Putting Your Heart Into Rituals

Sarah Darkmagic - Posted on 20 October 2010

On Twitter yesterday a few of us had a discussion about rituals prompted by Stephen Radney-MacFarland's post on NeoGrognard. If you haven't read the post, I suggest you do, especially the first part of it where he discusses the importance of the D&D story to some players and how the game fosters its own culture around it. If you don't believe me when I say these things, perhaps you'll believe him.

But I digress. One issue with rituals in their current form is that they often require some form of gold, either one takes the gold rewarded from treasure and buys component costs or the dungeon master kindly does that for you by just giving you components for the ritual in a treasure bundle. Since they are then part of the overall treasure system, I think they become even more costly. Given that much of the time they are used for story reasons, this cost is too high for many players to justify. Why would I spend 50 GP to obtain create campsite and then spend another 15 GP of components each time I wanted to cast it? Compare that with ward campsite, which requires a 50 GP initial purchase and then a healing surge each time it is cast.

The latter ritual is more in line with what Stephen recommends in his post. He thinks ritual casters should be able to convert healing surges into component cost. Storywise, they would give part of their life energy to the ritual they perform and it's something they can't get back until they have an extended rest. On Twitter, @KatoKatonian argued that we would see a return to the 5 minute work day with this, but to be honest, I don't see that happening because of this. I think it's much more likely that a 5 minute work day results from loss of daily powers. Besides, a DM should make these decisions count, even if it means a random encounter to drive the PCs forward.

Another argument @KatoKatonian made was that this violates the original intent of healing surges which is healing. However, I don't think that narrow intent was really there. For instance, the blood mage utility power soul burn allows a character to trade their ability to heal for the chance of doing more arcane damage by allowing the reuse of a encounter power. And even if the original intent was there, it's clear from the some of the newer rituals that they don't intend to keep it. Martial Power 2 has a number of martial practices (rituals) which use healing surges as their form of currency.

A few people also expressed the fear that using an unbounded resource such as healing surges would unbalance the game. I don't think this will be the case. I think PCs still need to purchase the ritual which is a significant investment. If we wanted to limit it further with cost, we could require a focus for particularly strong rituals, which itself could be the subject of a side quest or awarded in a treasure parcel. Some rituals already have this built in.

Of course, this wasn't the first time this subject has come up and I doubt it will be the last. If you are interested in the subject of rituals, @ThadeousC discusses them a lot on his site and he has a great post about getting players to use them.

While I think this change could result in more ritual use, I don't think it's the main problem. But that's a topic for another day.


I'm not really bothered one way or another what commodity is spent on rituals. All the above suggestions are fine.

What really excites me are rituals themselves. I think they have massive untapped potential. All the most interesting spells from previous editions are now rituals. Rituals feel much more magical and spell-like than the in-combat powers (which generally boil down to damage and combat status effects - yawn).

Rituals are mysterious and evocative. Rituals are what magic is really all about.

I guess you can simply say 'rituals are plot'. But they are plot in the most exciting way - plot that is the players' idea, rather than the DM's. The DM is going to have to react quickly and with flair, just as they do when the PC's decide to do anything splendidly unexpected and inspired.

So why does such an exciting aspect fall a little flat in the rule-books? I'm not sure. Maybe it's the half-hearted descriptions of each ritual, which make it too easy for a player to commit the magical equivalent of "I search for treasure".

I suspect it may be because of the wishy-washy non-definition of magic in D&D. To really get the most out of this world-changing magic, the DM needs to have some idea of what magic is like in his world, how it appears and what spell-casters understand about it. That's a pretty tall order. I enjoy doing that, but it's never easy and some people are going to hate it. It would have been nice of D&D to offer us a range of choices - will magic in your world be A, B, C or something else?

I'm going to write another post about it, but I'll give a quick preview here. I think the problem with rituals is that they require time and space during game play for them to happen. DMs need to give players time to come up with creative, non-combat solutions to in game challenges and create opportunities to use rituals. Players need to know which rituals exist and come up with interesting ways to use them. Table time needs to be spent to set up the scene and make it awesome. Even if we made rituals free in game, without these things they would still seem a bit out of place. This isn't limited to rituals alone, but part of a larger problem with how many groups react to the 4e rule set, at least in my opinion.

Here's a dirty secret: I've played a number of wizards in 4E, and I've never used a ritual. Not once.

Probably this is because most of the games have been one-shots or very short campaigns, very encounter/combat oriented. But I think the fact that they have a significant resource cost is also a factor. I like the healing surge idea; not only does it reduce the fixed resource cost, but it actually encourages players (like me) who might have let rituals slip off their radar to consider them. It's the end of the day, and I have two healing surges left. Are there any rituals I want to cast before calling it a night? That sort of thing.

I think the current problem with rituals isn't the cost involved, but how they don't fit the pacing of the game.

For the most part, if the party wants to, they have all the problem solving options of previous editions. However, they're tied to rituals that take way too long to do. 15 minutes to prepare and cast a zone where no one can lie gives plenty of time for people to run away. Casting a spell to figure out which way a vilian went in a chase takes too long.

The other problem is that you as a DM have to adjust treasure for ritual use. While you can still solve any mystery if you want to spend the Gold for it, doing so takes away magic items from the fifth player.... .... of course, with them going hodgy podgy and changing the treasure system, I can't be sure if they have aggravated the situation or improved it. In either case, players who have studied the game are hesitant to cast because they know that if they do, it'll unbalance things.

I still love rituals, and I wish I could convince other players to let me USE them in a game, but I've never seen them actually get used. Alchemy ends up being more used.

Also, does ANYONE else but me realize that Alchemical Items can't be used unless you own the Alchemy Feat, by the way the rules are written? This has been bugging me for some time...

We had this come up in our last campaign. Rope Trick costs 2,500 gp, plus a 2,000 gp focus, plus 1,000 gp per casting. An Exodus Knife costs 13,000 gp once and nothing to use. On the ninth casting, the exodus knife starts saving you money. In addition, you can blithely use the exodus knife whenever you want. You'll typically only spend the GP for Rope Trick when you expect problems.

I think healing surges should be an option on most rituals. Especially if you don't limit it to the person casting the ritual. For parties it would allow the paladin to sacrifice part of his life to raise a comrade. For enemies it would allow the BBEG to perform a human sacrifice to power his evil ritual. But I do think there should be some balancing factor to prevent evil PC's from taking advantage of this too much. I'd say that surges willingly donated are worth double.

I also think that people can use appropriate skills to harvest components from elite and solo monsters. The skill used to harvest would be the same one they use for monster knowledge, and that is also the skill the components apply to. "Let's see, I have fifteen dragon scales and a spectre's last breath, but I'm all out of devil beard."

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