Using holidays to flavor your D&D campaign

St. Maeve was a paragon of virtue, of that all are certain. It was her indomitable will that built the almshouse on the edge of town and brought the holy artifacts to the temple, her courage and skill at arms that reopened the Old Imperial Road for trade, and her wisdom that finally ended the fighting at our border. It is for this reason that we remember her on this day each year, so that we might emulate her character. I declare this holiday begun! Let the procession begin!

-Opening address on the occasion of the Feast of St. Maeve, given by Lord High Mayor Eldrin Similanthon of Farstead

The life of a Medieval serf was inarguably difficult, and festival days presented a welcome surcease from his toil. Whether national or local in scope, these holidays typically involved respite from all normal labor, local government paying for food and entertainments, and opening the community to travelers without charging the usual market tax for entry. Holidays also brought minstrels, carnival performers, merchants (both the honest variety and “snake oil” salesmen) and often aristocrats, especially if a tournament was to be part of the festivities.

Placing such events in a Dungeons & Dragons campaign adds an element of cultural flavor while bringing campaign history into your story. It requires surprisingly little detail to create the illusion of a rich history by using this device – the Gentle Reader can learn quite a bit of Farstead history from this posting’s opening paragraph, for example – and it is unlikely that players will want to research the holiday’s history much beyond what you choose to present.

In a campaign, holidays can be held for the following occasions:

  • The birthday of a King or other dignitary;
  • Religious observances;
  • Equinoxes, solstices and other astronomical circumstances;
  • Agricultural celebrations, such as blessing seeds or celebrating harvests;
  • The start of the spring season;
  • Commemmorating military victories; and
  • Celebrating the lives of pivotal historical figures.

While placing a few holidays on your campaign calendar can do much for adding cultural flavor to your game, holidays also present unique opportunities for adventure, which can give your players a welcome rest from skulking through dungeons and slogging across the wilderness.

Such adventures can be developed from the premise that holidays bring just about everyone out in the open and in one place. The location will be filled with people, including many strangers, so disguised villains and their subordinates can have their anonymous run of the place. Local law enforcement will have its proverbial hands full with simply keeping order due to the number of people milling about, so it is much easier for criminals to act and melt into the crowd. Nobles, high churchmen and their respective jewelry and religious artifacts are much more accessible during holidays, presenting opportunity for theft, abduction, assassination attempts or political intrigue.

It is also important to note that your heroes will probably be out celebrating as well, so holidays give recurring villains an opporunity to strike back at the heroes. Villainous strikes during holidays can be particularly problematic for player characters, due to the presence of so many innocent noncombatants. Villains don’t typically care if a few civilians are harmed by area of effect spells, as long as the heroes are harmed, but heroes – especially clerics, invokers and paladins – will have serious reservations about harming the children standing between them and the villain.

A villainous attack on the heroes in a crowded, holiday setting provides two benefits for the heroes’ foes. First, such attacks insulate villains from the heroes’ full combat capacity, as bystanders interfere with combat mobility and make ranged attacks far more dangerous due to the presence of nearby innocents. Secondly, they place the heroes in the unfavorable position of fighting within the boundaries of a settlement, an act which local law enforcement takes very seriously. A calculating villain may take pains to ensure that he and his subordinates can quickly and easily blend into the crowd and disappear before the local watchmen arrive; the heroes will probably take no such precautions and, unless they are virtually unknown, can be positively identified as participants in the combat by innumerable witnesses.

If events in the wake of a villainous attack unfold as just described, it is within the authority of law enforcement to require that the players to pay for any damages the fight caused and perhaps perform a service on behalf of the town (read as: assigned adventure) to set things right.

As with all game devices, holidays shouldn’t be overused. Holidays are, by definition, special occasions, so they should be relatively rare and, besides, there is work to be done in a Medieval society, and too many holidays makes for lazy peasants.

Nonetheless, a well-designed holiday can have player characters marking their own calendars, even if it is only to be certain that their enemies won’t be able to ruin the fun for everybody else.

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3 comments on “Using holidays to flavor your D&D campaign

  1. Nermal2097 says:

    Good Ideas. Once when running an all Elven group I kick started the first adventure with a Festival of Light celebration. It was a combination of Dwahli and Bonfire night, a large communal fire was lit in the home village of the PCs.

    • Alric says:

      An elven light festival – that would indeed be cool. I hadn’t even thought of what non-human holidays might look like. Thank you for sharing, Nermal.

  2. […] much the manner that holidays can be used to give a settlement a distinct identity (as discussed in this post), social customs can set towns, provinces or nations apart in your players’ […]

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