How many times has your adventure begun in a tavern? Too many, I’m guessing. It’s one of the most overused settings in D&D and the go-to locale for lazy DMs who need a quick way to get the PCs on the path to adventure.
There’s a reason that so many adventures begin in a tavern – it works. After all, the PCs are usually of different races and have varying backgrounds so where else would this rag-tag, miss-match bunch of people ever meet other than in the tavern? The only other place that comes to mind is a prison cell, but beginning an adventure in prison forces a blemish on every PC that the players may not agree with so the tavern returns to the top of the list.
Despite having a good reason to begin an adventure in the tavern, the very idea of beginning another adventure in the tavern drives me crazy. But I’ve come to realize that it’s not the idea of the tavern as much as that fact that it’s a non-descript tavern. If the DM feels its necessary to start things in the tavern I think it’s his responsibility to make it more than just four walls, some tables, and a bar. If taverns are such an integral part of D&D then the DM owes it to the PCs to make the tavern interesting.
Throughout April Dungeon’s Master is participating in the Blogging from A to Z Challenge. The challenge is to write a new article ever day in April, excluding Sundays. That’s 26 articles over the course of the month. To make things even more interesting the title of each article will begin with a different letter of the alphabet. We look at taverns and the importance of making them interesting, as is the case in today’s “Y” Yawning Portal.
Every tavern should have its own personality; something that separates it from the hundreds of other taverns that the PCs will visit during their adventuring career. If the tavern is in their home town, or some other place where they’ll be staying for extended periods of time, then the DM has to put some effort into making the tavern memorable.
One of the most interesting taverns I’ve come across during my considerable years of gaming is the Yawning Portal tavern in Waterdeep. Talk about a tavern that’s unique and has its own personality, DMs should look at the Yawning Portal and take note; this is how you make a tavern an important part of the campaign and not just a place where the PCs go to meet a stranger and get sent on their next quest.
The Yawning Portal is so named because in the centre of the main room is a giant 40-foot wide shaft that descends nearly 200 feet into cavernous Undermountain. Adventurers can pay a fee to be lowered down the shaft and begin their quest for fortune and fame.
The shaft and much of Undermountain itself were originally constructed by the Wizard Halaster Blackcloak. When he perished and his fortress destroyed, the Yawning Portal’s original owner built the tavern around the shaft. For over a century would-be heroes have paid for the privilege of using the portal.
The Yawning Portal’s owner and employees realize that there is always a possibility that the denizens of Undermountain may try to ascend the shaft, so they are always ready to fight off threats that may emerge unexpectedly. It’s rare than any uninvited guests make their way up the shaft. Most monsters know that their next meal will be lowered on a rope if they wait patiently in the shadows and corridors just beyond the main well.
Many local patrons find it thrilling to cheer on anyone dumb enough to go down the hole. As most people who go into down the hole do not come back up, the atmosphere in the Yawning Portal is usually one of celebration – a farewell party for those about to die. There is also considerable gambling as the locals bet on who may return and what state they may be in when they do. Returning adventurers who want to get a lift up must pay a toll or fend for them selves.
The Yawning Portal is a fantastic location that’s so much more than just your run of the mill tavern. It can still serve as a watering hole but it’s full of adventuring hooks, most notably the shaft to the lower levels. The DM can easily have anyone needed to move the campaign forward at the Yawning portal because they’re about to go down the shaft, they’re accompanying someone else who is, they might have just returned to the surface, or they might just be here to drink. The point is that the Yawning Portal has a personality and it’s memorable.
The next time you need a place to begin the adventure and you decide on a tavern do everyone a favour and make the tavern interesting. Remember the Yawning Portal and use it as inspiration. Even a few little details can make an otherwise normal tavern something memorable. Be creative and think outside the box, or in this case think outside the tavern.
For more information on the Yawning Portal pick up a copy of the Halls of Undermountain or use the reference links provided below.
For additional resources on taverns see: