Written by Neujack, flindbar, Raddu, and Adam Cieszlak, and first published on 2022-08-04
This is a new series of articles designed to provide DMs with encounter or location ideas to add flavor to their campaigns.
This particular article discusses various ways to characterise and describe your taverns, inns, and similar locations in Dark Sun, to enable DMs a way of using that trope while still maintaining the Dark Sun atmosphere.
The “meeting in a tavern” trope is as old as D&D itself. Taverns make for easy starting locations, but they also serve as useful stopping points and bookends between adventures. One of the oldest campaign structures in D&D is the picaresque roaming band of heroes-for-hire travelling from inn to inn, and its popularity was always understandable– it’s easy for beginner DM’s to use.
But how can we use such a space in Dark Sun without it feeling empty and cliché?
Creating a Tavern That Fits in the Dark Sun Setting
Depending on how you like to play Dark Sun, there are many sources of inspiration we can look to. The various Dark Sun novels mention several taverns with varying qualities of description. Historically, taverns and inns have served as meeting places and a social hubs since Ancient Egypt and Babylon, but they would also often feature additional service based upon their locations and clientele. It makes sense to see similar features and purposes in Athasian taverns and inns. If we add psionics or divine magic, then it’s possible we might even see occasional services akin to those seen in pubs in other AD&D settings.
The question is what would such pubs look like? How do we build the variety of interactions PCs might have within these establishments?
To help DM’s solve this problem, we have considered many of the different functions inns and taverns have served and how they have appeared historically and in fiction. From this, we have been able to create several archetypes for inns and taverns based around these concepts. Each is listed below along with the practical circumstances which define their function and existence, as well as a described example of each which DMs could easily insert into their own campaigns.
Developed Caravansary Template
This type of tavern is often found at an oasis on a high traffic trade road. There are not enough people to warrant its own community, but it is too frequently used to leave it unfortified.
While seldom a good place to begin an adventure, these do have their uses as stopping places mid-adventure, or resting points between long legs of a journey.
This is an ancient world equivalent of a modern day truck stop or road house. For practical reasons, placing several vendors and services under the same roof has always been an effective model for an isolated rest stop on a commonly used travel route.
On a highly-trafficked trade road, such places would have little trouble defending themselves – they are too useful to see destroyed, so merchants have a vested interest in collaborating for their protection.
Such inns would likely offer many comprehensive services, such as:
Food (batch-cooked stews and such made from goods brought in by merchant caravans)
Drink (possibly brewed on site, possibly imported by caravans)
Entertainment (gaming, music)
Mending (clothing or non-metal items)
Limited psionic or clerical healing
The only thing such an establishment wouldn’t be good at providing would be jobs for travelling PCs.
Example: Mekillot’s Meal
An isolated walled complex located between Tyr and Balic, alongside the main trade road.
The ancient spring which has seemingly always existed here has been fortified and surrounded to the point where it is no longer recognizable. The complex is now more of a small fort. The fortifications are unnecessary, as the complex is so frequently visited by well-armed caravans that nothing short of a city state’s army would prove a real threat.
Due to its strategic position and simple usefulness, all merchant houses treat this as neutral territory, and this protection is enforced by the leadership of all houses. Infractions are dealt with appropriately harshly; there may be the occasional personal spat, but these are taken outside as a rule.
Inside, you’ll find a main open air courtyard and small mud brick buildings along the main walls. The covered cafeteria area is located near the kitchen and beer storage to the right side of the main entrance, across from the other services. Given the vast size of the convoys which stop here, the caravan grounds are quite substantial, but still loosely bounded by traps and mounted patrols. The few animals which manage to get past these obstructions find themselves as meat on a stick for the caravan guards.
This tavern provides food, lodging, a stables, some amount of psionic healing, and repairs for wagons and some non-metal equipment and clothing.
City Gateside Pub Template
A pub located one or two streets away from a city’s gates. These taverns feature the most diverse range of visitors, making them the best places for strangers to hide, and the best places to meet strange folk.
This template would also work for midtown merchant pubs near the marketplaces.
Moderately priced taverns which draw in traders and tourists; these are places where merchants, travelling traders, and templars interact. Nobles would be rare, but not entirely unheard of.
