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At the Bar: Places to Interact

This article originally appeared in the March/April 2018 issue.

Try getting a drink on Clovis. Well, when I say drink, I mean alcohol. Fortunately we had a good supply on board. Peet did mention a vague plan to see if he could find the illegal jynjoints he was absolutely sure must exist, but the Captain nixed that idea. “We’re just here for the trade, nothing more. We can get as inebriated as you like next Jump.” The way she said ‘inebriated’ so precisely made it clear she wouldn’t, as usual, be joining in. “Besides, I hear the tea shops here are the place to be.”

She wasn’t far wrong. If anyone had any ideas of chintz and ladies of a certain age, they were soon disabused of the notion. Main Street out of the starport gate must have some of the roughest tea shops in the subsector. The first one we hit, The Miner’s Pick, was crowded with overalls, beards and the kind of grime it takes years to build up on furniture and faces. At the counter we were faced with a vast array of options and even when we’d narrowed down the flavours there were still the brewing methods or the temperatures to pick from. Guywun or Aslan-style; scalding hot to iced. One blend even claimed to be served at absolute zero. Our ship suits marked us out as transients so we got some good natured ribbing from nearby patrons along with sensible advice from the tealad. It wasn’t long before the Captain was deep in conversation with a local that involved dates and Credit values and winces all round.

On one side the walls were papered with some abstract faux-industrial design, on the other there was a large schematic map of the region around the starport. Claim markings were clearly delineated and at least three groups of drinkers were gesturing at various sections. I began to wonder if the toilets would just be an open pit.

The Captain re-joined us with a sour face I didn’t think came from the Eastern Appleseed concoction she was sipping from a large mug. “That’s not going to work out,” she said nodding vaguely at the table she’d just come from. “This place is a bust, let’s move on.”

“Not so fast.” Peet, just coming back from the far end of the counter, put his hand up to slow her down. “You know the selection of additives at the bottom of the menu? I’ve worked out what the dark galactose really is.” And he smiled broadly as he took a long pull.

When running regular Traveller games in which the characters are frequently visiting cities, towns, ports or stations, the need for places to look for patrons, search for trade deals, pick up rumours, or just spend some downtime can place considerable demands on referees trying to avoid ‘just another starport bar’. Given the variety of worlds and cultures assumed to exist in Known Space, it may well be that something other than a bar is a more common watering hole or meeting place. At various times in history coffee shops, tea houses, or gin palaces have been possibilities. Elsewhere around the world it might be anything, even something as basic as casual gatherings under a tree at a crossroads or a village square or a city gate. Even if alcohol-friendly taverns or pubs are the best places to make friends and influence people, it seems a missed opportunity to assume that they’re all cut from the same mould and identical in size, ambience, clientele, et cetera. (Brubek’s excepted, naturally.)

In the course of a single session the players might wish to hit several locations trying to track down the person or snippet of information or mcguffin that they need and that could just be on one street or tunnel or corridor. Another part of town or station might reap rewards in having entirely different patrons. Consider the difference, for example (in the United Kingdom at least), between a village tavern and a city centre pub, or a big sprawling former manor house providing food and accommodation compared with a cosy little den in the corner of a fishing port. Even several bars within a few hundred metres of each other in a university or navy town might have very different ambience. Translate this into the central section of a domed city or an out of the way nook on a small orbital station and it’s clear that few Traveller adventures have even scratched the surface of the possibilities.

Table 1 can be used to get an overview of the kind of common meeting places on this world, at this port, or in this town. It may only be the predominant feature of the establishment and other facilities are available: the table can be used multiple times to establish secondary or tertiary functions. The table can be used in conjunction with Table 2 to further define the options, or Table 2 can be used directly as a d66 without reference to Table 1. Referees may wish to adjust the chances of certain types of establishments appearing on Table 1 depending on their own settings. This is not to suggest that that table represents the proportion of, say, eateries vs public spaces on the world, city or habitat, but gives an idea of their proportion in terms of places where characters could meet locals or other travellers in this location.

