Tuesday, August 10, 1999

Ye Olde Inn

by Bill Hoad

AFTER A HARD day rescuing beautiful dragons from ravenous princesses, it’s nice to know that there is always an inn to come home to. There are still some areas of ‘wilderness’ where inns are not available, but apart from that every town, settlement and village can be relied upon to have a least one inn, clearly marked and easy to find.
For the convenience and comfort of the guests, each inn is almost identical, serving the same foaming beer, generally being drunk by the same surly locals. It doesn’t matter if you cross continents or even game worlds; the same inn is always there. From AD&D to C&S, from RQ to Flashing Blades. The only historical or fantasy game I know which does not have a network of inns is Bunnies and Burrows. (Paul Mason points out that Tekumel has no inns. I should have known that game could be relied upon to be different.)
The only variation to the standard inn is that most game worlds have one inn that serves a brew that is especially strong and unpalatable. It seems reasonable to assume that this exception applies to all game worlds, but that it has not always been mapped in yet.
I believe that the similarity of all inns indicates that they all belong to the same chain. This would explain other features:
Why are they always so easy to find? The characters have picked up a brochure.
Why are there always vacancies? The characters book ahead from the last inn.
Inns are an essential part of FRPGs. Not only do they provide accommodation, they can be booked for bar room brawls and also act as informal employment agencies.
The problem with all these inns is, I don’t believe in them. They may fit into Medieval China or Medieval Japan, where the economy and administration was more advanced, and the population more dense so that there was a large demand for inns along a network of roads and waterways. But even in China, not every village and small town would have an inn. As for Medieval Europe, population was not only sparser, there were restrictions put on travel.
Where has the bog standard FRP inn risen from? I believe it’s inspired by the 17th century stagecoach house. It’s grown from images in The Three Musketeers films with a touch of the Western saloon thrown in.
We are playing fantasy games after all, so historical accuracy is not important and some anachronisms may be granted. So why should I make a fuss? Well it’s one aspect of the sameness of all role-playing genres. I think it would be good if role-playing games extended players, not just recycled the same settings.
In real life travel, one of the major tasks is finding somewhere to stay at each destination. This task goes a long way to establishing the character of a place, and one’s personal relationship to the place.
If we consider some of the historical options, they may suggest some alternatives to the bog standard FRPG inn. I may be pointing out the obvious, but as I have seen little of the below in the games I have played, a reminder may help.

A night under the stars
The thousand star hotel as the Vietnamese euphemistically call it. This is the cheapest option, but risks being hassled as a vagrant or undesirable. If you stay away from settlements, you might avoid having to deal with nosey authorities who may question your right to travel. On the other hand, settlements offer more in the way of shelter or warmth.
When you consider that beds were a rarity 500 years ago, sleeping on the ground was quite normal. However, carrying tenting materials to protect one from the elements is advisable in temperate or colder climates.
As an aside, when creeping around town under the cover of darkness, give a thought to all the NPCs who may be sleeping outside—not just the homeless. In Singapore and Vietnam, people still sleep guard outside shophouses.

The hospitality of the local lord
A significant proportion of the medieval population lived in the halls of the local lord. Why not seek shelter there, but be careful not to approach after curfew, which would probably be around dusk.
You are dependent on: the lord’s generosity; whether he trusts you; and whether he thinks you have good cause to be on the road. A few more persons to feed and accommodate should not be much of a strain on his household.
The lord’s hall may be called a great hall, but may not be so great. It may be no bigger than a modern house. It might be larger, or be in the form of a keep or tower.
The living quarters would usually be one large room. What small windows there are would be covered by cloth to keep out the cold. A central fire would provide light, heat and cooking, the smoke drifting to the roof. If the lord is rich, he might afford some candles as well.
The lord would have a chair, as might his right hand man and other important household members, (hence the derivation of the terms ‘chairman’ and ‘right hand man’) and are placed on a low platform. The rest of the household would sit on benches or on the floor.The household—including family, servants, retainers, visitors and dogs—would sleep on the floor of this hall. Straw or reeds, or whatever is locally available, would help to soften the floor and disguise the litter accumulated since it was last replaced.
A balcony or floor above the hall, with separate bedrooms for the family, appeared in England about 500 years ago. But only in the largest and richest castles are there spare rooms for guests.

The one established reason for travel was pilgrimage. Various controls and restrictions were put on pilgrimage, such as the requirement to get written permission from a priest. But restrictions were not always enforced or effective. For example, attempts were made to ban women pilgrims, but there is evidence that this was never fully achieved.
Pilgrimage was generally neither comfortable or safe. (In response to the number of muggings a papal bull was issued instructing pilgrims to pass oncoming persons on the sword arm side, so as to be in a good position to put up a defence.) As pilgrimage routes became established, often the route itself became important, with recognised shrines to pay homage to along the way. For some pilgrimages, the journey and the shrines visited on the way was as important as the final goal.
Major pilgrimage routes were busy enough that services such as accommodation came to be established. Monasteries, churches and abbeys along the route provided accommodation. This might be a monastic cell, or a shared room in a hostel. Lodging was probably ‘free’, but guests might be expected to attend mass, assist in domestic or agricultural jobs, and make a voluntary donation.
On busy pilgrimage routes where there are enough rich pilgrims, private accommodation might be offered by enterprising locals.

