September 23, 2020

Weirdness of Fantasy Taverns

Fantasy RPGs are replete with tropes. Chances are you’re going to run into a cult trying to summon an ancient evil, a crooked monarch trying to engineer an unjust war, or thieves guild secretly running an entire city’s commerce. Some of these have been run into the ground and could probably use a rest, but others I just can’t get enough of. My biggest weakness is the tavern.

I love taking my character up to the bar and asking for the specials. If I’m running a game, I love thinking about what exotic fare they’ve got on the menu. I love surveying the scene and hearing about halfling dice players, shadowy rangers, and an aloof old wizard drinking by themself. It’s a one stop shop for lore, plot hooks, and information. I don’t care how overused it is, I don’t know if I can ever do without them.

But we can all acknowledge the concept is a little weird. It’s like a raucous Chilis with a hotel attached. The concept is far closer to a modern Holiday Inn than a medieval watering hole. Usually I’m extremely skeptical of any additions based on ‘historical accuracy.’ However, in this case, Medieval English drinking establishments could add some incredible flavor to otherwise nondescript towns.

Alehouses & Taverns

This is exactly how it sounds. Literally someone selling ale out of their home. By the year AD 1000, it was commonplace for a villager to brew up a batch of beer and sell it cheaply to their neighbors. Once it was ready, they’d hang a stick over their door to indicate they were open for business. This was such a regular practice that King Aethelred proscribed fines for anyone that disturbed the peace in one of these gatherings. Food was seldom available for purchase at ale houses as there was likely just enough to keep the family that lived there going. Travel between villages was relatively uncommon in those days, so there was no need to maintain a business that provided lodging. Although at the time, it was considered good Christian hospitality to allow the infrequent visitors you received to briefly shelter with you.

Eventually ale houses grew into taverns, and we begin to see something closer to what we think of today. Taverns were second to only churches as community hubs and as such needed to be larger than just some random peasant’s house. They often contained multiple rooms for people to congregate, eat, and drink. They begin to more commonly offer food. The offerings were usually simple and were likely to be a pottage (thick boiled stew) or meat pies (pork or venison). Because this establishment was removed from the home, illicit activities also became common. Church officials often condemned the gambling, fighting, and brothels associated with taverns.

As traveling merchants emerged, many taverns were able to offer more than one beverage to its patrons. A leafy branch was often hung over the tavern’s sign to signify that they had wine in stock.

Imagine a small town in a fantasy setting. The first thing the players do when they arrive is ask the Game Master where the nearest tavern is. The GM informs them it’s 30 miles away. However, they do notice people milling about visiting different homes with their ale horns. The players will draw quite a bit of attention and curiosity from the townsfolk, who are eager to hear the goings on of the outside world. But the party must mind its behavior because ultimately they are guests not customers, and their kindness towards outsiders has its limits.

However, it makes sense for everyone to be a little cautious because there are some rules to this situation. The owner of the home should want some reassurance that lodgers won’t be a nuisance. In middle ages England, it was understood that guests were the responsibility of their host. If the they turned out to be a bunch of murder hobos, the villager may head to the gallows. Secondly, and not unrelated to the first rule, you would be expected to surrender your weapons to the host. The harder it would be for their guests to cause trouble, the easier it would be to allow them to stay. And lastly, should anyone die while staying with a stranger, all their belongings would go to the owner of the property. This should keep the players from being too brazen in their displays of wealth, as it might tempt a desperate, greedy villager to consider the unthinkable.

Inns

Finally, we get to the closest thing to a bog-standard D&D inn. In the 14th century, as the merchant class began to emerge, inns began to offer more services. Stables for a travelers horses were a must have along with rooms and bathing facilities. Single rooms with a locking door were still a rarity at this point. Most of the lodging was communal up to and including the beds.

These businesses could potentially be extremely lucrative and as such often drew investments from local lords or clergy. However, this brought added pressure to wring every coin out of their guests. The keeper wouldn’t miss a single opportunity to charge. Nothing is included with the price of the room. A few coins for stabling and food for the horse, any washbasin you need to clean yourself, and for your meal. If you want any meat or fish with your dinner that’s extra too. If they got any inclination that a patron wouldn’t be able to cover their tab, they’d be promptly cast out into the muddy streets. In many cases, the owners would still be responsible for any trouble caused by their lodgers. The inn keeper would have to be choosy and might not take a chance on somebody that showed up to their door in tattered rags with no one to vouch for them. The wealthy would often send servants ahead to arrange for a stay in advance, which would greatly increase their chances of securing a place for the night.

Even though this type of inn might have all the markings of a fantasy tavern, you could still give your players a unique experience by including something like it. The players roll into town: tired, hungry, and disoriented. Rather than serve them up a nice pint of ale and a smile, they give the party the third degree probing to see if they’re both able to pay and unlikely to get up to no good. The group soon realizes the avaricious owner is closer to Basil Fawlty than Guinan from Star Trek.