Information on what’s available may well be available to travellers as part of standard information packs on arrival in well-travelled systems, or part of the gossip orbital controllers and the like might pass on. The characters can be planning their first night on the town as they travel in from the Jump point. In more backwater areas, finding out what’s available at a port may form the first evening’s entertainment as the PCs get a frosty reception or even thrown out of somewhere that really isn’t meant for them. Or perhaps evenings aren’t the best time to find these venues open. Characters looking for patrons, rumours, contacts and trading options may find that they’re thin on the ground in some locales or coming out of the woodwork, or plastisteel, in others. Doing their homework or their legwork should pay off. Naturally, the kind of place a patron might be found could well determine the kind of patron they are: high Social Standing, low Social Standing; legal, illegal; conman or straight up. As ever, these tables are simply meant to inspire imagination and role playing opportunities rather than be binding.

Table 1: General Types of Meeting Places
2D6 Description Table 2
2 Semi-public spaces 5
3 Drug usage 2
4 Drug usage 2
5 Drinking establishment 1
6 Drinking establishment 1
7 Drinking establishment 1
8 Eatery or Club 3
9 Eatery or Club 3
10 Specialist locations 4
11 Specialist locations 4
12 Other 6

These tables should not be considered exhaustive or to substitute for a referee’s imagination (or inspiration taken from the real world), but may help those who need something quickly on the fly, or who feel their creative juices failing when the PCs are on a first-night-in-port pub crawl of epic proportions. Not every table from 4a onwards needs to be used but perhaps two or three to give just a flavour of a particular setting.

As usual, these should be used for inspiration rather than seen as limiting imagination. For example, other names are possible for many of the early entries: alehouse, grog shop, honky-tonk, nineteenth hole, roadhouse, saloon, speakeasy, taproom, or watering hole. Mixing ‘locations’ – or the functions of the locations – is, of course, also possible (e.g., a guild combined with a gym or a market square with smoking hut).

The referee may also wish to determine the legality of any of these options. At one time, for example, opium dens were legal in London, or perhaps a high law level limits the potency of alcoholic drinks or quantity of caffeine intake. Consider also the changes in law and social acceptance of smoking in some parts of the world in recent years. Perhaps tea is very heavily taxed…

Items 41-56 particularly may be social spaces in their own right but may also have previous venues on the table – from bars to cafes – within them (For example, a theatre with a bar, or a church with a café). Some of the entries may also, in typical Terran western cultures, not appear at first sight to be meeting places, but consider the wide variety of planets in Known Space and use such venues to show the differences from norms. Alternatively, take typically social spaces such as a public house and have a reason why no social interaction may take place there, or social interaction only between certain races, genders, job types, or whatever.

