Unusual Customs and Festivals

From James Patrick Patterson

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0325

A Brief Word From Johnn

On With The Tips

I _just_ got back from camping and am rushing to get tonight’s issue out to you. So, move along now – nothing to see here.


Johnn Four
[email protected]

Unusual Customs and Festivals

In England there are quite a few unusual customs and festivals still celebrated that could be adapted as background flavor, adding an extra dash of local color to any adventure, and offering many opportunities for role- playing. They may or may not involve the current adventure and will help to keep the players wondering.

Cheese Rolling

These events take place in different parts of the country, usually on the Spring Bank Holiday Monday. A round cheese is rolled down a hill, chased by competitors. The winner is the first person to grab the cheese. It is spectacular to watch but hazardous to take part in, with many competitors ending up with broken arms and legs.

  • Coopers Hill is the most famous Cheese Rolling contest, taking place the last weekend in May. Men and women hurtle 200 yards down a near vertical slope in pursuit of a seven- pound Double Gloucester cheese. http://www.cheese-rolling.co.uk/
  • Another interesting contest is held in Ranwick, the first Sunday in May (Spring Bank Holiday Monday). After being blessed, three cheeses are rolled counter-clockwise around Ranwick Church. One of these is then cut up and shared out amongst the crowds. Eating of the cheese protects ones’ fertility and ensures future generations of “Runickers” –the local name for villagers.

Well Dressing

The custom of Well-Dressing is popular in Derbyshire. Wells are decorated with large, framed panels featuring elaborate mosaic-like pictures made of flower petals, seeds, grasses, leaves, tree bark, berries, and moss. Beautiful and delicate, well dressings involve a tremendous amount of work, yet only last a few days.

Straw Bear Festival

At Whittlesey, on the weekend following Plough Monday (the first Monday after Twelfth Night) a man covered from head to foot in a straw costume is paraded around the town, attended by a host of dancers and musicians from all over the country. During the 19th century, Straw Bears (men or boys clothed in a layer of straw) were a familiar Plough Monday sight.

Haxey Hood

The Haxey Hood is a bizarre ritual carried out each Twelfth Night (January 6, the old style Christmas Day) in the village of Haxey in Lincolnshire, near the Nottinghamshire border. According to legend, it was on Twelfth Night that the wife of Sir John de Mowbray was riding on horseback across the fields near Haxeyon the Isle of Axholme when a Sudde n gust of wind blew her large black silk hood off her head. Thirteen laborers in a nearby field gave chase to rescue it, vying with one another to return the hood to its graceful owner. She was so grateful that she donated a piece of land on Westwood hill, just outside the village, for an annual enactment of the gallant recovery of her hood.

At 2 p.m. the church bells are rung and the Lord and his eleven Boggins proceed down the street with the Fool, who has the right to kiss any lady he chooses throughout the day. The Lord wears a red coat, a top hat covered with flowers, and he carries a stick made from thirteen willow wands that are bound thirteen times.

At the church gate the Fool, standing on an old mounting block, makes his traditional speech of welcome to the waiting crowd. The Lord then leads everyone to the highest ground in the parish where the Boggins form a large circle. The Lord then calls on a distinguished visitor to throw the first hood in the air. Mayhem results from the attempts to recover the hood and return it to a nearby public house.


Maypole Dancing

On May Day (May 1), teams of dancers perform intricate patterns whilst circling the pole. The ribbons interweave as they make their way down the pole with a very decorative result.


Sweeps Festival

Another May Day celebration, held the first weekend in May, this festival owes its roots to age old traditions. Sweeping chimneys was a dirty but necessary trade nearly 300 years ago. The festival is a way for chimney sweeps to welcome the summer (the season to clean dirty chimneys). Dancers and musicians converge on the street to provide a colorful spectacle.

