Holidays help provide us with important breaks, excuses to party, to meet up with old friends and family as well as offering times of reflection and peace. More so, the mid-winter season is a special time since it’s the time of year where a host of different holidays combine to create a juggernaut of a holiday season. I enjoy diving down into the histories, traditions and folklore surrounding it. From the ancient party of Saturnalia, to the Irish horse skulls of Mari Lwyd to the more modern Kwanzaa, it’s always a fun ride.
This year, it got me thinking about fantasy worldbuilding and the importance of festivals and holidays in a game world for a gamemaster. In table top roleplaying, holidays can often be treated as throw-away events for a game, typically being used as a backdrop for a one-shot game. However, I think holidays and festivals can serve the campaign, and a game’s host, by providing more depth to the game world with not only the build up towards a holiday but the holiday itself.
If, as the game host, you already have a calendar for your world then your set. If you don’t have a calendar it’s not necessary but it does help to give the players a sense of time. In the game world, the cycle of annual holidays can help a community or society to understand the flow of the year. Holidays, festivals and feasts are like sign posts letting communities plan a planting season, a harvest season, special moments of import to be celebrated, etc.
Though I’m mainly going to talk about a fantasy setting this can serve just as well in science fiction as well. We are going to look at five components to review for inspiration in crafting a holiday for your game; Culture, Survival, Celestial Events, and Themes. At the end of the post, I’ll present a sample holiday made up with these components.
We will go over all four below. As we do, remember these four elements often combine. You can use one or all four together to create a holiday in your game world. Once you are done don’t forget to spice it up by adding Customs and then apply to the game world and, most importantly, present the holiday to your characters. As a Game Host, build up the coming holiday, give some lore and get the character’s involved.
To get started look to the culture of your game world and the surrounding area. If it is an agricultural one, look no further than to the cycle of the growing and harvesting season and how we celebrate things here. In an agrarian society there is a huge amount of energy going towards the process of growing food in which to sell and to eat. It runs from early Spring with plans for tilling and planting and all the way to late autumn as different crops come in for harvest. When you consider doing this by hand or with older tools and draft animals it is a massive undertaking and it’s not surprising so many of our present holidays and festivals revolve around this cycle. If it’s fantasy or science fiction don’t be shy in adding some fantastical elements. For instance, perhaps the Festival of the Winds is a time when your villagers take days off and stay inside a mountain feast hall because the annual air elemental migration sweeps through their valley?
Besides the agricultural cycle of planting and harvest, look into other cultures as well. How does your culture deal with Death? Do they celebrate the turning of the calendar? Do they appreciate partying or are they conservative throughout the year waiting for the one holiday when they can “let it all go?” What is valued in your kingdom? Is there a holiday revolving around it? If it’s something like Love then look to something like Valentine’s day. Is it respect for family? Then perhaps a modified Mother’s/Father’s day?
If you have several cultures floating around in the same area, start with one and then begin working around to the other kingdoms. Do they share cultures? If so, then they probably share holidays but possibly celebrate them differently. If they have different cultures than perhaps a holiday is outlawed in one kingdom and not the other. For instance, the Puritans of New England banned Christmas for several hundred years due to it’s pagan origins.
Though not the same as culture, I’m including religion in this segment of planning. Now is the chance to use those different goddesses and gods you’ve made up for the world and their influence. Is there a holy decree for merriment from one of your gods? Is there a special day decreed to be sacred by the Gods? Maybe a holiday of patience and meditation? For respect for the dead? When do they occur and how often?
Don’t limit yourself to human festivities. What do the orcs or goblins celebrate in your world? What about the elves? The mermen? Do the minotaurs on the Eastern Crag Islands have a holiday? If so, it may not be the time to come visit? Or, alternatively, maybe it’s the perfect time! Depends on the type of party, right?
How do the different holidays from different races blend? How do they influence the other cultures around them and how are they influenced in turn?
Secondly, within your game world, what have your people/creatures survived? What are their victories? Is it seasonal? For example, most Mid-Winter festivals come from a much earlier time when winter was a deadly and serious threat. It was a chance to check on each other, drink a little and to be happy we made it halfway. It helped us keep up the positive energy to keep going and to support each other. For a fantasy world, what about an area where the rain stops for almost six months and a festival is held to celebrate the mid-way mark and to call for the next coming of the rains? Other examples could include a cyclical volcanic explosion, the coming of the hordes of blood wasps or the ending of the Great Journey through the Valley of Shadow.
What has the culture or the kingdom won over? Was there a major shift due to a major war or some reconciliation between two opponents? Was a major war finally decided on a particular date? Is there a festival for it? What does it entail? Perhaps there is a festival for the coming together of the Sea Elf Kingdoms and Human kingdoms once split by ages of mistrust and warfare?
Next, let’s talk about celestial events. Ask yourself about the astronomical events that occur in your game world. Is there a particular event that occurs regularly that could be one of those markers in the calendar? Maybe a comet comes around every three years which is the call for a massive celebration? Perhaps a single night where all three moons are in the sky at once? Tie this event in to the kingdom’s culture, it’s religion and any other reasons for a party and you have all the makings for a major holiday.
