This is part 17 of 17 of the series: Adventure Building... in Theory

A Very Special Adventure

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Well, it’s December. And that means it’s THAT time of the year again. You know, the time of year when I receive a bunch of e-mails and messages about how to run a good Christmas-themed Dungeons & Dragons or Pathfinder game. I’ve gotten about half a dozen of them in the last two weeks or so. And many more will come. It’s my second favorite time of the year. My first being January through April when people are constantly asking me – as a former accountant – for free tax advice and consultation. Usually, it’s obnoxious internet content creators who are trying to finish up their taxes before they jump back online and continue bitching about how artists are so maligned because they are the only people who are ever asked to provide professional services for free. Assholes.

Guess what, kids? Every professional who has ever had a useful skill has had that skill undervalued by others who think anything they can’t do must be easy and therefore isn’t worth paying for. Every. One. Stop bitching.

Anyway, Christmas adventures. I probably shouldn’t tackle this today because I am NOT in the mood.

… okay. Stop. Hold on.

Be Ye Warned

I started writing this article yesterday. Well, yesterday for me. And the above snowballed into the rantiest, angriest Long, Rambling Introduction™ I’ve typed in a long time. So, I highlighted the whole thing and hit delete. I wasn’t in the mood. And I shouldn’t have typed it. But the reason that my introduction turned into that is that I love Christmas. I love holidays in general. I treasure them. And SOME PEOPLE on the Internet are so full of personal issues that they not only hate holidays, they have to ruin them for everybody else. Now, for me to discuss Christmas adventures in a proper way, I have to actually discuss Christmas. And I have to discuss it as if it actually means things and has value. Which it does and it does. And I realize you may not share that view. That’s fine. That’s your problem. But I don’t care. If you think Christmas is terrible or holidays are terrible or this country is terrible or religion is terrible or anything else, keep it to yourself. Or else, go crap that garbage out on your own website. If you want to discuss how to make good holiday adventures or talk about different holiday themes, come on in. If you want to shit on holidays, get lost. Because I will delete your comment and ban you. I just saved you three paragraphs of ranting against assholes on the Internet who ruin every holiday with anti-religious, anti-American, overly-political-correct horseshit. Don’t make me regret cutting it out. Go be miserable and hateful somewhere else.

Nevermind. Comments have now been disabled. It only took four hours.

The Ghosts of Christmas Past: My Record with the Holidays

Now, I have a long record of talking about the holidays on various platforms. Years ago, when Twitter was still fun and I still bothered with it, I took on the standard “bah humbug” view of holidays for laughs. Satirically. Hyperbolically and to excess. So, people got the impression that The Angry GM hates the holidays. Then, I wrote a rant somewhere – I don’t think it was on this site – about how I hate holiday adventures. And then I weighed in on why Die Hard is NOT a Christmas movie and why it’s a sign that you’re a bad GM if you think it is. Because you fundamentally misunderstand important narrative elements and have no business shepherding a story. That rant was over on the Mad Adventurers Society, a defunct website that no longer exists.

Despite all that, I still get questions every year about writing Christmas adventures. And, to be honest, I kind of feel bad about all of that crap. Because, as I said above, I love Christmas. And I know all of the people who ask about writing holiday adventures are just asking because they, too, like the holidays. Maybe they even treasure them as I do. And they want to bring them into their games. That’s why I’m writing this article. And that’s who I’m writing it for. Which is why I put that warning above. Because this is a zone for people who LIKE and VALUE holidays and want to bring the good that holidays provide into their game. If you’re not one of those people, this article isn’t for you. Sorry. And also, this isn’t a place for you to discuss why you’re not one of those people. Because all you’ll be doing is wrecking our fun.

So, let me lay down the background here. Because my personal view on Christmas is important, as are movies like Die Hard and Gremlins. It’s also important to note that I’m not elevating Christmas above all holidays. It IS my favorite holiday, but it doesn’t have to be yours. You don’t have to celebrate or believe in Christmas. Maybe, for you, it’s Halloween or Thanksgiving that are the big holidays you want to make games out of. Or, perhaps, you’d like to bring your own cultural heritage into your game by celebrating Rosh Hashanah or the Chinese New Year. It’s all cool. I’m just using Christmas as the example because it’s December, it’s well known and ubiquitous, and it’s my personal favorite. And I get to write about my favorite holidays because it’s my blog.

