Summoning demons and alien entities should be thrilling and perilous. If you’re playing a wizard, this should be the most mind-blowing thing you can do. Summoning presents an opportunity for players to probe the hidden black places of the world, dimly glimpsed by human knowledge. It involves forbidden secrets, passed on in manuscripts with evocative names, and histories of their own. It is an opportunity to contact and, just maybe, bend to your will the bleak alien entities that sometimes involve themselves with human affairs, to mankind’s detriment. At its best, it’s one natural avenue through which players can choose to become involved with the wonder, history, and terror of the campaign world.
So, with great hopes we turn to D&D. What do we find? Both OD&D and AD&D contain a series of spells called “Monster Summoning (I-VI)”. They are boring and aesthetically repugnant. You roll on a generic chart and call up some generic animal or humanoid that fights for you for a few rounds. At high levels, you might accidentally summon a demon if you’re evil. The spell is one of the great missed opportunities of game design. It is a total failure. (The 3.5 version is, if anything, even worse. At first level, you can summon a “celestial owl” for one 6 second round. Shoot me.)
One response is to switch the generic for the random, and to add mechanical elements of danger. James Raggi does a nice version of this with the Summons spell in Lamentations of the Flame Princess. You never know what unique creature, with randomized powers, and numbers of appendages, you’re going to get when you cast the spell. No celestial owls here! And summoning is itself fraught with peril, since a single bad die roll can send you spinning every time the spell is cast. (I like the peril rules, and try to build an alternative from them below.) While this spell is an improvement, this approach is (strangely) bland in its own way. Certainly, taken on its own, the spell doesn’t convey much about the horror or wonder specific to the world in which the game is set. There are just rolls on a random table. Some of those results are very cool, and others are just bizarre. “Oh look, I’ve summoned a blurred pudding with tentacles and an AC of 25.” I’m not saying that this spell isn’t very good. But I am saying that it doesn’t do everything we have reason to hope for.
In my game, I’ve tried something different. I decided to keep the Monster Summoning spells, one for each level from third to ninth (i.e. I-VI), just as they are in OD&D (Supplement I) and AD&D. But the monster summoning spells, although working otherwise as indicated, only summon a creature (or creatures) that you have previously bound through a ritual. The more terrible the entity, the higher the level of Monster Summoning required to summon it. So we can keep our Monster Summoning spells and lose the generic or random blandness. All the setting specific terror and wonder gets put in the entities and the rituals that bind them. These rituals are found in a small number of related manuscripts that each have a history, and are not easy to come by.
Suppose a player gets his hands on one of these manuscripts, how to capture the peril of performing the rituals? Raggi’s Summonings spell has some really excellent rules here, but they’re too complicated for my tastes, and are also overly generic. Here’s my hack of this part of his spell. When a wizard performs a ritual, his player must roll a saving throw vs. magic, subject to modifiers, depending on the difficulty of the ritual, and on the preparations he has made. For some rituals, bonuses can be gained by procuring rare materials, or consulting related texts, or in having undergone certain experiences, or by sweetening the deal with a surfeit of sacrifices. Here’s my favorite bit. The player must make this saving throw roll with his eyes shut. If he fails by 1-4 this is a subtle failure. The ritual will seem to work, and he won't know until the first, or maybe the tenth time he calls the things forth that something has gone wrong, or perhaps not until he rises in a level, or a set span of time passes. If he fails by 5 or more, this is an obvious failure. Terrible things are happening, right now.
On this approach, one introduces summoning by introducing a manuscript. One will need to think about the appearance and properties of the manuscript, and about its history. (Who is the author? When was it written? How has it come down through the ages?) The book will contain, possibly among other things, a set of rituals. The information required for each ritual the DM wishes to present is the following. (1) A description of the entity to be summoned, (2) a description of the ritual summoning it, (3) the minimum level for successfully performing the ritual, usually the level required to cast the corresponding Monster Summoning spell, (4) the base saving throw modifier representing the difficulty of the ritual, (5) a list of bonuses for specific preparations, (6) the descriptions of three results: success, subtle failure, and obvious failure.
Here is the list of known major manuscripts dealing with summoning in Ruined Ghinor. Between them they contain perhaps three-dozen rituals binding demons and alien entities. (No doubt there are many other lesser manuscripts.) The extant major works are the following:
Evocations of the Doomed City
The Puzzle Scrolls [third and sixth]
Through the Gates of Horn
Hidden Diagrams of Urkash-Mor
Within the Brass Sepulchre
The following are crucial lost works often referred to and relied upon by in existing manuscripts:
The Jade Litany
Koreshi’s Opulent Verses
The Puzzle Scrolls [First, second, fourth and fifth]
In my next few posts, I will present the first of the extant works from the first list: The Book of The Six Circles. [Mostly now done, click the link to see.] My intention is to eventually post all six of the extant works. A DM can then plop all of them down in her campaign world with some inevitable hacks. Or she can select from them piecemeal. Summoning will be a lot more interesting.