The Gauntlett
Making the Ever-Dreadful Christmas Scenario Good

Adam Gauntlett | 10 Dec 2014 19:00
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The Christmas Scenario is the kind of thing that sounds like a good idea, and frequently isn't. I used to play in an AD&D game where the seasonal adventure was pretty much unavoidable, and we always ended up in snowball fights and singing carols with Man-Eating Triffids. No, I couldn't tell you why. The DM had a thing for Triffids. Also Cybermen. Ho ho ho.

However if you're determined to have a Yuletide event in your campaign but aren't sure what to do with it, let's talk through some of the possibilities. When faced with this kind of dilemma I turn to folklore for a solution; there's usually something I hadn't considered, or a germ of an idea hidden away in those old stories that I can use in my new ones. So what's Christmas folklore got to tell us?

Broadly speaking, there are two kinds of Christmas tradition. The first, the fun one, is the Saturnalia. It derives from the Roman mid-December festival celebrating the turning of the year, and is marked by feasts, festivity, and gift-giving. The gifts were often dolls, so the doll makers - the Sigillari - got a festival day of their own, the Sigillaria, at the end of the Saturnalia. The Saturnalia is also a time of misrule, where all the usual laws are upended. The courts suspend all punishments, schools close, there are masquerades of all kinds, lights, and the Lord of Misrule presides over all. Sometimes called the Abbot of Misreason in medieval tales, this temporary king - often someone of low rank, a peasant or a commoner - is in complete command and directs all the festivities until the final feast day. During this period masters serve their servants, and the usual privileges of rank and birth are reversed.

The other is more sinister, derives from Northern European traditions, and concerns itself with the lengthening of days at the end of the year, when the sun is by no means guaranteed to return. This is when the dead rise up from their graves to visit the living, and when the Wild Hunt rides amid the winter storms. This is the season of blood sacrifice, when a liberal scattering of gore is meant to bring luck or make the sun come back, and when feasts are held to honor your long-dead ancestors, often in hope that your ancestors will attend.

The Wild Hunt is known in one form or another over the entire world, and often the Hunter is linked with sinners, the Devil, or ancient gods. While it is possible to get on the Hunt's good side by helping it track down its victim, any reward the helper might get for doing so is usually cursed. The Huntsman is sometimes called Hellequin, a name we've changed to Harlequin; in his medieval form he led an army of the damned, but as Harlequin he's more a devilish clown, seducer and thief. His chief characteristic is incredible, nigh superhuman dexterity, useful for clowning, but highly dangerous in a combatant.

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With all that in mind, let's assume that the game in question is a fairly typical fantasy campaign, with the usual assortment of wizards, heroes, elves, dwarves and dragons; the sort of place that Roy, Elan, Haley, Vaarsuvius, Belkar, and whoever the heck is inhabiting Durkon's moldering corpse would recognize. What kind of Christmas scenarios could we throw at them?

Say one of them - preferably the least responsible, most carefree player - is elected Abbot of Misrule, with complete control over all the festivities in the town. He can't have anyone killed or permanently injured, since that goes against the spirit of the festival, but if he wants to build a house entirely of cheese, or ban clothes for the duration of the festivities, go to it. That kind of story almost doesn't need the DM's involvement, since the Abbot will probably come into conflict with his fellow players almost immediately. However, for a subplot, say that an enemy - preferably one who's come into conflict with the players before - decides that this is the perfect time to assassinate the very same character who's been elected Abbot. Now the group has to defend their mischief-making comrade, but they have to do it without drawing any attention to themselves, since anything so serious as actual combat, or worse, death, will spoil the celebrations and bring bad luck on the town for the next year.

A possible variant to the above is, rather than have an assassin, use a sinister toymaker instead. This callous wizard uses his magical dolls to commit thefts, trying to gather as much cash as possible before the festival comes to an end. It's up to the Abbot of Misrule to solve this mystery since, for the duration of the festival, he's in charge of everything. However he can't get involved in bloody combat or actually hurt anyone, since that goes against the spirit of the season. The toymaker isn't bound by any holiday rules, and can do as he likes.

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