GM Tips is our series to help Storytellers and Game Masters improve their craft and create memorable roleplaying experiences. Last week, we got touched base on GMs that have gone a tad crazy with power, and this week we move into creating lively worlds filled with festivals and wonder!
Holidays are a time where myth and legend stretch the barrier between realities and bleed into our world. The dead are allowed to walk among the living for an evening, a demon stalks to streets in winter to kidnap misbehaving children, and a great hunt to celebrate fertility before a long winter; all mark times of the year where everyone has a little more imagination. Would your characters not also feel these impacts? Adding a calendar of holidays to your chronicle does more than showcase culture (like Shouting Day or Dragon Piss Day) it can actually bring players closer to their imaginary half.
In any RPG setting, the life of commoners, serfs, NPC’s, always tends to be rather bleak. We didn’t have tetanus shots and indoor plumbing in Greyhawk campaigns, the World of Darkness is bloody horrible to live in, and games like Shadowrun are based off the bleak systems of inequality. Festivals days and holidays offer a welcome release from this endless torment and often come with a respite from labor. In some holidays, local governments may pay for food and entertainment (to the detriment of the empire), and others are targets for assassinations or villain attacks. With so many reasons on why you should include holidays, here are some ways to make them feel alive.
Even Henchmen Celebrate
I’ve found it particularly adorable to have the villains celebrate any holiday you throw in your world. Everything from Shadowrun corporate parties, where Betty over in accounting gets way to drunk and spills the secrets about company A.I., to a single lone goblin by a campfire eating a cinnamon tree bark and singing goblin folk songs to himself. Not every aspect of any holiday needs to be some giant celebration with kings and queens and it’s important to slip in the subtle signs that have little-to-no bearing on the players. Granted, my team would not dare lay a finger on that lucky goblin scout because of the description I gave him.
When you start adding small stories or flavor to your henchmen, guards, soldiers or otherwise uniformed NPC’s, they flesh out the setting with the five senses. It’s a good idea to have a checklist next to your GM screen of sight, taste, smell, touch, and sound since holidays are one of the few times you can check those boxes. The only warning about having your henchmen celebrate, even in secret, is to be ready for players to form attachments to those characters and invent side quests out of thin air.
This isn’t a bad thing, even if it did cause a nine-month-long sidequest in one of my tabletop games…
Go Big With Myth
Campaigns can be launched with holidays and there is no reason they can’t be real in our settings. Take Samhain for example. What if in your campaign, spirits really did cross into the character’s world and cause havoc? The coronation of a king might have actual celestial descending from the heavens to pay tribute, or on the start of spring, nature spirits could actually be visible doing their work.
Folklore is filled with crazy stories about leaving bowls of spoiled milk out, or ravenous hunger spirits hiding in castles during winter. What may seem like a fruitless hearth wisdom to us, could have actual consequences for your characters and holidays are a great time to loop legends back in. I’m rather sure that with all the looting and slaying most adventuring parties do, they won’t get gifts during the holidays, but might have to run from Krampus as he stalks the streets hunting them.
Dedicate A Session For Payoff
Any story needs a climax or tension release in order to begin the epilogue and wind down. If you take the above advice and start having henchmen prep for a holiday season and showcase little signs all through a few game sessions—you’ll need a dedicated session for the holiday. Let your characters have a session where they can give each other gifts, or engage in holiday shenanigans and develop their characters. For clerics, this is a particularly important time to touch base with their gods in a manner other than a source of spells.
Make it fun out of game, host with tasty foods and good music for extra brownie points… but it doesn’t need to be all fun and good times either. Equinoxes and solstices could mark the coming of a great evil into your world, shattering the sky and having your characters react in the world. The commemoration of a military victory could be a game session filled with protests and giving life to shop-keep NPC’s the players frequent for example. Good or evil, when it comes to celebrate the actual festival—make it front and center.
What holidays have you brought into your campaign? Have you made any custom home-brew ones? Share your story in the comments below!
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Featured Image by: Wizards Of The Coast
Image Credits: Elm
Rick Heinz is the author of The Seventh Age: Dawn, and a storyteller with a focus on LARPs, Wraith: The Oblivion, Eclipse Phase, and many more. You can follow game or urban fantasy related thingies on Twitter or Facebook.