Taverns, inns, cantinas, and bars have played a central role in roleplaying games from the very first edition of D&D.  They provide places to sleep and replenish oneself, they are hangouts for all kinds of scum and villainy, they are places to find information, and they are excellent plot devices.  When I started playing D&D, every game I ran would begin with a bar fight.  Every.  Single.  One.  In fact, most of the bar fights ended with the party burning down the bar.  The group paladin would protest, the rogue would hi-five him or herself, and everyone else would have a rollicking good time.  Except the tavern owner, of course.  The party often found that their welcome was very worn very quickly.

Since that point, I no longer use bar fights.  They fill me with a sense of dread and mediocrity that can only be assuaged by ensuring the construction of a new tavern, one to stand for all eternity.  Now, the inns and watering holes featured in my campaigns still fulfill an important plot role, but they do so in a (usually) non-violent manner.  You see, the most important thing I learned from the early bar fights and incautious scrounging for tidbits and clues was that the local public house means something different to each player.  Well, duh! you say.

I make it sound like a big revelation to me, and it was.  Learning to allow the party to adapt my bars, inns, and taverns to their own uses also taught me how to run an unscripted (or at least rail-less) adventure.  Now, a watering hole is a resource for all players, but it isn’t just another combat arena.  It can be, should they choose to make it so, but it is what they make of it in the end.

And now on to the original point of this post and what I hope will be the veg and potatoes thereof.

As I noted earlier, pubs are an integral part of most roleplaying games.  Whether you are hardened mercenaries looking for a place to put up your boots, battle-scarred adventurers in need of some information, or star-faring cargo haulers with a hankering for real company a tavern can provide necessary services.  In game terms, taverns and inns provide overnight accommodations, sustenance, and contacts.  Contacts are, perhaps, their most important function.  When looking for transport to Alderaan, Obi-Wan Kenobi had only to look to the nearest spacer cantina to find plenty of pilots looking for cargo.  Sometimes the characters are the party and sometimes they are the cargo, but that is the beauty of a bar – they may be either!  The characters may walk in one day looking for a fence to unload some black market goods and walk in the next day looking to buy legitimate weapons.

These watering holes are by no means essential to any campaign.  Any city or habitation, unless under authoritarian rule, needs a place for locals to gather, socialize, and blow off steam.  In settings with a drinking age, some do not serve alcoholic beverages, like The Bronze in Buffy‘s Sunnydale.  Even so, they serve the same essential purpose – mingling and contact.  When adding such a place to your setting, think carefully about the region, the locals, and what purpose this particular establishment might serve.  Not all taverns are like The Prancing Pony!  The Mos Eisley cantina is very different from an inn visited by a hero from The Wheel of Time.  Different races and locales warrant different watering holes.  The drow might use a dark, stony bar hanging from a stalactite in one of the great caverns of the Underdark, while one of the many civilizations encountered by Dr. Who might build inside the skeletons of some long-deceased, monstrous race.

And now I present you with a selection of NPCs, hooks, and ideas pertinent to inns, taverns, bars, pubs, and other watering holes in any campaign or setting.  Enjoy them, reuse them, and adapt them for yourself!

  • A mercenary from the 4th Mechanized Brigade walks into the cantina looking for the soldier who betrayed his unit…
  • Ned’s is the best bar in town – no one asks too many questions and it’s a good place to put your feet up without worry about cops poking about…
  • Carlo operates three taverns across the city.  He pays bribes to the right members of the Watch so that his patrons can enjoy a quiet ale in the company of friends or do business in the private rooms.  He doesn’t care what they do so long as they keep buying drinks…
  • Word is out that anyone looking for black market foodstuffs should ask around in The Grinding Gears.  There are goods to be had aplenty for them as can pay the price…
  • Johnny “Little John” Mackey escaped from the federal pen last week and went to ground.  He was most recently seen downing some bootleg gin at a speakeasy near the docks…
  • Customers at Kraal’s Bed and Breakfast have a tendency to go missing.  The hobgoblin war veteran says he’s as perplexed as anyone, but he seems to know more than he’s telling…
  • Vor’cha (sorry for the apostrophe) is a regular at the Blackened Beard.  He comes from an old mercenary clan and is willing to sell his blade to anyone willing to pay, but he’s fallen on hard times lately with the Peace drying up honest merc work…
  • The Maiden’s Reproach is the place to find businessmen in Blackrock. All the most influential power brokers gather there to strike deals and find bargains…
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