World Building 101: Holy Days, Feasts, Festivals, and Other Excuses to Party Hard

Creating a calendar for your campaign world is simple enough, and lets you track the passage of time in your game, following things like the phases of the moons or the passage of seasons, as well as adding a good deal of flavor through the names of days and months. To really flesh out a calendar, though, you need to create a variety of holy days, feasts, and festivals celebrated by the people in your campaign world. These can provide plenty of color to your setting, as well as potential plot hooks or interesting backdrops against which to set a session.

The first step to designing a holiday is to decide on the reason for the celebration. As usual we can draw on real world holidays for inspiration. There are myriad reasons behind the celebrations and observances that exist, but they can generally be grouped into certain categories. In many cases the nature of the celebration will also help determine the timing of the event, or at least suggest a possibility or two for when it can fall in the year.

  • To honor or commemorate an individual or group - In many countries, holidays exist in honor of particular individuals or groups. Rulers and heroes are the most common, but in some cases celebrations exist to mark the failure or capture of particularly reviled criminals or traitors. Often these celebrations fall on the birthday or anniversary of the death of the individual in question, but occasionally they are remembered on the anniversary of a particularly momentous event in their lives.
  • To commemorate an event - Sometimes it is not the heroes who are remembered, but the event itself. Military victories or the end of a long and devastating conflict might be observed, as might successful revolutions or the unification or founding of a new kingdom. More dramatic events, such as magical or natural disasters that shaped the world, might also be commemorated. Typically these celebrations fall on the anniversary of the event they are meant to remember.
  • To mark the passage of time - Many holidays exist to celebrate the passage of time. The beginning of a new year, the first day of spring, or the completion of the harvest are all fairly common festival observances. Others might include solstices and equinoxes, or other seasonal markers. The timing of these kinds of festivals is fairly self-evident.
  • To celebrate life itself - In a world where survival is a struggle, it can be important to make time to simply take joy in being alive. Festivals dedicated to love, children, family, or even to remembering those who have died are all possibilities for this kind of celebration. Sometimes a party needs no more excuse than chasing away despair.
  • Fantastic or supernatural reasons - When detailing the feasts or celebrations of a fantasy setting it only makes sense that there would be fantastic reasons behind some. Perhaps there is a certain day of the year upon which the barriers between realms vanishes, allowing the spirit world or fey to interact directly with the natural world. Perhaps a strange celebration is actually an ancient and long-forgotten ritual that, if it is not performed, will cause the bonds holding an ancient evil to dissolve or some other disaster to occur. Or perhaps the celebration is based on folk tales and beliefs, and makes little sense to outsiders but is treated with utmost respect and gravity by the locals…
  • Religious observances - Religious holy days can include any of the above reasons and more. Perhaps there are specific articles of the faith which must be observed—on the seventh day of each month, the faithful must witness the rising of the sun while engaged in prayer, perhaps. Other observances can include periods of fasting or abstinence, and may require forgiveness or absolution, either of one’s own trespasses or those of one’s neighbors. Religious observances need not be austere and somber affairs, however—many can and should be full of as much zest and joy as more secular affairs.
  • Military observances - There are several examples of celebrations to honor the veterans or the fallen who have given their lives in defense of a nation or an ideal. Other celebrations with a martial tone could include parades or tournaments to improve morale. Tournaments get the added benefit of being an outlet for pent-up aggression and offering a chance to demonstrate skill and training—as well as providing a goal to work towards for that same training each year.

Once you have decided why and when a festival or holiday is being held, the next step is to determine how it is celebrated. Parades, wild parties, somber rituals, great feasts, tournaments, quiet gatherings of friends, or full blown festival merriment are all possibilities. The festival does not even need to be observed in the same way from place to place—one country may celebrate the harvest with a great deal of drinking, dancing, and merrymaking while the neighboring country offers humble prayer and quiet thanks for their continued good fortune to the gods or spirits of the harvest. Perhaps a festival for children lets them run amok without needing to listen to their elders for an entire day, ending at sunset. A festival for the dead could be somber and mournful, or a lively remembrance of their time among the living. Don’t forget to include a bit of magic into the mix. Maybe those who died during the previous year inhabit the bodies of friends and family for the day to take care of unfinished business—but what if a normally harmless and amusing festival where old grandmothers get one last dance with their dear departed husband in the body of their grandson suddenly turns violent as some strong spirit decides to thirst for revenge?

Where the festival is celebrated and by whom is also important. Very few celebrations are observed throughout the world. Perhaps the characters stumble into a small hamlet and encounter a holiday observed only by the villagers there; alternatively they might have heard of a grand tournament in a distant city held yearly with a fantastic prize for the victors and travel there specifically to take part.

Finally, if you want to make the festivals into an important part of your game, you need to communicate their existence to your players. If you have already created a calendar for your setting you can simply note the festival days on it and provide brief descriptions of those that are widely observed; this will allow the players to see that something noteworthy will happen on that day and hopefully pique sufficient interest for them to want to investigate. Even if you have not already created a full calendar, it’s easy enough to simply have a few NPCs talking about the upcoming festivities, or beginning to work towards setting them up in advance. Make your festivals memorable and lively, and they’ll be a fun addition to your campaign.

Comments (2)

Phil (July 2nd, 2010)

Love this post, Jonathan.

Especially love the magically inspired suggestions: the day of the returning dead being an excellent example of how DM’s can exploit the fantastic permissiveness of the system.

Sometimes people get trapped in just rehashing what happens in the real world, and forget to take advantage of how flexible these games can be—posts like yours help remind us, so thanks!

Nick (July 3rd, 2010)

One example I can share is from my campaign setting. The elves celebrate a holiday they call the “day of the soul.” They exchange gifts with their neighbors and friends in the morning and play music and feast in the evening.

The idea behind the holiday is to promote feelings of camaraderie and forgiveness. It was started after an event the elves refer to as “the sundering,” where powerful magics used by the elven nations at war drowned a large portion of their own lands in the sea.

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