“Trust her, child. In this she does the will of the loa.” ~ Maman Brigitte (Mona Lisa Overdrive, William Gibson, 1989)
There is something eerily fascinating about some of the ritualistic magic systems that have existed on this planet Earth. From vodou to the Lesser Key of Soloman to spiritual mediums, there are all kinds of magical traditions that have been used over the centuries to contact a realm beyond our own, and to invoke spirits and other entities for insight or power.
Authors from Poe to Lovecraft have often referred to magical rites which are based upon practices used by other cultures. Yet when twisted ever so slightly into their fictional works, seem alien enough to add to the perfect sense of horror and dread.
Even the cyberpunk author, William Gibson, created a creepy juxtaposition between the loa of vodou and artificial intelligences of cyberspace in his books Count Zero and Mona Lisa Overdrive. It was a truly unique concept when Gibson envisioned cyberspace “cowboys” making pacts with AI’s which had adopted the personalities of loa such as Legba and Baron Samedi in order to better interface with humanity.
Of course there has always been some kind of ritual magic in D&D and it has evolved quite a bit over time. Starting with spells such as Cacodemon and Contact Other Plane, ritual magic has progressed through many incarnations to its current form in D&D 4E. And I am a big proponent of the current way that Rituals work in 4E, and I think they have a lot to offer to Players and Dungeon Masters from both a role-playing and strategic point of view.
But now Zombie Sky Press has released a book of magical rituals for D&D 4E based upon “real” world myth and magical rites, blending both together to create Rituals from the Other Side: Spirit Magic.
Rituals from the Other Side: Spirit Magic
- Designers: Scott Gable, Uri Kurlianchik, Clinton Boomer
- Illustrators: Alice Duke
- Publisher: Zombie Sky Press
- Year: 2010
- Media: PDF (39 pages)
- Cost: $9.95
Rituals from the Other Side: Spirit Magic is a supplement for D&D 4E containing three ritual magic traditions based upon folklore and mythology from our own world. The supplement contains 18 new 4E Rituals which are specific to the magic systems, but could be adopted to almost any 4E world setting. Most of the Rituals are designed to be for the Paragon and Epic Tiers, and are therefore very powerful in their effects.
The production quality of RftOS: Spirit Magic is very good, and the book uses a landscape format to make it very easy to read the PDF on the computer screen. The ritual listings are presented in a logical fashion, but because many of the rituals are very complex, their layout differs slightly from what most 4E gamers are used to seeing. The artwork by Alice Duke is both fresh and mesmerizing, and really enhances the overall quality of the presentation.
In the opening pages, theAuthors’ introduction explains that the three types of ritual magic discussed in the supplement have a common theme – Spirit Magic:
Spirit magic is among the oldest and most rudimentary of magics. Neither fully arcane nor fully divine, spirit magic stands among the very roots of all magic. Using ritual magic, mortals commune with the spirits and negotiate an exchange of knowledge and power. The ritual simply creates a conduit between mortal and spirit, allowing communication. It is then up to the caster and the spirit to come to accord—based on pact, deference, or coercion. With agreement, the spirit becomes the agent for the ritual. In other words, the caster does not bring about a given effect but negotiates with a spirit to bring about an effect.
The three magic traditions discussed in Rituals from the Other Side: Spirit Magic are Vodou, The Middle World, and The Arcanum. The Authors give a bit of explanation as to each of these magical traditions, including which classes they would most likely benefit. It should be noted that one of the systems, The Arcanum, is mainly recommended for evil NPCs and villains.
The first tradition, Vodou, is probably somewhat familiar to most Readers, and RftOS: Spirit Magic offers recommendations on how to employ it to a campaign:
In the case of Vodou, the performance is very important: bards and rogues are very common. Many practitioners of Vodou are multiclassed. Practitioners are often of tribal cultures, but just as in the real world, Vodou is syncretic by nature and easily reconciled with other religions, emphasizing certain religious aspects over others. This makes Vodou an interesting option for clerics and druids, who would likely consider the loa as servants of their god or of nature. They might then focus on specific rites, such as those of the guede or rada.
The amount of “fluff” material presented regarding Vodou is prodigious and extremely well-researched, covering many aspects of the workings of the magical tradition such as the names and natures of some of the well-known loa (sprits of power), how they possess the practitioner, and how they can be entreated with offerings to do favors for the caster. But the actual amount of “crunch” is somewhat lacking, as only six rituals are covered over the course of nearly a third of the book (12 pages).
But the rituals that are presented are admittedly fascinating, such as Soulbound Zombi, which transforms a living creature into the casters servant by stealing its soul and memories, or Talisman, which creates an amulet that protects the user from magical attack. However, one has to wonder about the balance aspects of having high Paragon Tier Player-Characters that are capable of turning any lower level creature into their personal servant. Or a Character who can create an amulet that grants the ability to absorb an attack magical completely, at the loss of only a single healing surge.
