Ritual Driven Adventures: Rites of the Bards (or “We’re Bigger than Gilgamesh”)

Gilgamesh and cubWhat if…

  • rituals were long, drawn-out feats of magic that could produce effects that rivaled magic items?
  • rituals were so long, and required so much of the caster, that casting them became the stuff that a whole arc of a campaign might be based around?
  • the arcane rites carried out in a ritual had some emotional depth of impact that performing the ritual would result in either life-changing decisions, or situations that would provide for some serious role-playing?
  • rituals could be performed with assistants (i.e.: the rest of the players)–or assistance from others would be required at some stages of the ritual?

With these ideas in mind, here are some system-neutral rituals that bards or other rock-star-oriented adventurers might use.

Devil in Her Heart

Time required: One month

Benefit: A diabolical favor

Requirement: The bard must be famous enough with her/his instrument as to be considered among the best in the world

Ritual: The bard needs to find 1 (one) devil. This could be something as mundane as a staged or random encounter, but it is much more interesting (and involves more of the party) if the bard actually seeks out the devil, and perhaps uses other resources of the party to track it down.

The “devil” need not be a fork-tailed winged beast–in fact, it’s probably more interesting for the devil to fit some archetypal image associated with the instrument. Understated characterization that seems eerily human often makes for a more effective (and more sinister) demon than a red dude with a pitchfork.

However the devil is found, a deal is made once it appears. There will be a music duel, set exactly one month from the signing of the pact. If the devil wins, he collects the soul of the bard. If the bard wins, the devil owes him a favor. The contest will be “judged” by a panel made up of three damned souls.

Ostensibly, the ritual is about the performance check the bard will make–but in truth, this has little bearing on the outcome. The devil announces when the deal is signed that it is customary to offer the judges a gift. It then announces the gift it intends to give: freedom from the fires of hell to the souls of the judges.

The players have exactly one month to find a gift more compelling than freedom from damnation to woo the judges to their favor. I’d recommend reading C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce for ideas about this–but if you don’t want to take it too theologically seriously, then things like avenging their death, or making sure their children are safe, or publicly correcting some slander made against them fit the bill. The key is that each should be different, and arduous to boot.

The devil’s interest in this is twofold. First, the devil amuses itself by sending minions to harass the player characters as they try to find the gifts to woo the judges. These demons will resort to direct attacks when they’re bored, but much prefer to tempt heroes away from the task at hand–so someone avenging one of the judge’s deaths, for instance, may be offered a great reward for neglecting to complete the task.

Second, the devil is looking for more souls to collect. A group of heroes trying to right wrongs done to or by the deceased is almost certain to call attention to the diabolical reality behind the fate of the damned, and characters who learn that the devil is real and can offer them something interesting are more likely to turn to damnation. Imagine how frustrated the PCs might be who attempt to lead the children of the damned away from the sins of their fathers, only to have those children learn that the devil is real and make pacts of their own.

Right Now, Over Me

Time Required: One year

Benefit: Divine intervention makes thralls of world leaders, and the bard attains rock-star status in at least two cultures

Requirements: The music used must be accessible and interesting to the two distinct cultures engaged in the performance

Ritual: They say that music soothes the savage beast. This ritual is used to invoke divine influence in stopping wars or other conflicts between people groups, which adventurers might want to do to gain free passage across these lands, or access to areas previously blocked by the war, or just because they’re good people. If the bard gets something out of it, all the better.

To initiate this ritual, the bard (and her band, if necessary) must indicate their desire at a temple of the god whose aid will be enlisted. This deity, needless to say, must be one with a moderate or greater connection to music. Furthermore, the deity must not be opposed to either of the cultural groups the bard seeks to bring together. The ritual is begun when a unique and valuable symbol of each culture is burned on the deity’s altar. (GMs, note that the identification and acquisition of these items are not part of the year of the ritual–make them adventures of their own!)

From this point, the bard has one year to complete the ritual. In this time, he must perform 4 concerts. Each concert must draw a larger audience than the one before it. The audiences must represent both cultures, and no one culture should represent more than 60% or less than 40% of the audience. At each concert, the bard must use an instrument used by a paragon of the faith of the enlisted deity. Each instrument must be more valuable than the last.

The final concert must also have an audience that contains representatives of the leadership of both cultures. These must be invited to the stage at some point during the performance, at which point the bard will begin to give them instructions about how to participate in the performance. Each representative should be given one of the two instruments to play on. The bard will use the third. After they play together for some time, the fourth (and most valuable) instrument will be played by a beggar with a parent from each culture.

During this point in the concert, the representatives of the cultures cannot help but continue to follow the bard’s instructions. This continues after the concert–each cultures’ leader will follow 1d4 recommendations made by the bard, so long as these recommendations bring the cultures closer together, and the deity gets a 10% cut of any profit. (For instance, a recommendation might be to merge their treasuries, and appoint the bard as the interim treasurer-in-chief).

Got any good ritual stories to share? Or good bard stories? (Bards make for the best stories, don’t they?) Want to try your hand at writing the “I Am The Walrus” ritual? Tell Me Why in the comments!

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