Unless you’ve been living under a rock (not that there’s anything wrong with that), you’re likely aware that we are smack dab in the midst of the winter holidays. Both Canadian and American Thanksgivings, as well as Halloween, are behind us, and now Hanukkah, Yule, Festivus, Christmas, and all sorts of other good celebrations are right around the corner. It’s a crazy-fun time of year!
But while you’re running around stringing lights, making fudge, and wrapping presents (that you made yourself, of course), what are your beloved RPG characters doing? If they’re lucky enough to have not been put on hiatus while the whole gaming group is busy with holiday festivities, they’re probably stuck doing the same ol’, same ol’. Bah humbug! Why can’t they get in on the fun too?
For years, our favorite TV shows have included holiday episodes, and the number of holiday themed movies out there is huge and ever-growing. How about some holiday-themed game sessions? Sure, we’ve all run a spooky horror one-shot for Halloween, but I’m talking about working holidays into your game world. With just a little bit of effort, you can insert a celebration into your game for your characters and players to enjoy.
Do They Know It’s Christmas-Time At All?
The first thing you should do if you’re considering some holiday fun in your game is to think about the time of year in your campaign. Sometimes, you get lucky and your characters are at the same point in the year that the players are, but more often than not, while your players are fighting snowy roads to get to your house for game night, the characters are sweating away in the peak of the summer. No worries! There are holidays all year long, so you can just go with whatever is appropriate for the current game date.
Unless you’re running a modern (or at least real-world) campaign, our traditional holidays aren’t going to fit into your setting very well, especially the religion-specific ones. Last I checked, there aren’t any Christian sorcerers in Golarion, and no Jewish rogues, either. Some gaming references list holidays and observances for certain deities or regions of the world. If you can’t find any help there, or are using a homebrew setting of your own creation, it’s up to you to decide what holidays are celebrated when and why. This is where a fun little GM’s tool called research comes in!
Most game settings have at least some similarities to a real-world culture. Pick up some books at the library or poke around online to learn about traditional festivals for that culture. If you’re not having any luck, be creative! Many cultures over time have (and still do) observe the changing seasons on the solstices and equinoxes. Regional observances are important, too. An area that thrives on the fishing trade might have feasts and frolicking when the salmon spawn. Fertility festivals are going to be big in the spring in agricultural areas, as well as in areas where fertility and love deities have a large following.
Make It FUN!
While it can be great to have some underlying plot to the holiday session (“The sabretooth tiger has escaped from the menagerie!” or “Someone is sabotaging the community’s holiday displays and leaving threatening notes behind”), I’ve found it to be tons of fun for the session to just be…well, for fun! It’s a great change of pace from hunting down orcs and battling liches to have the characters just spend a day at a festival.
Perhaps the town the party is in sets up a carnival to celebrate the holiday in question. The characters can roam around, playing the carnie games (GM’s discretion as to whether or not they’re fixed), shopping at merchant stalls filled with exotic wares and overpriced nice-looking junk alike, strolling through the evil petting zoo, and chowing down on questionable meat products sold on sticks. Maybe there’s a soothsayer who sees something very interesting in a character’s future (GM’s discretion whether she’s for real or a hack). The characters can meet and mingle with some interesting folks at the feast, ball, orgy, or whatever sort of party is thrown.
The party’s on the road when the holiday occurs? No problem! Just as in real life, you find a way to observe the day even when you’re not where you want to be. It can be as simple as the party’s holy man performing a little ceremony or offering a prayer. The party may decide a special meal is in order, so the hunters try a little harder to find the perfect beast for roasting. Does the holiday traditionally involve gift-giving? While some of the characters might have been thinking ahead and made some purchases in the last town, the rest would be the fantasy-world equivalent of Christmas Eve shoppers. They may have to resort to their Craft skills to make some little gifts for their friends.
Don’t Make It A One-And-Done Thing
The great thing about holidays is that they happen all year long. Once you’ve brought a holiday into your campaign, keep running with it. Mark important holidays on your game calendar, whether they’re celebrated throughout the game world, just in the region the characters are in, or are specific to the characters’ deities. Be sure to give the characters a head’s up for upcoming observances (“The chill in the morning air reminds you that the Winter Solstice is just a week away”). If the party is traveling into areas with regional holidays they’re not used to, make it easy for them to find out what’s going on, whether through some Diplomacy checks (“The locals tell you that they’re readying the town for the Star Festival, the annual celebration of magic”) or some Knowledge (Local) or Bardic Knowledge checks (“Thomas, you’ve heard of Star Festival before, and recall that the celebration includes a masquerade ball”).
Think the party can’t join in the festivities for a celebration outside their faith or personal traditions? Not necessarily. I think most of us can relate to taking part in some holiday fun even if we don’t really celebrate the holiday. Just because I don’t do Easter doesn’t mean I don’t loves me some Peeps, you know? And if a friend wanted me to join his family for a Jewish holiday feast, I’d be there with bells on. When in Silverymoon, do as the Silverymoonians! So what if you don’t know squat about farming? Accept the locals’ invitation to the Harvest Ball and eat, drink, and be merry.
In my experience, holidays and festivals are universally well-liked in fantasy games. They’re a great opportunity for role-play, playing games within the game, and just having a good time without having to worry about monsters at your back. Give it a try and see what your players think. It just may add another layer of awesomeness to your game world!
Have holiday celebrations ever come up in your games? Which holidays are observed? What sort of festivities have the characters taken part in?