D&D 5e: Rituals and the Occult 8

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.

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8 thoughts on “D&D 5e: Rituals and the Occult

  • Rob

    This would be a valuable expansion for my campaign and I’m having all the thoughts about how to implement it. I can definitely see a place for large scale rituals in an adventure. Giving them a systematic structure would be useful to both GMs (here are some hooks and levers and enough structure to respond to players doing something completely unexpected) and players (consistency boosts PC agency in how to disrupt or prevent a ritual)

    So, here are some of my thoughts and reactions, in no particular order:

    How do you interact with a ritual whose effect is ongoing but whose performance is over? (I have IDEAS about this 🙂

    I brute-forced some of this in Excel (attempting to work out the actual probability was apparently an act of hubris on my part). If my formulas are right (and they may not be), you have to be both skilled and well prepared to pull off a ritual without cost or consequence. A 20th level wizard with 20 intelligence can’t fail a 1st level ritual BUT if they wing it, they WILL face at least one cost or consequence. A 1st level wizard could pretty easily handle a 1st level ritual with the right preparation but is still likely to face consequences. Sounds about right.

    Any wizard with a combined bonus of 5 or higher (reasonable to assume proficiency bonus 2 and stat +3 at 1st level) cannot fail all 5 checks unless you’re starting with a DC of 30 or higher. So opposing anything lower level than that will automatically add at least one cost to the original ritual. Ok, these are finicky things and anyone getting in your way is going to cause at least some trouble. A 1st level wizard has about a 1/20 chance of stopping a 20th level wizard from completing a 1st or 2nd level ritual.

    Related: Can anyone in this group choose to STOP performing all 5 checks? What happens if they abandon the process, do the last two count as failed or not attempted? After I’ve failed twice, is it better to bull through or stop now and accept the consequences before I make things worse?

    Those 5 checks in a row feel arbitrary to me. And alternating spell attack vs check seems dissociated. What is the character deciding when they choose to start with one or the other? I’d prefer to assign them to something specific; this would guide the consequences but add more restrictions in an area that we may want to give the GMs latitude.

    In my attempts to adapt this, I’m looking at adding a structure all greater rituals must follow, reflected in the 5 checks.
    Roughly, rituals could require Preparation (including material components, timing, etc), a Guiding Will (i.e. the primary caster), a Power Source (ley lines, sacrifice – human or even magic item, the chants of a 100 worshippers), a Point of Focus (a tome, an idol, a particular victim or beneficiary), and a Performance (the act of actually completing the ritual).

    Now you know what you’re attempting or opposing and this gives some cues for how it’s playing out in the game: “you pit your will against the high priest” or “they’re syphoning power from you”. Each of those items is a hook for adventuring or a sink for resources
    This also answers the “how to interact with ongoing effects” In my mind, if a ritual effect is going to continue or be renewed, one or more of those aspects needs to persist (and can thus become a target of enemy interference). This covers things like a king’s procession to all of his holdings to renew his connection to his land (performance repeated), the lich’s reliance on her phylactery (focus), or the reason all the other mummies crumble and vanish when the original mummy is destroyed (Force of Will)

    • Brandes Stoddard Post author

      Rob, thank you for this in-depth response. I am immensely happy that this is useful to you! To respond in detail:

      After it’s over: I figure one can attempt a counter-ritual to undo an effect when it’s already too late to break a performance, but I’m open to suggestions here. This was not something I considered to any degree.

      Math: I’m not at all displeased to hear that rituals will almost always have a consequence, but I might like to bring top-end rituals down toward attainability a bit. As I suggested in the text, these were quick and dirty numbers not based on even casual testing, so thank you for tackling that.

      Opposition: Pleased to hear that opposition almost always has a point. =) I figure that if you want to fink out on an incomplete ritual, you’re eating accrued consequences, and if the DM wants to have the whole deal backlash still worse, they’re still within the bounds established by the fiction, if not made explicit in the rules. But you’re probably better off at 2 consequences and a ruined ritual than 5 consequences and a ruined ritual.

      Checks: I mean, yeah, it is arbitrary as far as that goes. What I’m angling for here is a solution to some of the messiness of 4e skill challenge procedure, when PCs are solving a problem in an open-ended way but need to keep justifying only their best skills (and maybe only the best skill of the most-skilled character). But I also didn’t want just 5x Int (Arcana) rolls, and using a spell attack roll is about drawing on something that a bard or rogue can’t just pick up expertise in. (Also, something that might plausibly be boosted by magic items.) I’m open to a different process here, though I’ll suggest keeping at least one spell attack roll – even as arbitrary as it is. It’s also kinda the best stand-in for a 3.x-like caster power check, not that that’s exactly a strong argument.

      I like what you’re doing with all of those suggestions, and I know I don’t have the drive right now to bring this into fruition – so if you do, run with it.

      • Rob

        Thanks for posting it 🙂 You hit at a good time. Rituals are having a strong impact in my campaign but I hadn’t thought of them as something I could approach from this angle. I think everyone around my table, myself included, will benefit from the existence of a cohesive system. Each ritual can be radically different in tone, but if they have enough structural similarities, PCs can develop their own tools to deal with them. That feels much better to me than because-the-DM-said-that’s-how-it-works-this-time.

        So, great, if you’re okay with me taking this and running with it, I think I will. I’ll aim to share that next week. (but, uh, not in your comments section – sorry about the book up above… I’ll provide a more appropriate link when I’ve got it)

        Also, just to be clear, I don’t have any particular objection to the alternating spell-attack/ability-check, I was just concerned that picking one or the other to start with felt like a player decision rather than a character decision and then felt like just repeating checks without a tie to the world. I missed the reference to skill checks. I never played 4e. My hiatus in D&D pretty much fell perfectly around the existence of 4th Edition, for reasons completely unrelated to it. I’ll keep that in mind as I work through my own ideas.

        • Max

          I’d also appreciate it if you could link it to me as well, Rob. This has instantly filled a gaping hole in my campaign, so it would be nice to see a more detailed analysis.

          • Rob

            Done. Well, half-done. I spent some time in the last two weeks thinking and drafting ideas. I’m afraid I don’t yet have a real system or tool to use, but I have a better understanding of what I want to do and some inklings of how to do it. I’ll keep working at it, and come back with something that other people, besides myself, might actually find useful. For now, part one is here: https://thedragonsmith.wordpress.com/2017/05/23/first-blog-post/

            (Warning: I do not get LESS wordy when using my own platform…)