Tar Barrel Burning

The custom of men welcoming in the New Year by carrying pans of blazing tar on their heads is kept alive in Allendale, Northumberland, on New Year’s Eve. The carriers, known as Guisers, dressed in fancy costume, balance the end of a barrel filled with burning hot tar on their heads. The procession is timed to reach an unlit bonfire shortly before midnight, then each man in turn tosses his flaming headgear on to the bonfire, setting it ablaze and shouting, “Be Damned to He who Throws Last!” On the stroke of twelve, all join hands and dance around the fire, singing Auld Lang Syne.



Thought to be Britain’s biggest fire festival and torchlight procession, this festival takes place takes place in Lerwick on the last Tuesday every January.

A thousand years after the Vikings invaded Scotland, the people of Shetlands remember the Vikings with a festival. Every winter they make a model Viking Longship. On Up-Helly- Aa night, at the end of January, the Shetlanders dress up in Viking clothes and drag the ship through the town to the sea. They sing Up Helly-Aa songs before tossing their burning torches onto the ship and creating a massive bonfire, mimicking the Viking’s burial custom of burning the dead.

Hurling the Silver Ball

Held on the first Monday after February 3rd, Hurling the Silver Ball is derived from ancient handball games of Celtic legend. Hurling is one of the oldest forms of a ball game and still takes place at St. Ives in Cornwall, England. The game is played in the town’s streets and on the beach. The game starts at 10.30 am and the person holding the silver ball at noon wins.


Bread and Cheese Throwing

After the evening service at the church in St. Briavels, Gloucestershire, on Whit Sunday Evening, baskets full of bread and cheese are thrown from a wall near the old castle. Everyone scrambles to grab as many pieces of food as they can.

Blessing the Throats Ceremony

St. Blaise, who once saved a child from choking to death on a fishbone and so is patron saint of throat sufferers, is celebrated on February at St. Etheldreda’s Church, London. Two candles are tied together, lit, and touched on to the necks of people suffering from sore throats.

Hare Pie Scramble and Bottle Kicking

On Easter Monday in Hallaton, Leicestershire, villagers celebrate the legend of a woman who was saved from a bull by a hare running across its path on Easter Monday hundreds of years ago. As a token of her appreciation, she bequeathed a piece of land to the rector. The sole condition to this bequest was that the rector would serve a hare pie to the parishioners with a large quantity of ale every year.

The hare pie (replaced now by a beef pie) is still brought to the church gate at 13.30 and pieces are hurled to the good natured mob who form a procession led by someone carrying a bronze sculpture of a hare on a pole. They travel up the hill to a spot where bottles (3 casks: 2 are painted brown and filled with ale, while the third is painted red and white, and empty) are blessed, before the start of a rugby like mass football game between Hallaton and nearby Medbourne. The aim is to get two of the bottles across river, which forms the border between the villages. There is no limit to the numbers on each side.

Eric Shackle’s eBook – Hallton (MAD  AS  MARCH  HARES)

Bacup Nutters Dance

Every Easter Saturday, in Bacup near Rochdale, Lancashire, the Britannia Coconut Dancers dance from boundary to boundary of the town of Bacup, which is situated between Rochdale and Burnley.

The Nutter Dance is a form of Morris dance. One main difference is that dancers blacken their faces to mime miners. They wear hats like turbans decorated with rosettes and colored feathers, black jerseys, red and white kilts, white stockings, and shiny black Lancashire clogs. The dancers dance their way through the streets following a tradition that takes them from boundary to boundary of the town. They tap out rhythms on wooden discs or ‘nuts’ fastened to their palms, knees, and waist, representing the protective coverings worn on the hands and knees of miners when crawling along narrow passageways.

Britannia Coconutters of Bacup

The Clowns Church

On the first Sunday in February there is a church service held every year at a Holy Trinity Church in Dalston, East London, where the congregation is comprised almost completely of clowns. They appear in full motley and slap for the Grimaldi Memorial Service, to which the public is invited.

