Rituals – We Need More!

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:

  1. The majority of powers in 4E are designed to reduce an opponent’s hit points, either directly or indirectly.
  2. Most of the remaining powers in 4E are designed to protect or restore character hit points, either directly or indirectly.
  3. The durations of the few utility powers that are useful outside of combat are either instantaneous or about five minutes**.
  4. 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-person 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 Games 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.

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8 Responses to Rituals – We Need More!

  1. Peeple says:

    4e is pen and paper WoW. I couldn’t bring myself to buy more than the first three books.

  2. Rick Neal says:

    That’s an opinion I’ve heard before. I disagree, personally. What makes you say it’s pen and paper WoW? I’m curious.

  3. kragshot says:

    I can answer Peeple’s statement. This current incarnation of D&D shares quite a few similarities to many of the MMO games. I don’t play WoW, but I do play City of Heroes, which is similar, so I will use that game as my example. First off, the character roles in D&D equate directly many of the roles/classes in most MMOs.

    The Defender role equates to the “tank;” a character meant to be able to absorb massive amounts of damage compared to the other characters, including the challenge powers which serve the same mechanical role as “taunts;” forcing an enemy to concentrate on attacking the issuing character, rather than the less fortified allies.

    The striker role equates to the “scrapper” or “blaster” role; a character class that specifically is designed to deal a large amount of damage, while working in conjunction to the tank who is holding the attention of the opposition.

    The “Leader” role equates to the “defender,” who offers direct support to the rest of the party by granting healing and “buffs” to their allies.

    Last but not least is the Controller role, which equates to “the controller (notice the irony),” which uses their powers to attack and more importantly applying “debuffs” against the enemy forces.

    There are more examples, but these similarities are not coincidental, or rather are too similar to be as such.

  4. Rick Neal says:

    I notice that you’ve qualified the original statement. You don’t say that D&D 4e is pen and paper WoW, you say that it shares some similarities with WoW and other online games, which I can agree with. It also shares some similarities to other RPGs, card games, miniatures games, and board games.

    I realize it’s ridiculous to dispute the fact that the current version of the game drew from MMORPGs, but that’s a long way from saying that it IS a pen and paper version of one. And considering that MMORPGs drew originally from pen and paper games, it’s just a natural evolution of the state of game design.

    What I am curious about is the fact that many of the people that I’ve heard make the comment just make it and move on, without offering any real information or explanation for their opinion. The few that have made some sort of explanation have not, in my experience, played the game. Some have not even read the game, basing their entire opinion on forum threads they’ve read. This is especially true when they drop a flat, unequivocal absolute, as Peeple did above, rather than a more qualified, detailed comment, as kragshot did.

    I welcome different opinions, and comment and debate on my blog, but I much prefer informed discussion over shouting matches of absolute statements.

    And, for the record, D&D has had role divisions built in as underlying assumptions ever since the beginning – that’s what classes are, after all. The main influence on this aspect by MMORPGs that I’ve seen is that these assumptions have been made overt and clarified.

  5. kragshot says:

    Rick, I will acknowledge that this version was meant to cater to the MMO players who might consider getting into pen and paper gaming. However, I am perturbed that they pretty much tossed a large part of the entire D&D background history under the bus for this current incarnation (see the Forgotten Realms books). It seems like with Gygax’s death, all of what he put into the game has almost died with him. Don’t get me wrong, I also acknowledge that with the use of miniatures, the game is returning to its “Chainmail” origins.

    Right now, the two biggest issues I have with this current incarnation of D&D (from a GM’s point of view) is the extreme dependence upon miniatures/physical representation of the combat encounter, and the length of combat. With my current group we get in about one combat encounter a night. All other encounters are strictly roleplaying and I dare not put in any dice mechanics for fear of slowing things down further. In 3.5, we got in at least two and usually three combat encounters a night.

    When I was running Star Wars Saga Edition (which uses a somewhat similar mechanic), I was able to get in roughly the same number of encounters as in 3.5. I’ve implemented nearly every “trick” listed on the WotC forums, and they have not really helped (to their credit, they have reduced the encounter time a marginal amount, but not enough to really make a tangible difference).

    I don’t plan on giving up on it yet, but after eight months of play, the jury is still out, Rick.


  6. Rick Neal says:

    I’m a big believer in the idea that no single game is gonna work for everyone, or do everything you want it to. There’s always a balancing act that comes in between the rules-as-written and the play experience desired. Some types of play experience are supported more by some rules, and some by others. You find the rules set that helps you best play the games you want to play.

    I haven’t found the “speed up combat” benefit from 4e that others have commented on. Fights in my groups take just as long in 4e as they did in 3.5. Maybe slightly less, but not noticeably so. I haven’t bothered with any of the tricks to speed up combat because, frankly, my players and I are having fun, and a lot of the tricks listed come down to one basic idea – get everyone to hurry up. As a GM, I don’t want to have to crack the whip to get my players to speed things up, and, if they’re not complaining about the length of combats, I don’t either.

    I’m curious about your experience with the combat speed, though, because it sounds like your 3.5 combats ran significantly faster than mine did. Where are you finding the slowdown in the 4e combat? You mention having not liking having to deal with the miniatures very much; do you find that using them is one of the things that slow you down? I know that, in my group, the major factor that lengthens combat is players trying to figure out the single, perfect move for their turn, and not starting to do that until their turn begins.

    Again, it’s not a huge concern for me in play, but I am curious about where you find the slowdown, as opposed to where I do. And I appreciate good game discussion. 😉

  7. Ryan says:

    One quibble: the wizard spell Invisibility is a sustain standard, which means that the wizard can keep it up and also move each round. I’d argue that the secret backup scenario you outlined is possible in 4e.

    That said, I agree with the point you’ve made here. Noncombat is woefully absent from the game, and noncombat rituals sound like a painless way to fix that.

  8. Nikolai says:

    In response to Peeple and Kragshot, I believe that any appearance of similarity to WoW is more the natural evolution of gaming style, and human nature to classify and sort information. From the beginning players of any RPG type game have sought to balance their party for best results in achieving their goals. This naturally would evolve to finding arch-types to fit certain roles, which Blizzard gave names to such as tank, dps, and controller. When WOTC created 4E, they realized that WoW was the most popular game of it’s time and chose to look at the game play style that it’s target consumer seemed to be choosing above other options available. This makes sense if you’ve played many MMO’s, because you find some better than others based largely on game mechanics. So, in my opinion, the question should be less one of similarity or not, and more of whether or not it’s a bad thing. Personally, I like 4E. As I get more into it I am finding it to be more versitle and open to creativity. Rituals made little sense to me at first, but I am now seeing their value if used correctly by the DM.

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