Having been based in N16 since 2014, we weren’t going to let something like a global pandemic stop us. Based on Stoke Newington High Street we’ve got a revamped board game selection, updated consoles and a host of visual upgrades.
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80+ Board Games
Xbox One X
2x Nintendo Switch
Crazy Taxi Arcade
Point Blank 2 Arcade
18 Wheeler Arcade
Donkey Kong Arcade
Judge Dredd Pinball
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Welcome to the third and final instalment of Drinks in Games! We’ve gone on a virtual bar crawl, we’ve trekked through the most beautiful drinking locations in games but now it’s time to look at the drinks themselves. Which game has the perfect pint? The best beverage? Grab your glasses and allow me to take you through some of my personal favourites…
Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask
Starting off the list with milk may seem like a weird choice but let me explain. Chateau Romani is the beverage of choice in Majora’s Mask. It’s sold in various Milk Bars across the region, which is something I would like to see more of in real life. However, some gentrified areas refer to the beverage as ‘Milk of the Night’ and charge 200 rupees for a bottle, a steep price for some cow juice. They also refuse to serve it to children, which makes me wonder – what is in the mysterious milk?
Upon consuming Chateau Romani you’ll feel energised within an inch of your life. Your magic meter rejuvenates and you’ll burst at the seams with unlimited power for THREE DAYS. I’m glad they don’t give this to children. It’s clearly not normal milk, this milk has been tainted. Suddenly the 200 rupee price tag doesn’t seem so extortionate considering you’ve got a bottle of LSDairy in your bag. This drink puts the ‘moo’ in ‘moonshine’ and I want a pint of it.
Onto a much more conventional entry here, a classic if you will. Tapper was a game you could find in the majority of arcades across America in the early 80s. The task sounds simple enough – you’re a lone barman and you have to serve frosty Budvars to your thirsty patrons. However, the game reflects bars in real life and hundreds of people will try to get a drink at the same time leaving the poor bar staff overwhelmed.
Like most people who have seen any western film, I have a weird desire to be served a cold beer slid down the bar into my clutch. However, I can’t help but acknowledge the most satisfying part of playing Tapper, when you finish your busy day and pour yourself as many beers as you like. Imagine the taste of that first pint after you’ve finished a day of serving them. Bliss.
Extra fact, Budweiser had to change the drink served in Tapper from their classic Budvar to a rather ambiguous ‘Root Beer’ due to various complaints about the game encouraging dangerous levels of alcohol consumption and subconsciously pushing drinking on the public. Which I think is a load of Budvar.
Slurp Juice is a consumable item in a little indie game called Fortnite that you might have heard of. A bright blue liquid found in bushes, treasure chests, vending machines and of course llamas. Like most drinks in games, Slurp Juice will rejuvenate some of your precious health points – there’s nothing too extreme about the effects of this beverage. So why does Slurp Juice make it on the list? Because of sheer audacity to call a drink ‘Slurp Juice’.
Nobody knows what the drink tastes like or what consistency it has, it’s just a jar of ominous goop that will save your life. I wanted to find out more about the lore behind Slurp Juice so I messaged Fortnite expert Ben Walker (@bnwkr) for some insight. He revealed that the drink is made by Slup.Co, a huge conglomerate that has cornered the beverage market in Fortnite. They make a number of mysterious Slurp based products and their factory is located in the Slurp Swamp which makes me question the contents of the drink even more. Ben confirmed that though no taste notes are listed in the game, Slurp Juice was actually served to players at the Fortnite World Cup and it was a raspberry flavoured slushie.
I haven’t had a slushie since the days of those giant Tango Ice Blasts you’d get for £248824 at the cinema so I’m game to try Slurp Juice. Though I’m worried I’ll get addicted to the bright bev and become ‘Big Chuggus’, an in-game character that resembles Bane with a Slurp addiction. It also sounds like what Elon Musk might call the Tesla Truck.
Sounding like a beverage that you’d consume before being blocked on Twitter, ‘Shadowbanish Wine’ is a rare brand of booze found in the Cyrodiil province of Tamriel. This wine was created by an alcoholic alchemist, an alchomist if you will. Made as a gift for the Legion soldiers, the drink allows them to see in the dark which must help enormous amounts in a world before the invention of electricity.
There is a very finite amount of bottles but some can be found in the occasional chest every now and then. Collectors will offer you a pretty penny if you bring them a six pack but after a long day traveling across the region to retrieve the sacred booze I think you should enjoy it yourself. Thanks to the drink’s weird ability, you’ll be able to stumble out of a tavern in complete darkness and still find your way home. You could even stop for a khajiit kebab on the way.
Once again I didn’t want to be the only contributor to this boozy adventure, so I took to Twitter to ask other virtual drinkers
The thing that I find funniest about Nuka-Cola is the fact that the Nuka-Cola Corporation named their whole business and product line around nukes just a few years before the entire world erupted into nuclear warfare. What are the chances of that? Someone in the marketing department is due a promotion if they weren’t disintegrated by the radiation.
Before the Great War, Nuka-Cola was the beverage of choice across America. Much like the large conglomerate the drink is parodying, Nuka-Cola targeted children with their marketing and pumped their drinks full of sugar. A recipe for success. Alternative flavours started to appear left and right, from a refreshing cherry version to the intimidating Nuka-Cola Quantum. A bottle that glows bright blue, doubling down on the caffeine and calorie contents. If that sounds too sweet for your blood then have no fear, there’s a Diet Nuka-Cola for you waist watchers out there.
If you are coming across these bottles post-war then they may not taste as good given the radiation and dirt everywhere but you can’t put a price on the taste of pre-nuclear nostalgia. Actually, you can, the bottle caps from Nuka-Cola have become the currency of this dystopia. I would head straight to the shutdown factories and start filling my pockets with any leftovers, taking the time to use their mixing machine to knock up some of the Nuka-Cocktails. A few Nuka-Bombs will take my mind off the wasteland situation.
My Summer Car is the driving simsation that’s taken over Twitch. People drive endlessly through poorly rendered backdrops, only stopping for food and drink. That’s where my interest lies, it has been brought to my attention that there’s an ale in the game people can enjoy on their break from driving. Simply listed as ‘booze’ in the game, I had to find a clear image and zoom into the label to find the brand name. ‘Kännikala’ is a Finnish expression that roughly translates to ‘drunk fish’ – exactly what you’ll feel like after four bottles.
Much like alcohol in real life, this drink will reduce your stress levels drastically whilst also playing havoc on your bladder. Are you wanting something a bit harder? The game has you covered. There’s another alcoholic beverage called ‘Spirit’ or ‘Bereznik Spirytus’ when zooming in on the label. This drink can only be found in your friend’s bathroom which should start the alarm bells ringing, it’s an imported spirit from Poland that’s 96% proof which breaks all alcohol laws in Finland. Consuming this paint stripper will net you an achievement for blacking out called ‘Methanol Man’ which could be my new wrestling name.
When it comes to writing these drink lists, this game is suggested time and time over. I even delayed writing this article so I could go away and play VA-11 Hall-A and I’m so glad I did. The game is incredible, you are a cyberpunk bartender in the year 207X and your job is to serve the patrons of your intergalactic dive bar. The creators describe the game as a “booze ’em up” and that’s spot on – you can create a large range of cocktails from just five ingredients.
Looking down the extensive menu we can find such gems as the Brandtini, a classy and clean number for the upper echelons of space society. Not quite my bag though, my interests lay a little more in the ‘Fringe Weaver’, the strongest drink on the menu. Described as ‘ethylic alcohol with a spoonful of sugar’ I want to take one sip of this cocktail and attend some form of space disco. You are welcome to join.
