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Fantasy Role-Playing Games are absolutely chock full of tropes. Every player or GM brings their knowledge and inspiration from books, movies, comic books, tv shows, and even other RPGs. That means that everybody brings in the tropes from these mediums as well. But that’s absolutely okay, and there’s nothing wrong with a good one.
By far, the biggest of the RPG clichés is when your characters meet in a tavern.
I cannot tell you how much I love this starting point though. It makes perfect sense, and it truly sets the scene for the rest of your campaign. Either by giving you a starting point that foreshadows the plot, or by showing a contrast of where your players started, and where they’ve ended up.
With a tavern, the gamemaster must set the mood right off the bat. Is the land mistrusting and xenophobic? Do the characters get a lot of attention as soon as they walk in, patrons staring them up and down? The bartender may not even serve their kind here. This is the time to start setting the scene, and describing a good deal of who is making this place their spot of comfort for the evening.
You can hear music coming from within, or if there is no song, you can hear the chatter. It’s a loud place full of new people, and it all hits you at once as you step through the door. It’s a place of great revelry and excitement, and that’s naturally overwhelming at first.
What’s not overwhelming are the sweet smells hitting your nose from the kitchen. Something amazing is stewing along with some roasting birds and sauced up pork. Clearly, the place is making enough food to feed the town, and it looks like the whole town is here tonight. Mysterious challengers lurk in the dark corners, with small glances at each of you as you pass by. There’s a girl dancing on a table, kicking her legs up in the air. Soon another girl joins her, laughing as their friends cheer them on. It’s clearly a happy time of night.
You find a chair and sit, feeling the comfortable sense in the air, and see a younger kid run up to ask if you have a drink order or want food. You ask for an ale and wave him off starting to people-watch. Suddenly, someone new bursts through the door, and the whole place goes silent.
A ragged man bursts through the door, his chest heaving as he tries to catch his breath. You hear him shout that his child is gone. It fills your heart with dread. You can’t help but feel sympathy for him—it’s not an easy thing to suffer. So you stand, and you realize a few others are standing too. You see them standing there, almost unsure of what to do, but knowing they want to help. You meet their eyes and wave them over as you get water for the man. You all listen intently as he explains his plight. He smells like he’s run all the way from another town, and it seems that is the case. You kneel down and put your hand on his shoulder, feeling him shake. You assure him you’ll get his child back safe.
Things that happen in a tavern should be quick and simple. Take your time if you must, but people hate tavern scenes with everybody standing around, goofing off, and waiting for something to happen. Have them start in a tavern, and have the adventure walk right through the door. It’s not exactly original, but it works perfectly.
The tavern will usually be a place the players become quite familiar with, as long as the story stays in that area for a bit. This means that the NPCs will in turn become increasingly familiar with the players, which will lead to all sorts of new tavern experiences, such as NPCs who want to buy drinks for the heroes, or villainous types who threaten them, then leave. More than a few things will change once the group are seen as heroes.
Perhaps the tavern starts to fill up more and more simply because the heroes of the town go there to drink. Perhaps the tavern owner starts to mount trophies from the heroes’ adventures all over, in order to drive up more business. Perhaps the tavern gets wiped out by an evil wizard in order to send a message to the party.
There are plenty of different ways you can handle taverns, but know this and know it well: even the most overused clichés still have life left in them. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!
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Roll a D20 on the following table to see who is in the tavern.
- A man in a bathrobe who is utterly depressed.
- A woman with two left feet, literally.
- A small goblin with a pet fox. They need help.
- A huge minotaur with one horn and a story to tell.
- A wize old wizard with no fashion sense.
- A paladin without a clue who needs help on his quest.
- A vile snakeman pretending to be a little girl.
- A bard trying to propose to the barmaid and keeps getting interrupted.
- A bear.
- A man with a hood drawn over a head who isn’t actually there.
- A skeleton that isn’t sure why she’s getting so many weird looks.
- A gender fluid person made from origami. They are far away from the fire.
- A dragon’s manservant getting a huge order of food for their master.
- A small bird that keeps whispering threats to the innkeeper’s cat.
- An invisible spider.
- A woman with a quest she cannot complete herself.
- Several people in a drinking competition.
- A halfling who teleported in, danced on the table and sang a song.
- The entire city guard. They don’t seem to realize nobody is watching the town.
- A fire elemental who cooks the food.