So you’re in a good, solid, predictable gaming group (everyone has their work schedules sorted out, kids dealt with, significant others involved or pacified) and you’re looking for something to add a little spark to the normal Saturday night get together. You’ve done the one-shot sort of thing, you’ve done the guest DM, you may even have done the time skip/speculative “what-if” spinoff where your characters get A Thing That Lets Them Mess With The Space-Time Continuum.
Alternatively, you have a new group that is almost gelled - the tiefling and the paladin have reached an armed détente, the dwarf has ceased trying to beat the druid at a drinking contest, the Lunar has carved out his niche and the Solars are adapting to their presence, the Crime Lord and the Jedi have achieved a carefully curated blind spot regarding each other - but something is missing.
There are two truths to every single group of tabletop gamers, regardless of composition: people like to eat, and people like to experience things through their characters. I have had spectacular success with something most people have not considered IRL - have your characters get together for a meal.
“Your party stops at a nearby tavern for a meal and discussion of next steps.”
“Barbarian lights a fire. Rabbits are cooked. Food is eaten. Rocks fall. Everyone dies.”
Screw that noise. You can do better. Even if it’s as simple as applying meat to bread and drinking adult beverages (or other beverages, I don’t judge...unless you drink the new Mountain Dew Pitch Black - that osik* be nasty, yo.)
There are literally dozens of cookbooks for appropriate thematic menus. Within easy reach of me as I write this article, I have both the Official and Unofficial Game of Thrones cookbooks, two Hobbit-themed cookbooks, a gem called “From Norfolk Knobs to Fidget Pie: Foods from the Heart of England and East Anglia”, and a Kindle copy of Apicius’ “Cookery and Dining in Imperial Rome”. You can do this.
Step 1) Get Player Buy In
This is either the easiest part (Dude, that sounds amazing! What can I bring?) or the hardest part, involving side-eyes and professions of culinary ineptitude.
For the first response, thank them for their enthusiasm and tell them you will let them know as soon as you have the rest of the group on board.
For the second response, my favorite riposte involves asking if they are capable of following directions, such as: Go to store. Acquire butter, French bread, and Fromage d’Affinois, treating it like a quest from an NPC. (Disclaimer: Author will do borderline-immoral things for double- or triple-creme French cheeses. Be told.)
Step 2) Assess Menu Options (Be Realistic!)
First of all, ask all players who are going to be present about food allergies and hardline “will not eat” foods. To keep this from going into an endless rabbit hole of preferences, ask precisely those questions: what foods are you allergic to? What will you absolutely not eat?
In my current group, we have a mild avocado allergy and a will-not-eat of identifiable internal organs other than natural-casing sausage. Another group might have a celiac sufferer, or lactose intolerance, or a religious prohibition from eating certain foods.
This is not the time for your players to lay out every single quirk they have about food, but a time to strike items off a potential menu. Be clear about that; you want to make sure you aren’t going to poison anyone, and you will accommodate reasonable restrictions, but you’re not a personal chef. Even if you are a personal chef, this is something you are doing for pleasure, not for payment. Keep it reasonable.
In the vein of reasonableness, keep budget in mind. If you all are a bunch of ballin’ Amazon execs who can drop $500 at Whole Foods on exotic oysters and real Kobe beef, go nuts (and invite me to your game, please! I’ll bring dessert!). If you are a bunch of average peeps who might have an extra $20 in the budget to contribute, plan accordingly.
Step 3) With Information In Hand, Design Your Menu
Straight up D&D/Pathfinder/European-derived high fantasy games are probably the easiest to design a menu for, but you can let your imagination go nuts. There’s a wealth of information out there, from SCA (Society for Creative Anachronism) authentic Middle Ages recipes (this is why I both know what verjus is, and how to use it) to the aforementioned Game of Thrones or Hobbit cookbooks. My Exalted dinner party menu would be a mishmash of Asian cuisines (the Dynasts), standard Northern European fare (where my Solar is from), and Middle Eastern dishes (where my husband’s Solar and best friend’s Solar are from). The one time I did a Vampire: the Masquerade dinner party, I had characters bring dishes from the parts of the world where they lived their mortal lives.
This is where you get to let your creativity go a little bit off the leash, but have a backup plan, and a backup for the backup. Yes, the local pizza place on speed dial is a backup, as is UberEats or what-have-you.
