Adding Flavor To The Table

Between spending some time at the Flying Stag earlier in the week and recovering from the trials and tribulations of Thanksgiving, I’ve got food and drink on the mind with a side of tabletop worldbuilding. So your party of characters wander into the tavern and order… what? An ale?  Your freighter crew has two weeks of… consumables? That’s it? We can do better than that; both people running games and playing them can get some extra detail out of their setting and characters by keeping one fact in mind: even most protagonists have to eat.

The crew of the Sky on Fire entered the scene with a hankering for biscuits and quickly picked up another crewmember who loved wasabi peas. The edgerunners of CabbageCorp got their start in the back of a truck full of smuggled cabbages and knew a prospective fixer meant business when he invited them to a place serving real carp and even threw in a six-pack of real beer; in that same campaign, group fixer Philly became well known for his flask, the contents of which was revealed to be non-alcoholic when Jacob finally asked for a pull. If fishing for kido birds wasn’t a thing you would have never even have had Dice for Brains.

Players describe what their characters look like, why not add in what their preferred food and drink is? Game masters describe the taverns, inns, and cantinas from the person behind the bar to the quest-giver in the dark corner, why not include the sights, smells, and tastes of what’s on the tables? On the prep side whether it’s fishing for dumb but tasty birds on the Outer Rim, a cleric brewing ale and distilling rum in service to their piratical trickster god, or the druid growing herbs for their food on a rooftop garden, food and drink provide a fun way to spend some in-game downtime.

Food varies by culture, region, and even relatively close population centers in the real world, so food can also act as a marker for characters as to when they’ve reached somewhere truly foreign to them. Eberron has several examples pulled from its sourcebooks, from the heavy and filling food of Karrnath to the small-portioned and delicate cuisine of Aundair. If you’re drinking kuryeva you’re either in Xen’drik or enjoying an import, likely in Sharn. You’ll know you’re in Droaam if you find the slightly sour meat known as grist in your sausage or stew; try not to think too hard about the trolls out back missing body parts. In running games within the setting I gave food in Io’lokar, the city full of humanoids on the dragon continent of Argonnessen, the subtle tang of magic to hint that the city had to rely on the arcane to survive since it didn’t have any sort of support network.

Besides being used as setting dressing, having food and drink matter in your game world can also be a source of adventuring hooks, just like rare spellcasting components or magical/technological doodads. This sort of thing typically belongs in the realm of ‘lower level’ types of adventure whether your game has actual levels or not, making meat-and-potatoes adventuring a little more literal than usual, although there can certainly be exceptions. Another reason this topic has been on my mind is that the most recent D&D adventure I played in involved sourcing ingredients. Our DM, Ryan, had a noble sponsoring the fantasy equivalent of an Iron Chef competition, with the ownership of a restaurant on the line, and our party managed to leverage our way into backing both sides. We rustled rare pigs from their hill giant captor, fought through lizardfolk to find eggs in a swamp, nearly died in the underdark acquiring some rare exploding fungus things, and most notoriously had to negotiate with a pegasus for some of its milk. At the end of it all we had a seat at the competition and a free meal, a reserved table and a share of the profits at the restaurant (now co-owned by the competitors),  and a meeting with the noble to hopefully garner better paying work.

Another good example is a product that came to us out of ZineQuest 3, Last Orders! Yes, you get sixteen drinks to pour in the tavern of your choosing, from the full-bodied, fruity, and floral (with a wheaty aftertaste) Dornwald Hefeweizen to the smokey and savoury maple sweetness of Wyvernsroil Smokebrew. Each drink also offers a hook, either because of itself or its circumstances. A stranger has had so much Seventh Sacrament they’ve forgotten who they are, and hires the party to retrace their (possibly divine) bar crawl to discover their identity, while a patron of The Hearth on the Hill has been cursed by an ifrit and believes consuming an almost-literally-ice-cold glass of Rimepeak Pilsner atop a mountain will be the cure.

Whether it’s a crème brûlée caramelized by a tiny dragon, a Cliffside brunch that’s perfect for leaving your captured enemies tied up outside, or a selection of delightfully fizzy drinks from increasingly questionable gnomes that transport you to a citadel of nightmares, what your adventurers are chowing down on or knocking back can put as much extra life into your game as any other character or scene description.

I mean, it’s not called flavor text for nothing, right?

Header image is from Heroes’ Feast: The Official D&D Cookbook, which would be part of a different topic entirely about bringing food to the real life table. If that’s the sort of thing you’re after, I’d also personally recommend the Elder Scrolls Cookbook, and there are even a few ideas Aki cooked up

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