Food and Water: Incorporating Them Into Your Next D&D Session
Food is important in just about every session of Dungeons &Dragons. Whenever you play with your group in person, there’s typically always someone bringing snacks. If your party is really dedicated to breaking both bread and the bones of monsters they encounter, you may even have a potluck each game. Gaming sessions often stretch into 6 or 8 hours, making those snacks essential to keep the group going.
However, when it comes to food in the game, it often gets swept under the rug. Why do we consider food more important for us sitting around a table than it is for our characters, who are making their way through what are often grueling physical trials?
Edible -- But Not Exciting
The simple answer is this: Food and drink just aren’t seen as exciting in D&D. And that’s valid! When taken at face value, food and water aren’t too interesting when compared to fighting evil-doers and freeing towns from insidious curses. Why would you want to waste time tallying your supplies when you could be chasing down the Big Bad?
Like many things, it’s up to the Dungeon Master (we call them Quest Masters) to make food engaging. Here are a few options:
Food as a Requirement
The first option is simple: make food necessary for the player characters to survive. Instead of just assuming they eat at some point, make the players keep track of their food stores and let you know when they’re eating.
We all know someone who forgets to eat when they get too busy, so it’s not unthinkable that your players’ characters could do the same, considering their often high-stress circumstances. That’s why it’s important to hold your players responsible for feeding their characters. It’s up to you when to put your foot down on this, of course, but it can be a particularly interesting mechanic on a long journey.
While traveling, if the party happens to run out of food, then they are going to have to hunt or forage, either of which can lead to a variety of different encounters. If the party declines to do either, you can start making things perilous by adding points of exhaustion, as explained in the Player’s Handbook.
A home-brewed mechanic you might consider introducing is ‘malnourishment’, in which every day without eating lowers a character’s constitution score by one, cumulatively, and a day on which they eat restores one point. While eating only once every few days to stretch out their stores may not actively injure them, they will become weaker and less able to withstand any other conditions they might come up against. After all, functioning on little food will start to weaken even the strongest half-orc.
Having food as a requirement also gives the QM a whole host of opportunities to make things difficult for the party or even kick off a new story arc. For example, perhaps a blight wipes out an area’s crops and the party has to figure out what’s causing it before they and everyone else in the region starves.
Where the party is at the time can also influence their ability to find food. If they’re in the middle of a jungle populated with monsters and poisonous plants, even locating edible food might become more dangerous than starvation itself.
It’s also pretty easy to target the party when there are food supplies to threaten. Goblins might steal their rations to feed their own tribe, or a nefarious enemy might poison their drinks at a tavern in hopes of coercing them to complete a morally ambiguous service in exchange for the cure.
It doesn’t even have to be an enemy threatening their food -- a cute creature (perhaps a baby owlbear)could be found eating their rations in the middle of the night. Hopefully, the creature is too cute to be considered dinner later on.
A Moment of Rest
While food and drink can be great vehicles for danger, they can also be a great way to encourage role-play. Whether it’s sitting around a campfire or finding a table at a crowded tavern, every time the players sit down to eat is an opportunity for them to talk. Will they argue or have a touching heart-to-heart? For an extra bit of immersion, you can eat some real-life snacks while role-playing to imitate your character eating with their mouth full!
Even if your players haven’t been putting much of a focus on eating, and have therefore been missing out on these role-playing opportunities, it’s pretty easy to nudge them in that direction. Next time the party makes camp, ask them what they do for dinner and the needed amount of follow-up questions until they describe a full-course meal.
If they need a bit more inspiration, have a menu prepared for the next tavern they stop at and make a point of having the waitress insist on informing the party about the special of the day. If you play in person, you might even consider having prop menus printed out!
Some players may even like using the food itself as a prop to role-play! In the home game I run, my son’s character has taken on the role of ‘team cook’, and loves narrating the culinary creations he comes up with every time they camp.
Make it Your Own
Like many things in tabletop gaming, food and drink are one more opportunity to take a normal, everyday thing and make it special. Maybe that means letting a cleric or paladin save the day with Create Food and Water, making your party narrate the cooking of a shared meal, or even transforming the nightly meal into a traveling cooking show.
Give food and drink a chance in your game. Maybe your players will decide that keeping track of rations is tedious and detracts from the experience, and that’s fine. But they may also discover that the element of danger that the potential lack of food adds to the campaign is something they enjoy.
How do you use food and drink in your home games? Is it a casual thing you use for role-playing or can it have dire consequences for your players?