A feature of VA-11 Hall-A that I love is the fact you don’t always need to pour someone a drink to fix their problems. You can simply sit and talk to customers for a while and sometimes that’s all you need to get through something. You don’t always have to turn to the bottle, whilst it has been fun looking through drinking culture in gaming please don’t forget alcoholism is a real issue. Look after yourself out there, I’m off to go put more hours into this great game.
We have sadly reached the end of our journey, which drinks did I leave out? Please feel free to tell me on Twitter (@panoparker)!
Writing Drinks in Games has been a lovely distraction from all the awful news lately, so thanks to Loading Bar for letting me rant on about booze. Please check out the rest of the series and let me know what you think!
I hope you all stay safe and hopefully, some normality will return soon. We’ll be back in real pubs talking about our favourite games before you know it. The first pint is on me.
When you’re stuck in a small apartment with your significant other in the middle of a possibly world-ending pandemic, it’s important to stay busy. To get us through this prolonged period of isolation, my partner and I skipped baking bread in favour of the world’s oldest pastime – board games. We decided to broaden our horizons with a strategy game, diving in at the deep end with a tactical alternate-history game called Scythe.
Aesthetically, Scythe is like a post-apocalyptic Metal Gear Solid rendered by a Soviet painter – which is to say there are some incredible character designs and the overall art style is downright gorgeous. It was this visual flair that drew me to the game but if it’s not quite your speed, don’t worry, there’s no shortage of stunning strategy games filling shelves right now. Fantasy Flight’s A Game of Thrones is a must-play for fantasy lovers and Photosynthesis puts a fascinating environmental twist on the strategy genre.
I’m a relative newbie to strategy gaming, so the setup process was a little daunting. Scythe is a huge game. There’s a cohort of playable characters, multiple currencies, and even varied rulesets depending on how many players you have (the game can be played with up to five people and includes a surprisingly robust single-player mode).
While it’s ostensibly a war game, it’s as much about resource-management as it is about combat. Taking place across a large map based loosely on 1920s Europe, this steampunk epic from Stonemaier Games is about achieving key goals before your opponents, pertaining to popularity, wealth, and military power. Although large portions of the game don’t involve direct player-to-player interaction, there’s a distinct tension that begins to build between the warring factions, especially when played with only one other combatant.
Once the pieces were on the board, the real fun began. We each picked out our characters. My other half picked Anna, an expert marksman accessorised with a grizzly bear named Wojtek. I took on the role of Gunter Von Duisburg, a gruff commander flanked by direwolves. At this point you are presented with two distinct options: play the game straight or turn it into a sort of revisionist-history D&D-lite. We, of course, chose the latter.
Even though both characters had in-depth and wonderfully written bios, we decided to improvise our backstories based on the character imagery. The more we played, the more we got into character (and the weirder our backstories became). It may have been a symptom of being stuck indoors, or maybe it was the slightly overwhelming complexity of the game, but soon we became immersed in these fictional lives we had devised.
To chronicle this descent into madness, we decided to keep in-character diaries detailing our exploits in the game. Read on to witness a young couple lose their grip on reality as they discovered there’s a little bit of warlord inside all of us.
War Journal #1 – Gunter von Duisburg
My father is the reason I must conquer Europa. He was a brilliant man – a scholar, a strategist, and a leader. One Autumn day, when I was but a boy and Nacht and Tag were but pups, my father took me to one side to teach me the ways of leadership.
“Gunter!” he would yell, “stop playing with those pups and let me tell you a thing or two.”
Unfortunately, direwolves have a keen sense for when they are being disrespected (they are quite sensitive beasts), so they ate him whole. Direwolf pups have sharp teeth.
It was on that day that I learned there was no place for weakness in this world. Once my wolves were finished devouring Gunter Senior, I set to work devising my plan to rule the known world.
Diary Entry #1 – Anna
Word has reached me of a despot to the East. They say he rides a direwolf into battle, slaughtering his enemies with an evil glint in his eye. They say he cannot be killed. I say he has not met me.
I must rally my people for war, but before that, I must fortify my kingdom. We are a prosperous people but our military power wanes. It is time to consolidate our forces and reinforce our infrastructure. While the mad dog tears through Europa, I will bide my time and steel myself for the long haul. What I must practice now, is patience.
The war effort will require more resources – wood, food, metal, and oil. An enemy of this savagery demands a careful approach. We must be smart, we must develop our technology and create a weapon which cannot be destroyed by brute force. When the wolf comes to my door, I will answer him with steel and fire.
War Journal #2 – Gunter
Ah, the spoils of war! My advisors say we need to gather resources from the new lands we’ve conquered – wood, food, metal, oil. Cowards! Perhaps those pencil-pushers will be my direwolves’ next meal.
Tonight the ale flows and we celebrate another victory in our glorious conquest of Europa! Morale amongst the ranks is wearing thin, but it’s nothing a little alcohol can’t fix.
Tomorrow we continue west to Saxony to spill blood and claim another land. Onward!
Diary Entry #2 – Anna
Thanks to the unbreakable morale of our workers, we have successfully increased our manufacturing efforts tenfold, producing new types of weapons, vehicles, and defensive measures. We have also commenced the development of a new paradigm in warfare – we call it the Walker.
This technological breakthrough is a variant of what our top scientists call ‘mechs’, walking tank-like machines, capable of transporting workers and tearing down our enemies in combat. Producing Walkers isn’t cheap but luckily we have sufficient coin from trading with our neighbours to the north.
Now, on to fouler business. Word has reached us that Gunter and his direwolves will soon be upon our territory. Our time to prepare for battle grows short. While he has gorged himself on rich food and drowned himself in wine, we have expanded our territory, built new factories, and trained more troops.
The rivers surrounding our city are treacherous, so we expect our enemies to approach from the lake to the east. To prepare for their attack, we stationed troops in all five territories surrounding the lake, shoring up our defences before they strike.
War Journal #3 – Gunter
Another glorious day in Europa dawns and once more my brothers and I ride for glory. My men have eaten, drank, and raised hell throughout Europa. Now it’s time to take the final trophy and establish my reign as the supreme ruler of this land.
My opponent is crafty. I am ready for whatever her feeble army will throw at us. We will destroy them with brute force. I have my direwolves, I have my men, and I’m nursing a wicked hangover. Onward to death or glory!
Diary Entry #3 – Anna
Today, we smashed Gunter von Duisburg’s army.
It was a glorious day. They marched through the valley before first light and we met them with a volley of arrows. Our attack thinned out their ranks and forced them to the west. Here, our Walkers were waiting, armed and ready. Our mechs tore them apart with gunfire, crushing any stragglers with their huge, metallic feet. You could smell the fools pissing themselves from a mile away. But Gunter was nowhere to be found. I had to surmise that he was readying for a second strike – this time he would make eastward for the lake.
Hastily, we regrouped our forces and retreated to the lake. Wojtek and I hid, submerged under the water, waiting for any sign of Gunter. We had one goal: end his tyranny once and for all.
The fool never saw it coming. Before he knew it, I was sinking my blade into his thick skull and he was sinking into his watery grave while his force was fleeing.
Now that the war is won, it’s time to count our losses. Once that’s done, maybe it’s time I do some conquering of my own. As for Gunter, he survived with some significant cranial damage. I now have him working in my keep’s kitchens… washing dishes.
If one were so inclined, one could spend a whole afternoon sitting on a wooden stool, attacking imaginary musclemen who pose a threat to your virility, spending coin after coin, waiting to see if another human challenges you. And you wouldn’t even have to move stools. Because all 1000 games have been crammed into a single lonely arcade cabinet, a sad reminder that there are now more retro videogames than rats, and even the rats aren’t interested in playing. But I am. And there must be somebody else in this city who is. Here’s the deal:
I have 10 euros in my pocket. I will play Street Fighter until I make a friend, or until my money runs out. Let’s go.
