Innkeeper Intrigue

From John C. Feltz

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0185

Innkeeper Intrigue

The innkeeper or bartender may very well be the most stock, archetypal, and boring NPC ever created. PCs interact with innkeepers every day, relying on them as a source of food, shelter, and information. But even if the GM roleplays each innkeeper well, there’s usually so little substance to the NPC that players treat innkeepers like livestock: useful but completely inconsequential, totally forgettable, and utterly interchangeable.

The tips below are things I’ve come up with for making the innkeeper central to an adventure. They are all ways to add intrigue to this most vanilla of NPCs; ways to make the innkeeper a key figure in an adventure. Many of them also provide long-term hooks that make the PC-innkeeper relationship something worth cultivating for the future.

Use these tips as the nugget around which to build an urban adventure. You should be able to support a variety of plot types, including combat, intrigue and politics, investigation and mystery.

Also, don’t forget RoleplayingTips issue #148, which gives 135 different NPC side plots, if you’re looking for just a pinch of intrigue, not a dollop. [ RPT#148 – 135 NPC Side-Plots ]


The innkeeper is working for a foreign nation in one or more capacities. It’s vital that he keep this identity secret, yet he may also be involved in recruiting additional agents. He looks at adventurers as free-wheeling and self-centered, so they make perfect potential recruits. They also are privy to lots of political goings-on, so the innkeeper may pump them for information to feed back to his masters.

The innkeeper could be any of the following:

  • Agent: he is a citizen of the foreign nation, recruiting a network of sources, passing on their information, and paying them in untraceable currency.
  • Safehouse manager: he allows other spies to meet secretly in the inn, and to use it as a place of refuge.
  • Conduit for supplies: he distributes weapons, money, and information to active agents.
  • Information link: he’s a “cut-out”; someone who merely passes information along a chain, with little or no knowledge of his immediate contacts, let alone who he’s really working for.
  • Source: he regularly reports to the agent who recruited him, passing along whatever information he thinks would be valuable.
  • Invasion route: his inn hides a secret tunnel, magical gate, or hyperspace shunt that will be used by an invading army.
  • Double agent: he works for the secret police of his own nation, feeding misinformation back to his supposed foreign masters.


Just as innkeepers are well-placed to be spies for foreign powers, they also make great stool pigeons for the police. They come in contact with lots of suspicious and unsavory folks, stay open all hours of the night, and always have an ear tuned to the word on the street.

How to play this out depends on the type of government and the issues it faces. Is it a police state or a relatively free country? Has it recently recovered from a revolution, invasion, crime wave, or coup, and is thus out for revenge or retribution? Is the society xenophobic and suspicious of strangers, or peaceful and welcoming?

Here’s how an innkeeper could be working for the cops:

  • Willingly: whether it’s patriotism, the money, or a sense of self-worth, the innkeeper gladly passes on information and suspicions to the police.
  • Blackmailed: either she rats on every petty criminal in the place, or the police will use their power over her to throw her into jail, discredit her, or otherwise ruin her life.
  • Hypnotized: some form of mind control compels her to inform on her customers. This could even take the form of surveillance equipment implanted in her body.


An innkeeper is often in a very good position to dabble in lawbreaking. Sometimes he merely turns his back on criminal activity in the neighborhood; at other times, he’s an active participant.

  • Fence: he will buy stolen property from trusted sources and dispose of it legitimately, for a 50% cut.
  • Scout: he identifies targets for thieves in exchange for a finder’s fee.
  • Smuggler: he handles contraband, importing and distributing it, as part of a larger criminal syndicate.

Even less savory are the following, truly evil examples:

  • Slaver: he enslaves unwitting patrons or deals in slaves.
  • Drug dealer: he sells dangerous addictive drugs on the side, in addition to his legal wares.
  • Pimp: he facilitates or manages the prostitution trade.


Remember all those cheesy war movies where the Resistance was headquartered in the basement of a bistro? Meanwhile, the occupying bad guys ate and drank right above their heads, not suspecting a thing. Well, art imitates life. Bars, inns, and restaurants are great places for rebels and insurgents to make their base.Here are ways for that spunky bistro owner to play her own part in the revolution.

  • Underground railroad: she provides a staging point for refugees and escaped prisoners making their way out of the country.
  • Resistance commander: she leads a group of resistance fighters, plotting sabotage, gathering intelligence, and assassinating key political and military figures.
  • Subversive: she encourages general dissatisfaction and revolt in the populace through pamphlets, posters, songs, and other mass media.


It’s natural for immigrants to get involved in the restaurant and bar trade, regardless of the time or place. Refugees make for great roleplaying opportunities for the GM: an accent, different mannerisms and slang, and completely different ideas about how things are supposed to work.

Consider some of these refugee scenarios:

  • Stranger in a strange land: he comes from a far-away land; his accent and mannerisms are strange, and he always has one bottle of strange liquor from his homeland up on the shelf. So why is he here, where did he come from, and what secrets does he keep?
  • Exiled noble: he’s actually a deposed or exiled potentate from a foreign land. Every once in a while, one of his former subjects will come in and make a fuss – remember Eddie Murphy being bowed to in the fast-food restaurant in “Coming to America”? Is he working to regain his throne, or is he just using the innkeeper facade to hide the enormous amounts of wealth he smuggled out when his regime fell?
  • On the run: whether it’s from his family, the law, or just someone he owes a lot of money to, the innkeeper is trying to keep a low profile. He’ll be vague and noncommittal about his background, and keeps a sharp eye out for anyone snooping around.
  • Amnesiac: he’s forgotten a stretch of his past, or a key event that shaped his personality. He knows obscure facts that he has no reason to, or has an unusual skill, and is continually searching for his past.


