(Note: this post is aimed at fairly new GMs, or GMs who are looking for a very nuts-and-bolts way of approaching things. I still think it’s interesting, even if you’re an experienced GM, but this is all based on my personal approaches to things, and your methods almost certainly work better for your style and your table.)
The tavern is a D&D staple. It’s where the heroes meet to celebrate their victories and drink to their fallen friends. It’s where you hear tantalizing rumors. It’s where you spend your hard-earned gold for a flagon of mead and a bed for the night. It’s where you aggressively hit on the barmaids to annoy your GM.
When I was getting started as a GM, I found it difficult to figure out what to do with the tavern. My players wanted to hang out and kick back a bit, but I was never quite sure how to let that happen. Part of it was simply learning to go with the flow of things, a basic GMing skill. But the tavern, despite being so commonplace, really does offer genuine challenges to run in an effective way.
Here is, in my experience, a fairly common tavern moment:
PC 1: I go up to the dwarf by the fireplace.
PC 1: “What brings you here, dwarf?”
NPC Dwarf: “I came here to flee the Orontir mountains, where my family was slain by giants.”
PC 2: Ooh! My family was slain by giants. I say, “Alas, you and I have too much in common.”
GM: Err… you were on the other side of the bar.
PC 2: Oh…
GM: You just finished telling the barmaid that if she was impressed by your sword, she really should see your “hidden blade.”
PC 2: That was like five minutes ago though.
GM: No, you just did that, I’ve just been seeing what everyone else is doing before going back to you.
PC 2: Well, am I close enough to hear what they’re talking about?
At this point, the GM can either shut the player down by saying “no, the bar is noisy,” or they could enable the player by saying, “sure, you hear the comment.” Whichever way it goes, however, the flow of the game has been interrupted, and it has become clear that not everyone is on the same page about what’s going on. I want to be clear, though, that this isn’t an example of bad GMing – this is just how it works a lot of the time. A good GM is one who tries to minimize how much this happens and move on quickly when it does happen. Nobody can keep it from happening entirely; it’s built into the structure of how tabletop rpgs work.
What makes this difficult is that you’re trying to manage a situation in which the players are doing different things and timing matters. Linear scenarios in which players naturally take turns at something, like a conversation with a single important NPC, or the party climbing a wall one at a time, are by their nature simple. Things happen one thing at a time, and if a player wants to “interrupt” what is happening, they can simply announce it and it is basically clear at what point in the fiction that would happen.
Combat in D&D deals with the difficulties of non-linear scenarios by imposing very high levels of structure: the players take turns, they can do certain precise things each turn, and the length of each turn is well-defined. This isn’t some basic thing necessary for rpgs; Dungeon World (a different rpg) operates in a very different way and does away with action economy and the idea of rigid turns altogether. But in D&D, this is how combat works. Even if the characters are fighting different enemies on opposite sides of the building, it is very clear what happens when and how PCs can interact with each other. It takes what is, in the fiction, a complex layering of simultaneous actions, and breaks it down into very small linear pieces.
You could deal with the tavern in this way, having the PCs roll for initiative and then taking short turns. Ultimately, though, this isn’t really what you want. It’s rigid, slow, and not much fun. So what do you do?
The lame answer is: do it better. Running these types of scenarios is to GMing what throwing perfect passes under pressure is to being a QB in football. It’s hard, but it’s a skill that you can learn, and the best way to learn is to just do it a lot. Plus you don’t have to be amazing at it to do alright. As long as you’re aware of the fact that these things are tricky, you can try lots of things, see what works and what doesn’t, and learn what works well for your style of GMing. As long as you’re easygoing about it and your table is relaxed about things, your game should be fine.
The more interesting answer is: here’s some tricks that help me out. Use them at your own risk.
My basic technique here is the spotlight technique. You shine a spotlight on a player (or logical grouping of players) by saying something like, “okay, while Johnny is talking to the elf, what are you up to?” Use these moments of switching the spotlight to quickly summarize what’s happening to keep everyone on the same page.
It’s up to you to decide how long the spotlight will last, but shorter is probably better than longer. It’s also important to quickly shine the spotlight on players who may be affected by (or may want to react to) a particular development. Remember that many players will check out when the spotlight is elsewhere, so you want to try and grab people’s attention if something matters for them. Even if they did notice, well-behaved players may not want to interrupt without you giving them your tacit approval. The better you get at this, the more the players will become attuned to your rhythm, and the better your flow will be during each session.
Another thing I find helpful is to use miniatures to give some visual structure to a scenario (hundreds of “Theater of the Mind” purists just felt a disturbance in the force). A lot of GMs think minis are only for combat, but you can use them to help out while running a tavern or anything like it. If you sketch your tavern and put down minis for important NPCs, you take care of a lot of overhead work in a convenient way. Your players can remember which NPCs matter, everyone can see how close everything is, and if a brawl breaks out you’ve already got the map drawn up.
A less obvious advantage is that having miniatures to move removes a lot of ambiguity from player actions. In a scenario where several people are all trying to do things at once, having a physical piece to move around can help everyone understand what’s actually happening. If someone takes issue with a development, they can see it happen and address it then, instead of not noticing what happened and then getting confused later (“wait, that’s what happened? I would have never said that if I knew that!”). It also creates a nice finality to certain actions, something that can be lacking in quick back-and-forth exchanges between several players and the GM.
Will these work for you? Maybe. The important thing is to realize that, although we do a lot of this stuff intuitively, we’re making high demands of ourselves when we go outside the comfort zone of highly structured play. Hiccups are to be expected, and dealing with them quickly is more useful than trying to avoid them altogether. Repeating important information over and over is good as long as you do it in a way that isn’t annoying. It’s not that your players are dumb – it’s that you’re asking them to handle a lot at a time.