The burger joint is really a bar in Bilbao that sells fancy burgers as a side hustle. It’s a trendy place in the middle of Casco Viejo (that’s “Old Town” to non-Basque scum like you and me). It has a Ken doll crucified on the bathroom door to denote “males” and paper bags on the lights, I do not know why. It is that sort of bar. I enjoy it.
On the arcade cabinet housed within, you get a big menu of 1000 games. From the moment you insert a coin you have 99 seconds to find and select the game you want. A suspenseful challenge. But speedy navigation of the megalist results in plenty of choice. I have 10 euros. 10 big silver-and-gold boys, two credits for each one. That is enough money to sample approximately one whole percent of the Street Fighter variants in existence. Let’s see what’s here. Street Fighter II, Street Fighter Alpha, Street Fighter II Champion Edition, Street Fighter II… M7? Well, let’s begin with the most vanilla games, and work my way through the list.
It’s not long before I am summarily destroyed by Ken in Street Fighter II, and sliced to bits by a dismissively speedy Vega in Street Fighter II Turbo: Hyper Fighting. I look around between defeats at the machine’s hands. So far, there’s only one other customer, watching videos on his phone. His earphones shoved firmly in, probably to drown out the repetitive screams of pain from my fighters. The refrain of YOU LOSE echoes into the bar with such force, I instinctively try to find a volume button.
There is no such button.
I make short work of Birdie in Street Fighter Alpha, which gives me room to breathe. I slink back to the garish green ubermenu of the cabinet and select the suspicious-looking Street Fighter II M7, ignoring Street Fighters M2 through M6 for fear that my 5 remaining euros will be eaten alive by doppelganger versions of the same game.
My fears are well-placed. The mysterious M7 is a hacked version of the game where the normal rules of urban pugilism do not apply. Opponents will warp behind you, they will change character mid-fight, swapping from Guile to E Honda in a blink. I only manage to survive a fight by spamming Blanka’s electric attack and sliding across the floor in a manner that is impossible in non-hacked versions. Here, mainstay biffer Ryu burps out two fireballs with every hadoken. It is horrible.
The bar is still quiet. I continue to pump my dwindling “make a friend” fund into the big box of bright flashes. I turn to look whenever the door opens, seeking eye contact with any would-be challenger that might arrive. A woman trolleying boxes of food rolls in, paying me no attention. Fresh bar staff arrive and change over. Now and again, a customer comes in, orders a drink, and leaves to sit outside. Everybody ignores the documentary about Britain playing mutely on the TV. It is hard to make friends.
You know where this wouldn’t happen?
That’s right. The trestle of fancy words you have been dutifully descending for the past 9 paragraphs is, in reality, an elaborate hanging garden of sponsored content. You are a fool to have thought otherwise.
Allow me to flash back to six years ago, to the evening I was tasked with drinking numerous cocktails at a bar in London, wherein I was plied with free alcoholic beverages with names such as “Skyrum” and “Assassin’s Mead”. All offered by a strange man with intimate knowledge of arcane substances. That man was Jimmy. His bar? Loading Bar. It is an alliance that has lasted until the present day, when Jimmy contacted me with the salacious offer of hard cash for pretty words. I have never pretended to be an honest writer. Nor a wealthy one. I too, must find enough financial reserves in this hideous new decade to pump euro coins into the machines of foreign lands, while sipping alcohol-free bottles of false beer, because, yes, for reasons beyond the scope of this elaborate advertisement, I no longer drink. Why should I? I don’t need alcohol.
Yet there are some things I do still need. Videogames. Friendship. Exactly the type of thing you can find at:
Or here in the burger joint, perhaps. End of sponsored message.
For the final fight, I load up Street Fighter Alpha 3. A game whose colourful splendour hasn’t dated as others in the fighting game repertoire have. When this came out in the late 1990s, it was punching alongside the likes of 3D brutalise ‘em ups such as Tekken 3. An era when cartoonish 2D graphics were being made obsolete by uppity triangles called “polygons”. But today, which looks better? The flickering puppets of early Tekken, or the lush animations of Street Fighter Alpha 3? This is a rhetorical question. Please, do not comment.
The intro cinematic is roaring at me with colour. Shouting words in a millisecond flash, phrases like: “Born to fight!” and “Triumph or die!” and “Go for broke!” A fitting command. I am down to my last euro. I pause to look around, stall for time by checking my phone. The bar is still empty.
The fight does not last long. My stretchy-armed Dhalsim is pitted against computer Gen, a white-eyed Chinese assassin. It doesn’t go well.
“We will all die,” he says astride my beaten body. “The question is when, why, and how painfully.”
The familiar chorus of failure yells my deficiency across the entire bar. The countdown of arcade shame.
8! 7! 6! 5! 4! 3! 2! 1!
I pay for my fake beers, and make to leave. I put my hand on the door, and that is when Josu walks in. A fellow thirty-something, with gelled hair and one of those piercings that stretches your earlobe beyond recognition. I don’t know him yet. We have yet to fight.
“You’re done playing?” he asks.
“Yeah, that’s it,” I say. “I’m finished.”
He looks disappointed. This is it, I think, this is the friend I’ve been waiting for.
“Why?” I ask. “You want to play?”
At this he gives me a “yes”. But it is not an English “yes”. It is a Basque “yes”, head down, eyes wide, lifting up in tone as the “sssssiiiii” comes out with a smile, the cry of an excited snake who has finally found a rat.
We settle in on the wooden stools and introduce ourselves. I pump in another euro. Josu has played Street Fighter before, he says, but only as a child. Now, he is looking around for someone on the character select screen. Who? I ask. Chun-li, he says. She’s there. But I have pointed it out too late, the counter has already hit zero. Josu looks sad. That is until his autopicked character arrives on the fighting stage, surrounded by bunting, bells and meditating monks.
“Dhalsim!” he yells.
His eyes light up. He remembers this. He remembers this! Josu goes to town, his stretchy-armed Indian quickly whacking seven shades of shoryuken out of my Ryu. The hadoken is useless in my hands next to this furious and unpredictable human competitor. They come out like big wet spitballs.
Josu is throwing all his weight into our fights. He throttles the arcade stick with vivid panic, slapping multiple buttons at once, animated in a way I have long forgotten. The cabinet is being yanked away from the wall, and between rounds we have to shove it back into place. Unlike me, who suckled on the teat of videogames long after it was considered psychologically healthy to do so, Josu let gaming take a back seat in life. He doesn’t play at home, it’s just something he doesn’t do anymore. This must be a rush, I think. This must be what taking ecstasy at 40 feels like. Whereas I am calm in front of an arcade, happy but calm, Josu’s entire childhood is coming flooding back to him in the form of a full-blown fighting game seizure. It is wonderful to witness, and a little frightening.
He beats me two games to one. My tactic of spamming Blanka’s electric power does not work, it transpires, against educated humans. Counter to the laws of the arcade, he concedes the cabinet and its subsequent CPU fights to me, because he has a table of pals waiting outside, and they are probably wondering where the hell he’s gone. He leaves me with an encouraging pat on the back, all adrenaline and joy. When I emerge from the bar later (after my customary drubbing at the hands of the all powerful machine) he spots me and smiles a final goodbye.
“Brendaaan!” he yells.
Ultimately, I failed in my challenge. It took 11 euros to make a friend.
Maybe this is the point I want to impress upon you, reader. Friends are not bought with hadokens and side-eye, they are not invited into your sphere of lung gas at random during a severe health crisis. Sometimes, they will come when you have given up. At your lowest ebb, when your final coin is spent, when you are ready to throw in the towel, when your hand is on the door. With friends, as in Street Fighter, go for broke.
