Religion in Your Campaign – Festivals and Worship

While it’s all very well to talk about Gods and priests, religions are also very much about the ordinary men and women that follow it. How they practice a religion shows how it relates to a community and connects to everyday life. As I mentioned in a previous article, you need not be a faith leader to follow a religion. How a religion operates outside the leaders and powerbrokers often tells us a lot more about the heart of the religion too.

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Picture courtesy of Pixabay.

Worship and festivals are the main way ordinary folk will interact with their faith, and there is a host of possibilities for creating them. So the following offers you some general options you might consider. What works for the religions in your game will very much depend on the gods themselves. Some might only have one festival a year; others might have some sort of celebration on almost a weekly basis.

I should add that by festival I mean a special group activity for the faith community. There are plenty of rituals that might take place in ordinary or even extraordinary worship. But a festival is often not all about worship so much as celebrating the faith itself or its mythology. Having said that, ritual may also take an important place in any festival. So a harvest festival might be celebrated around a special harvest service for instance. It's important to remember that few festivals are completely divorced from worship, unless they are so popular they cross into the secular community too.

In most cases, religious festivals are designed to do one of two things. They either celebrate the religion or remind the adherents to focus on it in daily life. Celebratory festivals offer an excuse to party and let go, and allow people to enjoy their faith. They bring the faith community together in something fun with a message and reminds people they are part of something that is exciting and joyful. Festivals designed to offer focus are usually more sombre, but they need not be sad and depressing. Often they involve accepting a restriction of some form, such as a fast or not performing certain activities. These restrictions help an adherent to appreciate what they have by taking it away for a while. In addition each time the restriction comes up it reminds the adherent of their faith and helps them focus on it during this time.

Seasonal Changes

Most rural faiths will support the changing of the seasons given they are so important in farming. They are also easy markers for each quarter of the year. Of course, the land in question does need to have reasonably distinct seasons. A desert culture will have some sort of season but is pretty much hot throughout the year. The more distinct the seasons, the more likely there will be regular festivals.

Seasonal festivals are usually a celebration in some form, ending the old and bringing in the new. But the tone will very much depend on the season in question. Spring and summer are usually celebrated for their bounty and nice days. But autumn and winter festivals often ask the deities for protection during the harder months. But even winter festivals can be fun, and they are often a brief respite in the midst of hard times.

Births and Deaths of Prophets

Religion is not always just about the gods. Certain prophets, gurus and faith leaders might be so important there are festivals in their honour. The most obvious thing to celebrate or commemorate is their birth and/or death. But if they defeated a demon or ascended to enlightenment or the like, those important life events might be the day picked for their annual remembrance.

The tone of the festival will very much depend on what the person did and how things worked out for them. Some people are remembered as a warning rather than an example. It is also important to note these festivals might also be quite local. Few people become renowned throughout the religion if it is especially widespread. This means many such festivals might be local for a particular village or town. This might prove confusing for adherents of the faith who are outsiders and might not even have heard of this local celebrity.

Fertility Rites

While they are often wrapped up in celebrations of spring or summer, many faiths have rituals and festivals based around bringing more children into the world. Having or not having children is something many people in the community will consider a high priority and many faiths are big fans of creating new potential worshipers.

The festivals themselves will depend on the deity in question and how liberated the community is. It might be something symbolic, like giving each other eggs, to a particular night everyone makes a point of hooking up with anyone they fancy. Depending how prudish any outsiders are they may find such festivals, even (or especially) in their god’s name very concerning and confusing.

Times of Torment

Religious myths often have a prophet or avatar spending time in a wilderness or suffering in some way to prove their faith, devotion or willpower in the face of adversity. So these times are often celebrated in a festival by asking the adherents to suffer in a similar way. The idea is to experience something of what the prophet suffered so they might understand what was sacrificed for them. The most common of these is fasting for a certain time. But it might be to abstain from something, such as sex, modern conveniences, fighting or perhaps magic. If the prophet was hurt in some way adherents might be expected to draw blood in some way like pricking a finger.

While it won’t be especially fun to abstain from something, the rules of the faith will usually make sure it isn’t problematic. So you might have to fast but only until sundown, and drinking water is fine, rather than not eating or drinking for days at a time. This is to avoid people doing themselves serious damage, although some adherents might often take things too far to ‘prove their faith’.

