Game-Mastering Ritual Magic

Ritual magic – whether in the form of magical circles, inscribed runes, or dancers hired to tread out a mystical pattern beneath a spinning disco ball – is wonderful stuff. According to tradition it can accomplish pretty much anything within the limits of magic – whatever those may be in a setting. In fact, it can usually accomplish things beyond the reach of other types of magic. It can create potent effects that cover vast areas and last for centuries, summon forth the greatest entities, curse entire bloodlines, open or close terrible gates, and accomplish other mighty tasks – all without demanding any particular power from the caster!

Yet, in Eclipse, ritual magic is a simple feat – a low-priced ability that a first level character can actually be pretty good at. It’s also one of the shortest magical systems in the book – mostly because each application of ritual magic tends to be unique and because there’s rarely any need to make fast calls on a ritual.

How does that work out? What limits it? How can a game master keep things under control?

It’s actually fairly simple.

There are only three basic factors in Ritual Magic:

  • The effect you want to produce.
  • How difficult the game master says that’s going to be.
  • The ritual elements and components you’re using to try and make that effect happen.

The effect a ritual is designed to produce is generally pretty much up to the players (unless, perhaps, they’re blindly performing a game master plot device ritual – for which they really don’t need any rules) – and if they aren’t clear on what they want, they probably won’t be trying an elaborate ritual to make it happen. The game master doesn’t really need to worry about defining things too closely; if he or she wants an NPC ritual to work or fail with a particular result, it does. If he or she doesn’t care if it works or not, any old random die roll will do. There really isn’t any need to check the rules in detail in either case.

“How difficult” is a pretty simple decision; the game master looks at the ritual and the desired result and assigns something. If he or she gets it “wrong” it doesn’t really matter; every major act of ritual magic is fundamentally unique – so it’s not setting a precedent that will come back to haunt him or her later. After all, if the proposed result wasn’t something the game master was willing to let happen in the first place, the characters shouldn’t be bothering to attempt the ritual; any decent ritualist should be able to tell when something is either utterly impossible or simply far beyond their skills. There’s no point in spending a lot of gaming time on something that has no chance of working.

The ritual elements and components are where the real trick lies.

If you let the players propose components, you can unload a lot of the work involved in preparing an adventure on them. When a player says “I’ve heard a lot of sailors say that the Cloak of Tethys can be found in the Temple of Apes on Resian Isle – and whoever returns it to her will win her favor! That would help a lot with this ritual!”

OK, so you’ve got at least one player who would like a seafaring adventure, followed by a bit of a search to find the “Temple of Apes” and some battles with it’s giant ape guardians. Even better, the big reward – the Cloak of Tethys – is more-or-less a macguffin. It’s a one-shot item that the characters will be trading in for a bonus on their ritual magic check, and which won’t be hanging around to upset further plots.

If you like that notion, tell them that the Cloak will be worth a near-maximum bonus and let them confirm the tale with a little research. If you don’t like it, tell them that it’s only worth a small bonus if it exists at all – and they’ll come up with something else.

If you opt to tell the players what they’ll need for a particular ritual, you’re more or less obliged to give them large enough bonuses to be pretty sure of success if they manage to get everything on their shopping list – but you also have an open license to send them on a string of classical “fetch quests” to any destination you’d like. You can even offer them a selection of alternatives if you like. If they don’t want to go after earthfire from the heart of a volcano, perhaps an enchanted flask which holds one blast from an ancient red dragons breath weapon, or a flame from the haunted lost forge of the dwarven kings will do.

On the character’s side of things, ritual magic allows them to trade in a problem that’s currently beyond their abilities – whether that’s a rampaging demon lord, an incoming asteroid the size of the France, or removing a hideous curse of lycanthropy that condemns someone to endlessly reincarnate as a ravening monster for one tormented lifetime after another – for collecting a manageable series of plot coupons.

And unlike most “collect them all!” quests, this one allowed them to pick their own goals and have some input into the challenges they’re going to be facing.

You don’t want them doing that, or bypassing the puzzle by whipping up a ritual to open the ancient seal? Set the difficulty without the appropriate components too high to manage – and make sure that actually collecting those components will take longer than the characters have. Have the characters been stuck so long that you’ve begun to grind your teeth at their missing of the obvious workaround? It’s the ritualists turn to shine.

Secondarily, the requirements for advanced rituals will usually include places and times. After all, rituals draw on the local magical environment – so the positions of the stars, the season of the year, the location of the ritual, and many other factors will all have a major impact. Thus major rituals usually aren’t readily repeated – and can’t become a convenient solution to later problems. Sure, that ritual that summoned a small army of celestial beings to drive out the forces of darkness WAS awfully handy – but the right time to enact it again won’t come around for another thousand years – and the sacred circle atop the blessed mount where the gods met to call the world into being is nowhere near where you need help this time. Even if you’d stocked up on the horribly-difficult to acquire components you’d used up the first time they wouldn’t really do you any good.

