Rethinking Ritual Magic

Category: Design Notes
Created on Saturday, 02 July 2011 Written by Steve

I'm currently working on the ritual magic system for Hobomancer. We included rules for ritual magic in Weird Times at Charles Fort High and The Adventures of Sindbad, but there are a few things I don't like about it, so I decided to try take the basic idea of that system, simplify it, and get rid of a few things I didn't like for Hobomancer. The rough draft of the resulting system, which I'm calling the "Five by Five Magic System," is provided below.

A few design notes:
The Fort High/Sindbad systems requires characters to use Yum Yums to cast spells. While this in theory keeps magic in check, I feel like it's unfair to wizards. Super-heroes, kung-fu masters, and international men of mystery don't have to spend Yum Yums to do over-the-top, unrealistic things, so why should mages? 

Although there are a ton of tables here, the intent is that you don't actually need them during the game (at least once you've got a feel for the game). They're just meant to serve as guidelines.

In addition to getting rid of the table that controls all magic from the previous system, the new system eliminates the weird row shifting.

Making magical items has been more fully integrated into the core system, which eliminates the need to worry about whether an item is a magical item or a material component or focus of the spell. I think it also models fiction and real-world magical traditions a little better.

Overall, this system probably allows wizards to do more powerful magic more easily, but it's designed for a game where everyone's a magical hobo, so that should be fine.

I haven't actually built any spells with the system yet. Feel free to try to build some of your own, playtest the rules, and let me know your opinion on what works and what's broken (you can give me feedback in the forums).

Step 1: The player describes what he wants to do and GM sets Base Difficulty Number
When a player decides that his hobomancer is goig to use ritual magic, the first thing he needs to do is let the GM know what he wants to accomplish with the spell. For example “I want to cast a spell that will help me find something to eat” or “I want to raise Born Again Ben from the dead.” Once the GM has a basic idea of the spell’s intent, he should set a Base Difficulty Number for the spell. Guidelines for setting Difficulty Numbers are provided in the “Difficulty Number Guidelines” section below.

Step 3: The Player describes any situation-specific ritual elements and GM adjusts Difficulty Number.
All magical traditions include some basic ritual elements that are used nearly every time a spell is performed. Shamans dance and chant and wear funny outfits, or stare into the fire while taking illicit drugs; Demonologists draw magical sigils on the ground, light candles, and speak in dead languages; Evangelical faith healers speak in tongues, praise Jesus, and sweat profusely. These sorts of actions are assumed to take place whenever a character casts a spell (if the character’s movement or ability to speak is hampered, or he doesn’t have his collection of funny hats and magic wants, he should suffer a penalty to his spellcasting roll). However, every spell is unique, which means that the caster will always be including ritual elements that are specific to this particular spell and casting. During this step in the casting process, the player gets a chance to describe how he’s tailoring the standard rituals to the specific magical effect he wants. If he does a good job of it, the GM should lower the spell’s Difficulty Number (some examples are provided in the “Difficulty Number Guidelines” section).

Step 3: Determine casting time.
A spell’s casting time is determined by it’s final Difficulty Number. If the DN is 4 or less, it can be cast in 1 round. A spell with a DN of 5-10 take a number of rounds (or minutes, if cast outside of combat) equal to the DN. The ritual for spells with DNs of 11 or greater take DN-10 hours to perform.

Step 4: Resolve Spellcasting
If the spell’s target is an unwilling creature, the target may attempt to resist by making an appropriate roll. The exact roll used depends on the nature of the spell For example, the target would roll Body (or a combat-related Job) to dodge a fireball, Brain to see through an illusion, and Nerve to resist mind control. If the target is a spellcaster, he can choose to attempt to resist or can try to counter the spell by making a Job roll. The caster has to beat the DN or the target’s successful resistance roll, whicever is higher. If the caster succeeds, the GM determines the effects of the spell based on the caster’s Success Degree.

