Shrines, altars and relics

Someone on enworld wanted a set of rules for giving PCs plot-relevant access to NPC spellcasting (usually clerical) without having to worry about providing all of the other clerical goods. In their case, they wanted a plot-relevant hallow cast, but didn’t want to have to deal with access to greater restoration and remove curse. Reposting my answer.
As originally posted, I provided a price guideline of 25 * (level^2) gp — that more or less matches the 3e rule of 10 * (spell level) * (caster level) gp, since caster level = 2*spell level – 1. However, on reflection, that’s not how 5e costs magic items, so I don’t know why they would cost spells that way.
Thus, I instead recommend these things cost the “faked up” 5*10^(spell level/2) series rounded off:

Casting Prices

  • 1st level spell: 15gp
  • 2nd level spell: 50gp
  • 3rd level spell: 150gp
  • 4th level spell: 500gp

A scroll or other one-use token of a spell costs as per the next slot up on the casting price table (so a 1st level scroll is 50gp, a 2nd level scroll 150gp, etc).

The edited text follows:

NPC clerical spellcasters stronger than those in the MM are super rare, and effectively driven by your plot needs; never encountered in villages simply because the village deserves a competent priest, but instead as a potent plot point.
They exist as prophets and divinely inspired crusaders, but the vast majority of village priests are commoners, acolytes, or clerics at the outside.

The majority of NPC access to divine spells comes from Shrines, Altars and Relics.

Shrines are a little bit like a giant, immovable wand which anyone can use, powered by sacrifices. They’re tended by a body of priests (as above), but the magic of the shrine comes to those who make the pilgrimage there and perform the proper rituals: pray, make the proper sacrifices, receive the effects of a spell. And a priest’s gotta eat: the priests who tend the shrine might place a requirement upon their petitioners in order to gain access. But the priests aren’t powering the shrine, they’re just tending to it; the first person each day who prays at the shrine and makes the proper sacrifice will receive its effects.

A shrine which affects the petitioner directly has ritual costs (in incense, oils, sacrificed food and wine, etc) per the Casting Price table. These goods are magically transformed into the effect. If instead the effect is portable (such as a stone which blesses those who touch it — not useful if you have to literally be there to use it!), then use the one-use item prices.

Altars are a way for large numbers of low level casters to pool their abilities and access higher level spells as rituals (even if the underlying spell doesn’t have the ritual tag, this process is so cumbersome that the altar can make it work). The altar effectively has a maximum spell level, permits a large number of casters to participate in a great ritual to prepare a spell into it, and then to trigger that spell thereafter once: sort of like a single use item, though of course the altar itself is not single use.

Each altar has a spell list and a maximum spell level. You can prepare the altar’s accessible list however you like: “the entire cleric spell list”, “any spell that summons creatures”, “the oath spells of the paladin oath of devotion”, whatever. The list might change over time, some spells for winter and others for summer. Each altar also has a requirement of which sorts of creatures may prepare a spell into it: usually the only requirement is “can cast ritual spells”.

The altar can have one spell prepared at a time, using a sort of simulacrum of the crafting rules, where the cost is the Casting Price of the spell. To prepare a spell into the altar, any number of ritual participants must work together to craft it. Each contributes 25gp per day spent laboring.

To cast the spell, a (single) ritual participant must spend 10 minutes touching the altar, at which point they cast the spell. This requires any material components, consuming those which the spell would normally consume. It’s likely that the priests tending the altar can rent non-consumed components at 10% book price.

An altar is a machine for turning empty hands and time into spells, limited by the size of the community and the purpose of the altar. Assuming a mostly on-theme altar, it’s reasonable to haggle over casting whichever spells the party needs, but there’s a real cost there in time and manpower, so saying “no” is more incentivized than the PHB would have it.

Finally, Relics: Relics really are just Wands (staves, rods, rings, wondrous items, …). They might be shaped like a thighbone or a shroud, but they’re a magic item, and you’re buying a use of it off of its owner. Who might not even be a spellcaster, but just a sage. I have no idea how much to sell a charge of a magic item for, but this one is the lowest effort and most open to persuasion: set this price to a plot appropriate one.

These three rules together should meet most of your NPC spellcasting needs. If you want hallow and nothing else, it’s a shrine. If you want spellcasting services in exchange for cash, it’s an altar. If you want quick spells that can follow your characters into the field, but of a set you choose, consider a relic.

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About lackhand

I was born in 1984 and am still playing games, programming computers, and living in New York City. View all posts by lackhand

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