The end of the period of abstention will usually be met with some sort of celebration. After all, if you’ve not eaten for the day you will want to have a meal. This might be with your family or even a large community affair. Given the point of such festivals is to make you aware of what you have, there is nothing wrong in celebrating the opportunity to indulge again, and many will say it feels so much better after having missed it.

Gift Giving

Everyone likes presents and many faiths offer an opportunity to exchange gifts with friends and family. This might be everyone all at once or staged out over certain days. For instance, one festival might be for husbands to give presents to their wives, then on a later day, wives must offer gifts to their husbands. This might extend to any group, with days for giving gifts to children, elderly relatives, brothers and sisters etc. The type of gift may also be part of the tradition as well. You might give clothes just before winter or fruit after a harvest. Some might also have a day to give gifts to the dead, either in some sort of summoning or simply by placing something perishable on their grave. Gift festivals can be about pretty much anything, although celebrating birthdays (of prophets) or ancient times of plenty are the most commonplace.

Pilgrimage

Many religions respect the act of pilgrimage to a holy place. Often this is done in a certain way to make sure the journey is just as important as arriving at the holy site. But there may be certain times of the year that a pilgrimage to a particular place is more blessed or auspicious. The holy site in question will then have a few logistical problems to manage when its visitor numbers vastly increase. They might need to take on more stewards and helpers, and maybe a few mercenaries to keep tempers under control as pilgrims get frustrated waiting to reach the holy site.

Light

Light is a powerful force and many faiths have candlelight festivals and ceremonies. Lighting candles often represents the faith forcing back the darkness and reminds the adherents of the protection they have following their deity. Some might just underline this aspect of the faith. But if there is a particular story in the religion’s mythology about a hero destroying a demon or returning fire to the people or similar, that might form the basis of a light festival. While some may be quiet affairs, with people praying by candlelight, others might be exceptionally bright, with fireworks and lanterns all over the place to banish the darkness.

Children

Many rituals and acts of faith can be rather boring for children. Lots of chanting or sitting quietly rarely excites them. So it is not uncommon for a faith to have festivals particularity aimed at children. Such festivals tend to be bright and fun, often involving aspects of light and gift giving festivals. But they will also have a focus on children and place them at the centre of any rituals. This might be singing together, leading a prayer or getting to light things (kids love fire!). There will often be many special positions children can compete against each other to be chosen for, such as festival king or queen or the one who gets to light the candles or read the special speech.

Storytelling

There is usually a mythology to a religion, and the stories it contains are often celebrated in theatre and performance. This is especially the case for stories of action and excitement, such as a hero slaying a demon or a dragon. Not only might people watch performances of the event in question, but they might tell the story to each other and also dress up as characters from the tales.

This only really touches the surface of the potential festivals, as many will depend on the faith in question. But they are often commonplace as they offer something for adherents to look forward to and build the religious calendar through the year. Many communities will use the festivals, and not the months and days, to mark the passage of the years.

Each of these ideas should also be modified to the style and domain of the deity in the faith. Some festivals are more appropriate for certain gods than others. So a god of farming or the land will place a lot of importance on a seasonal harvest festival. But that doesn’t mean such a festival is limited to only gods of the earth. A fire god might see it as a time of the sun’s great power and bounty for instance. So when looking at these examples, don’t just consider which ones might apply. Instead, try and see how each of them might be used for the god in question. You might find some surprising combinations.
 
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Andrew Peregrine

Andrew Peregrine

aco175

Legend
20+ years ago I tried to make a calendar with all the FR gods and their festival days marked on a campaign calendar. It worked some with the PCs coming into a town on the festival of whoever and then later with the Shieldmeet holiday on that calendar. It did give a lot of local flavor to the world, but the work of gathering and putting together a local festival may not have been worth it.

Someone has likely made a festival book describing most of what is listed in the OP with local flavorings. Spring holidays with birth and marriage, and farm planting. It would also tie to a local hero with a jousting tournament. Perhaps jousting is tied to the King and only he can declare a joust. Now you are adding more campaign flavor. I would buy something like that.

A quick google gave me these, I guess I have no excuse now.

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Mannahnin

Scion of Murgen (He/Him)
Seasonal Changes
Most rural faiths will support the changing of the seasons given they are so important in farming. They are also easy markers for each quarter of the year. Of course, the land in question does need to have reasonably distinct seasons. A desert culture will have some sort of season but is pretty much hot throughout the year. The more distinct the seasons, the more likely there will be regular festivals.

