Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Spell Casting as Ritual for D&D

When scanning other OSR blogs, I come across other bloggers that have returned to older editions after playing some 4E.  I loosely think of us as Stalwarts and Prodigals - the Stalwarts either never left, or abandoned WOTC much earlier (like early 2000's) and the Prodigals are folks like my group that gave 4E an extensive run but ultimately found the experience too different and went back to an older system.

One of the biggest adjustments my group had to make was when I started making encumbrance, light, and resource management a center piece of the game.  Suddenly, tough choices needed to be made each session about gear.  Tracking rations was meaningful.  Getting loot out of the dungeon presents consistent logistical challenges.  (I point this out just to highlight that encumbrance capacity is a valuable resource in old D&D).

One thing 4E did was split magic between combat and non-combat magic.  Combat spells became "powers" that characters used primarily in encounters; utility spells were converted to rituals.  In order to use a ritual, a caster needed it in his book, needed material components, and needed time (typically 1 turn).  Note:  a lot of 4E players *didn't* like the ritual implementation, because the material components costs eat into the party's ability to buy uber-gear, since treasure is primarily used to buy better magic items.

Scrolls could fill the role of rituals in older D&D.  The resource and time costs are high to write a scroll (unless you're playing Holmes edition) but the encumbrance penalty of scrolls is non-existent.  Given time and money, all utility spells could be managed as scrolls.

An alternate approach would be to allow spells to be cast as rituals.  I'm lazy and not interested in rewriting the magic system, so I wouldn't split the spell lists or classify combat vs non-combat spells.  I would just add a house rule that any spell could be cast on the fly with sufficient ritual components and time.  (This would be different than using the spell book as a scroll; it wouldn't consume the page).

A simple system could use the geometric chart below, where each spell level has a material items cost.  Every 100gp of material components would cost 1 encumbrance slot.  We're not playing 1E AD&D, so there are no current material components required.  We *are* using the LotFP encumbrance system which uses item slots to quickly generate encumbrance on the fly.  Most players can have about 10 slots filled, more if unarmored, less if heavily armored, and still move at a good rate.  Some small items either don't encumber or take a single slot for a group (like arrows in a quiver).  Encumbrance slots are definitely at a premium - it's common for the group to be dropping gear mid-adventure in order to pick up more items.

I would estimate a typical group could free up 4-8 encumbrance slots (maximum) for material components if they were really pushed (not counting bags of holding or similar workarounds).  Higher level spells wouldn't be practical as rituals cast in the dungeon, but could be done back at the home base if there was a store of components.

For exploration, this would mean many common utility spells (read magic, read langugages, knock, levitate, etc) could be done on the fly by consuming resources and performing the ritual.  Right now, when those situations come up, the choice is to camp and prepare the necessary spells.  The costs to the player are time, the risk of wandering encounters, and the opportunity costs from not continuing.

Allowing a ritual approach shifts the problem into one of logistics and planning (expending money up front and planning encumbrance to allow for some components).

I would suggest allowing this for both magical and clerical spells, but requiring separate types of components for each.  While both groups might use chalk and candles, the magic user might require eye of newt, toe of frog, wool of bat and tongue of dog and all that stuff… the cleric might need incense and censers, holy water, symbols, bells, special stoles and vestments.  Either way, the components get ruined and consumed.

Current Approach:
Utility spells often get ignored at first in lieu of combat spells.  When the group needs a utility spell, they retreat and camp (sacrificing time) or burn a scroll if they have one.  For important utility spells, the group might consider making scrolls.

Proposed Approach:
Utility spells still would get ignored in lieu of combat spells.  However, when planning an adventure, the group could budget for some utility spell usage by sacrificing money and encumbrance (instead of sacrificing time later).

So far, this is just thinking out loud - 100% theoretical.  The players have asked a few times if I'd consider a ritual type approach and I've been mulling it over.  We'll likely test it out for the next adventure.

The Rules:
Clerical components:  100gp per parcel, 1 encumbrance slot each.
Arcane components: 100gp per parcel, 1 encumbrance slot each.

For magic users, the spell must be in the spell book and spell must be present.  For clerics, the character must pray and mediate as part of the ritual.

Spell level/component costs:
  1. 100gp
  2. 200gp
  3. 400gp
  4. 800gp
  5. 1,600gp
  6. 3,200gp
  7. 6,400gp
  8. 12,800gp
  9. 25,600gp
Encumbrance costs are 1 Encumbrance slot per 100gp of components.


  1. If a teamster packs the mounts, you will still require 13 mounts to carry the components for a 9th-level ritual. Is this what you are going for?

  2. If I have a D&D campaign that makes it to 17th level characters, I'd be glad to see that problem emerge - we're at levels 3-4. There's probably a point around 4th level spells where the utility of camping over night (and memorizing the spell) is more useful than the head ache incurred in trying to haul components without magical aid.

    It's a fair point though, if I wanted rituals to maintain utility all the way up, the encumbrance might need to be "kinder".

  3. Rituals were one of the best things about 4th Ed. I'd be interested in seeing how your play test turns out. Have you considered the encumbrance simply being one per spell level? Makes it more feasible at low levels and still somewhat limited at higher levels.

    Hmm. Maybe you could import the rituals over to LotFP? Just a thought.

  4. Simon, that's a good idea- make the component encumbrance per spell level linear instead of geometric.

    The issue is the players would need to mark what kind of ritual components they bought - each level 2 spell pack would take 2 encumbrance slots, each level 1 spell pack would only take 1.

    I can see heavy use of rituals for 1 and 2 level spells, maybe the occasional water breathing or clairvoyance.

    1. Why would you need distinct level-based "packs" that need to be tracked separately? Why not have generic "packs," with a first-level spell using up one, a second-level spell using two (as the higher-level magic burns through more "power items" or whatever), and so on?

  5. I really like this idea, though I don't think I'd make the component increase curve so steep - I think linear progression works for me.

    It also makes finding "component" items as part of treasure finds another option for the DM. If the party finds "3 units/parcels of arcane components" they'll have a couple of choices to make: use them right away (in which case which Level 1, 2 or 3 spell(s) do they want to cast), stash them somewhere "safe" for an emergency, or haul them around as treasure.

  6. You could even go so far as to create a list of ingredients for each ritual, allowing a slow accumulation of things needed or that be foraged for, eliminating some of the encumbrance of parcels but creating opportunities to gut monsters or picking flowers.

    1. That's a cool thought, but it adds a lot of work for the DM, and not everybody will necessary appreciate the busywork feel. It might, on the other hand, to have a generic version -- foraging rare herbs, mining rare minerals, and butchering rare monsters could yield materials, and combining 100gp worth of these materials in a lab could yield a pack's worth of ritual components.

      If you fear silly situations like a generic pack being created from only pituitary-gland-of-cockatrice, just assume that when in town it's possible to trade one's own redundant components for other materials.

      Alternately, you could take the "special case" route and say that certain kinds of monster bits give specific advantages to specific spells. It creates some extra book-keeping, but it's work that players can choose to engage in or to ignore based on whether they feel it's worth the time.