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This is an extraction of one of the central questions arising from my original (overly broad) question.

In a society where the use of fire has been restricted, due to religious indoctrination, to the elite and situations of dire need, how would society (assume northern European/Northern North American-style weather conditions) make adjustments in order to survive.

I am looking for both mundane as well as non-mundane (magical rituals, heat stones...) techniques that could be used.

Related question: How can I represent the use of fire being misrepresented in a campaign?

edit 1 While on the bus on my way to work this morning, some ideas came to mind that should, I hope, provide some additional guidance in the direction I am thinking of. The priesthood of fire has developed rituals that allow them to imbue a stone oven such that it can cook food. Stones which may be used to heat a house in the dead of winter.

Perhaps anvils and forges that work in the same way or, perhaps the forges have been brought under the control of the priesthood such that weapons and the like must be obtained through the priesthood.

As for a black market, I think that it will have to exist. I am not too sure how exactly that would work though. Haven't thought about that part much.

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Being from Iceland I must mention that places with active geothermal hotspots would be more populated and likelier to thrive. What they could do with the energy depends on tech level but even low tech could build houses on or near places that have either a hot spring or almost boiling groundwater. This warms up the ground but doesn't always seep up. These places would though also be unstable and have earthquakes and nearby volcanos. –  Ingó Vals Aug 2 '12 at 16:23
I'd say that the size of the population would need to be very, very small and a much lower tech level. Almost all civilized processes require fire (less food, less tools, fewer quality man-made materials, etc.). Might work really good for a pre-historic era campaign. –  Joshua Aslan Smith Aug 3 '12 at 14:24
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4 Answers

High Magic:

You say non-mundane as well, so depending on how prevalent magic is the answer may be as simple as all normal uses for fire are replaced by more specialized magic. In that case, society might be relatively unchanged other than the fact the peasants are using incantations instead of fire. They would use, for instance, magical heating to warm the home, magical pots which cooked the food. Metal may not be heated and forged at all, but rather shaped entirely through magic. Magical light could be conjured to replace candles.

Certain social aspects such as gathering around a fire might change slightly, but those would be relatively superficial changes.

Low Magic:

As for how a society in a low magic world would adapt, I strongly suspect that it probably would not actually exist for long. It would have problems with cold, which makes people more susceptible to disease so there would be health issues. It would have only limited ability to make metal tools and would be unable to do much work at night at all. Sardathrion says it would take them back to the stone age, I suspect it would actually be worse since many stone age peoples made at least limited use of fire.

Such a low-magic, limited fire society would likely be conquered and fundamentally changed in short order after it came into contact with a fire-using society that would have better health, ability to work at night, and (most importantly) abundant metal tools. And remember that fire itself has been used as a weapon of war from prehistory up through modern times (flamethrowers, napalm, etc).

Even if outside societies didn't conquer this hypothetical society, it would likely have heretics that used fire in secret. If some of them did things like built forges off in the deep woods and they banded together, they could likely come and conquer the mainstream society themselves.

The only way I could really see such a low-magic, low-fire society surviving for long is if it were naturally isolated and came into contact only with similarly disabled societies. For instance, if it was a tribe on a small island either by itself or only with very similar tribes. In that case, it could carefully monitor for heresy and wouldn't need to worry (at least not immediately) about being conquered.

Then life would likely be miserable. They would probably have mostly stone age type tools, except for the few made by the blessings of the priests. Since we are talking about "northern European/Northern North American-style weather conditions" they would be cold in the winter, many would likely die from the cold regularly. During the winter they would be huddled close with blankets and furs. The lack of ability to work at night would further hamper intellectual pursuits as well, so they may be totally absent a written language or any math beyond the very basics needed for barter.