Street Fighter II was one of the early “Did you know you could do…?” games on the fighting game circuit. While gamers were sucked in by the bright colours and sounds of the arcade machine’s attract screen, they stayed for deceptively deep gameplay. The best fighting games are the ones that take the concept of “rock-paper-scissors” and build layer upon layer on its foundations. Street Fighter’s appeal was you were never outgunned when you lost. You were just outwitted. Learning Street Fighter is just like learning another language — first you pick up basic terms, then you learn to string some sentences together, like a “Down, Down-Forward, Forward + Punch” for a Hadoken. Before long, you can find yourself “speaking Street Fighter” without a moment’s second thought.
Of course, like learning any language, the quickest way to pick it up is to take yourself out of the classroom and put yourself into the native climate. Which is where the arcades come in….
Street Fighter II dominated the 90s arcade scene. DOMINATED. Dominated in such a way that it is hard to articulate to the modern, post-internet, post-mobile phone, 64 player multiplayer online gamer.
It was in the arcade where Street Fighter II went from “very good game” to “culture-defining piece of entertainment”. The arcade served as an incubator to the videogame scene — it was Reddit thread, gaming room and communal hangout all rolled into one. The only bar of entry was a couple of quid to lay down for a game.
Only, you didn’t just lay down for a game in the early arcade scene. Depending on your arcade, approaching someone for a match of SF II was akin to challenging someone to a duel. You’d go up, stick your pound coin down on the side of the machine. *Blam*. A “I got next” message to everyone in the local vicinity. For if the London arcade was a stomping ground for all manner of beasts in the 90s, there were all manner of beast slayers traversing the land trying to put them to the sword.
As for Grendel’s lair? Well apparently, that was housed somewhere in a cab rank in Kings Cross….
Street Fighter always leant itself well for rumours and urban legends. “You must defeat Sheng Long to stand a chance” was a rumour that ran for years before it got revealed as a hoax in an old gaming magazine. For me, there was always one Street Fighter rumour that stuck. The rumour of the cab rank arcade machine…
So the story goes, there was a black cab rank in Kings Cross that housed a Street Fighter II machine throughout the 90s. For ~some reason~, the machine became the meeting point of some of the best SFII players in the city. You’d turn up to the cab rank, play your game and (supposedly) loser paid for their opponents cab ride home.
It’s one of the most interesting Street Fighter II legends I ever heard. Entirely plausible and (you would think), easily provable. So with a smartphone, an old copy of Yellow Pages and a bit of gusto I went about proving it.
My first port of call? Taxi drivers. Such is the wonder of London, your average black cab driver probably has work experience of the city in the 90s; might one of them have any memories of a Street Fighter machine in Kings Cross?
Apparently not. Talking to the black cabbie driver dad of a friend (when you live in East London, finding a cabbie isn’t too hard), their doesn’t appear to be any SFII machines in Kings Cross.
The cabbie that props up the bar in my rugby team? “I’ll ask around. I’ve never heard of it.” No memories either. Searching for a 20 year old videogame machine from people who never played a game outside of Angry Birds was proving slightly tricky.
Next, Reddit and the forums. The Internet Fighting Game community may be one of the most knowledgeable and intimidating subsets of all of gaming, but if you approach you right and pay the correct tithes, you can get what you’re after.
“Sorry I can’t help more but you might want to check with a man called Mark Starkey. I hear he bought up a lot of the game cabs from King’s X.” said one intrepid wanderer on a Reddit thread.
And so, it was onto my final lead — Mark Starkey, longtime London arcade gamer, who’s been on the scene since 1989. Would he be able to solve the taxi cab rumour? Was it real? Or simply schoolboy rumour?
“Unfortunately, your schoolboy rumour was just that”, Mark says.
Defeated. But was there a Grendel’s lair where top Street Fighter II players met?
“Oh absolutely, if you were one of the best of the best, you would head to Casino (that was confusingly the name of the arcade), by London Trocadero in Piccadilly Circus. There was a man, John Sturges who was an official distributor for Capcom arcade board. Everything that came into the arcade came in through him. If anything, he was the grandfather of Street Fighter scene in the UK.”
Also great was the nearby Namco Wonderpark (which closed in 1998 and oddly featured in Channel 4 sci-fi series Ultraviolet, starring Idris Elba). Both arcades would see a lot of tournaments over the period, where top tier players like (Current SFV Guinness World Record holder) Ryan Hart would pop up and hone their skills.
London Trocadero also had some good players as well, and as Mark tells me, gamers would do player similar to a pub crawl, starting in one arcade, and slowly traversing through Central London, late into the night, exchanging battle and beers and smiles with other gamers.
But why track down these arcades? Was it the people who turned up? Did it have a good vibe? Was it just nice to be in the heart of London?
Actually, it’s a combination of all those things, as well as a few tips from old 90s machines.
“Most of these machines were made in the UK and Europe because it was cheaper to make machines in the homeland out of chipboard rather than import steel and plastic over from Japan”, explains Mark. So not only could your version of Street Fighter II vary, so too could the quality of your experience.
“Games were played in 4:3 rather than 16:9 ratio. Back in the analogue era you didn’t have software to process the imagery, so the pictures shone on the screen like lights. People would gravitate to the places that had the best machines for imagery, like SEGA’s big 50 inch cabinet called the Super MegaLo or on a rig called the Electrocoin Duet”. Like the top tier SFV player looking for the best fight sticks, so 90s arcade gamers would track down machines that gave them a better experience, and it was Casino and Wonderpark that held the best machines.
So what about my quest for the taxi rank? Did it ever exist? Well… Maybe.
“I’m not saying the cab rank didn’t exist and that good players never went there. For the most part, you got your arcade kicks wherever you could find them. The first time I completed Street Fighter was in Burger King”, says Mark. “The big arcades around the seaside also got some pretty good players. But for the real real, hardcore, biggest scene? It’s got to be central London arcades. There’s nothing bigger than that.”
So, it appears that the mythical SFII machine in a cab rank is just that. Mythical. At least… unless you, dear reader have any further information for us?
Don’t expect this to be an old-fashioned dungeon crawler. If the storyteller wants to make the setting so hard-edged that it cuts, then cyberpunk delivers with dystopian wastelands, self-dismemberment and overwhelming technological idolatry.
Here are some major differences that Cyberpunk offers up, compared to your classic RPG experience.
Your adventure is to survive
Most fantasy games are about exploring the ruins of a fallen empire. If you’re playing DnD, then your hero grows as they rediscover that lost power.
Today, you live in a modern empire. In Cyberpunk, these empires are falling apart around you in real-time. Ever wonder what happened before a post-apocalyptic movie? This is it.
You won’t be gathering your party at a tavern and strike out for an old castle. There are no dragons to slay and dungeons to spelunk in for treasure. Instead, you will find that living in the future city has costs. What is important is that you aren’t another wage slave like the millions of others. You’re a fighter, and you will take on anything this city has to throw at you.
Guns… Lots of guns
You wouldn’t bring a knife to a gunfight today, and that won’t change 50 years from now. Cyberpunk captures that reality offering you a futuristic array for your potential arsenal. (Ok there’s also melee options so if you really want you could take a knife to a gunfight but I’d suggest at least a Katana)
No matter what kind of character you play, you would be right to come packing. If you’re really into firearms, then you’ll enjoy perusing a large selection – whether it be a classic revolver or a cutting-edge laser rifle.
As a result, playing Cyberpunk means combat isn’t about sword and board. You don’t need to move a tiny figurine around a dungeon sketched on grid paper. Shootouts are dynamic and dangerous. Who walks away may be decided by your element of surprise and a roll of the dice. Expect action from the moment you draw your gun.
Man is the real monster
Did a wizard do it? No. What you are facing are the products of man’s hubris taken to the ultimate end. Don’t expect to fight ghouls, these are mutants who were once human but had to live in toxic waste. That isn’t a demon, that is a cybernetically augmented soldier. And yes, the ghost is in the machine.
