Welcome to 2018, everyone! I hope you all had an awesome holiday season and a great new years. While I was enjoying my Floridian winter, making candied pecans, and drinking with friends, my mind kept wandering to festivals: how we celebrate them, why we celebrate them and what it says about us.
One important aspect of well-constructed campaign setting is inventing festivals and holidays for the world’s inhabitants. Festivals, holidays and other excuses for merriment are more than just a date. As anthropologists explain, any settlement, no matter how tiny or how large, will have rituals and festivals. These festivals will often emphasize the qualities of a locale or the values of a people. Holidays also provide insight on the day-to-day life and struggles of commoners.
Hence, having your players encounter festivals and holidays is important for storytelling regardless if you choose to build a calendar or not. Festivals can give your players an immersive experience, allowing them to learn about their fantastical surroundings, meet potential NPCs, and see a living world that extends beyond just the plot of your game.
Festivals can also break the monotony of villages or towns. They can help you distinguish between similar places and settlements. They also force your players to experience a town outside of its taverns, inns, and shops. Moreover, they allow you to show a recurring setting in a different and exciting way.
Similarly, as experienced Dungeon Masters know, festivals make great backdrops for comedic scenes, plot hooks, and drama. Therefore, you can choose to incorporate a festival to introduce a new plot (“Someone stole all the cattle, now the local fair is ruined”) or act as impetus for an adventure (“We need to save him before he is sacrificed on the Solstice”). They can also create unique environments and challenges (“The assassin is a guest at the Duke’s masquerade ball”).
In your fantasy world, festivals can be political or religious in nature. They might even revolve around one particular race or an ethnic group of people. Others may be near global celebrations or just local affairs. Regardless of the type of merriment, you should always consider what is being memorialized, ritualized, and/or celebrated and how this shapes the associated festivities and activities. A good festival should be relatable and have elements players will recognize from our own world’s holidays, whether contemporary or ancient. Yet, it should also have something unique or odd that is unexpected or memorable about the local area.
I provide a roll table below based on these principles. If you are a DM and your players are entering (or revisiting) a settlement next session, hopefully this table can speed up your planning; it may even give you ideas for potential plot points. More information about each entry such as what the players might see and experience during the festival is below the table. These descriptions are written to be generalized so that they can fit into your world with only minor changes. I tried to mix local and national holidays, as well as include religious, political, and folk holidays.
|2||Festival of the Sun|
|6||Local Lord’s Birthday|
|7||River (or Lake) Festival|
|8||Cult of Mysteries Meeting|
|10||Fete of Actors|
|11||Day of Spirits|
Regnal Jubilee – The settlement’s monarch is celebrating his/her 25th anniversary on the throne. This regnal new years celebration calls for portraits and banners of the monarch to be hung from major buildings. Merchants sell goods of the monarch’s likeness, including jewelry, tiny busts, wind-chimes, and odd gimmicks (like bars of soap or baked goods). At dusk, the bells of either a church or the town hall ring for each year of the monarch’s reign. Similarly, a bonfire is lit and commoners gather to drink alcohol and dance while wearing the flower of the royal family. If the settlement is large enough, a jousting or archery tournament will take place in the town square and a military parade will commence, where military soldiers and knights are presented with souvenir medals before marching down the settlement’s main street to the sound of drums and horns.
Festival of the Sun – The settlement is honoring the birthday of the local sun god Invictus. From before dawn, the town is bustling with families cleaning their houses, and hanging up mirrors in their windows and doors by strings. Nearly every building has their doors and window shutters open. After sunrise, roosters are culled in the early morning to make a famous rooster stew. The streets are also full of vendors selling warm sun-related goods, such as sundial cookies, sun pies, and hot salt treats. At the center of the settlement, rocks are scattered in a circle and a temporary sundial is erected. At high noon, a large crowd will gather at this sundial to watch several local boys cover themselves in oil before competing in discus, javelin throws, and wrestling matches. The victory of these games will be crowned with a circlet made of gold and called Invictus for the rest of the day.
Local Wedding – Two notable families are being united through the marriage of their heirs. The families have decided to spare no expense and have invited nearly the entire town’s well-to-do to the largest church or shrine in the area. At this location, choir of local children can be heard from inside the building. The building is decked in flowers, candles, and pinwheels and nearly every visitor is in fine clothing. Yet, the wedding guests appear to be separated according to rank and wealth, with the guests wearing the most jewelry sitting in the church or shrine and the poorer guests standing in crowds outside. After the wedding, a large outdoor party will be held where hogs are culled and roasted, men and women dance, and a fight between in-laws breaks out. The bridal couple will also stand on a balcony of the church or shrine and throw down gold and silver coins to onlookers (who may start to scuffle in order to get extra coins).
Execution Day – At least eight criminals are to be hung in the public square today. In the morning before the execution, shops and taverns are closed in the settlement. As the day progresses, crowds of men, women, and children fill the town square, gathering near the wooden gallows. Musicians play near the scaffolds and merchants move through the crowds peddling rotten produce. At the time of the execution, the criminals are paraded backwards on a donkey, allowing the crowds to boo and jeer at them while also pelting them with food. Simultaneously, a local magistrate will give a speech about criminal misdeeds and a cleric or priest will give a prayer. Throughout the execution day, each criminal will get a chance to say their final words, before being strung up and hung to the crowd’s cheers.
Fools’ Day – The settlement is preoccupied with celebrating a fools’ day. Any flags or building decorations found in the settlement are hung upside-down. Likewise, people throughout the town are wearing clothes and hats inside-out, and ignore any questions about their unusual appearance. Inhabitants, especially younger ones, run around town pranking their neighbors or performing practical jokes. As the day progresses, the local lord, mayor, or magistrate will make a speech abdicating their position for the day in place of either a young child, the local idiot, or a strange-looking foreigner. This person rules are the Lord of Fools, wears an paper crown and a tattered cape, and can make ridiculous (but harmless) requests of the inhabitants. Anyone who refuses these requests is gathered by the Lord of Fool’s followers and tied to poles, fence posts, or trees near the settlement. The day ends with a troupe of actors and musicians telling jokes on a makeshift stage.
