I have been playing role-playing games for a majority of my life, and there is one common thread I have noticed in almost every game in which I play: there is no real mark of the passage of time. While planning out the length of the year and the name of months can be frustrating and time consuming, it helps add a great deal of realism to the game. Saying, for instance, that an event happened last year is less evocative than saying “It took place in the middle of Ylir during the year of the boar.” One of the main reasons why I feel tracking the passage of time in game is important is the role-playing and story opportunities presented by the coming and going of various religious (and secular) celebrations. These are the sort of opportunities that allow players to invest more in the game world in which they play. If the bard had a particularly good haul performing at last year’s harvest festival in Sӕvighelm, it is likely that the players may be apt to go back the next time. This, of course, gives the game master ample ability to through in recurring characters and build upon the legend of the PCs in the locale.
Majority of the holidays in your campaign are likely to be religious in nature. The number of holidays/feast days is, of course, going to depend on the dominant religion in the realm. Secular holidays will be more infrequent, but could coincide with the ascension of a new ruler, the celebration of the end of an armed conflict, or the marriage of two powerful families, for instance. So what kind of holidays are important to have in your campaign world in order to generate an air of reality?
The easiest way to start planning the festival calendar is to associate feast days with different periods on the solar cycle. Every agricultural society is likely to have both a harvest and a planting festival, which are easily placed during the equinoxes. Likewise, mid-winter and mid-summer festivals are also common in most cultures, and are easily placed during the solstice. These festivals can be as religious or secular as the game master desires, but it is important to remember the culture of the people celebrating when making that decision. In a society that has oneor more gods or goddesses of agriculture, it is practically unthinkable that the harvest and planting festivals will not have at least some religious component. Likewise, and religion with a deity of fertility should have a roll in several festivals. As long as you cater the style of the celebration to the culture of the locale, you really can’t go wrong.
Aside from the “natural” festivals, festivals purely associated with religious observance are wonderful for giving some life to your game. If your world is polytheist, than each god or goddess should have his/her own festival. The nature of these celebrations should consistent with the ideals and purview of the associate god; deities of fertility might be associated with orgies, deities of battle with tournaments, etc. Not all of these festivals need to be officially sanctioned by the local government. Certainly, the festivals associated with evil deities are likely to entail sinister rights and perhaps human sacrifices, so locals may by terrified of these celebrations when they come around.
In a monotheistic religion, it is more likely that religious festivals will be celebrated in commemoration of certain events that worshippers take to be significant; their deliverance from adversity through divine intervention, the coming of a deity’s avatar, the founding of an important religious site, or even the codification of the official religious canon are all great options. As with the above, the important thing to remember is that the festivals keep with the spirit of the religion. One final thought: a religious festival should absolutely require sacrifice or tithing.
I realize this is merely a semantic distinction, but I am going to separate the concept of feast day and festival for the sake of creating an orderly list. Feast days, by the usage hereon, are meant to refer to minor religious holidays. These are not the grand festivals associated with a religions high holidays, but rather celebrations which are dedicated to a particularly pious person, or perhaps a lesser deity. In most polytheist religions, most (if not all) of the geographic features around a settlement will have a patron deity or spirit. While less powerful than the major gods of the pantheon, these supernatural beings are still quite powerful, and making regular sacrifices to them in order to solicit their goodwill should be important to the locals. This is your chance as a game master to give more local flavor to distinguish between towns.
Two hamlets located on the same river, for instance, will likely honor the river’s associated earlier post, because it is likely that your game takes place in a quasi-medieval setting, travel is difficult and cost prohibitive (if not downright illegal in the case of serfs) for the common person, so most people will not have gone much further than twenty miles from their birthplace during the whole course of their lives. This means that there will be limited cultural diffusion between towns, so while there would be common aspects (such as worshiping the same river entity), it makes perfect sense that these celebrations will have a lot of differences as the local population comes up with its own traditions over time.
While it seems at face value that a monotheistic religion would have fewer feast days, this is not necessarily the case. The veneration of saints is an important aspect in the Christianity of Medieval Europe, for instance. Days which honor deceased religious leaders, prophets, evangelists, and martyrs are a way for a religion to model its precepts. Finally, animist communities should probably have feast days in which they honor their forbearers.
Cultural (ethnic) Festivals
The final type of festival to consider are the ones that lack are not necessarily religious in nature (though they could have a religious element), but rather cultural festivals. In the U.S. we have a number of these: Thanksgiving, Independence Day, May Day, etc. The aforementioned are all a good basis for cultural holidays. A society might also celebrate the marriage of a particular ruler (think Oktoberfest), the ending of a war (Armistice Day), or the just an important day in the country’s history (the birth of a celebrated individual). By peppering these into the calendar for a few of your more common locations, you can craft a very immersive setting.
Strong on his mountain (er…at his desk),