Since magic is by definition dangerous and uncontrollable, a failed spell can have unintended consequences. If the spellcasting roll succeeds but is under the DN (or target’s resistance roll), the spell simply fails to work. If the spellcasting roll fails, the magical energy of the spell is still released, but the caster fails to properly channel it, resulting in completely unintended effects. The details of such miscasting are left up to the GM based on how badly the roll fails and the nature of the spell being cast. On a Bad Break, the caster suffers a magical backlash that harms him in some way. A few possibilities include:

  • If the spell was intended to hurt someone, the caster suffers the effect.
  • Caster takes damage (equal to the rolls’ Failure Degree) due to uncontrolled magical energy ripping through his body.
  • Caster passes out for a number of rounds equal to the Failure Degree of the roll.
  • Caster’s mind is damaged by the magic. His Brain Number is reduced by the spell’s Failure Degree. Lost Brain points are regained at the rate of 1 point per day.
  • Caster has a mental breakdown. His Nerve Number is reduced by the spell’s Failure Degree. Lost Nerve points are regained at the rate of 1 point per day.
  • Caster is permanently “marked” in some way (his hair turns white, grows horns, or ends up with golden eyes with hourglass-shaped irises that only see death, for example).

[Sidebar: Optional Rule: When the effects of the spell are similar to everyday situations, the target may resist using the full appropriate number. However, when the spell’s effect is something the target is simply not used to dealing with, his roll is halved. For example, a character could use his soldier job to dodge a magical missile, but would roll ½ Body to resist a spell that literally makes his blood boil, since he’s got no frame of reference for dealing with such a situation.

If this rule is used, the GM may also rule that characters have to make a default resistance roll against beneficial spells with bizarre effects, since the character’s mind and body naturally recoil from the weirdness of it all. For example, a character can choose not to resist a “blessing” type spell, since it doesn’t have any obvious magical effects (he just feels a little more confident and capable). He’d have to make a resistance roll against a spell meant to turn him into a wolf (even if the transformation is voluntary), though, because shapeshifting is too far beyond his normal experience for his mind to easily accept.
[End Sidebar]

Difficulty Number Guidelines
The tables below provide some guidelines for determining spell DNs and modifiers for ritual elements by rating several specific factors of the spell effect or ritual. These intended as helpful references, not checklists that need to be gone down every time someone casts a spell. You can use when you’re preparing a spell in advance and as “training wheels” until you’re comfortable with the magic system, but hopefully after a while you’ll be able to come up with DNs and ritual modifiers on the fly without referring to the tables.

Base DN
To determine the Base DN, assign a rating of 0-5 for each of the five factors below.

How overtly magical are the spell’s effects?

0Effects could be mistaken for good luck.A “blessing” type spell that gives the recipient a bonus to certain rolls.
1Effects seem like an unremarkable  coincidence. A character casts a spell to help him find food and a few minutes later a rabbit appears.
2Effects seem like an unlikely coincidence. A character casts a spell to help him get somewhere fast and a few minutes later finds a vintage American muscle car with a full tank of gas and the engine running and no owner in sight. On a little-travelled back-road. In Kenya. And it’s got a vanity plate with the character’s name. And his favorite CD’s playing on the stereo.  
3Effects could easily be explained as a simple magic trick or deception. Making a coin disappear; Conducting a seance.
4Effects could be explained as an elaborate magic trick.Making a person disappear; Summoning a demon.  
5Effects cannot be rationally explained.Shooting a beam of magical energy at a bad guy; Opening a portal to another dimension.

How powerful are the effects of the spell?

0Negligible: Effect is barely noticeable. Spell that gives the recipient a bonus to attack rolls.
1Minor: Effect could be accomplished using common items, knowledge, or abilities, usually without a die roll. Lighting a candle; Finding a Starbucks; Making a sandwich.
2Moderate: Effect could be accomplished with a person with the right equipment, knowledge, or abilities (but would probably require a successful roll). Setting a person on fire; Finding a book on evolution in rural Texas; Making a seven-course gourmet meal.
3Major: Effect could only be accomplish trough use of a Gimmick, equipment that most people don’t have access to, or by spending Yum Yums. Destroying a building; Literally finding a needle in a haystack; Making a Big Mac (TM) taste like a hamburger.
4Supernatural: Effect violates the laws of reality. Raising the dead.
5Cosmic: Effect fundamentally alters the nature of reality. A spell that retroactively prevents the extinction of dinosaurs.

