Gaming Out the Holidays, and Why You Should Think Hard Before Doing It

So, you want to run a holiday-themed adventure for your tabletop roleplaying game (RPG) campaign.  Let’s skip ahead: yes, you really want to run one. No, you don’t care that they’re usually contrived and heavy-handed attempts to run a joke into the ground. Alas, you don’t have any other ideas right now — or, worse, you have this one killer idea, and you’re all agog to make your vision a reality.  Have I summed it up properly?

OK, So… this is going to happen, then.  Well, let’s see if we can mitigate the damage:

  • Let’s start with the basics: whenever there’s a gimmick adventure in a campaign, your players are going to be upset if anything bad happens to their characters — as in, more so than they usually are — and they’re going to be equally upset if nothing they do makes any difference whatsoever in the longer campaign. So if you want to have them face off against the Spirit of Negative Fantasy-Christmas-equivalent or whatever, be advised that it’s not smart to take away whatever fun toys you give them during that particular adventure. So don’t give them anything that you don’t want to see sticking around in your campaign. Forever. This includes cool new abilities, or even some disadvantages.
  • Second… everybody’s done Halloween, everybody’s done Thanksgiving, everybody’s done Christmas.  Maybe try a different holiday to mine for ideas?  Easter may be cutting it a little too close to the bone for your more conventionally religious players (yes, we exist); but have you considered the roleplaying possibilities in, say, Arbor Day? That sounds like a reasonable holiday for something suitably druidic, particularly if there’s a rampage involved. Also, very few people get upset about a campaign messing about with the very idea of Arbor Day.
  • Really, the day to day stuff about religion and holidays in general gets weirdly overlooked in many games, except as either local color and/or heavy-handed social commentary.  Human societies tend to have regular celebrations and commemorations, throughout the year: our own, mostly secular society still manages to have a formal day off or festival about once a month. Some of those holidays have elaborate traditions surrounding them; and some do not, or at least have no universal traditions. The actual importance of those holidays is also variable. People in our culture can get upset when you spoil Christmas. Labor Day? Not so much.
  • One last point: never underestimate the usefulness of cultural appropriation in a gaming context.  Christmas is a legitimately big deal in Japan, despite the fact that virtually nobody in that country is a Christian. Cinco de Mayo is becoming a thing in the United States, not least because it’s usually a long time between Easter and Memorial Day and people like an excuse to drink alcohol. Fantasy or science fictional worlds are probably not going to be that much different than ours.

As the above makes clear: I’m not really a fan of the GM recycling holidays, at least when it’s being done as a gimmick. I’m not saying that it can’t be done; I’m just saying that it can be a minefield. And a variable minefield, at that: one of the problems with putting real-life stuff in your RPG campaigns is that your players aren’t always psychologically prepared to have to deal with real life around the table, too. Lots of people game to get a quick and therapeutic break away from real life, after all. They may not be always happy to not have that option.

I suppose that the real answer here is to get your players to do the work for you, when it comes to holidays.  Are their characters all from the same culture, more or less? Make them come up with a list of holidays throughout the year. Are some of them from a different culture (or species)? …Well, come up with a “sleazy rationalization” (to use the technical term) that explains that away. Have your players come up with three things people do with each holiday, and voila! You can now use the appropriate holiday in place of our own culture’s equivalent and nobody will get too upset. It almost certainly will work better than turning the Easter Bunny into a Dread Rabbit of Death and Renewal that can only be banished by finding the Lost Egg of the Jungle Pyramid People…

…OK, that actually sounds kind of promising. But the PRINCIPLE is still sound.