This article was first broadcast in Episode Twenty-Two on 2nd May 2018.
Boldan the Dragonslayer strode into the tavern; known throughout the land for his many heroic deeds, he had no shortage of tables offered to him. The tavern owner hurried over and asked, “Good master, whatever we can offer is yours! What would wish to dine on tonight?”
Graciously nodding to his host, he replied, “Uh, I don’t know. Food, I guess? I should probably drink something too…”
D&D is a game about heroes, villains, adventure, monsters, and magic. There can be so much epicness happening in a game it’s easy to forget that your characters are still people too. They eat, they drink, they sleep, they put their pants on one leg at a time…well, except for old Artalax and his trousers of efficiency +2 of course. Even though many players can tell you exactly what bonuses to hit and damage their favorite character gets on their attacks, many also have no idea what their character would order for dinner, much less what drink they’d have with it. While the game generally shouldn’t focus extensively on the party members’ dining habits, occasional peeks at these details can help breathe life into a character, making them more interesting and memorable. But how do you decide what your character likes and dislikes?
Well, before that, the first thing you need to know is “what kind of food is available?” And the proper answer for this is “don’t ask.” No, seriously. The more detail you go into on this matter, the more time your party is spending at the tavern deciding on the spicy curry vs the lobster thermidor vs grilled cheese, until someone asks “how do they even get lobster here?”, and the game session degenerates into endless questions and arguments about ingredient availability, food preservation, shipping, use of magic for refrigeration, what parts of the Forgotten Realms would oranges come from, appropriateness of French cuisine in worlds that don’t contain France, whether or not dragons are considered kosher,, etc., etc., ad nauseum — trust us, we’ve seen it happen, and before you know it, you have something more akin to The Great British Baking Show and less Dungeons and Dragons. Given that the characters themselves may not know what’s in their meal, it’s okay to go with general descriptions. “You’re not exactly sure what was in the meal, but it tasted like what you’d imagine a fireball spell tastes like.”
When considering food preferences, the easiest place to start is with general palettes. Your character likes cheeses, but hates squashes; likes sweet foods, but dislikes sour foods. These are quick, simple touches you can add to your character, but…well, honestly, at the same time they feel somewhat lacking. Everybody has foods they like that others hate, and foods they hate that others like, and what those foods are rarely has any particular meaning. Like hair or eye color, a person generally doesn’t get much say in which foods taste good to them and which taste bad, and so specifying particular foods or flavor preferences says about as much about the character as hair or eye color, and you shouldn’t keep bringing up your character’s hatred of squashes any more than you should keep pointing out how brown your character’s hair is.
Instead, focus on things that connect to the character’s past, or say something about their personality. One of the players in Lennon’s campaign did just this, and it’s these tricks we want to share with you. This player plays a character named Valen, a former-soldier-turned-warlock. He tends to eat well (if frugally) while in town, since it will be back to nuts and berries or travel rations once the party is on the road again. As such, he always makes sure he has a few extra biscuits of hard tack tucked away, remembering times on the march when he didn’t even have that much to eat. As for drinks, he’s grown accustomed to the weak beer and ale he was supplied as a soldier, and drinks that out of habit, as well as to ensure he always has a clear head. Now, being a warlock, he has a familiar. His familiar, on the other hand, is a pixie who signed up to the pact for a chance to see the world with considerably more safety than 2 hit points would normally allow. As such, she constantly wants to try new dishes and drinks, leading Valen to order whatever the local specialty is for his meal so she can try it out, and afterwards she checks out what the party wizard and barbarian have ordered from the local wines and ales. As a side note, it’s a good thing familiars can be revived from death by recasting the find familiar spell, because she’s died twice so far from alcohol poisoning. Also, she’s had to be forbidden from sampling the party’s holy water supply.
So Valen’s food preferences are shaped by his past, his present circumstances, his companions, and most importantly, his personality. What he orders at the tavern says a lot about him, and this is a very quick and simple way to add another dimension to your characters. Consider a different former soldier-turned-adventurer who eats as richly as he can afford, hates the rations he had to eat as a soldier, and loves the strong wine he couldn’t drink as a soldier. Even with a similar background , this adventurer’s tavern order paints a stark contrast in personality to Valen’s. Perhaps this adventurer had been drafted and hated every moment of being a soldier, or was constantly on short rations, or maybe just sees good food and drink as a deserved reward for being successful. His food choices don’t tell you everything about the character, but it certainly provides some insight to the other players about who this character is.
