Toward a Ritual Magic System, Part 2: Essence and Lore

Posted: 2024-02-17
Word Count: 1668
Tags: d20 d100 dnd5e openquest osr ritual-magic rpg writing-rpgs

Table of Contents

Several months ago I considered mechanics for a ritual magic system in OpenQuest. After doing some probability calculations I decided the best system would roll a number of d6es equal to the character’s “Essence”. What is “Essence”? Whatever I want it to be.

Essence and Lore

Under this system each ritual magician has two scores, Essence and Lore.

Lore is a measure of how much the character understands the working of magic. It’s stated in the same terms as a system’s skills: percentiles in D100, modifiers to a d20 roll in d20, a number of dice in dice pool systems, etc. While not involved directly in the working of a ritual, Lore can help find new rituals, modify existing rituals, understand a ritual, or devise counter-rituals for a ritual gone wrong.

Essence measures how much the character influences the supernatural. A character’s base Essence relies on a calculation involving base characteristics like WIS or POW, a “Channelling” skill, or anything else, as long as it comes up with a number between 1 and 5 (or thereabouts). To work rituals requiring more Essence, the magician must use “props”: ritual objects, propitious times and places, sacrifices (including human), and similar extraordinary components. (I presume a ritual magician carries a “ritual kit” including a small silvered knife, chalk, salt, special herbs, candles, incense, etc.)

Working against the ritual magician are the Ritual Difficulty of a ritual description and the Effect Rating of the desired effect. Ritual Difficulty is the difficulty in understanding and translating a ritual description into words and actions, which Lore must overcome. Effect Rating is a minimum threshold on the Essence dice to accomplish something close to the desired effect. Many rituals will have several Effect Ratings, each denoting a higher level of effect.

d100 (OpenQuest, Mythras, etc.)

Lore for an OpenQuest ritualist, as stated in the previous article, is a skill called Lore (tradition). tradition is the specific religious or mystical tradition for the type of spell being cast. In this concept every ritual has a particular tradition, and (for example) a Druidic practitioner would have a hard time performing a Voudun ritual correctly. If this feature is undesirable, one can simply place all rituals under Lore (Ritual Magic).

Essence depends both on the character’s POW and their score in a “Channelling” skill, which may be Personal Magic or an explicit Channeling skill that defaults to POW × 3%. The formula for the character’s intrinsic Essence is Channeling × POW / 400%, rounded to the nearest whole number. Some beings like Witchborn1, Mageborn2, and Eldren3 may have POW scores higher than the human maximum of 20.

D&D 5e (and similar d20 systems)

In D&D 5th edition we can define Lore as the Intelligence (Arcana) skill, or possibly Intelligence (Religion) for religious rituals.

Essence likewise may be the sum of the character’s Wisdom modifier and their Proficiency Bonus, which gives a number between 1 and 5 for a 1st level character.

Modes of Magic

Apart from the particular tradition of magic, we can also define five modes of ritual magic: Conjury, Intervention, Summoning, Thaumaturgy, and Theurgy.

Conjury

Conjury remains the hardest mode of ritual magic. The Conjurer must tap into the wellspring of “natural” magic – either in the form of “energy” or as discrete entities willing and able to do the Conjurer’s bidding – then channel this force into miracles. Most Conjurers have some sort of heritage or innate ability that allows them to perceive and guide natural forces like this; frequently they have naturally high intrinsic Essence as well.

Conjury Mechanics

Conjury works as described above: the ritualist pools their own Essence, those of assistants or fellow ritualists, Essence available from certain times or places, and Essence from other objects or actions including, if necessary, sacrifices. They roll the total dice, and compare it to the Effect Threshold(s) of the effect they are trying to achieve.

Intervention

Intervention requires the direct supervision of a god or semi-divine entity. It is therefore only really practical for the most faithful servants of a god. When it works, however, it can either be powerful or profoundly subtle.

Intervention Mechanics

In this variant Essence serves not as an energy to “raise” but as a measure of the character’s devotion to their deity. It may make sense to relabel Essence “Piety” in these cases. A holy (or unholy) person expends Piety when their prayers are fulfilled, and recovers Piety through religious devotions, good (or evil) works, and other actions in honor of their deity.

Summoning

Summoning is the first and easiest form of magic, requiring very little Essence. Demons and other infernal creatures want to be summoned. Angels and other supernal creatures prefer being summoned by worthy magicians – however they define worthy – and divine beings only want to hear from their worshippers. Nearly all ritual magicians start by summoning minor beings of their chosen alignment, and working up to the truly powerful ones.

