When I started playing D&D decades ago, it was already seen as tradition to have adventures starting in a tavern. Now, it can be seen as both tradition and a trope to have players starting in a tavern. (Whether your world calls them microbrewery’s, speakeasy’s, inns or drinking dens – RPG Systems often have players starting in a tavern of sorts). But should the DM have players starting in taverns, or is it just evidence of a lazy Dungeon Master?
Recently I’ve been wondering; should a DM start the next adventure in a tavern, would the players sigh loudly or would they not bat an eyelid?
I turned to Twitter and the various DMs and PCs I follow. What was their opinion on this question?
Should Adventures Start in a Tavern
This was the poll I ran on Twitter, to my little humble audience.
Beforehand I assumed the result would be fairly balanced, some preferring to stay away from cliches while others weren’t so bothered.
I was surprised by the results!
My Opinion on ‘Adventures Starting in a Tavern’
My personal opinion is that although it may be cliche, starting in a tavern is both brilliant and simple. It’s also a characteristic and logical method for starting off adventures.
In fact I couldn’t think of too many reasons why not to start adventures off in taverns.
For parties of new players I would very highly recommend it in fact. It provides a non-threatening environment (for players), which they can quite easily visualise, as well as offering lots of potential for plot hooks (see Tavern Plot Hooks below).
In contrast to that, try starting an adventure for new players by describing a Dark Elven sorcerers temple in the Shadow plane … you may have already lost them!
An Experienced DMs Opinion – Matthew Colville
This article came about while writing my top 6 tips for new DMs.
While researching that article I came across Matthew Colville’s excellent video, ‘Let’s Start In a Tavern! Running the Game’ and it got my thinking I’d run the poll mentioned above.
The surprising results of that poll, inspired me to write this article.
I highly recommend you go watch Matthews video (YouTube link). Big thanks to Matthew for every bit of wisdom he shares.
Seriously if you want to improve as a DM, go sub and watch his videos.
Players starting in a Tavern – but why?
Both player characters and NPCs head to taverns to unwind, relax and meet friends.
Much like a modern day pub or bar, taverns become a central meeting point for locals and foreigners alike.
However unlike today, nearly all taverns also act as hotels / hostels as well as restaurants. They act as safe-havens for travellers, especially those that are new to the city or don’t have their own property. They provide meals (of varying levels of quality) to starving battle-weary parties.
For these reasons, taverns become magnets for each and every character you can think of (well, almost).
Taverns are Worlds of their Own
Taverns are entire little worlds, condensed down into a single room.
As mentioned above, travellers and locals both flock to taverns, generating a small concentrated microcosm of their own. You may have Dwarven blacksmiths, Elven priests and gnome wood-lords all rubbing shoulders with each other.
Rich and poor. Old and young.
They all come together in one location – the tavern.
You’re unlikely to have many other common buildings so richly populated with such a diverse group.
This gives the DM a realistic option of having the player characters bump into the rich, the holy, the lonely and the desperate. Short of undead and some fiends, the DM can pretty much have the PCs meet anyone in a tavern.
Saying all of this, that ‘players are starting in a tavern’ – you must remember it doesn’t have to be a standard tavern per se!
- A recent goblin attack left the local tavern burnt to the ground, so the travellers and locals are currently meeting at the grand guild hall.
- The church has temporarily become the local, but dry, tavern.
- The locals are sheltering in an underground make-shift hovel, for one reason or another. Of course the entrepreneurial Dwarf has smuggled a barrel of mead down with him too.
Examples of Tavern Plot Hooks
Here are a few examples of how adventures can begin in a tavern.
Please drop a comment at the bottom with how you’d start your tavern adventure
Approached by a Stranger
This is probably THE biggest cliche with tavern adventures.
The characters are minding their own business when a dark figure approaches them, offering up a reward if they can clear the local forest, investigate the graveyard or take a message to a far off kingdom.
This cliche works so well because the onus is on having the DM instigate the start of the meeting.
