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Game of Thrones and Groans, part 1

Fri, 05/03/2019 - 18:19

I have to take a break from D&D content today to talk about what’s on all our minds in these dark times: Game of Thrones Season 8 Episode 3. That’s the one with the battle of Winterfell. You know, the episode that looks like they forgot to take the lens cap off. Lots of spoilers ahead.

Arya fighting undead

This episode was reasonably well-shot (despite being dark) and expensive-looking; it also had a number of good set pieces. Its only problem was that not a single DAMN thing made any DAMN sense.

That may sound like hyperbole. But if you are to understand me at all, you must know that I abhor hyperbole above all things. Please imagine me making earnest yet steely eye contact with you as I tell you, my voice quavering with sincerity, that I could spend a full and rewarding lifetime unpacking the preposterous things in GOTS03E08, and when I laid down my burden at the age of 95, I could still say, “There was so much more to do. If only I had more time…”

I never knew it before, but I’ve been training my whole life to be a S03E08 mocker, and I will give it my all. But the sheer weight of absurdity is too much for a single mortal to lift. That’s why I’m pulling in reinforcements. Like an army of implacable and unstoppable Dothraki warriors, Rory comes thundering to my rescue. Between the two of us, perhaps we can get through a recap of this episode.

Before we start: Some may object that the points we’ll make in this article are nitpicks. For the most part, I don’t think they are. I think that, from the point of view of in-world logic, the episode was incoherent. It only made sense as spectacle. Therefore, it was bad fantasy.

I believe that one of the attractions of good fantasy is that it rewards examination. A good fantasy text has a world of detail beneath the surface: fans can get lost in those details, inhabiting the world along with the author. You can have the highest budget, the best actors, the finest CGI, and the slickest production in the land, but a lack of reverence for the plausibility of your world is as intrusive as a boom mic in the shot.

Some may say, “Game of Thrones is popcorn fantasy, don’t sweat the small stuff!” But if you didn’t like excessive analysis, you probably wouldn’t be on this blog, right?

Let’s recap this episode, shall we, Rory?

0:00: The beginning of the episode is effective, tense, and absurdity-free. Nervous warriors await the coming of the undead army. Everyone heads to their posts: Bran to the godswood*, the army to the field*, the noncombatants to the crypt*, and Jon and Dany to a hill nearby*. We also get one shot of Jon’s wolf, Ghost. Cool, we haven’t seen Ghost in a while! Can’t wait to see him finally tear some undead dudes up!**

*Note: I said this part of the episode was absurdity-free, but technically, everything asterisked is pretty absurd. Which turns out to be be almost everything, actually. We’ll get into it later.

**Note 2: Ghost never does anything at all in this episode.

0:09 Oh, cool, Melisandre the Red Woman arrives! Everyone looks surprised. She uses a magic spell! She sets the swords of all the Dothraki on fire! It’s really cool looking and still not absurd. Then she remarks to Davos, offhand, that she’ll be dead before the dawn. I guess she can see the future! And the future is grim!

0:14: The Dothraki, swords ablaze, ride off into the darkness, presumably to fight some wights they saw? Ser Jorah and Ghost go with them.

0:14:30: The distant fire-swords wink out one by one. The Dothraki are all dead. We get horrified reaction shots from everyone. No one, like, lifts a finger to help, though.

0:15: About 5 Dothraki run back on foot, along with Ser Jorah.

OK, let’s take a break and TALK ABOUT THE DOTHRAKI.

Paul: First let’s stop and go over what THE CHARACTERS know about the undead.

  1. The wights (low-level zombies) and white walkers (high-level zombies) can’t be effectively fought with regular weapons.

  2. They are only vulnerable to fire, dragonglass, and Valyrian steel.
  3. The Winter King can raise dead people as wights. So if you lose a battle with wights, your numbers decrease and their numbers increase. That’s one of the horrors of fighting the implacable dead.

Again, the characters on the show all know this. Jon, Samwell, and Tyrion have discussed it ad nauseam. So what was their plan with the Dothraki charge? “LET’S SEND THE DOTHRAKI OUT WITHOUT FIRE, DRAGONGLASS, OR VALYRIAN STEEL.” We, the audience, can clearly see that the dothraki are using their traditional curved swords, no dragonglass in sight. And that Melisandre fire spell was a happy surprise! That was not part of the plan! So apparently the plan was to send them out, effectively unarmed, to be slaughtered, for what – so they could be raised to bolster the undead army? Who signed off on this plan? The Night King?