Table 2: Specific Meeting Place Types
D66 Location
Group 1: Drinking Establishments
11 Bar: often a smaller space with the actual bar the main feature although there may be tables or diner-style booths running alongside it
12 Speciality bar: wine bar, cocktail bar, gin palace, or other local alcoholic tipple du jour
13 Tavern: typically slightly larger than a bar with more table seating and possibly additional rooms; snack type food may be available
14 Pub: homelike atmosphere, multiple nooks and rooms, may be separated into ‘bar’ and ‘lounge’ or ‘saloon’; basic meals may be available
15 Inn: fully-featured public house of some size, offering a range of food and accommodation; at lower tech levels there may be stabling for animals
16 Hostel: more focussed on accommodation and possibly food but also providing a place to meet and drink
Group 2: Drug-consumption Establishments
21 Coffeehouse: place for consuming local stimulant drink (e.g., coffee, tea, cocoa/chocolate, guarana, ginseng, yerba mate, etc.). Likely named after preferred stimulant (e.g., tea parlor, cocoa bar)
22 Smoke bar: place for tobacco or other local mild stimulant taken by smoking. May be called by smoking style catered to, e.g., cigar bar, hookah lounge.
23 Chewie1: betel nut, kola nut, khat, or other natural mild stimulant taken by chewing nuts, wads, or sticks; sometimes called spittery or chewbar.
24 Drug den: places for more serious drug use where the social element may begin to be more limited due to the effects of the drug. Drug(s) catered to may be of any type or strength, not just mild stimulants. May identify specific drug (e.g., opium den2,crack house)
25 Casino or Gambling den: possibly combined with any of the above; possibly illegal. May be game of chance based, sports based (with the sports piped in via comms or live in the house), animal baiting, etc.
26 Klatch house: literally “gossip” house – referee’s choice as to beverage, leaf, drug, etc., that is commonly consumed (see previous five entries) or whether ‘klatch’ is an entirely separate category of shared social culture
Group 3: Dining Establishments
31 Fast food joint: cheap and cheerful food and simple décor. Emphasis is often on ensuring high customer turnover (hence ‘fast’)
32 Café: straightforward food but a step or two better than fast food
33 Restaurant: a more formal establishment for eating
34 Club: gentlesophont’s club, working sophont’s club – like-minded people gathering together socially, probably including food, possibly including some of the options offered by establishments listed above (such as accommodation or gambling); also Fraternity, Lodge or Trade Union Hall.
35 Guild: a form of club based around a skill set or trade; e.g. Captain’s Guild, Spacer’s Co-operative, Astrogator’s Guild, Travellers’ Aid Society. May be a meeting place, eating place and offer accommodation as well.
36 Cafeteria3: a large communal eating space possibly free to eat at due to government subsidy, as an organizational/business benefit, or military provisioning etc.
Group 4: Specialty Locations
41 Brothel: a space in which intimacy can be purchased; may be illegal or licensed or simply part of local life. Note that such a venue can only arise if a culture has a tabu around such intimacy in the first place.
42 Fat Club4: possibly simply social gatherings celebrating size, possibly weight loss gatherings
43 Health Club: Gymnasium, sports centre or spa – fitness and health venue. Includes ‘gym(nasium)’, ‘spa’, ‘sports club/center’ (or specific sport, e.g., tennis, golf, etc.)
44 Theatre: entertainment venues which may have associated rooms, bars or balconies for social interaction besides the main events. Consider ‘boxes’ not for a good view but to be ‘seen’ in society. Includes ‘playhouse’, ‘opera house’, ‘cinema’, ‘concert hall’, etc..
45 Sporting arena or religious venue: ‘Sporting arena’ may be enclosed or open to the elements, depending on the preferred spectator sport(s) of choice. See 101 Religions (BITS, 1998) or Supplement 15: Powers and Principalities (Mongoose, 2014) for examples and ideas for the latter
46 Library: may be public or private, university or corporate, free or paid for, hushed or rambunctious, print or electronic – or perhaps mixtures of all of these
Group 5: Semi-public places
51 Business or workplace: may have atria or foyers for networking and social intercourse
52 Hospital: (or other medical facilities) perhaps recognizing that mental health is as important as physical, provision may be made for gatherings and interactions of all kinds as the ‘only place in town’
53 University: (or other place of education) age demographics may be skewed towards the younger in such places, depending on local culture
54 Transport hub: grav park, bus/train/monorail/tram/underground station
55 Pop-up venues: some cultures or habitations have transient barrows, stalls, shops, etc., that spring up in various locations and at various times; this might be to maximise customer access, communication links, spotlight local products or services, or to avoid certain legal requirements
56 Private homes: perhaps in high law level communities or in space stations with very limited public space these might be the only or the best places to meet; there may be ‘celebrities’ who are known to put on the best gatherings and invites hard to get but contacts made there may be very, very beneficial. May be called ‘salons’, ‘discussion groups’, ‘study clubs’, etc., and possibly have a preferred ‘main topic of discussion’.
Group 6: Other venues
61 Crossroads: whether it’s a low tech meeting of paths, or an orbital station’s main corridor concourse, people will meet, barrows spring up, kiosks line the edges, and transactions will be carried out
62 Allotments: a group of small gardens located together in urban environments where dwellings are on footprints too small or crowded to have their own back/front yard. May be called parks, greenblocks, etc.; some overlap with ‘Village green’(q.v.).
63 Village green: an open area for fayres or trading or auctions in the centre of a village or city suburb or orbital station with room and culture for such a space. Includes ‘boardwalks’, ‘promenades’, etc.
64 Market square: a larger version of a village green in a bigger conurbation
65 City gate5: essentially this is what startowns start as; may well be an airlock rather than gate. May be outside the city’s technical jurisdiction for legal or regulatory reasons.
66 Asteroid 555: with belters being dispersed throughout an asteroid belt, planetoid belt or ring system, finding a common place within a system – particularly if there is no mainworld – can be vital for social interaction of all kinds. Most such collections of rock and ice will have at least one, probably more, sites commonly known to be the place to meet.
  1. There are of course many other ways that these could be arranged – strength of drug, effect on the system, ingredients etc. But consumption method often implies supporting infrastructure – from delivery taps or kegs for drinks to spittoons for chewing products – such that locations designed for social ingestion would group around what’s required for service. It should also be noted that several drugs can be imbibed in a variety of ways – e.g. tobacco can be smoked or chewed, kratom may be smoked or made into tea, and chocolate can be eaten or drunk.
  2. See the Sherlock Holmes short story ‘The Man with the Twisted Lip’ for a description of an opium den. Despite Conan Doyle’s sensationalism however they were really more rooms where, typically, Chinese might gather to smoke, gamble and gossip.
  3. See, for example, the ‘Terias and the use of them made in the adventure ‘All in the Genes’, Freelance Traveller, 47, November 2013.
  4. These really existed in the US at the end of the 18th Century and beginning of the 19th. You had to be over 14 stone 3 lbs to attend and activities included a large meal followed by some form of physical activity such as leapfrog. (See The Forgotten History of Fat Men’s Clubs, for example)
  5. see the book of Ruth 4:1-11 (KJV), as well as other Biblical references, for a low tech example of the importance of such a location for meeting and social affairs.