Local Lord’s Birthday – The settlement is celebrating the local lord’s birthday. This noble holiday requires all peasants and commoners to sleep-in, take a break for the entire day from field labor or running their shops, and head to the lord’s manor or castle in the evening. Throughout the day, families and the settlement’s communal bakeries are baking sweet bread and sourdough. At the lord’s castle, huge casks of ale and mead are opened. Several animals are slaughtered and roasted on a fire to be served as dinner to the manor’s guests. At the end of the meal, peasants and serfs that work the lord’s land form a line, presenting small tokens of tribute to one of the many lord’s attendants. In return, the peasants receive gifts of either hats, farm tools, shoes, or food. At this time, the lord will hear pleas from local commoners, pardon criminals, and give larger gifts to his favorites. The day concludes with a fireworks show to a band playing the lord’s favorite songs.
River (or Lake) Festival – The settlement is honoring the local river or lake goddess Vybus. During the day, inhabitants gather at the water’s edge or a bridge/dock overlooking the body of water to sing prayers to the deity. Parents will have their children bathe in the water in order to bless them for the year. Elderly residents will carry buckets and jars of water from the river or lake and bring them into their houses in order to wash heirlooms and protect their property from evil outsiders. Younger residents will play games in the water and swim in races. Stands sell cooked or smoked fish as well as vegetables that grow along the water’s edge. Towards nightfall, some residents crowd near the water’s edge to throw small trinkets or coins into the river/lake hoping for a wish to be granted. According to legend, it is possible for mermaids to gain the ability to walk on land during the festival day to find a lover. Hence, all newcomers to the settlement are met with suspicion of being a mermaid by children, pranksters, and the superstitious.
Cult of Mysteries Meeting – The residents of the settlement are celebrating a secret rite unknown to outsiders. Throughout the entire day, the settlement appears almost abandoned. Unknown to travelers, most of the local inhabitants fled the town in the early morning to a secluded location in the early nearby wilderness. Similarly, all major buildings in town are closed and locked up.The few residents that remain in town are reluctant to talk to newcomers and only vaguely mention something about a ritual. Out in the wilderness, the locals build fires, and tell ancient stories. Youths of the proper age perform mysterious rites and are quizzed on the history of the settlement and their families. By nightfall, all of the town members don masks and tatter cloaks. The eldest of each family lights a torch which is then used to light the torches of all the other participants. These masked, torching-bearing figures then enter the town in an organized procession, refusing to acknowledge anyone who is not wearing a mask.
Local Fair – The settlement is hosting its annual fair that is famous in the region. Stands line the main avenues of the settlement and a large tent has been erected in the town’s center (or, depending on the size, just outside the town). In the streets, the smell of baked meat pies and other local delicacies permeates. Entertainers, musicians, magicians, and acrobats approach wealthy looking newcomers, hoping to amuse them for coin or steal from them when they are distracted. Commoners also bob for apples, throw darts, or play other games for various small prizes. At the large tent, local and foreign merchants sell and buy goods that are beyond the price range of average commoner (such as exotic animals, spices, rugs, jewelry, and the occasional magical object). Likewise, visitors dressed in fine or aristocratic clothing from across the continent inspect different wares.
Fete of Actors – The settlement is honoring the local god of theater and wine Ideyar with a festival of actors. If the settlement lacks an amphitheater or stadium, a large wooden stage has been built in an open area near the settlement. Men, women, and children wear colorful clothing and makeup if they can obtain it. The well-to-do wear elaborate gowns that have unnecessary and impractical accessories, whereas the poor mismatch different colored clothes. From morning until dusk, a contest is held where each tropes of actors perform dramas, comedies, and acrobatic stunts to the amusement of audiences. The contest is hosted by the Patron of Ideyar, whose identity is masked by a long blond wig, a metal veil, and a bronze suit covered in grapevines. At the end of the day, the audience selected the victor of the contest and the winning troupe is awarded a cask of fine wine and an assortment of golden trinkets.
Day of Spirits – The residents of the settlement are remembering their ancestors and those who have recently died. Houses and businesses around the settlement hang up decorative lanterns and write names of the dead on their doors in red or black paper. Families setup personal shrines for deceased family members or visit graveyards to honor their memory. Children also dress up in the clothing supposedly belonging to a deceased family member or an ancestor, and travel the town knocking on neighbors doors asking for offerings of candy, sweets, money, or momentos. According to local legend, these gifts honor the memory of the dead and appease their spirits so they do not haunt or curse their descendants. If a neighbor or traveler refuses to give a gift to a dressed up child, the child will curse the person, threaten them with a cruel death, and spit on them.
Heroes’ Feast – The settlement is celebrating a grand feast commemorating local heroes and adventurers. In the different taverns and inns across the settlement, tapestries or portraits of famous local heroes are hung up. Residents of all ages visit multiple taverns throughout the day to drink, tell stories, play board games, and sing songs. Travelers and adventurers, particularly those who seem strong or wealthy, are expected to tell stories about their own feats or quests. It is also tradition on these days for people to perform brave acts or dare others to perform them. It is common for suitors to propose, for children to perform reckless stunts, and for drunk adults to challenge one another to duels or wrestling matches. In larger settlements, gladiator fights will take place in the evening, with heroes facing beasts, monsters, or each other in armed combat. The day ends with each household holding a large supper where they invite strangers or travelers to eat with them.