ADVENTURE DESIGN FOR GAMEMASTERS

Rites, Rituals & RPG’s

June 21st, 2011 1 Comment

As you may well have guessed from my inclusion of astrology, Tarot, and totemic/polytheistic home-brew material in my discussion of role-playing games, I’m a practicing pagan. Today is one of those days that’s kind of a big deal: it’s simultaneously Midsummer and the First Day of Summer (yeah, explain that one to me), also known as “Liþa” (Litha) in the Saxon tongue. It’s a celebration of love, fire, and growth, be it of the land, body, or soul.

Intwischa has a rather timely article up on Ritual-Driven Adventures: the Rites of the Druids, and Charlie brings up a number of considerations that, in my view, would go a long way in enriching the ritual aspect of Dungeons & Dragons.

What if…

  • Rituals were long, drawn-out feats of magic that could produce effects that rivaled magic items?
  • Rituals were so long, and required so much of the caster, that casting them became the stuff that a whole arc of a campaign might be based around?
  • The arcane rites carried out in a ritual had some emotional depth of impact that performing the ritual would result in either life-changing decisions, or situations that would provide for some serious role-playing?
  • Rituals could be performed with assistants (i.e.: the rest of the players)–or assistance from others would be required at some stages of the ritual?

Damn, sign me up.

Unfortunately, the rituals he includes as examples don’t quite do it for me. Rare is the gaming group that would be down for impregnating one of their player characters (though certainly there are other ways of satisfying the steps for the ritual “Available Light”) for the sake of nightvision, but yours might be different. It’s certainly a massive change of pace, and has the feeling of power magic at work (the Great Rite, anyone?). Still, it’s a little too risqué for the casual player, and there are subtler ways of infusing a measure of magick into your game.

Elements of Ritual

Perhaps the most recognizable aspects of witchcraft–besides the goddess worship–are the classical elements, which actually date back to Aristotle (one of those righteous pagans, or something like that). Air, Earth, Fire, and Water, if you go clockwise starting from North. The same way Deborah Lipp breaks down the steps of Wiccan ritual by seeing each through the lens of an element, you can re-envision ritual at your table by considering the properties of each.

Air

Thought, reason, truth, cutting through falsehood like a sword. Intellect, theology, and most importantly, beginnings.

In game, this is the part where you’ll want to consider the reason the ritual was devised in the first place: it other words, it’s aim. Is it to unlock or bind an artifact or entity? Grant new powers or talents to its participants? Heal, transform, or perhaps even destroy?

And–more importantly–where does that power come from? Think to the power sources in D&D, or more specifically, to the various warlock pacts and sorcerer powers available. The sky’s the limit. Well, maybe the Far Realm, anyway.

On a deeper level, use Air to consider the moral stakes of the adventurer’s aim. Must they struggle against the law to achieve true justice? Will they need to weigh one side against the other and find one unworthy? Or must they achieve balance? Play with introducing equal but opposing truths, and let the difference be determined by a feather-weight.

Additionally, you might look at the ritual’s relationship to the organized religion of the setting. Heresy, or ancient secrets lost to the unfaithful? Is it the lore of the people or the highly ceremonial birthright of the philosopher-priest class?

Simply, what is the meaning behind the ritual, the theoretical basis, the why?

Earth

Fecundity, prosperity, the home and body. Realism, pragmatism, completion.

In game you will be dealing with the artifacts, the locations, the spells themselves. Part of what the folks at Intwischa were getting at was the sheer easiness of normal D&D rituals. In my Monday game, I can just inform my DM, “oh, I’m sitting down to sniff out the weather with my witch-nose” and we leave it at that (Vistani Seer feat for the win). Instead, we could place restrictions on her, such that she might need to spent a certain amount of time free of any roof to be able to tell, or to travel to a crossroads or a bend in the river with a willow tree, both of which are traditionally magical places.

