So it is Christmas once again, as happens every year at this time. This is a time of year that means many different things to different people. For some, it is a time of commerciality run rampant; for others, it is a profoundly religious celebration; for most people, it is a time to acknowledge family and renew bonds. In general, it is a season of optimism for the future, just as New Years Day is a celebration.
In the past, at this time of year, Campaign Mastery has looked at Re-creating Real Holidays for use in a campaign (2008), How to Create New Holidays for a game (2009), and offered ‘Tis The Season, a Christmas-based adventure that I had successfully run in my Superhero Campaign. This year, I thought I would generalise a little more and look at the concept of a celebration within a game in general terms.
The Season Of Renewal
According to Wikipedia, the customs of Christmas are a mixture of pre-Christian, Christian, and Secular themes and origins, and include:
- gift-giving (the focus of the 2009 scenario),
- one or more specific styles of music (Christmas carols),
- the exchange of cards,
- church celebrations,
- a special meal (with some products like Christmas Puddings that are rarely consumed at other times of year), and
- the display of a variety of decorations.
In addition to the religious aspects, a central figure known by many names including Father Christmas, Santa Claus, Saint Nicholas, and Kris Kringle which is associated with the giving of gifts to children.
Probably, this figure is an amalgam of many different stories and legends. Finally, there are the traditions of the Christmas tree, the gathering of family, the association with the Winter Solstice and its pre-Christian celebration, which has since been Christianized, and a tradition of charity that exists in many countries at this time of year.
These traditions vary widely from country to country. This article makes fascinating reading. The practices and status of the holiday season in Nigeria, Ethiopia, Pakistan, The Philippines, South Korea, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, Germany, Hungary, Poland, Georgia, the Ukraine, Estonia, Finland, Iceland, Bulgaria, Croatia and Slovenia, Portugal, and Mexico, offer especially interesting variations on the common themes.
The Symbolic Date
The Winter Solstice, when (in the northern hemisphere) the nights stop growing longer and the days shorter is a natural association with the concept of a season of renewal and celebration, especially in times when superstition and ignorance meant that no-one could be sure that warm weather would ever return. But that is not necessarily the most appropriate time for such a celebration to occur in a game.
Perhaps there was a victory in a great war at some point in the past, for example, or perhaps some great evil was driven out, or some natural disaster from which the populace in general was saved by a miracle (or luck).
Each of these variations is absolutely as legitimate a choice for the date of a Christmas-style celebration.
The number of variations on the specifics of a celebration stems from cultural differences, climatic & agricultural differences, and the amalgamation of other celebrations of both a religious and secular nature, all coated with a layer of theology and surrounded by an effusion of crass commercialism. The same would be true of any other holiday that took the place of Christmas in a game world, though the specifics of what it was amalgamated with would vary.
Dismembering the holiday into the different aspects and attributes that it comprises permits some (appropriate) elements to be retained as a winter-solstice celebration while others can form part of other holiday occasions, including the “Christmas Variant”.
The Universal Celebration
Every culture needs and would contain some version of the Christmas celebration, but its nature and frequency could vary wildly. Spend some time thinking about the Elves and Dwarves, and their ‘festive seasons’ in a fantasy campaign, for example, and you are likely to come up with very different approaches and ideas.
Even those cultures which are not normally considered culturally progressive, such as that of the Bugbears, or Aliens, would have something along these lines – though the particulars might be radically different.
Once you have some ideas for the nature of the celebration in all the significant cultures in your campaign, you can start contaminating them with one another. This process can either be slow (look at the status of Christmas in China for example) or accelerated by some form of conquest or domination.
This conquest does not have to be of a military nature, it could be theological, economic, social, intellectual, or anything else you fancy and that your campaign background supports.
Attitudes and race relations would also play a part – if two cultures are violently opposed to each other, one is likely to adopt social practices that are extremely opposed to those social practices of the other. (That’s one of the things that make Dark Elves so much fun – many of their practices would be inversions and perversions of Elvish traditions, while others would be common (if variated) to both. Some of these would undoubtedly conflict, and would require further cultural refinement to reconcile).
Once you know what the celebration modes are in the different cultures of the game world, you can start to examine the economic interactions that result, as the merchants of one culture seek to profit from the ‘pagan rituals’ of another. A time of plentiful fruit in one nation might mean that this occasion is marked by a scarcity of fruit in it’s neighbours. Just as the commercialization of Christmas has affected the real festive season, so these interactions would modify the local practices regarding the celebration.
The End Result
A lot of the advice we’ve offered when it comes to crafting in-game holidays over the years is stream-of-consciousness stuff, where ideas are piled apon one another and the dross extracted until you’re left with something that’s more or less satisfactory. That sort of exercise in imagination still has its place, but a little further work will integrate the holiday with your game and its cultures in ways you can barely imagine.
The other thing that arises from this process is a framework for all the other holidays that you care to give a culture. Simply by identifying the elements that are NOT part of the unique festive season you craft for your game, you identify the elements that will make up these other holidays. If, for example, you have a fear-based holiday like Halloween which incorporates the singing of unique songs from Christmas, you can use that as a launchpad for further depths of campaign mythology: a legend that horrors walk the earth once a year spreading fear and violence but will avoid people of uplifted spirits.
This changes the entire orientation of the resulting holidays into something that is both unique and tightly integrated with your campaign.
Of course, some elements may repeat in two or more holidays – special meals are a common occurrence in everything from Lent to Easter, candy and small gifts are given to children at Easter and Halloween, and so on. The goal is not to make each holiday completely removed in nature from all others, but to make each unique and appropriate to your game. All you really need is a starting point, and the Festive Season contains so many elements that it is the perfect place to start!