Ritual Path Magic and “Buffy”: Two Castings

by mshrm

This month’s game was called off, due to a combination of holidays, new jobs, and illness, so instead of a play synopsis, here’s some thoughts about a ritual from the Buffy the Vampire Slayer universe and two times we saw it cast on-screen. (Obviously, spoilers ahead, for the show that’s over 15 years old and one of the major building blocks of the Monster Hunters genre…)

Two times in season 6, we see Willow cast a ritual to bring a person back to life.

The canonical form of the resurrection spell, in Ritual Path Pagic terms, is the “Revivify” spell from page 32 of Pyramid #3/56: Prehistory. It’s a pretty pricy spell, typically cast at 180 energy.

The first time it’s cast is in the episode “Bargaining: Part 1“, when Willow and the Scoobies bring Buffy back after her death at the end of season 5. Powerful witch or not, we can see that Willow is doing everything she can to come up with the energy. She brings along several assistants, who presumably add at least a few Fatigue points to the effort. She appears to offer up several Fatigue and Hit Points herself, suffering cuts and some nightmare fuel with a snake. There’s even a straight-up blood sacrifice.

In the story, though, there’s a lot of emphasis on the traditional trappings. These are the things that make a ritual more complicated than just a twitch of the nose and a wave of the hand, and Willow puts it all on show for this casting. She doesn’t just have assistants on hand, she’s got them carrying candles in the forest in the middle of the night at a certain appointed time and refusing to break the ritual circle. She dabbles in blood and calls on Osiris. She uses a key prop, an old, mystically-significant jar made out to be ancient, expensive, irreplaceable, the object of a months-long search between seasons, something required by the ritual, without which they could not proceed.

There are a couple of different ways to figure the energy discount for traditional trappings, but by any method, the more rare, expensive, troublesome to obtain, and evocative an object is, the more of a discount it’s worth. Clearly, Willow was aiming for the maximum discount, and considered the ritual uncastable, at her skill level, without that advantage.

Later in the same season, though, in episode 20, “Villains”, it’s clear that the jar is no longer a requirement, when Tara’s sudden death prompts Willow to attempt the ritual on the spur of the moment. Again, she invokes Osiris, perhaps for some small discount for that much of a traditional trapping, but this time, she has no assistants, no sacrifice, no preparation, and no cool mystic jar. Clearly, she’s spent some XP. Sadly, the ritual fails, but it’s not due to any lack of energy; rather, the GM has a campaign-based limitation that resurrection magic cannot undo mundane, “human” deaths.

It seems likely, considering the emphasis it’s given in the story, that before the first casting, Willow would want to spend a point on Ritual Mastery (Revivify) and pick up an easy +2. If she did, she would get that +2 for both castings, since it’s a bonus to the ritual, not the way it’s cast. The trappings are not the ritual. If Willow found herself raising the dead with voodoo, rather than TV witchcraft, she would get the same +2 while using quite different trappings. (But she wouldn’t get her bonus from Higher Purpose (TV Witchcraft), which is likely rather large, which explains why you never see Willow doing voodoo.)

But where did those trappings from the first casting come from? Who decided that they needed to find that particular old jar?

In the rules from GURPS Thaumatology: Ritual Path Magic, the player makes those decisions. Coming up with traditional trappings is a creative act, like the improved acting of roleplay, by which the player hopes to impress the GM and the other players and thus gather a better discount. One hopes to get colorful and meaningful trappings, appropriate to the genre and setting, like “stand in a circle holding black candles calling on the power of Osiris while finger-painting in fresh blood from this ancient ceremonial jar that I bought from my supernatural artifacts dealer for three months’ salary”, not just “wearing a red shirt, ’cause I’m wearing a red shirt, and only on Tuesday, ’cause it’s a Tuesday hyuck hyuck”.

But in the story, it seems like the trappings are recommended by the grimoire. In the Buffyverse, at least, it seems like really high-powered rituals come from researching in old books, and those books describe what kind of archaeological crockery one needs to purchase to cast the spell. Witches might move appliances with a meaningful glance, they might improvise a finding ritual with a gas station map and a plastic necklace, but when it comes to calling down an apocalypse or giving a monster a soul or raising the dead, they’re either hitting the books or using the inventing rules. Even though the trappings are optional suggestions – grimoires give a bonus to a ritual, and remember, the ritual is not the trappings – it seems that the grimoires are making those suggestions.

So what’s all that get us? Well…

My group has wrestled with the RPM rules for quite a while, and it’s taken quite some time to climb that learning curve. I feel like we’re only now coming to terms with it, and even then, only with the first layer: this is how to buy Paths, this is how large of a ritual you can cast, this is how you roll and what you roll and how your friends’ sacrificed blood can help you… I think the next step, the one we haven’t yet taken, is in preparing conditional spells and charms ahead of time (just like “memorizing spells” back in the old days), and in gathering circumstantial bonuses to rolls and energy discounts from traditional trappings to make bigger rituals possible.

I think, sometimes, we suffer from choice overload while playing GURPS. “You can do anything!” isn’t always the most helpful suggestion, even if it’s true. Perhaps it could help break that paralysis to know that the traditional Fireball ritual is cast using bat guano.