Note that many of the above could also be locations within larger locations, such as a café in a workplace, place of education, or hospital; a gymnasium in a starport lounge or sports arena; a bar in a Guild or trade union; a library in a hotel or TAS hall; a brothel in a club or place of religious worship6; a fast food joint in a transport hub.

Alternatively, many of the above may have festivals dependent on season or celebration either widening the reach of the locations or intensifying their usage. Examples might include Oktoberfest, a city’s Christmas market, summer carnivals, Women’s World Day of Prayer, or arts festivals. Use Table 3 as a foundation to build on, rolling once for each column of interest.

Table 3: Special Events
D6 Basis for event Style of event Duration
1 Season Festival/Feast Day
2 Religious season Carnival Days
3 Celebratory event Market Days
4 Class/race/gender Outing7 Week
5 Profession Competition Month
6 Celebrity/Ruler Commemoration Year

How does this help role playing?

As well as the function of a place directly affecting what may be going on in a venue and feeding into where PCs may choose to go and what they may choose to do, the variety and descriptions of establishments can help in the running of a scenario as well giving players something to play off. As an example, in ‘First Call at Zila’, a chapter in The Traveller Adventure, a hostelry of some kind is a major part of the scenario. The players learn more of the ongoing plot, the PCs get involved in a bar fight, and that leads to them ultimately meeting a patron who is none other than an in-universe avatar of Traveller’s creator Marc Miller. It was all too easy to simply assume The Dead Spacer was just another non-descript bar. But picking up on the name of the place and the signage outside – which is gruesomely given in the text – it wasn’t hard to build on the limited interior description “a clean place with a friendly atmosphere”. Continuing the theme, I described the walls as decorated with dozens and dozens of images of starships of all different kinds. An Intelligence or Education check then allowed one of the more experienced spacers in the crew to realize that they recognized many of the ships pictured as ones that had been the victim of some disaster or another in which lives were lost. It wasn’t a stretch for the players to then assume that all the pictures represented something similar and gave a very macabre feel to the place for those who knew but nicely played against the relatively complex tale of the shenanigans with the Titan and the Mammoth and the crash of the latter. When the bar fight broke out, the pictures were then an additional bit of furniture that could be used as a dramatic, if lightweight, weapon – although I hadn’t specified whether they were digital images on the wall or framed photos or something else. On another occasion, it was the patrons of a bar that came to the fore and resulted in ‘The Denizens of Marburg’ (Freelance Traveller, 79, January/February 2017).

