13th Age sage and convention GM Adam Dray presents his take on the Feast of Gold, chief winter celebration of the Dragon Empire…
Wade Rockett (certainly not his real name, but the name of his Ashen Stars character, right?) kindly invited me to write a guest post in which I looked at a mythical winter holiday, the Feast of Gold, through the lens of my own 13th Age campaign. Also, he asked for some advice for GMs on using holidays in general to enliven their own 13th Age campaigns. He also invited some other folks whose work I admire a great deal, and I’ve seen their posts already. The bar has been set high.
How to reimagine
I can’t just make up awesome ideas out of thin air, like some people can. When I’m trying to be as creative as someone like Ash Law or Mac Sample, I need a process. I deconstruct an idea or two and then recombine them in interesting ways that I hadn’t previously conceived. I call this “reimagining,” and I’ve used the process to invent new concepts for elves and bards on my blog. With that in mind, I will proceed to cut the idea of holidays into a bunch of tiny pieces and knit them back together again. Hopefully, the result will be a new patchwork quilt of awesome. At the very least, I hope to inspire you to employ my process to spice up your own campaign.
Start with what you know. In this case, I have a set of parameters about the Feast of Gold, drawn by Wade. The holiday is “the major winter festival in the Dragon Empire.” It’s a feast, so there’s probably food, though the feast could be a metaphor. It has something to do with gold–the metal? the color? the ideal it represents? It’s a holiday, which implies it’s religious in nature, though we call a lot of things holidays that aren’t holy. It’s very important in the Dragon Empire, and maybe less important elsewhere. That’s enough to get started.
Next, make a list of aspects about the facts. Your list will probably grow as you think of more things. Mine did. Here’s what I ended up with:
- Where celebrated
- Who celebrates
Now go do some research. You don’t need to spend hours or days on this. Just skim some Wikipedia pages. I’m reading about feasts, holidays, gold, and some specific winter festivals. I’ll let myself go read for 20 minutes and take some notes:
- Related to winter solstice
- astronomy, shortest day of year — Starport?
- January-April known as “famine months,” cattle slaughtered to save grain and prevent starvation
- rebirth of sun gods
- reversal, as in Saturnalia slave/master reversals
- Dongzhi Festival (eastern Asia) celebrated greater energy flowing into the world — connection to ley lines?
- Festival of Lights, common across many cultures
- Christmas (birth of Jesus) was observed at the end of Brumalia, an ancient Roman holiday since Romulus
- Zagmuk (Babylonian) celebrated Marduk’s triumph over darkness — crowned a mock king
- liturgical (holy) calendars
- “ordinary” (counted) days
- often sacred and solemn
- Feasts / festivals “offer a sense of belonging for religious, social, or geographical groups,” and were used to pass down knowledge
- dissolves in mercury, aqua regia, alkaline solutions of cyanide — “feast” of gold?
- is money, coin, obviously
- was thought to have healing powers (it’s non-toxic in pure form)
- used as a cake decoration in flake or dust form
- “may symbolize power, strength, wealth, warmth, happiness, love, hope, optimism, intelligence, justice, balance, perfection, summer, harvest and the sun”
- also symbolizes wisdom of age
- symbol of kings and marriage — Elf Queen + Emperor!
Okay, so that’s what I found. Notice that I found a few things that inspired ideas for my 13th Age campaign:
- a possible junction of astronomy and Starport, a city in the Dragon Empire
- a connection to ley lines
- the tie between gold and marriage that led to an idea about two important icons: the Elf Queen and the Emperor (more on this later)
That covers the first three aspects (feast, gold, holiday) pretty well. What about the last two: where celebrated and who celebrates? I’m not going to find much research fodder in Wikipedia for those, but let me take 15 minutes to remind myself what the Escalation Edition of the 13th Age rules says about the Dragon Empire and some other places (in Chapter 8). Here are my notes:
- the world is a flat disc, not a round globe — that changes everything astronomically!
