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Temple Rituals: An Alternative to High Priests

You know the scene. The corpse of the hero lies lifeless on a cold temple slab, his pale flesh lit by flickering orange candlelight. Meanwhile, the fate of the known world lies in the hands of the priests whose orations to their god represent the only chance to bring this chosen warrior back into the fray, to continue his fight against the forces of evil.

This scene doesn’t play out very well in Dungeons & Dragons. A single 9th level cleric comes along and casts the 5th level spell raise dead and within an hour the hero is brought back to life, with no chance of failure (meaning no tension or drama!).

Surely Melisandre has at least one 5th level spell slot? (Copyright HBO).

Perhaps, in recognition of how cheap and easy the process of resurrecting folk threatens to become in Dungeons & Dragons, the 5th edition designers fail to supply DMs with a “high priest” stat block. While the mage (who’s already a 9th level caster) is complemented with the archmage (an 18th level caster) the humble priest (5th level caster) has no higher equivalent in the Monster Manual. (Volo’s Guide to Monsters gives us the war priest, but, despite being a 9th spellcaster, raise dead doesn’t feature in their stat block).

This failure to deliver a high priest stat block is surely a deliberate decision by the 5e designers, to prevent players dragging their fallen buddies to the nearest temple for a quick fix every time a character dies.

Personally, I would actually like dragging my mate’s corpse to the nearest temple to be an option of extending a player’s life, just perhaps not a guaranteed one. While I’m also attracted to the idea that priests combining their entreaties in a consecrated temple could enable them to work powerful acts of faith that a lone cleric out in the wilderness would be unable to achieve. Such desperate attempts to invoke their gods’ powers should take priests much longer than casting their everyday spells, and not come with any guarantee of success.

From these desires (which were awakened by a specific scenario in my new adventure Candlekeep Murders: The Deadwinter Prophecy) I’ve come up with the following Temple Ritual spellcasting mechanics for when multiple clerics are able to team up.

Temple + pious friends = powerful swirly-cosmos magic. (Copyright WOTC).

Note: the mechanics are just for me to have a context for what might reasonably be possible using the 5e rules, and to create consistency in my game; but since players aren’t likely to use them they don’t really need to be painstakingly examined and tested. It’s enough to have an idea of what might be possible. Still I think these would prove fairly robust…

Temple Ritual Casting

By working in unison in a consecrated temple, multiple clerics (‘clergy’), in service to the same god, can combine their spellcasting level to cast spells of higher level than any one of them would usually be capable of casting. This process is called a ‘temple ritual’ and comes with a risk of failure.

To establish the clergy’s combined spellcasting level you can take the spellcasting level of the most powerful cleric (‘head priest’) as a base and then add half the spellcasting level of any additional clerics to the total, rounding any halves down at the end. A clergy may reach a maximum spellcasting level of twice that of the head priest.

Example: A priest (5th level spellcaster, see Monster Manual) can join forces with a second priest to become a 7.5th level spellcaster, rounded down to become a 7th level spellcasting ‘clergy’. This clergy can now cast 4th level spells, as a result of being a 7th level spellcaster.

When a clergy cast spells using the temple ritual mechanics, these rituals take 1 hour per level of the spell being cast, plus the spell’s usual casting time. Such ritual magic is exhausting to to perform and, if the ritual takes 4 hours or more, each cleric must make a Constitution saving throw with a DC of 8 + 4 for every hour above four that the ritual requires to perform, or gain a level of exhaustion (rising to two levels on a fail by 5).

In addition, as the clergy are beseeching their god to perform magic beyond the usual strength of their faith, they must succeed on a spellcasting group check or the ritual does not work. The DC of the group check is 10 + the level of the spell.

In the concrete example I’d like to create in my world, I want a priest (5th level caster) and 8 acolytes (1st level casters) to team up to form a spellcasting clergy of 9th level (or possibly two priests and three acolytes). Such a clergy can now cast the 5th level raise dead spell as a ritual that takes 5 hours.

Concluding Thoughts

As discussed, with no high priest stat block in 5e, using these mechanics we now have a way for humble priests to perform some of the services we might expect at a large temple. The fact that such spellcasting takes time and physical effort also justifies making it more expensive in your world (DMs might consider that expensive offerings need to be made as well, either to make the ritual possible, or to make it more likely to succeed).

