My friend Sean Holland is hosting this month’s RPG Blog Carnival, and his topic is Occult Mysteries and Magic. This topic is, of course, near and dear to my heart in gaming, so I hasten to join in. Now magic in D&D doesn’t have a long history of being all that mysterious or occulted – you know, hidden? It tends to be flashy and largely divorced from any mythic foundation. There’s nothing wrong with that; it’s in keeping with 50% of Jack Vance’s style in Dying Earth. The half they left out is unpredictability and rarity. I don’t really want to go down the road of adding in more unpredictability (because most of Vance’s magic items are reskins of the wand of wonder, from the protag’s perspective) or rarity (low magic is the right answer for some games, but it’s counter to D&D’s default state for sure). Instead, I want to offer an optional rules block for secretive magic, spells performed only under the cover of darkness, the kind that sparks a witch-hunt just to find out who the caster was.
The other part of this is that 4e introduced ritual casting as a piece of gameplay, something you might want to do for a wide variety of utility effects. Admittedly, watching the development over time of ritual design in 4e was painful, as they look for ever thinner slices of non-combat gameplay to ritualize, and the core mechanics came across as a vending machine of effects rather than magic. 5e cut the monetary cost from these rituals, which is something of a mixed blessing, and also cut the skill checks… even more of a mixed blessing. But then, 5e also cut way back the variety of things you can accomplish with rituals, and other than people trying to powergame Leomund’s tiny hut, the existing rules do their job and do not shit the bed. Bards, clerics, druids, and wizards natively gain ritual casting. Pact of the Tome warlocks can pick up the Book of Ancient Secrets Invocation to gain it; this sounds costly, but they can learn any class’s ritual spells (but only as rituals). Any character with an Int or Wis of 13+ can pick up the Ritual Caster feat for the ability to learn and cast one class’s rituals. The fact that Cha 13 doesn’t satisfy the feat prereq but it can be your spellcasting stat, and bards already get Ritual Caster, tells me that this is specifically about pushing sorcerers to have an Int or Wis of 13+.
Okay, but we’re talking about an optional rules addition. I would like to:
- build a foundation of support for rituals as climactic encounters
- give familiars a supporting role in rituals, since that’s traditionally one of the reasons to have a familiar
- give groups of non-spellcasting characters a supporting role in rituals, because I feel like that’s how cults should work
- break some of the limitations that are good balance considerations in typical spellcasting, but can be safely ignored in downtime activity (conjure spells spring to mind)
Expanded Ritual Caster
The rules for ritual casting found in the Player’s Handbook describe what a character can accomplish alone. With the aid of one or more other people, things get more involved. With the opposition of one or more other people, things get… interesting.
When you cast a greater ritual, you can generate a much wider variety of effects than with normal ritual casting – almost as wide a variety as conventional spellcasting. Define the effect and target of a greater ritual. For these quick and dirty rules, we’ll leave it at that, but I’d like to come back to this and drill down to specifics at some point. Anyway, what you do needs to work within the general theme of your power.
The DM assigns a DC, treating 10 as a base for “1st-level-equivalent beneficial, hostile, or miscellaneous effect, targeting a single creature or 5-ft square within 1 mile.” Each of these elements that you increase adds 5 to the base DC for each step of increase. A “step” is obvious for spell level comparison. For targeting, each doubling of creature targets or 5-ft-side-length (so 2, 4, 8, 16 people or 10 ft, 15 ft, 20 ft square) adds 5 to the base DC. For range, each order of magnitude increases the DC by 5. In a whole lot of cases, going to higher-level spell effects as benchmarks also intrinsically increases the number or area targeted – that’s fine, enjoy your discount. Probably you have to be able to cast whatever spell you’re using as your benchmark.
This ritual generally takes 4-8 hours to cast. There’s usually a baseline cost in mystically-appropriate material components, equal to a spell scroll of the benchmarked spell level.