Your battles will be against those that society has failed. The richest and the poorest are divided by a total culture war. It doesn’t matter if your enemy is a street gang or an elite security firm. They have sunk their claws into the meat of the city.
Your most dangerous enemies will be the ones who pretend to be your friends. The stakes are high so expect to be double-crossed. Or will you be the one pulling off the con?
All the modern conveniences
Don’t worry about riding a horse or finding parchment. In this world, you will be up to your cybernetic eyeballs with all the same tech that you rely on every day.
However, expect a “Dark Mirror” style twist. You don’t have a cell phone, you have a handheld Agent with software that’s trying to stop casual hackers. You can drive a car but expect far more Mad Max-style action than on your usual commute.
Beyond it all, there is cyberware. Welcome to the dawn of post-humans. Your body is only limited by what you can afford – or steal.
Your skin can be harder than steel. Your reflexes can be enhanced so fast that ordinary people cannot even see you move. Never lose your phone again – implant it in your skull. Does that sound a little scary? That kind of horror is a lot of the fun of Cyberpunk.
Hacking is the new dungeon crawl
Cyberpunk envisions a future where computer security is a deadly game. Firewalls are so advanced that they cannot be hacked by computers alone. To invade a network, you must use the most advanced cybernetics to attack with your very own brain.
This is called Netrunning. If you are one of the elite few who takes the risks, then you will see the virtual world. It works like this: Upon detecting a wireless network, you will see its structure overlaid on your vision. Its defenses appear as monsters known as ICE. Your weapons are the programs that evade or destroy the ICE. Once you’re in, you’re committed. If you’re exposed then the ICE will burn your neurons and leave you a corpse.
The clock is ticking: Soon guards will be alerted, virtual and real. Can you uncover the digital secrets and escape with your mind intact?
Keep cool by putting points in your Cool stat
Chivalry is dead. But in the dark future, there are still methods of persuasion that don’t require violence. In Cyberpunk, there is a word that sums up a character’s ability to bring others to their side. This is your personal style, your undeniable inner strength, and a measure of how much others want to be like you. In homage to the timelessness of Cyberpunk itself, the slang used for this is simply your “cool”.
Cool is literally a character stat in Cyberpunk. It’s not just about staying frosty in a firefight. This is a universal scale that is shared by heroes, anti-heroes, and every badass in between.
There is the cool of an ex-special forces operator that strikes fear just by walking in the room. There is the cool of a protest singer where every performance sparks a revolution. You are dangerous and everyone knows it. The more “cool” you have, the more you exude the authority that comes naturally while leading from the front.
Consider what your character wears. You will do well to wear timeless urban gear like dark vests or trenchcoats. Or put on your branded clothes, the bolder the better. Any punk stuff is perfect. Chains, spikes and brightly coloured wigs all add to your attitude. Consider iconic characters like Shōtarō Kaneda, Trinity or Uma Thurman’s “The Bride”.
There is no magic…
Science fiction is the art of predicting the future. If that’s your jam, then Cyberpunk is a deep slice of potential. The past is long dead. Say goodbye to old myths and legends. The fight is for the future.
But I do want to leave you with one more option. If you do want your futuristic RPG to have a little magic you should also consider the one game that is almost as iconic as Cyberpunk, and that is Shadowrun. It also is a dark and dystopian future. But half of Shadowrun is about the most impossible thing: Magic.
Yes, it’s 2050 and elves are hacking computers while dragons fly space shuttles to the moon. You can be anything in Shadowrun. But just like Cyberpunk, most of all you are free – because only “runners” like you dare to live outside the merciless corporations and the roving gangs.
If you have friends who enjoy fantasy settings then this may pull them into cyberpunk. They can play their half-orc and a rocket launcher too. Think about it! There’s also an excellent digital version if you prefer to try your RPG’s without having to learn the players guide here
Go explore the city
So that’s a few starter tips to help you know what to expect from Cyberpunk, if that’s got you tempted, you can pick up Cyberpunk Red which acts as a prequel to the game here.
With the launch of next-gen consoles comes the great responsibility of mixing a drink to tie in, having been the first Marvel hero to make it to console way back in 1982 it was about time the wall-crawler got a cocktail.
Is gin in there because I wanted to make a Gin (web)Sling cocktail pun, yes, yes it is! Spider-Man Miles More-Ales takes a taste of NY with a Brooklyn Defender IPA and sweetens the mix with Orange Gin and sweetens things with a dash of lemonade so your spider senses won’t be too weary the next morning.
330ml Brooklyn Defender IPA
25ml Tanqueray Sevilla
High ball glass
Start with a chilled glass, add your shot of gin, carefully pour the whole can of Brooklyn beer in, then finish with the lemonade pouring down the side of the glass so you don’t end up with too much foam.
Marvel’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales is a 2020 action-adventure game developed by Insomniac Games. In the latest adventure in the Marvel’s Spider-Man universe, teenager Miles Morales is adjusting to his new home while following in the footsteps of his mentor, Peter Parker, as a new Spider-Man. But when a fierce power struggle threatens to destroy his new home, the aspiring hero realizes that with great power, there must also come great responsibility.
To save all of Marvel’s New York, Miles must take up the mantle of Spider-Man and own it.
Nectar is the number one delicacy in the underworld, having spent countless hours running the depths attempting to best Hades, it was time to bring a real-world version of the sweet treat to life. Rather than clearing a room to secure it, you’ll need to raid the drinks section of your nearest store. The powers that be, refused to let me make something for Ambrosia using custard – foolish gods. 😀
25ml White Rum
175ml Mango Juice
25ml Passion Fruit Syrup
Purple Ribbon (Optional)
Potion Bottle (Optional)
Far simpler than defying the gods of Olympus this is made by mixing all the ingredients in a shaker with ice until as cold as Demeter, strain and serve to increase your bond with someone.
Defy the god of the dead as you hack and slash out of the Underworld in this rogue-like dungeon crawler from the creators of Bastion, Transistor, and Pyre.
As the immortal Prince of the Underworld, you’ll wield the powers and mythic weapons of Olympus to break free from the clutches of the god of the dead himself, while growing stronger and unravelling more of the story with each unique escape attempt.
Another from the 2011 Guardian set, to reflect Rockstar’s stylish noir thriller, we wanted a sophisticated, smooth drink with a classic feel, and an edge of darkness about it. Truth, Lie, Stout – based around the three responses that lead character Cole Phelps can make during interrogation sequences – is the result.
This is one of the simplest to bring together, start with the kahlua and vodka then top up with Guiness, gently stir and serve.
L.A. Noire is a violent crime thriller that blends breathtaking action with true detective work to deliver an unprecedented interactive experience. Search for clues, chase down suspects and interrogate witnesses as you struggle to find the truth in a city where everyone has something to hide.
I’d like to start off by thanking any of you lovely locals that joined me on a virtual bar crawl. I want to carry on our celebration of drinks in games with another favourite hobby of mine: sitting in a field with a bag of cans and taking in the scenery. It’s a right of passage during summer to head to a nearby park and knock back a few lagers with your friends. Unfortunately, there’s a global pandemic on and people are having to cut down on the pilsner picnics this year.
Allow me to fill that void once again, grab your bag of cans and come with me as we galavant across luscious locations in games. From barren deserts to coastal caverns, these are environments you’d enjoy whilst cracking open a cold one…
Ghost of Tsushima
Having just played through this gem it’s safe to say I’m a big fan. I was very close to putting Sekiro on this list, both games have an incredible usage of sake and interesting characters to share a drink with. When it comes to the locations, however, I think Ghost has the advantage. In Ghost, you go steel to steel in intense stand-offs underneath waterfalls and in golden fields of flowers. In Sekiro you fight giant apes that fling excrement at you.
