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McStew, Anyone? The Trouble with Generic Tavernsby Jennifer Guerra
The adventurers tie their horses outside and step through the open door into the dim, smoky room. Smoke from the cooking fire, the hearth, and various tobacco products curls near the exposed-beam ceiling. Voices rise and fall in conversation, chorus of song, and boisterous argument over tankards of ale and cheap wine. The odour of tonight's meal, greasy but mouth-watering to such hungry travellers, hangs heavy on the air, masking the smell of the crowd and the stables outside. Wading through the low, crowded benches, the heroes make their way to the bar, where a hard-looking, heavy-set man of middle age stands, swabbing the time-worn wood with a stained cloth. He peers suspiciously at them as they subtly try to determine the latest happenings in town...
Taverns. The staple of nearly every adventure, especially in the lower and middle levels of a campaign. We all know the drill: go in, buy a drink and maybe something to eat, listen to the local rumour mill. Maybe someone will enter, looking for a courageous bunch to aid him. Maybe something will happen that night as the heroes lodge in the inn upstairs. Taverns make a great jumping-off point, and provide a multitude of adventure "hooks": danger, intrigue, perhaps even romance.
What do you do, then, when the mere thought of one makes you, well, yawn?
The unfortunate fact about taverns is that they sometimes get boring, especially for the players. You've seen one, you've seen 'em all they say. You throw in humanoid patrons, a beautiful barmaid and an interesting town; they still say that if they're in one without the people, they'd never tell what world they were on, let alone what country or city. But what else can be changed, you wonder? Well, what about the fare?
As DMs, we sometimes get so caught up in the hurry to put together an adventure that we resort to using staples for props. Hey, it's the story that counts anyway, right? Absolutely. But you can give your players a brief feel for the place they are visiting (or living) by changing just a few stock items. In the case of taverns, we're talking about food and drink.
Everyone knows that the typical medieval diet consisted of soup or stew, bread, and ale. So, in a mostly-medieval FRPG setting, we tend to rely heavily on such food or drink. It's easy to remember in a pinch when Anthrog the Mighty sidles up to the bar wench and asks what she has to offer (wink, wink). But too much of this "generic" feel can lead players to become bored. No matter what country they're in, the taverns largely look and smell the same, and serve up the same meal, whether in Selenica or Sind. To players, taverns take on the feel of fast-food joints: a bland, homogenous setting which pales in comparison to the people within.
One of the best features of Mystara is the diverse cultures within the setting. Widely-travelled PCs can be helped to sense this broad range of cultural differences by changing the "props" of an adventure. So, for a tavern in Darokin City, DMs can play up the cosmopolitan attitude of the city dwellers by adding a couple of different types of drinks to the range of typical selections. Portable food will be more common, ranging from bridies (meat pies) to sandwiches. Higher-end hostels will feature a selection of complete meals and desserts. And of course the prices will be higher here! In contrast, Ansimont may feature "down-home" favourites like fresh-baked pies. Selenicans no doubt enjoy elven or Ylari cuisine, and a Ylari-born tavern keeper will have no liquor in his establishment (to the consternation of the PCs). Far-northern Darokin may feature a tavern with an owner of Caurenzian descent; pasta will be the staple meal, rather than stew.
These are just a few examples of the variations that can be found just within Darokin. Other countries will have their own, unique versions of tavern fare, including exotic monster meats and magical adaptations.
Northeastern countries, such as Norwold or Helskir, may be known for their seafood chowders. A Traladaran-owned Karameikan tavern will serve up goulash or sausage, while a Thyatian-owned tavern in the same country may brag of its selection of wines from the Empire. Plum pudding is a Fenswick specialty; but in Glantri City, diners nosh on darkwing steak tartare. In Hule, hungry guests eat skewered meat chunks and sip thick black coffee. Brave souls can sip yak-butter tea in Ethengar, or eat raw shellfish in Minrothad. Be sure to try the paella in Narvaez, and the potato pancakes in Slagovich! Alphatian taverns serve drinks in all manner of magical colours and shapes (try a Magical Mead Missile in Sundsvall). Of course, Rockhome offers the strongest (and largest) selection of ales. And beef stew is not an option in Sind!
But aside from giving distinction to locale, what can this do for your campaign - why bother? While setting might not be everything, it can be crucial to your players' enjoyment of the game. You know of the effect of visual and tactile cues on players - who hasn't spent minutes describing the creeping mist, curling around the PCs' feet like tendrils, caressing them with the cold chill of death as they climb the treacherous mountainside to the vampire's abode? Regional distinctions in places as mundane as taverns can give the PCs instant clues about this exotic land they're exploring. After all, PCs are run by players, who interpret their roles according to their own, real-life experiences. If the PCs arrive in a land where local eateries serve seafood and rice dishes eaten with chopsticks, the players will automatically assume that this land will be Oriental in nature. (An interesting twist: What if their assumptions are wrong?) Additionally, giving a local flavour (pardon the pun) to taverns and hostelries can help you to add a third type of cue - olfactory. And therein lie even more hooks. For example, would a PC from Karameikos, travelling in Belcadiz, be familiar enough with the local fare to smell a whiff of poison in his gazpacho?
I could go on, but I think you get the picture (hungry?). All it takes is a little thought and five minutes of research, and you can end those players' yawns for good, whenever they see that tell-tale tavern sign looming overhead.