Travelling as merchants, or with merchants, is popular in FRPGs. For historical precedents, one should look towards the Silk Road, or Arabia. Cross-land trade routes in Medieval Europe were much less impressive. Most goods at market would have come from the immediate surroundings, traders coming for the day and returning in the evening.
Goods from further afield may be dealt with by merchants with a network of established houses or trading partners, thus his goods and his staff are secure in each settlement.
There is room for the smaller itinerant traders. But for security reasons, they would probably wish to sleep with their goods. Maybe they are allowed to stay in the market place or market hall.
But merchants wishing to trade, or even just pass through, a new settlement should check with the local authorities and be aware of any local guilds or merchants. There may be restrictions, duties and monopolies to consider. (Recent archaeological investigation in Stockport, England—my adopted hometown—shows that a complex bonding and duty system was enforced at the medieval market.) Merchants may find that licences to trade purchased elsewhere are not recognised. Conversely new merchants may find themselves welcomed as guests by the authorities or resident merchants keen to trade.

Travelling as someone else’s retainer, serf or guard solves many problems. It restricts the options of the retainer, but the patron has to worry about explanations for travel, transport and accommodation.

The traveller may have to rely on private accommodation. Someone may be prepared to act as host, either out of generosity or to make a little money. The traveller might have to ask around to find somewhere. Maybe a widow, who has more space in her house than she needs may appreciate having someone to cook for.

Other Historical Examples
According to the 1997 World Book Encyclopaedia, hotels have been around for 3000 years. Most of them were private homes whose owners provided rooms for travellers. ‘Many early inn keepers did not keep the rooms clean and they provided only crude meals for their guests. Several travellers usually had to share the same room and sometimes even the same bed.’
The Indian emperor, Ashoka (272-232 BC), established resthouses called daks, where a traveller could stay for a fixed price. In 17th century Europe, inns were established along roads used by stagecoaches. But it wasn’t until the 1700s, when people started to travel for pleasure, that their quality improved.
Greek legend tells us that private houses were open for all guests and travellers. If the master of the household is away at war for some years, then it seems that his wife also became fair game.

Personal Experience
Most of my travels have been done with Lonely Planet in hand and a well-established system of hotels or resthouses catering to backpackers. But even then I often didn’t know what was in store for me.
A couple of times I have ventured beyond the well-trodden path.
In North East Thailand, between Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai, I and a Thai friend dropped into a village to gate-crash their annual party. We were a day late but they had a party for us anyway. We found someone willing to put us up for free—his daughter got chucked out of her room for the night. We later had to go and meet the headman, our host’s brother-in-law. There was some heated discussion amongst the villagers because the headman said I should be his guest. But my original host stood firm. I was made very welcome and told that any time I could come back, marry my host’s daughter and live in the house together. However, these contacts didn’t cut much ice when my Chiang Mai friend had a motorbike accident with some kids. The kids were unhurt, but their parents did their best to extort money from me. The police held the motorbike and my friend until an arrangement could be made with the parents. You could see the dollar signs in the parents’ eyes.
A few years later, I took the wrong boat on a reservoir in Lao PDR. I ended up in an isolated village with no prospects of return until the next day. The villagers did their best to ignore me. I had no choice but to make a nuisance of myself and insist on getting help. Eventually I was taken to the headman and he sent out the word that an English speaker was needed. They found it in the form of a policeman. At least that is what he described himself as. The only signs of officialdom was that his haircut looked as if it had been done in a salon and his nylon shirt was pressed and a bit cleaner than the other villagers’. My name and passport details were recorded very solemnly in a children’s school book. I and the policeman were then dispatched to someone’s hut. Before sunrise (05:00) I was woken and told to get moving. I had breakfast of noodles at a small stall and escorted to the edge of the village where I was left to wait three hours before the truck came to take me back to the boat.
It could have been a fun adventure, but until I was taken to the edge of the village, I believed that I was probably beyond the legal limit of my visa, and the policeman only let me off at the last moment. But it was also clear that I was unwelcome. This was in 1993, when the Lao government was still wary of foreign visitors, and the locals were probably frightened of the consequences of contact with me.

The bog standard FRPG inn is a useful and convenient device. It explains where the characters stay without spending game time on the realities of travel. It provides a generally accepted setting: as a base; for making contacts; for picking up rumours; and other activities such as brawling. But the FRPG bears little relationship to historical reality or the practicalities of travelling.
In establishing a new setting, whether it be a historical setting, or a fantasy setting, there are two approaches. The normal approach (assuming it is even thought about) is to keep the bog standard inn as an established reference and convey the new setting through other aspects. There is something to be said for this approach.
But the alternatives should be considered. Remove the inn and the players may feel they have had the rug removed from under them, but it may also signal that they can take nothing for granted.
Admittedly recreating the uncertainties of travel may detract from the game if it distracts from the action or slows the game. The answer may be to develop a new convention for the new setting. But it should not be just thought of as a nuisance factor. As well as a taste of reality, it can present new hooks for adventures. Instead of a nice safe private room in an inn, characters have to interact with the local community: their host(ess); the other members of the household; and fellow guests they may have to share a room with.
As I said before, I may be pointing out the obvious but I hope I have presented some ideas.

This article originally appeared in Imazine.