Monday, July 4, 2011

D&D: Festivals and you


What ho, noble heroes, and know that thou art hereby declared welcome on this joyful summer’s day! Today is the time for merriment and revelry, for surely this day is blessed by the gods! This is the time to enter our fine fair and explore whatever wonders might catch your eye. There is profit to be found for those who carry luck, and fortune to gain for those of skill. But always beware, ‘cause Lady Luck is shifting, and you never know if it will all go down in a hurry.
This, my adventurous friend, is the festival!

Ah, the festival. It’s that time of years in which an arbitrary number of fair villagers gather to celebrate various historical events, usually by consuming vast amounts of alcohol and fatty substances. But your average fantasy-festival is more than the fish & chips we know from our ordinary village fair.  Certainly, you will encounter games of chance and exquisite dishes with questionable origins, but this is also a time for your players to submerge into an atmosphere of magic, alluring sights and wonders from all over the world.
Festivals and fairs have been a favorite element of mine in several campaigns, and it seems like I’m not alone in that regard. Several great campaigns have utilized this brilliant opportunity to let your players lean back and have some relaxed fun among the brightly colored stalls. In Paizo’s “Shackled City” the players eventually partake in the Flood Festival, and “Rise of the Runelords” actually starts the festivities right off the bat, as the festival of Sandpoint begins. Additionally, we have The Wormfall Festival in chapter 2 of Savage Tide, which is, incidentally, the foundation for this essay.
So now, you’ve described the tents, the buffets, the joyful song is breezing through the streets.  Noble, busty maidens are elegantly dancing along alongside peasants and merchants alive, and kegs are smashed at every corner. You’ve made the description, put on the best of Blackmore’s Night, and ask your players about their next course of action. And that’s where it hits you, as one of the players ask:
“Great. So, what is there to do?”
This innocent question has the potential to pretty much sabotage any festivities that are not well prepared. With proper presentations, odds are that your players are pretty excited to get going with the fun, and they might be disappointed once they realize that the festival results in nothing more than ‘skip forward till the goblins attack’.
In this essay, I will present an established example of a festival, namely ‘The Wyrmfall Festival’ as I designed it during my Savage Tide campaign. I’ve presented it in a clear, generic way, so that you can easily modify it to your needs. Additionally, I’ve included some really awesome ideas from other great minds (with proper credit given, of course) that were originally made for ‘Rise of the Runelords’

Part 1 – The Theme
A festival won’t necessarily need a theme. Often, partying for the sole sake of partying alone is more than enough for the mortal races. In other cases the festival will relate to an overall theme, often a historically significant event for the local area. Therefore, it can provide a great sense of coherence if you manage to relate the various stalls and activities of iconic elements of said event. In my example the Wyrmfall Festival is the annual event in Sasserine, in which the city celebrates its foundations and slaying of the black dragon Zelkarune. I’m aware that in the original setting this event is related to Age of Worms, but I decided to change it.
This means that the citizens try to include black dragons and the death thereof in as many activities and shops as usual.
First and foremost, this will influence the decorations. In the Wyrmfall Festival, lots of dead toy-dragons are hanging around, street theaters portray how the mighty Lord Teraknian originally slew the beast in one fell stroke and much more. Additionally, this is a typical time for boasting and remaindering of how awesome this city is, so naturally there will be a lot of talk about how “Sasserine is still winning in the fight on the international trade market” and “Let those beasts come, we’ll bring them a good whooping again!”.
Don’t dwell too long on this subject. Just get a general idea of the decorations and move on to the following setups.

Part 2 – Activities / Events
It’s a festival, after all, and even though you could get away with just a bunch of stores and fatty fries, people are there to have fun and make fools out of themselves in various events and competitions. Again, it’s great if you can include the theme into these, but notice that pretty much any fair has some generic entertainment of some kind.
Below is a list of various activities and events you can present to your players. Remember that these are for the majority designed for parties at low levels, which makes sense in the long run. After all, a legendary hero would have a breeze winning the fair. But he wouldn’t necessarily enjoy it.

