The past two weeks have been busier than I expected and unfortunately this blog took a back seat. I am however working back to a point of equilibrium so hopefully next week’s entry won’t be sliding in just under the gun.
Spurred by Jason’s comment about taverns on the previous article I thought I would take a crack at the idea. To paraphrase he wants to know if we can do a better job of creating taverns from behind the screen. He feels taverns are not described very well and in that way end up feeling very similar and at the same time nondescript. Thanks for the thought. You guys can find out more about Jason at his blog, Ryndaria.com. He does fantasy fiction writing, world building, and independent book reviews.
To start off… yes. Taverns do feel the same and that’s because they are the same. Essentially taverns are a large room with tables, a bar counter, and usually a hearth. All grocery stores, gas stations, clothing stores, and restaurants are essentially the same on the inside. They sell equivalent goods/services and their layouts reflect that. Separated kitchen in the back, fresh produce around the perimeter, soda fountain up against the wall. Use this commonality as a strength rather than a failing. It’s nice that when running a game I can say things like ‘market’, ‘inn’, ‘tavern’, ‘blacksmith’*, etc. and have everyone at the table know my intent without having to rattle off a block of description fluff.
Why are they all very samey? Well, there are two main reasons I can think of immediately. The first, money. Tavern keeps aren’t exactly Scrooge McDuck swimming in a vault of currency. Their local patrons are poor, again paying more likely with barter than printed coins. More than likely each regular has a running tab and at the end of the month it is settled in food and goods. There’s not a lot of surplus funds for ornamentation. In addition, if we assume a generic Western Europe Medieval culture, architecture and structural engineering was still simplistic when it came to common buildings.
The second reason being monopoly. In this modern time we are saturated with choices, exponentially thanks to the internet and fast, efficient parcel delivery. People can’t hop in the sedan and drive 15 minutes to the next town over. Going to the next village would be an overnight affair by foot. No competition, no need to be individual or draw in customers. Even in larger city centers people will go to the corner tavern rather than an hour walk each way to visit a different tavern.
Think of one of fantasy fiction’s most iconic taverns, The Prancing Pony. Can you think of one thing that separates it as being unique? I cannot. We remember it because of the events and people that happen within The Prancing Pony, not the establishment itself. There is nothing special about most taverns, barring their moniker. The name is everything. Want to get extra special, jot down a few lines of back story for the tavern and how it got its name.
If it helps think of taverns like bookshelves. We all know what a bookshelf generally looks like and its function. Where bookshelves have life is in their contents. The tavern as a building is not the focus, it is the catalyst to put interesting people and events together.
How do we utilize taverns better? I think that’s the real question extrapolated from Jason’s comment. For most games I have played, and run, taverns are not used very well. Usually it’s nothing more than the party gets a drink, meal, or room. A simple transaction. That’s not a wrong use of it but it is a poor use, even a disservice to a very powerful weapon in the DM/GM arsenal. But first we need to know how to use the weapon. So what are the unique and special uses for a tavern. First let’s look at the reason taverns even exist. Taverns often had the ability to offer lodgings making them an inn, or ‘tavern & inn’. In addition they served food and a space to consume the food. The idea of the modern restaurant as we know it is actually a much later development. It is also of note this food is expensive, dined on almost exclusively by travelers unable to cook their own food at home. Really this is no different than the hotel minibar, hotel bar & restaurant, and room service of today. Necessary means of hedging public drunkenness. Stuff all the drunk people in one room rather than having them all over town doing the sort of idiotic things people do in that situation. A tavern is the center of entertainment and commerce. No television, radio, movies, theatre, sporting events, concerts, bowling, or even books. You want entertainment you had to go down to the pub or sit in your hovel staring at the wall. Captains of industry also brokered deals and agreements in the tavern. There are no corporate offices, or even offices for that matter. The tavern also serves as the place where mail is delivered and notices posted. This is also the spot you would hear all the gossip and news. For some quick fun add this angle to any gather rumors attempt. The check made should determine how long the person had to hang around before picking up the crucial information.