Ghost has a photo mode so incredibly detailed it could put Roger Deakins out of a job. That’s important because the world you find yourself in deserves something better than disposable Kodak. When it comes to picking a drinking location I actually thought about the story of the game. I was thinking about some of the beautiful shrines that take you to all corners of the map by scaling treacherous terrain. Worthy spots to quench your thirst but drinking in this game should be reserved for something special.
Sake is a traditional Japanese drink that is made from rice wine, originally served after a victorious battle. Nowadays, it’s mostly enjoyed after large meals and successful business meetings. My suggestion is that Jin Sakai, the Ghost, should travel with a gourd full of sake ready to commemorate any ‘business’ he takes care of with his katana. It goes without saying that Buckfast is the perfect tinnie* for these occasions, nothing says traditional Japanese rice wine like Buckfast. After duels, big battles and reclaiming villages throughout the isle of Tsushima – Buckfast.
A few generous swigs then back on your loyal horse, riding off into the sunset before another day of fighting two equally terrifying threats: a Mogalian empire and a rough hangover.
*NB: Buckfast counts as a ‘tinnie’ – anything you can buy from an off-license is available for grabs on this trek. Also, Buckfast once released a tinned variety in Dublin so suck on that sack of wet eggs.
Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild
Breath of the Wild is absolutely stunning, I don’t need to tell you that because every reviewer worldwide did the job three years ago. There are so many awe-inspiring areas dotted around Hyrule that I struggled to narrow it down to one entry. You’ve got the fields, the rocky peaks of Eldin valley, the majestically named Tabantha Tundra and even Gerudo Town where you get a side quest to make the perfect pint. All great suggestions but then it quite literally dawned on me…
The hill from the opening. Imagine you’ve just woken up after a 100-year nap, you step outside your cosy little cave and see the sun rising over the kingdom of Hyrule. Pass me the elven equivalent of a Guinness and let’s start the day correctly. If you can ignore the ever-looming threat of Ganon and his darkness surrounding the castle, the view is absolutely breathtaking. Forget the fact a whole kingdom’s fate rests on your shoulders and get a little buzz on – you’ve been asleep for 100 years, a few more hours won’t hurt anyone.
Similar to Breath of the Wild, Death Stranding puts the player in the shoes of a lonesome protagonist tasked with a duty well above their pay grade. Sam rambles around the huge map delivering a number of packages to clients all over, he’s a glorified Royal Mail employee that deserves a break. Given the size of the cargo Sam carries on his back, he’s working up a sweat out there and what better way is there to rejuvenate those valuable electrolytes?
MONSTER SPONSORED ENERGY.
This product is firmly placed within Kojima’s post-apocalyptic Mars-like environment, the righteous symbol of American culture will live on where other brands fall and wither. After a long journey across the landscape, Sam could climb to the nearest mountain top and take it all in for once – this time his only luggage is a four-pack of MONSTER ENERGY and a bottle of Glen’s Vodka (other forms of paint stripper are available). On the surface, Sam just appears to be a MONSTER ENERGY influencer that’s loyal to the brand, when in reality he’s mixing vodka into the tins and getting battered.
You’ve seen how he can stumble all over the place and now you know why. Sam Bridges is constantly half-cut and developing an addiction to MONSTER ENERGY. The giveaway being whenever he urinates it creates a small mushroom on the floor, slightly alarming from a health perspective but could possibly get him into The Avengers.
I thought about going under the sea for the Bioshock mention in this list but you can’t really enjoy the scenery down there without getting seawater in your drink and subliminal messages in your head. You are much better off in the ‘haven’ of Columbia. One quick ride on a steampunk silo and you arrive in a city above the clouds.
Take a walk around the place and you’ll see barbershop quartets, zeppelins and a fairground to mosey around whilst you look for a corner shop. The issue with buying booze in Columbia is that the majority of consumable bottled liquids will set the user on fire, electrocute them or give them control over a bloodthirsty murder of crows. However, if I had to choose a drink for a 19th-century sanctuary in the sky then it would probably be something quintessentially light with undertones of industrialism, like Stella.
Have you been to a rooftop bar in London before? They charge you extortionate amounts because they’ve put some seats on a small terrace and chucked a few fairy lights around the gaff. You pay £7+ for a pint and double figures for a cocktail, get your Instagram picture of the view and pretend you’ve had an experience worth telling everyone about. If you were drinking in Columbia you would have the best view in the world without breaking the bank.
Just don’t get too wasted, we wouldn’t want you to stumble through dimensions chasing after a girl and creating a plot that’s an all-round ballache to follow now, would we?
The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim
Though a short stay in a tavern may seem enticing, I would much prefer to awkwardly walk my way up the side of a mountain and embrace what the land of Tamriel has to offer. Before departing you’d need to visit a local shop and barter for your tinnie. By ‘barter’ I mean place a bucket on the shop owner’s head and steal yourself a drink of your choice.
For this entry I thought to myself: what modern beverage could resemble the taste of mead? The answer to that question is a warm can of Boddington’s with a cigarette floating on top. It won’t be nice, but it will be authentic. Picture this, you’re on a mountaintop and you’ve just slain a dragon, whilst gathering up the bones you knock back a Boddy and exhale a dragon shout that reeks of tobacco.
You can look over the local villages like a proud hawk, perch over the edge of a waterfall and take it all in. After a few drinks, you could reach into your seemingly endless backpack and pull out an array of locally sourced meat, bread and crabs. Life as a Dragonborn is a pretty cushty deal.
Nier: Automata is an incredible game, well it’s actually more like three incredible games wrapped into one edgy package. If you haven’t played a Nier game before, they entwine great combat with a world that will make you question your own moral compass. In Automata, you initially play as an android created by humans made to destroy machines. It goes without saying, the story can be hard to follow and that’s where the booze comes in…
Everything in this game involves doses of religious and philosophical babble. The ‘antagonists’ are called ‘Adam’ and ‘Eve’. The lead character goes by ‘2B’ which sounds like a rapper with a Shakespeare fettish. Even the giant robots that dominate postcodes are called things like ‘Marx’ and ‘Engels’. It’s all a bit much. I would honestly need a few tinnies to get through each day of fighting these mechanical metaphors.
There’s one location that comes to mind as the perfect place to blow off all that steam you’ve built-up. A theme park! Imagine getting leathered and taking a spin on roller coasters operated by cute singing robots. It’s Disneyland. Cracking open a few Special Brew whilst listening to marching bands, singing songs and balloons. It’s Disneyland. After all that fun you can travel a few miles to an outbound orgy – all robots of course but it’s good to know they get to have fun too.
You’d have to be one of the human settlers in order to go on this fabricated night out I’ve proposed because if you were an android, consuming alcohol and trying to hump your way into the night wouldn’t end well for your circuitry. Would make for one hell of an alternative ending though…
Once again I didn’t want to be the only contributor to this boozy adventure, so I took to Twitter to ask other virtual drinkers
Not for the fainthearted this one. Do you like gothic steampunk settings? Do you like dimly lit dungeons and castles that would make Luigi sprint away with his Poltergust between his legs? Do you like the Souls series and often tell people about how much you like the Soul series? Same. Bloodborne is great.
The views are mind-blowing, Miyazaki’s team somehow turns all the horror into a painting that you can wander through aimlessly. That’s only if you can somehow slay the bloodthirsty creatures that parade the streets in the cover of darkness. Let’s say that you’ve made it to a clearing after cleaving through a few werewolves, you’d want a drink to mark the occasion…
The local tipple in the surrounding area is blood. Hunters inject it into themselves in order to stay perky. I can’t imagine it’s the nicest thing to drink and there’s always a chance you could end up like Father Gascoigne – a priest who got too addicted to the stuff and became the beast he would once hunt. I think a substitute is due and the closest thing to actual blood must be a Bloody Mary. You can get the tinned variation in certain highstreet retailers and they are pretty good hangover cures when you’re on the go.
