Thursday, November 15, 2012

Encouraging Ritual Use in 4e

Howdy. Readers of my blog might have noticed me bring up Rituals from time to time, usually to opine the lack of Ritual usage in the games I run. Now, I am definitely generalizing; I have seen them get used a bit here and there, but overall I feel they are an untapped resource in many 4e games. I think there are many reasons for this, and we will talk about some of them as we go. So, let's explore Rituals and different ways to encourage their use.

I guess the first question that should be answered is "Why?". Why bother in the first place? For some campaigns or gaming groups, it might not be something you even want to do. And that is completely fine. But if you do want to encourage Ritual use, pinpointing the "why" will help you answer the question "How?". My personal opinion varies depending on the game I am running. I might want to encourage their use in order to add flavor to a setting. Perhaps I want to add unpredictability to the game. Maybe I have an entire plot or setting that is dependant on their usage. Maybe I want to give players more options for out-of-combat play. Think about your own campaign, or the campaign you want to run, and think about why you might want Rituals to get more use.

Ok, so lets look at how to encourage Ritual use. Probably the first thing that pops into the mind is to make them affordable and available. But this is a double edged sword. If you just give them away like candy, and there is no real cost involved, you still may end up finding they never get used. I have had this happen myself. I have given out Rituals and Ritual scrolls in treasure parcels, I have given out residuum and Ritual components alongside gold; in short, I have put them out there. They still didn't use them.

This brings up an interesting point: some players just don't care about them, and nothing you can do will make them use them. And that is fine; god knows we do not want to railroad someone into anything. That said, I think that some players will respond to these ideas, so it is at least worth a try if you want more Ritual use in your game.

So basically, making Rituals available and cheap is not enough to encourage their use. In fact, it could have an adverse effect. If they are too available, they might lose some of their uniqueness, or become hard to track or remember. You also could lose out on some good role play and adventuring if you make them too easy to use. You also could lose control of your game if they are just unlimited with no restrictions. You might want that, you might not, but we should at least know how to maintain control if need be. So lets hold that thought and go back to the drawing board.

                                                  Checks and Balances
In order to encourage Ritual use while maintaining control of your game, you need to use checks and balances. We can look to the classics to get ideas on how to handle this. Take the Gygax masterpiece "Isle of the Ape". Many spells do not work on the island. In classic Gygaxian "dick mode", he suggests that you do not let your players know about this ahead of time, setting them up for some potentially hellish situations, such as having a spell fizzle just as a Gigantic Ape's foot is about to come down on your head. Settings such as Ravenloft provided laundry lists of spell changes; some didn't work at all, while others had different effects while in the Demiplanes of Dread. This is inspiring to me; in fact, in my own 4e campaign, I use this sort of idea as a plot hook: the party has several Rituals that used to work hundreds of years ago, but no longer do.

What this means is that you should think about your campaign setting and go ahead and define the limits of your PCs power. It is not railroading to say "If my players can just plane shift off of the island, the entire game crumbles, so screw that". See Gygax above. It isn't railroading to simply ensure there is an actual playable game. That said, you might want to play in a game world where PCs do nothing but plane jump. That actually sounds really cool. To each their own. The fact remains that it is a good idea to have an idea of any limits you need to place on PC power in order to maintain your setting's integrity. There are many extremely powerful Rituals. Which leads to the next point.

Acquiring Rituals
You need to make some decisions on Ritual availability. If Rituals can simply be bought and sold in "Magic Shoppes", you need to think about whether you want to impose limits. Maybe Rituals of certain levels are not sold, or maybe you provide players with a list of available Rituals. You will want to keep an eye on it, just so you know what you are dealing with.

If you do not allow magic items to typically be bought and sold, you need to find other ways to get them to players. This can be a fun, creative area. If the party ends up in a secret library, maybe they find a warding ritual; if they defeat a Lich, they might find some with Necromantic themes.You can suit the Ritual's flavor to the scenario. For example, in my 4e game the party was exploring a crypt. They found evidence of grim Rituals having been cast; there was a basin of blood and a pentagram drawn on the floor. They found a few flavorful Rituals in the chamber, such as Undead Servitor, that fit with the scenario. I think that this kind of synergy with the Rituals found and the circumstances in which they are uncovered helps encourage their use, simply by making them more interesting. I go into more detail on using Rituals as plot hooks later in this article.

Another way to control Ritual availability is to tend towards Ritual scrolls rather than Ritual books. This allows PCs that cannot otherwise cast Rituals to be able to use them, and you can be a bit looser with the balance if you know a Ritual can only be used once. This is especially true of some powerful healing Rituals. You do not want to lose the ability to challenge your players or to drain their resources. Otherwise the game becomes too easy, and nobody has fun.

