Reality Makes the Best Fantasy: Gifts

A special envelope for presenting a monetary gift or a tip, used in Japan.

To the clothes and toys given to children to the flowers and food left for the deceased, life is peppered with events where the giving or exchanging of gifts is customary. Every culture has a tradition of giving, ranging from the customary extra donut from the baker to the ultimate sacrifices of martyrs for others’ benefit.

Gift giving is complicated. Depending on who is giving, who is receiving and the occasion, a myriad of rules and customs apply. Bequeathing an inappropriate gift could be more disastrous than not giving any gift at all, and a gift given in the wrong manner can cause the giver to lose face and insult whoever is receiving. Because of the encroaching holidays, many of us have gifts for loved ones, liked ones, acquaintances, and perhaps co-workers in mind, trying to find a good deal on the perfect gift, finding the right box, wrapping it, and taking it to the post office. If you’re like me, you order as many gifts as you can online to avoid having to be around people, I mean, wait in line around the holidays. A gift for the jerk in the cubicle across from you will probably look vastly different from what you get for your boss. And you wouldn’t dream of giving that same present to your grandma, I wouldn’t think.

There are many kinds of giving to be done. There is the giving of gifts at a time of joyous celebration, to help individuals on their next stage of life. There are gifts given to help those in need, such as those who have just suffered a great tragedy or loss. Tributes are a kind of gift, given to honor leaders, to show allegiance, and to provide goods and wealth to fund endeavors to (hopefully) benefit both the giver and receiver. Potlatches and other customs dictated that the wealthy show off their wealth by giving gifts to their guests, often at large parties with spiritual and social ceremonies.

A gift freely given and graciously accepted is a common theme in many stories, the mark of the hero or the sign of a good ruler. Greed, ungratefulness, and stinginess are often signs of a villain, someone to be avoided. Personal slights can follow people across the land and sea and not paying your tribute can mean trouble for your tribe and loved ones.

It’s more than just something acquired and handed over. What is given and how it is given says a lot about the person doing the given. And what the receiver expects and how they react reflects on them as well. What are your PCs giving and taking in your games?

For GMs

  • What occasions dictate the giving or exchanging of gifts? What are the typical types of gifts given on these occasions and who is exchanging?
  • What customs surround the giving the gifts? Are there elaborate rituals regarding the gifts? Do they have to be wrapped a certain way? Given on certain days? Certain gifts not given for certain occasions (such as not giving a potted plant to an ill person, lest the illness become ‘rooted’)? Things that are never given as gifts?
  • What are gifts wrapped in? How are they presented? Are they handed over from person to person or left in a specified location with some kind of indicator as to the giver?
  • Is there a system of ‘tribute’? How is this structured and what projects are the goods and money put towards? What is considered worthy to offer as tribute? Who may present the tribute?
  • How are anonymous gifts viewed? With suspicion? With curiosity? With admiration?
  • Who makes the finest gifts in the land? Offers the best goods? Grows the best specimens?
  • What is the proper attitude one should have when giving or receiving gifts? Humility? Pride?
  • What stories and myths are centered around giving?

Plot Hooks

  • The PCs are part of a retinue escorting tribute to an important individual, and the gift must be presented in a certain manner. When the person who is supposed to carry out the elaborate ceremony is hurt so that they cannot perform the ritual, the PCs all must train in the rite; the best of them will be allowed to carry out the presentation, knowing the fate of their company and their people rest on them pulling it off. What is the ceremony? To whom are they giving the tribute? What are the risks of not showing up? Of giving the tribute late? Of messing up the ceremony?
  • After accompanying an important official on a mission to a foreign city, the official gives the PCs a bonus for a job well done to buy something for their loved ones back home. The PCs are allowed to roam the city in plain clothes and look around, trying to find the perfect gift for those who are waiting for them to return. How much money have they been given? What kinds of items do they have here that the PCs don’t have at home? What do they purchase?
  • The PCs help a group of people with a local problem. In thanks, the locals give the PCs goods that are special to that region. Later, when the PCs return, the locals snub the PCs, treating them coldly despite their earlier help. Upon investigation, the PCs find it is local custom that when one receives a gift, the receiver gives something small in return. How do the PCs correct the slight?
  • When an important individual receives a lavish but anonymous gift, they ask the PCs to investigate so the receiver might reciprocate and not lose face among their fellow elite citizens. What is the gift? How was it given? Who is the receiver and what is their relationship to the PCs? Who is the giver of the gift and why did they give the gift anonymously?
  • A local church practices ‘sowing’ back into the community, taking surplus money left at the end of the year and distributing it within the community. When the money box containing this money goes missing, the PCs must find it before the ceremony is scheduled to take place. Who has taken the money? Why? What would it mean if the money isn’t distributed back into the community?

For PCs

  • What is the best gift you’ve ever given? Ever received? What was so great about it?
  • Are there people you always bring presents for?
  • What is your most treasured possession and what would it take for you to give it to someone else?
  • How do you feel about personal sacrifice?
  • If someone gives you a gift, do you feel you need to reciprocate or do you simply graciously accept it? Do you think expecting something in return is in good taste or tacky?
  • Do you prefer to give presents or receive them?
  • How do you show your appreciation for gifts?

What say you? Are your PCs ready to give and take?


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