How long does the spell last?
There are three ways to the define the duration of a spell. If a spell’s effects are intended to last for a discreet block of time whose actual duration may vary (for example, “one battle”), use the first table. If the spell lasts until certain conditions are met or a particular task is performed, use the second. If the spell lasts a number of units of time based on the caster’s roll, use the third table.

0Instantaneous*Wounding or healing someone; unlocking a door; breaking a chair; granting a bonus to a single roll.
1SceneA spell that will help the recipient in the next fight.
2AdventureA spell that protects the party while they sneak into the enemy base.
3Story ArcA spell that plants a “magical bugging device” in a major enemy’s headquarters.
4CampaignA curse that affects the target until he completes a difficult and time-consuming task.
5PermanentPermanently altering a character’s Words and Numbers; Creating a magical artifact.

*As a general rule, if a spell’s effect is permanent or semi-permanent, but could be accomplished through normal means in a single round (with or without a roll), it’s considered instantaneous. For example, lighting a candle would be an instantaneous spell. Turning a candle into a sword would not.

DNTask/Condition to end spell is...Example
0Break caster’s concentration*Telekinesis; Mind Control
1Very Easy Wipe a painted symbol off the target’s face.
2Relatively Easy  Go to confession.  
3Somewhat Difficult Solve a murder.
4Very DifficultAvenge a murder.
5Nearly ImpossiblyDrink from the Holy Grail.

*If the caster does anything that requires a roll, takes damage, or is otherwise distracted, he must win a resisted Nerve roll against the cause of the distraction (his own successful roll, the amount of damage taken, or the roll of the person or Cruel Forces of the Universe causing the distraction to avoid having his concentration broken.

0Success Degree in Rounds/Minutes
1Success Degree in Hours
2Success Degree in Days
3Success Degree in Weeks
4Success Degree in Months
5Success Degree in Years

How far-reaching are the spell’s effects?

0CasterA spell to make the caster seem more intimidating.
1Single TargetA spell to give an ally strength.
2ImmediateA spell to prevent the people in the room from fighting.
3LocalizedA spell to make the townspeople treat you as a great hero.
4RegionalA spell causes a major earthquake.
5GlobalA spell that ends global warming.

How well-defined are the spell’s effects?

0Undefined“I’m going to ask God for help”
1Vague “I cast a spell to rain fire from the sky”
2Inexact“I’m going to set the place on fire.”
3Average“I’m going to throw a fireball.”
4Precise“I’m going to throw a fireball that doesn’t burn my friends.”*
5Ironclad“I’m going to throw a fireball that only harms my enemies.”*

*The difference between these two are fairly subtle. The more precise version protects friendly characters who aren’t necessarily the character’s friends (rival heroes, prisoners, ex-wives, etc.) as well as whatever flammable inanimate objects happen to be lying around.

DN Modifiers for Ritual Elements
As with Base DN, the modifiers for spell-specific ritual elements are determined by rating each of the five categories below from 0 to 5. Please note that the character only gets one modifier for each category, not for each specific element (though more elements will usually increase the modifier for that category).

Symbolic Elements

DN ModifierDescriptionExample
0Pathetic“I says some magic words and stuff.”  
-1Weak “Since I’m casting a spell to be stealthy, I chant the name of the god of thieves.”
-2Fair“I Kneel down before the cross, recite some Psalms, and pray to God to protect me.”
-3Good“I put on the ritual robe and masking representing Haokah, Lord of the Sky, and perform the ancient rain dance of my people while using a rattle and drum to make rain and thunder sounds.”
-4Very Good“With a swipe of my broadsword, I give the pig the same merciful death that the cowardly Kromdorian swine will die at my blade in the coming battle. Then I sing the War Song of Thule while drawing the battle sigil of my clan on my chest in the pig’s blood. When I finish, I clean and sharpen my sword, leaving a small spot of blood on it so that it will thirst for more. Finally, I raise my sword and my voice in salute Harg, Lord of Battle, whose star hangs in the Eastern sky.”  
-5Exceptional“First Edwardo walks around town naked for about an hour, drawing everyone’s gaze. When he comes back, he bathes in water containing cowitch pods, which can cause blindness. This symbolically washes away the gazes that he drew walking around naked and prevents people from seeing him. Then I put his clothes on a straw effigy, symbolically transferring his identity to it. Since the real Edwardo is stripped of his identity, he doesn’t give off that vibe that makes other people realize there’s someone in the room with them. I then have a conversation with the effigy, pretending that it’s Edwardo, while the real Edwardo sneaks into the enemy base, effectively invisible.”


