How to create a D&D Tavern

Introduction





Almost every D&D adventure starts in a tavern, features a tavern or even ends in one when the heroes enjoy a well earned flagon after defeating the evil menace threatening the land. In classic fantasy literature from the Lord of the Rings to the Dragonlance novels, taverns feature regularly.


They are a useful space for heroes to carry out multiple tasks and for DMs to help begin adventures or shape their overall direction. Because of their ubiquity, from time to time we can take them for granted and when we’re considering how to create a D&D tavern, we should be asking a slightly different question; how can this tavern become a great adventuring location?


What makes a great tavern for players to visit and explore and how does this place become a recurring site for adventures? This is what we will be examining in this article.


Why Taverns anyway?


Are these scenes familiar?


“You’re a band of adventurers taking a rest between quests and you’re staying at a tavern in the great city of Arc.”


“It’s a dark and stormy night and you have found shelter at a tavern on the edge of the Bayreshanke Forest. Whilst you huddle around the fire you meet a group of other adventurers and travellers and become friends.”


“Whilst you drink, you hear a strange story from the frightened locals about the nearby mines, where strange lights can be seen on dark nights.”


These are all standard adventure openers or hooks, and they all take place in a tavern. What the tavern offers is a site within an adventure that is available in most settlements, familiar to the PCs, gives players the option to interact with NPCs and is relatively free of immediate threat.


This means that role playing can take place, but in many instances surprisingly little actual role playing occurs because the players enter a tavern, have a drink, hear a rumour and then they’re off into the wilderness to hunt trolls.


In the following sections, I want to help to make the tavern less of a convenient means to and end, a simple stepping stone in an adventure, and more of an adventuring location in its own right.


If you think about any bar, any pub or cafe you’ve been in that was packed full of life, gossip, relationships or even shady dealings, it’s possible to see that these are places that are filled with potential.


Before we can start to transform a tavern into a campaigning location however, we need to create a living breathing microcosm of fantasy life - we need to actually construct the tavern itself.


Your tavern doesn’t have to follow the standard model of the medieval watering hole, you might not be running a medieval fantasy campaign. If your characters are hunting vampires through the rain slicked streets of Victorian London, there are pubs and ale houses to suit all tastes.


If your characters are networked edge runners on the streets of a massive Cyberpunk arcology then you might want either a seedy dive for mercenaries or a high class club for the tech-elite.


Whatever you want to create you need to establish it in a degree of fantasy-realism, a strange term I’ll grant you but one which can best be understood as the parameters of realism you place on the setting you’ve devised.


For the sake of simplicity, let’s imagine the tavern in question exists in a world where humans, elves and dwarves all interact relatively peacefully and the last war between these three peoples was a long time ago.


Let’s also suppose that the tavern is mainly frequented by humans but elves and dwarves from time to time will take rest there. We have a rough idea about what the people in the tavern are familiar with, what they would see as being out of the ordinary (an Orc stopping by for a drink, for example) and what they would be familiar with.


Aspects of the culture of humans, dwarves and elves would intermingle (the innkeeper might be able to order barrels of dwarven ale, or the finest elven breads for example). One thing to watch out for in this scenario is the merging of the fantastical and the everyday.


A tavern is part of the everyday, a thing that we naturally assume to be normal and mundane (even if it turns out not to be), the hidden worlds of Dwarves and Elves ideally should remain out of the everyday and be mysterious and magical. The moment that trade and exchange means the timeless mysteries of the elves are as available to the PCs as the ale in a tavern, they will become mundane too.


Once we can start to establish the aforementioned parameters of realism, role playing suddenly becomes a lot easier and makes a lot more sense, because we can start to see the world as the imaginary people we are creating see it.


Once, long ago, when playing MERP (long extinct LOTR RPG - Google it), the GM had created a clever and well designed campaign where the PCs faced a terrifying vampire demigod that even freaked the Balrogs out. My blundering idiot PC wandered into a tavern and began to ask around about this monstrous entity.


The DM played the encounter perfectly, showing the visible distress and fear on the faces of the NPCs as the most terrifying concept any of them could conceive of was discussed in their warm cosy inn. The PCs were told to keep quiet or leave.


The point of this anecdote is to say that in the worlds we create, NPCS have to act in ways that make sense and a bar room full of strangers is as close to a random sample of beings that we can hope for.


Most of them will have typical understandings of the reality they exist in and if they don’t, then the concept of the tavern (the ordinary space where role playing can occur) begins to break down.


If suddenly everyone is an expert vampire hunter and arguably more expert than the PCs, the tavern ceases to be part of the everyday world and really a secret meeting place for exceptional individuals (there’s nothing wrong with this per se, but it means that you’re creating something very different which has different implications for the story you are creating).





A brief history of taverns


Taverns have always been the products of growing interconnectedness in the world. There was not much need for them to exist in the earliest civilisations before human beings were able to create food surpluses, but the moment that grain barns began to fill and trade flourished the predecessor of the tavern emerged.