Rory: Also, and this is a common criticism at this point, but the Dothraki are basically light cavalry, and NO ONE uses light cavalry this way. Light cavalry typically use their mobility to flank enemies after infantry have already engaged, to charge or run down ranks that have already been broken or retreating, and to attack vulnerable and exposed forces, such as archers. Attacking a nebulous mass of undead at the start of a battle is probably the stupidest use for light cavalry one can imagine. If they had been a typical force of mortal spearmen, we could expect a similar result. Anyone who has played Shogun Total War or any of its sequels knows this, and the fact that it’s such a common criticism should be a sign that this isn’t exactly advanced military tactics. It’s really insulting to the audience.

Paul: By the way, what was the point of Melisandre lighting the Dothraki swords on fire? It DIDN’T DO ANYTHING. Melisandre sees the future! Granted, all the action happened offscreen and in the dark: I can barely tell what’s happening in this battle in the present. So maybe her future-reception was a little unclear. But still: why did she even bother to burn what had to be a level 7 or so spell? I guess the Lord of Light was like, “This seems like a good use of my power. I know it won’t do anything. But it will look cinematic at least.”

And that’s really why this whole scene happened. It was glitz at the expense of logic. We’re expected to forget the rules of the show, and to accept the characters forgetting the rules of their own world, in exchange for a cool one-minute-long set piece. Fantasy storytelling at its best!

Here are three ways the show runners could have improved this scene 1000%.

  1. Show the Dothraki with dragonglass weapons.
  2. While the Dothraki charge, have one of them yell “LEEROY JENKINS!” Then Sansa yells, “Oh no, those undisciplined Dothraki deviated from our plan! Hold your ground, everybody!”
  3. Have Melisandre’s spell be part of the plan from the beginning.

Really, though, why were the Dothraki sent to the slaughter? Not for any really good in-world tactical reason. They were sacrificed for a dramatic reason: to demonstrate how scary the wights are. The triumph of dramatic logic over world logic is a theme in this episode that will return again and again and again and again. In fact, it may be the besetting sin of post-GRRM Game of Thrones.

Rory: I mean, the stated goal for all of this is not to win specifically, but to goad the Night King out of hiding. But you know what might actually do that? How about a force of highly mobile horse archers armed with Dragonglass arrows that could harry an army of undead who, for the most part, seem totally unequipped to deal with an enemy at range? That actually seems like the kind of thing that might annoy a white walker who is riding, literally, their only effective answer to a mobile force attacking at range. Like sure, the smart move is probably just to ignore the Dothraki anyway until they literally run out of ammo, but it does take a pretty disciplined commander to watch their forces torn apart with no repercussions and not wonder if there’s SOMETHING he could do. And you know what, if he has an answer I haven’t thought of or some hidden trick, that might actually be pretty satisfying.

Paul: So that’s why the Dothraki have to die. But why do the DOTHRAKI have to die? Well, here’s one ugly possibility. It’s a horror movie cliche to have the monster kill the people of color first. Usually it’s one or two individuals. But what about killing several THOUSAND people of color first? That’s not a cliche, right, and not weird at all? (by the way Ser Jorah and the albino wolf survive the charge). (Also these show runners wanted to make a show about what if the confederates had won)

Rory: Beyond the more generalized racism, I’m just pissed we’re seeing:

  • The destruction of more or less an entire culture here. Jesus Christ. Way to not give that the weight it deserves, guys.

  • Dropping the ball on literally years of build up for an INCREDIBLY throw away scene. When we first heard about the Dothraki in season 1, they’re painted as this unstoppable horde with only a narrow strip of sea between them and the domination of Westeros. King Robert literally said that if the Dothraki arrived in Westeros, all the nobility would wisely hide up in their castles since no one could face them in open battle while they ravaged the countryside and the people realized their leaders had forsaken them. Guess all that was just a set up for a scene where they fruitlessly charge some undead to set the stakes for the battle. Game of Thrones often plays with expectations, don’t get me wrong, but this wasn’t given the weight it deserve. It felt incredibly callous.