DN ModifierDescriptionExample
0No specific knowledge of the subject is incorporated into the ritual.  “I’m casting a sleep spell on those guys.”
-1Broad generalizations about the subject are incorporated into the ritual. “Since members of the Order of Hotep aren’t allowed to drink, I soak the chalk in wine before I draw the warding circle to keep them out.”
-2Common knowledge about the subject is incorporated into the ritual. “His Wikipedia entry says that her favorite beer is Fat Tire, so I’m going to add a bottle of it to the love potion.”
-3Familiarity with the subject is incorporated into the ritual. “Since that particular model of car that I’m trying to disable has a history of radiator problems, I’m going to sprinkle some antifreeze on the toy car that’s representing it in the ritual.”
-4Personal or detailed knowledge about the subject is incorporated into the ritual. “I write his true name on a piece of paper and add it to the mojo bag I’m preparing.”
-5Intimate knowledge of the subject is incorporated into the ritual. “As I’m going into the trance, I recite the obituary of the girl we saw him murder last night over and over again as a mantra. That should help me reach right into the part of his mind where all the really damning dark secrets are.”

Material Elements

DN ModifierDescriptionExample
0None. Character just uses the basic ritual tools/materials for his tradition.
-1Very Weak A piece of paper with the target’s (common) name written on it; Using Viagra in a love potion.
-2WeakAn image of the target; Wearing a lawyer’s suit while performing the ritual for a deception spell.
-3Moderate. An effigy of the target; Using an Indian arrowhead as the focus for a spell that improves combat abilities.
-4Powerful. Target’s hair, nail clippings, or bodily fluids; Incorporating the bullet that killed Harman McCoy into a vengeance spell.  
-5Extremely powerful. An effigy of the target that includes his hair, nail clippings, or bodily fluids; Incorporating a relic of St. Francis of Assisi into an animal friendship spell.

Note: This category usually only applies when the caster is preparing a spell in advance. The only exception is if setting elements appropriate to the spell have previously been established. If conditions that are unfavorable to the spell have previously been established, the DN is unaffected but the player may suffer a penalty to his roll.

DN ModifierDescriptionExample
0NeutralRight here, right now.
-1AppropriateWaiting until nightfall to cast a stealth spell.
-2AdvantageousCasting a shapeshifting spell under the light of the full moon.
-3FavorablePerforming an exorcism in a church.  
-4FortuitousPerforming a seance in a cemetery on Halloween.
-5OptimalSummoning the ghost of Elvis in the bathroom at Graceland during the early afternoon on August 16th while “Gonna Get Back Home Somehow” plays on the stereo.  


DN ModifierDescriptionExample
0NoneNormal spell.
-1Very Easy (simple action that doesn’t require a roll)Drinking a potion.
-2Easy (requires a simple roll)Speaking a phrase in a language you don’t speak. (“Klaatu Barada Nikto!”
-3Moderate (resisted roll required)Spell is stored in a magical bullet. If it misses the target, the spell fails.
-4Difficult (requires multiple actions and/or specific conditions beyond the caster or user’s control). “When the moon rises, shoot the dragon with the Arrow of Doom.“
-5Extensive (As above, but even more of a pain) “Say the magic words holding the coin over a heat source, then slip the coin in the Duke’s pocket while it’s still warm. You’ve got to be in the Duke’s private study and standing to his left when you do it or else the spell won’t work.”

Creating Magical Items
The only special rule that should be required for creating magical items under this system is for items that have a set number of charges. For these, use the duration of the effect to determine DN. The number of charges is equal to the caster’s Success Degree (more charges may be added by casting the spell multiple times.

It should noted that the item only takes on the ability to grant effects of the spell. It doesn’t become prettier, more durable, or less prone to breakage. So if you want to keep your magical sword from rusting, you need to either cast a spell on it that makes it impervious to rust or keep it out of the rain.

©2012 by Hex Games
Rethinking Ritual Magic.
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