Monday, June 1, 2020

How to Start (and Finish) a Tavern Brawl

Ah, the tavern brawl. Staple of the western genre and imitated in numberless campaigns. One of the classic first-session hooks to get the action moving and blood flowing. 

This was inspired by All Dead Generations' comments in his Descent into Avernus critique. The treatment of the pirate combat in the Elfsong Tavern is altogether subpar, and ADG suggested a system of unspoken rules to win or lose the respect of the tavern-goers. This is what I tried my hand at, albeit leaning more on the 'unspoken rules' bit than a comprehensive system. These are some colloquial rules to keep in mind when a PC wants to start a barfight, or is being challenged to one.

The Do's and Don'ts of D&D | Dungeons and dragons, Roleplaying ...

The Laws of Tavern Brawling

Rule 0: The rules are unspoken, passed down from generation to generation from a young age. Everyone (PCs included) knows the rules, and everyone who isn't a treacherous coward respects them.

Rule 1: The offended challenges. You'll know when it happens. If the offender makes a reasonable apology, then it must be forgiven and the challenge rescinded. To press the challenge after a good faith apology is cowardice. If the offender refuses to acknowledge the offended, this is likewise cowardice.

Rule 2: No weapons, just fists. This includes daggers, maces, slings and the like, but also most spells. Chucking a magic missile is no good, as is putting everyone to sleep. That said, subtle use of magic, like charming your opponent to throw the brawl before it starts, or shielding yourself, are valid so long as you don't make it too obvious.

Rule 3: The insulted must fight. Regardless of how many people you get on your side, you've got to throw the first punch and be in front. Anything less is utter cowardice. When you challenge someone to a brawl, you must challenge the one who insulted you, not their skinny friend.

Rule 4: Fight even. If you're insulted, you can call on friends to fight with you, but so can your opponent. If you call on more people than your opponent, it's up to them to call you out on it; if they're confident in their abilities, they may allow you the advantage, but if they call you out on it, you'll look bad and must immediately even the sides, or else the entire tavern will disregard you, and any further aggression will result in an ass-whooping by the constable.

Rule 5: You break it, you buy it. Any damage to property in the course of the fight must be reimbursed to the barkeep. If it's unclear who broke an item, it usually defaults to the winner, although the barkeep is in his rights to demand it be paid equally. If one or both parties can't pay out of pocket, the barkeep may impress them to clean up the mess and work in the back until their debt is paid off. 

Rule 6: Any defeat is satisfactory. If you knock out your opponent, pin them until they say uncle, or they put up their hands and surrender, the original offense is satisfied by implication, without the need for a formal apology. The enemy is humiliated enough. Holding a grudge after a clean fight, especially if you won, is petty and knavish. Running out of the tavern is also satisfactory, but you will be mocked for it. 

Rule 7: Break the rules, get broken. If you break the above rules in the fight, especially pulling out a weapon or attacking after a surrender, you forfeit the fight and your front teeth. The entire bar will be against you. You will be beaten over the head with a chair, and you will end up paying for all the damage. You will have lost all respect in the eyes of the tavern goers. Losing a fight clean is preferable to winning dirty. 

Bar Fight!: raging_swan — LiveJournal

A Little Bit of System

If you want to go a little deeper, or want to resolve barfights other than by a standard combat, you can adapt Jospeh Manola's wrestling rules
  • Your Brawl Rating is the combination of your STR and DEX modifiers, plus your melee to-hit bonus. 
  • If you have at least one level in a martial class (Cleric, Fighter and Fighter derivatives) you may add +1 to your rolls. If you have a background in hand-to-hand combat or otherwise have some relevant expertise, add +2 instead. 
  • If you are substantially larger or heavier than your opponent, add +1.
  • If there are multiple people on each side, only each side's leaders' scores are relevant. For each additional brawler your opponent has allowed you to have, add +1. 
  • If you have a friend with brawling experience of their own, they can stand off to the side and cheer you on. Add +1, and expect your opponent to have this. This person cannot brawl.
  • If you play dirty (pull out a weapon, use a direct damage spell, etc) you automatically win the bout, but unless you've planned it out extremely well and can somehow hide your misdeed, you will be found out and will be in combat with the rest of the bar and the guards. Roll initiative.
These simplified combats are resolved by rolling a 1d6 and adding the Brawl rating for each side. If you beat the opponent's roll by 3 or more, you are victorious, with a knockout, pin or surrender. If you beat them by less, it drags on, roll again with the loser at a -1. Keep rolling, and keep stacking the penalties. If you tie, it means you both hurt yourselves and need a couple breaths, reroll. If you're regretting fighting, this would be the time to make a belated apology.

This system results in combats which are much faster than Manola's hours-long wrestling matches, with less of an intellectual side and less of a martial arts flavor. As it should be. 

A hypothetical example of such a brawl, using the simplified system. 

Juke the Thief is drinking away the loot money one night when he makes an overly harsh comment about another bargoer's beer gut. In his state, he's not about to apologize. 

Dink the Miner isn't unusually strong or fast, but he's a big dude, and so has a BR of +1. Juke is dextrous, but as a low-level thief doesn't have a to-hit bonus or real martial prowess. The paladin refuses to get involved with the matter but the party fighter is in Juke's corner and starts coaching him, for a BR of +2. 

Dink calls on his drinking buddy to come help him out, but Juke can't get another party member to join him, so he calls out Dink for trying to outnumber him. With the eyes of the tavern on them, Dink lets it go. This is going to be a solo fight. 

The brawl begins.

Dink: 6
Juke: 8
Both give it their all, and Juke's speed is giving him the upper hand, but he hasn't won yet. Still, he's disoriented Dink enough that the miner has lost his bonus.

Dink: 5
Juke: 3
The course of the fight starts to turn, with the miner using his overpowering bulk to weigh down the nimble thief. Juke's bonus goes down to +1.

Dink: 1
Juke: 6
A stunning reversal! The miner's foot catches on a table and he goes falling back onto a table piled high with drinks, smashing it to splinters. The tavern crowds around him, and an off-duty guardsman declares it a clean knockout. The barkeep walks over, splashes the miner's face with cold water, and demands recompense from the thief. Juke hands over the cash, planning to steal it back later. 

With that, the brawl has been resolved, everyone's honor has been upheld, and a couple good roleplaying opportunities came out of it. I call this a win-win.

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