September 7, 2010

Exotic Brews & Drinking

What do your players’ characters drink in your world? If like me you like to run games in worlds inspired by Asia or Africa instead of Western Europe, coming up with a local tipple that’s not just ale or wine can help add to the flavor of the game.  It helps your players remember they’re not in Kansas anymore … 

So how can you come up with original brews for your own campaign? Quite easily, in fact.  You just have to remember a few things about alcohol and brewing.  All our alcoholic beverages are created by a fermentation process that turns sugars from plant products into ethyl alcohol, a substance we can safely ingest in moderate quantities.  So if a plant product has sugar in it, it can theoretically be fermented into a drink. (There are other factors why not all fruits can be made into a good beverage, but let’s leave that aside as we’re doing a fantasy setting after all).

So let’s go into the first stage of brewing your own fantasy hooch:

What’s it made of?

The most common alcoholic beverages are made from the fermentation of either grapes or grain.  Vodka, also very common, was originally made only from grain but now some vodka is made from potatoes.  Rum is made from sugarcane. So much for the common stuff. What else is out there?

Mead, as Ibn Fadhlan found out to his great encouragement in the movie 13th Warrior, is made from honey.  Mongolians make kumiss from mare’s milk. Some African peoples brew a kind of beer from plantain bananas.  Palm toddy, also known as arak in some countries and as tuba where I live, is made from the sap of the coconut palm.

Tuba is further refined by distillation into a hellish (but delicious!) potation called lambanog. In the provinces of the Cordillera range, far to the north of Manila, a wine made from the berries of the bugnay bush is becoming popular.  In Polynesia, the root of a pepper-like plant is pounded to make kava.

As anything with sugar can theoretically be fermented, you can also look elsewhere for your sugar sources.  How about nectar? In my Twilight Age setting, I came up with the idea for Nineflower Wine, an exotic and very rare wine made from the nectars of nine different rare jungle flowers.  And because of the exotic ingredients, I decided the wine also had some extra side effects – it was an aphrodisiac and euphoric. 

Where’s it from?

Another major factor to consider in creating your world’s booze is where it comes from.  Today we can often expect to pay much more for a certain bottle of wine just because it came from a reputed winery.  What regions in your world are known for their beverages?  Why are said beverages famous?

What else is in it?

Many liquors are made with the addition of other ingredients for flavoring.  A lot of spices and condiments make their way into liquor as well as food in our own world – from chocolate to caraway seeds to citrus fruit essences to worms and snakes! What else might your fantasy world’s people put in their drinks? The blood of rare and dangerous monsters? Venom from a sea serpent?

What does it do?

We all know of course what in the end all alcohol will do: it gets us drunk.  But what else could drinking an exotic liquor do? You can think in terms of drug-like effects, or aspects of your game world that might be interesting to affect in this way. 

How about a very rare and expensive wine that really slows down ageing? Or a wine that causes you to dream prophetic dreams?  A wine that saps the ability to work magic? A wine containing sea serpent venom that gives you water breathing and the ability to understand the languages of sea creatures and marine races? Lots of possibilities there that you can arrive at just by free association.

Drinking Customs

Sometimes it’s not so much what you drink as how you drink it.  Here’s a table of possible drinking customs your world’s societies could have, many of them culled from various real-world cultures:

  1. You may never refuse a drink offered to you, otherwise you insult your host’s hospitality
  2. When someone offers you a toast, you must toast that person back or offer a toast to another guest
  3. It is an honor to be invited to drink from the host’s cup, and an insult to your host if you refuse
  4. You may only offer a drink to your social inferiors or equals
  5. You must always offer the first drink to the gods or spirits
  6. There is a precise order in which toasts are offered, e.g. first to the king, then to the queen, then to the patriarch, then to the local lord, then to your host; missing any of them is considered discourteous and unpatriotic, maybe even treasonous.
  7. Before taking your first drink, you or a representative of your party must offer a verse in praise of your host
  8. Some kinds of wine or other liquor are considered reserved for ceremonial uses, and consumption of them outside of the ritual or by non-priests is sacrilegious
  9. If you leave a banquet sober, you have insulted the hospitality of your host
  10. Being offered a cup by a maiden is a sign she wants to be courted by you; by extension, offering a cup to a person of opposite sex is considered a courtship ritual or the preliminary to a proposition
  11. You must consume exactly as many cups as your host, no more and no less
  12. No banquet is complete unless it ends with a drinking game in which the loser of every round must drain a full cup; the game may involve guessing or riddles, contests of poetry, knife- or dart-throwing in a warlike society, maybe even insults and contests to see who can tell the bawdiest joke

If you want to use these in your campaigns, feel free to just roll a d12 on this list.  Cheers!

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