taverns

How to Make Better DnD Taverns

Taverns and inns are a classic part of the DnD experience. We’re not 100% sure how this became a mainstay of Dungeons and Dragons, but taverns and DnD go together like barbarians and rage issues. We’re willing to bet you’ve been in at least one campaign that starts in a tavern. This is usually the first setting that anyone interacts with in DnD and it really is a great place to start new players. In this article we’re going to explore taverns and inns in DnD to help you design more immersive campaigns.

Everything You Need to Know About DnD Taverns

Taverns get the short end of the stick too often. While they are utilized heavily in DnD, they very rarely get the design and detail that they need to be a central location for long. To help remedy this and show you how much more useful taverns can be, we’re going to start with the very basics and explore what a tavern is and what goes into running and maintaining one.

What is a Tavern?

A tavern is an place where people gather to drink, eat, and socialize. While many think of taverns simply as bars, that’s not their only purpose. When looking at a tavern in a fantasy or medieval setting, we have to look more deeply at how the tavern functions and what it means to the people who frequent it.

Taverns are usually the largest businesses and buildings in small towns. People who live in the town often gather there after work since it has food, entertainment, and light. Candles and lamps can be expensive for farming towns, so at the end of the day hanging out in a tavern is a cost effective way to spend your evening. Because so many people gather there, taverns typically are louder places and full of people. Even the seediest of taverns in DnD would tend to have a lot of customers; if they didn’t, they’d go out of business.

When we think of taverns we typically think of them in the framework of the game. We are often players or DMs who are in a tavern for a single purpose. This also means we quickly move on from the tavern as soon as we’re done with it.

But if you’re trying to build a rich world, spending time designing and crafting your taverns and inns can add a lot to your game. A well-crafted tavern can even become a central hub for the story and drive quests for the rest of the game. Let’s start looking more at the taverns inner workings and how you can better utilize them.

A tavern interior as painted by Cornelis Piertersz Bega in the 17th centuery
Cornelis Pietersz Bega’s Tavern Interior shows taverns as a local place for socializing in the 17th century. (Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons under PD-US attribution).

 

DnD Tavern and Inn Services

Taverns and inns can offer a variety of services, many of which are often overlooked. Any establishment that offers drinks and a place to socialize is a tavern. Any place that offers rooms as a service is an inn. Many times, especially in smaller towns in DnD settings, taverns and inns are the same place, offering both sets of service. To say that these are the only service offered is far from the truth. While not exhaustive, here’s a list of services you can implement in your taverns and inns:

  • Food and Drink – Taverns offer food and drink ranging in price and quality.
  • Rooms for Rent – Any inn worth its salt has a place for people to stay that’s warm, comfortable, and safe.
  • Stabling – Most adventures aren’t traveling on foot, and a lot of patrons aren’t either. Stabling is like fantasy parking.
  • Job Postings – An inn often acts as a place for people to find work. Since everyone goes there, it makes sense to post jobs there too.
  • Entertainment – Typically music, dancing, story telling, or games and gambling.
  • Storage – Players usually are carting around more goods than they can keep on themselves, so inns providing storage for goods is a convenient service.
  • Mail Services – Most fantasy worlds don’t have an address system, but leaving letters for people at inns or sending notes between taverns is really efficient. Everyone goes to the tavern at night and can pick up letters they’ve received during the day.
  • Basic Spellcasting Services – Better taverns have magic available, usually things like Mending, Prestidigitation (for cleaning), and some minor healing spells. This can be from an employee or from a more notable proprietor who’s retired from adventuring themselves.
  • Cleaning and Mending – Shine your shoes, mend your shirts, keep things from wearing out. This is lucrative business for a tavern or inn and often costs them very little. In smaller villages craftsmen might offer their services at night in the tavern since that’s where all their customers are.
  • Baths – Bathing is something that should not be overlooked in DnD. Adventuring is dirty work and places that offer baths are an amazing perk when you don’t often have access to such luxuries.