The Clowns transferred to Holy Trinity in 1959. It is here that the occasion has grown to its present proportions—the Church packed to bursting point and the proceedings covered by all the media. The event really came into its own when, in February 1967, Clown Smokey succeeded in gaining permission for clowns to attend in full motley. Clowns from all over the World, irrespective of religious convictions, attended in full “slap” (make-up and costume). They give thanks for the gift of laughter and honour the “father” of present day clowns, Joseph Grimaldi. After the Service it is traditional for the Clowns to entertain the public in the adjacent school.


A summer celebration was also inaugurated by the residents of Islington. This occurs during the children’s half term (either the last week of May or the first week of June). The date also coincides with Joseph Grimaldi’s death and burial, but is far from a gloomy affair; the sun usually shines on a festive outdoor occasion, full of fun and laughter.

Turning the Devils Stone

On Guy Fawkes night, the villagers of Shebbear in Devon turn over a large stone under an ancient oak tree. The stone is a large rock weighing about 1 ton, and is not made from local stone. No one is sure how it came to be there, though one legend says it was dropped by the Devil himself when he was cast out of heaven by St. Michael, hence the clamour of discordant bells to frighten him. The legends include tales that the stone has been moved away from Shebbear a number of times, but, mysteriously, it keeps returning. Another legend says this is because the Devil is under the stone and would escape if the stone is not turned.

Swan Upping

Each year, on the last Monday in July, a group of herdsmen row up the River Thames in six rowing boats from Sunbury to Abingdon marking swans along the way to denote ownership. In a tradition dating back to Edward IV’s reign, when he sold the swans for money, they are captured to determine their ownership by the marks on their beaks and then their offspring are marked accordingly. Swans belonging to Dyer’s get one nick in their beaks, the Vintner’s two notches, and the Queen’s remain unmarked. You can watch the action from the towpaths along the river course.

Swan Upping on the River Thame – Information

Plough Monday

The first Monday after the twelve days of Christmas (Twelfth Night), is a day when ploughmen traditionally blackened their faces and wore white shirts.

Plough Monday was the day when village life in many agricultural areas focused on the dragging of a decorated plough by bands of young men who would knock on doors and ask for money, food, and drink. They were accompanied by someone acting the Fool. This character would often be dressed in skins and a tail, and carry a pig’s bladder on the end of a stick.

In medieval times, it was common for ploughs to be blessed by the church on Plough Sunday. Farmers resume their work on Plough Monday after the 12 days of Christmas.

Plough Monday plays were popular in parts of Lincolnshire, Nottinghamshire, and the East Midlands. They were similar to that of Christmas Mummers Plays in that they were performed by young men and included some of the same story elements, such as the death and resurrection of one of the characters.

Kissing Friday

On the Friday after Ash Wednesday, English schoolboys were once entitled to kiss girls in without fear of punishment or rejection, a custom that lasted until at least the 1940s.

Bonfire Night – Guy Fawkes

The 5th of November is the anniversary of the Gunpowder Plot. “Remember, remember the fifth of November–Gunpowder, Treason and Plot.”

  • Throughout England, towns and villages light huge bonfires, let off magnificent fireworks, burn an effigy (a homemade model of a man, like a scarecrow) and celebrate the fact that Parliament and James I were not blown sky high by Guy Fawkes.
  • In towns and cities, torch-lit processions are also popular on this night. The procession leads to the bonfire and firework displays.
  • Firework Displays: The fireworks are a reminder of the gunpowder Guy Fawkes had hidden in the cellar of Parliament.
  • An effigy is made out of old clothes stuffed with paper or straw. It represents Guy Fawkes.
  • Penny for the Guy: During the days before Bonfire Night, children used to take their home-made “Guys” out on the street and ask for “a penny for the Guy” for fireworks.
  • Children, in some areas, blacken their faces as Guy Fawkes might have done when he plotted to blow up parliament.
  • Flaming Barrels: In Ottery St. Mary, teams of stalwart men carry flaming tar barrels on their shoulders down the length of the town’s High Street. When one man’s 50-pound barrel gets too hot to handle, another man takes over, then another, and another, until the flames die out and the barrel crumbles into ashes.
  • Traditional Bonfire Night Foods: As well as burning an effigy of Guy Fawkes, the bonfires are used to cook for the crowds that come to watch the fireworks. Some foods are potatoes wrapped in foil sausages cooked over the flames, toasted marshmallows, and soup heated in the fire. The traditional cake eaten on bonfire night is Parkin Cake, a sticky cake containing a mix of oatmeal, ginger, treacle, and syrup.

