If you flip through enough GM guidance, you see repeated disdain for one fantasy-gaming trope in particular: the tavern opening.
You know the one: You’re all sitting in a bar full of tough mercenaries, enjoying your ale, when a stranger in a cowled robe approaches you. “Mighty adventurers! The people I represent are in dire need of your aid…”
Dragon Magazine, back when it existed, ran several articles over the years on ways to start off a new campaign or get PCs on the same team, and virtually every one of them started by slamming tavern scenes.
For instance, Dragon Annual 5 featured a Christopher Wilkes article titled “Fresh Starts,” which starts with an italicized tavern scene very similar to the one above, which he then calls a “tired cliché.”
And it is.
But why is it a cliché?
See, that’s an important question.
Indeed, it’s important for most tropes and clichés. When tropes have power over our imagination, when they anchor themselves as building-blocks for stories, that’s in part because they strike us as narratively useful.
But in all of those cases, it’s in part because those things fill a need that stories often have — and writers often struggle to find equally cool ways to fill them.
Certainly, writers (and GMs, and Dragon) regularly come up with alternatives, but they often fail to satisfy in quite the same ways that the trope does. And that’s why people keep using the trope. It’s old, it’s abused, but it scratches an itch that no other fingernail seems to reach.
However, if you can figure out why the trope is so damned attractive, you’ll find it’s easier to come up with alternatives that do scratch that itch while appearing original.
Your analysis may be different from mine, but here’s what I think is driving the attraction of the tavern scene: It lets the PCs act tough or mysterious, and be accepted by others as tough or mysterious — and they need to feel that way at the start if they are going to take on the risks you dangle before them.
See, in most challenging campaigns, PCs are going to spend most of that adventure spitting out teeth, watching the life get sucked out of their comrades, running in terror, crying “medic!”, and worrying they may not survive. And that’s all good. That’s part of the story formula, too: It’s always darkest and least hopeful in the middle of the story.
At the end, they get to feel good about surviving and/or winning (assuming they do!). But for most of the adventure, they’re going to be like Hudson in Aliens.
Really, the only other point in the saga when it’s appropriate for them to feel like bad-ass, I-just-struck-a-match-on-my-cheekbone adventurers is at the beginning, when the adventure itself hasn’t really happened yet. And it’s kind of important for them to feel bad-ass at this point, or they might turn down the opportunity to get stupidly killed on that adventure. In a good campaign, they feel bad-ass, then very mortal, then bad-ass again. That’s the cycle of life (and, perhaps, death).
Many GMs instinctively know this. They want the players to feel at the start like they’re playing seasoned, intimidating paragons of adventure. That bar scene? It helps in five ways:
- They get to look and be intimidating, without much risk of actual loss of limb. Everyone gets to channel his or her internal, brooding, cowled, stubbled Aragorn (1:50). This is critical stuff. This is often your players’ one, best chance to have their character look as cool on stage as it felt in their heads during character design.
- That hooded stranger with the job offer came to them — and that fact just anchors in how bad-ass they must be. The stranger picked them out of all of the tough folks in that joint.
- Because the whole trope is about setting up their toughness, in most campaigns, they’re sitting in the middle of a social skill challenge that they’re unlikely to blow, and which is unlikely to pierce their mystique with any significant injuries. They look intimidating: Other guys probably back down.
- It unifies the party. Even if their alignments clash a little bit, they’re still an island of allies in a sea of tough strangers.
- It leads quickly into an adventure. Where now they all get to scream and wet their armor.
You may have noticed that my points above assume the PCs run little risk of being upstaged. I know plenty of GMs who fumble this element, missing the point of the trope: If by chance a brawl does happen during the bar scene, that’s an ill-advised development. Some physicality is okay, of course; even expected. For instance, an occasional Obi-Wan dismemberment is cool (6 minute mark). Everyone finds their drinks real interesting after that light-saber display. However, a full-fledged escalating bar brawl undermines the value of this opening by increasing the odds that the PCs get injured, fumble, or get covered in soup, losing all of their aura in the process.
