A-Z Action: Knock (Spell, Ritual, or Skill Challenge?)

I’ma be honest: I don’t get rituals.

I don’t grasp them. I don’t desire them. I’m not enthusiastic about them in any way.

I have tried. I’ve tried to read lists of rituals and select some; but if I’m truthful, I don’t know that I’ve ever finished a description for any ritual save Hand of Fate. Hand of Fate is a special case, in that I got it for free with a halfling invoker sex-cult escapee I was running at the time. I imagine, were I to play a bard, I’d probably read some of their rituals since I can get down on them for free as well.

Something like the free Animal Messenger that druids get, though, I’ve never bothered to read because it feels as though it essentially says “Send dude a message via use of an animal.” The only time I played a druid, the character was a daelkyr-twisted mass of waxen flesh who extruded a sentient pseudopod of his own body to courier the message. I’m much more likely to use free rituals when they’re offered, because I essentially treat them like class features that don’t have power blocks.

I play a lot of controllers, though, so the fact that I have no affection for rituals becomes a bit more of an issue. I feel that many of the controller classes are built with an eye towards ritual use; and, certainly, they’re the most likely characters to have rituals on hand. In the event that the party needs a ritual at some point, eyes are going to turn towards the Wizard to get things done. If I’m that wizard, I’m going to give a magical shrug of impotence.

Except, that’s not really true. Thing is, despite thinking Rituals (with that capital R) are uninteresting and uninspiring and not especially worth the money, I’m all about ritualized applications of magic. I’m a tremendous fan of Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files (and so is my ladyfriend, which is a constant delight), and I think that series is a direct reason for my enthusiasm for a slower, more measured approach to certain kinds of spellcraft. I simply approach rituals the same way I approach oratory. My dwarven wizard in that game is forever calling down exarchs to scoop up the souls of hobgoblins, orcs, and even lizardfolk who’ve turned from the worship of their rightful gods to serve in Tiamat’s Red Hand.

Others don’t always share my enthusiasm—or at least my reading list—as evidenced by the last ritual I tried setting up. I wrote the thing up as a skill challenge, essentially, and tried to give everyone in the party a few options for contributions. The crux of the ritual was a captured lizardfolk shaman, his scales marked up with arcane sigils which matched the blood-painted sigils on a mouse mocked up to resemble the shaman.

The goal was to purify the area, summon the lizard god, and then have the shaman (“persuaded” through the application of force to the mouse in my wizard’s hands) confess abandoning his god—a god we’d established in an earlier creative use of Prestidigitation during a different fight—to serve Tiamat.

The mouse, btw, was dropped at my character’s feet by the party’s druid, as a joke; he and the rogue had run into the village and napped the shaman, but the rogue brought that back.

Between the ritual circles, the ritual markings, and the flim-flammery of quelling of local nature spirits, I figured we had a pretty cut-and-dried case of magimic. And then the druid…same one what gave me the mouse…made his contribution to the skill challenge leaping over my character’s head and snapping the mouse’s neck.

We all took a knee while I explained that doing that would, logically, kill the shaman we wanted alive. I realized I’d never told the party (in or out of character) just what we were doing; only the DM. And I was given cause to reflect that, yeah, I really do enjoy ritual magic.

Just not Rituals.

They’re expensive, or at least I think they are; the fact that they have any cost at all makes them feel too costly, frankly. Unlike skill challenges—which I think are an awesome way to codify roleplaying in order to better reward it with xp—rituals feel like they’re sucking all of the description out of the game. Sure, you can put it back in; you can have the character describe each round’s arcana check, or even try to disrupt his ritual. But at that point, what’s to say you aren’t running a skill challenge?

I suppose an argument could be made that the character’s ritual book and knowledge represent her mastery of specific, esoteric methods of arcane/divine/psionic/primal manipulation. However, I don’t understand any reason you wouldn’t be able to say that Arcana/Religion/Nature does the exact same thing. Especially since you’re rolling that anyway.

I titled this post Knock because it’s occurred to me that, at least thus far, that’s one use of the Arcana skill I’ve yet to attempt. In fact, I wonder if I would. I used to have my dwarven wizard rock an arcana check in lieu of diplomacy; then Wizards kind of ate my lunch by codifying that as a utility power. For all I know (without checking, which would be cheating) there’s a similar lock-picking utility…but I don’t know that I even care for that approach.

