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Friday 13 December 2019

Touting Taverns

Taverns are a cliché in fantasy roleplaying because that is always where adventures begin, as in, “You all meet in an inn.” They are places where the adventurers can buy a drink, pick up a few rumours, perhaps get hired for a job, and then go on their merry way to delve into some dungeon or some other adventuring site. Then when the adventure is over, they are places for such adventurers to retire to and spend their loot on wine, women, and song. The Pocket Companion: A Tavern Guide is designed to make such establishments more interesting than that and to give multiple examples of such places where food and drink, company and entertainment can all be found and enjoyed. Some seventy or so taverns detailed, spread across four types of terrain—cities and towns, on the road, villages, and wilderness—all designed for use with the fantasy roleplaying game of your choice, for the content of The Pocket Companion: A Tavern Guide is entirely systemless. Further, the supplement published by Wisdom Save Media is very simply presented in a black and buff booklet in order to make it friendly on the pocket.

Now despite saying that The Pocket Companion: A Tavern Guide is systemless—because it is—it has its own system of presenting and rating each of the taverns described within its pages. Every entry is rated in terms of casks, from one to five, taking into consideration its customer service, quality of produce, comfort, range of services offered, décor, and overall customer satisfaction. This is only a rough guide and is open to interpretation, so a one-cask tavern might give great customer service, but serve terrible beer and have cheap furniture, or the beer is great, but overpriced, served by rude staff, and patronised by aggressively surly customers. The particular services offered by each tavern are indicated by a number of icons, one each for food, stables rooms, merchant (services), blacksmith, entertainment, and bar staff and patrons. Again, these are are open to interpretation, but further information is provided in each tavern’s description and some of their customer comments.

In addition every entry includes a description, a bit o’ history, and one or two reviews. Some also give descriptions of the staff and patrons of the tavern, each of whom is accorded their likes, dislikes, wants, fears, and flaws, all of which are organised into a table of their own. There are typically three of these per entry that includes them, nicely providing a thumbnail portrait of the individuals. This increases the page count for the entries with NPCs from one page to two.

For example, The Yellow King is rated three casks and offers food, entertainment, and rooms. The sign over its door depicts a figure with its head bowed and covered in a cowl and dressed in yellow tattered robes, surrounded by shadows which suggest the figure might have wings. Inside, its many patrons sit in small clumps, staring into their greasy yankards amidst an air of desperation and menace… According to its ‘A Bit O’ History’, The Yellow King is place for its patrons to drink and forget, ignoring the city’s worst inhabitants in the tavern’s dark corners. The right connections will get an introduction to any one of them should you have need of their prowess at blackmailing and coercing others. The price though, is often more than simple coin… Surprisingly, Hildred Castaigne only gives the tavern a rating of two out of five.

Where The Yellow King is found in a city or town, The Lair is rated at four casks and is located somewhere in the wilderness, its exact location and appearance changing at the whim or need of the owner, Nox. Nox is an average bakeep, though he does have information to sell for a price. The tavern is described as being clean and well-maintained, but the decor may well be off-putting and there are shady corners where all sorts of business can be conducted. Nox is described under ‘A Bit O’ History’ as often being sarcastic or derisive towards his customers as he would rather be elsewhere, though he will help those new to the area. It is awarded five out of five in one reward, but three out of five in another, the latter pointing out that Nox is freaky, whilst his bouncer and waiter twins are always grinning….

Under ‘Staff and Patrons of The Lair’, Nox is revealed as an intelligence broker with blank, disinterested expression and a sarcastic manner. He is also a vampire! He likes decorating and colourful cocktails, dislikes cleaning and daytime, wants better servants, fears not being needed, and suffers from the flaws of being overly supportive, even to his own detriment. Both his bouncer and waiter twins are given a similar treatment as is a secretive patron known as The Alabaster Mask.

In addition to the numerous taverns, The Pocket Companion: A Tavern Guide also includes a few plot hooks, a set of tables for determining the details of cellars as well as their secrets, for creating the names of beers, wines, and liquors and how they taste, some twenty distractions to throw at the player characters, and games like Beggars Blackjack and Drinks and Daggers. All of which can be used to add colour and flavour to the player characters’ visit to any of the establishments described earlier. Then if the Game Master runs out of choices within the pages there is a quick and dirty means of generating more taverns with a set of further tables. The book itself is rounded out with space for the Game Master to record her own creations.

Physically, The Pocket Companion: A Tavern Guide is a plain and simple book. It is only lightly illustrated, but more problematically is that it does need another edit as the writing in places is not as succinct or clear as it could be. Much of this stems from the contents of the book being crowd-sourced, so the writing is variable in its quality. The fact that the contents of the book were crowd-sourced also means that there is another issue with The Pocket Companion: A Tavern Guide in the degree of repetition between its seventy or so entries. So this means that there are lots of taverns that are run by retired adventurers, taverns that are really busy despite being off the beaten track, taverns run by Dwarves, and so on. What this means is that the Game Master has to be careful when selecting the next tavern to add to her game lest it is too similar to the last one that the player characters visited.

Overall, although The Pocket Companion: A Tavern Guide is somewhat rough around the edges, it does give the Referee plenty of choice and plenty to work with. Which it does in an inexpensive and accessible fashion.

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