Paul: I agree, it feels callous. That seems like a weird word to use in the context of Ned Stark and the Red Wedding. I think the difference is that, in early Game of Thrones, you had the sense that anyone could die because that’s just how the world is, man. In late Game of Thrones, you get the sense that certain characters have plot immunity until the show has given them the sendoff due to their station. In fact, the show runners mention that in their commentary on this episode. When (spoilers ahead) some characters die later in this episode, the show runners describe how each is given a special moment. Therefore, the grandeur of your death is a direct indication of how much the show runners value you.

Rory: Also, the Red Wedding had a certain “you reap what you sow” feel to it. Robb Stark selfishly marries for love and suffers the consequences. Catelyn thinks she can depend on ancient tradition to protect them only to realize the Freys care more about a slight than they do about their own honor. There was build up to that moment. Not so with the fruitless Dothraki charge.

OK, that has to be enough about the Dothraki charge. Let’s move on to other things. After all, we’re only on minute 16 here.

Paul: Hold on. That’s another thing. The engagement between thousands of Dothraki and unknown numbers of wights seems to have taken about 30 seconds – a handful of D&D combat rounds. GIT ‘ER DONE, right?

You may argue: maybe time was compressed for the sake of the show. Maybe we are skipping over 10 minutes or so of horrified reaction shots as the rest of the army continues to not lift a finger to help.

OK, now let’s move on here, for serious.

0:16: Gray Worm demonstrates his resolve by putting on his helmet.

Paul: Wait, why wasn’t Gray Worm wearing his helmet?

Rory: Maybe he needed his peripheral vision to make sure none of his guys were helping the Dothraki.

0:17: The horde of undead arrive, racing silently, towards the serried armies of the North: Gray Worm, Jaime, Brienne, and the rest, who are all marshaled behind their catapults.

Paul: Wait, why are the catapults IN FRONT of the infantry?

0:18: Grisly battle follows. You can sort of see it if you turn up the brightness on your TV.

0:18: Suddenly, fire rains down on the undead. What?? Where did that fire come from? It can’t possibly be from the flaming-sphere-slinging catapults! Sure, if those had been BEHIND the infantry, they could still be operational and toasting undead hordes, but what genius could possibly have drawn that battle plan up? Since the catapults were in front of the infantry, they’re presumably destroyed now, or else in the hands of the undead.

So where’s the fire from? The Red Woman casting a spell? Nope, she already used up most of her mana points on the Dothraki gambit. So what is it?

It’s Dany riding her dragon! Hooray!

And now it’s time to TALK ABOUT DANY AND HER DRAGONS. Saddle up!

Paul: Hold on. I just thought of one more thing to say about the Dothraki.

Rory: Really? We’ve got to move things along here, it’s…

Paul: This is related to Dany and her dragons. But I can’t talk about it without talking more about the Dothraki.

Rory: Why didn’t the dragons help with the Dothraki charge, right?

Paul: Why didn’t the dragons help with the Dothraki charge?

Rory: Right. If you are going to send them right into the thick of things, maybe fly some of those dragons in to help? They’re not doing anything anyway. Having your best guys charge the enemy while you provide air cover with dragons is ALMOST a plan, but what we saw was pretty pathetic.

Paul: The show runners addressed these strategy issues in the behind-the-scenes segment after the show, which I watched with an ironic smirk plastered on my face. The plan, they said, was to keep the dragons out of the combat until the Night King’s ice dragon arrived, and then attack it two dragons to one.

Rory: Wouldn’t a good way to goad the Night King into showing himself be to kill a bunch of his undead army?

Paul: You’d think! If you want to draw out the enemy army’s reserves, you make it hard for the enemy army. If you make it easy, the reserves don’t need to be committed. That’s what reserves are for – helping out where they are needed!

If the wights alone can slaughter all the mortals, an intelligent Night King won’t join the fight, won’t unleash the White Walkers, and won’t get his dragon involved. He won’t need to.

