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)
  3. 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.

  1. It’s very difficult to get a perfect success (you add +20 to the DC by the time you’ve achieved four successes)
  2. 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:

  1. Specific Preparations
  2. A Guiding Will to shape the ritual
  3. A Source of Power to provide strength for the ritual
  4. A Ceremony to weave the separate pieces together
  5. 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.