Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Always Winter and Never Christmas! - Using Holidays in RPGs

Any experienced DM will tell you it's the little details that make or break a campaign.  Keeping track weather, giving NPC's from different regions distinct mannerisms, and having minor changes occur to NPCs while they are "off-stage" can help add a feeling of depth to your campaign world.  I'm not saying you should create detailed weather models or write the complete history of the local blacksmith.  Nevertheless, remembering to have it rain once and a while, or having the local blacksmith proudly tell the party that his daughter's wedding is coming up, can add a touch of realism to your game world.

Adding in a few holidays that are unique to your game world can help as well.  It can be a fine line to walk though.  A well placed harvest festival can add a feeling of verisimilitude, but an ill-advised "Whacking Day" can ruin a player's suspension of disbelief.  So when designing holidays for your campaign world, it is probably best to follow a some simple guidelines.

First, it is probably best to avoid simply transplanting holidays from the real world into the fantasy world.  Yes, I know that C. S. Lewis did this with Christmas in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.  Honestly though, with all due respect to Lewis, that was one aspect of Narnia that took me out of the story.  With a bunch of players riffing about whether Santa's elves should be Santa's eladrin, it would probably come off even worse in a game session.

On the other hand, completely alien holidays will ruin a players suspension of disbelief just as easily.  Too much time explaining how the Festival of the Dancing Yak came to be is not a good thing, at least for major holidays (it might work well for a local village holiday that the players would not expect their characters to know about in advance).

The trick is to design holidays that are similar enough to real world holidays that the players can grasp the core concepts quickly.  It's probably best to focus on one aspect of the holiday and push it to prominence.  Then build some unique elements into the holiday to brand it as your own.

I think a decent example of this is the holiday of Lurlinemas from Gregory Maguire's Wicked.  Although it is an obvious stand in for Christmas, it is tied strongly to the Fey Queen Lurline.  As imagined by Maguire, Lurline is representative of the old pagan beliefs of Oz, which are now out of favor with the empire.  Nevertheless, the popular holiday is celebrated, even if its original meaning has been forgotten.

(It should be noted that Queen Lurline is also mentioned in L. Frank Baum's novel The Tin Woodman of Oz .  So Maguire cannot get all the credit)

I suppose my final word of advice on crafting holidays for your game world is not to overdo it.  There is no need to detail a holiday for every month.  A little bit goes a long way, and two or three major holidays should be more than sufficient for your campaign!


David said...

Holidays are a good idea to place in campaigns. I agree that ripping off religious holidays like Christmas (Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, whatever) is a bad idea. However, most holidays of the 'real world' are still pretty usable if you drop the modern view on them.

Say, for instance, a winter holiday in late December. Why is christmas in late December? Winter Solstice. Spring Equinox is an important time as well... when was Easter again?

Thanksgiving is just a harvest festival that got religion all over it. Midsummer's day is a good one for fantasy worlds as well.

Of course, with as many gods as most D&D universes have, religious holidays would exist in abundance there as well.

Good article and good food for thought!

Scafloc said...

I distinctly recall the Dragonlance books (and DnD campaign setting by extention) celebrating yule. I believe it was somewhere in the trilogy where the twins travel back in time to ancient Istar.. and they made a big point that many parties often followed the actual holiday for weeks. Similar use of "real world" holidays that are largely abandoned or transmuted by modern society are included in many games and fiction. Notably, in games like warhammer fantasy roleplay and Earthdawn, you will find a wealth of opportunity. Those games are focused more on "life" and less on "adventure". Adventures happen, but it is difficult to base one's life on them (unlike dnd and similar games which more or less assume that adventurers are professional mercinarys or crusaders of some sort it seems).

One might also make good use of birthdays as a holiday which is quite easy to work in. Take lord of the rings as an example... perhaps not making a point of each birthday, but focusing on landmark ones (which would change from setting to setting I am sure). I recall one memorable home brew setting where a wood elf's "name day" was sort of a crossing between a birthday and barmitsva, taking place twice a decade on the aniversery of the day one was declared an adult after his first successful hunt. Taking "normal" holidays and spinning them slightly in this fashion can add a great deal of color to a game; especially when one is playing a cleric or other religious figure.