• How holidays get made, and how to make them in your game

    by  • December 24, 2013 • Essays • Comments Off on How holidays get made, and how to make them in your game

    Glorious salutations of the day!

    Do something celebratory.

    Do it again the same way next time that occasion happens.

    Do it a third time in that same way when that same occasion happens.

    Now you have a traditional thing you do at that time in that way to mark that occasion.

    (This counts triple if you have young kids in your community – three years in a row is a Thing That Happens Every Year For As Long As I Can Remember.)

    When you want to incorporate holidays and feast days into your gaming, think about how holidays start. You can design the holiday as part of your prep, and if your game has a good chunk of world-building going on, you can make that part of the process. If this is a yearly thing, now you have something people begin to incorporate into their seasonal expectations and calendars, like birthdays and mosquitoes. Quarterly and monthly work too. Weekly is a little too frequent, because it becomes a part of regular cycles of life. There are generally three reasons a community will create a celebration or a holiday: agricultural, religious, or political.

    Agricultural is easy. Think planting and harvest, solstices, the running of the sap, the coming of the warm winds that blow away the toxic fog that settles in the valleys and frees those lands for pasturing herds again. Anything that marks the movement of food and livelihood from possibility to actuality deserves celebration. If you tie your celebration to a seasonal event, especially if its agricultural, it will have the greatest chance of taking root. Historically, something I’d look at is corn huskings. Bringing in the corn harvest was a major undertaking in pre-combine-harvester times in New England. So, it became a party. Those that could cut the stalks and cart them to the barn; those that couldn’t work in the fields made masses of food. When it got on towards evening, everyone would grab a seat and a basket and shuck the husks off the cobs. There would be races and contests and music and singing and lots and lots and lots of flirting and joking around. It became something the community looked forward to instead of a really daunting task to get food for the winter stored away. Same with getting in hay or sugaring off or going nutting or catching the fish migration. These tend to be the most light-hearted celebrations, with the oldest traditions. To make them in your game, see where the world supports agriculture and celebrate part of that cycle. We had an Ars Magica game in which we raised horses for our income – why not have a race for the prospective buyers to see the horses? And why wouldn’t the various characters make bets about which horse would win?  And why wouldn’t a market fair grow up around that? Tada – celebration!

    Religious holidays can be more complex, because these celebrations, even the light-hearted ones, are rooted in things that matter to the people who practice them. Think about the rituals of life: being born and named, being recognized as a member of your people or as an adult, getting married, having children, dying. Now tie these with a belief system and the life of the gods. This can get tangled if you have more than one religion or philosophical path in your game, especially if it’s to be taken seriously. One character’s surest way to a happy afterlife is another character’s superstitious nonsense. You’ve got plenty of room here for all, though, because here is a place that could be ripe for in-game conflict and character development and story – do your characters observe St. Mullin’s Day in the approved ways, with gift-giving and chocolate, or are they some sort of heretical sect that thinks St. Mullin was trying to get rid of chocolate, and thus burn all they can find on that day?

    Political holidays are the most sober and can become the most nonchalant and cheery. Think about war and peace and the struggle to make a better world. Political celebrations are to make the people remember something important to the story the rulers of the nation wish to say about the nation to themselves and to other countries. These are the most public holidays because they step across the limits of religious observance and agricultural connection. Parades, speeches, officials laying wreaths on monuments, fireworks, and food in season mark these days. Pearl Harbor Day, Martin Luther King, Jr Day, Arbor Day, Memorial Day, National Stop Smoking Week, National Coming Out Day – have celebrations like these in your game if you want to create a political history for your campaign.

    The flip side of making celebrations part of your prep is to let them arise in play. If you drop “It’s cold and dark outside as you near the new moon. You have plenty of wine but little fuel,” you will get some reaction from your fellow players. If you make a note of what they do and follow up on that when it’s a month later in-game, you could start something just by saying “hey, what did we do last month?” Keep an ear out for off-hand comments that could point to a celebration – “Back home it would be apple season”, “Wow, it sure is cleaned up fancy around here – must be the Lady’s birthday or something”, “We always meant to go back and recover his body, but we just couldn’t bring ourselves to enter the dungeon, so now we just meet outside and have a drink in his honor every summer.” Build on those, elaborate on those, ask questions and laugh and make stuff up. That’s all we do in our real celebrations anyway, to connect and honor and remind us of our stories. Celebrate. Do it again the same way. Do it a third time in that same way.

    Happy holidays. May light in all its forms return for you and yours.




    Meguey Baker has been playing RPGs since 1978. Her most recent game is Psi*Run, a game about people with psychic powers and amnesia, released in 2012. She is currently working on Miss Schiffer's School for Young Ladies of Quality, a game about bold adventurous women scientists and explorers in the 1890s. Meg is also the mother of three sons, a sex ed teacher, and a textile conservation specialist.


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