It’s game night. You find a seat, smooth your character sheet or power up your laptop. Condensation runs down your bottle of Mountain Dew. You’ve arranged your dice to show the highest numbers. You’re ready. Tonight, the new campaign begins and your buddy has laid it on thick, promising grand adventure, wicked monsters to fight and perilous dungeons to explore. The chatter dies down. The DM begins, “It’s another night in the Green Dragon Inn.” Everyone groans.The dreaded inn strikes again!
Before you grab a pitchfork or light a torch, I believe taverns and inns do have their place in D&D. I wouldn’t dare commit such a heresy to say they don’t. Taverns are part of the shared experience of playing the game, as important as dragons and dungeons. My problem with the tavern is in how it’s used. I feel like it’s a contrivance for pulling disparate characters together, chosen because of its familiarity and simplicity. It conceals the importance of creating characters who work together rather than as individuals. Ultimately, I believe the tavern is an impediment to great games and hopefully, together, we’ll figure a way around it.
Let’s unpack my grandiose claims first. For many players, character creation is a selfish enterprise. There’s nothing wrong with this. After all, no one likes playing a character whose personality and abilities aren’t interesting. However, D&D is a team game and it plays best when the players are working toward a common objective and not against each other. Too often though players create characters without regard for the personalities or abilities possessed by their teammates and leave it to the DM to hash out the how and why the group comes together. This, in my opinion, is why the tavern is so prevalent in D&D and why it’s so dangerous to party building.
Yes, I totally grok taverns have a place in D&D land, a presence reinforced by adventures, sourcebooks, literature and film. Fantasy is chock full of Vulgar Unicorns and Prancing Ponies, so it makes perfect sense for such locations to play such a big part in the game. Clichés riddle D&D. This is just the way it is. Evil necromancers raise skeletal legions. Mad wizard rip holes to other dimensions. Blackguards tie women to train tracks. I’ve been at this for several years and started plenty of campaigns on both sides of the screen in dark, smoky taverns filled with syphilitic barmaids, dour and taciturn dwarves, and bartenders who use spit to clean their mugs. Taverns are great settings for important scenes and are useful for digging up rumors, meeting key NPCs, and spending the coin wrested from the dragon’s lair.
Where I object to the tavern is when it’s used to launch a game. Like any story, the campaign or adventure’s beginning is the DM’s first and best chance to hook the audience. A soft start risks losing the players. The more interest wanes, the harder your job as DM becomes. The tavern is one such soft start. I mean, really. I’ve been to dozens and dozens of bars and you know what? I can’t remember one time in my life when I’ve encountered someone who changed my life from one of the humble writer to a bold and courageous adventurer. Sure, I’ve had a lawyer look over a contract or two, hammered out details for this very website, and had deep conversations about religion, philosophy, politics, and gaming (the big four) but not once did I set out to explore a cave, sack a temple, or steal the jewel from an idol’s face afterward. (Granted, it may have something to do with my beer gut and piss-poor attitude, but let’s stay on target, yes?) For one, a half-dozen beers and no one’s thinking about “doing” anything. For another, conversation dies like a fruit fly in winter once the music starts.
Yet, the tavern remains a consistent opener. Time and again, folks kick off their campaigns in a bar who’s name and import are about as significant as a giant ant’s plans for Easter. The tavern embodies the adventure’s start even if it doesn’t really make sense for the heroes to huddle in the shadows swilling beer (or tea, wine, or ice water). It marks the moment when purpose becomes clear, the opportunity for disparate individuals to overcome their differences and work toward some common cause. In short, it’s when the adventure well and truly begins.
The tavern is everywhere, in every game, across all the fantasy worlds. Fine. But I have a theory. When a new adventure begins, the “adventurers” are muzzy things. Not fully formed, the player sketches his or her character into the scene. There may be some vague notions about identity—alignment, class, race, height, weight, and the like, but these are just notes on the page, independent concepts that reveal almost nothing about who the character is or what role he or she is to play in the unfolding story. Similarly, the DM has ideas about where he or she wants the campaign to go, but the DM is just as much a stranger to the characters as they are to the players playing them.
Since no one really knows what’s going on with the characters, the tavern becomes a construct, a familiar device to cue the players and DM that the story is about to begin. It doesn’t matter where the tavern is, its name, the people inside, or anything about the place really, so long as it serves as a backdrop for bringing everyone together, revealing the plot, and launching the expedition. It serves, but in anything but a satisfying way. For me, it’s too familiar. It’s too like every other campaign start I’ve played through. And, to make matters worse, I can anticipate exactly how the story will unfold. One character will always be the misunderstood lone wolf who with the right convincing may deign to accompany the other heroes. Then the troublemaker brings conflict when there’s none needed. Enter the messenger with the knife in the back or the crusty old wizard with pipe clenched between his teeth. Then, character descriptions, awkward roleplaying, conflict, concessions, blah, blah, blah, and then we’re off to slay the dragon.
Rather than go through the same, tired old drama, can we not skip this step and get on with the game? D&D, especially now, assumes the characters are established heroes who have already learned their craft’s fundamentals and are ready to venture off into the unknown in search of all the usual things—gold, magic, knowledge, etc. So if the characters are established in the world, doesn’t it make sense that they would already be involved in an adventuring group?
