Spells in my Inbox

I grabbed a few phrases from the subject lines in my inbox and turned them into spells. As you might expect, they tended to be a little weird and often highly situational.  They’re mostly thought experiments and concepts rather than detailed spells but if I ever put them to use, I’ll come back to report on both the specific implementation and the results.

While I’m not specifying editions here my designs, as usual, tend to be rooted in an assumption of D&D 5e rules and situations.

Hi-Lo Filtering.   As Magic Circle but the caster’s height becomes the limiting factor, instead of creature type.  Creatures are divided into two groups: those that are taller than the caster, and those that are shorter than the caster.  The caster chooses which group is excluded and which group is permitted to pass the barrier.  Those that are about the same size as the caster are unaffected by the circle.

NOTES: This one is mostly whimsy, but I could see dwarves or giants putting it to use for security at a moot or to trap a particular type of enemy.  There’s no reason to leave it limited to height, either.  Another variant could allow the caster to pick any physical feature (horns, the ability to breath fire, the one-armed man…) and either make that a challenge for PCs to overcome if they want to eavesdrop or a clever way to filter out a suspected assassin or… there are lots of things clever PCs (or villains) could do with a barrier that only exists for people with a specific attribute.

NOTES 2: Huh, all my assumptions in the Notes above seem to expect that this is being placed on a doorway or around a room.  Maybe this should be a way of securing a location rather than a Magic Circle replacement.

Missed Conversation. The caster chooses one creature with whom they are familiar.  The caster can plant a simple conversation between themselves and the target in the target’s memory. The target will make allowances for discrepancies and recall the conversation as if it were real.  Major discrepancies can break the illusion and garble the message.  Target gets a save based on the complexity of the conversation and the likelihood of the memory.  The target can choose to fail this save.

NOTES: This is either a way to fool someone into thinking you had a previous deal or a way to pass information to an ally without others being aware you’re doing it.  The “major discrepancies” bit is there to keep PCs from trying to plant ridiculous memories (“Oh yes, now I remember agreeing to give you half my kingdom!”).  I may actually use this soon, to be cast by a chatty enemy who is getting frustrated at the ranger’s repeated and immediate use of the Silence spell.  It will have a somatic component but no verbal component.  Neither magical silence nor noisy rooms would hinder this message.

Cold Season. Target starts to come down with a cold.  Choose one

  • Aches and pains: Target has difficulty getting the benefits of a rest (either taking more time or having a risk of failure)
  • Coughing and sneezing: Target has disadvantage on stealth checks.
  • Runny nose: Target has disadvantage on charisma checks.
  • Headache: Target has disadvantage on concentration checks and intelligence checks.

NOTES: I like the idea of also being able to pass this on to others with whom the afflicted spends time.  Not sure where this would see use, though.  Probably mostly in traps or as attempts by rivals to cause non-lethal trouble?  It has some combat utility against casters and rogues but I suspect there are almost always going to be better uses for spell slots in combat.

Isolate. Caster chooses target using the same targeting rules as a divination spell.  Missives, messages, and any other kind of indirect communication will go astray for the duration of the spell.  Anyone attempting to contact the target magically is aware that their message is not being received unless the spell has a natural chance to fail (such as Animal Messenger).  Caster chooses if the target is isolated from incoming messages, outgoing messages, or both.

NOTES: This is basically radio jamming for an individual: prevent someone from calling for help or make it harder to send a warning.

Synchronize. Caster touches up to 5 people with a small chime.  Willing recipients become linked to the chime for the duration of the spell.  Those connected to the chime will hear it inside their heads each time it rings while the spell is active.  Sleepers will be woken by the sound.  The link will be severed if the chime or the target creatures are subjected to anything that blocks divination, become the targets of an effect that negates or dispels magic, or move to separate planes.
Variant. The caster selects a group and then a time, either a specific time (noon on the 4th) or a relative time (six hours from now).  At precisely the stated time, each of the affected creatures will hear a single clear chime.  The chime is loud enough to wake sleepers.

NOTES: I couldn’t decide which I’d prefer so I offer both.  As the name is meant to suggest, I started designing this thinking about coordinating heists and the like, but the first variant could also be a useful sort of alarm system.  In both cases, the sound is mental at the receiving end but a physical at the sending end.  A magical silence at the sending end would prevent anything from going out.