The Fortuneteller
One of the oldest tricks of narrative GM’ing is the plot exposition/hinting, all-knowing fortuneteller, usually sitting in her tent, able to lend out some clues for a humble prize. Exactly how much she knows (if she’s not a downright fraud) is up to you. The fortuneteller is an awesome way to either set the mood or introduce a side-quest, or simply load your players up with red herrings.

At the Wyrmfall Festival, Katrine von Zima were actually true to her word about the future, but only offered one reading per person, per day. Personal plots aside, some of her trance-heavy answers included seeing two angry, demonic heads roaring at the hero’s direction. Another mentioned the black spheres of the void which would consume this world. Another mentioned a struggle of power to come, and the broken heart of a mourning sister. Finally, another was told to expect a long and dangerous journey, in which the same man would attempt to bring the hero to his or her grave, three times.
Feel free to improve upon the specifics, or add your own.

Sasserinian Roulette(Inspired by the Fighting Fantasy-series)
This is Russian Roulette with daggers, and only suited for places of ill repute.  The rules are simple. Two contestants must attend and place a bet. I chose 1000g. Once the bets are placed both players roll a dice, the one rolling the highest has the first pick from six identical daggers on a table. In advance, the GM has rolled his own dice to select which dagger is real. The person then stabs his own heart (coup de grace) which has little effect in the case of a fake dagger (with an artificial blade) but likely means death otherwise. The winner takes the spoils.  Ordinary citizens would likely not gamble on this, but it’s a potential way for those adventurers willing to take some serious risks for easy money.

Drinking contest
Another popular classic, in my case “Drink the like a Dragon-Slayer!”. There are several rules for this competition (which also tends to be quite a must for at least one player in any group) but I’ve found the version from Shackled City to be particularly good.
During the first day up to 64 competitors can sign up for the competition, by filling out the relevant forms at any inn. Their name is registered on the grand roster and for every day of the six-day-long festival competitors meet for 10 minutes to drink hard. The player and the opponent take alternate constitution checks against DC 5, increasing by 1 for every following cup.  Failure to either make the check or show up knocks the participant out of the competition. If both competitors fail they’re both out.
For every day competition sharpens. Initially the hero’s opponent rolls with a +0 modifier, but for every day it increases by one, till he finally meets ‘The Grand Champion’ with a mighty +5. Should he still succeed, the hero becomes the new champion and win the prize (see the ‘Rewards’ entry).

The Egg hunt(Another one inspired by Shackled City. )
Every year at Wyrmfall Festival the local mage-guild sets up a competition in which everyone can join in for one silver. The competitors are then let lose in the surrounding forests, in which several hundreds of egg-replicas have been placed. The goal is to stomp as many as you can, until someone finds the ‘dragon’ and stomps on its egg. This results in a mighty illusion of a roaring black dragon that instantly dies, and a fearie fire spell being cast on the lucky winner.
Every round a player makes a spot, search or survival check against DC 10. Success means he’s found an egg and he can now stomp it. If he can then roll two 20’es in a row on a D20 he has found the egg of the dragon. The players have 1D10+10 attempts to find an egg, before someone else finds the right one in the forest.

Dragon Shooting(Greatly inspired by Delthos at This credit goes to him!)
Kill Zelkarune with your bow before he kills you! At an archery range stands a seasoned city guard with two longbows and plenty of arrows. Not too far away is a horrible (and quite ugly) painting of a black dragon, with crude dartboard-markings and a bull’s eye . For one copper everyone can fire two arrows.
Hitting an AC of 20 immediately results in a grand prize, and hitting the outlying rings (represented by downgraded AC in intervals of 2 to a minimum of 12 for the edge of the board) with at least one arrow provides a minor prize. Lots of kids will likely be at this.