Let me also establish – just to make sure I’m being completely transparent – that I do not consider myself a religious person. I don’t identify as a follower of any particular religion. As an American, I have been raised in a culture based on Judeo-Christian values and, as a New Englander, I have a particular Protestant bent to my values. I am fairly traditional in my morality and so place a high degree of importance on community, charity, family, and personal responsibility. However, I am also socially liberal and also place a high value on personal freedom and tolerance. I have called myself an atheist in the past, but I waiver back and forth on what I really believe and don’t believe I have all the answers yet. I am not qualified to speak on the religious aspects of Christmas, but I’m going to anyway because the religious aspects have informed the secular, cultural aspects in much the same way that religious values informed the secular development of culture in the United States. In any case, I mean no disrespect to anyone’s deeply held beliefs. And if I say something wrong from a religious standpoint, it comes from a position of muddy understanding, not disrespect or hostility.

I also find it really sad that I have learned – from experience – that the only way to discuss holidays on the Internet is to have all these disclaimers first. And also have the power to ban anyone from the forum.

The Ghost of Christmas Present: What Makes a Christmas Story a Christmas Story

So, why is all of that crap remotely important when discussing something as simple as writing a holiday-themed adventure for your D&D group? Well, it’s precisely because writing a Christmas adventure takes more than a Christmas treant, some snow golems, and an awkward encounter between high elves and Christmas elves which speaks of a deeply embarrassing schism in the race. And movies like Die Hard and Gremlins illustrate that perfectly. Moreover, the fact that some people call Die Hard their favorite Christmas movie shows that people don’t really understand why.

Die Hard and Gremlins are movies that are set against the backdrop of Christmas. And, in both cases, that’s done for juxtaposition. It’s done to sort of backlight what’s going on in the movie, to make it stand out more. The Gremlins’ antics are just infinitely worse because they are surrounded by the trappings of Christmas. And Die Hard is a terribly dark film and the fact that a company like Nakatomi – an icon of capitalist evil – has the gall to have a Christmas party is a bit twisted. Sure, Nakatomi wasn’t as bad as the Klaxon Oil Corporation in the book and how their business transformed McClane’s wife was downplayed as well, but they were still pretty bad. And then there were the terrorists who were actually worse than terrorists because they were just thieves pretending that they had some kind of cause. Setting that against a Christmas backdrop is just about turning up the contrast. The movies aren’t about Christmas.

Not saying there’s anything wrong with that. I love Die Hard. And Gremlins. And, in fact, they are some of my favorite movies to watch at Christmastime. But they aren’t Christmas movies because they aren’t ABOUT Christmas. They use Christmas as a backdrop. As a backlight.

Other movies use Christmas as a decoration. Where my guilty pleasure is movies that use Christmas as a backdrop, The Tiny GM loves all of those romantic movies that take place during the holidays and involve someone finding love in unlikely and comedic circumstances at Christmas. Those movies aren’t Christmas movies either. They are romantic comedies. And setting them at Christmastime amplifies the emotions. It’s hard to be alone during the holidays when it feels like everyone around you has someone. And it’s wonderful to find love at the holidays because that’s a time when miracles should happen. See? The emotions go up to 11. But they aren’t ABOUT Christmas either. And, again, there’s nothing wrong with that.

Now, most holiday-themed RPG adventures fall into one of those two camps: either they use Christmas as a backdrop to throw what’s happening into sharp relief or they use Christmas as a decoration to amplify what’s happening. But the adventure is usually about something else. And it’s usually the same stuff that all RPG adventures are about.

What makes a Christmas movie – or any holiday movie – a true Christmas movie? Well, the movie deals with themes that are central to the holiday. For example, the themes that are central to Christmas, involve family and community; involve charity and compassion; and involve hope, faith, and optimism. Obviously, the Ur-example is Charles Dickens’ A Muppet Christmas Carol. A lonely, bitter, selfish old man learns the value of love, charity, and hope from a pig, a frog, and a whatever. And that learning thing is usually a big part of the movie. For example, in John Grisham’s Christmas with the Kranks – seriously, John Grisham wrote the book Skipping Christmas on which that movie was based – in Christmas with the Kranks a couple is struggling to cope with their empty home now that their daughter has gone away to college. Seeing no point in celebrating Christmas without their daughter, they decide to skip Christmas and take a cruise. Gradually, they learn that Christmas isn’t just about kids, it’s also about communities coming together and taking care of those less fortunate and giving to those in need and reaching out to people who are suffering. They also learn that families change over time, but they are never truly gone, that family is a continuity. Also, there’s a lot of funny slapstick.