For more information:

Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters

Have a roleplaying tip you’d like to share? E-mail it to [email protected] – thanks!

Magical Item Type Magical Effect Vials

From Chad Samuels

Here is something my wife and I have used for several years with positive results.

A Magical Effect Vial (MEV) is a small glass vial sealed by wax at the top. The vial contains distilled water that holds a magical enchantment until the vial is broken. Then the enchantment is released at the location where it is broken. Any magical spell can be held as long as there is someone who can cast it into the vial (wand and other magical item effects do not work).

MEVs can be made by a successful Alchemy Skill check and a successful casting of the spell to be held in the MEV. The typical cost for a MEV is 3 times the cost of the spell components to make the MEV. There can be cleric spell MEVs as well. A deity may grant the casting of the spell for resale to increase funds to his church, or grant MEVs to those who are on a quest that aligns well with the deities’ persona.


  • Anyone can now use a spell effect, not just spellcasters and rogues. It only depends on breaking a glass vial. Warriors may now have one shot spell-like effects if they are willing to pay for it.
  • This is handy for rarely used spells tying up a spell slot, such as, Knock or Remove Poison.
  • When used with MEV holsters and scabbard holsters there is no need to fumble with spell components. You can either pull out the vial as a free action, or break an MEV in a scabbard without drawing it if you are targeting yourself as a free action. Barbarians and Haste do well here, as do Healing MEVs.
  • This is also a way to take Raise Dead with you (if you can afford to buy it). Additionally, special arrows, bolts and darts can be made to hold MEVs that will break on impact.


  • Vials are fragile. Excessive heat breaks them, releasing their effects. Fire resistance on your person is important.
  • If worn in easy-to-draw scabbards, they can be targeted and broken with martial weapons with a -4 (easy to reach MEV) to -8 (hard to reach MEV) penalty.
  • They are expensive.
  • Some may be illegal. For instance, death spell or passwall.
  • High dexterity opponents may sometimes catch a projectile MEV and turn the tables and use it on you.
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The Cult of Pythagoras

From Brian Ray

I just read a summary of the life of Pythagoras, and it occurs to me that the cult he created could make a very interesting encounter or adventure.

I quote from chapter 4 of _Euclid’s Window_ by Leonard Mlodinow:

“Secrecy played an important role in Pythagorean society, perhaps based on his experience with the secret practices of Egyptian priesthood. Or perhaps, the motivation was a desire to avoid the trouble that would be caused by revealing revolutionary ideas that might stir opposition. One of Pythagora s’ discoveries became such a secret that according to legend, the Pythagoreans forbade its revelation on penalty of death….

Today, we know that the length of the diagonal (of a square with sides of a length of one unit) is equal to the square root of 2, an irrational number. That means that it cannot be written in decimal form with a finite number of digits, or equivalently, that it cannot be represented as a whole number or fraction, the only kind of numbers that Pythagoreans knew. Their proof that the number does not exist was actually a proof that it cannot be written in fractional form.

Clearly, Pythagoras had a problem. The fact that the length of the diagonal of a square could not be expressed as a number was not good for a visionary who preaches that numbers are everything.

“Pythagoras retreated from his promising practice of associating geometric figures with numbers, and proclaimed that some lengths cannot be expressed as a number. The Pythagoreans called such lengths alogon, ‘not a ratio,’ which we today translate as irrational.

The word alogon had a double meaning though: it also meant ‘not to be spoken.’ Pythagoras had solved his dilemma with a doctrine that would have been hard to defend, so, in keeping with his overall doctrine of secrecy, he banned his followers from revealing the embarrassing paradox.