Serving more as taverns than inns, services would be mainly restricted to:
Food (cooked on-site, likely a touristy version of staple fare from the city)
Drink (either brewed on-site or brought in)
Entertainment (music, dancing, escorts. Gaming would be unlikely)
Private meeting rooms
They could have referrals and escorts to other service providers if they seem relevant.
Example: the Walled Garden
Located just inside the gates of Urik.
The inside of its sturdy brick walls have been painted with murals of vines and other plants throughout, giving the stylised look of visiting a noble’s villa garden.
The pub is active at all hours, as it’s the place of choice for big-spending merchants when they first reach the city. It is also one of the few places where low ranking templars and city guards might actually be seen interacting with civilians.
The food is quite good given its location, in no small part to the money that comes through here.
Due to its clientele, they have some of the strongest bouncers and protections against conflict of any bar in the city. But the most effective deterrent is the threat and shame of being banned from here for a period of time.
In addition to food and drink, they offer stables, and reliable guides to escort visitors to inns or other partnered businesses (companionship, repair or manufacturing specialists, etc.). As outsider cat’s paws are often a useful commodity to merchants and templars, this tavern is also a well known place to find work for individuals new to the city.
Rough Elven Quarter Tavern Template
An inn located inside the elven quarter of a city state, not far from the market. This is as close to the classic D&D seedy tavern trope as Dark Sun is likely to get.
It’s easy to make a seedy pub which serves no campaign purpose other than to have a meeting with an unsavoury character. What is not so easy is to create a poorer establishment which has a reason to still attract customers for a prolonged period of time.
Assuming the tavern attracts customers who aren’t combatants (especially families with children), it must have some provision built in which protects these non-combatants. Ways to do it could include making an inn that has become a kind of community hub, providing neutral territory between criminal factions for the sake of the civilians who live in the area, or a location which is dominated by its own powerful individual or faction who maintains it for the sake of those who cannot defend themselves. Such a patron could have strong affiliations or maintain a neutral stance.
Depending on their size, such taverns could offer any one of a number of services, such as:
Food (most likely cheap or simple faire, made in the limited kitchen)
Drink (most likely brewed on site, but could be brought in)
Lodging (rudimentary if any)
Entertainment (gambling, tavern games, escorts, music, dancing unlikely)
Mending (cloth or leather possibly)
Limited psionic or possibly clerical healing
Private meeting rooms
These establishments would probably lack the technical sophistication to be able to do more advanced repairs.
Example: the Free Dune Runner
In the free city of Tyr’s substantial elven quarter, there are many inns which have been set up to house visitors unwanted in other parts of the city. All of them vary in terms of size, quality, and safety. The Free Dune Runner is representative of the “good ones”.
The building seems to be some sort of warehouse that has since been converted to its current use. The outer walls are thick mud-plastered stone with only a few small windows (a room with a window costs extra), but the inner walls and floors of the upper level are all made of wood.
While these walls and upper level floors are stable and solid, the soundproofing is terrible. Considering the almost constant din from the main drinking area, it is unlikely that anyone who cannot muffle the noise is going to get any sleep here. For those who didn’t come to sleep however, this isn’t a problem. The inn is aware of this, and often rents rooms by the hour…
Many rumours have circulated about the intractable owner - she is such a force of nature that some believe she is a powerful fire priestess. Rumour has it that her mother became a dune runner while trying to chase down her father, after he had stolen from her, hence the name.
The inn’s storage facilities are well hidden and only the owner and her three husbands know the secret of how to access it. This makes it as safe a place to store possessions and other important (or illicit) goods as anywhere. Rumour suggests that the owner used to have five husbands (as per her tribe’s custom), but someone had tried to bribe two of them into giving away that secret…
The inn offers low quality food, drink (both about as hygienic as it gets in this part of town), lodging, stables, and storage.
Because of the owner’s fiercely neutral stance between the City Templars and the various elf tribes, she has become a go-to person for people looking for odd jobs or work that needs doing.
Communal Oasis Template
Naturally, a village that has opened itself to traders would have its own version of hospitality. Rather than being a single building, however, it would be more likely an open space attached to a brewing building or kitchen.
