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.
Like most D&D geeks from the early 80’s, my first campaign was set in the first world released for the game, Greyhawk. After a few campaigns here and there, imagination called to me. I was yearning for a new place to build adventures and my next love, Forgotten Realms, had yet to be published. I think it happens to most gamemasters in time. I wanted something to call my very own so I cast off from the shores of Greyhawk and did what any self-respecting, geek gamemaster would do – I started my own game world.
The concept from my adolescent brain? A large, sparsely populated island filled with more monsters then civilization. It was to be a savage place where life was cheap except for small pockets of civilization along the coast. With so much danger, why would anyone go there? This was easy enough. Legends of an ancient civilization buried within the mountainous crags, vast halls of undiscovered wealth, knowledge and magical secrets, of course.
I called the island Ballushiam, the Lost Island
I grabbed a ballpoint pen, some grid paper and got to work. I scribbled rivers and mountains. I designed where different factions were located with crayon and marker. I drew out different territories and gave them horrible names. I drew my first compass rose. I worked on the project for several weeks.
And, of course, this was as far as it got. Sadly, it never got played. I hung on to my maps and my notes because I kept telling myself, “One day, monster island… one day…”
Years passed and the island held true to it’s name. Games came and went until a few years ago I was purging through things, going through boxes of older game material. I was getting back to only the simple, basic things I wanted to keep. Amidst the crumpled character sheets, half-drawn maps, odd sketches, old GM notes and brittle graph paper I came across an old, green school folder. I recognized it from my high school days. Forgetting what was placed within I opened it carefully and found, to my joy, Ballushiam, the lost island! All that was left from the numerous notes and sketches were two gaudy maps with little information. Yet, looking at them brought back all the memories, all the ideas.
Once again the lost island had been found and I had a decision to make. I was cleaning things out. I’d not done anything with it for decades. Why keep it? Would I keep it or did it just need to go into the trash after taking a few pictures for keepsakes?
Of course, I kept it. What kind of gamer would I be if I tossed out the very first horribly drawn world maps I ever created?
So, it went back in the worn green folder and stored with other memorabilia like my first dungeon, my first monster, and some old character sheets. Once again, the island sank back down under the waves of attention.
But, all was not lost. Recently, as I went looking for the GenCon XVI booklets I photographed for my previous post, the lost island rose again. When I found it, I made an important decision.
If I didn’t use it immediately and do something with it then I would toss it and move on.
Which, of course, means…
It’s time to explore the lost island of Ballushiam!
One of the ideas I had for this blog was to produce, from the ground up, a fantasy game world that could be free and open for everyone. This is exactly what I want to do with Ballushiam. It has, sadly, been unattended for decades but I’m breathing life into it and will be sharing the island with you. I’ll be doing the heavy lifting, of course, but I’ll be listening to comments and thoughts that come up on future posts. As things grow, you, as reader, will have chances to effect how aspects change and grow on the island in various ways. I want it to be a living, breathing island.
First steps will be getting the map done or, at least, part of the map. I love doing write-ups and background history pieces as well so these will be posted here too. Most of the pieces will not be to any specific game system but I may give some hints and examples how they might, for instance, into Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition, FATE core, etc. Everything will go under the tag of “Ballushiam” and, if it gets hefty enough, I will give it it’s own page and cross-link everything as needed.