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Where does this silly (but fun) cliche come from? I couldn't find a definitive answer online.

The value of the tavern as a place where characters can meet, find new adventure hooks, and spend gold is obvious. And there are no shortage of inspiring taverns & inns in fantasy fiction.

Did multiple gamers independently start using inns & taverns as a launching pad in the early days of D&D? Or maybe Gary Gygax or Dave Arneson were in the habit of dropping their players into taverns and it caught on as a narrative device?

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  • \$\begingroup\$ It sounds to me like there are two questions here, the origin of the cliche (non-gaming) and the origin of the gaming cliche. Most of the answers so far have concentrated on the former, but that is more of a question for scifi, the latter question would be more appropriate here, given your tags. \$\endgroup\$
    – Mark Booth
    Jan 21, 2015 at 18:16
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    \$\begingroup\$ @MarkBooth - Good point - I don't know if the tavern became a tired cliche in fantasy fiction before it became a cliche in fantasy RPGs. I suspect the popularity of the tavern setting became widespread due to games like D&D even among players who hadn't read Fritz Leiber. \$\endgroup\$
    – RobertF
    Jan 21, 2015 at 18:27
  • \$\begingroup\$ When I read this question I thought it was an XKCD reference: xkcd.com/244 \$\endgroup\$
    – BrianH
    Jan 22, 2015 at 18:30
  • \$\begingroup\$ It's not limited to Fantasy. \$\endgroup\$
    – TecBrat
    Jan 22, 2015 at 20:46
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    \$\begingroup\$ In my D&D campaigns, the player characters tend to hang around in bakeries. After all, they reason, everyone in my settings eats bread, so all the rumours in the city flow through the bakeries eventually. \$\endgroup\$
    – GMJoe
    Nov 12, 2015 at 23:19

3 Answers 3

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The Comeback Inn played a prominent role in Dave Arneson's Blackmoor campaign:

From the day the walls started to go up, the establishment was an important landmark in the North. Few who stopped in Blackmoor failed to make an appearance there. As a result, the inn soon became an informal labor exchange and information market. Whether a person sought to hire the services of a wizard, wanted to hear the real tale of the founding of Lake Gloomy, or just craved good food and drink, the Comeback Inn was where he would stop.
Adventures In Blackmoor

It was also set up as a gateway between Blackmoor and other worlds, further facilitating adventures. As other answers have mentioned, the concept of an inn as an information and transactional hub was well established long before RPGs were created, but given the importance of Blackmoor it's likely the Comeback Inn strengthened the role of the inn in fantasy RPGs.

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    \$\begingroup\$ In the intro to the Blackmoor setting book (Zeitgeist Games, 2004), Arneson described his thoughts behind the creation of the Comeback Inn in 1974: "Where did the players meet? Inns were popular in a lot of books and it was logical that the guys would meet in a public establishment. And there had been this neat medieval restaurant in Chicago called The Comeback Inn." Since Blackmoor was a popular D&D campaign setting in the 1970s (not to mention the first D&D campaign setting) it's fair to say the Comeback Inn was the tavern that set the standard for the cliche so common in fantasy games. \$\endgroup\$
    – RobertF
    Jan 21, 2015 at 19:31
  • \$\begingroup\$ Hyperlink to "The Comeback Inn" is broken -- anybody got a replacement? \$\endgroup\$
    – Valley Lad
    Feb 18, 2023 at 4:41
  • \$\begingroup\$ I've updated the link. It now points to a difficult but similar source. \$\endgroup\$ Feb 19, 2023 at 3:02
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    \$\begingroup\$ This answer could be improved by providing some more context about Dave Arneson and the campaign. You don’t tell me who he is or why this campaign is important to the answer, so I don’t really know why this answer is correct without having to do further research myself. \$\endgroup\$ Feb 19, 2023 at 13:41
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    \$\begingroup\$ @ThomasMarkov this question and all the answers are (slightly) over 8 years old now - less people today may be aware of who Dave Arneson was, but this answer is a product of its time. \$\endgroup\$ Feb 19, 2023 at 21:12
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I think this is because fantasy roleplaying games were influenced by pre-existing literature. As from TV Tropes:

Though not at the beginning of the story, Frodo and friends meeting Aragorn in the Prancing Pony in The Lord of the Rings likely influenced many later examples.

and

all the characters meet at an inn before starting their pilgrimage in Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales.

Probably because of these (and myriad other) examples, and because of the real prominence of inns and taverns as places where strangers might run into each other, they became the default meeting place for FRPGs.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Interesting observation, but can you provide any evidence linking these existing to tropes to their implementation in TTRPGs? \$\endgroup\$ Feb 19, 2023 at 13:43
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Inns were the places where travelling merchants and other (wealthy) travellers stayed for the night. This made inns the source of news (a.k.a. rumours) from afar. Local villagers would come to the inn after work for an ale (given that they could afford it). This makes the inn an hub of local rumours. The caravan merchants might need guides, hired swords for protection, and porters, which might attract adventures looking for money.

Other sources where an adventurer/hired sword might get a job (and money) are:

  • local guard (but watchmen stay in the village, thus this is probably not that adventurous)
  • wealthy (local) patron
  • thieves guild/crime lord
  • market (but asking random merchants (or others?) "do you have a job for me?" would probably not work that well)

So the inn might be the most logical place for adventurers looking for a job.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Do you have any evidence at all that this is the origin of the trope? This seems more like speculation than a supported answer. \$\endgroup\$ Feb 19, 2023 at 13:44

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