Establishment Descriptions

The following tables are primarily aimed at describing bars and public houses but could be used for other entries on the above table as the referee sees fit.

Table 4a. Quality & Cost

Choose one column on Table 4a to describe the establishment; or use both and explain any ‘discrepancy’ between quality and cost.

D6 Quality Cost
0 Exclusive Very expensive (+1D x 10%)
1 top notch Expensive (+10%)
2 Better than average Standard (+5%)
3 Standard fare Rulebook standard
4 Standard fare Cheap (-10%)
5 Serviceable Very cheap (-20%)
6+ Poor quality Free

DM +1 for startown or poorer areas of a city/habitat, DM -1 for upmarket areas

Stars or other symbols may be used in place of numbers with 1 as *****, 2 as ****, 3 as *** etc., or letter codes may be used – A to E. No attempt has been made to link quality and cost. Expensive places may be poor quality and vice versa. The Referee may wish to use just one column and use it to cover both options. Or go the whole hog and use QREBS from Traveller5 to create more detail.

Table 4b. Size

D6 Establishment size
1 Large and multiple sites
2 Large and multiple floors/decks
3 Large and spread out at one location
4 Typical for vicinity
5 Small and snug
6+ Tiny – very cramped

DM +1 for orbital stations or small enclosed habitats

Table 4c. Ambience

D6 Ambience
1 Enthusiastically friendly
2 Friendly
3 Neutral
4 Neutral
5 Uncomfortable with strangers
6 Actively unwelcoming

(Note: Traveller5’s Acceptance figures under the Culture heading could be used as a modifier.)

Table 4d. Service Time

D6 Time until served
0 Instant
1 A few seconds
2 Up to a minute
3 1D6 minutes
4 1D6 minutes
5 1D6 + 10 minutes
6 1D6 × 10 minutes
7 PCs won’t be seen until after a reminder to staff

DM -1 if at bar rather than table
DM +1 if eating (service time is time until order is taken, not food delivery)

Table 4e. Clientele

Roll on one column on Table 4e as desired.

D6 Crowd Predominant Clientele
0 Almost impossible to move Antagonistic ruffians or criminals
1 Heaving – over capacity Low-life
2 Busy – at capacity Blue collar workers or white collar ‘city’ types
3 Busy – near capacity Students or other identifiable social group
4 Lively – 75% capacity Locals (many will know each other)
5 Buzz – 50% capacity Foreigners*
6 Quiet – 25% capacity SOC 10+
7 Currently empty SOC 11+
  DM -1 for startown or city/habitat centre
DM +1 for backwaters
DM -1 for startown or city/habitat centre
DM +1 for better class areas
* This may mean anything from the next town/habitat over to out-of-system travellers or out-of-polity aliens. Typically, clients would be unlikely to know anyone other than those they’re with.

Table 4f. Landlord

D6 Landlord
1 Owner ever present on premises
2 Owner often around
3 Absentee landlord, stable staff
4 Absentee landlord, various staff
5 Cheap labour, high turnover
6 Automated/Robotic service

Table 4g. Salubriousness

D6 Salubriousness
0 Wrecked – fight guaranteed
1 Rough & tumble – fight on 2D 4+
2 Rough – fight on 2D 7+
3 Lively – fight on 2D 10+
4 Calm – fight on 2D 12+
5 Genteel
6 Utter probity – disruption might have you thrown out
7 Utter snobbishness – some subtle behaviour or failure will have you thrown out

DM -1 for startown or city/habitat centre
DM +1 for better class areas$DM (Law Level÷3, round down)-2

Table 4h. Décor

Choose one column on the following table. (Alternatively, see ‘Off the Wall’, Freelance Traveller, 79, January/February 2017 for more detail although not all options would be appropriate).