This would also make a suitable alternative tavern template for humanoid races like ssurans or nikaals.
The idea of a community recreation hub can be seen even among primitive tribes, as it seems a fundamental part of civilization itself. As currency is added to trade, the basic fundamentals of a tavern can be established.
In practice such a location would offer little more than:
Food (possibly cooked on the site over a fire, or in a dedicated cook hut)
Drink (oasis water, or possibly something brewed in a more established location)
Storage (more like a place to drop things)
Entertainment (music, some games, possibly dancing)
Example: The Cool Water Oasis
Not far from the ruins of Yaramuke can be found the Cool Water Oasis. Formerly known as the Black Waters, the curse upon the oasis since Hamanu’s defeat of Sielba had been removed by brave warriors a decade before. Since then, it has been managed by a druid named Phabum, and the local Sons of Yaren slave tribe have settled a village among the ruins and opened up the location to trade.
The oasis itself has become somewhat more than an untamed oasis. Water from the oasis is channeled into a cistern near the smokehouse for cooking and curing various meats and baking some primitive breads, which are then used to feed the villagers and visitors. Stone slabs from the ruins have been converted into tables and benches of sorts, and sections of cloth can be attached between ruined pillars and walls to create sunshades, if needed.
The inn offers its simple faire food, water, stables, and storage.
Dining for Nobles Template
In large cities there will be high class establishments, serving fine food and drink to wealthy clientele. Some of them are exactly as they appear, while others may be a front for clandestine activities. Maybe they deal illicit substances, harbour high level Veiled Alliance meetings, or conceal gambling dens or other vices.
Where there is wealth, there will be people who want to enjoy the finer things that money can buy. The patrons of such an establishment enjoy a safe location, good food, good company and the opportunity to mix business and pleasure.
A high class establishment would offer:
Food (expensive faire, well-cooked and with a menu liberally sprinkled with delicacies from far off locations)
Drink (strong Balican spirits like ‘Druk’, fine Tyrian wines, Gulgan berry-beer, wezer mead)
Storage (limited to small items for patrons)
Entertainment (music, gambling, pub games, dancing - often via troubadours and minstrels)
Private Meeting or Dining Rooms
Patrons (a great location for PCs to find, meet and possibly be humbled by a wealthy patron)
Example: The Golden Kank
The Kank is a very old building located just off the King’s Way, in what used to be the centre of old Urik. A two story flat-roofed structure of relatively plain exterior hides the opulence within.
Although the current building is reasonably old, it is well known that it occupies the site of a much older building. The only remaining portions of the original building that are still visible are the central supporting wall located behind the bar and the flagstone floor in the taproom, which bears a number of mysterious patterns that always intrigue first time visitors.
The Kank offers a seasonal menu of rare and exclusive food and whilst water is a vital commodity all over Athas, it would rarely be served here.
The current owner of the Kank is Tarin Moro, a roguish entrepreneur originally brought to Urik by the Zebarj merchant house.
Although the main part of the Kank, the restaurant, closes in accordancewith Hamanu’s curfew, the taproom is well known to stay open longer and caters for a more varied mix of clients.
Tarin has been known to look the other way with regard to templars and other less savoury groups frequenting the taproom but in general maintains a relatively calm high class establishment.
A full version of the Golden Kank can be found here.
Village Tavern Template
A modest tavern or inn attached to a smaller village located upon a trade route. It would be more developed than a Communal Oasis, but not as large and self-contained as a Developed Caravan Stop.
This particular type of Tavern or Inn is probably the most heavily featured in fantasy novels, which makes it all the more important that DMs take pains to avoid flagrant copying of recognisable locations from other books (like from the Lord of the Rings or Dragonlance novels).
The pub exists as both a community hub and as a way to make money from passing travellers. The environment would be heavily geared towards family dining, possibly having multiple sittings for meals to serve different crowds (workers or families).
Such inns are proportionally sized for the community in which they’re located, and tend to offer the following services:
Food (cooked on-site, stodgy bulk meals made from local resources)
Drink (most likely brewed on-site)
Lodging (probably several rooms, and possibly quite comfortable)
Entertainment (music, gaming, possibly gambling, possibly dancing)
One problem with such a place would be privacy, at least outside of the lodging rooms.
