Happy New Year! And happy holiday festival of the moment to PCs in any of your game worlds. Festivals can be tremendously useful in RPGs; here are some of the things I’ve found them handy for.
One of the biggest is giving a sense of your worldbuilding without being a blowhard. Festivals communicate cultural values. Little towns in the US, for example, tend to create festivals around local products that they’re especially proud of, and the ways that they celebrate — how important that pie-eating contest is, or deciding who gets to be in the parade — will betray even more about how the culture works, or doesn’t work. And the sights and smells of a festival are a great way to evoke setting. What unusual things do the PCs see? What delicious or repulsive odors are there? All these can give a sense of place, without resorting to expository spew.
In my monthly fantasy game, the PCs recently experienced the Feast of Roshanima, an avatar of a wind god. Roshanima is famous for diving off a cliff when confronted by ravening hordes, and being delivered to safety by a gust of wind. The festival is ostensibly a celebration of the avatar’s power to save people from inclement natural phenomena, and the temple of the wind god was a major focus. But it also made clear a lot of other facets of Morensian culture: ecstatic pilgrims throwing themselves off buildings in imitation of Roshanima; the temple using the festival to make clear how important and magnanimous it is (hinting at deeper politics); the wandering groups of mercenaries used in lieu of town guards; the importance given to providing honey buns for the the crowds (indicating the importance of honey production in this region). Quick, significant insights into the world and how it works.
Festivals are also concentrations of hubbub and activity, drawing in people from far and wide. They’re great for giving a sampling of the diversity present in your setting: groups of rag-clad pilgrims jostling alongside the sedan chairs of the upper classes; asteroid miners, laden with stories about what happens on the Rim, who’d rarely ever come to the domed cities otherwise; groups of GLBT people, perhaps banding together for safety on the bandit-infested roads. Foreigners might be attracted by festivals, and come to meet friends, or to experience the local culture, or to trade — a festival is a great place to have an encounter with a culture or group that the PCs normally wouldn’t encounter.
Crowds can also be great places for RPG action scenes. They present perfect cover for pickpockets to steal the important MacGuffin, or for clandestine meetings to happen in the open. Many movies feature chases through parades (viz: The Fugitive, The Pelican Brief, etc.) because they allow plenty of opportunities for pursuer or pursued to get lost in the crowd. Guards (/police/security-bots/other keepers of the peace) can get overwhelmed, leaving the PCs the only ones around to keep chaos from exploding. If there are fireworks, they can provide an excellent mask for gunshots; the screams of a victim are unlikely to be discerned against a background of drunken revelry.
And speaking of masks, if the festival is Saturnalian, all kinds of unusual events are possible: peasants trade places with queens; bishops pretend to be heretics; everyone stomps on honey-buns instead of eating them; people of all sorts wear costumes and roleplay within the RPG. In a Saturnalian festival, everyone can become the Trickster God for a day.
While I’m at it, here are some encounter possibilities at a festival:
- Two merchants are hawking (whatever the standard food for the festival is). They get in a fight over the correct way to prepare the food, and how the wrong preparation method implies heresy.
- An ecstatic pilgrim is speaking excitedly to all passerby about their religious truth. In among the babble, they sprinkle in a few interesting tidbits about (whatever the PCs are currently interested in). And then the pilgrim disappears into the tumult.
- The noise level is high: ecstatics are exhorting, merchants are hawking, everyone is cavorting. But suddenly, a hush falls over the crowd…
- Someone yells “it’s coming!” and the crowd starts to press forward; seek shelter or be crushed.
- A roving group of vigilantes is punishing festival-goers for what they believe to be infractions against the common law. The real police are nowhere to be found.
- A kind soul is handing out free amulets to whomever will tell a story related to the festival topic. The amulets turn out to be powerful magic tokens of protection against (the antagonist in the previous person’s festival story).
- Someone bumps into one of the PCs, and when they check their pockets, they have acquired a very expensive piece of jewelry.
- A priest is declaiming the hedonism going on, while the crowd is carrying a paper-mache griffin around. Suddenly, the griffin begins transforming into a real one.
- There’s going to be a tug-of-war between the priests and the mercenaries, and the priests have their ace in the hole, Sister Lumary, who’s built like a bear. The mercenaries try to recruit one of the PCs to help out.
- For the festival, it’s traditional to write predictions for the coming year on little paper boats, then float them down the river with a candle. Further down the river, someone is collecting the predictions and performing an evil spell on them.
- Far away in the crowd, one of the PCs glimpse someone very important from their past.
- A group of happy revelers try to include the PCs in their festivities, and will be rather offended if the characters refuse their kindness.