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The Next D&D Homebrew: Reformation for Rituals

excerpt_4E_ritualsOne thing that still continues to baffle me, as a DM with two 4E campaigns, is why Rituals get so little attention and general use by my Players.  I wrote a blog previously about the issue entitled “What’s Wrong with Rituals” back in February 2010, looking into the causes of why Ritual use was so frequent in my games.  But even after implementing a few of the ideas, such as half price for buying rituals, and half price for casting them, I still find that my players rarely use rituals as part of their 4E experience.

In this ongoing series, The Next D&D Homebrew, I’ve been looking at what Houserules I want to add to my D&D 4E game to make it play better, and enhance the experience for both myself and my players.  Now for the most part to this date, I’ve been playing 4E “Rules-As-Written” with Errata Updates, and this version of D&D still continues to amaze me at how robust it is right “out of the box”, so to speak.  The RAW game works just fine, but there are a few tweaks I want to make in order to make it leaner-and-meaner.  But one thing that has been recently pointed out by my players is that this is an opportunity to bring in some role-play elements from previous editions that perhaps were not well represented in the 4E system.

My last article in this series, The Next D&D Homebrew: Ending Magic Item Dependency, was a bit of both in that it helped to fix a problem in the current system – the need to increase magic items enhancements – while also making it possible to end “wishlists”, and to have more random magic items in the game the way it used to be in the old editions.  I’m hoping to find a solution to increased Ritual use that will make them a bigger part of my campaigns, because not using Rituals is like not using the legacy of magic in Dungeons & Dragons.

The Arcane Legacy

At the height of OGL’s 3.5 edition D&D, three designers at WotC got together and made a big, bad, book of spells.  In 2005, Matthew Sernett, Jeff Grubb, and Mike McArtor created The Spell Compendium, and it contained more than 1000 spells in it for use by Wizards, Sorcerers, Druids, and Clerics, as well as many sub-classes like Bards, Assassins, and Paladins.  And this only accounted for SOME of the official D&D spells out there, from a variety of rarer sourcebooks, and it did not even touch on spells published by 3rd Party Publishers under OGL, or homebrew spells used in campaigns all over the world.

Now in transitioning to 4E, a great number of these spells did not make the cut, and that certainly caused some of the frustration by old school gamers who suddenly found themselves bereft of a favorite spell for their Wizard or Cleric characters.  But certainly there were some previous edition spells that ended up in 4E, translated into At-Will, Encounter, and Daily powers, and still others converted into the odd Utility power.  Of the remaining spells, there were those that were translated into Rituals, which seemed to be usually those non-attack utility spells which had either longer casting times, sustained effects, or spells which should not be cast during combats.

I was recently talking to a couple of my players, and we were discussing the issue of Vancian Magic from the L&L and blog articles of the D&D Next designers.  And one of my players commented that he hoped that if we were forced to go back to Vancian Magic in D&D Next, that at least it meant spellcasters might have those old school spells back in their repertoire again.  I recall blinking several times in disbelief, and pointed out that a lot of those “old school spells” were still in 4E, as either powers or as rituals.  But the retort to my assertion was that Rituals were practically useless, because they cost so much per casting that they were practically prohibitive, and not anywhere as useful as the older versions from which they were derived.

My player was right, of course.  For some reason, the designers of 4E Rituals decided to make them almost obscenely expensive to cast compared to similar spells from previous editions.  Simple and useful spells which used to have material components you could scavenge off a dungeon floor or pick from any wooded glade now require residuum in amounts of anywhere from 10 gold pieces to 125,000 gold pieces in value.  No one is arguing that becoming a lich should not be a massively expensive undertaking (Lich Transformation 125,000 gp), but is it worth 20 gp as well as owning a 25 gp focus really worth it for a character to gain the use of an Unseen Servant?

Wizard: OK, so I want to create an Unseen Servant to go fetch me dinner and clean my traveling clothes while we’re at the inn.

DM: Sure.  Do you have the focus?  It’s 25gp for a ceramic hand focus.

Wizard: Ouch. Ummm no, but let’s assume I bought one when I bought the ritual, ok?

DM: Oh, sure, not a problem.  So you cast the ritual and use 20 gold worth of residuum and…

Wizard: Uh, wait.  It costs me 20gp in residuum to cast the ritual… in addition to the hand thingee?

DM: Yea, but you get the servant until you take your next extended rest.

Wizard: You mean tonight?!  We’re at the inn, and about to take an extended rest… so I spend 20gp and the spell lasts until I sleep?!!

DM: Well yea.  But you could cast it in the morning and it will be with you all day then.

Rogue: Or you could just hire the bar wench for 5 gold and she can bring you dinner and clean your clothes… and I hear for an extra 10 gold she’ll come to your room later and…

DM: Yes… yes… so she’s an entrepreneur.  Did you want to cast the Ritual or not?

Wizard: Uh no… I’ll take the bar wench thank you… and the extras!!!