- the capital is Axis, “City of Swords,” and it’s in the center of a dormant volcano caldera, guarded by 3-4 dozen gold dragons gifted to the first Emperor by the Great Gold Wyrm (!)
- Glitterhaegen is “City of Gold” or “City of Coins,” a trading city of gnomes, humans, and half elves
- Horizon is “City of Wonders”
- Santa Cora is “City of Gods,” home of the Cathedral, dedicated to the Gods of Light
- the Golden Citadel is a ruined and abandoned stronghold of the Great Gold Wyrm (a powerful icon sorta like Bahamut, but gold)
- the Koru Behemoths are enormous 8-legged creatures that migrate around the world and consume invisible magical energy; people live on their backs
- Starport: “reaches all the way up to the overworld. Stars dock there for rest and refitting. Details available on site.” In the early playtest version of the rules, it added this: “Not all the stars. Just the ones who go in for this type of thing,” and that spurred some campaign ideas
- the Seven Cities run a lighthouse called Vigil, whose light magically scries on distant places in the center of the sea
While 13th Age describes the character races, it doesn’t really get much into their cultures. When I think about “who celebrates,” I mean races and cities. There aren’t really countries in the default Dragon Empire setting, though the elves have Queen’s Wood and the dwarves have the entire Underworld. I’m not sure that “who celebrates” is a terribly useful aspect now. So let’s chop this into pieces. This is the least defined part of my process. If you want something more formal, write each short fact from your note-taking on an index card and shuffle them, then combine a couple in interesting ways. Throw out anything that doesn’t work. Keep what inspires you. I’ll grab one idea that really pulls at me and see what combines with it, and repeat until I’m out of ideas. Here’s my informal combination of facts into possible holidays.
1. Imperial Decree
Starting with my “symbol of kings and marriage — Elf Queen + Emperor!” note under Gold… See, in my campaign, the Elf Queen runs everything (because elves live so much longer than humans, it’s hard for humans to really take control of anything for long). She marries each Emperor until he dies, then marries the next. Perhaps the Feast of Gold is a celebration of the Imperial Marriage, imposed on every city by decree. Celebrate and be happy, citizens! (Or else.) The Elf Queen and Emperor require every city’s governor to open up the coffers and fund a great festival in their honor. The royal couple don’t decide which two or three cities they’ll visit until the very last minute. Of course, this causes all kinds of economic strife.
- The Governor of Axis has posted a want-ad for adventurers to capture several beasts and monsters for the gladiatorial arenas. She promises to pay well for any caged monster brought to the arena alive.
- The Diabolist’s agents hire the PCs to sabotage the festival events that the Emperor attends. She’ll pay in magic items, but the Emperor will likely execute anyone his guards catch meddling with the festival.
- The Prince of Shadows sees the Feast as a time of opportunity. While everyone is distracted and drunk, the PCs must break into one of the Emperor’s many palaces in Axis, and steal some documents.
2. Winter Solstice
Starting with the facts that the world is a flat disc, that winter festivals are often solstice celebrations, and the weirdness about the stars in the Starport entry… In my campaign, the stars aren’t fixed in place in the sky. They all wander around however they like, and astromancers study them to ascertain hints about the future. However, I’ve always had the sun making its daily trek around the world in a clockwork manner. Maybe at High Winter, the stars all end back up in their original positions, and for mere seconds, the future is completely unknowable. Then they start moving around in their random ways and the astromancers can breathe again. The Festival of Gold celebrates the cycle ending and starting anew. Of course, the old elf wizards say that the holiday once long ago celebrated a strange gold light that shone for five days from the entire night sky. That was when the stars fell out of their fixed places in the sky, the constellations broke apart, and the stars drifted randomly forevermore. They say it’s when the gods stopped talking to mortals, too. Maybe for a few brief seconds in the middle of the Feast of Gold, prayers can be heard in the heavens once again.