Step 4) Set the Stage
Your menu is set, you’ve gone to the trouble of clearing off your game table (because you won’t need a dungeon map and minis this time, unless a) something goes REALLY wrong, or b) you’re that kind of a sadistic DM, in which case, props to you, sir or madam.) Pick some appropriate (and in this case, while candles may be awesome and atmospheric, they may not be the safest choice) lighting options, a good soundtrack, and literally set the table. I have heard of some DM’s providing clear plastic placemats to discreetly tuck away player’s character sheets, and I think that’s a fantastic idea. You may wish to allow some extra space between place settings for the rolling of dice, or you may choose to proceed with “soft” roleplay only; i.e. no challenges allowed or required.
A tavern meal would consist of serving dishes, individual plates, and drinking vessels, with appropriate cutlery and napkins - because although you might be playing a barbarian, no one wants to see you sit there with beef juice halfway up your cheeks.
If you want to do a full Dynast meal, Exalted-style, you would need everything from serving pieces, full plate service, chopsticks and silverware, finger bowls, multiple glasses, and room for tea or coffee as well. Also, please send pictures.
A roadside stop or a meal after a day of battle might be as simple as gathering people together around your grill (or facsimile thereof) and having everyone discuss events from their character’s POV. This is especially fun in spring and summer and early fall, but I do not recommend it for the winter unless you live somewhere exceedingly temperate.
Keep in mind that while your characters may have table service (meaning servers/waiters/retainers) you will most likely not, unless you’re those Amazon execs. This is a game of make-believe, after all, so some things can be left to the imagination - and the DM still needs to be running the show, not running around filling wine/beer glasses.
Step 5) Do The Thing!
Night before game: If at all possible and reasonable, set your table as much as you can. I have Feline Overlords who consider it their bound duty to get cat hair all over ALL THE THINGS, so in order to avoid mouthfuls of fluff, I personally would not set out the plates the night before. Make sure any pre-shopping can be done. Double check with your players who is bringing what. Answer any questions that may arise.
Game day dawns. Your preparation (and backups!) is complete. This is the time for you, as the DM, to sketch out your plan of attack. Do you want assigned seating, to heighten or minimize drama? Who, in character, is hosting, if anyone? Do you want to send a little tease out to your group, using your preferred form of mass communication, to make sure everyone arrives on the same page? Do it.
Step 6) Enjoy, followed by Relaxation
In an ideal resolution, the players will walk in with the right mindset, and as soon as plates hit the table and derrieres hit chairs, the roleplay begins. This is the ideal place for character-driven plot or personal character advancement. I have had successful parties where I didn’t have to do anything other than play the odd NPC or answer questions about remembered events.
In a slightly more realistic resolution, the roleplay will kick in after the food has been shared out and people relax a bit.
One thing to bear in mind, especially if beer/cider/wine/liquor is in play, know when to call it off. If people are getting stupid drunk, the game ends, then and there. I’m not trying to throw cold water on a red-hot game, but if people reach the “laugh-at-a-paper-bag” stage, there’s no point to continuing. Make sure everyone has a place to sleep it off or an alternative way home (taxi, Uber, significant other, roommate, etc) and call it a night.
On the other hand, if it REALLY gets going and you have a self-moderating group, there’s no reason you can’t continue the next morning. I’ve had a couple of extremely memorable overnight gaming sessions that ended up with breakfast the next day. Your mileage will, of course, vary.
After you have reclaimed your table and your household, take a moment to relax, take a deep breath, and look at what you have done. Have a glass of something tasty, help yourself to some delicious leftovers.
The in-character dinner does not need to be an expensive undertaking. Sandwiches, chips, drinks, maybe a salad for the look of the thing - that’s all that is really needed. You can go whole hog (literally) or something as simple as bread and cheese. Adapt the plans to your group’s capabilities and finances as well as to the theme and setting of the campaign.
This should go without saying, but as this is the Internet, I will say it anyway: don’t for a second shame someone who might be between jobs or paychecks and can’t contribute. I’ve had times where yes, that $3 bag of chips makes a finite and significant impact on my budget for the week, and I’ve had times where I can drop $100 and not feel it. If a player wants to contribute, let them bring what they can, and if they can’t contribute, let them know that they are still welcome at the table.
In closing, this can be a fun change of pace for a game and allow some really good intra-character bonding and development of individual plot lines, as well as time to relax with your friends around the gaming table. Good food, good friends, good times!
Yours in service,
PS: #letDavehavethething .
*Osik is the Mandalorian word for excrement. There, you learned something new today.
Georgia is a writer, editor, gamer, and mad culinary priestess who masquerades as an ordinary office employee that holds vehement opinions about Oxford commas and extraneous hyphens. She lives in Tacoma, Washington, with her husband and Feline Overlords. She can be reached through Facebook at In Exquisite Detail or on Twitter at @feraldruidftw.
I am become death, destroyer of worlds.