Basically, I look at uses of arcana the same way I’d look at a character with diplomacy trying to constantly talk his way into or out of things. I’m a huge heist fan, and if a character could set up a sufficiently convoluted plan I’d probably let him talk his way into just about anything. That’s especially true if he could do like I did with my wizard’s little summoning ritual, and find a way to devise a plan that includes the whole party.

Of course, having said that I imagine a player will hold it against me in the future.

Anyway, what’s the consensus on rituals? Am I blind to the light?

7 thoughts on “A-Z Action: Knock (Spell, Ritual, or Skill Challenge?)

  1. I too hate Rituals. I realize the point of them- They’re supposed to be the New Hotness version of those old, cool utility spells we used to have in the days of Vancian magic. I play a Cleric in a Pathfinder game, who is the twin brother of a wizard, and together the Super Destrovich Bros. are able to do all sorts of crazy shenaniganry with spells like “Create Water” and “Unseen Servant.”

    I think that WotC hated creative use of those loosely-ruled utility spells because they were so frequently used to cheat reality. I know I’ve done it- I killed the Big Bad of a 3.0 game by building a Force Cage around him and myself, then uncorking a Decanter of Endless Water set to “Geyser.” Yeah, the guy beat my character to death, but all I had to do was stay alive until the DoEW could fill the entire cube with water, and my Wand of Cure Moderate Wounds gave me a lot of HP to burn through.

    Eventually the guy killed me, but too late to cork the Decanter, leading to him drowning on dry land.

    Today’s rituals are massively regulated, very strictly purposed creations meant to allow the user to do exactly one thing, and not to get creative with it.

    In practice, this results in there being way too many rituals out there to go through, and with such specific uses, it’s hard to justify spending the exorbitant amounts of money each one costs.

    Considering that the Skill Challenge system is meant to supplant “Creative Use of Magic” as a problem solver, Rituals are kind of a big chapter of the game that does little to nothing.

    Reading your article gave me an idea-

    What if we took all the old, cool spells from 3.5/3.0/2.0, and just considered them applications of Arcane/Religion/Nature?

    For instance, in PbP games I’m always trying to figure out ways to describe just how Murphy is using History to solve a problem. If you were to consider that your character knows spells like Create Water, then your arcana roll could represent using that spell in a skill challenge.

    You could even take a more general tack with it, something I learned from playing Mage; You could consider your character to have X amount of influence over Y element.

    1. Exactly.

      I’m a Mage man, and that’s how I approach all of my…frankly, not just arcane magic use, but damn near every character. It’s how I write Napan (Dude’s an Ecstatic, which is my favorite Tradition; just uses devanagari instead of futhark), it’s how I write Blordik (mastery of Forces, and in fact the quest for the perfect Force, is actually written into his backstory as why he refuses to use fire).

      It’s also why I said in the OOC, half-jokingly, that Blordik could have made some floaty dishes if he’d wanted; I just would have done it by explaining how I bent demarcated planes of force into slightly concave surfaces which were water impermeable and therefore capable of floating on the surface of the water.

      Just like with a diplomacy roll, I think that the more interesting thing is having a player convincingly describe how her character uses the tools at her disposal (skills, the at-wills which demonstrate some of the ways those skills are applied) to interact with the world.

      Feel free to put this philosophy into play with Nik, when as Nik gets another chance at bat.

    2. Oh!

      In the stupid spell tricks department: I once killed a beholder with a wall of force.

      I was…a sophomore maybe? But my debate partner and I had fallen into playing DnD with a group of college kids the next town over (who literally saw us looking at DnD books and said “Yo, you play?). We were up in some Dark Sun, and I was already taking the measure of the DM by playing a Cleric of Set(h). He threw a beholder at our level…five, seven?…characters. And I cast a wall of force, horizontally aligned, above its head. I then argued that I hadn’t anchored it to anything (and had specifically placed it where it couldn’t reach an anchor) so it would fall onto the beholder…but that, since the wall had no thickness it should have functionally infinite mass.

      Dude let it stand, we killed a full-health beholder in the first round of combat, and I took the reins of the campaign from a trio of dudes maybe 8 years older than me.