Seasonal festivals are usually a celebration in some form, ending the old and bringing in the new. But the tone will very much depend on the season in question. Spring and summer are usually celebrated for their bounty and nice days. But autumn and winter festivals often ask the deities for protection during the harder months. But even winter festivals can be fun, and they are often a brief respite in the midst of hard times.

Light

Light is a powerful force and many faiths have candlelight festivals and ceremonies. Lighting candles often represents the faith forcing back the darkness and reminds the adherents of the protection they have following their deity. Some might just underline this aspect of the faith. But if there is a particular story in the religion’s mythology about a hero destroying a demon or returning fire to the people or similar, that might form the basis of a light festival. While some may be quiet affairs, with people praying by candlelight, others might be exceptionally bright, with fireworks and lanterns all over the place to banish the darkness.
Apropos of today, combining these two are the obvious Summer and Winter Solstices.

Assuming one's campaign world has lengthening and shortening days, the longest day and the shortest day (return of the light/beginning of the lengthening days again) are consistently holy and important occasions in many cultures.
 

My home brew campaign world has a fairly complex religious system. The divines (cleric and law and good) have 12 gods and the church is set up similar to the catholic church with in the middle ages. It has a lot if influence and hundreds of saints. The primal (druid and chaos) is on the decline and worship power nature spirits. There is a subset of falen divine the devils (cleric law and evil).

Anyway it has a bunch of major and minor festivals. I have ran probably 300 sessions in this world over 4 campaigns and for the most part the players get into the church dynamic but festivals get ignored. The exception being the one session we played that was 100 RP the players just down timing at a festival.
 

20+ years ago I tried to make a calendar with all the FR gods and their festival days marked on a campaign calendar. It worked some with the PCs coming into a town on the festival of whoever and then later with the Shieldmeet holiday on that calendar. It did give a lot of local flavor to the world, but the work of gathering and putting together a local festival may not have been worth it.

Someone has likely made a festival book describing most of what is listed in the OP with local flavorings. Spring holidays with birth and marriage, and farm planting. It would also tie to a local hero with a jousting tournament. Perhaps jousting is tied to the King and only he can declare a joust. Now you are adding more campaign flavor. I would buy something like that.

A quick google gave me these, I guess I have no excuse now.

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View attachment 251576 View attachment 251577

View attachment 251578 View attachment 251579
Someone came up with a FR calendar with all the holy days on it. I dont recall where I got from or who made but I'll see if I can find it.
 

Mannahnin

Scion of Murgen (He/Him)
The last time I did a world-specific calendar I made the main holy days interstitial days between months. I went lazy and made standardized 30 day months, kept a 28 day lunar cycle, and used the 5 extra days for those "bonus" holy days, though there were still some festivals which fell on "regular" days.
 

Ixal

Adventurer
Festivals can be the main part people interact with religion, but they don't have to.
Look for example at ancient Greek and Roman religion. The way most people interacted with them were not through festivals but through rites and sacrifices on a near daily bases.
Sure some of them were so common that they took on the character of a festival like in spring when basically everyone sacrifices for fertile fields (but in some cases this did not turn into a festival, but meant a more important person must do the sacrifice for everyone). But when the head of the household sacrifices a coup of milk so that his food in his storage doesn't rot it hardly is a festival but part of the chores you have to do. Yet that was the way most Romans interacted with religion .
 

Festivals can be the main part people interact with religion, but they don't have to.
Look for example at ancient Greek and Roman religion. The way most people interacted with them were not through festivals but through rites and sacrifices on a near daily bases.
Sure some of them were so common that they took on the character of a festival like in spring when basically everyone sacrifices for fertile fields (but in some cases this did not turn into a festival, but meant a more important person must do the sacrifice for everyone). But when the head of the household sacrifices a coup of milk so that his food in his storage doesn't rot it hardly is a festival but part of the chores you have to do. Yet that was the way most Romans interacted with religion .

Yeah, religion was a lot more transactional in the ancient world. You sacrificed to the god/dess of harvests for a harvest, to the god/dess of hunting or animals to bring down game to eat, to the god/dess of fertility for children, to the god/dess of health so they'd survive childhood diseases, and so on.
 

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