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"Winter" meaning "die of cold" is fairly ethnocentric. Even in our world there are places where summer is the dangerous season, nevermind whatever environments there are in a made-up world. –  SevenSidedDie Jul 18 '12 at 0:29
@SevenSidedDie You are right that it is relative to place. I happen to live in Las Vegas where summer is the dangerous season and people die of heat exhaustion many years. But I was going by the questioners "assume northern European/Northern North American-style weather conditions" statement. When I lived in North Dakota (the southern part of Northern North America) there were people that died of exposure in the Winter both years I was there. –  TimothyAWiseman Jul 18 '12 at 16:13
Edited to clarify that I was going with the questions "northern European/Northern North American-style weather conditions". Thanks for helping me clarify that. –  TimothyAWiseman Jul 18 '12 at 16:15
Cool! Sorry, I missed that part of the question, but glad my ignorance helped you. :) –  SevenSidedDie Jul 18 '12 at 16:26
I feel like the natural outcome would be communal living. Like an entire village is a couple of longhouses. Everyone sleeps, eats, cooks, and does most of their crafts there so they can be close to the communal fires. The absence of fire outside the direct intervention of a priest makes living on your own pretty much unthinkable. –  Alex P Aug 3 '12 at 17:06
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This seems to be a question for inspiration rather than something discrete, so I'll answer it as such. I can't answer it any other way :P

Fire isn't that difficult to produce. All you need is flint, steel, tinder, and some fuel. This means that the mundane act of producing sparks would have to be a sin in such a society. Or perhaps, in this world, fire is much more difficult to produce. Perhaps in this world, the blessing of fire has been literally restricted to the sacred because only they can create it.

Give flint and tinder to a peasant, and he'll only be able to bruise himself, but in the hands of a sanctified priest, fire is created. The ability to produce fire, in any way, could be as sure a sign of blessing as walking on water.

Perhaps only the most devout (or no one) can produce fire at all, and most fire is derived from a great pyre.

Perhaps the priests limit the fire by selling it (or possibly coals), so that a family that wants to sleep in the warmth must get it from the priests. That's how they might control the populace.

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I think in order to clearly answer this question, we need to know exactly what about fire represents the religious significance that limits its application. Is it the appearance of fire? Perhaps heat itself is understood as the spirit of fire, and thus is just as sacred. I suppose the religion could be a kind of materialism, but I can't see how it would have any political sway then. National religions hold political sway by pointing to a metaphysical truth beyond immediate experience that ensures the power of the elite in control (ex. God bless America). Note that the religious role in shoring up power need not be understood as evil (although its a great grand conflict for an RPG.)

If the religion only defines the flame as sacred, we may employ any number of methods of heating to get the common man through the winter. In addition to magically enchanted objects of heat, more mundane solutions include chemical heating and charcoal. There are materials that generate heat when mixed (like sodium and water), so you could have most mundane heating needs met by the mixing of two minerals. If the world is more modern, electricity is not an open flame, so electric heating would also be permissible. Lastly, for future settings, nuclear technology can fill this role as well. For older settings, charcoal burns without an open flame, and can be lit without an open flame (its very slow!), so that could also fill basic heating needs.

Now, if the religion includes heat as sacred, then this becomes dramatically problematic. No food would be heated, which means the only way food might be prepared is through chemical preparation, i.e. pickling or salting raw meat to make it edible. In addition, likely no one would live in the northern climates, of if they did, they would migrate south for the winter. Animal fat and fur would be vital for a past setting. Present/future settings could still make use of electricity, but they would spend all the winter months indoors (like many of us do now, for the most part.) Future settings may even use climate control to mitigate the cold of winter.

I hope this is helpful for fleshing out what you are asking about.

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In this case, the general public sees it as religious significance to show reverence to fire. It is important and vital, so the God of Fire does not want it to be used by those who lack the ability to properly use it. In reality, there is an evil god who has incapacitated the actual God of Fire and is corrupting the priesthood of the God of Fire with a final goal of destroying the God of Fire. –  mudbunny Jul 17 '12 at 15:08
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How would society adjust if Fire was reserved for the elite? What would society do in order to survive?

The following presumes next to no magic and only the beginnings of modern technology, which is really limited if there isn't fire to meld and shape metal. Metal, glass, sterilization, lighting, lighter than air travel, steam, and the beginnings of electricity will be greatly limited.

The following jobs may become religiously indoctrinated to counteract the near crippling effect this would have on civilization: Blacksmiths, Glassblowers, Doctors, Dyemakers, Pilots/conductors, Engineers, and if they would be around, Electricians.

Alternate forms of heat would have to be distributed to groups or settlements of humans and other mammalian life forms. These settlement structures would have to either hold in natural body heat, be controlled by a single "fire elite" that produces fire for his charges, or produce heat by some other means, like electricity and heating coils or being built over natural year-round hot springs. --This single fire producer to multiple subjects smacks highly of a feudal rule system where fire is the payment instead of gold.

