Starting in a Tavern and How to Make it More Than a Trope
The old faithful. A tavern.
Many Dungeon Masters (we call them Quest Masters) rely on this staple within a campaign as a means of introducing adventurers to each other. Even after the start of an adventure, taverns, inns, and even tea houses become a staple of the adventuring party’s journey as places of rest, peace and recuperation. However it can be a hard setting to manage due to multiple Non-Player-Characters (NPCs), potential for random violence, and the exchanging of coin!
The Five Senses
When describing any location, the best advice is to remember the five senses. Tell your players what this tavern smells like, how loud it is inside, and who is talking. Explain the layout of it, including how the light sources shape it. You should also try and include physical sensations, such as a sticky floor or coldness resulting from a small fireplace.
Know Your Setting
Knowing your setting is crucial when designing a tavern encounter. Ensuring that your tavern’s drinks, layout, and style is in keeping with your setting will help keep your players are engaged in the experience.
If you are running a campaign that is set in Faerun's Storm Coast, you might expect a very different kind of tavern to one set in Kara-Tur or Dark Sun. A great example of this would be a tavern in a European Fantasy setting (such as The Forgotten Realms) that contains warm ales, circular wooden tables and a simple food menu of bread or meats.
Alternatively, a setting like Dark Sun would include taverns sparingly. With water being such a rare resource and drinks being highly valuable, a tavern would be filled with expensive, but poor quality drinks like vodka. Decoration-wise, it may be filled with scavenged golden statuary and glassworked rooves.
Pick a Theme
What makes bars or hotels stand out in real life? Character and themes.
From Ice Hotels to owl cafes, people remember places with heavily obvious themes. What if the tavern that your party rests at is an inn set over a minor rift to the City of Brass, run by Efreeti,and themed around a hookah bar? Low sofas set into the ground with blue flared lanterns floating above. Maybe even add Gazers as security cameras to keep an eye on the place. The food and drink they serve could be spiced coffee and cumin cookies. Their bedrooms could be subterranean and lit by Elemental Fire.
Having a themed establishment may be difficult, if your party likes to hop between towns! Creating one or two stand-out taverns gives them a place to call home and get to know more intimately. If this does not suffice, perhaps you could create a chain-network of similar taverns like O’Charleys or Wetherspoons. Picking a good theme for these taverns, such as “Dwarven Hospitality,” offers the players a safe haven and a stop off in each town they come to. This also makes your preparations easier!
The first decision to be made here is whether or not the tavern has entertainment present! A plucky elven bard playing joyful songs in the rebuilt ruins of a party’s old favorite tavern may help bring hope to a potentially sorrowful moment.
You don’t have to put entertainment on stage though! Having chess tables or croupiers playing poker adds another level of immersion. If you do want a stage, however, remember that it is likely to make the tavern more lively and can drown out potential conversations with NPCs if it becomes too loud!
If entertainment seems out of place, a silent, tension-filled, and dingy dive bar can also be memorable.
Knowing what kind of tavern you are running is going to be important in relation to how you populate. Take into account what town the tavern is in: Is it within the Empire and filled with loyalist elves? Or maybe it’s a rough-road pub filled with bandit half-orcs and dwarves? This is an important first step.
It can be easy to overpopulate a tavern. Creating a few interesting NPCs, such as a strikingly purple tiefling at the bar or a gnome scrawling rune-filled notes, gives your players a hint at quests. Filling a tavern with lots of stand-out NPCs means you probably won’t leave the bar that session! Don’t feel bad about making some filler NPCs to help drive attention to the more interesting ones.
The Owner and Bartender
Any medieval-era tavern would have a bartender. This person is also often the owner of the tavern. Creating an NPC who is serious about growing their business and committed to the unique theme is key. Try to resist tropes and have a gnome run a bar with a fight club in it, or a half-orc committed to serving the best quality burgers & pasties. Think about who is behind the bar and let them inform how the rest of the tavern operates.