Applying the Triple Rule

Chris McDowall posted about Bastion’s Triple Rule in September.  I liked the approach and applied it a few times to see if I could make it work for me.  Results below.

Place: The Monsignor’s Cake

  1. Giant birthday cake baked for the Monsignor’s 150th birthday.  Never eaten.  Still sustained in the ballroom today by the magics used to help it hold its form for delivery.
  2. Contained a secret compartment to smuggle in the Terragio assassin family, the incident that kicked off the War of the Black Candle
  3. Now home to sentient shrews who roam the castle at night when ghosts of the combatants have faded for the day

Place: Gregor’s Spindle

  1. A large pillar of rock above a wave battered coast: home to a series of standing stones placed in wind carved caverns for observing the Wandering Star
  2. Caves have been retrofitted as a flood emergency stash – locals retreat here when the tide bells ring (this could go poorly if the Wandering Star is in ascension)
  3. Highest local peak, convenient for a local death observance: flinging the Star Torches used to mark the death of a loved one.  From a distance the plummeting flame looks like a falling star.

Object: Dwarf Type Blocks

  1. Fist-sized movable type blocks, dwarf forged, intricate and precise, for embossing tin shaft banners (flat print not being legible to the colorless darkvision)
  2. Two bound together at the end of a stick make an excellent warhammer for the goblins who found the stash of type blocks in the abandoned sling line
  3. Heated, the warhammer can be used as a serviceable branding tool, or a way for the goblins to count their kills after a battle, by comparing bruise marks on the dead.  Particularly brutal strikes can leave a permanent bruise that is quiescent and subtle most of the time but becomes tender and ugly when in the presence of goblins

Person: The Lux

  1. Poor street rat who worked his way to prominence in the city
  2. Now runs an extravagant hotel service that caters to gaudy new money, the kind the local aristocrats detest and sneer about
  3. Needs to spend some time sleeping beneath the stairs each week or he starts to panic

Person: Gargantua Castille

  1. Halfling who worked as a porter for a band of adventurers
  2. Caught on the wrong end of a permanent enlarge spell and now performs as a freak in a wandering circus
  3. Sets that job aside in early fall to help her family harvest apples, kind of a mixed blessing for them since she can reach more/faster than they can but she eats a lot of the product as she goes

Place: Shady Rest

  1. Cemetery cleared out by a fastidious necromancer who put (almost) everything back the way it was once he took the bodies he needed (i.e all he could find)
  2. The empty graves have been repurposed as sleeping spaces for those attempting to avoid public notice (could be an underground railroad, a smuggling ring, an adventurer support network where adventurers are outlawed, or all of the above)
  3. Cranium Rats living in the central hill use their tunnels to get close to the graves and study the occupants as they sleep. Several sleepers have awoken in the morning with a new purpose.

Person (sort of): The Durwinia Collective

  1. A rat nest caught in the psychic backlash of the final battle between Lady Durwinia and the Mindflayer Thurzum the Glad, now a cranium rat nest
  2. Believe they are the reincarnation of Lady Durwinia, slowly trying to reassemble herself
  3. Have a fondness that nears addiction to sweets but are slowly approaching a schism between individual members of the nest over whether toffees or candied nuts are best

Ship: Aster’s Vengeance

  1. Originally the ship Aster’s Verity, the last cog built for the Asteran navy
  2. Turned pirate after the destruction of Aster by star-stones that had been called down upon the city-state by the mage nation of Pytherium.  The captain renamed the ship Aster’s Vengeance and used the melted slag from the star stones to armor her. In an unexpected, but welcome development, the star-metal made her invisible and immune to many of the magics of the Pytherium College.  Now the captain puts that feature to use harassing ships with Pytherium colors or traveling from Pytherium ports.
  3. Regularly takes smuggling jobs when funds are low or favors needed.  The Aster’s Vengeance and her crew and have become the preferred partner for the Gallant Company when that organization takes a mercenary contract that requires crossing the Orobric Seas.

Object: The Flint Dagger

  1. Crafted by early peoples as a tool for butchering drakes and wyverns; others like it are common at archaeological sites in the area
  2. This one was used in the first murder, and then in the killer’s execution.  And then again and again.  It embodies death and can impose mortality on the immortal.  Figures prominently in numerous legendary assassinations and murders; although its bearers rarely survive long once they start using it.
  3. Lonely, seeks the company of others its age.  Will eventually return to museums, collections, or dig sites.

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 anydice.com 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.