In Babylon the sites close to temples were places where food and drink were served, and in Greece simple Taverna could be found in cities like Athens where men (exclusively men at that time) met and drank in the shade and discussed politics and drank wine.


Taverns have been places where travellers can rest (the Bible is full of stories from the tale of the Good Samaritan to the birth of Christ where Inns featured) and be fed and the are a product of trade and the growing mobility of people in general.


However, taverns have always had a second purpose, that of leisure and consumption and from the early days of Rome to the streets of Jacobean England they have been places where the wealthy have been able to dine and drink.


The nobility, engaging in the business of elite politics might have preferred to entertain one another in the confines of castles and palaces but a vast swathe of the ‘middling sort’ of peoples from merchants to gentry landowners would enjoy what leisure time they had at a tavern.


Time itself is a crucial factor here, most labouring poor were not time rich (or cash rich) and had little opportunity to drink and make merry (except on high days and holidays), so taverns weren’t crammed with peasants (during the Middle Ages, across much of Europe, swathes of peasant labour wasn’t free labour - peasants were serfs and were tightly regulated in what they were able to do and when).


Across much of medieval and early modern Europe, taverns could take on a variety of roles. Some would have a small smithy attached to them, others stables and could even double as coaching houses.


When national systems of postage were created (such as the Royal Mail in England under Charles II) innkeepers could also take on the role of postmaster. The tavern became a community hub and it would not be uncommon for the Innkeeper to have a local civic role (official or unofficial) as mayor.


Taverns have always been places for deal making to occur. These are either the sorts of deals undertaken between political fixers looking to see their man or woman elected or crowned or the deals required to make criminal underworlds function.


Taverns have frequently become places of political dispute, here in Cardiff in Wales where I live the main drag called St Mary’s Street (a place that is normally featured on ‘Booze Britain’ documentaries), 500 years ago young Tudor gentlemen fought duels in the streets.


They did so because they represented rival factions vying for political power in the town. In this way, taverns have been on the front line of political and or criminal violence for much of their existence.


This section isn’t an attempt to write a comprehensive social history of the tavern, but to give you a few pointers as to how you can mine the past to give the place your players visit a life and energy of its own.


Now we must consider the specific history of your tavern



A brief history of Your Tavern


How long would a tavern in Minas Tirith have been around for? How old was the Mos Eisley Canteena or the Inn of the Prancing Pony? When the PCs set foot in a tavern in the wilds is it a hundred years old? A thousand years old?


In Britain there are still a handful of pubs that pre-date the Norman Conquest of 1066, so it’s not an extreme proposition that in a city like Minas Tirith there might be taverns that have existed for thousands of years.


Imagine a tavern with a complex history that predates the kingdom that the PCs are adventuring in itself. Even a tavern with a couple of centuries of life would have passed between numerous owners, have seen deaths and skullduggery in is booths and corners.


It would have seen travellers both famous and obscure pass through its doors and be saturated with the stories of the world in which it was built.


If you want to turn your tavern into a detailed adventuring location where deals are done, riddles are solved, intelligence gathered, connections with NPCs made and even duels fought consider its past.


Perhaps there is a story that related to the person who built it, whose name still hangs over the door. Perhaps the tavern was promised to his son, but when he was lost at sea it was handed over to the original owner’s nephew. Maybe there’s been bad blood in the family ever since.


Perhaps when he was returning from a war with in the dark land beyond the mountains, King Dratharinde III stopped at the tavern for the night. As he and his retinue drank themselves into a stupor he carved a sigil into the underside of the table.


This sigil was one of the dark enemy’s symbols of power and has been all but forgotten, but the local drunk who has passed out under the table for years knows all about it.


Maybe the tavern hasn’t always been a tavern? Maybe it was once a monastery or the barbican of a castle. Maybe it’s a converted police station in a Robocop style warzone of a city? Perhaps the tavern is made out of other buildings?


In the towns of England the beams and slates of many 16th Century taverns were actually stolen from local monastic houses in 1536 when Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries. Local people simply looked at the stone blocks, timbers and slates in the monasteries and helped themselves.


Perhaps if you are hoping to create a more fantastical setting, such as a world where vast behemoths that stalked the land died out millennia ago, a tavern made from their bones could be an intriguing creation.


The Owners


The keeper of the tavern should by rights be the most significant figure in the establishment. As an NPC they can be used in all sorts of different ways by the GM. They can be an ally, an antagonist, a source of information or an informant against the PCs.


An NPC is a delicate role playing tool and if you have parties who tend to kill everything in their path (I hope you don’t btw, this is unbelievably boring and the ruination of all good role playing), a challenging innkeeper will simply be hacked to bits by them.


