It’s been a while since we had a Fire Down Below post! But finally I’m ready to talk about a more or less workable version of some mechanics that I’m very proud of: mostly diegetic leveling (inspired in part thanks to the musings of a creator known as Cavegirl), plus a way to keep playing even when your current character is dead.
Getting ahead in the (under)world
One thing I’d like in a Fire Down Below campaign is for “advancement” to mostly be diegetic rather than abstract. Here are ways that characters can become more adept at surviving the depths:
- “Normal” leveling. Each time a character returns alive to the surface after a nontrivial adventure, they gain a level and may choose one save or skill to add a rank to. This must be a save or skill that they used in that expedition. This benefits the individual, reflecting their training through experience “in the field.”
- Learning practical knowledge. As the heroes encounter more of the underworld’s challenges and search for ways to defeat, nullify, bypass or befriend them, both players and characters alike will get closer to their ultimate goal simply by virtue of knowing what to do (and what not to do). This benefits the entire community, forearming every hero from every family.
- Finding secrets. The mythic underworld has resources and treasures not available on the surface, including shrines to gods whose worship has been forgotten on the surface. Some of these will benefit individual heroes, while others will benefit the entire community.
- Performing heroic deeds. Significant accomplishments are recounted on the surface and may be commemorated as tattoos (there’s that Moana influence again); these tattoos increase the bearer’s spiritual power and can provide a variety of benefits. Most deeds only benefit the individual who performed them, but others will offer a benefit to every member of a given family, or (in rare cases) the entire community.
Fantastic deeds and where to do them
Deeds aren’t just a mechanic for character advancement in a low-tech, low-magic fantasy setting: they’re also a tool for the GM and players to establish what sort of play they hope for everyone to enjoy. In this case, the GM can communicate the sort of action they intend for the campaign by drawing up a list of heroic deeds and corresponding rewards they produce as tattoos; players may suggest additions to the list, either in advance or after achieving something they feel should count as a deed but hadn’t been thought of previously. Here are some sample deeds to get you started:
- Anyone who risks their life by venturing into the underworld, even once, may remember the deed with a hero tattoo that grants +1 to any one attribute score.
- A hero who is the first to honor a newly discovered deity and bring its blessings to the community may remember the deed with an acolyte tattoo that they may spend a watch meditating on to gain a minor devotion (for that deity!) at any time while on an expedition.
- A hero who defeats a powerful and hostile foe may remember the deed with a slayer tattoo that lets them ignore menace penalties while in combat.
- A hero who discovers an important non-divine secret may remember the deed with a seeker tattoo that gives them +1 rank each to Scavenge, Inspect, and one Sensory skill.
- A hero who risks their own life to rescue another from certain doom may remember the deed with a savior tattoo that lets them heal one of a party member’s wounds while taking on a level of weariness.
- A hero who gives their life that the party as a whole may survive may be honored by any member of their family thereafter with a martyr tattoo that provides +1 to the saves of all other party members.
Mortal career changes
Speaking of martyrdom… when a character’s menaces (wounds plus afflictions) match or exceed their menace allowance (aka hit points), they are incapacitated for the remainder of the expedition. They must be carried back to the surface and allowed to recuperate. If an incapacitated character is left underground when an expedition returns to the surface, or if further significant menaces are inflicted on them, they are lost forever.
(Note that lost characters are not necessarily dead! They are lost as playable characters. But depending on the menaces that ended their heroic careers they may be dead, undead, or simply changed by the underworld into one of its own creatures. In any case, they become NPCs (or simply inert corpses) and their original spirit has vacated their original body.)
Whenever a player character is incapacitated, regardless of whether they are lost (yet) or not, the player plays as that detached spirit.
Life as a ghost
A detached spirit has no body and is extremely limited in how it can interact with the material world.
- It can move freely in any direction, passing through material objects at will.
- It is invisible to the naked eye, although a Sixth Sense check at a DC equal to 20 minus its “spiritual force” (see below) will reveal its presence.
- It has Expert rank in Sixth Sense, but otherwise gains no special sensory abilities. (I.e. a spirit can’t automatically see in the dark. Worse, anything done to the physical body that might have allowed the character to see in the dark is left behind with the body!)
- It loses the ability to take any action that requires interaction with matter – usually.
- It has no mouth and cannot scream (or talk, etc.).
- It gains a number of “spiritual force” points equal to its store of personal and ancestral deeds, which it can spend to affect the material world in various ways.
- Each time you use spiritual force, check off one of your deeds. Even if your spirit and body are somehow reunited before returning to the surface, any tattoo gifts provided by these checked deeds lose their force until the character can recuperate.
- A character who has spent some of their spiritual force may spend a surface turn to reenact their deeds and reconsecrate their tattoos.
A detached spirit may spend its spiritual force to create the following effects. If a roll is needed (for example, when the spirit’s actions are resisted by someone or something else), the default skill to check is Emote.
- Telekinesis – material things that aren’t attached to anything else may be shifted around in a blunt way over the course of a watch; the spirit may focus on one bulky object or up to a collection of smaller objects, as long as they’re all moving in the same general way. Writing using this method is slow and sloppy, producing about one word per minute.
- Poltergeist – material things may be violently flung over the course of a vignette. They may be yanked free of attachments, including hands and the like, and/or directed at a target in an attempt to cause harm.
- Curse – the spirit may focus its ill will on one creature, giving it disadvantage on all rolls made relating to a single task (or in a single round of combat).
- Possession – the spirit may attempt an Emote roll, defended against with a Charisma save or Recall check as the target prefers. If the target is sentient and conscious, the possession lasts for a single vignette. If it is living but not conscious, the possession lasts for a single watch. If the spirit possesses a corpse, that corpse can only take actions it was already capable of, if any.
- Revenant – the spirit may also possess its own body, spending one point of spiritual force for the possession plus one more for each menace it wants to ignore (minimum one). When the party returns to the surface, or if the body takes on more menaces than the spirit can ignore, the character is immediately lost and this time the player really does need to wait until the start of the next expedition.
- Signs from beyond – the spirit can cause odd ghost-story phenomena: flickers seen from the corner of the eye; odd coincidences; moaning wind currents; sudden chills. This can also be used to influence the results of any sort of divination attempt.
- Visions – the spirit may briefly manifest for one other character as a vision. It can be seen and heard, but still not interacted with physically in any way. The catch is that the character receiving the vision must already have at least one spiritual or psychological affliction.
Finally, when all is said is done, either the character receives treatment and is able to continue on with body and spirit united, or the character is lost and the spirit moves on to whatever comes next.