And the centerpiece Ritual of vodou set, called Spirit Calling, was entirely lacking in details. This 11th Level ritual summons a particular loa to possess the caster, so that another person can cut a deal with it for information, or new rituals, or even temporary powers. But the nature of how much information the loa can impart or the type of temporary powers granted are left entirely up to the Dungeon Master. This left one of the six rituals feeling very vague, and requiring the DM to fill in a lot of information before it can be used by a Player.
The second tradition, The Middle World, draws its workings from the traditional folklore of Slavic cultures, particularly Russian culture, and in many ways resembles a type of folk witchcraft.
The Middle World
The Middle World is more in line with nature than the other systems presented here. This focus makes it well suited for druids and rangers. There is also a strong sense of championing ideals and, therefore, clerics and paladins can find benefit in this magic. Above all, this system is a system of rustic magic. It’s been passed down from mother to daughter and, most assuredly, lives on by word of mouth and tradition rather than by tome and scroll.
Much as the section on the Vodou tradition, The Middle World’s spirit-entities are lavishly described, including their nature, favorite haunts, and how they can be invited to serve the caster. The Authors clearly did considerable research into Slavic folklore in order to write this supplement, and it makes for a fascinating read. The rituals in The Middle World section are a bit better balanced than the vodou rituals, but many of them mirror effects that are already handled by application of less riskier rituals in D&D 4E. Query the Dead, for instance, is very similar to a Speak with Dead ritual. However, in The Middle World tradition, it takes 1d4 days to get an answer to your question, the answer arrives written in Supernal, and for the next 24 hours after receiving the answer, the caster must make a saving throw in times of stress to avoid acting as the deceased person who was contacted. I think that most Player-Characters would prefer to stick with a plain old Speak with Dead ritual.
And finally, The Arcanum most resembles the esoteric magical orders such as the Rosicrucians and the Order Templar Orientalis (or OTO). The OTO is well-known in certain circles due to its most infamous occult member: Aleister Crowley.
The Arcanum treasures dark, unknown knowledge above all else. It is the most dangerous of those systems presented, and likely, it is best suited to the realm of NPCs and villains. It can make an exciting backdrop to any adventure, lending an air of cosmic terror. Under the right circumstances, it could even be useful to PCs.
The Arcanum’s tradition of contacting and gaining powers from entities called “starry patrons” is deliciously Lovecraftian, and reminds me of the nature of the relationship between Rasputin and his “gods”, the Ogdru Jahad, as detailed in the first Hellboy movie. As with the previous sections, there is plenty of material regarding examples of “patrons”, their habits and manifestations, as well as the nature of arcane lodges, which are the secret societies that Arcanum adepts use to hide their practices.
The explanation of the lodges and their “patrons” turned out to be great inspirational reading. In fact, the “starry patrons” would fit perfectly at the top of the metaphysical food-chain in some horrifying Far Realm’s cosmology. And while there are only four rituals listed in this section, they are all of Paragon and Epic Tier, and represent some truly villainous and disturbing magic. An entire adventure arc could easily be written about dealing with the machinations of a Arcanum lodge, and trying to stop them from enacting rituals such as Flesh of the Starry Patron – creating a physical avatar of one of the “starry patron” entities!
Overall Grade: B
Rituals from the Other Side: Spirit Magic is an amazing book, and is filled with some great material, but has some serious flaws that one cannot ignore. The three magic systems detailed in the supplement contain fantastic amounts of “fluff” and represent some serious research on behalf of the Authors. But it is how all that research was translated into 4E which is a bit worrisome, and some of the rituals come off as being a bit unbalanced in what they can do, with some as over-powered and others under-powered. While the Authors recommend that The Arcanum tradition be reserved for evil NPCs and villains, I was actually left feeling that all the magic systems detailed in RftOS: Spirit Magic would be better suited to a Dungeon Master’s NPCs and monsters rather than the Players. Given the mixed receptions that Ritual Casting has already had in D&D 4E, it is unlikely many Heroes are going to want to use magic which has nearly the same likelihood to help them as to hurt them. The supplement’s magic traditions, though well-researched and fascinating, make ritual casting a very dangerous profession.
However, I also cannot deny that while reading through Rituals from the Other Side: Spirit Magic, the little DM in the back of my mind was slavering over the NPC and adventure plotlines one could create with this supplement. So if you’re a Dungeon Master who is looking for some really nasty cults and villains to add to their campaign, then I can definitely recommend this book to you. As a Player supplement of additional rituals it seems a bit pricey, but as a sourcebook for inspirational reading and adventure ideas, it’s worth a serious consideration for any Dungeon Master.
So until next blog… I wish you Happy Gaming!
Editor’s Note: This Blog’s Author received a complimentary copy of the product in PDF format from which the review was written.
- Presentation: A-
- - Design: B+
- - Illustrations: A
- Content: B
- - Crunch: B-
- - Fluff: A-
- Value: B-