However, if you have PCs who recognise that they can’t simply act like this in all encounters then you can have some real fun here. What if there was an innkeeper who acted as an unofficial secret agent for a regional noble, or an innkeeper who was the master of a safe house for rebels or escaped political prisoners.


Either might have to work hard to conceal the true purpose of the tavern. There might be loads of scope for snooping around, solving riddles, gathering intelligence or preventing the innkeeper’s cover from being blown.


The Innkeeper might be a criminal, a fence, a smuggler, someone who arranges assassinations, a mafia style consigliere. The barrels in the ale cellar might be used to move contraband, conceal people, hide bodies etc.


The innkeeper might also be a fugitive from the law, having found a tavern far away from the authorities from the land of their origin. They might have a maritime connection and serve drinks in a tavern for sailors and pirates. In order to turn a tavern into an adventuring location, it’s really important to think of the backstory of the innkeeper and their family.


Regulars


In any tavern there are regulars. Cheers had Norm, Cliff and Frasier and behind the bar Sam, Diane and Woody (if you’re reading this and under the age of 40, again, Google it, it’s one of the greatest sitcoms of all time). Who occupies the tables at your tavern?


  • The retired knight who is obsessed with finding a particular monster that has preyed on the town for decades?

  • The spooky silent twins that arrived in the tavern years ago and nobody knows exactly where they came from?

  • The local political activist or conspiracy theorist who might just be on to something?

  • The hard drinking prize fighter who boxes on the village green for coins and ale?

  • The reclusive scribe who occupies the attic and rarely comes down?

  • The wandering bounty hunter who eyes the PCs suspiciously?

  • The local noble’s son who is in love with the innkeeper’s daughter and longs to be free of his father?

  • The mystic old Skald who sometimes sees the future?

  • The pretentious artist or poet who annoys everyone but sometimes knows exactly what the right thing to do is?


Make sure that you fill the tavern with colourful characters who you can roleplay and they will act as helpful pieces in your story (they don’t have to all be there at once, some you can keep back for a separate adventure).


Strangers


What about strangers? No tavern setting will be complete without travellers, drifters and people who huddle by the fire but prefer to keep their secrets. There are countless ways that you can use strangers as the core NPCs in a story. Here are just a few:


  • The Fugitive nobleman’s son/daughter: On learning that their wealthy father has died and their evil Richard III type uncle has taken control of the family estate, a desperate son or daughter flees. They are accompanied by their own personal retainer, not knowing that said retainer has been paid to murder them en route.

  • The envoy: A scholar has been sent on a perilous journey to deliver a message to an enemy power (perhaps even beings from another world). If the message doesn’t reach its intended audience then war might be the result.

  • The thief: A thief has stolen an item of great power from a group of mystics within the forest. The mystics are trying to get the item back because they know the chaos the thief will unleash with it. The only problem is that he doesn’t know.

  • The dying man: A man is returning to his home lands, knowing that an illness will claim his life soon. He has one last journey to make and needs some help, because he has some dangerous truths to impart when he gets home.

  • The forager: There are special flowers and herbs in the nearby woods that can be used for healing. The forager has come looking for them and knows that they attract foul creatures too.

  • The jousting knight: A knight heading to a tournament to win a fortune in the joust is mistaken for an impressive warrior. In fact, whilst the knight can joust, he’s actually terrible with a sword. The PCs must help keep up the pretence that he is good in battle and secretly help defeat anyone who challenges him to a duel.




The Food and Ale


This is almost the product of another post, but food and drink are important. There are some GMs that I know who have gone to the trouble of preparing three course tavern meals for their players in order to get them into the spirit of their establishment.


This is not necessary of course, but it is always a good idea to think about where the food and drink actually come from. In mediaeval Europe there was a lively trade in French wine from Ireland to the Grand Duchy of Warsaw, and of course the spices in cakes and pastries came from as far away as India or Java.


This showed that whilst a tavern might rely on local meat, vegetables and bread and possibly even brew its own ale, there were plenty of foodstuffs and drink that travelled a long way. The more complex a society, the more interconnected the supply chains of food will be.


Industrialised societies that have benefitted from railways have seen the mass transportation of livestock across continents to markets and slaughter houses. In mediaeval Europe, cattle would be taken by drovers along cross country routes and there would be taverns along the way specifically situated to cater for them.


Have a think about where the wine, the spirits, the ale, the meat, the bread and the tobacco all come from and this will help place the tavern in a wider context.


Conclusion


This exercises will help you to mentally inhabit the tavern, instead of seeing it as a generic place for the PCs to briefly end up in before they continue on their adventures. There is a good reason for really telling the story of the tavern environment; if we don’t stop to experience where the PCs actually are and what is going on there, we start to loose the richness of the role playing experience. This tends to spread too, and streets, temples, markets, ships and libraries all become more generic and less distinct. As with all things the details are what brings the experience of role play gaming to life.


PS: Here's an extra video on making your world (and the taverns within it) make sense:






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