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"Goodbye, Jean-Luc, I'm gonna miss you. You had such potential. But then again, all good things must come to an end."
- Q, Star Trek: TNG

D&D 4E Playtest: Rituals, Revised Skill Challenges

by Ken Newquist / August 5, 2008
Photo: Skill Challenges, from the Dungeon Master's Guide. Courtesy Wizards of the Coast. Used without permission.

After a brief respite in Sigil, where they were attacked by a cunning band of phase gnomes, last Friday's D&D 4E playtest campaign saw my gaming group venture back out into the wilds of the planescape. This time they traveled to the Dire Forest of Yalzerth, an alternative material plane in the midst of an ice age.

The session gave me the chance to work through a few points on the playtest "to do" list I outlined in my last Game Day column, namely rituals and newly revised skill challenges.

Cooperative Rituals

At the start of the game the players found themselves transported via portal key into a great cathedral of pine boughs formed by ancient redwood trees. They ventured out of this safe haven to find a great forest comprised almost entirely of hundred-foot tall redwood trees.

They had a few hints that the world would be cold -- namely the fact that the portal key consisted of a hollow wooden tube wrapped in iron bands that had the symbol of an eclipse etched into them. The tube itself was filled with ice, which led the wizard to cast the group's first-ever ritual: endure elements. They'd acquired the ritual book as part of their adventure to the Burning Sands of Fierth, and the ritual worked more or less like it's 3rd edition equivalent: it protected them from the extremes of mundane weather.

After fending off a wolf attack while the party rogue attempted to climb one of the redwoods to see beyond the canopy, the party's cleric cast the alarm ritual.

In 4th Edition, rituals are essentially spells with long casting times that make them impossible to initiate during combat. Each ritual is tied to a skill, and cannot be uttered unless a) the caster has the ritual feat and b) the caster is trained in the skill associated with it and c) the caster has the appropriate material components.

This setup has the surprising consequence of allowing non-spellcasters to cast rituals after a few levels, since ultimately all they need to do is acquire the prerequisite feats. It's hard to reconcile with the mindset of previous editions, but in 4th Edition a fighter can cast "raise dead" by the time he's at middling levels.

Because they are skill checks, casting a ritual is something that players can work together on, with one player leading the rituals, and the others contributing via "aid another" rolls. For most rituals, the better the skill check, the better the effect. With alarm, for example a simple success yields one magical eye watching over the camp. An exceptional roll could result in as many as four eyes, so it's a good idea to work together on the rolls.

I don't agree with all of the spells that have been made into rituals or how some of the rituals are written. Silence, for example, has always been a combat spell, and I think should have remained one in 4E. I also think that raise dead shouldn't been an auto success; I would have preferred some sort of tiered result, with only the most exceptional rolls resulting in a fully-resurrected patient. I'd loved to have seen some negative consequences for someone who just barely managed to bring a colleague back from the dead.

It bothers me that a fighter is as good as bringing someone back from the dead as a cleric, regardless of how many feats they took to gain the ability. It just doesn't sit right with my old-fashioned brain.

All in all, I like how rituals work. I like that players can work together to cast them, and I like that there's a class of spell that's harder and more complicated to cast. That said, I don't think they solve the primary shortcomings of the cleric and wizard in 4th Edition, namely their greatly diminished spell selection. While rituals do help bolster their arcane and divine spell inventories, the fact that any class can cast them after acquiring a handful of feats diminishes their uniqueness.

Revised Skill Challenges

After realizing that Skill Challenges had some exceedingly bad odds for player characters, Wizards of the Coast retooled them and released updated rules for the mechanic. I liked Skill Challenges the first time we ran them, but I wanted to see how well the updated rules worked.

During Friday's game, the players eventually managed to reach the top of the Dire Forest's canopy and survey the land around them. They found that the forest stretched for hundreds of miles in every direction, but that there was a ziggurat in a clearing about a half-day's journey to the east, and a large frozen lake a day's travel to the south. On this lake were a number of islands which had been cleared of trees so that several simple stone and would buildings could be erected, as well as a large keep. Each island was surrounded by a tall wooden stockade.

Seeing as how their primary reason for traveling to this plane was to see if they could find a habitable reality that survivors of other, destroyed planes could come to, they decided to head to the lake city.

They realized their mistake as they approached the islands and small humanoids emerged to challenge them. The creatures were not halfings, as they first supposed, but goblins.