Dragon Tossing(Greatly inspired by Delthos at This credit goes to him!)
The dragon and its whelps are all dead. Now comes the time to dispose of their corpses. At this stall is a huge back of crudely sewn wyrmlings and a huge painting of a fireplace. Three holes have been carved in various sizes, and the goal is to hit the appropriate hole with as many thrown dolls as possible. Three tosses cost one copper, and children (and small people posing like children) will have to hit an AC 10 and
grownups AC 15. One hit is enough to ensure a minor prize.

This poor pig has actually been both greased AND sloppily been dressed as a black dragon. Some time during the festivities the pig is let lose, and from thereon you should secretly make a D10 roll every time the players enter a new scene or area. On a 10 the pig is present at the scene, and everyone is free to make a DC 15 spot check. Success indicates that the player can attempt to grapple the pig, but remember that NPC’s might be very interested in joining in.
The pig has a +10 grapple check due to its grease, which decreases by 2 for every failed attempt.

The winner receives a prize.

Dragon Races(Plainly quoted from Delthos again at: As he explains it better than I’d be able to)
…Pick yourself a dragon and pit it in a Dragon Race against your friends.
The final game is located in the Sandpoint Market Square (Me: I suppose, any Market Square could do) on the south side by the docks just at the beginning of Market Street. It has two double lane tracks set up next to each other with a three-foot wide gap between the two tracks. The tracks are 30' feet long. Near the starting line there is a large cage with 12 lizards in it. Each one has a set of twig and cloth wings attached to their backs. Each one is painted a different color so that they look like little dragons. Without touching the lizards, goad your lizard down the track. Get him to cross the finish line before your opponents and win a prize!
One copper piece to play. Once they have four people with a dragon picked, place them in the starting lanes. At the sound of the whistle, the gates are lifted and you goad your dragon down the track without touching them. To do this, each person racing makes an initiative check and players attempt to goad their lizard in initiative order. The lizards are notoriously difficult to deal with, so you must make a DC 14 Handle Animal check to get them to move. The lizards move 5' on a succesful check. On a failure they do not move. On a failure by 10 or more, the lizard actually moves backwards. The first lizard to cross the finish line wins. The winner gets a big cheap medal that says "1st Place Swallowtail Dragon Races" and 2 Copper Pieces. All other places get nothing and the others get nothing.
This game is run by Gressel Tenniwar. He's running it on the orders of Jubrayl Vhiski, but nobody knows this. Jubrayl is using it to run a gambling scheme betting on the races. Nobody knows it but 9 of the 12 lizards were secretly well fed the night before and they are tired and are even more difficult to move. These 9 are DC 16 to move. The other three are quite hungry and haven't eaten in about a week. These are at normal DC 14. In fact if some raw meat or other small rodent like thing is held in front of them they will be DC 12 to move.
Jubrayl and his men know which three are the hungry ones and use this to fix the betting. Jubrayl has also ordered that one of his men should always try to be in the race each time, so that they can pick one of the hungry lizards in order to hedge the bets even more, but not make a big deal if any group of four really want to race each other. The GM should pick the nine that are well fed. Anyone that watches more than 5 races with one of the hungry lizards can make a DC 20 Sense Motive check to notice that some of the lizards seem more motivated than others. Jubrayl and his men will disappear if it looks like anyone has caught onto their scheme. Gressel will claim ignorance and one of his barmaids will back him up when he claims they are all well fed.

Running contests
Run as fast as you can, to get to the goal before your opponent. Last one to finish get eaten by a dragon.
Make opposed constitution checks, add any difference in feet between of you to the one with the benefit.  The one with the highest score finishes first. For longer races, contestants might need to make several rolls with cumulative penalties as in the drinking contest.

Strength contests
This works a lot like the drinking contest. All contestants get two attempts per item and the winner is the one progressing the furthest.  At first everyone is to lift weight stones at a strength check against DC 12. From there on it progresses by 2, all the way up to a specially constructed granite statue of a dragon (DC 25).

Caper Toss
Popular by design, throwing around huge logs is always considered fun and quite dangerous. In this case there are some requirements. Initially the player must make both a DC 15 Strength and Balance check to just pick up the log. Failure means the log is dropped, and the player has one retry.
In a roaring shout the loge flies, as the player makes a strength check. The one with the highest result wins.

