So, as 2015 ends and 2016 dawns, I thought I’d talk a little about the importance of things like New Year celebrations and similar festivities in campaigns. They’ve got a couple potential uses; the first and most obvious is a chance for some celebratory role-playing, letting the players have fun in character without springing a fight or major plot hook on them. There’s something to be said for giving a group a room full of NPCs for them to interact with, each with their own little hooks for you, as GM, to toss out and see what catches their attention. You may be hoping they’ll latch onto the sad story of the Countess and go haring off to the old haunted villa her family has, but they might instead get caught by the grizzled old soldier who talks about his children and his concerns about how they’ve moved someplace wilder than he feels they should.
You can add another layer to this, advancing your plot without seeming to be doing much, by letting them see the interaction between the NPCs. Does the Countess seem to have an aversion to getting near the soldier? Does the soldier spit and walk away when he sees her nearby? What about when they’re deliberately seated next to each other at the feast table and forced to make awkward conversation that pointedly avoids the late Count or the soldier’s spouse? What story is being told in the silent spaces between, to catch the attention of the players?
Another layer you can add, naturally, is the disruption of the festivities by outside forces; the soldier grabs a halberd from an ornamental suit of armor when the doors burst open and gnolls come marching in, ready for a fight, while the Countess surprises everyone by snatching a pair of long knives from under her clothes. The guardsmen turn out to have been intimidated, bribed, or conned into siding with the gnolls, leaving a few heroic NPCs and the PCs to save the night.
You can also add portent and omens; the end of a year can easily by a mystical time, with the local priests and hedge wizards all casting auguries of what the year to come will bring with it; if you’ve been wanting to drop fragments of a prophecy on your players, the celebration of a new year is an ideal time for it. Natural events can also provide omens – a blood-red eclipse at the stroke of midnight is surely an omen of ill nature for all to see, while a flight of silver and gold dragons across the sky is surely a sign of good fortune to come.
Lastly, if your PCs have achieved some level of fame, this kind of celebration is an excellent time to have them overhear NPCs talking about their feats – most likely in admiring tones, talking up their heroism and making them feel warm and fuzzy inside, but if they screwed something up that caused a lot of hardship, the NPCs might be cursing the people who caused such a mess. Still, having a handful of excited kids who want to hear all about the brave warriors and clever wizards and their heroics is an excellent way to let the players essentially run a session, feel important, and perhaps embellish their own legend a bit by talking up their deeds. No need to mention how the rogue fumbled and fell into a manure pit, or how the mage almost blew everyone up with a poorly-aimed fireball, after all, right?
So do give this a bit of consideration – year-end celebrations (and ones at any time of year) can be great tools for the GM and a good way to bring the game world a bit more life.