Lagers, Taverns, and Bars, oh my!

Do your tabletop RPG sessions include enough watering holes? If you answered “Yes”, go ahead and award yourself 500 bonus XP. Are the watering holes described well enough for the players at the table? If you answered “Yes” again, award yourself another 1,000 bonus XP. Colorful watering holes are a crucial stitch in the tapestry of the more memorable D&D tales. When presented well enough, colorful watering holes will become places which your players will want to visit, time and time again.

When designing such establishments here are some questions in need of answers:

Target Demographic:
Who meets here – upper class, working class, other?
Which races does this establishment cater to? All races?

What does the sign above the door say? What does it look like? What color is it? What is it made of?
Is there a “sandwich board” sign outside, listing drink specials and such?
Is there a marquee, listing today’s main event and/or upcoming attractions?
Is there a menu sign on the wall inside? If so, what does it say?

Does the place appear to be new? Old? In between? Rundown? Rustic? Quaint?
What is the predominant color of the establishment’s interior design?
Is there any taxidermy on the walls, a la hunters’ trophies and such? What kinds are they?
What curios hang from the ceiling?
What is on the wall behind the bar?

Entertainment, Gimmicks, Mascots, Novelties, Promotions:
Is there a bard? What race is he or she? What is his or her preferred musical instrument?
Is there a bell which the barkeep rings every time someone buys a round of drinks for everyone in the place?
Is there a person at the main entrance wearing a costume which reflects the name of the establishment, who merrily greets people as they arrive?
Is there a “catch phrase” which all of the patrons shout in unison during birthday celebrations?
Is there a bushel of fresh-picked apples from a nearby orchard, with a limit of 2 per customer?
Which games are popular here? See our Games Within Games article for suggestions.

How does the establishment reckon with unruly patrons? Is there a bouncer? Is there a holding cell?

What part of town is the watering hole found in? What is next door? What is behind the establishment? What is the nearest competition?

Potent Potables:
What is served here – ales, beers, grogs, lagers, liquors, meads, pilsners, stouts, wines? How is it stored – barrels, casks, other?
How is it served – cups, flagons, mugs, shot glasses, yard glasses, other?
What is the price range – copper, silver, electrum, gold, platinum?
What is the strongest beverage served here? What are its effects on the imbiber, in the event of a failed CON check?
What colors are the beverages? Are they fizzy? Are they bubbly? Are they odoriferous?

What is the barkeep’s name?
What does he or she look like?
What is his or her personality?
What is his or her weapon of choice behind the bar, just in case?

How many are there?
What do they look like?
What are they doing?
What is their mood?
What is their reaction towards the PCs?

Congratulations! You are now well on your way to having your watering holes be the best that they can be. Remember to be generous with details for your players, while safeguarding some of the details at first. Encourage players to snoop around a bit, while rewarding the more diligent snoopers with more details. Details can be determined at random any number of ways, but it’s best to steer clear of leaning too heavily on random tables. For a watering hole to truly achieve colorful/memorable status, it’s best if the designer creates it from whole cloth, answering each of the questions listed in our “checklist” shown above. At the very least, this kind of worthwhile mental carpentry is a rewarding writing exercise that lights up the right side of your brain like a fireworks display. Have at it!


  1. Avatar
    Garry Hamlin

    How about readers posting some illustrative samples using the template above?

  2. Avatar
    John Enfield

    Excellent idea! Rather than making the tavern a dreaded cliche that players try to avoid, why not make it as fascinating and inviting as every other locale in the campaign? I love taverns, both real and fictional. I also revel in detail, both in experiencing it and creating it, so I couldn’t agree more with this article.

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