For that matter, take the completely puerile National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, which is the story about a dedicated father whose memories of his own childhood Christmases drives him to ridiculous ends to make all of the people he loves happy with the greatest Christmas celebration ever. He becomes fixated on gifts, decorations, and all of the trappings rather than on the people around him. And that leads to disaster. Ultimately, in a very brief, subtle scene, his father reveals that all of his own Christmases felt like disasters too and his father-in-law finally accepts him as a good, dedicated father. And then the family gets attacked by the SWAT team. Funny as Hell, but also with a serious message at its heart.

And it’s those things that make a Christmas movie a Christmas movie. In fact, one of the patterns in most classic Christmas movies is that the main character needs to learn – or be reminded – of precisely the things that lie at the heart of Christmas. Family, charity, and faith. And, to clarify, I don’t mean faith in the religious sense necessarily. That is a part of it. But faith is also a belief that, if you do the right things and remain hopeful, you’ll live the best life you can live. Luther Crank accepting his new son-in-law-to-be and the couple looking forward to their family growing? That’s faith. It’s hope. It’s optimism.

I can keep playing this game. Home Alone is about a mother and son who are both lost in their ways meeting in the middle and realizing what’s really important. The son doesn’t value his family, the mother is so wrapped up in the spectacle of the holiday she literally loses her son, and they both have a journey that forces them to recognize what they’ve lost because. And Kevin also only gains the help he needs when he goes into a church, admits his failings, and reaches out charitably to a man who is also alone on Christmas. That’s the guy who literally saves the kid’s life. Do you get it?

You can argue that Die Hard is about a guy trying to save his family. Yeah. That’s kind of true. But he knows the value of his family from the beginning. It’s not like he has to learn. It’s more about a guy stepping up and doing his duty, putting himself in danger because lives are on the line, even if those lives are pretty crappy and the people who are supposed to be on his side are corrupt and obstructive. Honestly, it’s a movie about how the modern world destroys families, how important a good father is, and how you do your duty no matter how crappy the world and the people around you become. And it’s also about how doing your duty will leave you scarred, injured, and depressed, but you do it anyway. Nice message, but not a Christmas message.

Gremlins is about a dad who gives a Christmas gift to his kid and the Christmas gift accidentally turns into a horrible monster. The dad didn’t do anything wrong. He didn’t steal the Mogwai. That Chinese kid sold it to him fair and square. He didn’t ignore the rules. And he didn’t lose focus on Christmas. He was just an overworked dad who was doing his best to get home for Christmas, but to also make sure he had enough money to put food on the table. And he wanted to bring his son a gift and thought the Mogwai was pretty cool. Sure, if there had been some scenes about how the dad always missed Christmas and a scene of the dad actually stealing the Mogwai in order to buy forgiveness and not realizing the importance of family, then the whole Gremlin incident becomes the disaster that grew out of his failings.

The other thing to note is that movies are rarely about one thing. There’s lots of commentary in Die Hard, for example. There’s a bit on family and masculine duty, there’s a bit on business and corporate greed, there’s a bit on the dangers of blind ambition, there’s commentary about the changing nature of American pop culture and art, and so on. But only the little bit about family is really connected to Christmas. Whereas, in movies like Christmas with the Cranks and A Christmas Carol, most or all of the themes are directly related to the holiday.

The Ghost of Christmas Future: How to Build a Holiday Adventure

The key to a good holiday adventure is making sure the adventure is ABOUT the things that the holiday are ABOUT. And that, ultimately, the things the holiday is about are shown to be positive things. And you can’t get by with just one thing. You need to have several. That means that to start, you have to figure out what the holiday is about.

Now, you can CLAIM a holiday is about anything. And that’s a problem. Because you’re doing this for an audience. You’ve got players. So, whatever you decide to make the adventure about, if you want it to feel like a Christmas adventure, the adventure has to be ABOUT Christmas TO THEM. You can decide that, to you, Christmas isn’t about family at all. It’s about friends and parties and, I don’t know, finding a sex partner. Like the sort of Christmas special something like Sex in the City would have. I think. I don’t really know.

My point is, this isn’t one of those places where “your interpretation” is just as good as anyone else’s. Like it or not, there’s some commonly accepted views on what Christmas is and is not about. There is room for discussion and there’s some variation. For example, there’s both a Christian and a Secular view of Christmas. While they overlap in a lot of places, they do have one very key difference. Point is, if you’re not the sort of person who can explain why Home Alone actually counts as a holiday movie and Die Hard doesn’t even though they have exactly the same protagonist and central conflict, you’re out of your depth and probably shouldn’t do the Christmas thing. Sorry.

