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Friday, March 27, 2009


"Come for the festival?"

That line served as the intro for my players when they arrived at a new town. It led to a fun-filled session offering a nice vacation from the campaign's generally grim and gritty tone.

Adventuring types are used to traveling vast distances and facing danger for great reward, but sometimes they need a change of pace. Sometimes they need a festival! I'm sure many readers have enjoyed a Renaissance Festival or similar celebration. For years I was lucky enough to be near the Maryland Renaissance Festival. Now I get to enjoy the Feast of the Hunters' Moon here in Indiana. Why not let your PCs enjoy the same thing in your game? The festival session can provide a social play interlude while still offering the game's combat monkeys a chance to roll some dice.

First, let your players know about the festival ahead of time. If they're uninterested, perhaps it's not a good fit for your group. If they're interested, let them know up front that the session might be a bit less structured than usual.

Pick a theme. There are plenty of events that deserve a festival, harvest time, a holy day, winter solstice, a royal birthday, or the anniversary of a great victory all make good reasons. All you need is an excuse for the party. Once you have your theme picked, figure out where it will be held and who will be its primary sponsors. The festival should be near a population center of some kind, but allow plenty of room for merchants, events and activities. The sponsors should set the tone and flavor of the events.

Next figure out the activities and events that match up with your festival concept. When creating activities, particularly competitive activities, be sure you keep your PC's capabilities and interests in mind. I've always tried to come up with at least one activity per character. Activities need not be obvious contests. Characters can be contributors to the festival as well. A healer might be asked to help with the wounded from the grand melee. The bard might be asked to perform in (or judge) a poetry contest. The goal is to insure every character has a chance in the spotlight. Here are some ideas for events and activities:
  • Combat: duels with padded weapons, archery competition, axe or knife throwing, wrestling matches, team melee, grand melee, jousting.
  • Skills: arm wrestling, log toss, weight lifting, bar bending, foot race, horse race, log cutting, drinking contest, eating contest, greased pig chase, gambling, ring toss, sporting events, riddles, horse shoeing
  • Performance: dancing, poetry, singing, acting, juggling, acrobatics, sword swallowing, fire breathing, magic and illusion, sleight of hand, freak show
  • Judged events: craft items, harvest products, artwork, beasts, brewing, baked goods, performances
  • Special events: auctions, awards, religious services, military exhibitions, weddings, coronations, music exhibitions
Next, figure out who attends. A festival is a great way to introduce your characters to new NPCs and new adventures. Perhaps the local lord is watching the tournament, looking for new talent. A merchant from a distant town might bring unusual goods and news of far places. Locals might be more open and friendly once the ale begins to flow. Festivals are a great time to make new friends and learn more about the locale.

As GM this means some extra work to insure there are NPCs to talk to and news to share. When planning a festival I always review the local NPCs and insure they have something to talk about. I also create a half-dozen strangers and a dozen rumors to give the PCs something fresh to think about. A festival can also bring out the less savory side of human nature as pickpockets and con men make their presence felt. The discovery of theft can spark a nice chase through the crowded festival grounds, a different sort of activity for the group!

With the bare bones of your festival laid out, plan out a schedule of major events. As you lay out the main phases of the celebration, come up with a general tone and feel. A day-long festival might look something like this:
  • Pre-dawn - Set up. Cook-fires are started, tents go up, wares are laid out. Chill morning air combined with sleepy merchants and laborers makes for a quiet, perhaps grumpy, atmosphere.
  • Invocation - Opening ceremony. Whether it's a religious ceremony, a procession, or just an opening bell, put everyone on notice that the festival is open. The warming rays of the sun and the rousing cheers of the crowd create a lighthearted, festive mood.
  • Morning activities - Plan a few morning events that will give some structure to your PC's day. Be sure you allow time for shopping and socializing. The cheerful atmosphere continues, punctuated by the bold voices of hawkers and performers attempting to garner attention.
  • Big event - Set up a major contest or activity to punctuate the day. Ideally this would be something your PCs can participate in. The morning's cheer gives way to a bit of alcohol fueled rowdiness. Those with delicate sensibilities might be offended by the rough crowd.
  • Afternoon feast - What's a festival without a feast? Food and drink, along with more activities, shopping and socializing. Feasting (along with the worst offenders being tossed into the stocks), calm the crowd. The heat of the afternoon sun makes the thought of a nice nap in the shade a tempting thought.
  • Celebration - A dance or religious celebration winds down the festival, allowing merchants and vendors a chance to close up and join the fun. Fresh celebrants breathe life into the party as the sun sets. A few drunken souls make trouble, but it's generally kept to the edge of things.
  • Closing ceremony - A final word to wind down the party. The long day winds down in relative peace and quiet as exhausted celebrants find their way home.
Once you have a structure for the festival, plan out a few chance events to throw some variation into the mix. A runaway horse careening through the crowd, a lost child, a fleeing thief, a wily card shark, or a gang of drunken laborers can each hook the party with a distraction.

A last bit of preparation is to put together some guidelines for how your contests work and what rewards the characters might receive if they win. Keep things short so players don't get bored. Simple contests can be nothing more than a skill test or three. Combat contests are a bit more complex, but can be shortened by limiting them to first blood or something similar. You want the PCs to enjoy the entire festival, not get beaten to a pulp. When your PCs win, give them something concrete to commemorate their victory. Also remember that contests at festivals can give rise to stories of their own. A character's prowess can open the door to new opportunities or new challenges.

Finally, think about the day after. Aside from hangovers and cleanup, the day after could provide some nice adventure hooks as merchants and travelers head for home or their next stop on the trade route. An impressed festival attendee might seek out the PCs with an interesting opportunity. Just because the party is over doesn't mean the fun ends. There's always the next festival to think about too...

I hope this article will inspire you to host a festival of your own. I think you'll find it an enjoyable change of pace from the usual adventure fodder. It also allows you to show off aspects of your game world that might not shine in the usual adventuring / exploring cycle of play. If you do run a festival, come back and let me know how it plays out!


Anonymous said...

This is a great resource, thank you. I'd never put much thought into what a great experience a festival could be in a roleplaying game.

I'm definitely going to use this in one of my sessions -- maybe for the Flood Festival in Paizo's Shackled City adventure path.

Mark Thomas said...

You're welcome!

I was surprised how well this turned out when I ran it for the first time years ago. I had a good group of players, and it was a great break session after a long combat intensive arc.

Thanks for commenting!