Ritual Magic for GURPS Fourth Edition

by Bevan Thomas

Magic gives detailed information on a magic system appropriate for high fantasy campaigns where wizards throw fireballs and shatter castle walls, performing miracles by saying a couple of words of power and making a few cryptic gestures. It mentions "ritual magic," though only in describing how "ritual wizards" learn their spells in a different manner than normal wizards, not going into any detail about how performing these rituals is different from high fantasy wizardry.

This article explores the principles and techniques of the ritual spell-caster (who is called an "adept" in order to differentiate him from the wizard of the core magic rules). It was inspired by the ritual magic rules from Spirits, but treats ritual magic as a modification to the system in the Basic Set and Magic instead of as a completely new set of rules.

The Principles of Ritual Magic

This section discusses all the changes between Ritual Magic and the "wizardry" of the normal GURPS magic system. Any magic rule not discussed here functions as described in Magic (such as how distraction affects spell-casting).

Mana and Ritual Magic

The default assumption in this article is that ritual magic derives from mana just as wizardry does. It is affected by mana levels, as well as advantages such as Magic Resistance, Mana Damper, and Mana Enhancer. As with wizardry, no one who possesses Magic Resistance or Mana Damper may perform ritual magic.

It is up to the GM to decide if wizardry and ritual magic exist together in his campaign. If they do, then they are learned completely independently of each other, so, for example, normal Magery does not add to path scores, and levels in ritual spells cannot be used as prerequisites for wizardry spells. However, both are considered magic for the purpose of spells and other effects, so a Pentagram inscribed by an adept would guard against a demon summoned by a wizard, and a wizard could use Remove Curse to restore someone turned to ice by an adept.

Learning Ritual Magic

Ritual magic is dependent upon a single "core skill." This skill must be Very Hard, and is usually Ritual Magic (p. B128) or Thaumatology (p. B225). However, depending upon how the GM wishes to use ritual magic in his campaign, other VH skills are possible. Alchemy or Herb Lore are obvious alternatives, as they already produce supernatural effects, as is Musical Influence for bardic magic (in the case, the spells' rituals will probably be musically orientated). Computer Hacking or Weird Science might be appropriate for technomancers and cybershamans, whereas "chi skills" such as Body Control or Invisibility Art would be logical choices for magic that derives from martial arts. Even science skills such as Physics and Biology could be employed in a campaign where magic is actually fringe science.

Each college of magic is an IQ/Very Hard "college skill" or "path" that defaults to the core skill at 6. Each college skill may not be higher than the core skill. Each spell is a Hard technique that defaults to the relevant college skill. The default's penalty is equal to the spell's prerequisite count (p. M6), and in order to raise a spell above this level, the adept must have at least one point in the path. However, he is able to ignore all of the spell's normal prerequisites. Spells cannot be higher than the associated path.

Unlike wizardry, ritual magic derives from knowledge and not from inborn power. Because of this, Ritual Magery is not needed to perform rituals; it simply makes the spellcasting easier. Ritual Magery adds to the core skill, paths, and spells. It is entirely separate from normal Magery. As Ritual Magery is talent, not magical power, Aspected Ritual Magery cannot generally be taken. Another important difference is that it cannot be used to detect magical items (there is no "Ritual Magery 0"), and so Ritual Magery 1 only costs 10 points (Ritual Magery 2 costs 20, RM 3 costs 30, and so forth).

Time Required and Energy Cost

Ritual magic spells do not usually drain FP or HP (except in the way that FP is normally lost through sustained activity and lack of sleep). Instead, they take a far greater time to cast than normal spells. Most ritual spells take 10 minutes to cast per point of its normal casting cost. For example, Seek Pass costs 3 points, and so if cast with ritual magic, takes 30 minutes, whereas Plane Shift costs 20 points, and so it takes three hours and 20 minutes (200 minutes).

As with wizardry, if your base skill with a spell is 15 or more, reduce the cost by 1 point; if you have skill 20 or more, reduce it by 2; and continue to decrease the cost by 1 for every five levels above skill 20. For example, if you have Plane Shift at skill 25, it would only take 150 minutes to cast. All ritual spells take at least ten minutes to cast. This replaces the rules for reducing casting time for spells found on page 8 of Magic.

Maintaining Spells

If a spell can be maintained in the normal rules, it can also be maintained through ritual magic. As long as the adept continues to chant, wave his wands, and perform the rest of his magic ritual, the spell will be maintained. If his concentration is broken or the spell otherwise ends prematurely, he must start the whole process all over again. This means that while maintaining a spell, an adept can do nothing else.

Alternately, an adept can take longer to cast the initial spell in order to extend its duration without needed to maintain it afterward. Simply add the cost to maintain to the normal point total and determine how long it takes from there. For example, Earthquake requires 2 energy to cast, and the same to maintain, and has a duration of one minute. Therefore, it takes 20 minutes to cast the spell if it is to last one minute, 40 minutes if it going to last two minutes, one hour if it is going to last three minutes, and so forth. As this increased casting time takes place before the spell is cast, it cannot be combined with the previous method of maintaining spells. The adept must choose to make use of one or the other.


Adepts can use "slow and sure" enchanting (p. 18 of Magic), with only a few minor differences from the wizard version. Anyone who possesses the necessary spell at level 15+ (if the default level of the relevant path is high enough, it qualifies) counts as a mage for the purpose of putting in "mage-days," and only a loss of the primary mage ends the project. They do not normally have a "quick and dirty" version (page 17), though ritual charms somewhat compensate for it.

