Monday, April 16, 2012

Revising Rituals for Dark Sun 4e

One of my the benefits of playing a table-top RPG is the infinite customizability. Since a human is in charge of things, you're not bound by pre-determined rules, pre-planned adventures, or anything else some game designer dreamed up. House rules are king.

Over the last two editions of D&D, the rules have been more and more formalized, and the math more balanced. This leads, however, so some difficulties in customization. Admittedly, the major difficulty is remembering that the rules are malleable in the first place. The second is finding the right level of customization.

One of my proudest achievements in the last D&D game I ran was customizing the 4e ritual system for my dark sun game. Not any DS campaign, but specifically my game. Here's an example ritual I gave out:

You'll recognize a few things right away. First, this is the Iron Vigil ritual from Divine Power. Its been renamed, labeled as an Arcane ritual, and its key skill is Arcana. The cuneiform is a 'bar code' for me so I remember where the PCs found the ritual and its level of mastery. See, that incomprehensible sentence in the middle is google-translated and originally says: "When you use this ritual, you do not regain healing surges during the extended rest, though you do regain daily powers."

So why give out a ritual that the PCs don't completely comprehend? Honestly, I had watched an episode of Legend of the Seeker (not the best of shows, I'll admit. But it was fun). The episode featured the wizard casting a spell that he didn't entirely comprehend. And I loved that idea. Now, the new Dungeon Crawl Classics game is going to have some similar systems for spellcasting being unpredictable, but so its not a 100% unheard of idea in this day and age. But I used Moderate DC arcana skill checks to learn rituals with difficult checks to learn the complete version of the ritual.

I though it worked amazingly well with the group. Each PC had a slightly different ritual book, based on their trained skills, class, and rolls to learn rituals. It felt a lot like earlier editions where the wizard (or 3.5 Archivist) went in search of powerful spells. You could build quests around identifying and recovering archaic spells. The late second edition Jakandor setting was set up for just this sort of campaign. That's one of the key things I felt was missing from 4e, and I'd consider playing older editions just to be that sort of wizard who would quest for lost spells to master. Of course, I also would love to run a wizards' guild type of game that heavily focused on spell research and collection.

The final change is the special line, which aims at tempting PCs into defiling. Oh yeah, the game was based on the veiled alliance. The VA is a eco-terrorist group of mages who oppose the tyrannical sorcerer-kings and wicked defiling mages of Athas. See, in Dark Sun, whenever you cast wizard spells, you can defile the land to gain power. This permanently scorches the earth, and was the basically one cause of the post-apocalyptic setting. So in order to make ritual magic fit the dark sun context a bit more, I added a special line to just about every ritual. Arcane rituals generally had major boosts for defiling (a +5 or +10 on the roll and/or reduced component cost were the usual). Primal rituals tended to get a bonus for casting it in certain terrain types, while psionic ones usually had healing surge costs instead of component costs.

I even implemented a homebew disease (Defiling Addiction) to represent the PCs fall from grace. It's symptoms gave things like a +1 to hit/damage with spells that defile, bonus powers which could only be used when defiling, and access to a "defiling meditation" power which let them secretly defile once per day (like, mondo major defiling, wiping out a small farm) to gain the benefits of defiling all day and keeping your secret hidden. While afflicted with defiling addiction, you were considered a defiler for all the necessary other game mechanics (like their heartwood spear which gave a massive bonus against defilers).

Now, it would have been a mistake to boost defiling like this in many other Dark Sun campaigns. If there wasn't a focus on the Veiled Alliance and preserving, or even any arcane casters who might defile, it would have been a lot of wasted time and effort. If the game was defiler-centric, I wouldn't have boosted defiling as much either. I might have still modified rituals with defiling benefits, but perhaps smaller ones. Even defilers who are sanctioned by the Sorcerer-Kings can't defile at will, and there would be social ramifications for defiling still. But the mechanics have to be married to the themes and plots.

The game ended well, though a bit sooner than I might have liked. The PCs even fell into the trap of using some of the divination rituals found on one of Hamanu's templars. They did it unknowingly, of course, since they didn't understand the ritual fully, though they did understand the lower-level ritual and should have been able to guess eventually. Pretty awesome when your divination rituals contact the evil and massively powerful sorcerer-kings, right? The final confrontation with Hamanu after defeating the ghost of Kalak almost resulted in their deaths, were it not for a natural 20 on a bluff check.

All in all, a wonderful campaign. But I think taloring the houserules and reflavoring to the specific group, not just the setting in general, made all the difference.

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