This post was brought to you by the very fun “You’re Welcome” song from Moana.
I’ve talked before about an “unlocking” campaign, in which the main draw is to explore and plan, negotiate and fight, and acquire new tools that allow further exploration. In this case, though, I’m imagining a campaign centered around one specific quest: stealing the fire of the gods from the underworld.
The logical fit in terms of setting would be a megadungeon of some sort, and a society with a bare-bones minimum technological level. Imagine a human society without fire: tools and supplies would be limited to stone, bone, wood, and a few plant and animal products.
With no armor and with weapons limited to clubs, pointed sticks and rocks, there’d be a lot less combat than in most fantasy gaming. I’m thinking there’d be a relatively high proportion of tricks, traps, and puzzles. Monsters would generally be powerful enough that they couldn’t be taken down in a fight, and the players would need to discover their rules: the things they like, which can be offered in return for help or at least mercy; their taboos, which can be turned against them; their friends and enemies, who can be manipulated into getting them out of the way. There’d be a lot of planning, a lot of in-game talking, and a lot of stealth.
Magic would be available – and without much in terms of tools, a vital resource – but instead of the “spells” used by most RPGs it would be more mysterious, limited, and transactional. I’m thinking of something based on religious rites: the pre-fire humans worship myriad gods who are able to bestow gifts in return for promises or special taboos. Sacrifice your greatest treasure in return for invulnerability against a specific foe. Sacrifice a live creature of a specific type and gain the ability to breathe underwater for a day and a night. Take a vow of silence and gain the ability to see in the dark for as long as it lasts. Give something up to get what you need to continue.
Beyond this, perhaps some “natural” magic: players would learn that blue stones keep away the spirits of the angry dead, or that painting certain patterns on their bodies render them invisible to dragons, or that the scent of certain berries when crushed allows them to pass safely by the Flower of Death.
The “dungeon” itself would be different from the usual fare, too. It might begin with man-made diggings, but would soon transition to natural caverns descending into the earth. Eventually you might come to something closer to the familiar world of worked stone, doors, and artificial lighting, but this would be in the lowest levels when the player characters encounter the people of the fire-invested underworld. Imagine the characters’ shock (and the players’ excitement) when they start encountering fire and its products such as worked metal, cooked food, heat, and light.
Not that it would do to just grab any old ember and carry it back to the surface. The theft of fire itself would have to be a symbolic act (and it wouldn’t have to be a theft, for that matter! The players might want to negotiate, gamble, fight, or compete to get it). There’d be one specific fire, belonging to a god. This ur-flame would probably be magical enough to pass through all the obstacles back to the surface without being snuffed, and bringing it back would also bring humanity the secret of fire – the ability to start new fires at will instead of fetching more from their neighbors a mile below.
This would probably be a campaign of indeterminate length, but with a defined start and end: the group is told that they need to fetch fire (whatever that is) from the cave, and their quest is over when they’ve accomplished that. I know there are people out there who feel that a concrete, final goal along those lines doesn’t fit well with exploration-based megadungeon play, but I feel that (in this case at least) those people would be wrong: when your overarching goal in play is to act out a primal myth, you need an end-point and closure.
One final possible twist: What if the player characters are just pawns in a game played by the gods? We’ve already looked at how they’d interact with surface (and/or cthonic) deities on their way down in order to avoid harm or receive aid, but what if the quest was given to them by a sky-god? What if the sky-god’s goal is to create lightning, or place stars in the sky? Perhaps at the end of their quest the characters would have to decide how much of the fire they took: taking more would mean greater reward back at the surface, but carry greater consequences, like being burned by the flames, causing the underworld people to suffer, or drawing the attention and anger of powerful monsters. And even at the surface, perhaps they’d have to decide whether and how much to surrender the fire to the sky-god, and how much to keep for themselves.
Clearly as outlined this would be a huge project, but I really like the idea of this fire-dungeon. It would be a pretty novel variation on how most people do their fantasy gaming, and it would give the ability to tinker and engage with all sorts of powerful mythic ideas. Clearly something to keep in mind if I ever try to make a living designing gaming products.