Whether a tavern, inn, bar or brothel – for a travelling group of adventurers, there’s no more regular destination than the town’s hub of quests, ale and beds for rent. Today, we take a look at how we can make taverns more than just a resting stop, into something fun, and memorable.
A lively crowd
It’s common for a tavern to be a meeting place for a group of strange people travelling about, but there’s no better place to emphasise the fact that the world is full of adventurers like a tavern. It’s a good place for your adventurers to relax between quests, so why not other adventurers?
A party that visits a particular tavern often might meet another party that frequents it as well. As a DM, you can introduce rivals, allies, or even just friends to drink and train with in a tavern. Creating a party that travels in similar circles to your adventurers is also a great way to get out all of those character concepts you may not get to try otherwise.
Apart from other adventurers, the tavern is also a gathering point for other interesting locals – from people who may have quests to give out, to travelling merchants, and even prominent figures like the mayor or town wizard!
Weird and wonderful
Much like mage towers, taverns make an excellent opportunity to add some strangeness and wonder to your town. It’s common for criminal elements to operate out of taverns, with secret basements and tunnels out and around the town.
It’s also common for former adventurers to become barkeeps (The Sunken Flagon and Boar Hat are good examples of this) – and former adventurers, as much as anyone, have a taste for the unusual, and unique needs. You could put such a tavern over an artifact that it protects, or even as part of a mage tower for a particularly social wizard.
There are dozens of ways a tavern can have its own unique spin, from being part of another building with a different function to simply having crazy architecture designed to take advantage of the local geographical features. Such unique traits are often the source of a Tavern’s name as well…
What’s in a name
I’ve never seen players remember any small detail about the world like they remember their favourite bar or barkeep. A good and creative name for a tavern is always fun to come up with, and will often be the subject of much scrutiny by the players.
A perfectly normal tavern with a mysterious or ominous name can easily rouse the player’s suspicions. A completely outrageous tavern with an innocuous name can also be a good source of humour.
If you’re struggling to come up with a name or concept for your tavern, there are name generators online. You could also use the name to inspire the tavern instead of doing it the other way around.
Much like the inn itself, the name of the innkeepers and wait staff are also important – of the NPC’s that aren’t directly linked to the big bads of your campaigns, there are few that your players will interact with more. (Especially if your players decide to bring the bartender along to serve drinks on their adventures, this happened to me once). A normal name might bring a more “down-to-earth” feel to your bar, but an ostentatious title could hint at an adventurous past for your keepers. But whether adventurers or not, barkeepers have more knowledge about the world around them than most…
The rumour mill
Everyone talks when they’re drunk. Most folks get drunk at taverns, and even those who keep themselves clean can often get into the social spirit of a room full of music, dancing, and cheerful people.
The people most consistently around to hear people talking at a tavern are the people who work there. Whether it’s the identity of a cheating spouse’s lover, which farmers are having a great year, which merchants are trying to sell stolen goods, and whether any mysterious strangers blew through town when strange things started happening.
Any time your characters walk into a tavern, be ready for them to start asking for rumours. The tricky thing about rumours, of course, is that less than half of them are ever completely true. You could send your players on many wild gooose-chases through this, or they might find something even more wondrous than they expected…
A place to rest
Whether your characters manage to find great treasures, or barely escape a dragon’s wrath with scorch marks on their behinds, they’ll need a place to rest.
Even while travelling from one town to another, taverns along the way are a blessing. They’re far safer than camping, and not having to feed themselves or keep watch and pitch tents saves them time they can use on downtime(Xanathar’s has a lot of extra downtime activities as well), crafting, or even just getting the lay of the land.
The arrival at a tavern is also a great breaking point between being out in the dangerous world, and being safe in town. The presence of people, and bards playing music, is a great way to bring that home.
The tavern quest board
Having arrived somewhere safe, players and their characters often find themselves pondering their next moves. It’s a common trope for taverns to have guild masters, quest boards, or even just troubled commoners searching for aid wandering around for adventurers to find.
Even if your party is already on a major quest, it’s worth always having a side quest or two ready – just in case the players want to earn a quick buck along the way. These can be simple tasks, or completely tangential issues that draw them away from their original goal.
In this sense, taverns are great distractions from the bigger dangers in the world, but can also be a great backdrop for those dangers to play out…
The tavern’s own quests
As busy as taverns can be, it’s common for events in the larger world to affect them directly. Taverns can be attacked, be the hiding place of rebels or bandits that the party is tracking, or even host events, like bardic performances, pit brawls, or drinking contests.
Their patrons are also prime targets for con artists and pickpockets – allowing you to use the perceived safety of that environment to catch those characters off guard.
For this reason, more than any other, it’s worth having grid-maps of your tavern ready. If you aren’t good at maps, there are hundreds of them scattered across the internet.
While many events or strange people may happen in taverns, there’s one thing that can almost always be found in a tavern – a bard.
Music to your ears
Bards, or bardic troupes, are the life’s blood of many taverns. They make their living playing music for generous crowds, speaking to their patrons for inspiration for their songs, and in some cases, finding adventuring parties to join and form some legends of their own.
Many DM’s prefer to avoid playing music during their sessions. The presence of actual musicians in the story is a great time to break that rule and make the game feel just a little bit more real.
While there are many online resources for music in-game, from Youtube and Battle Bards to Syrinscape, I’m a big fan of setting up actual playlists to avoid any surprises and to get a very specific style of music.
Music and Debauchery
Bards are often portrayed as wanting to seduce everything. That’s probably because brothels are often parts of taverns, or vice versa. This is especially the case in more loose-minded societies, but even in nations where prostitution is illegal, it’s often possible to find some hired companionship, if you know where to look.
Such companions, much like everything else in a tavern, can come (heh, heh) in all shapes and sizes. With any tavern, it’s worth thinking about whether that would be an option at the kind of place you’re making. A fancy place could have a few high-class debutantes that double as performers and escorts. A less refined establishment could have waitrons who take clients between working tables.
If you do include such elements in your game, be sure to take your player’s sensibilities into account. You can also apply that thinking to the structure of the tavern itself. With a more open society, the brothel could have a more open approach to their entertainment, while a more reserved establishment would have a subtler approach.
Come have a drink
Whether it’s a quiet dive, or a raucous ale house, taverns are always a fun place for your players. We hope we’ve given you some ideas for the taverns in your world, and for your players to enjoy!
Have any crazy tavern stories you’d like to share? We’d love for you to let us know in the comments!