To summarize, if you do not allow Rituals to be bought or sold, you always have control over what goes into your game. Otherwise, use a bit of caution, depending on what you want from your game. "But Froth, it sounds more like you are restricting Rituals than encouraging their use". Bear with me.

Ease of Use
One crucial aspect of encouraging Ritual use is to make them easy to use. I do not recommend taking away the casting time; that's one of the interesting pieces. Players absolutely should have to find a spot or moment that allows them the time and space to complete a Ritual. Still, there are some things you could do to make them easier to use. One thing is simple: write down the formula. Not every player has copies of the books, and not every player feels like getting on the Compendium between sessions to copy it down. If you maybe hand out a little Ritual card, it makes it cooler, and players will be more likely to retain the info, or remember they have the Ritual in the first place. As I mentioned above, giving out Ritual scrolls ensures that more than just the Ritual Casters can use them. Other alternatives include giving out the Ritual Caster feat for free if the party does not have a member that can use them; this feat makes for a flavorful reward. Or you could include one free use of a Ritual with the cost of purchase. This prevents it from feeling like you are getting "double dipped" (getting charged to buy the Ritual, AND to use it).

Presenting Rituals
There is a little overlap with some of these topics, but next I want to talk about how to present Rituals to your players. I think this influences how they will view them, and in turn can encourage or discourage their use. If you just say, "Here you find 300 sp and a Wizard's Curtain Ritual", you haven't really captured anyone's imagination. ALWAYS read a Ritual to a party when they find one. This is where you can go ahead and get their wheels turning, because they are not necessarily going to go home and read up on it themselves. Taking the time to write the Ritual down on a little card also adds a nice touch, and keeps it fresh in their minds. Finally, the context in which they acquire the Ritual is an important part of its presentation. I have covered some of that topic above, and it also leads to my next point.

Rituals as Plot Devices
One way to encourage or even guarantee Ritual usage is to include it in a plot hook or adventure. Many DMs can probably brainstorm a hundred ideas from this. An example might be something like the party needs to find the skull of a certain priest and perform a Last Sight Vision Ritual in order to get some crucial bit of information. Or the party and pretty much everyone else in the campaign world regularly use portal Rituals as means of transport. Or the only way to access some tiny room or area is through an animal host, so the party must all use Share Husk Rituals and be turned into mice!

You can literally just sit down and read through Ritual descriptions and come up with all kinds of cool ideas for your game. Sometimes when you just give out random Rituals, or let players choose their own on a shopping trip, you don't end up with much other than boring healing rituals, or Rituals that might never fit your storyline or world.

Alternative Ritual Components 
You might find it a little boring and stale to just use standard components for Rituals. By this I mean a player just trading in some gold somewhere for the components. Try developing a plot hook around acquiring odd Ritual components. Like for the example above, where the players need to find a certain priests skull to do the Last Sight Vision Ritual. Perhaps the components for that include hard-to-find items, such as the eyes of a newt. What this does is shift Rituals away from a standard money drainer, and adds a flourish of flavor. The currency for Ritual use becomes adventuring, rather than gp.

Final Thoughts
I hope this post is somewhat coherent and not too rambly. After you analyze it all, it's easy to see that the methods for encouraging Ritual use will vary between DMs and from campaign to campaign. It is hard to generalize about...but I will try to summarize.

After you decide how you want Rituals to fit into your world, you can facilitate their usage through their acquisition process, presentation, and the ease with which players can use them. Utilize plot hooks, props, flavorful descriptions, and alternative component costs as ways to encourage players to use Rituals. Resist just giving away the farm, because it not only doesn't work, it isn't flavorful and lacks creativity.

That said, I'd love to hear any thoughts and ideas from readers! Leave a post!


  1. My players love using rituals and most of the party funds go toward buying ritual components. One thing they especially like is the ability to break down "useless" magic items and then use their resources to create a new item more to their liking. They also like the ability to move magic enchantments over to other items, such as from a short sword (which no one uses) to a long sword (which the Swordmage uses). Basically 4E rituals allow the players to customize magic items for themselves and they are loving that aspect. (Side Note: I do not use the magic item wish lists in my 4E campaign.)

    However, they do still use other rituals all the time. They see it as another resource at their disposal, one that falls outside the limits of their class.

    1. Callin, thanks for the post. That is fertile ground that I didn't even cover-use of Rituals to create magic items.

  2. This has inspired me to look at printing out some actual 'Ritual Scrolls' from the Compendium to use as treasure. :)