Here in Yarnham, you slay beasts, light lamps and drink a Bloody Mary or two. There’s brunch every other Sunday.
Compared to the rest of the entries on this list, The Witness is a quiet break from all the chaos. Over 300 puzzles await you on a deserted island, nothing but you and a few acres of cryptic conundrums. Wade through the calming waters, galavant around the tree-covered hills, explore the coves. All this whilst solving mysteries – it’s all very therapeutic.
So what drink would you incorporate to complete this Sunday afternoon special? A vodka cranberry of course. I’m sure you have seen this cultural reset but just to be sure, a user posted [this video] to TikTok of him skating down a road whilst drinking Cranberry juice. He’s listening to Fleetwood Mac and clearly doesn’t have a care in the world, that’s the exact vibe I’m trying to recreate here on the island.
My only fear is that I’m probably not smart enough to solve the puzzles, meaning I could never leave the island. What started as a beautiful, relaxing experience has quickly turned into a nightmare Cast Away situation. At least it’s one of the better Tom Hanks films.
That’s about it for another Drinks In Games list! In terms of honourable mentions, a few people asked for Minecraft. That makes sense, being able to create your own world to drink in is pretty cool but also endless to write about and I honestly couldn’t be bothered.
Thank you for coming on this lovely stroll with me, I hope you make it back home safe! If you want to talk about booze in games then you can find me on Twitter
When I was a young and inexperienced Dungeon Master, I once ran the criminally underappreciated Night of the Walking Dead. In that adventure, there’s an insane NPC who is supposed to follow the party around, occasionally spouting jumbled up sentences, which serve as a clue to the unfolding plot. Unfortunately, when my players first met him, they assumed he was attempting to cast some sort of dark ritual and instantly killed him.
I couldn’t use any of the other NPCs, because they all had their own part to play, and I couldn’t just make a new one up, as I’d already established certain other plot elements that meant this guy had to be the one. So I was forced to repeatedly bring him back as a ghost to ramble at the players in order to keep the story on track. It was clunky, and while the guys who played it with me now remember it with comedic fondness, as an inexperienced DM I was basically shitting my pants the entire time. Ultimately, it was a stressful experience for me.
It’s likely that your first adventures as a DM will be published ones. The fantastic Starter Set, which comes packaged with The Lost Mines of Phandelver, is a great introduction to 5th edition D&D. However, you’re eventually going to see the limitations posed by them, much like I did. You’ll soon realise that the obvious solution to your players killing key NPCs is for you to have total power to decide who is and who is not a key NPC, at a moment’s notice. It’s at this point that you’re going to try and create a homebrew adventure.
So, before we kick this off, I feel it’s important to say that every DM will have their own idea of what makes a successful adventure. My way of thinking is certainly not universal, but it will hopefully give you the tools to forge your own path.
There are a number of elements of an adventure that I won’t be covering in this guide. In fact, it’s fair to say that everything about D&D can, in some way, be tied to adventure design. Dungeons, stat blocks, loot distribution, religious pantheons. The list could go on forever. And while these are all important elements of the big, cheesy pizza that is D&D, they’re also very large subjects that would require an entire article of their own. For this reason, I’ll be focusing on what I feel are the two most important elements of creating a compelling RPG narrative.
The main ingredients
There are, in my opinion, two things that are key to creating a successful homebrew setting – locations and NPCs.
Locations and the flavour text that comes with them are extremely important. At the end of the day, if we aren’t trying to suspend our players’ disbelief and fully immerse them in our world, then we might as well just play Monopoly or something. It can be extremely difficult to come up with compelling descriptions of locations on the fly, and they’re never quite as good as the ones you write up in advance, so every room/area in my homebrew comes with a little bit of descriptive flair.
This doesn’t have to be a wall of text, in fact, a sentence or two is preferable. After all, brevity is the soul of wit and the imagination of your players will fill in the gaps if you allow it to. So stick to short, simple explanations and always remember that you’re describing what they can sense. Touch, smell, sound and sight are what you need to consider. Something like the following is more than adequate.
The interior of the mausoleum is cramped and dark, its slick stones drip with dank water and the smell of rot and mildew permeates the air.
In just 26 words, we’ve given our players an absolute treasure trove of information. They know there’s no light source and that space is limited – both important tactical considerations should a fight break out. There’s water in the mausoleum. Is it coming from outside, or is there some internal source that’s causing it? There’s a scent of rot in here. Is it from the buried bodies inside, or something else?
These are the kinds of questions that your players will be asking themselves and, if they’re decent dungeoneers, they’ll probably ask you as well. Such questions will lead to dice rolls – nature checks for the kind of rot they can smell, history checks to discover who might be buried here etc. Rolls lead to roleplaying opportunities, which ultimately creates a compelling and involved narrative.
You can even take this process and apply it to those aforementioned rolls. Perhaps you’d like to have a pre-written line about the history of the mausoleum and the family buried within, or a particularly gross bit of fluff about ‘rotting meat’, hinting at the undead horrors awaiting our heroes further down the path. This is by no means crucial, but every bit of descriptive text you prepare is another opportunity to draw your players deeper into the world. Ultimately, by giving them info to work with, we craft opportunities for the game to transcend its mechanical nature and become an altogether more intellectually involved experience.
NPCs are the bread and butter of a world that feels real. If flavour text gives us the opportunity to anchor our players to the physicality of our world, then NPCs are an opportunity to make them emotionally connect with it.
I recently ran an adventure in my own grimdark horror setting where the players were tasked with tracking down a shaman. This guy was using some bad juju to create a hallucinogenic drug, which he was then distributing throughout the city. When the players finally caught up with him, he pointed out that what he was doing actually helped ease people’s tensions, and that the line between recreational drugs and antidepressants was a very fine one.
The players ended up agreeing with him, and instead of the spell-slinging, epic final battle that I’d planned for, they wound up recruiting him into their organisation as an ally. This bit of unexpected narrative awesomeness happened because I wrote down four sentences about the shaman before running the adventure. You can call these sentences whatever you like, but the Player’s Handbook likes to roll with ‘personality, ideal, bond and flaw’.
Let’s create an NPC
Personality: Jovial, polite, but has no time for fools.
Ideal: Nobody should be entitled to more wealth than they can spend.
Bond: A threat to any member of my guild is a threat to me.
Flaw: Quick to temper at any perceived accusation of immorality.
As you can see, by noting down a handful of attitudes, we’ve created a nuanced character who you can roleplay on the fly. Pretty much any question, statement, or request can generally be covered by making a note of these four characteristics.
For example, we know that Dunmir is, at least on the surface, a pretty nice guy. He’s polite, and will likely offer the players a seat and a drink, asking what he can do to be of service. Perhaps the party’s lawful-good paladin will show scorn towards the den of thieves that Dunmir manages, to which Dunmir will likely react poorly, given his somewhat quick temper. Maybe the master thief will engage the party in a bit of politically-charged philosophical debate, expressing his somewhat left-of-centre ideas about the redistribution of wealth, perhaps leading the players to offer their own views and develop their characters further.
You don’t need to think long and hard about every NPC in your homebrew. In this example, Dunmir is an important character in our unfolding narrative. The local blacksmith, however, doesn’t require an extensively developed backstory with an arsenal of insecurities and secret motivations. He’s just there to sell swords and armour. But there will be certain key individuals that your players could have deep conversations with and those guys are what will ultimately breathe life into your world.