As you can see, it’s a lot more than just a place to stay or have a meal and drink. And there are even more services you can pack in there, these are just the common ones! Why so many? That’s because a tavern in DnD acts as a hub for the community. The services aren’t just for adventurers, they’re for the people of the town, travelers, and anyone else who happens to wander in.

DnD Tavern Patrons

Now that we have a better understanding of the main services a DnD tavern offers, let’s try to learn about the people who occupy the tavern themselves. Tavern patrons are an essential part of making a tavern feel real and if you want to improvise them for your game, it’s important to understand why they’re there and what their lives are like.

Working Class Patrons

The majority of a tavern’s patrons are working class people gathering at the end of the day. They’ve typically come from a long day of labor and are there for food and drink. Single workers who don’t have family at home likely come to the tavern for a good hot meal, since cooking for themselves would often be more expensive and time consuming. In addition to coming in for the amenities, they are also coming to meet their friends, socialize, and learn the news from around town. When you spend your whole day on labor you often don’t get a lot of opportunities for idle chit-chat, so this is only chance a lot of people have for that.

The Townsfolk

Not only workers frequent taverns. Other townsfolk enter the scene and are there to take part in the social aspects of the evening. Young men and women from a town might come to the tavern looking to find romance. Villagers who spend their time taking care of houses or families also want a place to relax after they put their kids to bed. Older townsfolk might want to trade a story or two from when they were young. There’s a whole group of different people who meet up there at night.

Shop Owners

When the whole town comes to the tavern at night, many businesses close their doors too. If you’re a shop owner you likely make up some of the wealthier patrons in a tavern. These people are often better dressed, buy more expensive food, and typically are very chummy with the tavern owner since their businesses usually work together. These kind of patrons can easily stand out for your party to interact with and can be probed about their businesses while they drink. Be sure to consider these people when putting your tavern together.

Travelers

While most of a tavern’s patrons will be workers from the town itself, there’s also a good chance that at least a handful of travelers will be there. These can be other adventurers, merchants, bards, and entertainers. Most likely tourism isn’t a huge part of your fantasy world, but there are a lot of people who might travel for work, opportunities in new areas, or just to see what’s out there. Without mass communication like we have in a modern society, travel can easily become a way of life for people in a fantasy setting.

Travelers are a great source of interesting information in a tavern. They bring news from afar and might be very different from the people of the town they’re in. People from the village might gather around them to hear stories of the places they’ve come from. Travelers might be in the middle of their own quests and offer potential jobs for players.

Outliers and the Mysterious Figure

Wizards and warlocks might make for odd guests in a tavern. A hulking half-orc barbarian stands out in even the toughest crowds. Cloaked figures or strangers that no one has seen before could also easily walk in from off the streets.

What’s important is that these characters have a purpose. They stick out like sore thumb, so players will interact with them. And if your players don’t, the other patrons certainly would. Just because a mysterious figure walks into a bar it doesn’t mean they’ll be waiting in a corner for the players to come talk to them. Give them some life and some purpose. Why are they there? Why that tavern specifically? Answer these questions and be ready to make these characters feel more real as a part of the scene.

An easy trope to fall into is having every standout mysterious figure offer a quest. Realistically, your players are more likely to be hired to guard a merchant caravan from a normal person than to be offered a treasure hunt from a random wizard in a bar.


Tavern Staff

A tavern isn’t complete without its staff. When you build and design a tavern you need to think about who needs to run it and what activities go into that. We’ll break down all of the operations for a fantasy tavern in the next section, but right now let’s just focus on who works there.

Every tavern has a barkeep and servers. These people handle the alcohol and take care of the money. Servers are often busing tables, bringing out food and beer, and bringing back money to the bar. A surprising amount of money can be spent in a tavern in a single evening and most of it goes through these individuals.

Beyond the running of food and drink, there are people in the back cooking, stocking, and cleaning. Usually these jobs are all combined and any back of house staff will bring up new kegs, cook, and clean throughout the night. Cooks might become more specialized over time, but the standard tavern fair is usually batch prepped during the day and then served en mass at night, so there’s not as much room for most tavern cooks to get really fancy with their meals.