If Dany and Jon really want to draw out the enemy dragon, they should fly overhead, roasting wights from the safety of the air. If the Dothraki are used at all, they should be used as mobile horse archers supporting the dragonfire attacks. In order to preserve his army, the Night King would be forced to deploy his dragon, or at least come out himself to throw his little ice javelins.

So when Dany and Jon are sitting on a hill watching their troops be slaughtered, they’re not only sacrificing their troops’ lives, they’re accomplishing the opposite of what they intend.

What bothers me is not just that Dany is being dumb by staying out of the fight. Plenty of people make mistakes in battle. What bothers me is that Dany is doing something that Dany would never do.

So Dany is in charge here, right? She’s the Queen, and her dragons roast traitors. Presumably she gets the final say in the battle plan. Here’s what we know about Dany.

  1. She’s incredibly loyal to those who are loyal to her.

  2. She really wants the Iron Throne, and she’s willing to play the Game to get it. She’s ruthless.

Imagine that such a ruler comes across the sea with two incredibly powerful and loyal armies: the Dothraki and the Unsullied. She joins together with a ragtag army of Northerners to make a final stand against a fierce opponent.

For some reason (or for no reason at all), her advisors say, “We need you to sit on your dragon doing nothing. To lure out the bad dragon, sure. In the meantime, we think it would be fun to piss away one of our three armies by sending them off in an unsupported charge. Their sacrifice will not be in vain, since this will kill 30 seconds or so of otherwise tedious waiting.”

If, for some reason, Dany agrees to this plan, which army do you think she is going to put on the front line to attack alone? The Dothraki, fiercely loyal to her alone? The Unsullied, fiercely loyal to her alone? Or the Northerners, who are loyal to uppity and borderline-treasonous Jon and Sansa; who don’t really want her here; and who are always shooting evil looks at Gray Worm? You know who she’d put in the very frontest of front lines? Not the Dothraki, whom she needs to conquer Westeros. The Damn Yankees.

Having Dany agree to send in her cavalry isn’t just a betrayal of the Dothraki, it’s a misreading of Dany’s character.

Rory: Let’s see… anything else to say about the dragons before we move on?

Paul: Oh yeah. Finally, Dany has had enough of watching troops get slaughtered. Against Jon’s advice, she hops on a dragon and swoops down to provide air support for the army. For the army of the NORTH. That first burst of dragonfire is frying wights near Ser Jaime and the rest, not near Gray Worm and the Unsullied. Why is Dany consistently protecting Jon Snow’s power base at the cost of her own? Only because the show runners like those guys better.


Paul: Ok, one more thing. Jon gets a dragon? Why? He’s had one riding lesson ever. Is the dragon more formidable with Jon aboard? Can Jon give it orders? Is Jon’s judgement any better than the dragon’s? What exactly is Jon bringing to the table here?

OK, I think that covers most of the major problems with the dragons through the first 20 minutes. Let’s get back to recap.

0:20: So everything starts out fine, guys. Lots of undead dying, then a creepy frozen mist mixing everything up and sowing confusion. A battle filled with chaotic fighting. People cowering in the crypt. Totally fine.

0:24: Things seem to not be going great, so the order is sent to fall back.

Rory: What were they doing outside the gate to begin with? This fallback order really sends that home. Guys, you could have done such a more effective stand if you’d had your full forces guarding the castle walls. You knew they were going to attack anyway, right? Now, in history, occasionally when there was a siege, the army would march out to meet their enemy in battle. But that’s usually because they had some belief they could win, and also, sieges kind of suck. Like if you don’t expect reinforcements, a siege is just a slow death so you might as well fight it out. But if you KNOW your enemy is going to storm the castle, just go to the most defensible spot possible!

Paul: Sure, you might want to avoid being starved out in a typical siege. In a typical siege, your supply lines are cut so you can’t get food.

This is not a typical siege. This is a siege in the North, in winter, on Westeros. There are no supply lines. There’s no food anywhere, and there won’t be any more grown for like 10 years or whatever! The food in Winterfell is all the food that the good guys are going to get. In a northern Westeros winter, everyone holes up in their castles and they don’t come out till spring. Winter itself is already besieging them.

Now, it may be that the human forces have more mouths to feed than Winterfell can support, and they need to get some of their troops slaughtered so that they can feed the rest. That may be. But that’s a pretty cold-blooded calculation, and a brutal reason to send thousands of troops to their deaths. Do you think Jon or Dany would make that call?

