“Just as a puppy can be more of a challenge than a gift, so too can the holidays.”
There are many ways of going about creating holidays for your game worlds, and an equal number of ways that they can be celebrated. You want to make each one unique, with their own foods, music, modes of dress, and activities. But beyond adding fluff for PCs to wander through on there way to killing things and taking their stuff, what can you do with a holiday backdrop to add excitement to an RPG scenario.
As our gift to you, here’s a few ideas:
Many modern holidays have grown out of mystical — if not downright magical — predecessors. But in a world where magic works, and is a functional part of everyday life, these rituals might be even more important. Perhaps a parade of perfect youths to a holy shrine in a mist-filled cave really does keep a fey menace from creeping out to claim the beauties for itself. Or laying new garlands on the statue of the Earth Mother truly does protect the new seedlings and preserves hope for a bountiful harvest.
PCs can get involved in securing proper sacrifices for these rituals, or even be the ‘sacrifices’ themselves. Many ancient rituals turned participants into vessels for the gods’ to interact with mortals, which would be quite an honor for a devout character. Or, they may be part of a complex ritual, where their challenges are merely a part of a complex whole.
Or, in a more secular manner, they might simply may be tasked with hunting the roast beast for the annual Whovian Song Feast. Maybe, they are required to represent their country (or order, guild, faction, or race) in a state ritual rife with intrigue and politicking. Tye may have to eat tensions, prop up a drunken minister, or even uncover something more nefarious. Which leads us to the next adventure seed.
For everyone committed to making a holiday joyous, or solemn, or whatever the proper emotion should be, there might be opposing forces just as committed to undermining it. Perhaps a tribe of satyrs has grown tired off their wild mistress being cowed by a childish parade — they want him to seize all she can. Or a rival baron wishes to weaken the realm by subjecting them to famine by foiling the spring commitments.
Sabotage can take many forms, and players could become involved in many ways. Perhaps they were retained to protect the rituals from interference, or perhaps they were merely caught in the middle when the saboteurs showed themselves. Even as strangers, they might overhear plotting or see something that indicates things are awry. This may put them in the awkward situation of having to decide whether to warn the ritual planners, or support their enemies.
In a more political setting, this may be more of a war of words. If a brash nobleman seeks to disrupt the annual festival of secured peace, it may be more about diffusing the situation than bloodshed. But if his plans have extended to murder, things could become violent quite quickly.
Like that classic holiday movie “Die Hard”, things might not always be as they appear. Major public holidays are often a drain on security resources, and every guardsman patrolling a parade route is one not watching over the jewelers’ market. And large crowds can be great distractions. If the great theater holding the poetry contest catches fire, there might not be much notice taken to a few highly placed individuals caught in the blaze.
This works best in when the player’s (and their characters) are familiar with the tropes of the holiday. That way the GM can play against expectations. If they merely enter a town where everyone is carrying a candle up to a hilltop, they will more aware of strange behaviors and on guard for details. But if they know it is the ritual to call down of Lamassu of Light, they will be as surprised as everyone else when a mesmerizing light show dazzles the fateful and the offering vanishes into the darkness.
More of a diversion that a true adventure seed, holiday competitions can be great fun for players. From Perseus’ bull-dancing to hotdog-eating contests, feats of prowess have been a central part of holiday celebrations. These can be simply ways for PCs to show off their powers, or can be ways to introduce or file other conflicts.
If the party’s barbarian believes he is the strongest man in three realms, what happens when a rival from another tribe is leading in an arm-wrestling tournament? Or if a wizard connected to an evil cult is mystifying audiences with feats of legerdemain? This can be a way to raise the PCs standing in their community ask well, even become local heroes for actions of than bashing orc heads in.
One of the largest parts of our current holidays is reuniting with family and friends, many of whom have traveled far for the occasion. In a fantasy game, this could increase exponentially. If the typical ‘manifestation’ of the Lamassu of Light is a meteor shower, what if an actual Lamassu should appear? Or if the rival lord brought a legion of his most experienced guardsmen to feast ‘to secured peace’?
Looking more personal, you could delve into your PCs backstories. If an adventurer was inspired on his path by a brother who sailed off the edge of the map, have him return for Yuletide. Or at least send a gift of a strange octopoid statue he found on a southern island.
These are just a few suggestions on how you use holidays to connect the players to your setting, and leverage them for stories. Because why should they be simply backdrops when they can be plot-drivers. Happy Holidays!
Have you used holidays to drive storylines in your games? Did you use any of the ideas we offered above, or something so clever we didn’t even think of it. Let us know in the comments below.