Honestly, how sad is it when casting a cool magical effect in a fantasy role-playing game becomes a major economic issue?  I know 4E was designed at the beginning of the Recession, but really, does that mean even in-game resources have to go through massive inflation?  And consider this: the old edition version of Unseen Servant used to require a piece of string and a stick to cast.  Yes, that’s right… string and a stick.  What’s the cost of that… like 2 coppers… assuming you can’t find a string and a stick on your own?

I started looking through Ritual after Ritual, and in many instanced, finding that the old edition equivalent – usually a comparable 3.5 edition spell – used components which could be found as scrap material (like soot, dust, water), picked up as junk from a shop (bit of fluff, string, yarn), or gathered for free during a trip across country (pinch of soil, cat hair, acorns).  And in quite a number of cases, the Ritual’s comparable old edition spell used no components at all!

Consider that much of old edition magic component “fluff text” was based upon Thaumaturgy, a system of arcane casting so eloquently described in the novel, The Master of Five Magics as “The Principle of Sympathy” or “Like produces like.”  Those old edition spells would often have components of negligible cost, like cat hairs, bull dung, a glass rod and fur, because they had meaning symbolically in a thaumaturgical sense.

I think that bringing those sorts of components back into D&D 4E Ritual spells would not only strengthen the bonds of those spells to older editions, but also make the cost negligible enough to make spellcasters want to use rituals more often.

The New Deal is the old Deal

So here’s the new houserules  I’ll be using with my players to get them even more enthused about casting Rituals, and to add some of the “old school” practices of spellcasting back into D&D 4E:

  • Cost of Rituals:  I’m cutting the cost of buying a Ritual and inscribing it is a ritual book in half.  Like I mentioned in my first ritual blog from 2010, the cost to purchase Rituals would often be nearly a third of the characters share from the monetary reward of a treasure parcel for that level, and that is simply too large a percentage of incoming wealth.
  • Material Components:  For a great many Rituals, the cost of casting them are going to become zero cost as their old edition counterparts were.  In fact, where appropriate, I’m throwing out residuum and going to allow characters to use the components from the old edition spells, which is most often gleaned or scavenged in the character’s travels.  Rituals from the Alchemy group or Enchant Magic Item will still retain the standard cost material, because these Rituals create items with substantial value in the game, and not just a temporary magic effect to gain knowledge or a utility funtion.
  • Availability:  For the most part, I plan to make most Rituals available for purchase in towns and cities.  But there will be some few, very powerful Rituals that must be quested after, after doing a little research, and laying plans for an expedition.  If a player wants his character to get such a ritual, I might rule that it can be found in some ruin (lost carvings on a wall) or from some fey creature (a quest into the Feywild).  I might even have a quest for a Ritual lead to some planar location, but this latter would be a high level adventure for a high level ritual, like Primal Grove or Soulguard or Lich Transformation.
  • Advanced Study:  Like the spellcasters of editions from bygone days, I’ve decided to let some rituals come into the campaign by advancement and study.  In previous editions, over the course of gaining a new level, a Wizard or Sorcerer would gain one or more new spells as part of studying and research in “down time”.  Similarly, for the six classes that gain the Ritual Casting Feat as part of their Class Features, I’m going to allow them to gain one ritual per level, equal to their new level or less, to add to their ritual spellbooks.  This makes being a ritual caster quite a reward, and I hope will get my players excited searching for their next new ritual they plan to add to their lists.
  • Rewards:  Finally, I’ve decided to add a ritual to one or two treasure parcels every level.  Usually these will be equal or lower level rituals, but I might throw in a higher level one every now and then just to keep things interesting.  I’m thinking that this also provides me a way to make sure that the characters have a ritual which might help them solve an adventure I’m planning down the road, which might reduce the chance they might get “stuck” over a plot issue during a quest.

Limiting Ritual Casting

At present, I am fairly unconcerned about limiting the number of rituals a caster can do in a day. I want to see what the players will do with this new “cost free” system and see if limitations become necessary, if at all.

Should it become necessary to limit ritual casting, I think that there are several options open to a DM that doesn’t involve making the act of casting a ritual overly pricey again:

  • Option 1: Characters can cast/assist 3 Rituals per day. This expands to 5 rituals at Paragon Tier, and 7 rituals at Epic Tier.
  • Option 2: Characters must spend healing surges to cast/assist in all rituals after their first one of the day. This gives every character one free casting, but makes subsequent rituals begin to fatigue the caster. Heroic Tier rituals cost 1 healing surge, Paragon Tier rituals cost two healing surges, and Epic Tier rituals cost 3 healing surges.
  • Option 3: Characters can cast/assist a number of Rituals per day equal to the ability score bonus for either INT or WIS, whichever is higher. Seeing as most rituals require a skill check that comes from a skill that uses either INT or WIS, the ability score modifier seems appropriate to use as a limit.

