How often do you use festivals in your game? Are you aware of how powerful a tool they can be as a GM? Festivals create myriad opportunities for the world, adventures, and characters that take place in them. They also give a good reason and excuse to have minglings of people that normally wouldn't mingle together at all. Today I want to talk about them, how they can be used, and what they can mean.
First and foremost festivals help add a level of immersion and familiaritiy with the world. Whoever is in your game odds are they've been to, or seen, a festival or carnival. This makes for standard images and experiences that you can pull on for setting depictions. The press of the crowds, young lovers wandering together, families, stalls, games, fun, excitement, and perhaps even fireworks. These are all things that seem standard for any festival anywhere in the world and they can make even the most alien of setting seem a little more familiar just by introducing things in this way.
Depth To The World
Beyond the immersion a festival can also add depth to the world. Festivals have a reason for happening and that reason means something. This week in the U.S.A is the 4th of July Celebration also known as Independence Day. This time, and the festivals and events around it, celebrate the U.S's claim of independence as a nation from British rule and the birth of itself as a nation. While this celebration is centuries old now, think of what it still says about the U.S. people and their value of independence and freedom, defended militarily if necessary. Contrast that with July 1st's position as Canada Day, lacking the denotation of independence day but rather celebrating the birth of Canada as it's own kingdom/country through more peaceful/diplomatic means. And yet, at the same time, both days are also about national pride as they do both represent the birth of their nation.
So what does the festival you use say about the world/kingdom/place that is hosting it? Is it a festival to celebrate the king's birthday? To celebrate a great victory in battle? Some other significant event? The harvest? Whatever you choose, remember what it is saying about the place the festival is taking place in.
Also, while we're talking about what the festival represents don't forget how its used can also add depth. For example, the Scorpion clan in L5R are one of the worst clans for how they treat their peasants, but to make up for it they have a lot of festivals. This means that the Scorpion work their peasants very hard, and they're very strict, but they keep morale up with more time off (since people don't work as much in festivals) and other distracting frivolities to keep the people happy and from rioting. The Unicorn on the other hand have very few festivals, but treat their peasants exceptionally well. The Lion are about average on both, but all their festivals are in celebration of victories and sometimes a celebration held in Ikoma lands is not held elsewhere.
How To Use Them...
That's nice about the world but how do you use the Festival? Well, this takes a bit more creativity, but the options are there.
Consider, for one, that Festivals are going to be a time when people mingle. That means opportunities to meet, greet, or try to assassinate big name figures. Maybe the King will have a strong guard around him at all times during the festival but what of his children? What of the queen? What of their hanger ons? What of the other nobility? A festival makes for a wonderful time to launch an assassination because of what they consist of: loud noises, crowds, and exposed high priority targets.
The Festival as an adventure launch can also work. Some Festivals are for religious reasons and when things then go wrong it points to a great disturbance or imbalance in the world that needs to be fixed. That can then send off the nearest group of plucky adventurers - who, guess what, just happen to be enjoying the festivities.
Maybe no one important is involved at all. Maybe someone just has something bad - or good - happen to them during the festival and that is enough to get things going.
The point with festivals is to get creative. You'll rarely have something that works for your game on so many levels, so use that. It'll be good for your game and maybe your players wil get into it. If nothing else, it will open up the flood gates of just what is and isn't possible in your game.