High-end ritual magic is versatile and powerful – and only useful when the game master wants it to be. It’s no use at all when the problem is urgent and things are rushed.

Minor rituals tend to be less sensitive, require less in the way of special ingredients – and can often be ignored. The ritual that keeps your feet warm and dry for a week may not require much of anything save, perhaps, a smear of candlewax and a few grains of charcoal – but it also usually has no game effect. The one that repairs a child’s congenital heart defect may have a definite effect – the kid doesn’t die of the problem – but that won’t usually mean much to a party of crazy adventurers, no matter what it means to the kids mother.

If it doesn’t require much in the way of effort, it’s not going to have any big effect. Here, for examples, we have a list of Orin Markala’s minor rituals – and a quick look at why they can be classed as “minor”.

Blessing of the Innocents: A blessing for children. Three times before adulthood, they can be aided in a time of crisis by an effect the ritualist could currently produce of up to level three. Thus a youngster might be saved from a fall at the age of three, be shielded from the flames of a burning building at seven, and be cured of a nasty fever at eleven. DC 15, 1 Minute.

OK: That’s very nice – but most kids manage to grow up even without magical help, and – while it’s nice to help kids – the actual ritualist will likely never see any results at all from using this ritual. He’s basically just picked up an “I am a nice guy” badge.

Eyes of the World: A relatively short-range telepathic effect that lets the user see through the eyes of various birds and animals in the area. It provides a reasonably good overview of the area and may (GMO) provide glimpses of specific places within that area – but the user has little control over the viewpoint, and none over the specific animals contacted. This is usually good for orientation and a quick sketch-map though. (City Scale/+15, Brief Duration/-5, Minor Effect (Roughly L2)/-5, Local Range/+5 = DC 10, one hour, requires a ritual kit and some minor special component.

OK; if the game master says you can find an appropriate ritual ingredient, everyone playing can look at a quick sketch map of the area and get given any interesting clues the game master feels like providing.

Wait! That usually happens anyway. This ritual – however impressive and useful in the setting – merely provides an excuse for the way the game is usually played.

Harmonious Bond: A ritual of marriage. It ensures compatibility; those married by this rite will find their partners easy to get along with, comfortable to have around, understanding, and – unless it’s totally unreasonable – mutually fertile. DC 15, 1 Hour.

Well. you will leave happy marriages behind you. As if your ritualist will ever know. It might be a good excuse for finding people who remember you kindly if you come back through an area a few years later though. Mostly another “I am a nice guy!” badge.

Hedge of Dreams: Weaves a variety of minor illusions about a group or area that last for several weeks, making them hard to find or divine about. The DC of finding or tracking such a group is increased by +5. Scrying powers will return no information unless backed up by a couple of points of mana or levels enhancing metamagic. DC 20, One Hour, lasts one lunar month, covers up to twenty people or a small manor.

Now that’s handy! No one will be able to find you – unless the game master feels that they ought to be able to. Funny… that’s the way it usually works anyway. Now we know why.

Illumination of the Night: Creates a sourceless flame to act as a campfire, light a lamp, act as a small beacon, or whatever. The flame will burn for up to one week and is resistant to being extinguished by mundane means, but is stationary unless enclosed and carried. DC 15, 1 Hour.

OK! This is usually called “a lantern” or “building a campfire” – but not having to bother with gathering fuel or adding oil is a convenience. Still, a normal survival check usually covers keeping warm – as well as finding food and water. 

Lesser Bane: Lets the user inscribe a creatures name on a weapon or a bundle of ammunition which will – once within the next lunar month – become a Bane Weapon against that specific creature for ten minutes. DC 15, 1 Hour.

OK! Now we’re talking! Combat bonuses!

At least if the game master happens to feel like letting you have some. Just how often do you know an opponents personal true name? In advance?

In other words, if the game master feels like letting your characters get a bonus in exchange for some research or some such, he or she now has an excuse for that.

As if a game master needs one.

Mists of Avalon: “Keys” dimensional gates, nexi, faerie circles, and similar locations where the barriers between the dimensions are thin – allowing travelers to pass. Unfortunately, gates vary a lot in how long they stay open and sometimes have very odd conditions attached to them. Going to and from the realms of the fey is easiest.

OK! So IF the game master feels like providing you with a dimensional weak point, and has whatever’s guarding it let you pass, you can get it open.

Of course, if the game master didn’t want you to fool around with another dimension, there wouldn’t be any dimensional weak point at all – and if you didn’t have a ritualist, there’d be some other kind of “key” available.