Summoning Mechanics

In this mode Essence plays a secondary role. A Player finds a ritual, makes a skill check (perhaps with a difficulty factor) to understand it, and summons some entity or force able to fulfill his desire. Any Essence required comes from performing the ritual at certain times of day and/or sacrifices.

The number of entities who perform these sorts of services are relatively few and unsavory. Through summoning alone one must eventually perform more and more immoral sacrifices, eventually becoming a villain.

Thaumaturgy

Thaumaturgy, simply put, performs miracles. No rituals, no prayers, just incantations and gestures for anything between five seconds and thirty minutes, and the world changes. It’s the closest to traditional “spell-casting” magic systems.

That said, it has limits. Thaumaturges can run out of “thaums”, or whatever they call their mystical force. Their rituals can backfire, sometimes spectacularly, especially if they’ve been using magic all day. They may need to sleep for days, weeks, or months to recharge. It’s magic on a grand scale, and sometimes a dangerous and frightening scale.

Thaumaturgy Mechanics

A Thaumaturge keeps a reserve of Essence at all times. Replenishing this reserve may simply require the passage of time, or may require certain observances, a mini-quest for another source of Essence, or the inevitable sacrifice. In any case, using a ritual expends Essence from this reserve. Depending on the rules and/or GM, a Thaumaturge may be able to expend more than their available Essence, but suffer a penalty or curse as a result.

Thaumaturgy makes “fast-casting” rituals possible. Since the Thaumaturge has an Essence reserve, they may invoke and expend it quickly with only a combat action rather than minutes of gesturing and chanting. The rules (or GM rulings) may limit the type or strength of rituals that can be fast-cast like this.

The Unlimited Mana mechanics for GURPS, as well as my earlier work on Metered Thaums), provides examples on how this system would work.

Theurgy

Theurgy relies on having a “familiar spirit” of sorts that can perform miracles for the magician. The quality and quantity of miracles that a Theurge can perform depends on the powers and might of this tutelary spirit. The spirit or spirits are essentially separate entities that the Theurge must command verbally … and being independent the spirits will balk at anything outside their natural abilities or ethical precepts.

Theurgy Mechanics

Theurgy starts with a Summoning ritual to contact the otherworld, Powers That Be, or whoever/whatever. If successful, it ends with the Theurgist receiving a familiar spirit.

To simplify Theurgy the GM (DM?) designs a spirit or familiar that is bound, willingly or unwillingly, to obey the Theurgist. The familiar will have limited abilities: a jinni, for example, couldn’t wish a million gold into existence but he could rob the kingdom’s treasury.

Off and on I’m working on a system that abstracts Theurgy to a single number called Numen. A Theurge’s Numen score determines not only the maximum power they can bring to bear but the number and strength of effects a Theurge can maintain at any one time. (Technically the spirits maintain effects, not the Theurge). This system is even less baked than these notes, though.

Unanswered Questions

With all this verbiage, I have left several crucial questions unanswered.

Ritual Difficulty

Irrespective of the individual mechanics, how difficult should rituals be? Demons may leave behind easy rituals as a trap, but rituals that do useful work should be harder. Or should they? After all, Conjury, Intervention, and Thaumaturgy also have Effect Ratings to limit the likelihood of a ritual’s success, or at least the power a ritual can command.

Effect Ratings

What Rating should each magical Effect have? The Sorcery system of Barbarians of Lemuria and Everywhen has a system to determine the base power level of a proposed feat of sorcery:

  1. Cantrip: A minor special effect, like an obvious static illusion or cleaning off one’s clothes.
  2. First Circle: An effect that a well-equipped and trained human could perform without magic.
  3. Second Circle: An effect that no mortal could perform without magic.
  4. Third Circle: An effect that remakes the landscape.

The magic system of King Arthur Pendragon 4th Edition also provided a scale for its various effects. Both systems could provide guidence for calibrating Essence to effect strength/scope, but the only valid technique is ruthless playtesting.

Familiar Spirits

Correlating the power of a Familiar Spirit to a Ritual Difficulty or Effect Rating is yet another problem in providing something like balance to the system. What powers should it have? What’s its STR and DEX? Does it take damage? What should its CON be? What about INT, WIS/POW, and/or CHA?

And how many should a ritual magician be able to bind at a time? One? Three? A number based on Charisma?


  1. Human(?) lineages of witches over several generations, perhaps guided by supernatural patrons. ↩︎

  2. Humans bred to be mages over several generations and not a few dangerous thaumatological experiments. ↩︎

  3. A demi-human/humanoid species similar to Moorcock’s Melniboneans, Eldren, and/or Vadagh. Think of them as ultraterrestrial Elves, with less woodland frivolity and more eldritch sorcery. ↩︎