Someone Elses’ Adventure
I came across the hook when researching this article, it comes from DiceOfDoom and is my favourite on their 8 Ways to Start a Campaign in a Tavern article.
The player characters are minding their own business, when they begin to overhear the conversation of the nearby table. Ears pricked and heads unsuspiciously turned slightly, they realise the table is also a band of adventurers.
Its essentially a version of the ‘Approached by a Strange’ method, but the PCs are unlikely to be able to ask questions or pry for details / hints.
Maybe, as DiceOfDoom’s article suggest, the other band of adventurers is fairly experienced. I however would like to play it where the other table is fairly inexperienced. They’re arguing over what equipment to take, how to get there (directions!) and how they’re going to kill all those skeletons (plot). They also happen to let slip its for the local cleric who’s promised them a bag o’ gold if they lay-waste to the undead and return a crucible of silver (reward!).
Defend the ale!
This hook works well if you know the party is keen on fighting, flexing their muscle, or protecting the innocent (A party of lawful characters etc).
The player characters are in their usual tavern. The elderly owner, a small frail human called Therios, has just served them their usual drinks.
Everyone in the cosy tavern is minding their own business when a small band of thugs crash through the creaky door.
The atmosphere changes – the barman looks scared – the serving staff freeze on the spot.
The thugs clamp eyes on the Therios and approach him with purpose.
(Maybe even a serving boy takes a shove as he finds herself in the way)
The lead thug picks up the elderly owner and pins him against the wall by his throat.
One thug jumps the bar while the others begin to toss the tavern. One takes a punch at a serving girl as she appears from a back room.
Glasses and plates are sent flying.
The lead thug, still not having said a word, produces a curved blade from a sheath on his back. His intentions are VERY clear…
Similar to the ‘Approached by a Stranger’, this hook can work well as it doesn’t rely on role-playing and the players can, if they wish, go straight into combat.
Very few moral decisions have to be made, and the players goal is obvious.
Equally, if the players want, this encounter can be role-played and maybe the thugs can be persuaded to leave.
Maybe the old tavern owner isn’t the nice guy he portrays…
Being aware of starting in a tavern
Although I recommend the use of taverns as launch points into adventures, there are a few points I think new DMs should be aware of. The main one is about treating new role-playing groups carefully, see below.
Full taverns can still be empty taverns
Even a tavern full of NPCs can appear completely empty
What do I mean by that?
Well if your players are new to RPGs, there’s a high chance they’re unfamiliar or uncomfortable with role playing. Therefore even if you stuff the tavern to the rafters with highly detailed NPCs, there’s a chance the PCs will not interact with them.
In most games, you don’t interact with anything unless you’re told to. New players may not be aware the NPCs have their own lives / stories / problems.
This is why the above plot hooks work so well, they prompt or force an action.
Drunk Characters are Wonderful
We’ve all had friends who have drunk too much and said stupid things to others.
Why would a tavern be different?
Perhaps a plastered bard starts singing to himself about the rumours of gold buried under The Iron Hold prison.
Or maybe one of the Kings Guard is easily convinced to talk about the strange ghost found down by the moat.
Drunk NPCs are wonderful because they give the DM an option to express something about the character that they’d normally be cagey about.
Obviously in the morning, the bard or the guard may deny any mention of what was said the night before…
Examples of Pathfinder / D&D Taverns
Below are some examples of tavern maps I’ve found online that I really like, hopefully they inspire you to draw your own maps:
TL>DR (Starting in a Tavern)
Here’s a summary about PCs starting in a tavern:
- They can work great for starting adventures,
- If the DM has some experience they should try to avoid the ‘Approached by a Stranger‘ cliche, but it does work amazingly well,
- Drunk NPCs can be a great, and funny, way to delivery a plot hook
- Use the example Taverns above to quickly come up with a new building
Thanks for reading
Please drop a comment below on how you’d get your adventurers hooked using a tavern as the starting point.
Or perhaps you disagree with starting in a tavern, let me know below.
Thanks for taking the time to read my article