Now that you have the holiday and some of the background for it you have a bit more work to do. Think of the inherent themes of your holiday. It could be generosity, gratitude, appreciation of strength, sharing of love, prayer or rejuvenation. The themes will help generate the final steps which will bring the holiday to life for the players and their characters in the game, the customs.
What are the customs of the holiday? These are the habits and actions that are performed during the holiday time within that society. They could be serious religious rituals or something lighthearted. Is there a particular food that is made or specific rituals that occur in the home? Do businesses jump into the celebration as well or do businesses close during the festive time? Perhaps there are specific decorations which need to occur? What if they are hard to find or expensive? Is it a personal holiday or is it a full social blow-out with parades and partying? Ask yourself how can the customs impact a particular scene with your players during the holidays. Perhaps they are invited to a festival dinner of the friendly goblins where such delicacies as boar eyes fried in rat grease are offered to the guests and to decline them is to insult your host? Sounds delicious, right?
Finally, bring the holidays and festivals to your players. Chances are they grew up in the world where the holidays occurred. What do they remember of the holidays? Did their parents or brood mates celebrate the holiday? Do they have fond memories of a particular festival time? Perhaps a character’s back story (or their front story) revolves around a particular holiday? What if your berserker barbarian actually has a soft spot in his heart for The Festival of Flowers? If so, he should be able to role-play that and interact with the game world as well as the other characters around the table. If your players get to do so then the world will become that much more real to them as they venture through it.
Now, time for a full example.
From the Cyclopedia of Talloran the Sage, Vol. II
First Snow or Fourth Day
The Snowfall holiday originated in the villages in and around the Dakori Mountains. Winters in the area are long, lasting as long as four months, and filled with heavy snow and blizzards. It’s been reported at times that some villages have been entirely encased in snow falling as high 20 feet for the entire Winter.
Because of this event, the locals celebrate a holiday called First Snow or Fourth Day. Since the first snow often marks the beginning of a long, and often lonely, time in their area, it is marked and celebrated. The first snow in the area is typically a light dusting which occurs just at the end of the harvest season. Occasionally, it is a heavier snow but such occurrences are rare. It should be noted that regardless of the amount of snow that falls, the holiday always occurs. No first snowfall in the Dakori Mountains can compare to what is coming in the near future.
Upon the first event of snow in a village, the children, who have been waiting expectantly often greet it with cheers of “Snowfall! Snowfall!” and village bells will ring. This event marks the beginning of three days of frenzied holiday preparation with the fourth day being a day of feasting and partying. Typically, all other activity stops as everyone prepares. Some villages and towns, especially in taverns, celebrate Snowfall Eve with the night before the fourth day with all night warm-up reveries of singing, drinking and carousing.
On the fourth day, towns and villages are filled with merrymaking, singing, carousing, parades, massive meals and gift giving. The taverns and food halls fill with everyone in the surrounding area and there is often music and dancing in the streets which goes all evening. The streets are filled with yellow bows and decorations. These are said to encourage the sun to stay as long as possible and, after leaving, to return as soon as it can. Lanterns and torches are lit and placed all along the streets. Cakes adorned with yellow frosting and blue tajin berries are traditionally available as well.
It is a time to be social and to pay your respects to friends and family who may have not been seen during the busy harvest season. It is also a time, for the adults, to prepare and network for the coming rough winter ahead and, you can be certain, winters are always rough in the Dakori Mountains.
The number four and the color yellow is significant as the leading deity of the area, Harisha the Gold, holds four sacred orbs said to be the four stages of Life and Wisdom. These orbs are her primary tool which she uses to watch over her people and her land. Though it depends on who you speak with, some say it takes at least four days to prepare for the wave of celebration which hits the area, it is certainly no coincidence given the significance of Harisha to the area.
The fifth day in the area is typically a day of recovery for those who have perhaps partied a little too hard through the evening and for clean-up in the streets and food halls. Generally, the occupants return to their stoic Dakori attitudes and become more mindful about the coming winter.
Given the unusual and regional weather of the area, it often occurs that one village will have their Snowfall celebration while another will not, or they will occur within a few days of each other. There are some in the area who do not hesitate to travel to several villages in their area attending as many First Snow / Fourth Days as possible. In particular, food merchants and breweries who plan and look forward to the random timing of the holiday.
Having traveled through the Dakori Mountains and been witness to the intense happiness and frenzy right after the first dusting of snow, I can attest to the immense generosity and merriment of the villages in the area during this time.
Holidays can be applied lightly as a flavorful backdrop or can be taken more seriously, wrapping the characters up into their festive swirl. Take these ideas out for a spin and have fun thinking up ways to incorporate them into your game. Let me know what you’ve come up with and maybe I’ll do a secondary post highlighting them all.
For more inspiration start looking into real life holiday folklore and research back into history a bit. You’ll find a treasure trove of ideas that you can apply into your game. For instance, I just stumbled onto the tarasque procession from Southern France while researching this post. How often do you find a festival where they lead a tarasque down the street? Yes! A tarasque!
I want to wish all of you a magical and wonderful Mid-Winter Holiday season enjoying whatever holiday you choose to celebrate. Hopefully, you will be able to fill it with fond memories of family, friends, food, and some epic die rolls. Thank you so much for coming along for the ride with me so far and, who knows, maybe I’ll start a festival for the blog on it’s birthday next year!