The reason I’ve focused on these two elements of the huge ensemble that makes up a successful homebrew is because they are the ones that will give your players the opportunity to be a part of your world. Drawing out a dungeon map, making a note of your monster’s stats, and deciding what treasure to hand out is all very important, but they’re ultimately mechanical concerns. Having an organic world, full of places and people that feel natural, is what’s going to turn your game of D&D into the kind of epic campaign that you hear about in the war stories of veteran players.
When aspiring dungeon masters come to me for advice, they often end up telling me a variation of the following story.
“My players are enjoying my campaign, and they really like the plot and characters I’ve created. But every time they get into a fight, it really breaks the flow of play and ends up being drawn-out and boring.”
This is something that, as Dungeon Masters, we all experience at some point. Particularly at lower levels, the options for enemy combatants are often limited to gangs of goblins, kobolds, or some other generic, low-level antagonist. The solution I hear from most DMs is something along the lines of ‘run less combat encounters’. Respectfully, that’s a bullshit response. It would be nice if Dungeons & Dragons, the game that almost everyone is introduced to the hobby via, was a great balance of role-playing and fighting, but it just isn’t. While there are many great RPGs out there, such as ‘Call of Cthulhu’ or ‘Vampire: the Masquerade’, which are entirely about storytelling and atmosphere, D&D is not one of them. Few other systems have such a huge number of rules governing combat. Put simply, D&D is a combat-oriented game and most sessions will involve at least a couple of scraps.
The issue lies, not with the number or frequency of fights in your session, but with the way they are often perceived by both players and DMs. When a fight breaks out, we transition from a free-flowing, narrative-driven, verbal style of play, to a turn-based, mechanics-driven, rigid style of play. It’s jarring, kinda like those old Final Fantasy style JRPGs, where the overworld map fades away and we’re presented with a battle screen.
But here’s the thing, the fact that you’ve cleared all the crap off the table so you can stretch out your map and ready your minis, doesn’t mean you have to abandon the narrative elements that were present a moment ago. With a miniscule amount of prep, you can give a fight a sense of character and narrative charm that will leave your players feeling entertained and, with a little luck, like absolute badasses. So, with that in mind, let’s build a combat encounter together.
Your money or your life?
Here’s a classic 1st level D&D encounter. The players are travelling through the city streets at night when they find themselves in a dangerous part of town. They’re set upon by a small gang of bandits who aren’t interested in negotiation. Their demands are simple. “Hand over all of your money and equipment, or die.” The players don’t fancy being naked, and the bandits won’t listen to reason, so a fight breaks out.
As it stands, this is an incredibly boring fight. Four identical enemies, all just waiting to be chipped down to zero hit points. But here’s the thing, with about two minutes of preparation, this dull, mechanical experience can become a story in itself. The key to all of this is right there on the stat block.
In fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons, every monster and NPC has a dice value next to its hit points. I very rarely see DMs using these, which is a shame, because they can inspire you to create cool characters on the fly. Let’s roll some dice!
For each bandit I rolled 2D8 and added 2. They now all have different amounts of HP and we can begin to imagine how that might influence, not only their strategic attitudes, but also their personalities. It doesn’t make much sense to me that a group of guys with such varied thresholds for punishment would all have the same physical attributes, so let’s switch them around a bit.
I’ve decided that our weakling is going to be the gang’s resident sneaky guy and that beefcake will be the gang’s brutish leader. Weakling’s DEX goes up by two so I offset it by nerfing his STR by the same amount. I want beefcake to be able to handle more than his underlings, so I simply buff up his STR. We can already see characters forming here. There’s no way two guys with such differing attributes would be identically armed, so let’s play with their equipment.
Our weakling now has a couple of tricks up his sleeve. I’ve given him two daggers, making him capable of dealing a significant amount of damage, providing he can get into position without taking any himself. His slightly higher DEX has also increased his AC to 13, giving him a fighting chance. As for the beefcake, his AC has also been boosted by an upgrade to studded leather armour. Furthermore, we’ve given him a warhammer, slightly increasing his damage-dealing potential. He’ll now provide a challenge for the party’s most heavily armoured member, who’ll need to protect any squishy casters from him.
Now let’s turn our attention to Average Joe and Jim. While it would be perfectly fine to leave them as they are (after all, they’ve barely changed as it is), we’d be missing a great opportunity for diversity if we did.
So far, all of the enemies have had a damage increase, so I’ve decided that average Joe is a new member of the gang and hasn’t had the chance to get a decent weapon yet. He’s just carrying a lump of wood, which he uses to club people. This balances things out, but it also distinguishes him as less of a risk to the players. At 9 HP, Average Jim has slightly below the default 11 for a bandit, so he’s going to be the gang’s resident artillery expert. I’ve taken away his scimitar, leaving him with just a basic shiv (I used the standard dagger stats, but shiv sounds cooler.) Jim will only use the shiv if he has to though. He prefers to stay away from melee and fire his crossbow at enemies.
After what amounts to no more than two minutes’ preparation, we now have a nuanced and diverse gang of ruffians to throw at the players. Lets go over them.
Our assassin carries two daggers and prefers to engage party members who are distracted by his allies. Failing that, he will go for whoever is least heavily armoured, hoping to take them down before they have a chance to strike back.
The new recruit is nervous, poorly equipped, and prone to fleeing. He can see that he’s no match for the party and doesn’t want to die on the streets for the sake of a few gold coins. If he’s reduced to half health, or if the leader falls, he uses the disengage action and flees the fight. He’s also susceptible to intimidation attempts.
The crossbow-wielding bandit will use his movement to remain at ranged attack length from the party, firing a crossbow bolt at whoever he perceives to be the most likely to close the gap. If that happens, he pulls out his shiv and tries to dispose of his assailant as quickly as possible.
The leader of the gang charges immediately and engages whoever seems to be the most defensively capable member of the party. He hopes that by taking down a heavily armoured fighter or paladin, he can keep up the morale of his fellow gang members and scare the party into surrendering. He is too arrogant and stupid to flee, even when death is a certainty.
Tell them to go fluff it
As you can see, we now have a charming little band of brutes for the party to face off against. We could go even further, changing their race, skills, languages and other elements, and you should absolutely do that if you have the time/desire. But it certainly isn’t necessary, as the player’s imagination can fill in the blanks. All that’s left is to come up with a sentence or two describing them, enabling your players to gain an insight into what their strengths are. Something like the following.
As you near the end of the alleyway, four thugs step out of the shadows ahead of you. Their leader, a hulking man of at least six-and-a-half feet, brandishes a warhammer before setting his eyes directly at yours. “Hand over your equipment and gold” he demands, “or you’ll not be leaving this alley”. Behind him stand three others. One of them, a weed of a man in a filthy cloak, holds a cruel dagger in each hand and wears a sadistic smile on his lips. Next to him, a young lad, perhaps sixteen or seventeen years of age, nervously fingers a makeshift club. Finally, leaning against one of the walls is a fourth mugger. He taps a battered old crossbow against the brickwork, seemingly nonchalant to the whole affair.
This bit of fluff is key to the whole setup. While we’ve certainly crafted an aesthetically diverse group of bandits, we want those visual differences to inspire a tactical approach from the players. When your group tells war stories about their experiences in your world, they probably aren’t going to remember the individual names of the enemies they’ve slain, but they will reminisce about the time that they took out a dual-wielding assassin when he was inches away from ripping the wizard to shreds, or the Warhammer-swinging thug that just wouldn’t go down, no matter how many arrows they stuck in him.
Always remember, Dungeons & Dragons isn’t about winning, it’s about telling a story together. While you, as the dungeon master, are certainly the catalyst for that narrative, your players can and should be responsible for it as well. Never is this more apparent than in combat, where the creativity, assumptions and actions of the players will ultimately decide exactly how that chapter of the story is told.