I had a discussion today at lunch with one of my players about optimization of D&D characters in 4E*. Some of the points we raised got me thinking about things which led me to the titular conclusion. Here are my starting assumptions:
- The majority of powers in 4E are designed to reduce an opponent’s hit points, either directly or indirectly.
- Most of the remaining powers in 4E are designed to protect or restore character hit points, either directly or indirectly.
- The durations of the few utility powers that are useful outside of combat are either instantaneous or about five minutes**.
- A substantial protion of the rules in the PHB and the DMG are concerned, in one way or another, with combat***.
I want to note that I don’t think these are necessarily bad things. One of the most complex facets of any RPG is combat, and even with a rules-light system (which D&D is definitely NOT), combat takes up a disproportionate amount of game time. It is also the most competitive portion of most game systems, and often benefits from having the most detailed rules to help adjudicate difficult situations if things turn adversarial.
What these assumptions mean, though, is that the utility of most powers, which are some of the primary identifiers of character in the game, do not extend outside of combat situations. It means that my cunning wizard cannot turn himself invisible to accompany other characters to an audience with a crime lord and act as surprise back-up. Hell, even with a ring of invisibility, I only get one turn of invisibility once per day.
Invisibility is only one aspect. What about my ranger’s ability to construct a well-concealed campsite, or my thief’s ability to set a trap? Where are the glyphs of warding or guards and wards or explosive runes? If I want to infiltrate the tribe of gnolls, I’ve got to put on a hyena skin, because disguise self no longer exists.
I know. I know. This sounds like some “Bring Back 3rd Edition” wonking. It’s not, though.
I don’t mind that powers deal primarily with combat situations, because the designers have taken a bunch of the rest of those abilities and made them into rituals.
I love rituals.
I love the idea behind them, I love the design of them, I love the feel of them in game, I love pretty much everything about them. One of my friends has complained that he doesn’t like the idea of rituals because it means that a wizard can’t just wave his hand to create his phantom steed, and that makes him seem less magical. Fair enough. But I think the idea of wizards and clerics using big books of eldritch formula to weave the phantom steed together out of mist and shadows is a cooler image to me. Gathering rare and valuable components to call up a mystical oracle to provide guidance just works in my mind, in a way that saying, “I cast contact other plane,” never did.
Yes. Sure. A good GM makes the rather mechanistic spells seem more magical. The feel is more a result of play than of design. I completely agree with that point. In fact, I’ve made it myself in other arguments.
But design certainly helps.
So, I like rituals. But we need more. And we need them to push the envelope of things.
We need to see some more of the utility spells from 3E show up as rituals. Longer-term, multi-personÂ invisibility, for instance, could be patterned after the way they did the Overland Flight ritual. All the missing polymorph effects would work pretty well as rituals, as would the protective spells I mentioned above. And even though 4E deliberately stays away from buff spells, I think rituals that grant bonuses to skill checks for one scene or one endeavour would work nicely. Not combat stats, mind you; just buff one or more skill checks.
Goodman GamesÂ is off an running on this. They’ve announced an open call for their Book of Rituals, and their sample ritual shows that they’re definitely doing a fair bit with summoning rituals. I say the more, the merrier.
But I think things should be a little more open with rituals. After all, in 4E, anyone who takes the Ritual Caster feat can use rituals, whether they are a spellcasting class or not. We see some very rangerish rituals in the PHB, with the Nature skill as their focus. Why not expand this to include fighters, rogues, and warlords?
Okay, some of the defining identity of those three classes is that they are non-magical, but some of their powers seem pretty fantastic. The rules describe them as using the Martial power source to fuel their exploits. But what if, instead of a mystical rite that gave the fighter the ability to force one foe in the next battle to reroll an attack, he instead performed the Willow Dance Kata to limber himself up and focus on defense? And of course, he’d need to rub his muscles with valuable salves and ointments to keep them loose, right? Or maybe the warlord sketches the Battle of Horn Falls out on the dirt and walks through the strategy and tactics used in the famous conflict in order to give his allies a bonus on their attempt to infiltrate the castle of the Mad Duke? And the rogue performs the Intrusion Evaluation to figure out how to open a locked chest.
In this way, the rituals become, not necessarily magical ceremonies, but the deep secrets of the various crafts and classes represented in the rules. They add out-of-combat functionality to the characters dedicated enough to take the Ritual Caster feat and devote some coin to acquiring, mastering, and performing these rituals.
So why haven’t I created a bunch of rituals to prove my point, and maybe sell them to Goodman Games? Well, two reasons. One is that I’m pretty lazy, and haven’t got around to doing it. The other is that, as far as posting such things on my site, I’m not sure how much it would involve the GSL and the Wizards of the Coast intellectual property.
But I’ve got a couple of ideas simmering in my brain, so maybe you’ll see something in a little while.
*Which is something else I’m gonna want to talk about at a later date.
**I’m sure there are exceptions, but I think they’re pretty rare.
***That is to say, they either deal with combat, or with something that impinges directly on combat. I don’t want to get into a Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon scenario.