Saturday, February 7, 2009

The Promise and Problems of Rituals (Part I)

A friend of mine often bemoans the lack of options available to wizards in 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons.  He feels with the focus on combat spellcasting eliminated most of the non-combat "game changing" effects old-school Wizards were able to perform. I can definitely see his point. However, from my experience many people looking at Wizards in 4th Edition tend to overlook the importance of rituals.

Rituals are where you can still find the types of spells that were common in previous editions of the game.  Rituals are not combat focused.  They often have long lasting effects.  Certain categories of old school spells, like divinations, have moved entirely over to this category.

Because of this, I have found that judicious use of rituals can inject a bit of the feel of the old editions of D&D into 4th Edition.  When I first converted my Divine Oracle Issac Winter from 3rd Edition to 4th Edition, I worried quite a bit that the character would be unrecognizable.  While the old Issac was effective in combat, he really shined outside of it.  Issac was infamous for using divinations to prepare the party and confound his enemies.  While I won't deny that he is a bit more limited in this regard, a heavy focus on divination, exploration, restoration, and scrying rituals really help make him feel like the Issac of old.

That being said, I have several issues with rituals as they are written.  In many ways I feel they are almost an afterthought, existing merely to bridge the 3rd Edition and 4th edition.  Sadly, the embody some of the worst issues of that edition as well.

One problem with rituals is that the primary limitation on how many rituals you can posses or perform is financial.  Either you have the money to purchase new rituals and components or you don't.  While I like the feel of components being an important part of the game again, how much gold flows through a campaign can vary wildly depending on the DM and the nature of the game. 

Oddly, this is a design problem that the game designers at Wizards of the Coast already saw and addressed in another aspect of the game:  When the 3rd Edition Magic Item Compendium was discussed on the D&D Podcast, the concept that magic items were limited only by price was seen as an issue.  Since game designers can be a bit conservative at times, they tended to set prices high, often to the point where no sane character would ever buy them.  I already see this problem cropping up in some rituals.

Another issue is the Ritual Caster Feat.  I actually like the fact that the feat is open to any character trained in Arcana or Religion.  Characters like the Grey Mouser or Giles from Buffy the Vampire Slayer were portrayed as able to cast elaborate spells with time and copious amounts of study, but never as true wizards or witches. 

So why do I see it as an issue?  Well, mostly because rituals have what I call "the polymorph issue".  The spell Polymorph was infamous in 3rd Edition because a single spell allowed you to transform into almost any creature in the Monster Manual, limited by hit dice.  It was a case of one spell providing to many options to the player.  To make things worse, since almost every book produced had more monsters in it, the spell became better with every book.

The Ritual Caster feat has a similar issue.  For the cost of one feat, the whole world of rituals opens up to the character.  Also, like Polymorph, the number of options available to a Ritual Caster increases with almost every book Wizards of the Coast puts out.

Still, I think that eliminating rituals from the game would be a case of throwing the baby out with the bath water.  Rituals really add a lot of flavor to D&D 4th Edition.  They also fill an important niche in the 4th Edition ecosystem, namely that they are the only mechanism for casting magic outside of the rigid structure of powers. 

Rituals just need a little attention, and perhaps a little more "crunch" to make them a truly useful and viable part of 4th Edition.  That is where Part II will come in.  I am currently putting together a number of house rules for rituals which I feel will solve at least some of these issues without eliminating the flavor that makes them so appealing in the first place.


Todd said...

Since I am almost certainly the "bemoaning friend" I feel that I should comment slightly. Rob and I have had many discussions about rituals. He clearly feels that they make up for the lack of so many of hte classic utility spells of previous editions. While I have often said that full spellcasters in 3.x editions were over powered (especially at higher levels), I have long felt that wizards have the short end of the stick. Their blast powers can still target allies unlike so many of the blast powers from other classes, so the volume of them is less useful than it could be otherwise. Honestly, the best thing I can say about wizards is that for once they are pretty defensible compared to other classes. As Rob pointed out to me many, many times, rituals are where the "traditional" power of full casters has gone. Where he and I differ is that anyone may spend a feat to become trained in arcana or religion and then have access to that casting capacity as well. Admittedly, wizards have a distinct advantage due to their heavy reliance on intelligence, but it does make the support magics found there no longer a real support for the wizards.

That said, the rituals themselves seem well made excepting a few. The thing that bothers me most is that wizards have no access to some of the most iconic powers in literature (turning foes into animals/stone and decent illusions are my main complaints, some of which is available to monsters already). The economy of 4e somewhat is somewhat stretched in places as well, particularly in the percentage of magical residium recovered via ritual. Essentially this situation is similar to the "favored enemy" issue in 3.x where the ability to use a class feature relies entirely on the DM's adventure. Not only is the ritual user reliant on wealth assigned by the DM, but this is one of the most difficult areas of a DM's responsibility to learn to manage for new DM's. Lets face it, we are all new DM's when it comes to 4e (though I think the vets are adapting somewhat well now).

I personally would have probably included tag words rituals. "simple" rituals would require only the feat, "religious" would require training in religion. "arcane" and "natural" rituals are also intuitive to include, but "dwarven" or "elven" etc. would work well also. Specific gods may have rituals for their devotees, and cthulu mythos style rituals might be tagged to require dungeoneering and so on. This would not entirely solve the "polymorph" issue, but it would abrogate it somewhat by limiting at least some of the rituals to characters themed to know them. Really potent rituals might even be restricted with a keyword tied to wizards only, since they seem to be all but obligated to rely heavily on them.

I am really interested to see what gets cooked up by way of a solution, and hope that we are able to get things moving. The wizards really deserve a break.

Jonathan said...

Great post! -- i've posted a possible solution to some of your concerns over at The Core Mechanic. Let me know what you think!

Todd said...

Well, I will say that my own gut reaction was to work off of feats in a similar manner to what you did Jonathan. I guess that the reason I wanted to work it off of keywords myself is that it seems to better fit the design ethic of 4e. I wonder about the impact of your feats on new potential ritual users (shaman comes to mind as a class which should likely favor them as much as, if not more than, clerics). Anyhow, I am just glad to see others who are similarly willing to toss out potential solutions after some consideration. (If only the light blade used dex for basic melee attacks the way Rob suggested to me the other day...)