And the goblins were not happy to see them.

This led to an impromptu Skill Challenge (six successes before three failures) recreating the epic chase back across the ice and into the forest. Failure would see the party captured by the three-dozen odd goblins on their trail, success would allow them to evade their pursuers.

I used the "urban chase" from the Dungeon Master's Guide for inspiration, substituting a "Nature" check for the urban-centric "Streetwise" check.

The challenge went well. As was the case in our earlier playtests, the Skill Challenge setup a great storytelling vibe where the group was working together to figure out how they would evade the goblins. It gave characters a chance to try out skills they might not get to use in combat, and did a good job of encouraging role-playing at the table.

The only drawback was that this was a physical skill challenge, which didn't give the party's cleric (who has more social and divine skills) much to do aside from the occasional "aid another" check, but he was able to find a creative use or two for his skills.

Ultimately, I think the key to running a good Skill Challenge is really to keep things fast and loose. The modern day wisdom of always trying to say yes to your players is crucial to a successful challenge; if players comes up with a good but unconventional idea, them use it. And if the idea is a little iffy, work with the player to come up with something that does work. The worst thing you can do is be too literal or close-minded; that will transform the Skill Challenge from something that provides good fodder for role-playing to little more than a series of die rolls.

As for the updated mechanics, the new DCs for Skill Challenges have been reduced by 10; instead of 15/20/25 DCs for easy/moderate/hard challenges, it's now 5/10/15. Some folks might find this a little too easy, but it worked out well for us. The players had six successes vs. one failure, and while that may seem a little lopsided, in game it provided a number of nail-biting moments.

Skill Challenges continue to impress me, and I intend to use them in whatever version of D&D we end up playing in the long-term.

Comments

While rituals do help bolster their arcane and divine spell inventories, the fact that any class can cast them after acquiring a handful of feats diminishes their uniqueness.

I had exactly the same feeling when reveiwing either version (3.x or recent 3.paizo) of the Combat Feats.

While Rituals are great and a part of the core abilities of the spellcasting classes, access to rituals for mundanes should have been either harsher (one feat per tier level) or having some ritual set for a specific class (Raise Dead = Divine Class prereq).
Either fix is easy to implement anyway but may remove some possibilities from the game like having class-less ritual-casting priest.

I think combat feats in 3E are a little different. While wizards and such *can* pick up a variety of combat feats, they have to spend quite a few of them to reach the pinnacle of power for that feat tree. What a fighter can accomplish by 6th level, a straight-class wizard might not be able to get to until 12th, simply because feats in 3e are spread out.

In 4E, feats are cheap, so it's much easier for a non-spellcaster to get access and use rituals (especially powerful ones like raise dead) only a step or two behind wizards and clerics.

So yeah, I agree that non-spellcasters in 4E should have had a harder time of getting access to these higher level rituals. I could see requiring additional feats to cast higher-level rituals (which could then be granted to wizards/clerics for free) or putting in a level minus 4 or some other penalty on the non-spellcasting classes.

While I realize that 4E is very much about combat roles, I still think that they should have taken more steps to preserve the uniqueness of the spell-casting classes. This would have helped with that.

If you make ritual access more expense or outright remove the option, you are weakening the other classes by removing options. If you care about class balance, you'll either need to take something away from the classes that do get the ritual magic, or you'll need to give a replacement to the classes that lose it. If you don't, you'll be treading back down the road of previous editions where wizards and clerics were simply cooler than everyone else.

Honestly, I don't think our group ever had the problem of wizards/clerics being cooler than everyone else, so limiting everyone else's access to rituals would be fine.

That said, in 4E you *are* mucking about with game balance, as it's assumed that rituals will be open to everyone. Removing that mechanic would necessitate some sort of counterbalance ability, though I'm not sure what that would be.

Perhaps simply restricting *types* of rituals based on class might be sufficient. e.g. there are martial rituals that you can take that increase your effectiveness on the battlefield. This would be in keeping with a more cinematic approach to such fights (how many times do we see the warriors psyching themselves up for the next big fight or taking some other steps to achieve victory?).

This would have the added benefit of giving a bigger punch to multiclass feats; if such feats also gained you access to that classes rituals, it might feel a bit more like traditional multiclassing. (and yeah, multiclassing is one of the places where 4E falls down for us).