19
Mar

Barroom Blitz

Designing Your Tavern for a Tussle

It’s a classic. The bar brawl. And with a little prep-work when world-building, you can make your ale houses, pool halls, and common rooms uncommonly perfect for a proper fracas or a beer-fueled brouhaha.

 

 

 

REASONABLE RIOTS

Why do we use the bar brawl in storytelling? Assorted adventure stories have them, or some variation of them – the fisticuffs at the saloon’s poker table, the rum-soaked melee in the piratical den over a bargain gone bad, and the scummy, villainous challenge that ends with a laser sword and a lopped-off hand. Such conflict is set early in the story to establish the danger we are about to embark upon, but in a relatively controlled, semi-non-lethal way (most of the time).

The bar brawl is a tool to demonstrate combat. In a movie, show, or book, this is the point in the plot where we see what dangers a fight presents and we get a glimpse of the relative battle skills of the participants. In a game, we also get to try out combat rules and character abilities in an environment where the stakes are not quite so high as they might be later in the story. Either the combatants are more interested in blowing off steam rather than flat-out murder or they are (presumably) in close enough proximity to agents of law enforcement that they are aware that they simply can’t get away with killing like they might if they were far away from civilization.

CONTROLLED CHAOS

You can use these kinds of conflicts as a sort of practice-battle before the really deadly stuff by controlling the chaos, somewhat. The first trick is to make some of your brawlers completely inept or utterly too drunk to fight well. This allows for lots of fumbles, slips, and wild swings that go completely off the mark, thus preserving your protagonists for more important fights in the near future. Fudge as many attack rolls as you like and explain it away with booze.

A second trick is to have enemies accidentally smack each other. Movie directors like bar-brawls because you can show a lot of action in a really tight space, and you should, too. If one of your heroes is about to get smashed with a stool and you don’t want it to happen, have the bouncer get thrown across the room, knocking down the seat-swinger and eliminating the threat. If it’s getting too dangerous, have some of the fighters spill out into the street to spread things out and leave avenues for escape. Your choreography will seem organic and the players will feel clever for finding openings to get into or out of position.

Finally, when it’s time to move the plot along, announce the sound of approaching authority figures, followed swiftly by the more sober folks scurrying for the back doors and windows. Or substitute that scenario with one wherein the town guard show up, see the heroes’ battle prowess, and offer them quest-work to solve a little problem the town has been having lately. This can also be an excellent time to establish a recurring villain – one of the surviving patrons who is angry at the party for a lost tooth or jail time in the drunk tank.

STOCK THE SHELVES

Another iconic part of the classic canteen clash involves the scenery itself – improvised weapons. If your game system does not have a set of rules for using furniture as instruments of warfare, figure out some stats before you brawl. Stools can serve as shields, benches become battering rams, pool cues come into play as staves (and shatter into spears), and a bottle is a cudgel one moment and a deadly knife the next. If your warriors are bowling with kegs, things are going well. And keep in mind that characters who carry weapons with them will be tempted to pull them out, even if everyone else is throwing fists. Think about the reaction of your bar flies if a real weapon is drawn – does that signal closing time or does it up the ante (and add felony charges to the judicial case)? And what about the people who are too drunk to make intelligent choices?

Does your bar have a kitchen? Then there may be knives, pots, and skewers ready to deal damage. My opening adventure in an Eastern-themed game was set in an inn that featured a giant cooking wok in the middle of the common room – the perfect place to push a pugilist. (In fact, the party went out of their way to use it for that reason, even when they didn’t have to.) You can easily substitute a giant cauldron or kettle for more Western-style settings, or simply a large fireplace or a viking fire trough. For modern games, upgrade to a hibachi griddle or a barbecue pit.

Speaking of fire, someone is going to eventually want to start one because reasons. For those that don’t already know, the fumes of alcohol can be ignited with a flame, but many alcoholic beverages do not catch fire easily because they do not have a high enough alcohol content. You need about 40% alcohol by volume (80 proof) to really even have a chance, and this will not be a large flame or a long-lasting one. The higher the percentage/proof, the easier the ignition and the stronger the fire. Strong grain alcohol (like Everclear) that has not been diluted with other liquids would be quite dangerous if set ablaze. Large quantities of strong rum, absinthe, gin, tequila, vodka, whiskey, or your world’s equivalent would also have a flame-factor which might stay hot long enough to catch other things on fire. Mixed drinks, watered-down drinks, beers, ales, and wines would likely not even light up, though they could create a slippery surface when spilled or sting the eyes of an opponent. And broken glass can create a surprising amount of carnage.

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