The intense power of a volcano is something that, I feel, is often underutilized in fantasy settings. That’s not to say it’s been ignored, though. Jim Butcher’s Codex Alera series (which is awesome, by the way) uses volcanic eruptions to great (and horrible) effect a few books into the series. A volcano was the only power strong enough to destroy the One Ring in the Lord of the Rings series. Before the release of their Neverwinter Campaign setting, Wizards of the Coast even held an open submission contest for writers to send them adventures related to the eruption of Mt. Hotenow, which had a drastic effect on the Neverwinter region. Sure, a Red Dragon can breathe fire, but a volcano can turn the land for miles around into a mass of fire and smoke and ash and melted rock while blotting out the sun and turning the oceans black with ash. That’s something you can definitely use in your games.
Throughout April Dungeon’s Master is participating in the Blogging from A to Z Challenge. The challenge is to write a new article ever day in April, excluding Sundays. That’s 26 articles over the course of the month. To make things even more interesting the title of each article will begin with a different letter of the alphabet. This year we’ve decided that every article will be provide our readers with new adventure hooks. Today “V” is for volcano, one of the most awesome and powerful forces in the natural world.
On the flip side, though, even a 30th level Arch Druid would probably not try to stop a volcanic eruption directly (no, D&D does not have an equivalent of that silly freezing device from Star Trek: Into Darkness). So your adventures around volcanoes will probably involve using it as a backdrop as players try to help people escape, or as a time concern that keeps your party moving (would you take an 8-hour rest as the earth rumbled and molten rock spewed into the sky?), or as a threatening feature during an epic quest.
Many cultures in our own world have associated volcanoes with gods and devils, too. Most notable is the Hawaiian deity Pele, who (in some versions of the story) uses her fire to fight back her jealous ocean sisters who want to sink the islands. The aboriginal inhabitants of the Canary Islands believed that a devil named Guayota, who is also the King of Evil Genies, lives in a volcano. If you’re into adding cultural touches to a region, having villagers residing near volcanoes respect volcanic glass as a sacred gift from their god, or having them refer to the black smoke constantly seeping from the volcano as the black dog servants of the volcano demon might be a really great way to make that culture feel better defined for your players.
Here are a few specific plot hooks you might try to incorporate volcanoes into your game.
Adventure Hooks: Volcanos
1. Help the Druid!
As the first rumblings of an eruption occur, the local wildlife is going crazy. Fortunately, the area’s Druid is setting up an escape route for them. Unfortunately, magma elementals (or whatever chaotic fire creatures you want to use) are on his trail. The party must defend the Druid (and maybe help) as he casts the ritual to make a portal to a safe land (or the Feywild, or anywhere that’s not in a volcanic zone), and must also defend the animals on the map (who can be minions) from the fire monsters. Once the portal is activated, the party must defend the animals as they race towards safety. As an added tactic, you could use a river map, so that fire creatures may be hindered in their movements, but PCs might have to help some animals cross the river as well.
2. Primordial Soup
Paralleling the story of Mt. Hotenow, a higher-level party might have to go into a volcano to calm/quiet/fight a large being of great power (god, primordial, elder dragon, etc.) who is causing volcanic activity above. Alternately, there may be a cult that is trying to awaken the being, or some other agitator that needs to be removed to calm the volcano’s fury.
3. Tripping the Trap
An ancient artifact or powerful magic item has been discovered by the party. Unfortunately, it has been situated on a rocky ledge over an active volcano, and it is clear that the item’s energy is the main force keeping the volcano from erupting. If the PCs take the item, you can run a very dramatic RUN FOR YOU LIFE scene. If they decide to leave it, they may need to defend it from other beings who want to take the item for themselves.
4. Lava Lamp
A powerful ritual the party must complete requires as one of its components “the tears of a volcano”. The party might interpret this to mean lava, in which case they’ll need to create some kind of container that can hold it, and undergo severe struggles to get to it, gather it up, and return it. Maybe they’ll interpret it as the volcanic glass shards that form around the volcano (Hawaiians call them “Pele’s tears”), which would make it a much easier quest.
5. Gathering Foes
Taking a page from the Jim Butcher books, maybe your players are facing off against an army of undead, or are in the middle of orc lands, or are otherwise surrounded by thousands of enemies. In a situation like that, figuring out a way to set off a volcanic eruption could be super useful (assuming the party gets out). This will likely involve making a deal with a being powerful enough to do such a thing… a demon, an angel, a god, a primordial, the spirit of the volcano itself, an archfey. Whomever the deal is made with, there should be a hefty price. If you’re looking to throw consequences at a party, remember that the long-term effects of an erupting volcano can be huge, from blotting out the sun for months to killing off entire species to changing the landscape drastically.
6. As a Metaphor?
If you’ve got a dream world, or the Feywild, or some similar place where abstract ideas can become manifest, then volcanoes can be great tools for revealing other things to your players. They’re sort of similar to the Tower card in Tarot, if you think about it. A divination spell that reveals the King is dreaming of a volcanic eruption may mean that he fears his kingdom is about to come crashing down. A vision of a volcano might represent something awful rising to the surface to burst out and destroy (think the Hellmouth from the end of Buffy). Or a volcano in the dream/fey world might correspond to a city with a demon buried beneath it, or where the violence of the citizens is about to erupt into chaos (I’m looking at you, Baldur’s Gate).
7. “Dormant” Volcano
The party needs to get an artifact from the grave of so-and-so located within a dormant volcano. This is a fantastic way to play with the suspense of the situation, because any sort of shaking or heat or weird gases will make your party fear that the volcano is about to go active again. Then every time you mention that a corridor is a long straight passage, or that they’ve had to climb down lots of precarious stairwells that they need to move slowly on, the party will imagine having to run from lava while going through those same areas. The tension work is done for you, and you don’t ever have to make the volcano active again (though, let’s be honest, most of us will).
8. Gate to Hell (or Elsewhere)
In our own world there are several volcanic or burning-gas locations known locally as “The Door to Hell”, so why shouldn’t your fantasy world have a few? Putting an actual portal in such a place might be a tough thing, though, because perhaps the portal is actually part of the surface of the lava, so that anyone looking to use it actually has to throw themselves into the lava. Hell is not the only destination for such a portal, though. Any fiery elemental plane could be accessed that way, or maybe even an earth-elemental region. A really powerful Wizard might put a portal in such a place just to keep that place super secret, since nobody would be crazy enough to believe that you need to jump into a volcano to get to The Dark Wizard Tower’s pocket dimension.
9. Let ‘em Burn
Taking a page from the Doctor Who episode “Fires of Pompeii,” sometimes the party won’t be able to save everyone, and if you’ve got a particularly role-playing-heavy party, that guilt can be great character building stuff. Just like that Bastille song “Pompeii” asks, the party will need to figure out how they can be an optimist about the destruction of so many people.