(I remember once reading about this in a dungeon-magazine, sadly I do not remember which)
A deep pit full of something nasty, 10 feet wide, is dividing two teams of three contestants, each at their end of the rope. Each team starts 6 feet away from the pit.
The strongest members make opposed strength checks, while the remaining two members attempt to assist. The winner of the roll pulls the opposing team 2 feet closer to the pit.
Should both checks reach 28 or more the robe snaps and the competition is considered a draw.

Are you man enough to ring the bell?
(Another interesting suggestion from Ringtail at )
This is the chance for your strongest character to do some serious showoff. Remember those infernal contraptions in which you have to hit the stand with a wooden mallet, in order to make the bell ring? It’s back. And now you have to make sure the dragon-shaped bell roars with pain.
Entry is 5 copper and the player makes a strength check with – 2 if not proficient with martial weapons.
A result of 0 or lower catalyzes a roar of laughter from the surrounding crowd, and a gentle pat on the head.
A result of 1-7 sends the meter decently high, but not enough. A minor prize is given for pity’s sake with a snick remark. People have clearly seen better from their elderly (demented) relatives.
A result of 8-15 is acceptable enough to ensure you masculinity, and people will mildly applaud, even though the bell is silent.
A result of 16-21 is a DING! And some well-earned appreciation. Not many strong men have passed today, and surely a major prize is ensured.
22+ smashes the bell right off the contraption, leaving everyone in shocked silence for a second, before the cheering crowd breaks out in salutation and cheering. While not particularly popular with the owner, the hero can expect a significant amount of future respect along with a major prize.

The Seekers’ Find
I wrote this competition up as an alternative side quest in my Savage Tide campaign. For the same reason it’s significantly longer than the other challenges, but can provide a lot of fun for your players. Particularly if they fancy riddles.
As mentioned earlier I like the Seekers. They are treasure hunters across the planes but also keen on finding new members with a clever head on their shoulders. That’s why the Seekers have annually held a competition starting in their compound. Here they register participants and provide them with their first clue in a longwinded treasure hunt all over the city. The first person to return with the Golden Star is entitled to a great reward and the possibility to join the Seekers. Nobody has managed to claim this glory so far.
The headmaster of the Seekers, Gaudeamus Borgov, is very eager to meet whoever is wise enough to make it through the challenge.

The hunt is divided into the following segments with the following riddles. Notice that I’ve pretty much grinded all the good riddles I know down into one big chase, but nonetheless it worked wonders for my players.

A)     The players start in the entry hall in the Seekers’ compound. It is a grand hall, with lots of paintings on the walls of old battles and distant places. Alphabets in common, elven, orcish,  gnomish, undercommon and draconic. At the far wall a gigantic shield is carved into the stone with colorful tiles. It carries the name ‘Borgov’ after their local headmaster. The players are handed the first riddle by a Seeker. It reads:

‘With thieves I consort
With the vilest, in short.
I’m quite at ease in depravity.
Yet all divines uses me.
For I am in the center of gravity’

The answer is ‘The letter V’. If the players inspect the common alphabet with this knowledge, they will notice that the tiny brick carrying the V-letter is lose. Behind it they find step 2.
B)      ‘Bright as diamond, loud as thunder
Never still, a thing of wonder’

The answer is a waterfall. In this case, the biggest waterfall near the city. Here the players can walk along the narrow path behind the waterfall and find something chiseled into the rock.
C)      “You heard me before, yet you hear me again. Then I die, till you call me again”

The answer is an echo. If the players shout it outside along the cliffs, a seeker will reveal himself from hiding. He’s frankly very happy that someone finally came along and bloody tired of sitting around with nothing to do. He tells the players the next clue.
D)     “You shall go to the tiny house in Shadowshore (or wherever suits your campaign) at the end of the tiny Graverobber Alley. Go right in and bring me the following: ‘Walk on the living, they don’t even mumble. Walk on the dead, they mutter and grumble’.