Even magical items created by adepts drain energy when used, and powerstones may be dedicated to them as normal. In fact, the only time that adepts may make use of a powerstone's energy is if it is dedicated or exclusive to a magical item. This means that manastones are of no use to them.


A ritual charm (as opposed to an alchemical one) is an object charged with a spell in a manner similar to a scroll. In order to bind a spell into a charm, the spell takes a third again as long to cast. So if the spell normally takes three hours to cast, than it takes four hours if the end result is a charm. The adept can extend the charm's duration by taking longer to cast it as with normal ritual magic (this time is calculated before the spell is multiplied by one and a third).

When the charm is made, the caster must determine the result of the spell (for example, using Lightning against Lord Marcus or walking through the wall of Redraven Keep). He then may carry the charm with him, and when in the right position, he may active it. The charm will only work if it is being used exactly in the way that the spell was described while being cast. So the aforementioned Lightning charm would only spew out its energy if pointed at Lord Marcus and no other. Other people may be affected by the spell, but they cannot be the main target (so a fireball would burn everyone caught in its radius, but it would only activate if centered around the prescribed person or place). Activating the charm takes the spell's normal time to cast (one to three seconds in the case of Lightning) and has the normal range, but it costs no energy.

Once a charm is activated, it crumbles to dust. All charms are delicate things, often bags filled with relevant objects or small objects tied together with string or rope. If they are damaged or altered in any way (such as the objects being removed from the bag or untied from the string), then they become useless, the magic within them dispelling harmlessly.

The Ritual

It is up to the Game Masters and the players to determine exactly what form the magic rituals take. It could be intense dancing, long chants accompanied by complicated gestures made with a wand, or even silent meditation. In some settings, each adept will have his own unique method, and in others it will be determined by his magic tradition or there might even be only one style that everyone follows.

Depending upon the magic style, the words of the spell could either be the adept's own language or an archaic or "sacred" one such as Ancient Egyptian, Hebrew, Latin, or Sanskrit. It may even be spoken in a non-human language such the speech of angels or dragons or a special language that is used only for casting spells. A spell cast in a language that you have at Accented is at 4, and cannot be cast at all with only a Broken understanding. A spell would be written down in the same language that it is spoken, and so would require the adept to be fully literate in the language in question.

Unlike wizardry, ritual magic often makes extensive use of material components, with symbols drawn on the ground, objects burned in a large fire or tossed into the wind, offerings made to various spirits, etc. A list of common components and the spell collages they relate to is located on page 222 of Magic. A more complete listing of various components and arcane modifiers is found within Cabal.

The Adept's Grimoire

As befits a more subtle breed of spell-caster, the adept is often thought to focus on different spells than the wizard, favoring the summoning of spirits and divining the future over elemental mastery and flashy magic duels. Here are presented various ideas on the spells that an adept would have access to.

Blatant Will-Working

Ritual charms are included in this article to allow spell-casters to perform rituals akin to those of classic folklore, but still be able to throw fire and lightning and perform other extreme acts of power that are so common in modern fantasy. GMs who prefer magic to be more low-key can easily remove ritual charms without it impacting the rest of the rules.

Another possibility is to restrict the spell selection of adepts, forbidding them from learning some of the more extravagant spells, such as Flaming Missiles, Enlarge, and Weather Dome. Attacking their victims with cunning curses and malevolent spirits is more in keeping with the ritual magic genre than unleashing a rain of fire and stone.

Spirit Mastery

Ritual magic is often identified with the summoning and mastering of spirits. GMs may wish to combine all spirit related spells into a "Path of Spirits." The spells most appropriate for such a path are: Affect Spirits, Animate Shadow, Animation, Astral Block, Astral Vision, Awaken Craft Spirit, Banish, Bind Spirit, Command Spirit, Control Elemental, Control Gate, Create Elemental, Create Gate, Entrap Spirit, Materialize, Pentagram, Planar Summons, Planar Visit, Plane Shift, Plane Shift Other, Repel Spirits, Resurrection, Scry Gate, Sense Spirit, Skull-Spirit, Solidify, Soul Jar, Summon Demon, Summon Elemental, Summon Spirit, and Turn Spirit.

In a world where all magic derives from the spirits, spirit-spells might be the only ones adepts could cast, relying upon various spirits to perform the actions that on other worlds wizards perform themselves (such as healing or summoning rain). In such a setting, the Path of Spirits would probably be split up into various paths that relate to the kinds of spirits invoked, so that, for example, there might be the general Path of Spirits with multipurpose spells such as Astral Vision and Banish, the Path of Elemental Air, which has Control, Create, and Summon Air Elemental, the Path of Ghosts which includes such spells as Skull-Spirit and Command Spirit (ghost), and the Path of Demons which has Summon Demon, Planar Visit (Hell), etc.

Ritual Magic in the Campaign

As a more subtle and toned-down form of magic, ritual magic is appropriate for a low-magic setting where spell-casters are more likely to manipulate from the shadows than fight in the forefront with fireballs and lightning bolts. The length of time it takes to perform rituals makes many combat spells impractical, forcing mages to direct their talents in other areas, such as knowledge acquisition and mental domination.

It also brings magic more inline with how it is presented in horror, swords & sorcery, and similar genres, not to mention real-world beliefs. It makes magic more difficult to perform and more mysterious, and thus makes it more potent by comparison. It is difficult to remain impressed by the supernatural if it becomes released at every opportunity, often taking the role of heavy artillery. It is far easier if the power of magic is felt more rarely and quietly, when each ritual is an important event, its results become even more important.

Article publication date: April 7, 2006

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