How About a Skill Challenge?
At GenCon, Jeremy Crawford of Wizards of the Coast talked about using skill challenges in combat to cast rituals. While that might make sense logically (i.e., itís tough to concentrate on reading a ritual scroll while ogres are hitting you with clubs), it initially rubbed me the wrong way. You can fail skill challenges, and, much like addressing complexity-4 traps in mixed encounters, that would scare away a player from using the mechanic, rendering it a meaningless addition to the rules. If the encounterís design required a PC to try anyway, youíd often be reintroducing the "save or die" mechanic to Dungeons & Dragons (practically speaking) with a pretty good chance of the "die" part coming true. Still, encounters could be balanced so that a skill challenge mechanic would actually be reasonable, so itís an option that can exist depending on how you craft your encounters. This should remain a tool in your DM toolkit, though Iím not going to work out the math for that system. Hopefully, Jeremy (or someone) will work it out and then publish it.
Ritual Combat Casting
While Jeremy was speaking, I was biting my lip. I wanted desperately to provide people with another tool, but I wasnít about to let the cat out of the bag before I had the chance to write this article. I stole this idea fair and square; I wasnít going to let anyone steal it from me.
Thatís right. This wasnít my idea. A member of my Thursday night group, John Moquin, came up with the idea for his Dark Sun campaign, but we never really used it. Still, I liked the idea, and, as copyright law tells us, ideas are a dime a dozen; doing work is what matters, so I ran with it. (Of course, I received Moquinís permission anyway, and he didnít even want attribution. He just wants royalties.)
A Slight but Significant Change
Here is a typical ritual stat block:
Notice that Iíve added a line to the details at the top labeled, "Crawl." This is the number of rounds a player must spend a standard action to cast the ritual. When doing so, the process dazes the character, which essentially means that the caster must use the entire turn to cast the ritual. The caster may spend an action point to move to a safer place, heal a party member, or even attack, but spending an action point cannot be used to speed up the casting process. If a character is attacked, this has no adverse effect on the casting unless, of course, the attack dominates or stuns the caster, preventing the caster from spending the necessary standard action to continue casting. To be clear, if the caster is dazed by an attack, this will not interrupt the casting of the ritual, as the caster will still be able to use a standard action. If casting is interrupted by choice or by a successful attack that dominates or stuns, the casting fails, and the caster must start from the beginning. If the casting is done by ritual scroll, the ritual scroll is not expended when casting is interrupted.
Notice that there is no possibility that the casting will fail due to low skill checks. As with standard ritual casting, the skill check affects the quality of the result, but a positive result occurs regardless of the skill check. The skill challenge mechanic leaves open the possibility that a player will waste multiple turns on an effort that will eventually fail. That could result in severe frustration regardless of whether the encounter is balanced. This concern could by countered by lowering the skill challenge DCs to a trivial level, but then the skill challenge becomes illusory, and it essentially becomes the system provided here.
Combat Casting Time
So, how long does it take to cast a ritual in combat? This is where the system becomes imprecise. A good rule of thumb is to take the normal casting time duration in minutes and divide it by 5 (rounding up). This gives the number of rounds it takes to cast the ritual in combat. For example, a 10 minute ordinary casting time would require 2 rounds to cast in combat, and a 1 hour ordinary casting time would require 12 rounds to cast in combat, making it rather impractical. As youíll see below, however, this is just a starting point, as these numbers should change to fit the campaign.
A DM should determine which rituals can be cast in combat on a case-by-case, or perhaps, on a campaign-by-campaign basis. In either case, allowing for this system requires the DM to do his or her homework. That is, the DM must know exactly what rituals the PCs have, perhaps even controlling their availability. Having this knowledge, though, can also lead to inspiration, making clever encounter design easier. Just as the crawl system provides inspiration for the type of encounter provided above, the specific rituals available help to shape the details of that encounter.
Some More Details?
No more details, though Iím sure youíd like some. Simply put, there are too many rituals out there to test each and every one. Use the formula, combat casting time = [standard casting time / 5 minutes] rounds, and you should have a good baseline. This creates a bit of work for a DM if any of the characters are ritual casters, but for a party without ritual casting, this instead provides a means to create puzzles for players to solve, where ritual scrolls are some or all of the keys to those puzzles.
A Sample Encounter
The reason itís important to keep both this system and Jeremyís system in your toolkit (rather than choose between the two of them) is because the systemsí structures and consequences can give you ideas on how to craft encounters. Hereís an example of an encounter that will work with the dungeon crawl system, but I suspect wouldnít work well using a skill challenge mechanic. It involves multiple waves of creatures attacking the PCs in a space in which theyíre confined. The PCs have two choices: either bull rush their way through the waves to find the escape route, or use a ritual to make an escape route. Making an alternate escape route depends on the PCs using rituals that, depending on your campaign, they either find on the shelving or own already.
This encounter wasnít the inspiration for this alternative ritual system. Instead, the ritual system leads to the encounter design. That is, the system itself inspires creativity. The more tools available, the more inspiration received, and the better able to bring that vision to life. (The particular rituals chosen, and -- as always -- the campaignís story, can further inspire encounter design.)
Encounter: Escape from Mentiri
Appropriate for a party of level 6
Youíve successfully escaped from your cell in Dispaterís prison, Mentiri, and youíve found your gear, but now youíve cornered yourself. The only way out of this storage room is the way you came. You can handle yourself in a fight, but this is Dis, and they are legion. Eventually youíll be overrun. You need to come up with a plan, and quickly!
Each round, a wave of eight Legion Devil Hellguards will arrive to attack the PCs, giving the PCs a few choices. They can try to blast their way far enough out of the dead end to reach the stairwell that provides a means of escape. Doing so will probably result in their facing up to six waves of enemies, which could be overwhelming. On the other hand, they have scrolls of Planar Portal and Passwall available that would require holding off only four or two waves respectively. If the party can handle simply occupy the waves without the help of the ritual caster, theyíll be able to escape by either building a tunnel to the lower level or taking the party back home to the World. Note: You should not give the players these options. If they donít think of these options, they shouldnít have them.
If the PCs had shut the door behind them when reaching the storage room, have the first wave start just outside the door as indicated. (The Legion Devils are approaching silently by way of their teleportation.) In any case, as soon as the PCs begin their escape, a new wave of Legion Devils appears at the end of the hallway as indicated. Their attacks are straightforward, using Hellfire Ray as they approach, and then attempting to flank their opponents or use Squad Defense when in melee.
Features of the Area
- Shelving: DC 11 to climb at half speed. Staying balanced atop them requires a DC 15 Acrobatics check for each move action used to move across them. Failure causes the PC to drop prone, ending the move action. The shelving can provide cover and represent blocking terrain unless toppled (DC 23 Athletics check; become difficult terrain instead).
- Prison Cells: The cells automatically lock when closed. Unlocking them requires a DC 23 Thievery check.
- Stairwell: The stairwell is the only apparent escape route, 180í away.
About the Author
Robert E. Bodine, Esq. practices real estate and intellectual property law in Virginia. He is one of the founding members of the Gamersí Syndicate, a Washington, DC-based gaming club, and part owner of synDCon, a table-top gaming convention. He authors the article series on Loremaster.org, Protection from Chaos, dealing with intellectual property law matters as they relate to the gaming industry. You can follow him on Twitter @RobertEBodine for legal matters, @GSLLC for gaming matters, and if youíre a sports fan, @MMADork.
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