Words about worlds

Worldbuilding: Holiday Drive

by | Dec 22, 2023 | Worldbuilding | 0 comments

A close-up of a warm yellow candle flame. The creamy candle and bright flame are sharp against a half-dark background in this contemplative image.

Candle flame close-up CC-BY 4.0 domdomegg, hosted by Wikimedia Commons

When does who celebrate what for which reason?

Across 20+ years of gaming, most Players I’ve met liked a good party, either in-person or through the eyes of their Characters. The types of celebrations varied dramatically, and the reasons ran from “day of major celebration within my culture” to “because I passed a prelim”. Adding holidays to our settings increases the sense of immersion, shakes up the norms, and lets us create unique opportunities for PCs.

I have a friend whose joked once that her most vivid holiday memory was “the taste of mooncake and the scent of citronella.” Apparently, her parents hated mosquitoes, and used insect repellents liberally during their Mid-Autumn Festival celebrations. I just asked my partner for a vivid holiday memory. He responded, “firelit room with Christmas music playing”. One of my vivid holiday memories is the scent of home-made pizza and hot fudge sauce. My grandmother had us over for Christmas Eve every year. She would make pizzas and hot fudge sauce and stock up on vanilla ice cream. It was great.

There’s a presumption that life will be a little different on holidays. Our players’ characters step out the door expecting to see, hear, and taste a new side of the setting. By saying, “Tomorrow is a holiday”, we open the door to a new level of engagement with the setting. We can then take advantage of this by strewing plot hooks in the players’ paths as they wander the festive scene. The effect is similar if we’re writing a story. Our readers pay closer attention to the setting, looking for unique holiday moments. It’s a great time to slip in those more subtle clues. For reliable foreshadowing, try staging some key dialog at a holiday party.

Adding holidays forces us to take a deeper look at our setting. Why is something celebrated today? Who started the party, when did they start it, and what reason did they give? Who has influenced the narrative around the holiday? How many sides are there to the story?

I am shamelessly eating a homemade gingersnap. I can imagine a holiday in which spicy cookies are a feature item, in honor of the merchant caravan that held the messenger that carried the message that….anyway, when the dust-up was over, there was a big party. The celebrants didn’t have much left, but the merchants offered their spices and wines to the city bakers. The ensuing holiday is a celebration of generosity and victory, featuring foods that use the same spices and wines as the merchants carried. Now, depending on who you talk to, the real story is quite different. In the real story, the merchants were robbed of their goods by the townsfolk; or, the messenger was a brigand who hid in the caravan to escape being hanged and turned traitor to their band for the same reason; or…History is complicated.

This leads to some serious questions. When we’re designing a holiday in our settings, we need to think about who the holiday excludes, as well as who is welcomed. For holidays that mark historical events, who sees the anniversary as a celebration, and who experiences it as a reminder of grief and loss? For culturally embedded holidays, which cultural holidays are supported by the social, economic, or political structures? Which ones are ignored? We don’t need to treat every culture exactly alike in our settings. We do need to think carefully and be intentional about our choices.

Stepping back out a level to our survey of types of holidays, a number of celebrations have seasonal roots. Holidays linked to seasonal events can continue far beyond the time when the seasonal events they celebrated were vital to the culture. This opens some fascinating doors. Let’s say we’re running a science fiction game. The characters come from space-based cultures. For reasons vital to the overarching plot, the characters want to trace the long-forgotten homeworld of one of the PCs. In the first in-game months, let the PCs walk into one or two of the four major celebrations of that PC’s culture. Set the celebrations in a cycle that does not match the dominant timekeeping system or the space-based rhythms of life. Add recognizable seasonal symbols to each of the celebrations. Hopefully, our Players pick up on the fact that these holidays are astronomical clues, marking the length of year and the spacing between the longest and shortest days in a planet’s orbit. The length and spacing can be compared to the annual cycle of a candidate planet, or used to winnow down the list of possible homeworlds.

Holidays frequently involve items that are rare or hard to obtain. The kitchen gods alone know why mace has become a challenge to get in our area, but for the last few years, we’ve had to hunt the local region over to find some. This year, we gave up on grocery stores entirely and turned to our local spice merchant* for mace. Imagine the holiday quest potential: rare ingredients, dyestuffs, plants, musical instruments, fire from a distant altar, water from a distant spring, live fish from a lake several hundred miles away. Heighten the stakes by weaving in some personal storyline elements (pay no attention to the G’Quan’Eth plant lurking behind this paragraph) and go for it.

Holidays shake up the cultural norms. Let’s take three cases.

  1.) the adventure module calls for the next scene to take place at the residence of a noble, but our group’s PCs are emphatically not the type to be invited into a noble’s home.

  2.) We know there’s potential for a great scene with a powerful reveal in the cathedral, if only we could get the PCs to darken the doorway!

  3.) The prophecy we carelessly committed to two adventures ago says something about a “royal hand”, and the PC who actually had the royal blood died in the middle of the last adventure.

What do we do? Add a holiday!

  1.) It’s the equivalent of Christmas. The nobles open their homes to all anyone who comes to their doors with a song or a story, offering all a share of the roast and the mead.

  2.) The PCs are paid well to track down the shipment of incense that is absolutely necessary for the midnight celebration. They find it and bring it back, but it’s almost midnight. They’ll have to bring it straight to the priests in the cathedral to fulfill their contract.

  3.) It’s the equivalent of the Feaste of Fools. One of the PCs was elected Ruler for a Day. For the next 24 hours, they have “royal hands”.

We don’t want our storyarcs running on high speed at all times. It’s good to step down the action and take a breath once in a while. Holidays are great for creating a fun, low-risk session. It starts with session prep. What elements we include depend on the tastes of the players involved. We might adopt, adapt, or invent a holiday game, rough out the rules for a holiday sport, or prep some holiday tavern tales. We should certainly think about searching a favorite RPG music service for some celebratory tunes. When the session starts, we’re ready to immerse our PCs in the setting, offering them the chance to compete in a sport, play a game, bake a cake, or share a story. At the end of the session, they PCs will hopefully have built better relationships with each other and refreshed their spirits with something a little different.

The next time you sit down to work on your world, ask yourself, “Where are the holidays?” Be thoughtful, be intentional, and have fun.

*Auntie Arwen’s. They have an on-line shop and some amazing blends.


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