Besides having people who keep up with the back and run the place in the front, taverns usually have daytime staff as well. People who clean the tavern, take care of the inn, shovel out the stables, and even take care of maintenance. A small town tavern may employ more than 10 people just to keep the place running. This doesn’t even include people who handle any special services.

While there are more people we could touch on, this paints the picture that a tavern isn’t usually a two person operation. Keeping up with customer demands requires a ton of help. Just be sure to keep your tavern staffed when you build a tavern you’re going to use multiple times. Players quickly come to know and remember people who work there, so it’s good to have notes on who they are.

Running a Tavern

So now that you have a better idea of what a tavern can be, let’s look at all the things that go into running it. This will give you a better idea of how to make the setting more realistic and believable for your characters. It’s not important that you do the accounting for a fake tavern and know exactly what they have in stock, but it is important to know that these things take place so you can use them as ideas to set the scene and better improve the tavern as a whole.

Stock and Storage

When running a tavern, stock keeping is one of the biggest on-going tasks. In your standard fantasy village, a tavern will be the largest consumer of goods in town and likely the wealthiest business. Taverns can stock the following items by category:

Tavern Perishables:
  • Meat – cured cuts, fresh cuts, pickled or fresh fish, various game from hunters/adventurers.
  • Vegetables – taverns keep a stock of whatever is available from surrounding farms, typically root vegetables and staple grains.
  • Fruits – less common, but a tavern stocks area fruit for deserts, drinks, and seasoning.
  • Animal Goods – cheese, milk, eggs, honey. These are common food items as well as sustainable ingredients.
Tavern Non-Perishables:
  • Flour – Every tavern needs flour for both baking and thickening stews and sauces.
  • Herbs and Spices – This will vary wildly from tavern to tavern, but they always keep some basic dried ingredients in stock.
  • Salt – salt is used in cooking, but taverns also use it to preserve food, create brine, and to remove pests and deter mold.
Brewing Supplies:
  • Basic Ingredients – wheat, hops, source of water, yeast, sugar
  • Barrels – you need to store your brews
Tavern Supplies:
  • Lighting – candles, torches, lamp oil
  • Dishes/Utensils – mugs and plates are used daily and break often
  • Heat – taverns need fire wood, coal, and other sources of heat for cooking and comfort
  • Soap/Lye – taverns get more cleaning than most fantasy places, even if it doesn’t look it

This is just the tip of the iceberg with supplies, but it all adds up. These are essential items for running these businesses and a tavern can’t run without them.

Wages and Hiring

When thinking about what goes into a tavern you can’t simply look at the cost of food and supplies alone. Staff has wages and their work is very stable. Standard working wages in a tavern would be dependent on the revenue from that tavern. The more the tavern makes, the higher the workers would demand their wages be. But this is a small cost compared to the income a tavern sees daily.

With wages in mind, it’s also a good idea to think about how the tavern or inn would go about hiring. Likely they hire from the town. A good majority of their staff would be younger members of the community looking to earn wages while not being an apprentice or in a trade. Community taverns wouldn’t expect a very high turn over, but taverns in larger cities may always be short staffed and looking for another worker or two.

Food and Drinks

Considerations for food and drink for a tavern is essentially assembling a menu. The menu for any tavern will likely be something that changes based on what is in stock and what needs to be eaten. Fresh meat and vegetables get used to make large preparation meals first. Stews, soups, larger roasts, and one pot meals make sense for a tavern. They aren’t planning on having left overs and they want to sell as much as they can daily. Often they’d rather be short on food then make too much and throw something out.

The tavern will rely on staples when it comes to drinks. They are likely also the ones brewing the stuff, so just having beer available also makes sense. The establishment might also have wine and hard liquor, but these things would probably come from other traders. A tavern isn’t likely to have enough basement space to age good wine, and a still is something more complex than most taverns would consider running.