Wizards of the Coast attempts to incorporate this into their rituals by requiring components or reagents, but typically this devolves into such minutiae that we’ll try to find our way around them with feats, house rules, or sheer GM fiat. Is there a better system for this than the one we often find in video games, e.g. you need 1xThis and 3xThat and one Uncommon Item? Perhaps put a different way, this could be fun. Instead of needing generic items like “Rare Herbs” and “Sanctified Incense”, you could use a simple one-page supplement of actual herbs and ingredients that could be combined to add different effects to the ritual itself (in the spirit of Andy’s powers discussion from earlier). What, another paganesque supplement I should work on? Fine, fine.

On a deeper level, you’ll want to make these artifacts and locales mean something to the progression of the story. Just as the storyline in Casino Royale builds on itself like a snowball (A leads to B which directly results in C that sets off chain reaction D); namely, if Bond hadn’t stopped the plane terrorist attack, he wouldn’t have been in the Hold’em tournament in Montenegro, and he certainly wouldn’t have been close enough to Vesper to allow for the Venice scene to take place. See what I mean? Make the items and places do double duty, providing the necessary crystal to power the staff while simultaneously letting lose and ancient arcane spirit who was bound to a place by its presence.

Simply, what are the steps to the ritual, the mundane considerations, the how?

Fire

Force of will, transformation, conflict. It is hard to control, at once useful and dangerous, and unpredictable.

In game, the simplest way of looking at Fire is to consider the forces that are pressing down on our adventurers–heating things up to the point of combustions. Who and what could stand to gain from the adventurers failing, and worse, who and what could stand to lose from their success? You’ll want to look at the various connections your player characters have with the nations, organizations, and individuals around them; see Six Degrees for more ideas and examples.

Even worse, are there cosmic forces at work to prevent or exacerbate our party’s goals? Don’t feel limited to your basic Man vs. Man conflict structure. Man vs. Nature and Man vs. God are fair game, too. (Though hold off on Man vs. Self–we’ll get there with Water).

Failure has to be an option. Without it, there is no true struggle. The good GM lets his player characters fail if need be–and makes that an adventure in itself.

Unless, you know, the fate of the world was resting in their hand. Maybe it’s time then for a trip to another plane, another world. Where they have the chance to save the world that was, though they’ll need to sacrifice this new one to do it.

Yeah, nobody said this was going to be easy.

Simply, what are the struggles inherent in the ritual, the external considerations, the who, when, and where?

Water

Healing, intuition, feeling. Life, its mysteries, and the undercurrents present in all things. The unseen. Death.

In game, Water means the emotional tribulations your characters undergo on their journey. What personal conflicts plague them, and where are there chances for growth? This is where double-edged emotional swords will come in handy especially, since the very things that give them strength will be the very things that can bring them down.

What life lesson does the ritual present for the characters? Perhaps it’s just another spoke on the wheel of the Universal Hero Cycle. For possibilities, you can steal from the Major Arcana in Tarot or even Jung’s Archetypes. Are you really surprised that they overlap?

Metaphors are your greatest weapon. Especially once you accept that they really are what they are, not just like or as what they’re describing.

Simply, what are the internal implications for the characters involved, the emotional stakes, the what for?

Coming Full Circle

Ritual needn’t be a rarer and more complex form of the Utility Power. It should satisfy a place in the story, engaging both the character’s internal and external conflicts, the world around them, and the powers that animate that world. Done properly it can be the microcosm it represents, becoming more than a means to an end, but an end in and of itself.

Keep in mind the elements and draw freely from your favorite myths and legends–the secondary sources–and even the video games and novels of today, those tertiary sources. But don’t forget that primary source, your own experiences and ideas and struggles.

It’s not the characters, but how we relate to them.

About the author

Katrina Ostrander is a twenty-something gamer chick, game master, and fiction editor working at Fantasy Flight Games. Her previous credits include work as a game developer on the Star Wars: Edge of the Empire and Age of Rebellion roleplaying game lines. When she's not gaming (or working, which is practically same thing), she enjoys reading, writing, singing karaoke and trying craft beers.

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