Once the players arrive at the house they will see that earth has been spread all over the floor with grass growing from it, and two trees growing. One with apples, one with pears. At the table at the opposite room is every mundane item from Player’s Handbook (no armor, weapons or anything worth more than 50g) plus a stuffed bunny, a tablecloth and a fake crystal ball.
This is pretty much for distraction. The right answer is ‘the leaf of a tree’ (or grass, if you’re willing to stretch it a bit). If the players bring the correct item back, the Seeker gladly provides them with the next puzzle. Otherwise they are out of the competition.
E)      “Go now to the city arena (or wherever suits your campaign) and seek the answer: What has four wheels and flies?”

The players can go there and investigate for a bit. The answer in this case is a dung cart, in which they will find an old scroll-case. It says:

F)      “Steps given, now take them back. Find me:
I’m by nature solitary, scarred by spear
and wounded by sword, weary of battle.
I frequently see the face of war and fight
hateful enemies, yet I hold no hope
of help being brought to me in the battle,
before I’m eventually done to death
it is not for me to discover in the city any of those doctors
who heal grievous wounds with roots and herbs
The scars from sword wounds gape wider and wider, deathblows are dealt to me
by day and by night

Acknowledge my name.”

The answer is a shield, and hopefully the players will remember the great shield from the Seekers’ hall, otherwise they will be able to have additional clues with DC 15 intelligence checks.

The final riddle is when the players return to the compound and inspect the huge shield on the wall. It seems as if they can actually press in the colored tiles, provided they put enough force into it. A short moment later, it grinds back into place, meaning the same tile can be pressed several times. The goal is to spell out ‘BORGOV’ using the available tiles.

The correct combination is Blue, Orange, Red, Green, Orange, Violet. At this time the plate with the moon opens and reveals a shiny golden star. At this point, several Seekers have gathered behind the heroes and started clapping. The heroes receive their reward and can potentially apply for membership.
(Thank you, Quest for Glory 4)

Part 3 – Shops / Stalls
Shops differ from events by the sole virtue of profit. Here those of sufficient economy are able to spend their abundance of gold on various exotic and exciting merchandise. Before you flip open the compendium of magical items though, remember that many merchants deliver goods to the common man. This means that several items will mundane and perhaps of poor quality, which likely has little interest to the players. However, part of the fun is browsing through various shops and stores, looking for the unusual and special. Below I’ve given some examples on some shops that could catch the eye of a curious adventurer.

The Crystal Emporium
Inside this tent the heroes are greeted by Air-Genasi named Opayo. All around them are several shelves full of various figurines, cups and carafes in glass and cheap crystal. The genasi tells them to look around and ask if anything catches their eye. The player’s can make Search checks against DC 15 to find some interesting bargain amid all the junk. Some suggestions are various figures made of glass (a sparrow, a polar bear, a white kitten and a boy and a girl feeding a goose).  Alternatively they make find some precious, but fake, gems to be used for later sinister deeds. Fake magical auras are also a possibility in notorious cases, which could trick the gullible magician into paying a hefty sum for a seemingly special item.

Magical Herbs and Spices
An aged dwarf bid the heroes welcome and presents some of his specially gathered herbs. You can offer his selection in two ways. The easy way is to simply let his herbs duplicate potions for the same effect and price, but this takes away some mysticism. Alternatively you can use “Ultimate Equipment Guide” which presents a nice array of herbs with their respective effects.

The exotic armor smith
Zeldarion the elf doesn’t speak common all too well, but his craft speaks for itself. His talent for improving and forging armor is impressive, which provide several opportunities for the players to customize their armor. Use the table in ‘Dragon Magazine’ 358 as a list of service in the ‘Master’s Forge’.

