Beginnings are delicate times, and they’re often set in the roughest of places. Although not exclusive, it is common for campaigns to start in the local tavern, including the only one I have ever published. This is such a common trope that it’s frowned upon.
What purpose does the Tavern have?
The obvious answer is that taverns are a meeting place; it’s where people in the town gather. Thus you can generally find people there, and some of them might want to offer you a job. There is something a little deeper going on, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. I was reaching the monomyth concept and watching “The Power of Myth” PBS Series, where Bill Moyers and Joseph Campbell discuss the famous cantina scene in Star Wars:
BILL MOYERS: What did you think about the scene in the bar [at Mos Eisely on Tatooine]?
JOSEPH CAMPBELL: That’s my favorite, not only in this piece, but of many, many pieces I’ve ever seen.
BILL MOYERS: Why?
JOSEPH CAMPBELL: Well, where you are is on the edge, you’re about to embark into the outlying spaces. And–
BILL MOYERS: The real adventure.
JOSEPH CAMPBELL: The real adventure. This is the jumping-off place, and there is where you meet people who’ve been out there, and they run the machines that go out there, and you haven’t been there. It reminds me a little bit in Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, the atmosphere before you start off the adventure. You’re in the seaport, and there’s old salts, seamen who’ve been on the sea, and that’s their world, and these are the space people, also.
In heroic literature, taverns, bars, and ports are links from the mundane world of peasants to the world of the fantastic, the world beyond the safe borders of the town. There, soon-to-be heroes can meet outsiders and seasoned adventurers meet people in the mundane world, which is why they feature so prominently in heroic fiction. This is where our human ranger meets the tiefling rogue, dwarven wizard, and elven fighter.
Why do we care?
Always an excellent question. When a DM knows why an object has a certain purpose, then she can be intentional about its use. She knows that it is a place where people connect, not necessarily where combat happens. In general, the bartender knows who in the community will need help and where to go for work. It is also a place where agents of forces of evil can identify do-gooders so they can be tracked, and eventually ambushed appropriately away from anyone who could intervene.
It is unlikely that savvy heroes will get into fights at the bar, although it happens from time to time. However, the well-placed tavern brawl can have great effect. A fight that breaks out in the tavern would be indicative that social norms are breaking down… either through nefarious magic or desperate political situation.
The ultimate reason to use the tavern trope with intention is that it can add a sense of realism to the game. If for even an instant, you can get a player to suspend disbelief, it’s worth it.