      Also took their books.

  2. Yeah, you’re pretty far off the mark with all of this.

    Don’t get me wrong: rituals ARE too expensive, considering you have to buy them in the first place rather than getting them as part of your level progression. Rules requiring you to carry around incense or residium or baubles or whatsits as non-interchangeable ritual currency BEFORE you even find yourself in a ritual-casting scenario is a further unnecessary hiccup. And casting times are pretty much universally ridiculous, requiring the ritual caster to call a team time out for an hour while everyone else sits around with nothing to do, often for the sake of a benefit that the adventure path was written with the assumption you wouldn’t bother with.

    But all of these problems can be easily fixed with relatively minor house rules (see http://www.at-will.omnivangelist.net/aberrantrules/ for a good example). I feel like your complaint is going further… you’re saying that with skills like arcana and religion, why bother having rituals when folks can just skill challenge their way through whatever they want?

    Well… for one because rituals do (and should) come in different levels of power that would be hard to balance on the fly with freeform skill challenges. Take the difference between Delay Affliction (4), Cure Disease (6), and Remove Affliction (8). If you just treated all of those as skill challenges to help someone who’s come down with a nasty bug, there wouldn’t really be a clear way to tell what effect a participant’s Heal check should be accomplishing. Sure, you could make each ritual represent a different skill check benchmark roll… but then you’d probably have to ditch the damage ladder that they already carry (which I like), and end up writing more rules like the sort you’re already complaining about.

    Another sort of ritual that skill challenges wouldn’t do a great job of covering are those like Undead Servitor, that are creating new objects or NPCs or performing changes that actually have rather concrete in game effects. Sure, when you want to dance around with your skill checks for the purpose of unraveling a lie or cluing somebody in to the plan while they’re miles away or other story-based effects like that, there’s no reason a skill challenge couldn’t work… but when I’m trying to raise a gnome to be my undead butler, I’m going to want some more concrete rules set down somewhere that put limits and requirements on how that’s going to work beyond my ability to bullshit the DM into allowing it.

    There’s no denying that the rules about using rituals are currently designed to punish players for choosing to use them. The rituals themselves, however, are good and varied and interesting. The easiest solution is to fix casting times and costs, not try to shoehorn in an amorphous free-form skill challenge system to replicate their effects.

    1. ‘Mo, ‘Mo, ‘Mo.

      Let’s dissect your (always appreciated) comment, shall we?

      You start off with a typically inflammatory statement that I’m “pretty far off the mark with all of this.”

      You then go on to concede most of my points, and suggest that any remaining objections are solved with a homebrew set of rules that I’ve never seen before (and I read At-Will).

      You then go further and tell me to “look at” a number of rituals; but I’ve already made the point that, dude, I don’t read rituals. They trigger the immediate auto-glaze in my eyes, which functions somewhat like a nictitating membrane. And even there, you actually acknowledge exactly what I’d do (have each tier of effect hit a different DC). Also, as I talked about in an earlier post on skill challenges, I believe that skill challenges should strive for as much versatility as an equivalent combat (so that, ideally, they can be intermingled). That means that curing someone’s disease with your knowledge heal and nature, or heal and religion, would carry some risks…hell, I could see playing it out like that 2e kit who fought diseases as actual creatures.

      Another difference, I think, in how we’re each viewing the question of rituals versus skill checks—and honestly, given your mathematical predilections, this surprises me—is that I approach the use of skills from the perspective of someone who’s very comfortable with the rules and very willing to spread a layer of narrative paste o’ertop them. In your gnome butler example, either I’d come to the DM and say “Here’s my proposal, here are some ways this shit could go wrong, here’s what I’m ideally hoping to get if I roll right” or I’d say “I want to dress a dead gnome in tiny pants and set him to dancing” and the DM would hit me with the specs.

      There are probably players and games for which rituals are perfectly suited. But I’m not the former and rarely find myself in the latter. Particularly because, like I said before, I find the use of Rituals to be exclusionary to other players in a party in a way that resolving things in a skill challenge fashion is not. Also, as Kash has rightly pointed out, divorcing effects from Rituals makes it more likely that a player might creatively apply their specialized knowledge in skill challenge or even combat contexts.