A good starting point for determining appropriate preferences would be the character’s background. Acolyte, Sailor, Folk Hero, or Urchin, when you consider what your character did before adventuring, you can sketch in some rough properties of the food (“As an Acolyte in training he was given simple fare, nourishing but plain,”), or you can just handwave it without details (“In the five years she spent aboard ship as a sailor, she ate sailor food…whatever that is”). The important part is how your character relates to that food, food, after all, invokes strong feelings and memories. Many of us, for example, love their mother’s cooking. Lennon, on the other hand… well, let’s just say his mother wasn’t culinarily blessed, and so opted to cook meals for himself from the age of 13 to be on the safe-side. Much like in real life, your characters could take comfort from certain foods, recalling fond memories, or they might be sick of that food, or have bad memories associated with those times, and thus avoid it. Perhaps the food your character remembers from those times stood out from their normal fare; the Urchin remembers the day she got a piece of candy, and how wonderful it tasted compared to what she was usually able to scrape together, and now she makes sure she has a candy or two for when she needs a pick-me-up. Another angle to consider is openness to trying new things; does your character sample the local flavors in their travels, or do they stick with what they know, like the Folk Hero who fell sick for three days after trying an unfamiliar dish at a festival.
5e lays out various lifestyle expenses, from “wretched” to “aristocratic”, and meals are included in those expenses; however, character food preferences need not pay attention to that. Some people like any food from a particular culture, from junk food to posh, while others might be interested in only fine cuisine from that culture…or from any culture. Location is another factor that might be of particular interest (or disinterest) for some characters. A traveler may have a fondness for tropical food, while a former sailor has eaten so much seafood in his time he never wants to even look at a fish again, much less eat it. While it’s tempting to suggest there are racial foods, those actually tend to be foods dictated by culture and location; a particular society’s racial profile may play a role in defining their culture, but should not be mistaken to be the same as culture. For example, to say an elven racial food exists suggests that elves around the world, from arctic regions, to tropical, to desert, etc. all make this food…which is somewhat absurd, considering the ingredients probably don’t exist in every location that elves do. Similarly, it suggests that only elves could make it, but what is it about elves that prevents a halfling from learning the recipe and starting a chain of “Elven Fried Chicken” restaurants? So, while your character may prefer “elven cuisine”, what exactly constitutes elven cuisine will vary from region to region, and not all of it may be palatable to that character. As such, race is not a very good factor to consider for food types…unless your DM is willing to go the extra mile in worldbuilding, that is.
Consider this: what do all dwarves, Stout halflings, and green-dragon descended dragonborn have in common? If you answered “resistance to poison damage”, you’re right. Stouts and dwarves also enjoy advantage on poison saving throws. How is this relevant to foods? Well, ethyl alcohol, the…ah…entertaining part of alcoholic beverages, is an effective disinfectant; and theobromine is quite toxic and is the reason why you shouldn’t give chocolate to animals. Despite their poisonous nature, alcohol and chocolate remain quite popular. Why? Because they’re poisons that humans are highly resistant to. It’s not unreasonable to consider that Stout halfling recipes may include ingredients that are poisonous to other races that don’t happen to affect dwarves, or that dwarvish ales could be dangerously potent, because their resistance to poisons would make standard alcohol too weak for their tastes. If your DM wants to go this route, it’s quite possible that food enjoyed by some races is actively dangerous to others. Sampling the local cuisine might prove more hazardous than the adventure itself! In this case, a character might be paranoid about trying foods prepared by other races, and justifiably so. Even without general poison resistance, individual races might have particular resistances that others don’t share; imagine the kind of diplomatic issues if a human city accidentally poisons an elven envoy with a chocolate mousse. These kinds of issues can help add danger, and spice (sorry), even to mundane travels.
“On second thoughts,” Boldan replied, “whatever the farmers here are having will be fine.”, he says as he feels a pang of nostalgia for his hometown. “And a flagon of your strongest ale. Dwarven ale, if you have it.” It had been many years since he’d parted ways with Bharakh, his dwarven companion, but they always toasted to victory this way while together, and it was a habit Boldan would never give up.