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!).
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.
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.
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!
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!