The obvious solution to what I see as a problem is to build the party bonds between the characters before the game starts. More than ever before, D&D is a cooperative game. Success hinges on how well the individual PCs work together. Yet for all that characters are expected to synch up abilities, focus fire against enemies, and diversify their talents to cover the widest range of threats, we designers have yet to present a mechanism for strengthening the bonds between characters beyond the tactical incentives already at work in the game. It could be argued that leader classes embody the group dynamic. A group with a cleric in the mix plays somewhat differently than does one with a warlord, bard, or artificer. The more I think about it, the more I like this idea, but rather than derailing my ultimate objective (shared backgrounds), I think I’ll save that idea for later.
Another approach might be to add a “fifth” leg to the player character. (Race, class, background, and theme are all legs that support the PC.) This leg could be some sort of party class, an umbrella that covers the entire team. I suspect there may be room for such a thing in D&D, yet I’m reluctant to explore them in this medium. I would rather save such work for something that contributes to my paycheck, if you know what I mean?
So, short of strengthening how a class can shape a party and setting aside the idea that we could build party classes, what’s left? Well, the easiest place to expand and also to explore is character backgrounds. We tinkered with backgrounds in Forgotten Realms Player’s Guide, but as some have pointed out the results are sometimes uneven and players tend to pick regional backgrounds based on the mechanical advantage they offer rather than the story elements contained in the region. Player’s Handbook 2 refined the idea a great deal by introducing background elements. A player can select as many as he or she likes to construct his or her character’s story. For tech, the player chooses one associated skill or language from those tied to the background elements selected. The benefit weighs about half what a normal feat weighs, so the edge gained is not an unbalancing one. What it does achieve is an expanded language options, skill diversification, or skill emphasis.
Backgrounds can establish a specific character’s history, but they normally don’t reinforce the group bond unless everyone makes their choices with the express purpose of creating links between their characters. Unless players make a conscious effort to connect their characters to another, they bring their PCs to the table, armed with unique and possibly contradictory aims and agendas. Yes, such division does create roleplaying opportunities as well as fodder for the DM to exploit as the campaign develops. However, such potential also comes at the price of forcing the DM to create a situation for the individual characters to meet, hence the tavern.
So what can you do? For starts, hold off on trawling Character Builder for the perfect yellow pastry character. Instead talk to the people in your group. You’re established heroes so it’s no stretch to think you’ve been working together before the campaign begins. So how did you all meet? What conflict drew you together? How did you fare against the conflict? Did you find defeat or victory? Why did you stay together afterward? What is your group working toward now? Establish your group’s story, its beginning, an early achievement, and perhaps a failure too.
With your group identity hashed out, think about the different parts required by the group and come up with a short list of skills that speak to those parts. If you were creating a typical adventuring group, you’d need a face, a tough guy, the maverick, a scholar, and the emotional center. Face suggests Diplomacy, tough guy Athletics or Endurance, scholar Arcana or History, ship counsellor Insight or Heal. Each player then picks the role (and associated) skill and then builds a character that fits the group’s story.
The players like the idea of an acting troupe to be their group story. They sketch out some story roles: a manager who might also be the playwright, the strong guy who plays the monsters and builds the stage, the diva who draws the crowd, the comedian who makes them laugh, and let’s say a refugee who’s hiding in their ranks (thanks Tad!). The players think about these roles and decide on an associated skill for each story role so that each player can have a specialty.
Manager/Playwright: We’ll say Streetwise since he’s going to be organizing the show.
Strong Guy: Athletics seems obvious here. Though Intimidate could work too.
Diva: Diplomacy feels right.
Comedian: Bluff should do the trick.
Refugee: How about Stealth or Thievery.
With the background skills assembled, each player picks a narrative role and then builds his or her character to best express the chosen role. So, the manager/playwright might be a bard, the strong guy a fighter (battlerager or slayer), the diva a telepathic psion, the comedian becomes a monk (for physical comedy), while the refugee could be a rogue. You’ll note this party also features expected class roles too, with a leader, defender, controller, and two strikers represented.
You might also consider a mercenary band. A group could include heavy infantry (Endurance–knight), cavalry (Nature–paladin), medic (Heal–cleric), scout (Stealth–ranger), and a commander (Intimidate–warlord). Or, how about envoys from a distant land? Such a group would need a diplomat (Diplomacy–bard), spy (Stealth–assassin), guard (Perception–battlemind), an advisor (History–wizard), and perhaps a priest (Religion–avenger) or magician (Arcana–artificer).
I’m not breaking any new ground here, I realize. But what I hope to do is find a way around the tavern scene and get you into your games faster so you can skip over the tired opening and engage in the world in the most interesting and exciting ways. The next time you sit down to create a character, think about the group first. Establish your group’s history, its identity, and place in the world. Doing so will help you and your companions create a more coherent team to find yourself better equipped at facing the challenges in the game. This way, you can ditch the contrivance and avoid the Frankenstein party problem that ultimately creates internal conflicts within the team. Those conflicts lead to fractures and more often than not dissolution. And no one wants that, right?