Monday, September 7, 2015

On Ritual Magic for Non-Magic Users


No one is playing a magic user in either of my two campaigns. Since magic is cool (and a unique tool for problem-solving in D&D), I'm trying to figure out ways for non-wizards to take a crack at casting a spell without stepping on the toes of any potential magic users that should join the campaign down the line. 

 In my Tears of Vummor campaign the character Shepard was cursed by the demon princess Yeenoghu for drinking from a consecrated chalice meant only for use by the gnoll goddess's followers. In a rare moment where I actually a) remembered and b) observed D&D canon, I recalled Yeenoghu was connected to ghouls somehow, so now Shepard is slowly turning into the newest incarnation of Yeenoghu's ghoul-avatar, Shoosuva. Shepard and the rest of the Sparagmos-Fweedom Collective don't want this to happen (naturally), so they tracked down a way to contact Yeenoghu to see what they can do to reverse this curse. Since Yeenoghu is a disgusting demon princess of Hell, this calls for a ritual involving elements arcane and bizarre, all of which I made up on the spot:

Contact Yeenoghu

-those seeking communication with Yeenoghu must first prepare milk of the crone (a mixture of goat's milk and a broth made from boiling for six hours a witch's tent of at least fifty years old).

-next you must obtain the tongue of someone you killed with your bare hands in single combat.

-in the light of the full moon, place the tongue in your mouth and drink the milk of the crone. Recite the necessary incantation in gnollish; this will be hard to do, but if successful the final syllable will echo like a thunderclap and the air will fill with the stench of carrion.

-Yeenoghu will not appear herself, but will speak through the individual who spoke the words. What you then do once you've got her attention is your own business.

Securing some of these ingredients spontaneously created a few fun side quests, like raiding the hill of Dunna the witch under the influence of various fey mushrooms, chasing the disgruntled Kool Aid Man cauldron brought to life when the party boiled the tent (and Ingrid's cosmic insight after getting some of the liquid in her mouth, where I gave her player Jenny a thirty-second glimpse at all of my campaign notes), Shepard's burgeoning goat-milk business in the wake of purchasing Shelley the goat, and attempting to take a few prisoners from the Keep's dungeon to sacrifice (which they immediately regretted when they found out the criminals were just trying to earn money to heal their sick daughter.)

Tracking down these elements got me to thinking. I've never played in a game where magic users actually kept track of spell components. Even when it was a part of the rules it was just hand-waved. While I like the concept a lot, inventory management on that granular a level just doesn't seem like a fun thing to me. However, tracking down items to cast a big one-off spell, or even cast an actual magic-user spell the party don't have access to, strikes me as fun and an adventure generator in and of itself. The components themselves also serve as a way to keep players from exploiting this spellcasting ability--non-magic users can still cast them, but not without preparation

I read Grimoires: A History of Magic Books by Owen Davies last spring and came away from it with a few D&D-able ideas--namely, common folk using magic rituals to cast spells. Reading how many would-be magic users attempted to harness these spells in search of hidden treasure definitely helped me draw some parallels to D&D. Here's a little system I've come up with:

Start with a spell. Something potentially useful to your non-magical party, or just something that could add an interesting element. Pick a spell, reskin it to make it better suit its particular use, or just make one up yourself (you'll need to decide on a level, though, which I'll discuss in a moment.) While INT is the default ability for magic users, eyeball the spell and determine if there isn't another ability it should be tied to. Get creative here, since the idea is to allow non-magical folks to access spells.

Decide on the ritual components. The things the party will need to cast the spell. Ideally this should represent a fair amount of adventuring, not just things the party can buy at the village market. Here are some ideas of the top of my head:

Sacrifices, relevant to the spell or perhaps just a certain amount of HD worth of creatures. 
Valuables, including money, gems, and rarities.
Riddle objects, common items with misleading descriptions: "a spool of silver thread", for example, could just be a spider's web wrapped around a twig, or "a golden comb" could just be a honeycomb.
What's up, fellow Over the Garden Wall fans?
Vestments, because you of course need to wear some weird shit.
Drugs, because players seem to really enjoy getting their characters high.
Amulets and symbols, found in grimoires, on the shells of certain insects that emerge from the ground once every 20 years, or known only be the blind monks who live waaaay up at the top of that demon-haunted mountain in the distance.
Weapons, that are unique or are made up of a few special components themselves.
People, because the more powerful the spell the more people you'll need to pull it off; plus, persuading/hiring NPCs to assist sounds like fun to me.

