It’s the end of the year and what most of us would call the “Holiday Season”, while I was considering doing a recap post about the Architect DM series so far I have instead decided to bring up a relevant topic that is quite fitting for this time of year. I’m sure there are several published pieces and posts online about incorporating holidays into your RPG game, but I’d like to discuss them with a specific focus on the location designs you use in your game. I’d also like to focus on one specific holiday trope that you’ve probably considered for your own game – if there’s a holiday/special event, the party is most likely there to experience it.
The best example that comes to my mind is in the 4th Edition D&D material in the Underdark book, the Drow capital city of Erelhei-cinlu is detailed and one of the wards inside of it has a single day of the year where undead are let loos through the whole ward while locals board themselves inside or run for their lives. This is a ridiculous, hilarious, and overall fantastic event written out in the book but in the end I had one big problem with using it. My problem was that the odds of the party being in the city for that event are incredibly low. Sure, if I use the trope then the party just has the bad luck of being there on that one day, but in general I give my party more credit than that and try to avoid using tropes like that more than once per campaign.
I Use the Term ‘Holiday’ Loosely
The best way I can think of to use the above mentioned trope but avoid it feeling too coincidental is to design “holidays” that are more regular. Instead of going with our modern day concept of a once-per-year holiday, why not design your world and cultures with monthly holidays? If we broaden the extent of the term holiday, you can begin to incorporate weekly or even daily traditions that happen and add a unique feel to the cultures that celebrate it. If you begin to use monthly or weekly events, then it is not only more likely the party will get to experience them but also more believable when it does happen. For the primary town in my D&D campaign I set up that the market square in the middle of town is only really in operation for 1 or 2 hours each day, and for the rest of the day the caravans and wagons were boarded up or set out to travel to other towns.
Open Space is a Location Too
With my personal example above, the Market Square of a town is more than just a location but also a constant reminder that the merchants are open for a select few hours a day. If we apply this concept to the Drow “Running of the Undead” from Erelhei-Cinlu, perhaps you can use the design of the city to foreshadow the event without having to resort to the party having the worst luck in the world. When I ran my party through the Drow city, I hinted at the event but the party avoided that ward anyway so I never got to use the following ideas.
Consider how much impact the given event would have, if a swarm of vicious undead are loosed on a city the elements of that city are going to adjust in a fight for survival even if it only happens once a year. Including details such as extra fortification on buildings (especially doors and windows) similar to storm doors and windows seen in hurricane regions can allude to the event without being too overt. Maybe certain streets or alleys have heavy gates that are typically left open but will clearly point to some unspoken need for protection. Hell, you could go as far as having the ground floor of every building being noticeably clawed and chewed on to the point where they’re clearly temporarily occupied or even left vacant all year round. In this way, details of the open spaces in a city can tell a party just as much about a location as the architecture of the buildings themselves.
Feel Free to Steal From Reality
Another great way to use a holiday without actually using the holiday is to borrow from what happens in real life almost year round – decoration and preparation. Think about it, if a party of adventurers showed up in your neighborhood in mid-December, would they be able to tell something special was happening at the end of the month? All of the decoration we put up for the various holidays we celebrate are a great way to covertly imply the holidays or important events of your game world while still maintaining the feel that your party isn’t the center of the universe (even though they really are, shhh! We don’t have to let them know).
A town in the midst of their yearly festival preparations can be a much more interesting setting for your game, and if you’re looking for elements for your players to contribute the specifics of the culture’s rituals and preparations are a great way for them to get involved by suggesting random or even humorous ideas. Though I do have to caution the DMs out there, if you go with this you may find yourself with a group of bird worshiping invaders that use the phrase “Raven Poop” as their common greeting (I swear, it translates into ‘Hello’ in their language). Yes, I say that from experience. Yes, they still use “Raven Poop” as their greeting. No, I will not concede to changing it, my players came up with it and are stuck with it.
Using this idea for annual holidays is easy because we are so accustomed to it, but it can just as easily work for more frequent events. The best part of this strategy is that it naturally works to build tension in your game. Going back to the Market Square concept, imagine that your party of adventurers needs to buy something and they show up at the square only to find all of the merchants are packing up and closing down for the day. They might be able to bribe one of them to re-open, or they might be told to wait until the next day. Either way you’re setting up the party for some classic interaction, and it could even be the kicking off point for an entire plot line in your game if you want it to. The party gets involved in an adventure later that day and the Rogue quickly realizes things would have been easier if they’d gotten to the merchant – “I wish I had some freaking rope!”
Happy Holidays to Everyone!
Was this a shameless way of taking a normal post and giving it a Holiday theme just because it’s December 29th? No, actually, it’s a concept I’ve been thinking about since back in the summer/fall when I ran the above mentioned Drow undercity adventure. Thank you for reading Critical Hits and my Architect DM Series. I hope you have been enjoying both and I’m confident that this series will continue well into the new year!
Click here for the rest of the Architect DM Series.