Desirable housing would become much more slender, but with thicker walls, as natural light may not reach into the far reaches of structures like castles and keeps. The most defensible non-fire based buildings would be free standing stone towers built around a single staircase. The majority of room separating items in any building would have to be held together with wood. Just imagine medieval castles with shoji screens! If it's too costly to create buildings with metal, the majority of structures will revert to stone, wood, straw, mud-huts and caves. This means many buildings will be single level, or double level if made of stone and shaped lumber. There may also be a surge in tree-houses as they provide protection from most land-based predators.

Reading and writing may become less prevalent, as time (and thusly natural light) is removed from the standard workday OR beings may wake up before dawn more often to counter not being able to do much at night. Which means scholars may be taking manpower away from any farming town by virtue of spending their daylight hours reading and doing mental exercises as opposed to working fields. This means scholars may not exist in areas heavy in farming and/or have moved into more urban areas where less time is needed to maintain grounds and produce a product for consumption.

Personal vanity may take a dive as there will be less glass and metal for crafting mirrors; however, the processes to make cosmetics may still be around. The public at large may be less attractive, but the elite will still have the opportunity to use dyes and coloration to enhance their appearance (Some cosmetics need to be boiled to create them, similarly some dyes need to be drained from their various sources which can be accomplished by a cooking-like process).

Specifically, Cooking: I imagine that there would be large areas that cook meals for the surrounding populous IF the 'fire elite' form a centralized government-like network. They reach out to the people, but predominantly, the people must come to them to receive the 'blessings of fire'. As a point of flavor if cooking is relegated to the elite, so will seasonings. (Which means that fire-controllers may enjoy spicy food! How's that for flavor?) The population at large will have a diet that consists more of fruits and vegetables that do not need to be cooked to be consumed. (They may be more fit than usual?) Bread, a baked good, will be rarer. Cakes, rolls, doughnuts, tarts, and the like will be aimed more towards the elite due to the restriction. Even porridge, unless it is distributed by the ‘elite’, may be a delicacy the majority of people have yet to even hear of. With this high concentration of carbohydrates in the diet of the Elites a great many of them may be overweight.

With the removal of fire from public use, sterilization may also become a thing of the past, available only to the elite. Without boiling water and fire to sterilize tools for surgery pregnancy, mauled limbs, and broken bones are much more risky to treat. If only 10 people out of 30 can create “hot water” when a pregnant woman goes into labor, how will we enjoy that self-same western movie trope where someone calls out for hot water? I'd imagine there would be a lot of shrugging and panicking.

Fireflies and other light producing animals, insects, and invertebrates would become a luxury pet and valuable commodity item to provide light to those who could afford them. Glowing fungus with eldritch light would become something you no longer see solely in caves if someone can figure out how to transplant them from cave walls to wooden and stone structures.

Finally, clothing would become heavier for nighttime use. During cold winters with limited heat, body heat would need to be used to maintain core temperatures. This means more furs and heavy clothing during the winter months, which in turn means more dead animals and more focus on textiles, taxedermy, and leatherworking to reduce waste.

With the introduction of heat and light producing magic, provided it is widely available enough, there would be no dramatic change to the way life is presented. Only the methods of creating that light or heat would change, and may be relegated to flavor instead of focus. At most, in a DnD4e setting, anyone with rituals that produce heat and light may become the new 'power companies', providing their specialties for fees and services.

Society as a whole will most likely shift its hours of activity to work in natural light. Life would become more outdoors based. Science and magic would be visually and temperature focused. If the Fire was removed suddenly society would not adjust well. If fire was slowly removed, the transition would barely be noticed until it was too late.

Naturally produced fire would be hoarded. Anyone with the ability to produce fire through normal methods (rubbing sticks together, etc) would become either instantly reverred or feared by the public and a target of the 'hot-headed' elites.

The preceeding argument assumes that the civilization is restricted from movement, otherwise all the cold people would just move somewhere warmer and re-establish settlements.

In summary: Life sucks for them. They wear more blankets and build different houses and die alot, unless they move to somewhere warm.

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