Performing the ritual. Assemble the components and gather your participants to conduct the ritual.
-The participants each make a d20 roll, adding the appropriate attribute modifier. The target number is 10 plus the spell level, minus the highest ability modifier appropriate to the spell.
-For the ritual to succeed, the participants must roll a number of successes equal to the spell level.

Here's an example ritual, partially inspired by a spell mentioned in Grimoires- let's say this one comes from a grimoire called The Stygian Aura, and this spell in particular summons a "Treasure-man" to help you find occult valuables.

Summon Treasure-Man

Spell Level: 4
Components: monkey, goat, large lizard or extra large toad/2 platinum coins/100 gold coins/dagger made of 7 Xorn teeth and wood from the heart of a tree at least 500 years old--this dagger must have spilled the blood of a wealthy person since the last full moon
Spell Target Number: 14 - highest CHA modifier of participants
Instructions: Place platinum coins in a fire until red hot. Arrange the gold coins in a circle at a crossroads on the first night of the new moon; the participant with the highest CHA score must carry the sacrifice into the center of the circle, recite the necessary words, and cut its throat with the Xorn dagger. The platinum coins are then burned into the eye sockets of the sacrifice while chanting. At this point, the participants make their rolls. If successful, the sacrifice's limbs twist and crack into a roughly humanoid shape. It will then eat each of the golden coins, widdershins, and then ask the leader what treasure they seek. The twisted homunculus known as the Treasure-man will then lead the party to the treasure, no matter how far. It will not warn them of any dangers along the way and it will not stop to wait for them. Upon finding the treasure, the platinum will melt from its eyes and it will collapse into a putrid heap, as though it had been dead for weeks. The coins in its belly are now cursed, and will only cause misfortune to those who spend them; it is thought best to bury them at the closest crossroads.

And here's a reskinned version of the Imprisonment spell from the Labyrinth Lord Advanced Edition Companion. This is a spell the party finds on a scroll in the lap of the dead warrior-king Nox, who fell valiantly battling the hideous entity known at the Pale Prince while his subjects performed the ritual nearby. Somehow, the Pale Prince got free, and it's up to the party to put him down again!

Imprison Pale Prince
Spell Level: 9
Components: 8 silver bowls containing the tears of parents whose children the Pale Prince stole/a caul-born champion armed with only an enchanted weapon made of "that which the poor have, the rich need, and which kills those who eat it"/the single syllable whispered by each of the eight victims the Pale Prince killed the last time he was freed, uttered exactly
The Caul-born Champion battles the Pale Prince
one-hundred years after their respective deaths/powdered hag's sorrow, a luminescent fungus that grows only on the belly of the fabled Bloatwitch of Dunwater Swamp.
Spell Target Number: 19-CON modifier of champion
Instructions: The Pale Prince must be allowed to chase his eight marked victim into a circle with the silver bowls are placed at each point of the compass. The caul-born champion must smoke the powdered hag's sorrow, which gives her 10d6 extra hp for one turn and allows her to hit the Pale Prince for 3d6 damage empty-handed (however, the hag's sorrow reduces the champion to 0 hp when it wears off). While the champion fights the Pale Prince, the participants remain outside of the circle chanting the eight syllables, attempting a successful spell check each round. If the participants can successfully make the necessary spell checks in a single round before the champion dies, the Pale Prince will shrink into a childlike form lie down. Before dawn of the next day a willow tree will sit on the spot, and any who dare dig out the willow's roots will find the dormant form of the Pale Prince asleep among its tangles.