When thinking about food and drink, remember that these can be an important part of story telling. Check out our article on using food and drink in your game for more advice on creating the best scenes you can through describing meals.

Selling Services

When a tavern or inn sells services it’s through either a desk or the bar keep. Inns might have someone who handles rooms and keeps track of related services. A simpler tavern might do everything through the barkeep, who is usually also the tavern’s proprietor.

Usually you don’t have to do much prep work with services as they are typically well covered in the Dungeon Master’s Guide or Player’s Handbook with associated costs, but if you offer anything special at a tavern you create, be sure to put a note of its details and what it costs. Also, think about how the service might be advertised. If they have mending and cleaning services, it might be something they list on the wall, just like they would list a food menu or drink options.

Dealing with Patrons

Running a tavern from the DM’s side means you’re everyone in the tavern. You’re the staff, the patrons, the mysterious strangers, the music, and anyone else in the building. So when you’re doing a scene, remember that they’re all different NPCs. The patrons interact with the staff and the staff interacts with them. When new people come in, a server might rush over and get their orders. The barkeep might handle negotiations for rooms or services. A strong staffer might throw out drunks or break up bar fights.

The trick to running these scenes is to consider the actions that people are taking and think about why they’re there. It’s the most crowded place most DMs will ever run, but that crowded, busy feeling will becomes something that the players get to interact with and immerse themselves in.


Jobs and Quests

The number one thing that adventurers do in taverns is try to find work. Either another patron is looking for a hired hand, a job board has a posting, or someone lets loose a rumor that players will look to follow. No matter how they get work, players will look to the tavern as a source of information on what to do next.

It’s both a great starting place as well as fantastic hub for adventure. It’s not just for clandestine meetings, but also for ease of storytelling for both players and DMs. The more you use the tavern, the better it becomes solidified in people’s minds.

Job Board

Most taverns should have a job board. This replaces the need for one in a town square, or is directly a copy of it. The job board might be run by the tavern or perhaps a copy over from a guild. The tavern often takes a cut or charges a fee for a job to be posted and then acts as the pass-through for reporting and completion of the work. This is a great benefit for those looking for work as well as those in need of workers, so the cost to use the service is usually worth it.

Jobs posted on a job board are always a quest, but they can range from simple fetch quests to complex adventuring. How these are set up is up to you, but make sure you don’t list too many things without fully preparing them. Often a good idea is to say “One quest in particular catches your eye” which is code for “I prepared this one, go to that! “

Rumors

Adventurers also have the possibility of picking up rumors from the patrons. People might talk about all sorts of things and any rumor might be enough for your players to set off on adventure. Because this is more open ended and players could follow anything, presenting rumors logically makes this easier.

Some players like to roll for these things. Investigation or straight Charisma checks can decide what the players uncover. Typically the higher the roll, the more options they should be given. But you could also change the quality of the rumors too.

Other players will want to role play the socializing aspects of being in the bar. This can be stressful if you don’t have all your NPCs prepared, but just remember why people are there. If you think about what they’re doing in the tavern, it makes it easier to talk about their day. Often villagers will be more interested in the players, since they lead exciting lives, and you can keep a conversation going by asking questions and imparting some awe and wonder to the speaker.

If a player wants to gather rumors role playing, you need to work them into conversation. You could just go in with a “Hey, did you hear about this thing?” or you could be a bit more subtle about it and only give up information when asked. The important thing is that most rumors that the players would be interested in are not secrets. Secrets are like rumors, but people share them in hushed tones, if at all. Rumors are just news that’s come through a lot of people playing a game of telephone. Whatever path you choose to deliver them, just make sure they flow naturally from the interactions you set up in the tavern

Mysterious Figures

While we talked about mysterious figures as patrons we mentioned they should not all be quest givers. That being said, sometimes they do have quests. They’re not just props though. A mysterious figure in a bar has a purpose like anyone else there. Maybe they are just looking to get a drink, but happen to be involved in some shady business. Quest giving for them comes from seeing an opportunity to take advantage of people from out of town.

