It’s that time of year again – full of gift-giving, family time, shopper frenzies and decorative gourd spiced lattés. It’s also the most regularly irregular season when it comes to managing player schedules for your ongoing campaign.
Whatever celebrations you and your group partake in, there’s little escaping that for the last six weeks of the year, you’re likely to have trouble keeping a regular game night going. As a result, lot of groups in the middle of a campaign will just take the end of the year off, or take a break from the campaign for one-shots in another setting or system. There’s nothing at all wrong with either option.
But there’s a third camp of players who’d still like to play the same characters they’ve invested so much time in. For those folks, there’s an alternative that gets them what they want and still syncs up with the scheduling perils of the season: the Christmas Episode session.
For those living under a rock, the Christmas Episode is a time-honored trope where TV shows (and even some video games) will step aside the regular plot to indulge in a little Christmas spirit, usually focused on gift-giving, reindeer, and jolly old elves, mixed with a lighthearted slice of the drama or danger they’re more accustomed to.
A lot of the joy of a Christmas Episode comes from throwing characters we know and love into unfamiliar circumstances (typically absurd send-ups of the holidays) to see how they’ll react. It gives characters a chance to branch out and behave in ways they never would during the regular season, sometimes even leading to surprising character development that helps shed light on less-often-highlighted aspects of who they are.
The same thing is true when you bring the notion of a Christmas Episode to your ongoing campaign. It gives players a chance to behave in ways they’ve never had the chance to by throwing them into circumstances where consequences are low, the environment is unfamiliar to the characters (but not to the players), and the circumstances are ridiculous enough that no one has to worry about embarrassing themselves. When the whole scenario is goofy from the get-go, players can relax and really let loose.
The Christmas Episode is basically a one-shot customized to your campaign that uses the same world, but side-steps the main plot briefly so that folks can enjoy playing and expanding on the same characters without having to worry if one of the players can’t make it. Christmas Episodes aren’t about moving the plot forward or showering folks with useful loot – they’re about goofy fun to get folks through the holidays (especially if you have players whose journey home for the season is less ‘fun’ and more ‘foreboding’).
Important things for running a Christmas Episode:
- If you do award loot (’tis the season, after all), make it the fun-but-useless kind. Any real gear upgrades would leave anyone who can’t make it due to scheduling feel slighted (and rightly so)
- Pick a holiday theme of your choice and wrap it in the trappings of your game setting (examples below). Having four Jedi sit around a tree exchanging presents and drink eggnog is so-so. The Hutts hijacking a shipment of presents bound for ‘Orphans of the Rebellion’ on the anniversary of the destruction of the first death star? That’s more like it.
- Stay secular if you can, especially if you’re not sure where all your players’ preferences lie. There’s no shortage of celebrations and traditions that don’t immediately hail from religious origins. If you’re going to be doing a comical send-up of tradition, keeping religion out of it should save you from ruining anyone’s holiday
- If the players are at a point in the campaign where they can’t side-quest (say, halfway through a dungeon or in the midst of defending a city under siege), wrapping the one-shot in the context of an untold adventure that happened during a previous downtime (“Remember that time we saved Santa?”) should still let folks have fun without breaking the flow of the regular plot
For example ideas to get you started, see the list (split up by setting) below:
A beloved wizard disappears only a day before he’s supposed to be performing his annual illusions and fireworks show to commemorate the local village’s victory over the kobolds in the nearby mountains years ago.
Following the trail from the wizard’s reindeer-drawn caravan, the PCs discover that the kobolds living deep in the mountains have kidnapped the wizard and are currently forcing him to perform an illusion and fireworks show for their younglings to commemorate the kobold version of the human/kobold conflict with the local village, which paints the struggle in a very different light.
It’s up to the PCs to bring peace on earth between the two groups so that they can all celebrate the holiday together.
A genuinely good charity group giving gifts to the poor is hit hard the night before the holiday, and the PCs (or their general group – “runners,” “anarchists,” etc) have been blamed. They have less than 24 hours to solve the mystery of who hit the charity group, get the gifts back and clear their names before they’re picked up by the police and forced to spend Christmas in the clink.
For added fun, the real villains are either leaders within the charity itself, tired of playing nice in a world gone to hell, or members of a “Dark Hallmark” megacorp who make a living on the season and saw an opportunity to capitalize at the expense of the joy of innocent kids.
A group of supervillains with ice- and weather-based powers have teamed up to disable parts of the city to orchestrate a major heist, using the seasonal weather as cover for their activities. However, their schemes lead to some troubling collateral damage: a hospital without power, running low on generator fuel and with iced roads all around keeping them from evacuating or getting new supplies; a school bus full of elementary school kids run off an icy bridge and now teetering precariously on the edge, over the interstate; emergency response taxed to capacity and having trouble reaching citizens in need due to the extreme weather.
The heroes must first help save the citizens in danger, and then stop the ice villains before they can get away scot-free with their ill-gotten goods.
The group arrive in a bountiful trade town on the eve of their yearly celebration. Apparently, a strange tree in the nearby forest ‘magically’ glows for twelve days every year. Each day, valuables from common jewelry to oddities and even cyphers appear under it out of seemingly nowhere. The forest is a dangerous place, so the mayor’s son invites the party along on the pilgrimage to the glowing tree in exchange for a share of the tree’s bounty.
Past the strange and dangerous creatures in the forest, they finally reach the tree. The remaining townsfolk who survived the journey caution the PCs not to touch the glowing tree, as those who have in the past have been ‘taken away to heaven.’ Of course, in reaching for the goods, the mayor’s son bumps the tree’s lower branches himself and vanishes in a flash of green and red light.
The other townsfolk beg the party to go after him and rescue him – in exchange, they’re certain the mayor will award them the full year’s bounty for their trouble. The tree, a powerful artifact, has been transporting goods from the hold of an alien ship in orbit – touching the tree transports the party to a random deck of the abandoned ship, and they must avoid the automated defenses and find the mayor’s son, as well as a way into the vault so that they can be transported back with the next day’s ‘shipment’ of valuables.