Example: The Trappers Tavern
The village of Ject lies just outside the Forest Ridge, in the Ringing Mountains west of Urik. A small settlement of trappers, foragers, hunters and ex-slaves who deal in the commodities sourced from the forests and occasionally obtained through trade with the Halflings who live there - a risky proposition at the best of times.
The tavern is solid, built of stone and decorated with the spotted hides and skulls of strange and unfamiliar creatures. Inside the tavern, huge casks are piled up in a pyramid against one wall and long tables and benches fill the large single main room.
The current owner, Mady, trades in stories, furs, live animals for gladiatorial games and a local Halfling drink called blood-wine, which she insists is as sweet as honey but has a kick like a moulting erdland!
The inn offers simple faire - food, water, stables, storage and a large number of animal pens.
Merchant Caravan Template
Travelling merchants with the means to offer potential customers and suppliers food and drink often do so as a way to entice future business. Good sized caravans often setup a large tent with plenty of carpets and pillows to relax with a drink out of the blazing sun, while smaller caravans my provide only a simple shade shelter and carpets.
The more comfortable a merchant can make their customers, the more likely it is that they can persuade them to spend money. As a result, many caravans offer as many amenities as possible.
In practice such a location would offer:
Food (possibly cooked on the site over a fire, pre-cured goods from their stock, or possibly something created in a dedicated cook wagon)
Drink (stored water, beverages, or possibly something from exotic locations the merchant has recently visited)
Stabling (guards to protect their mounts while they visit)
Entertainment (music, some games, possibly dancing)
Jobs (merchant caravan guard, beast handler, wagoneer)
Mending (clothing or non-metal items)
Trade/Barter/Purchase Equipment & Mounts
Example: House Maraneth Exploration Caravan
House Maraneth is not a trade house many in the Tyr Region know of. They come from the south, a city-state named Celik. The caravan flies the House Maraneth flag - a black beetle on a yellow fieldand is run by Serq Maraneth, a human who travels on the back of his personal mekillot along with his personal guards.
Considering the faraway place they come from and the distant lands they visit, their caravan and hospitality are surprisingly luxurious. They offer good quality food and drink, stabling, entertainment, mending and goods for purchase. They’re also not averse to psionically binding lost wanderers into the employ of House Maraneth, should they have nowhere else to go or be unable to pay their debts…
Nomadic Desert Tribe
While not a pub or inn per se, the transactional nature of Athasian elven culture could be applied to their rules of hospitality. Some other ungenerous but enterprising races could also use a similar model for their hospitality.
When a tribe is travelling through the desert or tenuously inhabiting a place with scarce resources, they may be willing to help a weary traveller but be disinclined to do so for free. In such circumstances a pub model of transaction is the least unfair way of handling such an encounter.
By all appearances, it would appear the visitors are guests in the encampment, but the leader(s) would state the terms of their visit from the start. If the leader does not state their terms and solicit agreement with the visitors, then this would be more of a gray area - scenarios of asking for payment without agreement will look more like theft (as seen in “the emerald enchantress”).
Services offered would be entirely based upon what can be spared:
Place to rest
Purchase of some equipment
One trouble with such scenarios is the visitors may be asked to help out, and should they prove useful the tribe may be reluctant to let them leave.
Example: The Bazorig Elf Tribe
The Bazorig are an elven runner tribe who subsist by regularly making the dangerous trade runs between Azeth’s Rest and the various Bandit Tribes of the Glowing Desert and Scorpion Plains. They are masters of logistics and survival in these hostile lands, and it is quite common for them to come across less prepared or fortunate travellers on their regular runs. Indeed, it has become so common that they have developed their own particular form of “hospitality”, in the form of transactions with the lost and desperate.
They are well known for taking nearly everything the victim has to offer, while knowing the limits of what they can get away with. To those in more civilised lands, their behaviour towards the stranded might be seen as exploitative, but help for a price is certainly better than no help at all when one’s life is at stake.
The services they offer for sale are food, water, clerical healing, sun protection for resting, and occasionally minor bits of equipment. They will never stay more than a single night in a given spot, and will only take individuals along with them if they are able to carry their own possessions or wounded companions.