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.