      1. You’re wrong about everything, and always will be. There, now that I’ve gotten my expected inflammation out of the way…

        My concern is that if you throw out all the rituals, and shunt their workload onto skill challenges that are as creative as the players want them to be… you just end up writing the same rituals up over again, using a different rule system (some sort of check-result/success-failure matrix?)that you’re going to have to come up with and balance on the fly.

        Can it work? Sure, why not… but what are you gaining? Unless you want anyone that gets lucky and rolls a 20 to all of a sudden be able to summon winds and raise the dead and cure diseases, you’re going to need to come up with a few more restrictions on skill-check rituals than just straight numbers (Can only certain classes lead the ritual? Only characters trained in the skill?). Unless you want every player to have access to every conceivable ritual-type-effect imaginable, you’re going to need some way to limit a player’s menu of options (Do players have to tell you ahead of time what sort of rituals their character is familiar with? Or are you really comfortable letting anyone attempt the full spectrum of conceivable ritual effects, from healing to creation to scrying to warding etc etc). Unless you want players to automatically attempt to magically discern lies or comprehend languages or silence their footsteps every time they do anything, you’re going to need to build in some sort of limitation on how often rituals can get cast, and how long it takes to do so (Does the skill check still end up taking 10 minutes? Are you going to require healing surge expenditures to limit their rampant overuse?).

        My point is, once you throw out rituals and replace them with skill challenges, you end up having to come up with new rules to replicate all the same sorts of parameters that rituals already set. The old utility spells you guys are reminiscing about had these limitations (in the form of utility spells being limited to certain classes, costing money to learn, and taking up memorization slots), and the new system does too. I freely admitted that I don’t think the ritual system is balanced quite right, but I think that there’s a big difference between FIXING the ritual system with tweaks like those I linked to, and REPLACING it like you and Kash seem to favor.

        In the end, it seems to me that the fundamental difference we’re having is that I’m seeing rituals as an enabling force, a menu of items that a player can invest in to further customize their character and enable them to do cool things. I fear that once you open the ritual floodgate by letting EVERYONE accomplish ritual effects just by bending the DMs ear with an idea, you erase the unique identity of ritual casting classes, and further, the unique identity that one wizard focusing on creation rituals has compared to another that invested solely in scrying rituals.

      2. The short answer to your battery of questions is: Yeah, I’d balance that shit on the fly. Just like I’d balance encounter levels, balance creature defenses, maybe even fudge a die roll to avoid putting the controller to bed early if my brute crits.

        We are looking at rituals very differently, but I also think that you’re making some assumptions about my playstyle (on both sides of the screen), possibly for dramatic effect. You know full well (you just saw me get down with Ralash in this manner) that I don’t try a play with my characters I’m not in a position to justfity—at length—if called. And I mean justify in-character, on the sheet, and often in the backstory.

        Similarly, when I DM I’m not about to let people throw anything they want around, all crazy like. You saw me shut down Joe’s attempt to roll Nature in that door-taking. There are certainly situations where I’d be fine with him doing exactly what he did, but I’d established a framework and wanted to see that framework utilized. In my previous comment, I actually made this distinction pretty explicitly: there are times when I’d expect the idea for a skill challenge to be defined by the DM, and operate according to the accepted skill rolls and their results as outlined by her; and there are times when I expect the idea to come from a player, in which case it still has to merit DM approval and withstand his tinkering.

        Players with an idea won’t bend the DM’s ear to knock a door; players with an idea and a sheet that backs it will.

        And while I mentioned in the post that I worry I’m failing to embody a ritual caster, I have to be honest about something: I’ve been playing 4e since the game dropped, and played in probably 20-25 games of varying length. First time I think I’ve [i]ever[/i] seen a ritual performed that I didn’t perform myself was….about a week ago, in Sandster’s Red Hand game. And frankly, we hand-waved it.

        So it’s possible that we’re playing in different worlds a lot of the time, and you see rituals coming up in a ton of ways that would be gamebreaking if they were adjudicated as skill challenges. From my experience, though, Ritual Caster is a free feat that people never use; much like gaining a familiar back in 3.x was often waived by DMs in exchange for another bonus feat, since many people just didn’t want to carry that weight.

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