But you can raise your grade by explaining why the correct answer is: “Nightmare Before Christmas is NEITHER a Halloween nor a Christmas movie?”

For Christmas, you’re going to pretty much have to accept either family or community as a central theme. And you probably should accept both. Compassion and charity are both very important. You’re going to need those. And, even if you don’t want to go full-on faith and miracles, you should go with optimism and hope for the future. Your Christmas adventure has to involve some of those and depict each one as a positive force in the world.

Every adventure has a central conflict. Right? I mean, adventures start with a motivation and end with a resolution. So, something has to be done and there’s something in the way. While you can make it as simple as threatening one of those values, it’s usually more interesting if the incitement comes from one of those values being twisted, corrupted, or forgotten and that the central conflict can’t be resolved without one of those values coming into play.

Simple holiday adventures might involve a threat to a poor community or might involve someone being isolated from their family and needing to get home. The heroes might, for example, enter a village in need of heroes. Or they might rescue a soldier who is trying desperately to get home to his family. Or the local shrine has been taken over by a hostile force and that prevents the community from making an annual pilgrimage or ritual observance.

More complex holiday adventures might involve a community that is falling apart because something has brought its citizens into conflict. Or because the citizens have become greedy. Or maybe the priest of a local shrine has become bitter as people have started losing faith and he enlists the heroes to help him make a grand gesture to restore their faith. Essentially casting the heroes as Clark Griswold. Or maybe it’s the heroes themselves who need to remember their virtues. Maybe they are a bunch of greedy murderhobos and you want to teach them the value of Christmas.

Once you’ve found your basic premise – the central conflict – you also need a holiday. You need an expy for Christmas. Self-important killjoys on the Internet love to point out that it’s dumb to have Christmas adventures in worlds that have completely different histories and religions because they wouldn’t celebrate Christmas. As if almost every civilization on Earth doesn’t have holidays and a lot of holidays are very similar across a lot of cultures. Now, I agree it’s silly to celebrate Christmas in Faerun or Festivus in Eberron – f$&%ing Dungeons & Dragons Online – but that doesn’t preclude a holiday LIKE Christmas. One that doesn’t present the same basic values. It doesn’t even have to be a world-wide holiday. A local rite of faith, love, and community dedicated to a particular set of deities is all it takes. But you do NEED the holiday.

Yes, the themes are what make the adventure a holiday adventure a holiday adventure. But those themes don’t come together in joyous synergy without the holiday to tie them together. There’s lots of movies that deal with the same themes as holiday movies. But no one would ever call them holiday movies because the holiday isn’t part of the movie. It’s like this: the same ingredients that make cake also make cookies and cupcakes and all sorts of other things. But you wouldn’t call a cookie a cake. So, yes, you need the holiday.

Now, that can be tricky. If you suddenly spring a holiday on the players at the start of the adventure – “and, by the way, you guys suddenly realize it’s almost Wintertide as you enter the tiny village and observe the wreaths and the candles” – there’s going to be a moment of “oh, we’re doing a holiday special, are we?” Even if your players are totally onboard for holiday adventures, that can be jarring. I find it useful to set up the holiday months in advance. Heck, I usually write it onto my game’s calendar. And, as we start to get close to Christmas, I manipulate the calendar in my game world to get us close to the holiday. Because the holiday should come in the winter. That’s when people need the most faith, hope, and optimism. Which is why Christmas is when it is.

If you can’t do that, though, the next best thing is to make the holiday a local holiday and weave its introduction into the narrative. The bitter priest who wants to throw a grand celebration to restore people’s faith? He has to explain to the heroes that the town used to celebrate this holiday every year and it was wonderful, but now people really don’t believe in it anymore.

So, you have a central conflict based on a holiday theme and you have a good holiday to stand in for Christmas. Or whatever holiday you’re doing. Now, you have to add other themes, conflicts, and subplots. And the best way to do that is to add allies and antagonists who represent those ideas. Or who give the heroes a chance to explore those ideas. Think Home Alone and the old man in the church. Or the polka band. Think of Cousin Eddie, the good-hearted idiot too poor to give his kids a good Christmas, or the father-in-law who thinks Clark is wasting his time. Think of Dan Aykroyd in Christmas with the Kranks, who represents both Luther’s duty to and the benefits from being a part of a strong community. Scenes with those characters and subplots and side quests with those characters either make a point or test the characters’ resolve. Or they reward the characters for understanding the proper values.

Now, here’s the deal: normally I espouse exploring both sides of an issue. That’s what art does. That’s intellectually honest. And some Christmas movies do that well.