There’s nothing like a good old-fashioned religious war, is there? Here are some specific ways to put the innkeeper at the front and center of religious intrigue.

  • Old believer: he belong to an old-fashioned, strictly orthodox branch of the faith, which has been largely discredited. He rails continually about the decline in morality, and is somewhat of an embarrassment to the town authorities.
  • Evil cult: he secretly worships an evil god or demon. Fellow cultists use the basement as their temple.
  • Dissident faction: he supports a dissident faction of the church; outright rebellion and schism are a constant threat.
  • Foreign god: he worships a foreign god, either overtly or covertly. Missionary priests of this interloper deity often visit the inn in their quest for converts.
  • New revelation: he is intimately involved with someone claiming to bring a new revelation of the divine will. The established church is highly suspicious of this self- proclaimed prophet, and keeps a close watch on everyone who frequents the inn.
  • Defrocked priest: once he was a holy man himself, but he was stripped of his authority years ago. Whether this was due to internal church politics or his own personal failings, he’s deeply conflicted about his life in the church.


Just like Walter Mitty, or ‘John at the bar’ in Billy Joel’s “Piano Man”, innkeepers can have secret dreams and ambitions.

  • Entrepreneur: she’s always coming up with get-rich-quick schemes and trying to get the PCs to invest in them. Some of her ideas might even work.
  • Performer: in her heart, she knows she could be the greatest 3-D starlet or poet of her generation. Everyone who comes into the bar gets treated to an impromptu performance, sooner or later.
  • Adventurer: she’s dying to strap on a sword or a laser pistol and head off in search of treasure and glory. She pumps the PCs for information and advice every chance she gets, and tries to attach herself to the party, as if she were a mascot. You can use this one for a lot of comic effect, or just play it straight.

A final note: don’t try to use these tips too often. If every innkeeper harbors a deep, dark secret, then that’s as much of a cliche as the boring, vanilla innkeeper is. Use these to throw a major twist into urban adventures, and to impress on the PCs that even the most ordinary, average person might actually be someone they should get to know.

Readers’ Tips Contest Ended

Thanks to all who entered the contest! I’ll announce the winners in issue #186. And, the best part is we have several tips to share with everyone for future ezine issues. Sweet.


Johnn Four,
[email protected]

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TIPS REQUEST: The First Session Of A New Campaign

From Sam P.

“Dear Johnn, there have been quite a few good articles on beginning GMing in roleplaying tips. However, I find creating the first adventure itself especially hard. It would be good to have an article in this direction. The problem is introducing players and hooking them into a story arc, while leaving them free will. How do the best GMs launch a campaign?”

Great question Sam. Dear Tips readers, what advice and tricks do you have for making the first session of a campaign a good one?

Send your tips to:

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Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters

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Make A Campaign Journal (The Easy Way)

From Asbjørn Hammervik

Get a subscription to an online journal or diary of some kind, like (Livejournal is invite or pay only, so you may have to dig somewhere to find it.) From then on, you’ve got an excellent place to put out campaign rumors, hints and tips, or just post adventure summaries. The great thing is that you can comment on the different entries, which gives the players opportunity for feedback. All without you having to lift a finger in the webdesign appartment…

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The War Story Jar – A Player Focus Tool

From Darkechilde

My groups (and I) are usually long-time gamers, as well as fans of fantasy and sci-fi media, so we tend to digress from gaming a fair amount. When it stops being social fun, and starts seriously interfering with the campaign (time-wise), I pull out a War Story Jar. Once the jar hits the table, it means that if a person cracks a one-line joke that has nothing to do with the campaign, or quotes a movie or book line in response to something that happens in the game.

(Monty Python comes immediately to mind), they need to put a dime in the jar. If the person tells a long joke, or a ‘war- story’ from their past, that can’t be justified ‘in-game’, then they need to deposit a quarter.

Some limits need to be put on – for example, it’s important that you have breaks, so that people can digress from the game and just socialize, joke and chat. As well, I’ve given players more latitude, if they would tell a warstory from the point of view of their characters, and it related to the ongoing action; i.e. – “I heard about another group of troubleshooters, that would use cleanerbots rigged to malfunction as distractions when they needed to cross halls without being noticed…”.

Also, don’t allow IOUs…if they don’t have the cash, the need to keep their mouth shut. And no ‘pre-paying’ – if you have to put in the cash when you say something, you are aware that you’re interrupting the game.

We’ve used the jar a couple different ways. When enough money would accumulate, we’d have a group feast with it. On the other hand, I’ve used it to buy group resources like game books, to take pressure off the GM’s pocketbook.

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Intelligent Fantasy Races Make a Difference

From Sean B.

When you are building a fantasy world, determine the list of “intelligent” races that you intend to have in your world before you begin plotting out maps, kingdoms, and trade routes. Many home-brewed campaign worlds seem to focus on a dozen human, elven, and dwarven kingdoms as the center of their world, and then toss in small pockets of every other intelligent race as minor afterthoughts scattered around the world.

But if the gargoyles (as one example) have been around as long as the other races, and have roughly the same intelligence and rate of reproduction, then there is no default reason why they would not have a greater impact on the world than that, including having their own empires, trade routes, etc. And if not the gargoyles, then perhaps the centaurs, or the orcs, goblins, lizardfolk, doppelgangers, etc.

Just flipping through the D&D monster manual I count dozens of intelligent races that should, assuming there is no world-specific reason preventing them from doing so, be at least as numerous, far-reaching, and organized as humans, elves, and dwarves.