If your mystery figure is a wizard no one has seen before then they likely have a good story to tell. They could be studious and reserved, but they might also be a bit too weird for normal patrons to talk to.

When setting up quests from these characters, remember that they aren’t sitting around waiting for the players to show up. They have their own wills, goals, and reasons for being in the tavern.  If they give a quest it’s a special event, not scripted must-happen railroading. Always ask yourself if they might have found someone else to take their quest more easily before the players arrived. If so, then the set up is more natural and you don’t have someone in a spot where they are not likely to accomplish their goals.

Designing a DnD Tavern

So after all that you still want to design a tavern? Well alright! Let’s get down to business and look at a simple approach for doing so.

Top-Down Approach to DnD Tavern Design

This approach to tavern design will get you up and running in no time. There are always more details to be handled in a tavern, so don’t worry about getting everything on the first pass. Get the broad strokes in place and then expand on each point as you go back through.

  1. Name – A tavern name is important. The Blind Eye, The Dead Pig, Gilroy’s Pub. Most Taverns have inventive names in fantasy settings, but other places don’t. The bakery in town is called the bakery, but a tavern has a name and a reputation.
  2. Map –  Your tavern map should show the rooms on each floor and their purpose. Storage, kitchen, front of house all are main floor needs. Upstairs you will usually find a collection of rooms and perhaps an area for bathing. The basement is for extra storage, brewing, and quests where fight rats. Make sure you look at the size of the tavern and estimate how many people can fit in it. It should be large enough to accommodate a large portion of a town’s population.
  3. Services – Put down a list of services. Write down a price and run with it. If you want to flesh these out more or add custom services to the list, just reference the description or write up the details for the service. Players will always ask, so be ready to describe it.
  4. Basic Menu – Give your food descriptions. It sells the whole environment because everyone can imagine food well.
  5. Staff – You can estimate how many staff you need based on services and the max occupancy of the tavern. I like to use NPC note sheets for this, but you can just as easily make a spread sheet with their details. You don’t have to stat these NPCs, just put down story and role play notes.
  6. Patrons – You don’t have to make notes for everyone in the town! Instead make a list of groups of people, and make a few notable NPCs. The patrons are essentially all the same within any category, but they might have different names. I like to get a list of names to pick from. Players won’t talk to more than 10 patrons, so a small list of names gives you more than enough preparation for the whole bar.
  7. Events and Circumstances – Who’s the entertainment? Is anyone playing cards or darts? What can your players do and interact with? Having answers to these questions will make the bar feel more alive immediately. Be sure to describe the things people are doing when the group first walks in so they know what’s natural and to give them clues as to how they can interact with this environment.
  8. Quests – This is the most in depth part on your first pass. When you put your quests in, think about the source, the hook, and how it’s presented. Rumors or requests are easy to drop into conversations, but a job board is simply static quests waiting to be picked up.
  9. Details and Polish – This is the last step, but takes you back to the beginning. When you put in details you are reexamining the tavern. Write some descriptions, fill in the map a bit more. Build up the stories for the NPCs and staff. A great way to handle this is by having a minimal amount prepared for the first session you group goes into this tavern. Each time the players plan to return to the tavern, take the opportunity to go back and fill in more details. Characters they’ve already met get stats. Interpersonal dialogues get a bit more attention and the place becomes more real each time the players return.

Building Better DnD Taverns

With taverns being such a staple of the Dungeons and Dragons universe, there’s no reason to leave them empty and lifeless. The tavern represents the heart of fantasy communities and is a gathering place for adventures and townsfolk alike. Better care in designing your taverns and inns will help get your players more immersed in the game right away. If done right, players will see the tavern as a place they can come back to again and again, giving your players a familiar location in the setting you’ve built.

We’d love to see what taverns you come up with! Please tweet us your tavern designs or reach out us via email to let us know about the wonderful as settings you’ve created.

Happy DMing!


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