Paul: Also, why were the walls not manned from the beginning? You know who would have been great up on the castle walls? DOTHRAKI ARCHERS. I’m sorry, I just can’t let this go. According to the Game of Thrones wiki, Dothraki bows are really good. Sounds like that would be useful, especially if they were firing flaming or dragonglass arrows.

0:27: The order is given to “light the trench”

Rory: So I guess the dragons are supposed to light the firewood-filled trench around the castle, and they had no back up plan? Shouldn’t this thing be covered in pitch and super easy to light? This shouldn’t be a thing where if your primary asset in the battle is busy (hopefully fighting the Night King, which is PLAN A), you have no effective way to light a stupid trench. If your fallback plan involves shooting flaming arrows at something and half heartedly grabbing a couple torches, that’s pretty grim.

Paul: I thought that they were having trouble lighting the trench because of the white walkers’ cold magic, which they didn’t anticipate. I’m not going to come down hard on anybody for that. Sure, I’m sure that someone might have known that the white walkers have special magical cold abilities, but I can excuse them for not knowing exactly how much extra kindling they needed. Sometimes when your enemy uses magic on you, you just have to take it on the chin. Game of Thrones, you get a pass. FOR THIS.

0:30: Yay, Melisandre lights the trench JUST IN TIME.

Rory: Golly, that took a while. I mean, objectively, lighting a giant fire is pretty impressive, I guess, but using magic to act as a glorified torch just feels a little uninspired. That flaming trench did look pretty cool though.

Paul: Great, now there’s a wall of fire around Winterfell! THE CASTLE IS SAVED!

Wait, what is this wall of fire supposed to do, anyway? There’s maybe enough fuel to burn for, what, two hours? What’s the point of a two-hour delay before the fire goes out? If there were an objective to survive till dawn, this might make sense. No one has mentioned any such goal. In this battle, I don’t think that a few hours makes a difference one way or another. In fact, the Westeronians seem to be trying to accelerate their demise in any way they can.

Rory: Why were there no traps? In a previous episode, we saw people preparing these trenches and fire pits and stuff, and I thought, oh great, traps. Hidden pit filled with oil, wights fall in, humans light it on fire.

Paul: Why did they light the wall BEFORE the wights arrived? A flaming obstacle like this can have a few uses:

  1. Burn zombies alive: Wait till the first undead guys are clambering over the barricade, and THEN light it on fire. That way, you inflict a bunch of casualties.
  2. Divide and conquer: Wait till a significant number of zombies are over the barricade, and THEN light it on fire. As above, a bunch of zombies are killed. Furthermore, a manageable number of zombies are now trapped inside the barricade. Then the Unsullied can venture out and slaughter all of these guys without having to face the infinite legions of undead.
  3. Choke point: Have the flaming wall circle the castle except at one well-defended point. Have your best troops there. As the undead shuffle into your kill zone, the Unsullied hold the line while Dothraki on the walls pepper the back ranks with burning dragonglass arrows. Meanwhile, your catapults can be throwing flaming pitch into the rear portion of the wight army. Your catapults are inside the castle, right? You didn’t put them on the front lines or anything?

Instead of doing any of these, the Northerners used the flaming wall in a way that didn’t kill any wights, and even if it delays the wights, that delay isn’t to any purpose.

AND, as it turns out, Melisandre has to use up more mana to get the barrier alight. There goes another of her spell slots used to set something on fire, and once again, it doesn’t appear to do anything useful. Listen, Melisandre, what if you just cast Fireball every round?

0:33: Sansa and Tyrion trade some snark, and Sansa says “you were the best of them” to which Tyrion replies, “what a terrifying thought”. Lol.

0:34: Theon gives a stuttering apology to Bran. Bran says something like “Everything you did was necessary because it led you back home.” And then he wargs into some ravens.

Rory: So this is minor, but I’m kind of tired of people apologizing to Bran. Sometimes I think when you’ve done something that has hit a certain level of fucked up, it’s best just not to talk about it too much. Just kind of decide you’re going to die for that person and let THAT be your apology, you know?

Paul: So Bran wargs into the ravens. Spoilers ahead! The ravens do not do anything in this episode.