Oathbinding: Calls on the high powers to witness an oath. If the oath is voluntarily broken, whoever breaks it will be subject to some sort of minor curse. Such a curse cannot be removed until some appropriate act of atonement is made. DC 15, 1 Minute.

Now, this one does have some game effect; it provides some minor penalty for breaking a deal. Of course, the nature of that penalty is entirely up to the game master.

Opening the Gates of Light: Offers forgiveness and release to lingering spirits. Occasionally such a spirit will choose to pass on a brief message or request before departing. DC 15, 1 Minute.

Hey! Ghosts! Anything you want to say? You don’t have to stick around if you don’t want to!

Uhm… Yes. The Canterville Ghost will be delighted to see you. So any ghost that is prepared to accept forgiveness and depart may do so.

Don’t most of them do that anyway?

Purification of the Spirit’s Dwelling: Purges the recipients body of impurities, such as mundane poisons and diseases and minor maledictions. DC 5, 1 Hour. Often rushed to DC 15 and 1d6 Rounds.

Wait; isn’t this pretty much what a decent Heal check does?

Yes it is – but this is still convenient; it lets you… substitute another skill check for a Heal check under a rather limited set of circumstances provided you have the Ritual Magic feat and that the game master doesn’t decide to call for any exotic components.

Returning to the Elements: Returns a body cleanly to nature, causing it to crumble to dust as if cremated over the course of the next hour or two. DC 5, 1 Minute. Occasionally rushed by the practiced to DC 10 and 1d6 Rounds.

OK! So you don’t have to gather firewood or put in gelatinous cubes to keep your dungeon neat.

Scriptural Vow: A secondary ritual that goes with Oathbinding The recipient picks up two minor disadvantages (an Obligation and a Vow) and a compensating bonus feat, which will remain in effect as long as he or she lives up to those disadvantages. If he or she fails to do so, the bonus feat vanishes and he or she will pick up a minor curse, as per the Oathbinding. Most lay members of faith’s that use this ritual swear to tithe to the church whenever they can do so without it being unduly burdensome and to refrain from pacting with demons – thus gaining a touch of divine aid in their daily lives. DC 15, 1 Hour, may target a modest group of willing participants.

Ah. This one is actually a significant benefit – but serves a much greater purpose; it provides a practical reason why the peasants still turn to churches and priests for guidance and help, rather than to local witches, mages, and psychics. It’s also a wonderful dangling plot hook. It does stretch the definition of a “Minor” Ritual a bit – but it does carry quite literal built-in disadvantages.

Stream of Prosperity: Enhances the yield of the land throughout a manor or parish for the next year. DC 15, 1 Full Day. Can be rushed by the very skilled down to DC 25 and 1 Hour.

Another “I am a nice guy” badge here – as well as a justification for why most game worlds are full of prosperous small farmers with healthy children, rather than starving, plague-and-insect ridden clusters of hovels made of mud.

Touch of Grace: Cures congenital and birth defects in children. DC 15, One Hour.

Orin – the ritualist who originally took these – is really piling on the “I am a nice guy!” badges isn’t he? Why, without this ritual, you’d have to hunt up a specialist, or someone with fairly powerful healing magic!

Of course, without this ritual, the topic of “birth defects” is hardly likely to come up at all is it? Games don’t usually include mechanics for having a defective child. It’s hard to come up with something that’s less fun than THAT.

Walk of Dreams: A ritual of vision, to aid the recipient in making decisions and in discovering his or her true talents and vocation. Most of what is seen will be dredged up from the user’s subconscious and natural potentials, but the spirits of the celestial realms usually throw in a few extra hints. DC 15, 8 Hours, may be used on a fair-sized group.

OK; here we have an excuse for the game master to possibly throw a few hints your way – and a way for a magical ritualist to substitute for a high-school guidance counselor.

It’s also a way for the game master to identify a “destined child” or some such without throwing in a gratuitous prophecy. The players can obtain their own vague prophecies, rather than having to rely on madmen and wandering visionaries.

And there we have it. Minor rituals can be fun, and useful, and give the ritualist a chance to shine – but they generally don’t accomplish much that you can’t do almost as readily in some mundane fashion.

5 Responses

  1. […] Game Mastering Ritual Magic. Hints on using rituals in the game. […]

  2. […] subtle extension of this idea is that you can perform minor rituals as well. For these, there’s no real issue of side effects, mostly because the rituals being […]

  3. […] twenty years apparently mean nothing at all. Thus Eclipse has Vows, the Rituals systems include Oathbindings, Runecards has Quest Oaths, Eclipse II has Grimfang the Heroes Blade, and so […]

  4. […] subtle extension of this idea is that you can perform minor rituals as well. For these, there’s no real issue of side effects, mostly because the rituals being […]

  5. Are the effects of Pathfinder’s ceremony spell limited enough that they could be used as minor rituals? What about the augmented versions?

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