If you are unopposed, roll a series of 5 checks, alternating between the skill most relevant to the ritual you’re casting and spell attack rolls against your current DC. You can choose which type of check to start with. Each success increases the DC of the next check by 5. Each failure reduces the DC of the next check by 5, and requires you to pick a Cost or Consequence that you must pay at the end of the ritual. If you wind up with more failures than successes, the spell fails; you still have to pay all Costs and suffer all Consequences.
If you are opposed with magic from afar, the spellcasters opposing you also roll a series of 5 checks, using the same base DC you are using. Their failures generate Costs or Consequences that they have to resolve separately. Their successes add Costs or Consequences that you must pay or suffer at the end of your ritual. If they roll more successes than you do, your spell fails, but you can reduce the total Costs and Consequences by half, as some of the ire of the Powers is turned on those who oppose you.
If you are opposed with violence during the course of your ritual, you must maintain Concentration on your ritual according to the normal rules; however, this Concentration is secondary and distinct from your ability to concentrate on a normal spell.
There are a number of things you can do to improve your skill checks and spell attack rolls; these apply to both casters and those opposing from afar.
- Expend a spell slot to gain a bonus to the roll equal to the spell slot level. You may spend only one spell slot in this way per check or attack roll.
- If there are multiple casters working cooperatively, appoint one caster as the leader (primus or ensi). Each additional caster can expend a spell slot to add a bonus to the leader’s rolls equal to half the spell slot level.
- Through certain techniques, it is possible to invest one’s familiar with one’s own spell slots. The familiar can only spend them to add a bonus to the leader’s rolls, again equal to half the spell slot level.
- Through certain mysteries, it is possible to invest a collection of people experiencing religious ecstasy with one’s own spell slots, in the same way described for familiars. This collection of people must number at least 5, and may be as many as hundreds. Any in the group who are not moved with religious fervor are not simply not counted.
- Something something also bards and druids
- Times and locations of great significance can grant advantage to one or more rolls. Some times or locations might only help the first roll, only the last, or only rolls made while a ritual is opposed.
A collection of sample Costs and Consequences:
- Attract the attention of an inimical power or group (of any scale). You can select this multiple times, dramatically scaling up the immediacy and severity of the response.
- A minor curse is upon you for one turning of the moon (bane for one month; cannot be removed with remove curse).
- Consume material components equal to 500 gp per equivalent spell level. This may include structural damage. (This is in addition to any baseline cost.)
- A moderate curse is upon you for one turning of the moon (bestow curse for one month; cannot be removed with remove curse).
- Obvious signs of uncontrolled power, such as Fortean phenomena.
- You are drained of all Hit Dice, and regain 1 Hit Die per long rest for one month.
- One spell that you know is permanently burned from your mind. If you are bard, sorcerer, or warlock, you can replace this spell among your Spells Known in one month.
- One magic item in your possession (or to which you are attuned, if none are in your possession) crumbles to dust.
Some Intended Ritual Effects
Conjure spells that last a lot longer than one combat, without going straight to casting gate
Manor-wide blessing/wasting of the fields
County-wide infliction/curing of disease
Manipulation of fortune (bless or bane) throughout the house
Weaken/strengthen outsider presences in a region (advantage/disadvantage on saving throws against banishment, possibly automatic banishment or dimensional locking for celestials, fey, and fiends up to a certain CR)
Draw a curtain of deep mists over a whole valley, lasting for weeks
Weakening/strengthening all uses of one form of damage in a region (dampening all fires, maybe)
In general, this is a first step toward a bridge between the extant rules and some of the ideas one often wants to throw around in the story, but sometimes one grinds to a halt when it comes time for the action to happen; it also begins to support domain-scale magic for games that don’t bring in the whole structure of Birthright. Usually I would try to sand off a lot more of the rough edges before posting, but I am very sick right now. I would like to get a few more of my very smart and appetizing readers thinking about this and… did I say appetizing? I am quite sure I meant a different word there. This isn’t the British Navy.
I freely admit that the core functions I’m drawing on are heavily inspired by a very vague knowledge of Ars Magica and a much, much better working knowledge of Mage: the Awakening.
Anyway, let me know what you think, and maybe we can give spellcasters more ways to practice secret rituals that do interesting things outside of combat and dungeon exploration.
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.