From somewhere – maybe from a previous episode, or the after-show commentary, I’ve gotten the idea that Bran needed to warg in order to properly lure the Night King. The Night King detects his magic, or something. So it’s not entirely wasted for Bran to warg into the ravens, even if they don’t do anything.

But why not kill two birds with one stone and do something useful while warging? Here are some things Bran could have done in this episode instead of jack shit, which is what he did.

  1. Warg into the ravens, spy on the enemy troops, report his findings to someone. Bran could have a few messengers who he sends to Sansa with information about enemy tactics. “The wights are approaching the north tower! Send the wildlings to the walls!” “The wights are massing before the gates! Use the catapu–” oh right.
  2. Warg into the dragon Jon is riding. We can be 100% certain that Bran will be more effective than Jon.
  3. Can Bran warg into a wight or white walker? Really, the only way that Bran’s warging really pays off is if he warged into the ravens, found the Night King, jumped into the Night King, and then marched him into the Weirwood to enact Bran’s ridiculous plan.

Rory: Gosh, I just have to cut in here. Have Bran warg into the dragon was something I haven’t thought of and would be legitimately pretty badass. Like maybe the dragon is afraid for some reason, or Jon fell off and can’t do his masterful dragon flying.

0:36: The undead fall on the fire to create a bridge for the rest of them to walk over. The humans decide to man the walls!

Rory: Gosh, these have to be the least flammable undead yet. I thought flame was their key weakness, guys! But I guess they are just SORT OF flammable. Or maybe they burn less when they are lying down?


Also, who would have guessed that the circle of fire would not stymie the undead forever? I mean, it seems like the undead crossed it sooner than they expected, but who even cares? The army of the living wasn’t using the time bought by the barrier for any purpose. They weren’t using the time to put the last touches on a trap, or kill any undead. They weren’t even using the time to man the walls, apparently, saving that job for the last minute.

Rory: They seem to be having trouble manning the walls. Kind of undermanned. A shame the Unsullied took so many casualties standing IN FRONT of the walls since a bunch of disciplined spearmen seem like kind of the perfect force to keep an enemy from scaling your defenses.

Paul: Don’t forget the Dothraki! I’ve heard they have bows. But no, I’m sure that that one blacksmith will do a great job stemming the swarm of undead wall-climbers.

Rory: Also, shouldn’t the walls be the kind of thing you stick a bunch of flaming Valyrian dragonglass in to make them harder to climb? They look totally smooth and, frankly, a joy to climb.

Paul: A+++! Would scale again!

OK, we’re about a third through, and this is basically the end of the “battle tactics” section of the episode. There is a LOT of dumbness to cover in the rest of this episode. So what do you think? Were we too hard on this poor TV show? Not hard enough? I’m extremely interested to hear from the one person in the world who thinks we weren’t hard enough. Either way, let us know if there is anything we missed.

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Twelve country fairs

Mon, 04/22/2019 - 16:57

Last month I wrote up 20 festivals suitable for dazzling your characters on their visit to the big city. Of course, city folk and country folk celebrate very differently, so I’ve also written up 12 country fairs, some of which are stranger and more dangerous than their urban counterparts.

Country Fairs (roll d12):