The awesome fantasy of Dr. Yiris
Yiris the gnome is more than happy to let his customers go on a travel to the far beyond. On his travel he has come into the possession of something as rare as a portable…portal. The size of a small house, this contraption is pulled around by two huge oxes and instantly reminds you of the stage of a theater. Except that the curtain is never removed.
Once someone pays the entry fee and enter the curtain they are instantly brought to a tiny pocket-plane inside the device. The players have only one minute in here, in which the plane attempts to satisfy the deepest desires of the heroes. Sadly this is nothing more but an illusion, and once time is up they are slowly fading back into reality as if nothing had happened.
A lot of people have taken a liking to Yiris’ dream theater which has made him quite popular. A few rumors even say that some people have never returned, after entering the place. But surely such talk is nothing but bedtime stories.

Mr. Gimble’s Imp and Pack
Mr. Gimble is a tall man with a huge black beard and deep green robes. He’s shouting at everyone passing by, cursing his competitor Mr. Mehan and points out his wonderful creation. A big metallic cupboard leans towards the wall and in the front a panel of glass reveals a tiny imp inside. The imp looks curiously at anyone approaching, before it hides behind the barely visible piles upon piles of weird junk that seems to fill most of the cupboard. Mr. Gimble promises that for only a few coins, you get to punch the cupboard thus making the imp jump up and pick a random price for you.
He also promises that this item is very, very random.
You can either list your own list of 100 weird items and roll it out. Or save yourself some trouble, and get Dungeon Magazine #142 with a nice list of truly hilarious and absurd prizes, such as a bag that summons hundreds of fish, or a personal miniature iron-golem.

Mehan’s Magical Back of Tricks 
Across the street is Mr. Mehan. A grumpy dwarf who continuously throws insults to Mr. Gimble and his damned closet. Methan makes sure to tell the heroes that his magical hat is where the magic is. For a bigger sum than Mr. Gimble, he allows them to fetch down and see what they can find, and he proudly claims that they even have a chance to get something ‘useful. Compared to his puny competitor.
Mehan should indeed have some random stuff that does strange things. For this I recommend the table in Dungeon Magazine #145 ‘I stole what?’ in which some items can be potential quest-starters, provide strange effects or merely be red herrings. The table offers 30 quite unique and quite random items.

A significant part of any festival is the food, and why should culinary pleasure be left out of the exotic touch? Writing up a list of special dishes (that might, in fact, only be special because their name now refers to the overall theme of the festival) can bring a nice diversity to the table. No pun intended.
If you’re in a hurry, 100 great ideas for food can be found in Dungeon Magazin #133.

Part 4 - Rewards
Remember that most fairs are first and foremost made with the commoner in mind, which you should in the prizes. A lot of minor villages and even cities prefer symbolic rewards, even immaterial in nature, such as titles. Common rewards are food-related, such as pies, sugarcoated apples, small hunches of meat and so on. At other times it can be tiny statuettes, plaques, trinkets or brooches with the winner’s name on it. Very symbolic gift cards are not unknown either.  At important events cups or chalices might appear, although they’re likely of poor quality below the shiny layer. Some small local villages even prefer to just offer favors or work to the winner. Remember, everything is relative. What is trivial for a hero might be a godly gift to a village of peasants.

Other intangible rewards are fame (or infamy) and respect throughout the community, which is often represented by a passive bonus to diplomacy, bluff or intimidate. Remember that sometimes players do so poorly in competitions that they might actually become the laughingstock around time, and thus receive penalties in social interactions.
Alternatively, sparse but important rewards are also possible, such as becoming a true friend of the community, or having a kiss from the prettiest girl in town.

Sometimes standard loot is in order, for example in the Seeker’s Find. In this case, loot should be constructed according to your party’s level and preferences.

Disclaimer: I have referred to other people and their ideas. It was my intention to contact these people for their permission, but it has proved difficult. If you're the author and do not want me to refer to you, please contact me and I will remove it.
Additionally, I referred to 'Dungeon' and 'Dragon'-magazine a few places. These should be easily obtainable from Paizo.


  1. I used these as a primer for my festival setting tonight! They were a hit. Thanks for posting these

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