The first holidays I ever saw observed in an RPG were characters’ birthdays. Most people, on rolling up a character—or at least on seeing a world’s calendar for the first time—will immediately figure out their character’s birthday. If nothing else, this helps players keep track of their characters’ ages, and a wily GM will make certain that the characters celebrate each others’ birthdays, thus forcing them to spend or give away precious magic items and treasure on birthday presents. (Truly wily GMs make sure the NPCs in the group have birthday parties, too, so that some of the treasure ends up actually leaving the adventuring group.)
But there’s a lot more that you can do with holidays.
Every human culture has celebrated some sort of holiday (if nothing else, in the literal sense of “holy day”), so it makes sense to assume that every sentient race is likely to have some special days of observance. Putting holidays into your RPG gives you a great chance to add more racial and cultural flavor to your campaign world (e.g., make life as awkward as possible for the PCs as they try to interact with a tribe in the midst of its Midsummer week of feasting), work adventures around special holiday observances (e.g., a murder mystery during the masked fetes of Carnevale), and permit your characters to interact in new ways (e.g., shopping for presents, feasting, etc.).
There are three basic types of holidays—religious, secular, and personal. I’ve kept the descriptions very generic so you can choose the ones that will work best in your own campaign and tailor them accordingly.
Religious Holy Days
These holy days should vary by religion—for every religion you have in your campaign, different holy days should be celebrated (and religions divided by schisms may have even more). Religious holy days can be celebrated by clerics only (for smaller observances) or by clerics and congregation (for larger observances). They may be days of celebration—feasting, merriment, and goodwill—or days of deprivation—fasting, meditation, and remembrance.
• Astronomical Cycles: Many holy days fall on new or full moons, equinoxes or solstices, or even (if predictable) eclipses and the passage of comets or showers of meteors.
• Holy People: Other holy days can celebrate the lives of prophets, avatars, priests, saints, and other holy people. These days typically fall on the anniversary of the person’s birthday or day of death, although other important events in the person’s life may be days for celebration, too.
• Miracles: A holy day may be observed in remembrance of a miracle (and, in turn, miracles may be more likely to occur on holy days). Miracles for one church may be disasters for another, if the two were at odds with each other, or churches may view the same event as miracles particular to their own religion, or have differing interpretations of a single event within the same religion in the case of a schism.
• Ideals: Holy days may also be celebrated specifically to commemorate some ideal behavior or emotion, for example, peace, love, motherhood, etc. The ideal so celebrated will probably be associated with the religion that has made it a holy day.
Secular holidays are specific to groups, tribes, towns, cities, realms, nations, or even worlds. Usually a secular holiday is a day of celebration, not deprivation. Secular holidays may come about by decree of a ruling body or may generate naturally from grassroots observances.
• Military Events: Most cultures have some sort of celebration of a victory in war, to remember fallen soldiers, to celebrate the signing of a treaty, and so forth. It seems logical to assume that military holidays will be celebrated with a show of military force, perhaps in a parade of warriors.
• Relief from Disaster: Some cultures may celebrate the anniversary of the end of some terrible event, such as a famine, flood, earthquake, and so forth. For this celebration to last more than a few years after the event, the disaster would have had to have been extremely memorable.
• Ideals: Communities may also celebrate ideals such as peace, love, motherhood, family, childhood, and so forth. The ideal would be something important to the region.
• Natural Events: Communities may celebrate natural events that are important or awe-inspiring to them—for example, planting and harvest; the salmon run; the annual flooding of a great river; the shortest day of the year and the longest day of the year; and so forth.
• Trade: Communities may celebrate special days of trade in the form of bazaars or trade fairs. This would be more likely in premodern societies where merchants, farmers, and artisans might travel a distance to meet once or twice a year to trade.
Individual events may be celebrated by members of the same religion, the same country, or just by individuals. For example, religious or secular leaders’ birthdays, weddings, and funerals may well be declared holidays for the relevant religious group or country.
• Births: Most communities consider a day of birth something to celebrate. A similar celebration might observe a special naming day or other recognition of the child into the community.
• Coming of Age: Many communities will have some sort of rite of passage to welcome children into adulthood. For human women, this is often traditionally associated with the onset of puberty; human men have a less clear-cut division between childhood and adulthood. Other stages in the life-cycle may also be observed, depending on the culture and race (e.g., attainment of elder status).
• Marriage: If there is a formal bond established between mates in a race or culture, it is likely to be celebrated by some sort of observance. Marriage anniversaries may or may not be observed, and the dissolution of a marriage may or may not involve some sort of ceremony.
• Death: A sentient creature’s death is likely to be observed in some fashion, at least to the extent of eliminating the corpse (through burial, cremation, cannibalism, etc.). The observance may be marked by mourning or celebration, and may be very simple or very elaborate, depending on the culture.
Describing campaign-specific holidays is one more way to make a campaign interesting and “real” to the players. Holidays can be used to differentiate between gangs, townships, or alien cultures; they can be the focal point of adventures; they can be used to pry money out of the characters’ hands. GMs should not only develop their own celebrations, but suggest that players contribute a few, too—this can be especially rewarding in an ethnically or religiously diverse gaming group, where players can draw on a variety of experiences and ideas.
Originally written December 7, 1998
Image Source: Victoria Albert Museum, Radha Celebrating Holi, circa 1788