With a big holiday imminent, today’s post is themed on how to create adventure-filled holidays for your campaigns. It’s one thing to have a date picked in your game world calendar, and another to have a holiday become a living, interactive game element that helps you do some of the legwork for session planning and world building.
The following is an excerpt from my book, GM Mastery: Holiday Essentials. Decide what you need the holiday for and pick the corresponding template to make design faster and more effective.
You only have so much time. There are many things to prepare before next game session. That’s why holidays are such a valuable GMing tool. If you design them for adventure, you’ll get a lot of mileage from crafting just one campaign element.
Use the following design templates so you avoid wasting time from over-designing or getting yourself in trouble at the game table by under-designing.
Type #1: Background Flavor
Sometimes you need to sketch out a holiday to get a good grasp of it and its consequences. In these cases, you want to outline a few things, nail down specific elements, and leave the rest for when you have the time and inclination.
Some example cases for Background Flavor design:
- You enjoy world design. Crafting holidays is its own hobby.
- Other game elements are dependent on the holiday. For example, the holiday might be in a PC’s backstory, or it might be an important part of the adventuring region’s history.
- You need inspiration for adventure or location design.
For holidays that provide Background Flavor, document the following:
- Holiday name
- Brief summary: A one to three paragraph overview.
- Mood: Pick a specific mood with an understanding of why that mood prevails during the holiday to help provide consistency and fuel future design.
- Who the Holiday is For: Who abides by the holiday and why? Develop an understanding of the holiday’s potential impact on other campaign elements.
- Significance: Have a general grasp of the holiday’s importance so the holiday can feed other game design and future GM preparation.
- Timeline: If players know when the holiday occurs, or if other campaign elements have a strict dependency on the date, then document this. Otherwise, just have a general idea of when the holiday occurs and how long it lasts.
- Working Or Non-Working: Note whether folks get time off work.
- Costume And Dress: Decide if there is special costuming. If so, make sure it reflects the holiday mood and significance, and whom the holiday is for. Use backstory to inspire this holiday element. Lots of detail is not needed.
- Food and Drink: Decide if there is any special food and drink, and if so, make sure it reflects the holiday mood and significance, and whom the holiday is for. Use backstory to inspire this holiday element. Lots of detail is not needed.
- Decoration: Decide if there are decorations. Have them reflect the holiday mood and significance, and whom the holiday is for. Use backstory to inspire this holiday element. Lots of detail is not needed.
- Backstory: Outline the basic history. Use this to inspire other aspects of your campaign. One to three paragraphs is sufficient, though feel free to write as much as you like if time permits.
- Significance: Have a basic grasp of the holiday’s significance and why. Use this to help craft the backstory and who the holiday is for, or vice versa.
Type #2: Encounter Foundation
Holidays are excellent design tools. The best-case scenario is that your holiday design funnels down into several potential encounters so you get good in-game value from your efforts.
On the flip side, you might have a specific encounter in mind and want to use a holiday as its foundation or reason for being. Alternatively, you might be desperate and use a holiday to justify the encounter or some aspect of it.
For example, the PCs have been journeying for weeks in the evil realms of the drow, often running for their lives and coming close to death several times. The next phase of the adventure hinges on the characters infiltrating a drow city, but experience has shown you the PCs don’t have the tactical skills or power to get in without a total party kill. However, you are reluctant to decrease challenge ratings of guards and defenses because that would be inconsistent, unrealistic, and break immersion.
The solution? You craft a drow holiday to serve as a huge distraction so the PCs can slip in with much less risk and difficulty. This approach helps the players enjoy the campaign better, and it adds depth to your drow society. It is a plausible reason for easier entry without crippling your design, and gives you several new ideas for interesting encounters while the PCs are skulking around.
For holidays that are the backbone of one or more encounters, document the following:
- Holiday name
- Brief summary: Craft a solid overview, one to three paragraphs, of what you’ve designed for the holiday to help keep the encounter consistent.
- Mood: Pick a specific mood for the holiday and document the reasons for this.
- Hook: Give the holiday at least one strong hook to increase the likelihood of PCs triggering the encounter and to give the holiday a good presence within the encounter.
- Who the Holiday is For: Have a general idea of the holiday audience as that might influence how you populate the encounter.