Basically the tavern is the pulse of the community and its rumor mill. This is a good place to introduce interesting NPCs, determine how the community feels about the adventuring party, and find out the issues affecting the community.
This goes both ways. If you want to engage the players remember that travelers are the locals’ best source of information and what’s going on in the world beyond their patch of ground. Have them list rumors, regale locals with their stories. This is one of the few opportunities to break the rule of thumb and ask people about their characters. People love to blather on about themselves so this is a way to actually use that constructively. Being this is a hotbed of rumor anything the PCs tell the people will be known by just about everyone in town and will be blown up and misunderstood to stupid proportions. Use it and abuse it to make the party’s public appearance a bizarre caricature of fact.
This is also a good place to introduce other, wandering, and recurring NPCs. Give the PCs a rival adventuring party, make sure they’re sitting in the tavern and immediately begin badmouthing the PCs in hushed tones. Nothing like learning your PC suffers from a strange venereal disease or enjoys running down kids in the street on horseback.
Remember that the tavern is a meeting place for all sorts. Many fledgling governments, rebellions, clandestine rendezvous, plain criminal activities, and public outcries happen in the tavern. This can be an opportunity to either join or discredit such ideas and ventures by the PCs. Or they can take the information and sit on it. Direct action by the PCs will be public, so remember that. If one of the PCs jumps on a table and begins counter-arguing a local rabble rouser intent on striking a bread riot he may squash this incident but may also be known as opposing the plight of the peasantry, or the lackey of the nobility. Conversely this sort of action may be heard by said nobility and someone in the upper echelons of society might see the adventurers as people who can get things (probably of dubious intent) done.
So if you want a tavern to really pop in a game consider giving it an awesome name with an actual back story. Have things going on and people doing these things. This means knowing current events. If you’re world building and can’t point to any location and come up with 2-3 current events I think that identifies your main problem. Everybody has something to bitch about. It’s just how people work. Everyone’s unhappy about something. Whether that’s the price of grain, bad weather, the bridge over the nearby river getting washed out, rat problem, missing livestock, overbearing taxes, local guards are getting too rough/handsy, etc. These are adventure seeds ready to happen. So maybe you have a grand narrative, but even the most epic of plots needs some downtime, some side quests to cleanse the adventuring palate. A great tactic when you need more time to plan/write. Redecorate a short, published adventure and run it or create something plain enough you won’t have to spend much time on planning it. Recharge your battery for a few sessions and the get back to pumping out the Grade A adventures. Feel free to sprinkle relevant tidbits or NPCs into the quest as well. You really want to homogenize the adventure so it doesn’t feel distinctly different from what you are already run. A little flair in this fashion goes a long way. Unless you have Keep on the Borderlands out reading directly from the block text your players probably won’t know the difference anyways.
So get in there and get your hands dirty, not on making taverns unique but creating unique situations for your taverns. Some fancy chairs and the mounted head of a displacer beast over the hearth are flashy but of little consequence to the game. Take the tavern for what it is and find how it fits into your game and utilize it. If an important event happened there or it’s the favored haunt of a specific NPC your players are going to remember it without a thought of the tavern’s floor plan and aesthetics.
Hopefully that helps Jason and anyone else who draws a blank when it comes to taverns. Great topic suggestions. If you have a topic suggestion drop it in the comments below.
*Blacksmiths being the exception. In the RPG sense we mean someone who forges arms and armor, which is two actual jobs; armorsmith and weaponsmith. A blacksmith is just someone who works iron, usually in the fashion of a farrier or by making simple tools such as kettles, pots, and farming implements. We push this to the side for the sake of enjoying the game as quality smiths forging arms and armor would be rare and highly monopolized by powerful people. Though to be fair you could run this scenario as a good adventure and have the reward be a masterwork item for everyone in the party. Get a real Daedalus vibe going.