  1. Pumpkin festival: This pastoral fair features pumpkin-eating, -tossing, and -growing contests, as well as prizes for the best pumpkin-related songs or plays. At dusk, everyone locks themselves inside their houses. This festival is also celebrated by goblins, who put pumpkins on their heads and invade human villages after dark, committing vandalism and mischief and trying to lure people out of their homes and carry them away. Possible encounters with entertainers, halfling scouts, pumpkin-tossing champions, and goblins with pumpkins on their heads.
  2. Flower fair: a less watered-down version of the city Flower Festival: it’s usually, but not always, held in the spring. It features dancing, feasting, ancient traditions and songs that no one understands anymore. Bizarre, ancient activities include “Tie a Pig to a Goose” and “Wear as Many Lit Candles as Possible”. Druids choose two monarchs of beauty, who perform a secret rite to renew the seasons. Possible encounters with druids, green knights, village leader cult fanatics, and entertainers.
  3. Bridal festival: It’s considered lucky to get married on this day: there are usually more prospective brides and grooms than officiants to perform the weddings. Any visiting cleric, druid, or paladin will be begged to perform at least one wedding. Other visitors may be proposed to.
  4. Monster night festival: Soft city folk celebrate a jolly and toothless version of this festival, but in the countryside it’s the real deal. It’s taboo to hurt a monster on this day. Instead, villagers ritually praise monsters and leave sacrifices of food and coins near known lairs. In particularly bad years, a youth or two may be left for the monsters as well. Possible encounters: minstrel entertainers, priests, cult fanatics, and monsters of all types: particularly common are ogres, perytons, and hags.
  5. Pie fair: Prizes for pie eating, throwing, and baking. People will do anything to get their hands on each others’ closely guarded baking secrets. Possible encounters: halflings, champion pie throwers, hags with a sweet tooth.
  6. Mistletoe festival. Worshipers partake in druidic rituals, dances, and hunts, and, in secret, older and darker rites. Possible encounters: elves, druids, scouts, cultists.
  7. Goblin market: a traveling fair run by elf and fairy folk of dubious morality. For sale are beautiful but inexpensive things and minor magic items. Items can be bought for gold or favors. Attracts elves, pixies, entertainers, alchemists, merchants, goblins, green hags in disguise, and wicked fairies.
  8. The bastards’ fair: Uninvited and unannounced thugs, thieves, assassins, and other rogues descend on a community for a few days, expecting to be fed. Criminals use the fair to make underworld contacts, fence goods, and hire assassins.
  9. The village games: Village champions are crowned in wrestling, racing, dagger throwing, wild horse riding, poetry, singing, and other contests. Usually features rivalries between local champions and itinerant adventurers.
  10. Devil’s dance: People dress like devils and commit innocent mischief, acting rude and committing minor pranks. At dusk there is a country dance. In troubled villages which harbor actual cultists, green hags or evil warlocks, mischief can be anything but innocent and may claim lives.
  11. Picklefest: Who can make or eat the sourest pickle? Who can best extol the virtues of the pickle in story and song? Pickles are hung from trees, given as gifts, and gathered in straw baskets by children. Possible encounters: hungry halflings, dwarves, and local champions with cast-iron stomachs, all eager to test their mettle in the pickle-eating championships; gamblers filling out their brackets.
  12. The great hunt: On this day, sacred to a nature god, foresters hunt game such as deer, farmers hunt pests such as foxes and crows, and soldiers and nobles hunt monsters. Vengeful folk sometimes choose this day to hunt their enemies. The vengeful dead sometimes return as revenants. Possible encounters: scouts, nobles, assassins, revenants.
Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Twenty city festivals

Thu, 03/21/2019 - 15:00

Festivals make a great backdrop for adventures: they’re one of my most-used adventure elements. They’re a fun way to share your world-building with the players. There’s no better way to showcase a religion, city, or fantasy culture than through its bizarre celebrations.

Festivals often include contests, which give players a menu of optional things to do (what high-Con character can resist a pie-eating contest?). Contests are great because they’re one of the few ways you can introduce an NPC rival who doesn’t immediately die in combat.

Next time your characters head to the big city, have them wander into a festival. Here are 20 festivals, ranging from silly to sinister. I’ve tried to give each celebration a story hook, a contest or two, a threat, or something else for the characters to do.

City Festivals (roll d20):