Home Alone

has Kevin and the mother meet in the middle at the end, having come at various questions about family from two different extremes. But most Christmas movies also have a very firm message that the values they are espousing – community, family, charity, virtue, hope, and faith – those values are positive values. And a Christmas adventure is not the place to start digging at the downsides of those things. It’s one thing to admit that each one of those has a personal cost, but it’s another to suggest the benefits aren’t worth the cost. In Christmas with the Kranks, we see what a personal annoyance the community can be when it is making demands of us, but, in the end, we also see the big payoff in having such a community around us. There’s no doubt it’s worth the price.

A holiday adventure has to do more than explore its themes, it has to make us feel good about those themes. It has to remind us not to take those things for granted, to be grateful for those things in our lives. Or it has to make us reflect on our failings in those areas and encourage us to make amends. After a good family Christmas movie, you should be moved to call your sister that you don’t always get along with. You shouldn’t be thinking that you’re really better off without her. Holiday stories aren’t artistic, they’re cathartic.

To that end, it’s also a good idea to consider breaking another rule that you’d normally follow and consider allowing the resolution to include a deus ex machina. Well, sort of. Not a real one. But a kind of one. See, it is totally in keeping with the whole Christmas thing. Once a protagonist has learned their lesson, something miraculous happens to resolve the conflict. The reason why I say this isn’t a “real” deus ex machina is that it has been earned. And because it is part of the holiday story genre. When Kevin finally admits his failings and opens up to the scary old number, sharing the wisdom he’s gained over the course of the movie, he has earned the miraculous rescue that comes when he needs it most. Of course, Kevin is also admitting that he doesn’t have the power to solve all of the problems himself. He’ll do everything he can, but he’s asking for help. It’s that faith thing. If you do everything you can, sometimes, things will work out all right. And even if they don’t, at least you did everything you could.

So, imagine this: it’s the holidays and the murderhobo heroes come to an impoverished village under threat of invasion. The villagers appeal to them for help. Maybe they refuse, maybe they don’t. Players don’t always cooperate. Maybe the villagers are bitter. But their priest admonishes them to share what they have with the visitors. So, the villagers extend their hospitality. For the most part. There’re probably a few bitter people who want the heroes to solve their problems for them. For free. See, those people don’t get it either. If the heroes agree to help, the village treats them well and lets them train. They scout out the foe and discover that victory is nearly impossible. It’s very unlikely. The threat is too powerful. If the heroes don’t agree to help, some villagers decide to take matters into their own hands and get themselves brutally killed going to meet the enemy head-on. Hopefully, that spurs them to help. Especially if a particularly friendly villager – maybe the priest himself – is among the dead. But that also shows that the foe is too powerful for the heroes. Now, the heroes have to decide what to do. The best option, presented by the villagers, is for them to flee to a safe holdout, giving up the village, while the heroes hold off the foe as long as they can. Or maybe the heroes try to get the community to stand with them. Again, it’s hard to know how the players will respond. Or maybe the villagers offer to stand with the heroes and the heroes tell the villagers to run. Either way, it’s the last night before the foe arrives. Defenses are prepared. Training happens. Side stories are resolved. Touching conversations happen. And the heroes are invited to their holiday ritual and asked to pray to the gods. And the next day, the heroes go into battle. Assuming they did everything right – choosing self-sacrifice or community or whatever they ultimately chose as the key virtue – something wonderful happens. Many villagers stand with the heroes. Or the heroes chase off the last villagers and stand ready to fight alone and die. And miraculously, the heroes receive some kind of powerful magical blessing or buff that helps them win the day. It doesn’t win for them. But it evens the fight. Now they can win. And maybe they aren’t murderhobos anymore.

And that illustrates part of the trouble of running a holiday adventure. Something you have to be prepared for. Resolving the adventure is less about dice and encounters and more about choices and virtues. Holiday stories are, in effect, morality plays. That means you have to do a lot more improvisational juggling. You have to give yourself lots of moving pieces and several themes to work with so that the adventure can be about charity OR self-sacrifice OR community OR family. It’s easier if the heroes have to teach other the important lessons than if you’re trying to get them to learn, but that depends heavily on the heroes you have. In short, all holiday adventures that are worth a damn are going to be pretty personal to the group that plays them. And you’ve got to be ready to do a lot of shuffling and juggling to make that work.

Basically, you’ve got to be like a bunch of ghosts trying to reform the protagonists and do whatever it takes to emotionally manipulate them. Kill a sick kid, make fun of them, and let them die alone and unloved. Whatever. It. Takes.

Christmas is serious business.