This should not be a downtime activity. It should be easy for players to say "I want to do X," and have a way to learn how. Perhaps the consultation of sages, libraries, or signs can be a generic method for learning specific steps towards their goal. The ultimate quest should be difficult, something that a PC with less than 4 levels should hesitate to attempt.
Let us consider fictional examples for the acquisition of supernatural power:
- A risen cleric named Imhotep wishes to resurrect his lover in a ritual which involves killing his lover's reincarnated self(?), a magic book, and a sacred location associated with life and death.
- A wizard named Tom Riddle finds a book that tells him how to create a phylactery in a secret ritual which involves killing someone. He does so, then later learns from an older wizard more information about the ritual and makes several more. Years later, his incomplete knowledge of the nature of phylacteries lead him to destroy one and die soon after.
- Fire Lord Sozun seeks to conquer the world. He leans on an order of astronomer-priests to tell him of auspicious celestial events to plan his invasions around, and exterminates one nation when a predicted passing comet gives his army superpowers. His successors continue this strategy, supplemented with kamicide and industrialization, and one crowns himself Phoenix King.
- The warrior Ruber learns a spell to combine weapons with flesh. He sends a griffon to steal Excalibur and combine it with his hand, then use its divine power to rule through violence.
- Lord Cutler Beckett learns that the renegade psychopomp Davy Jones can only be killed by destroying his separated heart, so he quests to acquire a compass that will lead him to it, and steal the key that opens the chest containing it.
- Richard Wilkins becomes immortal by paying off a network of demons, and achieves success as three generations of mayors of a small town, covering up supernatural events over a century in preparation for a ritual that requires him to eat a billion gross insects, then a week later makes him a demon prince but requires him to eat a graduating high school class to keep his strength up.
We already see two procedures emerge. Either there is a rigid and precise procedure for the specific power, or there is an open-ended problem that can be certainly solved with a permanent reward. OSR games love open-ended problems, but setting out a procedure may help players to notice the potential.
So the players determine an ambition (find clues alluding to one by the DM) and consult a source of information. If the source is good, it can provide enough information for the PCs to know what they need to do to acquire the power. If the source is good and specific to the ambition in question, they may also learn dangerous and specific features of the method and power.
Roll 1d4+2 steps on the table below to inspire the specific quest. With fewer steps, make each more exacting or difficult. Players need a specific artifact, not one of many.
d10 steps on the path of ambition
- acquire the item that will lead you to the right place
- acquire the item that will allow you to perform the correct rite
- get to the center of the dangerous and mythical area
- defeat the sacred guardian
- convince the sacred guardian
- acquire several minor, but scattered magical items
- wait for the proper celestial event
- perform the test of resolve
- find the person with the unnoticed potential
- solve the riddle to learn how to proceed
Example: Quest for the Fireball
The players wish to learn how to cast the fabled fireball spell. I roll a d4 and get a 1, so I roll three times on the table. I roll a 1, 4, and 2, so the steps to throw fireballs are to acquire an item that will guide you to a sacred guardian you must defeat so you can acquire the item which will allow you to perform the ultimate ritual.
I think I want the final item to open a small portal to the Elemental Plane of Fire in your heart, granting you the power to summon vast flames at will. Since I'm embroiled in a love affair with orbs, let's say its the Orb of Jetraeas, created by a short-lived religious revolutionary. The Orb is made of obsidian, giving off warmth and light.
To acquire this orb, you first have to defeat a sacred guardian. But we don't want the guardian to just be carrying it. That turns two challenges into one. So we'll say that the Orb of Jetraeas was placed in an active volcano, impossible to reach, but by killing the volcano's spirit you can cool the magma enough to approach, but not so much that there is no risk.
In order to defeat the volcano's spirit, you must acquire the item that will allow you to perform the correct rite. So the spirit is not just lurking in a karst waiting to be randomly encountered. Let's say that this volcano was the site of an ancient battle, and that the spirit promised to return to defend against those invaders again. So if you acquire the ancient armor of those invaders and approach the volcano offering challenge, that will be enough to summon it.
Strew that armor through a nearby dungeon, prepare encounters for travel to the volcano, and introduce social complications, and you've got a quest for power worthy of its reward.