D6 Décor Feel
1 Retro: Local TL -1D Old
2 Rustic: Local TL -1 Fading
3 Contemporary – cosy Tired
4 Contemporary – urban Serviceable
5 Futuristic: Local TL +2 Attractive
6 Themed (1d6):
1 alien
2 military
3 merchant
4 space
5 worlds and exploration
6 memorabilia

The observant will note that Tables 4a to 4h could effectively create a Universal Bar Profile8 (think size, ambience as atmosphere, service time as time to get hydrated, etc.). However, the intention isn’t that referees would use every table on every occasion – either pick one or two to set the scene or use those which are relevant to the adventure. Some examples will give an idea of how these numbers might be used:


The Void and Vegan C-123456-3

This is fairly typical hostelry in the more rimward sections of Solomani space. They’re large and will have several establishments in one city or the larger orbital stations. Generally regarded as friendly; you’ll be served in just a few minutes even when there’s quite a crowd. You’d be unlikely to get to know the staff, even in a venue you visited frequently, as there will be a lot of them coming and going. Typically they’re known as family friendly and they’re generally decorated in contemporary styles with snugs and nooks throughout for private conversation.

The Seedspitter’s Nest E-444452-2

This is startown bar of barely mediocre quality although you’ll be charged some 5% over standard prices for the privilege of eating and drinking there. However, the under the table deals you may be able to find make it worthwhile in many spacer’s eyes. Its size is typical of the area and although it is not known for a friendly atmosphere, strangers are tolerated. You’ll usually be served fairly quickly although the locals who make up most of the clientele will know how to catch the barstaff’s attention more quickly. The barstaff are cheap, often off-world labour who don’t usually work in the Nest for more than a few months – so serving jobs will be easy to come by for less-choosy travellers. It’s not a place to bring your date as fights often break out and the décor looks tired and worn.

Old Wynne’s Tea Shop B-523316-1

Probably the best of the tea shops in the main corridor immediately after clearing the customs airlock. Old Wynne’s is snug but welcoming and Old Wynne herself is often on hand behind the till – although a young sophont in frills is usually serving and may take a moment or two to get to your table. At meal times and midway between, the tea shop will be busy with starport workers from stevedores to inspectors. At other times, it will be somewhat quieter and you might find admin personnel having a short meeting, or nearby shop owners taking a quick break. The décor has seen better days and is reminiscent of times past but that’s more than made up for by Old Wynne’s excellent seaweed scones and weedcakes.

Venue Names

Names of establishments can be drawn from real life, imagination or the several ‘pub name’ generators that can be found on the internet and perhaps tweaked somewhat to fit a science fiction setting. Here are some patterns that may help kick-start thoughts:

The <noble title> <body part or noble’s name>,
e.g., The Emperor’s Arms, The Duke’s Head, The Duchess Delphine
The <alien name>’s <noun>,
e.g., The Aslan’s Pride (or Htatei Ahriy)
The <random noun> and <random noun>,
e.g., The Black Hole and Carnation
The <random noun> and <random alliterative noun>,
e.g., The Rake and Robot, The Star and Sceptre
The <random matched pair of words>,
e.g., The Slug & Lettuce, The Xeeboo and Yoke
The <(possibly historical) description of pub function>,
e.g., The Coach & Horses, The Fisherman’s/Traveller’s Rest, The Scout’s Landing
<place name> <random word for venue>,
e.g., Jamaica Inn, Spinward Steakhouse, Gvurrdon Lair
The <adjective/adverb> <animal>,
e.g., The Running Kian
The <military/mercantile job> <random word for venue>,
e.g., The Armourer’s Tavern, The Meson Gunner’s Sight, The Commander’s Café, The Captain’s Guild, The Purser’s Place
<proprietor’s name, optionally possessive> <word for venue (optionally misspelled for ‘alliteration’; possibly selected for wordplay)> (order reversible),
e.g., Joe’s Eats, Philbin’s Pholly, Bar Nunn, Wolfe’s Lair

My thanks to David, Emily and Jane for both inspiring the need for this in our lunchtime games and suggesting a place or two. Who knew that allotments were hotbeds of gossip and intrigue?!