In the best incarnations of this scene, the PCs establish themselves as Belonging to the Pantheon of Bad-Ass Dudes. Even die rolling is a bad step. Instead, if you’re doing a full-on bar scene, you might have a belligerent mercenary stand off against one of them, and role-playing it, lose a staring contest against the player with the barbarian. Or have the NPC suddenly notice the PCs’ war-unit tattoos and grasp their meaning before suddenly becoming very polite. Or have a bunch of would-be brawlers suddenly put down their chairs after one whiff of the mysterious wizard’s intimidating prestidigitation cantrip.
With those principles defined, it’s now easier to figure out how to replace the bar. It’s not the bar itself that’s critical. What you need is any scene with these elements:
- The PCs get to display themselves as dangerous, mysterious, or whatever they wish — and be recognized as such by an audience that (at least superficially) seems qualified to judge.
- They run little risk that their character concept will be contradicted by events — they aren’t likely to get hurt, look foolish, or fumble their bard’s guitar-playing.
- They get an adventure hook.
- They consolidate as a team.
Lots of settings can accomplish those goals!
Relocate the scene to a nomadic barbarian clan encountered on the plains. The clan is wary of strangers, but proud of its horse-riding, wrestling, cliff-climbing, drinking, or caber tossing. The party and clan members eye each other warily. A braggart clan member challenges someone to a contest the NPC thinks he’s good at. But you and I know the truth: The PC is supposed to win. So she does. The braggart might be embarrassed, but the rest of the clan is impressed and invites the group to feast with them. During the feast, the party learns of an opportunity for adventure…
Or… The party encounters a traveling caravan of merchants on the road close to nightfall, and both groups decide to camp near each other for added security. Once the fires are roaring, the PCs meet the caravan guards, some of whom are grizzled war veterans — veterans who are impressed once they recognize who the PCs are. A merchant overhears as the guards ply the party members for stories and approaches one of them with a request…
Or … Just outside a small village run by former adventurers, at an old caravanserai, the village founders hold an annual fair for adventurers. Berserkers, knights, mages, tomb-thieves, and bards mingle in the impromptu market, trading or selling items they’ve found, but mostly exchanging stories, comparing notes, buying clues. The PCs arrive independently, but as they mingle at the fair, all of them (and only the PCs) recognize a possible threat before it really has a chance to develop. Perhaps someone starts to open a magical gate and they slam it shut, or perhaps they stop someone from opening a chest that would make the Ark of the Covenant opening look tame. Or maybe they all bid on the same map at an auction and then group up to discourage a thuggish mercenary from taking it from the highest bidder. In any case, the adventurer’s fair is a good “tough” scene with lots of potential for striking poses, intimidating wannabe bad-ass NPCs, and seeding the next quest.
Or … for a more cerebral take, the PCs all visit the same Library of the Arcane, where students of arcana and priests of the god of magic are all pretty impressed with themselves — but a supernatural event or uncovered mystery quickly shows that the visiting PCs are better wielders of magic than any of the smirking clerks. When the PCs leave, it’s with robed acolytes pointing and whispering in awe.
Of the scenarios I just threw onto the page, only two of them were ideas I’d already tried before today: the barbarian clan and the adventurer’s market. The others I came up with on the fly, while looking at the checklist. I suspect I could add another five if I kept going, but I think I’ll hand off the baton to you: What bar-inspired openings can you come up with?
Feel free to share in the comments below! †
♦ Graham Robert Scott writes regularly for Ludus Ludorum when not teaching or writing scholarly stuff. Graham has also written a Dungeon Magazine city adventure titled “Thirds of Purloined Vellum” and a fantasy novella titled Godfathom. Like the Ludus on Facebook to get a heads-up when we publish new content.