Uses of Rituals

Magical rituals have been around as long as magic has been a plot device, for a wide variety of reasons. Sometimes they’re plot-vital, keeping magic from taking a form that would be inconvenient for plot, world, or creator’s sanity; sometimes they’re more indirect-expository, created more to say something about the people who perform them than to help or hinder the magic in any way. It’s not even clear if all of them work, but half the fun is not being quite sure, isn’t it?

Sometimes, the ritual is important to the laws of the world, or to keeping the plot where it’s supposed to be without shattering suspension of disbelief or making the characters seem too stupid to live. When someone doesn’t want to write magic as just a few flicks of a wand or sufficient concentration, in comes a ritual. If someone’s trying to keep a magical effect from being overused by making it inconvenient or difficult in some way (time, resource cost, etc), they bring in a ritual. If they’re trying to do something that seems like it should be reasonable but the Way Magic Works doesn’t expressly accommodate it—ritual. Need something that agents of the other side can interfere in more easily than a standard spellcasting? Use a ritual. Looking for a way for people without inherent magic to produce magical effects? Have them learn a ritual! Want magic that’s secret by the standards of your magic system? Use a…. you get the idea.

But it doesn’t have to be as Rigid and Vital a purpose as that. Some magical rituals are more about flavor, essentially characterizing the cultures and subcultures from which they sprung up; in these, you might have two different cultures—or even two different schools of magic—perform a ritual to get the same effect, but do completely different things in order to get there. Sometimes, the process or effect of the ritual says something about the overall morality of the people performing it, whether that something is true or not—people tend to react differently to human sacrifice or when debasement isn’t just where de ceremony takes place than they do to reciting long formulae or creating overly complex but beautiful diagrams. Still others characterize their components: their symbolic value, their magical uses, or even the ritual creator’s opinion of them. Use of rituals can imply that a character has particularly arcane knowledge, and can set one group apart from others like them. And inserting them into a game as flavor test, like in the creation of a magic item, can make something seem a lot more interesting and important than just making a sequence of Crafting rolls (and certainly, no intelligent magic item should be without one).

One fun thing about rituals is that unless they’re explicitly designed as game mechanics, they don’t have to actually do what they say they do; in fact, magic doesn’t even have to really exist for there to be complicated rituals that try to draw on it. Just think about all the little superstitions of this day and age. It’s also quite possible that not all of a ritual’s components are really necessary, for any of a number of reasons. If the scientific method hasn’t quite occurred to the people designing these things, they might include a number of factors just because “it worked last time we included them!” Likewise, if you’ve got a group trying to keep power, they might try to make sure that all the known rituals have a component only they can provide, or an element that lets them track who’s doing it.

In short, there’s plenty of use for a good magical ritual. But how do you use them, and how do you make them interesting? Stay tuned.

Trackbacks / Pingbacks

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