The inn can go from a place of respite to a place the players have to keep their guard up. If you’re looking for a side quest, after this treatment the players will likely look at this stingy hotelier with a great deal of suspicion. The townsfolk would likely be extremely grateful if looked into the corrupt dealings of the owner. Maybe they’re not just gouging guests, but raising fighting basilisks in the cellar for high-stakes gambling with local high rollers. Or several poorer visitors are drugged and impressed into service with a local warlord. There’s no shortage of things these dastardly entrepreneurs could get up to.

But we can all acknowledge the concept is a little weird. It’s like a raucous Chilis with a hotel attached. The concept is far closer to a modern Holiday Inn than a medieval watering hole. Usually I’m extremely skeptical of any additions based on ‘historical accuracy.’ However, in this case, Medieval English drinking establishments could add some incredible flavor to otherwise nondescript towns.

Alehouses & Taverns

This is exactly how it sounds. Literally someone selling ale out of their home. By the year AD 1000, it was commonplace for a villager to brew up a batch of beer and sell it cheaply to their neighbors. Once it was ready, they’d hang a stick over their door to indicate they were open for business. This was such a regular practice that King Aethelred proscribed fines for anyone that disturbed the peace in one of these gatherings. Food was seldom available for purchase at ale houses as there was likely just enough to keep the family that lived there going. Travel between villages was relatively uncommon in those days, so there was no need to maintain a business that provided lodging. Although at the time, it was considered good Christian hospitality to allow the infrequent visitors you received to briefly shelter with you.

Eventually ale houses grew into taverns, and we begin to see something closer to what we think of today. Taverns were second to only churches as community hubs and as such needed to be larger than just some random peasant’s house. They often contained multiple rooms for people to congregate, eat, and drink. They begin to more commonly offer food. The offerings were usually simple and were likely to be a pottage (thick boiled stew) or meat pies (pork or venison). Because this establishment was removed from the home, illicit activities also became common. Church officials often condemned the gambling, fighting, and brothels associated with taverns.

As traveling merchants emerged, many taverns were able to offer more than one beverage to its patrons. A leafy branch was often hung over the tavern’s sign to signify that they had wine in stock.

Imagine a small town in a fantasy setting. The first thing the players do when they arrive is ask the Game Master where the nearest tavern is. The GM informs them it’s 30 miles away. However, they do notice people milling about visiting different homes with their ale horns. The players will draw quite a bit of attention and curiosity from the townsfolk, who are eager to hear the goings on of the outside world. But the party must mind its behavior because ultimately they are guests not customers, and their kindness towards outsiders has its limits.

However, it makes sense for everyone to be a little cautious because there are some rules to this situation. The owner of the home should want some reassurance that lodgers won’t be a nuisance. In middle ages England, it was understood that guests were the responsibility of their host. If the they turned out to be a bunch of murder hobos, the villager may head to the gallows. Secondly, and not unrelated to the first rule, you would be expected to surrender your weapons to the host. The harder it would be for their guests to cause trouble, the easier it would be to allow them to stay. And lastly, should anyone die while staying with a stranger, all their belongings would go to the owner of the property. This should keep the players from being too brazen in their displays of wealth, as it might tempt a desperate, greedy villager to consider the unthinkable.

Inns

Finally, we get to the closest thing to a bog-standard D&D inn. In the 14th century, as the merchant class began to emerge, inns began to offer more services. Stables for a travelers horses were a must have along with rooms and bathing facilities. Single rooms with a locking door were still a rarity at this point. Most of the lodging was communal up to and including the beds.

These businesses could potentially be extremely lucrative and as such often drew investments from local lords or clergy. However, this brought added pressure to wring every coin out of their guests. The keeper wouldn’t miss a single opportunity to charge. Nothing is included with the price of the room. A few coins for stabling and food for the horse, any washbasin you need to clean yourself, and for your meal. If you want any meat or fish with your dinner that’s extra too. If they got any inclination that a patron wouldn’t be able to cover their tab, they’d be promptly cast out into the muddy streets. In many cases, the owners would still be responsible for any trouble caused by their lodgers. The inn keeper would have to be choosy and might not take a chance on somebody that showed up to their door in tattered rags with no one to vouch for them. The wealthy would often send servants ahead to arrange for a stay in advance, which would greatly increase their chances of securing a place for the night.

Even though this type of inn might have all the markings of a fantasy tavern, you could still give your players a unique experience by including something like it. The players roll into town: tired, hungry, and disoriented. Rather than serve them up a nice pint of ale and a smile, they give the party the third degree probing to see if they’re both able to pay and unlikely to get up to no good. The group soon realizes the avaricious owner is closer to Basil Fawlty than Guinan from Star Trek.

The inn can go from a place of respite to a place the players have to keep their guard up. If you’re looking for a side quest, after this treatment the players will likely look at this stingy hotelier with a great deal of suspicion. The townsfolk would likely be extremely grateful if looked into the corrupt dealings of the owner. Maybe they’re not just gouging guests, but raising fighting basilisks in the cellar for high-stakes gmabling with local high rollers. Or several poorer visitors are drugged and impressed into service with a local warlord. There’s no shortage of things these dastardly entrepreneurs could get up to.

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