- The Priestess hires adventurers to search for a magical telescope that will help her talk to the gods during the Feast. There are only a few days left, and the telescope is lost somewhere in the Cathedral.
- The Archmage has determined that the realignment of the stars once a year sucks magical energy out of the world, and he has a plan to stop it. He enlists PCs to guard some of his ley stations. Other factions want to subvert the stations for their own evil purposes. The High Druid doesn’t want anyone meddling with such powerful forces.
- The flying ship the PCs are traveling on gets hijacked to Starport during the Feast of Gold. They learn that this is the one time of the year that they can use a magical portal in the city to step through to other worlds.
3. Emperor for a Day
Starting with the Babylonian “mock king” idea. I remember reading somewhere about mock kings, but can’t find the reference, but the Zagmuk page talks about taking a criminal and making him king for a day, then executing him. Combine with Saturnalia “reverse day” stuff (everyone switches roles for a day, masters serve the slaves, and so on). Let’s see if we can work in a “rebirth of sun gods” idea, too. On the last week of the year, the Emperor must perform a special ritual to maintain his iconic power. It requires treating someone as if they’re the Emperor for an entire day and then executing them. The secret of this ritual is a well guarded secret, of course, for if someone were to interfere with the ritual, the Emperor’s power would topple. Because he is a reasonable and fair man, the current Emperor throws a great feast. In each of the Seven Cities, his governors choose someone from their deepest prisons and lavish all the powers of the Emperor on the criminal for one day. At the end of the day, these temporary Emperors are executed for their crimes. The real Emperor takes part in one of them, completing his ritual and taking back his crown in a ceremony that is both symbolic and actual.
- Another icon has learned the secret and wants the power. Which side are the PCs on? Will they help or hinder the Emperor, or perhaps try to take the power themselves?
- Oh no! In a case of mistaken identity, one of the party members has been mistaken for the criminal chosen as Emperor for the Day. He or she has but one day to live (like a king!) before being executed. There are many guards preventing escape. Enjoy your last day? Can the rest of the party prove innocence?
- The Emperor completes his ritual, but it doesn’t work, and his powers dissolve. He and allied icons call on faithful adventurers across the world for aid! What will this do to the balance of power in the world?
4. A golden opportunity
Starting with gold’s healing powers, my own connection to ley lines in the notes regarding the Dongzhi Festival, some solstice stuff, and gold as edible decoration, and “sacred and solemn”… The Feast of Gold is a solemn holiday where people remember their lost loved ones. As the days grow shorter and then start reverse and grow longer again, people let go of their pain and begin to heal. They make small cakes covered in gold dust. When made with love during the week of the Feast, these have a small restorative effect: eating one grants a free recovery. This only works once per day. What is poorly known and understood is that the shortest day of the year is also when tremendous amounts of magical energy flow into the world and the ley lines swell with possibility. With the right preparations, ritual effects are maximized and magic users can cast spells in their purest forms. In fact, resurrections are much easier on the solstice. An individual cleric can cast a Resurrection spell as if she’s cast one fewer of them in her life. In Santa Cora, crowds of people gather to perform a simple lay ritual that miraculously can resurrect a single person, as long as the crowd can chant the name in unison loud enough and long enough.
- The Lich King has figured out a way to shut off resurrection and magical healing in the world. There’s a frightening solar eclipse in the middle of the Feast of Gold at noon on the solstice. It harkens the closing of the portals that shunt magical energy into the world. Resurrection is impossible. Magical healing effects slowly wane (reduce healing effects by 1 point, then 2, and so on, increasing every day). Soon the ley lines will dry up and other kinds of magic might die.
- When someone important to the PCs is killed in a senseless accident, there’s still one way to save them: get them to Santa Cora and convince the crowd to help. The party will have to convince the crowd of the worth of their old friend.