- Significance: Have a good grasp of the holiday’s significance to help you design and roleplay the encounter.
- Timeline: The holiday will get firmly established in the campaign timeline, so document the date and length of holiday for future consistency.
- Working Or Non-Working: Know whether this is a working or non-working holiday as that might influence how you populate the encounter.
- Costume And Dress: If the PCs will be directly interacting with celebrants, then you’ll want to know if special attire is in effect. In addition, if the PCs are participants in holiday events, they might need to know about costume requirements for disguise, roleplaying, and planning.
- Food and Drink: If you think the menu will be a factor in the encounter, then know whether there is any special food and drink associated with the holiday.
- Decoration: If the encounter is within the holiday area, you’ll need to know what decorations there are, if any.
- Backstory: If backstory or an element from it is integral to the encounter, flesh out the holiday’s history. If backstory won’t come into play, then having a general idea of the holiday’s background will help you roleplay and GM with confidence. A short summary is all that is required. If the encounter is dependent on a specific backstory element, then feel free to add more details to that in the backstory while leaving other details vague.
- Significance: As with backstory, detailing significance is only necessary if it’s integral to the encounter. Otherwise, just craft a general idea of how important the holiday is to society and why.
- Encounters: The notion behind holiday encounter design is to bring the holiday to the game table level via top-down design, and to inspire you to create in-game content. While the Encounter Foundation holiday role requires an encounter, it doesn’t have to be one derived from holiday design. Therefore, this is optional.
Type #3: Adventure Foundation
Holidays are great for inspiring encounters. They can spawn and support whole adventures as well. One possible approach is to have a need for an adventure and then decide to use a holiday as the foundation.
For example, the PCs are finished clearing a dungeon and you cast your gaze forward in time to ponder what the next adventure will be. As you’ve just finished a grueling location-based adventure, you think it will be refreshing to have a colorful blend of small locations and urban-based events. Aha! A week long holiday with a bit of intrigue would fit these requirements quite well.
Another possible approach is to have a holiday in mind with enough depth to support several sessions of gaming. Starting with a holiday concept, use the top-down method to hammer out a plot line, events and encounters, using the process of holiday design to fuel crafting of conflicts, factions, locations, and rewards.
For holidays that are the foundation of an adventure, fully design these elements:
- Holiday name
- Brief summary: Once finished holiday design, write a summary of what you’ve created for future reference, as a test to ensure your holiday makes sense and is complete for your purposes. Three or so paragraphs should do it.
- Mood: Determine if your holiday has a positive or negative mood, and then pick a specific mood that aptly describes how PCs will perceive the holiday overall. Use this to help you roleplay and craft events and encounters.
- Hook: Give your holiday one or more strong hooks to draw the PCs into your adventure and game world.
- Who the Holiday is For: Determine who celebrates the holiday and why to help you craft a relevant cast of NPCs for general, conflict, and encounter design.
- Significance: Establish what significance the holiday plays in the campaign and the world region to help mold your plot arc and encounters.
- Timeline: Clearly understand when the holiday takes place in your game calendar and how long it lasts to ensure complete consistency and to give you an idea of the overall adventure timeline parameters.
- Working Or Non-Working: Figure how much leisure time celebrants and adherents will have to inform your environment and encounter design.
- Events: Events are the grist of adventure design. Good event design spawns many encounter design opportunities in such a way that they are integral to the holiday and your plot without feeling like they’ve been grafted on.
- Costume And Dress: Design special dress related to the holiday to flesh out encounter scenes and inspire other aspects of holiday design.
- Food and Drink: Figuring out what, if any, special foods and drinks are required can spawn event and encounter ideas, flesh out your holiday, and deepen immersion.
- Decoration: Decorations can spawn event and encounter ideas, flesh out your holiday, and deepen immersion.
- Travel: Travel requirements are a potent method for plot and encounter development.
- Backstory: Use backstory to drive the design of other holiday elements, as your starting point for fleshing out your holiday or plot, or as a way to cure writer’s block you might have with other holiday elements.
- Encounters: Bring the adventure to the players and unfold your plot line through encounters inspired or derived from all the stuff you’ve built for your holiday. While several encounters might be unrelated to the holiday, the key points of the story should involve holiday-related events, conflicts, and encounters.