Tavern Trappings

by Ameron (Derek Myers) on May 14, 2010

Last week we provided a list of 118 Tavern Names. In the article, Wimwick provided some good positioning around making a tavern more than just a typical, average, run-of-the-mill establishment. Giving it a name is an excellent start. But why stop there?

Considering how often PCs find themselves in taverns, it’s important that you take some time to make each one unique and memorable. You don’t have to spend hours on it; a few minutes will do the trick. Adding those little details brings the setting to life. Without these details your tavern is just a forgettable background. So before the PCs head to the next watering hole for a quick drink, take a minute to flesh it out a little bit. Using our list to find an appropriate tavern name is a great start, but don’t forget to describe the staff, the patrons and the décor.

The Staff

Every tavern needs a colourful bartender and at least one or two serving girls. At bare minimum they need names. Knowing their race, sex and general description is good too. But you don’t want to get too bogged down with a lot of unnecessary details. Keep the descriptions high-level. If the PCs do something unpredictable, like start a fight, or engage in more than the usual banter, quickly determine if the staff has any special attributes. If they’re just regular people then their numbers should be very average. But if the bartender is a retired soldier, he might actually have some chops.

Personally, I like to have at least one or two people in the bar be considerably tougher than the PCs. Usually it’s the bartender or the bouncer. This way if things get out of hand I know that my ace-in-the-hole can restore order in a hurry.

I’ve found that my players often ask for details they don’t expect me to have prepared. The one that trips me up most often is when they ask their server about the daily specials or the local cuisine. When that happens I try to offer a mix of the expected and the bizarre. I always have a few Monsters on the Menu just to see their reactions and find out what they think their characters are actually willing to eat.

The Patrons

Much like the staff, it’s always a good idea to have the basics ready. You don’t need to describe every barfly and filthy drunk in the place, but describing a few makes for a more interesting setting. Most players (me included) are sick of walking into a bar only to find the other patrons include a table of rowdy, drunken Dwarves, a down-on-his-luck drunk passed out in his own filth, and a Wizard with a long white beard and pointy hat sitting in the corner. Change it up once and a while.

Have a few “stock” characters ready to populate your next tavern. It’s really easy to do this randomly. Make a list of 20 races and 20 classes. Roll 2d20 and see what you come up with. The patron doesn’t have to actually be the race and class you roll, but you can use this as a jumping off point.

  • Minotaur Invoker – Perhaps he’s just a really big, really harry guy with a holy symbol around his neck.
  • Gnome Fighter – Maybe it’s just a few teenagers dressed up in their parent’s old armor trying to look important.
  • Tiefling Monk – You see a Tiefling Monk. Sometimes it’s a good idea to keep exactly what you roll just to keep things unpredictable.

The Décor

With so many taverns to choose from, you’d better believe that the most successful ones have a gimmick to draw business. For some it’s a reputation for really good or really cheap ale. The rest do what they can to keep you interested and coming back after that first visit. A comfortable, welcoming establishment can create and maintain that effect with a few carefully chosen pieces of flare strategically placed throughout the place.

Think of what your real-life favourite pub looks like. Does it have cool rock memorable on the walls? Pictures of famous sports heroes? Far Side cartoons? Advertisements for various brewers or ads for upcoming special events? Maybe there’s even a band stand at the back for live entertainment? Keep all of this in mind when decking out your next tavern.

A D&D tavern may not have the same memorabilia on the wall as the Hard Rock Café, but I’m sure a creative DM can come up with some setting-appropriate substitutes. Weapons, shields, tapestries and caricatures of local heroes or politicians are all suitable adornment. A stuffed dragon head hanging from the wall or a stuffed displacer beast in the corner are probably a lot more common that you might expect in a world where monsters are the norm.

I want to again emphasize that this doesn’t have to be a long and drawn out process. Don’t spend hours describing every detail unless the tavern is going to be an important fixture in your game. But spending just a few minutes to dress up the place is time well spent.

Other Resources

For a couple of excellent resources, check out Inkwell Ideas. They’ve put together a program that will generate a floor plan for your next inn or tavern and now they’ve added a function to create a menu for your fantasy setting.

Tell us about some of the memorable taverns in your campaign. Where they regular establishments the PCs visited often, or was it just a one-time stop along the road.

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1 Geek Ken May 14, 2010 at 8:00 pm

Hee, having some randomized content I think is the bread and butter of just about any DM, especially if they need to make up something on the spot. I might have to steal that 2D20 patron idea.

I’ll drop a link, likely because the guy that runs it would likely be too modest to pimp his own site. Fame and Fortune runs a pretty regular series describing various taverns which are fantastic. Hope people go check them out.

.-= Geek Ken´s last blog ..Dumping coins and awarding chests for treasure =-.

2 Dungeon Newbie May 14, 2010 at 9:28 pm

Well, this is a great article, but why not have the main villian sitting in a corner? Say,”You see Kalavam, the Evil Warlord you are hunting, sitting in a corner having a drink.” and watch the player’s reactions! After all, this could actually happen, so make it happen!

3 Ameron May 17, 2010 at 8:37 am

@Geek Ken
The beauty of a randomized like my 2d20 suggestion is that you don’t have to waste a lot of time preparing NPCs that may never get used. My way is quick and gives you enough to work with if you need to expand the NPCs.

Thanks for the link. It looks like a pretty useful resource.

@Dungeon Newbie
I’ve actually done this a few times myself. Sometimes the villain is in disguise and the PCs need to figure that out, other times he’s there to spy on the, and once it was exactly like you describe it – he was just there having a drink didn’t realize the PCs might walk in while he was having a pint.

4 satyre May 23, 2010 at 2:41 pm

Cool how-to, will be borrowing some ideas. Wizards of the Coast have a nifty random generator which comes up with accommodation and rumours as well.

@Geek Ken – Thanks for the link!
.-= satyre´s last blog ..default activities – beer! =-.

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