It always felt weird to me that a high priest (if they existed!), with several high level spells slots to burn each day, could easily afford to give away all but free healing and even resurrection magic to kings and beggars alike. Now we’re solving the problem from the other side as it were, by empowering the priest stat block, which is fairly useless by itself.

A Murder Mystery Story

These mechanics came out of the necessity I had while penning my latest adventure Candlekeep Murders. According to the official Candlekeep Mysteries book, the highest level cleric in Candlekeep is Kei Tigersteel a priest. I wanted to imagine a scenario whereby an important, recently murdered, NPC could potentially be brought back to life by the raise dead spell, without having the raise dead spell on the table for every acolyte who dies along the way. I’m pretty pleased with the results and how this scenario (the possibility of resurrection) leads to the removal of the murder victim’s heart, as a resurrection prevention ploy (raise dead requires vital organs to be intact!). Anyway, you can check out the adventure on the DMs Guild…. Ed Greenwood is a fan!

Can you uncover the killer before they discover the Vault of Secrets? Read more!

One For World Builders?

Got a world-building friend? If you think they might enjoy the solutions these mechanics provide then please hit your preferred share button below… cheers!

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4 Comments

  1. keith

    What I used to do in AD&D was use the resurrection guide showing the % chance of success. I would pretty much allow any 4th level or higher cleric and ANY Paladin ‘attempt’ it in a holy frame of mind or beseeching their deity. then I would start adding modifiers, such as does their deity normally bring back people ‘whole’ from the dead’. Does this player worship the deity. Does the cleric have any casting implements above what they normally use such as vestments, relics, candles and such. All of these would add/subtract to the charts success rate, they were all usually 3-10% depending on how I ruled it as each time would be different.

    I would then have either the cleric roll the success chance and that would determine if it worked. Usually, unless there were a lot of bad modifiers or a super bad roll the attempt would work.

    BUT, I would also have the player roll % and then this number would after success, be subtracted from the chart for success for the next time.

    So, if the first time raised from the dead had a 93% chance of success and cleric rolled a 93 or less, then it worked but the player would then roll a % and I would not tell them what it was for but I would make a note that whatever they rolled was to be used as a negative modifier if it ever happened again. so, if the player rolled a 03 then probably not a big deal next time, but if they rolled a 89, then the next time would most likely fail and their soul would go directly to a hell.

    This gave the opportunity for the party to then go through a quest and go to hell to retrieve them if they wished.

    I remember once we had a Chaotic evil rogue(yeah, I hate having those types but sometimes it is OK) who died and the original resurrection failed and the rogues soul went to Elysium?(the one where everything is perfectly lawful and ordered). I kept having him be able to contact the party(about once a session) begging them to rescue him from the hell he was in. They declined and the game continued and that player rolled up a new character. NOT a CE rogue.

    Another thing I would do, would be to have the cleric/paladin doing the resurrection be absolutely worthless for the next 1-10 days as they recovered.

    I like your thoughts on the temple priests doing it, but I usually don’t go into it that deep. I just say, ‘yep, they can do it but its gonna cost ya a bunch of moola!!’. I don’t remember how much, but it would usually break a party that had been getting good loot rolls and sometimes leave them in debt to the temple which of course would trigger another plot line.

    • duncan

      Thanks Keith…. I really like the idea of a player’s resurrection percentage chance going down the more often they get resurrected.

      We usually apply a permanent -2 Con penalty to resurrected characters. But i like your idea better in a way… although might combine both.

      Regarding your last point, that’s where there’s a bit of disconnect for me…. a high level cleric could perform this service very cheaply, and if they were lawful good, wouldn’t they be basically compelled to do? My little system here assumes, like the Monster Manual, that high level priests aren’t at all common, and that a whole clergy and a lot of time are required for high level casting…. thus giving a reason for that whole lotta moolah being charged!

  2. Ben

    What do you think of lay-members contributing? I’m thinking of the cultists of Kali in Temple of Doom—surely they were contributing something. Assuming they even have a “caster level,” it would take 32 of them (at CR 1/8) to add a enough caster levels to High Priest Mola Ram, allowing him to cast Death Ward before ripping out the heart of his next sacrifice. That sounds about right. Well done!

    • duncan

      I would usually only consider contributors who have a caster level, and the acolyte serves our purpose here as it is a level 1 caster. However, you could assign a devoted ‘cultist’ a value as you say….

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