The gentle flickering of firelight escaping through the front windows of the Weary Traveler Inn breathes new life into your tired bones. Four weeks on open road in search of the ebony falcon statuette and nothing to show only adds more weight on your already heavy shoulders. For hours, you have been pressing yourself to travel faster as the darkness of a thunderstorm is quickly chasing you from where you came as if a reminder of your ill fortune for journeying from that part of the world. You only hope the inn keeper has a comfortable bed, a warm meal, and fresh mead.
Everyone who has ever played a fantasy themed role playing game knows of the famous tavern. Sooner or later, usually much sooner, you find yourself staying for a meal at a tavern or sleeping the night away at an inn. They are essentially the staple of how many campaigns begin. However, GMs often throw players into them as quick filler while they transition from one story arc to the next. I’ve read plenty of articles taking the approach to use taverns as a focal point for an adventure, but usually it involves them leaving it at some point.
Taverns don’t always have to be traditional, even in your traditional fantasy campaign. They can be magically enchanted, opening up to a vast outdoor courtyard when they walk through the front door. Perhaps a permanent dimensional door has been placed on a solid wall down an alley so narrow the patrons have to sidestep to reach it. Taverns can be spiced up and made unique by their environment by taking a step back and trying not to look at the tavern as a business that serves food and drink but an interesting encounter location you would place in the middle of your adventure. Environment can be the key.
One example I used several years ago involved a gnome illusionist. One of the players had acquired a gem that was entirely my fault for letting them having it. I decided to try to get it from him without being too obvious. A gnome was in the bar they were sitting in and took interest of the character’s ruby. He made an offer, which was reasonable, but the player refused because he had other plans for it. So the gnome illusionist created a fantastic spell that fooled pretty much everyone. A storm picked up over time outside followed by a stranger from the night bursting in and covered in blood. Events led to the sound of horns not far off as a large band of orcs were passing by, too large for the party to handle. The barkeep urged everyone to enter a hidden access tunnel built into one of his enormous kegs in the back of the bar where he would escort them to an escape route not far. The tunnel proved to be bizarre, but not so much to make them want to try think it was all an illusion. The situation grew more severe as the walls began to crack from the force of so much weight from above, water began pouring in as the nearby water supply came in. The gnome pretended to cast a spell to hold back everything, stating he was a powerful wizard who could take them all to anywhere they wish, but they had to agree on selling the ruby at the price he offered earlier. The player finally agreed as the suspense was so tight from the danger that decisions were made in haste. The moment the transaction was made, everything except the gnome and the players melted away as if paint washing off a building, leaving them sitting back in the tavern, none of the patrons even noticing the situation.
The entire adventure was held in the tavern. Even veteran GMs who have ran countless games in their sleep can account that many of the cliche or traditional encounters can be reused completely refreshed by taking them from another angle. It doesn’t have to be just taverns.
Another very typical location found in fantasy setting role playing games would be a dungeon. Ask anyone who has played an RPG and they will automatically think of underground stone walls and corridors leading from room to room and laced with traps and monsters. Almost maze-like, they have been drawn over and over again in very similar fashions. Yet taking it from a different approach can rejuvenate dungeons. Do they have to be underground? All enclosed? Dark and foreboding? Absolutely not. Give your dungeon a twist by making it completely unusual. The dungeon is really a dangerous sector of a large city where creatures from another part of the world have claimed that area as their home. The streets can be narrow to give the cliche dungeon feeling, but anything that is confined can be considered a dungeon. A flying fortress ship can act as a dungeon because there is little to be done about leaving it once airborne. It could have multiple levels, rooms, and hallways. The ship could temporarily submerge under water and fill some rooms partially with water, giving players more challenge to get around a seemingly routine environment.
It need to be taken to extreme unless your entire campaign fits the motif. Otherwise you may confuse or throw off your players so much that they lose their grip on the immersion that which is your campaign. If you wish you go crazy with an extreme concept of a location such as a tavern, add other elements before and after to buffer the moment and transition the players into, through, and out of that unique chapter of the story line. Have them find a vessel that launches straight up into the atmosphere only to come down at precisely where they need to be, which is outside the tavern. When they leave for their next segment of their adventure, have them ride off on giant racing snails. Give them more to chew when throwing something unusual to your setting into the mix so they can digest it a bit easier.
Until next time, lie about your dice roll as much as you can get away with. Thanks for stopping by.