If you find any of these ideas about rituals interesting, I hope you’ll think about using them in your campaigns as well.  Please feel free to send me some feedback on what you do to make rituals more involved in your campaigns, or if you have any insights on what might make ritual use better in 4E.

So until next blog… I wish you Happy Gaming!

Image used from D&D 4E Player’s Handbook, Wizards of the Coast, 2008

About The Author

Michael is an Adept of a Secret Order of Dungeon Masters, and dwells in a hidden realm with his two evil cat-familiars, deep within the Vale of Wolverines, called by some "Michigan". He has been esoterically conjuring D&D Campaigns for nearly a Third of a Century, and has been known to cast ritual blogs concerning Dungeons & Dragons every few days with some regularity. Michael has freelanced for Wizards of the Coast, and writes reviews of D&D and other Role-Playing Game products on EN World News.


5 Responses to “The Next D&D Homebrew: Reformation for Rituals

  1. Dave Wainio says:

    In my campaign one player has stated an intent to collect every ritual he can find. I’ve tossed quite a few his way and he’s bought a few. But he has yet to actually use any of them. My canmpaign already has all magic at 1/2 PHB list price (and a roughly halved treasure haul so the net effect for using them was the same as base).

    I will take a look at the cast costs and reduce them again, maybe to 0 under a certain level.

    As a side note, I’m abou to start letting my players spend 3 healing surges to regain a daily during a short rest. They’re about to head into an expansive underground and I am looking for ways to keep them from wanting to find a side cavern and sleep for 6 hours after every other fight. Plus maybe speed up combat a bit by getting them to use their high damage attacks more often per session.

  2. Geek Ken says:

    I’ve posted plenty of tweaks about 4E rituals and have to agree that it’s something typically ignored by players. It’s a shame too. I’ve constantly asked my players to consider using them. They break the game for the DM and can totally throw a wrench into your plans. Every DM should push for their PCs to use em.

  3. alphastream says:

    I agree on the issues. Rituals are one of my remaining major areas of discontent with the edition (skill-challenge-disarm traps is technically another, though there are enough options to mitigate the issue).

    I’ve found I used them in campaigns were there was a heavy amount of exploration, a non-linear campaign style, and plenty of gold. In those situations you have the freedom to define what happens through a ritual rather than having the ritual be inconsequential. This is because in addition to what you mentioned, a ritual does very little in a linear game. Either the adventure does not expect a ritual, in which case the “problem” can be resolved without the ritual, or it does and the party is in trouble if they don’t use it (or its use seems scripted and forced).

    For me, all of this makes rituals a disposable part of the game. I generally ignore rituals unless a player brings them up. If they do then I try to incorporate them. But on the whole I just look for other ways to represent choice and clever problem solving. I would probably take a similar tack if I had to really include them, or maybe just a limit like “3 per day” with exceptions for very powerful ones. An additional issue is that some are strong and cheap at high levels – Comrades Succor is an example (it wipes out single-PC surge issues).

    In a future edition I would rather see them gone. Either make these spells/powers and clarify the language as needed or create a better system so you limit overuse but encourage creativity.

  4. Dave Wainio says:

    There is a plus side to ritual costs…..

    Currently my players have found a female noble cursed into horse form by a hag. The city leaders have not just sent the temple cleric to throw a free “remove curse” spell. They are debating who should pay the cost of the ritual. (Her family is far away and can’t easily be billed for the service). And the way remove affliction is written in 4E there is a significant chance the ritual might kill the girl unless the players find something that will improve the odds. (Which is free form house ruling by me, I devised a few ways to grant a bonus to the ritual skill check the players can go try to find).

    So the current ritual system can be used drive story and role play.

  5. @Dave – I just can’t get over the cost issue being the driving reason that rituals are not utilized. There are so many times during an adventure when a ritual could solve a problem faster, give a clue, help out after a combat, and so on, and the characters never even consider looking to rituals as an option. I’m trying to fix that.

    @Alphastream – I agree on the type of adventure/campaign there. The more sand-boxy an adventure/campaign is, and the more rituals can play an active part. But even in a linear adventure, a ritual can provide solutions, often surprising the DM. I want to bring back and enhance that magical part of D&D when characters start using all the resources at their fingertips to resolve the adventure/campaigns problems… and those times when they completely surprise you, and make you scramble to keep up with them for once!

    I noted that I did not add a section on controlling the use of rituals, and more specifically their overuse, in my blog. I did not consider it a priority at the time of the posting, because right now I have zero ritual use and can’t imagine the day when I will say “Ok guys… enough with the rituals already… I’m sending in monsters to stomp on your magic circles!” I’m editing the blog with a discussion of other limitations than hard currency, which I can only assume the designers intended when they made the ritual casting so expensive. Limiting the casting to X number of rituals per day per tier would make sense, or tying it to healing surges, or to INT/WIS ability score bonuses – all those limits I think are better than just making them a huge money drain on the heroes!

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