Every settlement is unique and has its own traditions and customs. Whether a festival is relatively normal, or downright odd, they are a tremendous way to breathe character and verisimilitude into a settlement.
Village celebrations are community events—an excuse to come together and celebrate (or commiserate) previous events of import. Often they draw in folk from the surrounding area. The odder the festival, the more powerful the draw.
Use the table below, to generate the details of strange local festivals the PCs can watch (or even join in):
- Cheese Racing: The village is well known for its cheese industry. To celebrate, the villagers practise cheese chasing in an annual race. Every year, they gather atop the nearest steepest hill where the most prominent cheese producers unleash large, circular cheeses down the hill. The goal of the race is to get your cheese as far as possible down the hill without carrying it. Competing teams of farmers work together to protect their cheese from the attentions on their rivals. Fistfights invariably ensue as scores of villagers charge after each cheese.
- Witch Hunting: In the past, the village was beset by a coven of witches. After a reign of terror, the witch was caught and burnt at the stake. To celebrate their liberation, the villagers have a witch hunt every year. Four local women dress up as witches and hide in the village or its locality. The other villagers must find them. Afterwards, the villagers celebrate late into the night around a huge bonfire on which are burnt the effigies of the original four witches.
- Dead Raising: Once a year, the villages exhume the decaying bodies of the recently dead and carry them through the streets in celebration of their lives. Afterwards, the dead preside over a great feast eaten by the flickering flames of giant bonfires set about the village.
- River Dunking: A river runs through or near the village. Every year, when the winter snows have melted and the river is at its most swollen, the villagers gather at the river for a day-long tug of war competition. Rivalry among teams is fierce and—of course—there’s lots of eating and drinking. By the end of the day, almost everyone is tired, cold, wet, drunk and happy.
- Pig Racing: Every year, the villagers gather as part of the harvest festival to race their prize pigs. Farmers ride their favourite pigs through the streets in a mad race to the finish. The ensuing race is pure chaos and little more than a rough and muddy free for all. Although participants cannot carry weapons injuries are common as good-natured fistfights erupt along the course between riders (and sometimes spectators). There is no set prize for winning the race, except for the prestige of being the best rider.
- Barrel Burning: For this celebration, participants fill old barrels with tar and set them aflame. The competitors then carry the barrels as far as possible through the village while being cheered on by spectators. The winner is the person who carries the barrel furthest. Injuries are common in this bizarre practise and the use of magic is frowned on (at least until the race is over). This race normally takes place at night and is a spectacular sight. Afterwards, there is much drinking and merriment.
- Barrel Boating: The villager take to their barrels and attempt to “sail” them down the river that runs through the settlement. In the same manner as the pig racing described above, the race is wild and has few rules. Competitors work at capsizing or holing their rivals and just actually finishing the race is considered an achievement. The first person to finish gets his barrel filled with ale by the local lord. Folk come from the surrounding villages to watch (and/or participate).
- Wife Stealing: This festival’s roots go back hundreds of years to when the villagers raided other nearby settlements for womenfolk. In it, participants—or raiders—must carry a neighbour’s wife over a set course comprising several obstacles. The “stolen” wives’ husbands lurk on the course and try to recapture their wives. Of course, the competition is good-natured. If a raider gets to the end of the course with a stolen wife he can claim a prize from the wife’s husband—usually a flagon of ale, handy tool or suchlike. Shocking, afterwards much drinking ensues.
- Gods Awakening: In this once-yearly festival held at the winter solstice, the villagers light a huge bonfire on the highest hill near the village. Building the bonfire can take weeks. Once it is lit, the villagers stand about and sing songs of praise to their gods and pray for a year free of raiders and pestilence. During bad years, the villagers build particularly large fires in the hopes this will please the gods and return favour to the village. Persistent rumours whisper that sometimes the villagers secretly practise human sacrifice; unfortunates are said to be tied to a stake in the midst of the bonfire and burnt alive as an offering.
- Dance of the Dead: In this macabre celebration, held every year to mark the village’s deliverance from an evil necromancer’s undead army, the villagers dress as skeletons and zombies and dance through the streets in wild abandon. Some of the villagers’ costumes are disturbingly realistic—comprised as they are of actual bones. The festival is held at night and adventurers witnessing it without knowledge of the celebration’s significance could be forgiven for thinking an evil cult is at work in the village.
Remember, there’s nothing to stop the PCs taking part in some of these festivals! Such events could represent a welcome change to the normal pace of the campaign, and allow the PCs to unwind and relax. It’s also a great way to meet folk and to build the party’s emotional attachment to a village and its folk.
- GM’s Miscellany: Urban Dressing: For GMs running an urban campaign, GM’s Miscellany: Urban Dressing is an essential resource. Now available in both Pathfinder and System Neutral Edition versions.
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