  1. Bonfire festival: A traditional time for dancing, firelight, and the occasional arson. Rival adventuring groups run an anything-goes relay race through the city, with each party member carrying the torch through a neighborhood: the race is lost if the party’s torch goes out. Possible encounters with entertainers, apprentice mages, thieves, and racing adventurers.
  2. Festival of gift-giving: Everyone gives a present to a close friend. Merchants are everywhere. It’s easier than usual to find magic items and luxuries for sale, but they’re priced higher than usual.
  3. Fortune’s fool festival: (Might instead be named after your pantheon’s trickster god.) Everyone wears masks. A traditional time for romances, assassinations, and practical jokes, each of which are generally accompanied by the festival’s irritating catch-phrase (such as “Fortune’s fool!”). Possible encounters with spies, assassins, entertainers, and slumming nobles in masks.
  4. War festival: (Might be named after your pantheon’s war god.) Jousts and tournaments. Celebrants drape soldiers and adventurers with garlands. Anyone who defeats someone else in a joust, tournament, or duel may take the loser’s garlands. Possible encounters with knights, veterans, gladiators, and expert duelists.
  5. Magical festival: The city is lit with Dancing Lights, Faerie Fire, Pyrotechnics, and dangerous alchemical explosions. Spellcasters are expected to entertain the citizens with dazzling magic shows. Possible encounters with mages, alchemists, and crowds demanding entertainment.
  6. Flower festival: A traditional time for flowers and feasts. Each neighborhood chooses two Champions of Beauty to compete in a city-wide dance contest; the winners get money and their neighborhood gets glory. Possible encounters with entertainers, neighborhood leaders looking for contestants, and beautiful people of all walks of life.
  7. Midnight festival: It’s a somber festival with lots of chanting. On the plus side, if the midnight rites are not interrupted, the city is safe from undead plagues for another year! Possible encounters with priests, acolytes, holy knights, and the occasional disruptive undead.
  8. Festival of life: (Might be named after your pantheon’s life god.) Clerics are expected to cast healing spells for free on this day; people try to outdo each other in good deeds. Possible encounters with priests, holy knights, and sick and injured people looking for healing.
  9. Festival of shadows: Honest folk stay indoors while thieves, vampires, necromancer mages, and the like rule the streets for the day.
  10. Storm festival: (Might be named after your pantheon’s tempest god.) Rain or shine (preferably rain), there are war dances, feats of strength and drinking, music contests, and challenges to unarmed combat. Possible encounters with barbarian warriors, wrestlers, and skalds.
  11. Day of mourning: A gloomy holiday commemorating a tragic historical or mythological event. Donations are given to worthy causes. Guards impose small fines for laughing, celebrating, wearing bright clothes, and the like. Possible encounters: Nobles giving alms, guards imposing fines, paladins in grim parades.
  12. Victory festival: The city celebrates its founding or some historical success in battle. A day of parades, patriotism, and traffic. Parades sometimes turn into riots between rival groups celebrating different victories. Possible encounters: veterans, angry mobs, suspiciously well-armed parades.
  13. Brewer’s festival: Beer is free. Traditionally a day for merry-making, drinking contests, brawls, and being robbed while unconscious. Possible encounters: drunkards, human soldiers, dwarves, tavern brawlers, and opportunistic thieves.
  14. Topsy Turvy festival: Nobles wear rags and merchants provide feasts for the poor. A randomly-selected prisoner is pardoned, released from the dungeon, and made king or queen for a day, which is usually fine, but there have been occasions where it wasn’t fine. Possible encounters: nobles in rags, feasting crowds, kids bossing around parents, or the King for a Day: possibly a pardoned assassin, political prisoner, or an old enemy of the PCs.
  15. Faerie festival: People wear masks and glitter, play practical jokes, and give anonymous gifts. Possible encounters: entertainers, nobles, and visiting faerie folk (good and evil) who are serious about practical jokes and gifts.
  16. Hero’s feast: Veterans and adventurers are celebrated, feasted, serenaded, and showered with gifts by those they have helped in the past. Possible encounters: veterans and adventurers of all sorts, generous merchants and nobles, and archpriests who cast Hero’s Feast for worthy heroes.
  17. Monster night: People dress up as monsters and wander in torchlit parades. Every year, a few people are killed by real monsters wandering the street undetected. Possible encounters: commoners dressed in realistic monster costumes, werewolves, goblins, and grimalkins (demon cats who can change into panthers).
  18. Candle Night: After sundown, relatives who have passed away are remembered, ghosts walk, and death magic is at its greatest power. Carrying a candle is said to attract good spirits and ward against evil ones. The candles are by no means foolproof. Possible encounters: ghosts, zombies, shadows, necromancers
  19. All gods day: The city’s business is at a standstill as each religion organizes a procession or parade. There are frequent brawls between the processions of rival faiths. Temples compete to exhibit the most impressive displays of divine magic. Attracts: high priests, holy knights, and parades that frequently devolve into angry mobs.
  20. Country Fair: Roll on the Country Fairs table (coming soon)

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