5. The Great Gold Wyrm
Starting with the gold-named icon, plus “stonehenge” and the Golden Citadel… In the 13th Age game, the Great Gold Wyrm is all that is holding back the forces of the Abyss. He has sacrificed himself to protect the world. What if he needs help in the form of actual gold, which he eats for strength? At the bottom of the Abyss is a giant circle of standing stones made of gold. These form a one-way portal that can be reached from a similar circle of stone in the Golden Citadel. Every year, the good people of the Dragon Empire take up a collection of gold and transport it to the ruins of the Golden Citadel and place it in a huge pile in the circle, and the treasure is magically transported to the Abyss. Then they feast and party around the circle for days. The Great Gold Wyrm slurps it down unceremoniously, because he gets pretty hungry while fighting off armies of demons. This annual influx of strength keeps the icon going and the icon keeps the world safe.
- Look! A giant wagon full of gold! Let’s steal it! (Alternatively, “oh no! someone’s stealing it!”)
- While attending the Feast of Gold, one of the allies of the party accidentally falls into the stone circle and gets teleported to the Abyss. Help!
- A tax collector demands that everyone in the party make a mandatory donation of all of their gold to the Festival Fund. Maybe it’s actually intended for the gold heap, but who knows?
- The Diabolist and her forces attack the Golden Citadel during the festival to prevent the gold from reaching the Great Gold Wyrm. Grab your sword and send some demons back to the Abyss!
6. The Golden Slaughter
Starting with the concept of the Koru Behemoths, and tossing in cyclic calendar stuff and “famine months”… A dozen or two enormous turtle-elephant things roam widdershins around the flat disc of the world. They’re big enough that certain clans live on their backs. One particular Behemoth, “the Golden Slaughter,” tends to roam a bit off the usual path and run down entire herds of cattle and deer near the Blood Wood. It is an ancient druid ritual in those parts to slaughter all the livestock before the first real snow. It’s the snow which portends the coming of the Golden Slaughter, and the Behemoth is forced to feed further north on wild animals rather than the stock of the villages. The people kill their older animals and cure the meat so it lasts through the winter. Each village takes its best bull or cow and ties it to a post in the middle of the plains where the Golden Slaughter will find it. This sacrifice, called “the Feast of Gold,” seems to appease the Koru Behemoth. There is much art in the predicting of the first snow. If the druids are too early, their sacrificial cows will die before the Behemoth gets there. If they are too late, there will be no sacrifice there. In either case, the Golden Slaughter may rampage and attack villages in anger. The first High Druid taught the earliest druids how to count the days using a complex calendar that changes every year with the weather.
- “Not that cow!” One of the PCs gets polymorphed into a beautiful bull. You know what happens next…
- The adventurers discover a rare tome in a deep dungeon. It describes the druid rituals in great detail, but mentions the importance of a special leap day that must be intercalated this year. It’s obvious that no one else seems to know about this extra day. If the party does nothing, the Golden Slaughter decides to head west along the Midland Sea, visiting every coastal city.
- No one has seen the High Druid for months. Finally, the PCs hear a rumor that she’s vacationing on the Golden Slaughter. They need to find her and give her some very important information about the Archmage’s latest plots, and it’s clear where she’ll be at the end of the Feast of Gold.
So there you have it. Six different Feasts of Gold, and a sort of process you can use to reimagine your own. List the facts you know. Distill some interesting aspects from that list. Research those aspects and take notes. Pick one or several of those notes and start connecting them to other notes. Throw out anything that doesn’t work. Develop from there. I’d love to see what you come up with using this process (and maybe even my own list of facts). Post your own festival ideas on Pelgrane’s 13th Age forums!
Adam Dray cut his teeth on Moldvay D&D and has been doing the gaming thing ever since. He fell instantly in love with the 13th Age role-playing game and admits he’s a bit obsessed. Adam is looking forward to his own Feast of Gold, which involves cherished friends, beloved family, great food, and a little time off work. He’s also eagerly anticipating the days getting longer after December 21. He has no plans to sacrifice any cows or to save the world.
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