The First Injuries of the New Year

Eric Lis

Plenty of things associated with Christmas are potentially deadly, but what about New Year’s Eve? Continuing our examination of the dangers of the holiday season, here are three ways that celebrations can cause danger to life and limb in both our world and the campaign setting of your choice.

Let’s start with a health risk that probably doesn’t pose much risk in a medieval setting: falling bullets. In a number of parts of the world, many special events are marked by what’s sometimes called “celebratory gunfire,” where weapons are fired into the air to the great amusement of all involved (except for those who are afraid of loud noises). In some parts of the United States, Greece, and a few other places, celebratory gunfire is particularly associated with December 31st celebrations (and in the US, also with July 4th). In typical human fashion, the people who indulge in celebratory gunfire tend to be the sorts of people who don’t necessarily stop to wonder where their bullets come back down, but as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, what’s fired upwards invariably comes back down and sometimes lands in unexpected places… like inside your neighbour. There’s some data about “falling bullet” fatalities in the US, but it’s often difficult to be 100% certain whether a gunshot death is accidental or not. Although the risk of this happening to a single person is probably fairly low, it’s still one of those rather curious causes of injury which can be disproportionately associated with certain holidays, and it reminds us one that one man’s celebration is potentially another man’s mechanism of injury. Falling bullets may or may not be a health concern in a game setting; many medieval settings don’t have much in the way or firearms, but I’m prepared to wager that a few citizens of Golarion die every year as a result of falling bullets, and I’d bet that at least one of those accidentally sets a group of adventurers off on a wild goose chase in search of a mystery shooter. Fortunately for people living in sci-fi settings, laser blasts and plasma bolts probably just keep flying straight until they run out of energy and dissipate.

Another health risk particular to New Year’s Eve seems to be human stampede. I find this a bit surprising, since in my imagination, most holidays involve large groups of humans being stuffed into crowded areas, but it actually makes some sense. Holidays like Christmas or Easter (or, for that matter, Passover or Oshogatsu) tend to involve people staying indoors and attending smaller gatherings, but New Year’s Even is celebrated all over the world by people gathering in massive gatherings, some of which make the ball-drop in Times Square look sedate and understated. In 2014, one such gathering in Shanghai involved millions of people turned into a stampede which killed 35 people. Thirty-five deaths don’t constitute a very large percentage out of a crowd of millions, but it would be an important number to the friends and families of those 35. While most fantasy cities don’t contain millions of people, they do tend to share the risk factors that put the citizens of Shanghai at risk: high population density, scarce resources, and poor security at major events. If anything, I would have to imagine that it’s even easier to trigger a stampede in a crowded medieval town square than it is in downtown Shanghai; one rampaging werewolf, or an enraged kaiju, or even a single well-placed fear spell might do it, and any holiday that brings immense crowds of people into a confined space creates an opportunity for chaos.

And lastly, let’s consider fireworks, which are, of course, by no means restricted to New Year’s Eve. Fireworks have the obvious danger of causing burns, but here’s another impact which one might not stop to consider: studies have shown that fireworks can cause significant disturbance to birds, driving them into mass flight, which can disrupt local airspace and, over long periods, change their habitat. There are a few cases of thousands of dead birds simply dropping out of the sky on New Year’s Eve following fireworks displays, for reasons which haven’t yet been fully explained. Celebratory explosions of fireworks – or Dwarven blasting powder, or alchemical reagents, or fireball spells – could conceivably disrupt local ecosystems and indirectly plunge whole regions into chaos. One would also have to wonder what it would mean if instead of birds, the offended wildlife included stirges, or harpies, or dragons. 

More than four years ago, Dr. Eris Lis, M.D., began writing a series of brilliant and informative posts on RPGs through the eyes of a medical professional, and this is the one that appeared here on January 2, 2016. Lis is a physician, gamer, and author of the Skirmisher Publishing LLC OGL sourcebook Insults & Injuries, which is also available for the Pathfinder RPG system