Not all obeyed.

According to legend, one of his followers, Hippasus, did reveal the paradox. Today, people are murdered for many reasons–love, politics, money, religion–but not because somebody squealed about the square root of 2. To the Pythagoreans, though, mathematics was a religion, so when Hippasus broke the oath of silence, he was assassinated.”

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Making Spells More Interesting

 From Robert McLean

I have enjoyed the article Making Magic Items Interesting. One thing that always disappoints me is that few spellcasters or GMs try to make spells interesting.

I have been reading a play-by-posting D&D game where recently a spell was cast to slow the progress of a charging bear. The player wrote something like:

“I cast Entangle centered on the bear.”

The spell contains verbal, somatic and divine focus aspects, and these are almost always ignored. I would love to see players write/say something more like:

Player: I stop to stare straight at the bear. I lift my arms to the gods, praising their virtues, calling on them to aid me. I twine my fingers together, with my holy symbol in my palm, saying, “Even the plants will not let you attack me, by the gods!”

(I cast Entangle centered on the bear.)

GM: The grass and small shrubs seem to double in height before your eyes, now double again. They bend towards the bear, pulling it back. The trees grow and twist towards the bear, and try to grab it. The bear has been stopped by this sudden growth of the plants.

(Entangle is 40′ radius centered on L6.)

Some more ideas:


Julian stands carefully, his feet set deliberately. One points towards the [specific creature], the other is perpendicular. His left hand rummages through the large dark brown leather pouch on his belt. With his right hand he points directly at [specific creature], loudly proclaiming,

“You will not act against us now!”

The fingers of his left hand deftly thread a strand of wool between his fingers.

“You will be stayed,” and with a careful twist, Julian’s hand opens, “and you will face your…” releasing a brain- shaped grey cloud, “DOOM!” The strength of Julian’s voice dissipates the cloud.

Disrupt Undead

Julian brings his fist up in front of his mouth and holds his left arm out in counter-balance. He stares at one [specific creature], directing his speech at it. His index finger flicks up, then down again, one finger, then two. A different one, now three,

“Just as the salmon swims upstream,” two fingers, four fingers, pointer, ring and middle, four again, “as the bear retreats to his cave.”

Julian’s fingers continue their erupting dance, gaining in speed till they are just a flash and blur of flesh. His voice rises in intensity as he continues, “The river returns to the ocean, the Sun floats around the World to morn again, so return thee to thy grave! Dust thou shall become!”

He throws his arm towards the [specific creature], fingers open but each pointing at [creature]. A red beam throbs forwards from his hand, directed by those fingers, and crashes into the undead’s chest. A wicked grin spreads across Julian’s face, and his eyes seem wider than ever.


Julian takes a deep breath, pulls a brass key from the large dark brown pouch on his belt, and waggles towards the [object]. Calmly he releases his breath and simply says, “Open.”

Enlarge Person

Julian dives into his dark brown pouch, removes a pinch of something between his fingers and sprinkles it in careful circles over his head. He says in a strong voice, “The snow bank becomes higher, cloud builds up, the tides slide up the pier, the moon waxes, and the Halfling grows.”

The world seems to shrink around Julian, as he rapidly grows to become a 7′ tall human, with the biggest grin you have ever seen.

Mage Armour

Julian touches the piece of his leather armor at his navel, bends his head back, and says, “The planets, the stars, the ether, the sun, the moon, the fire, the air, the water, the earth…” He touches himself/target, “…combine to protect me [target].”

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Module Mine

From Eric Fitzmedrud

re: http://www.roleplayingtips.com/readissue.php?number=321#R5

In response to Telas’ ideas about making a module mine, I wanted to add that using the find and replace features to change NPC, country, and organization names throughout the document is a snap. Before you know, it looks like the module was written for your campaign.

Buying the module as a .pdf is the fastest way to do this. Then select and copy the text and paste it into a word processing program.