Here in America, the holiday season is in full swing. It traditionally starts with the end of Thanksgiving on Black Friday, when many retailers jump-start the shopping season with incredible deals, but it’s been slowly bleeding into Thanksgiving and beyond (several radio stations have been playing Christmas music well before Thanksgiving). Religiously, it’s the first day of Advent as I write this, which is the start of the new Christian liturgical year.
Regardless of one’s beliefs, it’s undeniable that areas with a significant Christian population undergo a massive transformation (much of it consumer-driven). Many homes and businesses are decorated with the colors of Christmas (typically red, green, and gold, although many prefer the “snow” theme of blue, silver, and white, which also happens to reflect the colors of Chanukah) and pumpkin-flavored foods and beverages give way to eggnog, gingerbread, and peppermint. “Seasons Greetings” signs and similar symbols adorn the streets while people prepare for a parade of holiday parties and gift-giving. Children hope that they’ve been good enough for a visit from Santa and track his progress via NORAD.
It’s also a ripe time to incorporate into gaming, especially if you aren’t taking a break for the holidays. Here are a few ways to incorporate the holiday season into your campaigns.
Sometimes it can be fun just to use the holiday season as a background element. Winter holiday decorations and events are a good way to set the scene beyond “it’s cold and snowing,” especially if your campaign takes place in a warmer climate. Holiday parties are great events for murder mysteries or social gatherings, while holiday shopping adds fun obstacles to a chase.
The holiday season is also a great time to get PCs out of their comfort zone. Maybe prominent NPCs are visiting relatives and the PCs have to deal with less-than-helpful substitutes, or they themselves have left their usual haunts and have to take on a threat whilst on holiday.
You can even use this in fantasy settings; just come up with a yearly festival that mimics the trappings. If you have young children like me, you’ve probably heard of Wassailia, which keeps the holiday flavor while not pinning it to any particular religious faith. Even the particular trappings aren’t necessary; as long as the holiday instills a change of mood and temporarily transforms the character of a locale, then you’ll capture the essence of it.
Don’t worry, I’m not about to mention Life Day (oops – but that technically wasn’t “the Future” anyway)! If you’re running a campaign in the future, think about how the holiday season translates to it. Is the holiday season completely secular now or have many cultures and religions been so blended together that the season looks and feels completely different? Has one religious tradition become dominant? If so, does it still strongly resemble its early 21st century counterpart?
It could be jarring for your players to visit a space station where a new holiday practice has taken hold and the one that was dominant in your group’s neighborhood is now only practiced by a handful of people, possibly in secret.
The Myths are Real
There are many myths associated with the holiday season (Santa Claus, flying reindeer, the North Pole, the Krampus). What if those myths were true? It can be fun to have “the real Santa” show up for a Christmas-themed session with a problem for the PCs to solve.
This works especially well in fantasy settings. Maybe a dragon awakens once a year and chooses a village to consume. Each community spends a month gathering gifts and practicing songs in the hopes of placating the dragon so it will spare them. There may even be acts of sabotage and other criminal acts amongst the various communities in order to “better the odds.”
If your RPG offers the players special abilities as they increase in power, perhaps those increases only come if they gain the favor of a divine entity that only comes once a season? Every season there’s a festival that culminates with the divine entity appearing and blessing worthy candidates while admonishing others to do better (or even cursing or destroying them if the divine entity isn’t always benevolent).
These are a few ideas that I’ve played with over the years. How about you? How have you used the holiday season in your games? Have you ever pulled off an original holiday season in a fantasy setting? What works? What doesn’t?
I had a very fun two-part game earlier this year, where the PCs were Santa’s elves. Of course they went over the top, just like a good holiday special demands…