Chew On This: Sacred Hospitality

“In the Seven Kingdoms it is considered a grave breach of hospitality to poison your guests at supper,” spoke Tyrion Lannister in A Dance With Dragons, from George R.R. Martin’s popular A Song of Ice and Fire series. He speaks, of course, of the law of hospitality, an unwritten custom that declares that no guest may be harmed after they partake in food and drink, offered by the host.

So far in this column we’ve discussed why food culture is important and where food comes from, how it’s produced, and where it goes, but today I want to talk about something more particular—the “Sacred Hospitality” trope with food and dining, and how it can be worked into your games. We often start out our games with meals or in taverns, so why not start them out on the right foot?
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Making the Offering

Before you decide to use some sort of hospitality law or similar in your game, you should try to consider what it surrounds. We’ll mostly be talking about food in this post, but you might also consider including the offering of shelter or a place to sleep in addition to or instead of a meal.

Generally speaking, bread is typically one of the staples that shows up when it comes to hospitality—it’s a common food all around the world, due in part to the simple recipe and lack of required ingredients. There are many different kinds of bread, of course, from big fluffy loaves to unleavened to hard tack and everything in between, so these may vary by region. Consider what ingredients and climate your setting is in, and you’ll have a much easier time figuring out what kind of bread to serve.

Alongside bread, we often see salt paired with it. The phrase and custom of “bread and salt” is widely adopted in the real world, particularly in central and eastern European cultures, as a way of assuring guests that they are welcome. Often a small salt holder is placed on top of the bread itself, or given alongside. While salt is found in most everything we eat these days, it held a high value in ancient cultures and was even used as currency at times.Offering up salt to a guest can easily signify that the host is trusting the guest, if only for a little while, because of its commodity status.

Once you’ve covered your basics—a staple, such as bread, that is an easy offering, as well as something with some value, such as salt, you may also want to consider having a beverage be part of your culture’s hospitality ritual.Wine is typically seen as “the” drink of hospitality, but consider your setting and what might be better suited. In the furthest reaches of a desert climate, an offering of water might be sacred and hard to come by, serving as a better peace offering.

No matter what you choose, the “bread and salt” basics can serve as a pretty easy recipe for a hospitality meal.

Serving It Up

With the menu out of the way, there are plenty of ways to dish out hospitality to the player characters. You can keep it simple, of course—when the players first arrive at their destination, the host can offer them a meal. But what if they don’t?

One idea is to make sure your players know about the hospitality rules, but make them work for it. Make it very clear from the get go that the characters may be in danger if they don’t partake in a meal with their host, but keep the host from offering it outright. Will the players have to convince their host to serve them? Sneak in to a meal? How will they be served?

You also have the option to have it all be a ruse. No matter the culture, it’s generally common knowledge that it would be rude to attack or poison someone after offering them your hospitality, so you could easily set your players up to be fooled. Bring in their characters for a grand feast only to be attacked or captured while they’re unaware. Sure, it might be rude, but a dark surprise might set your players on an interesting adventure!

Don’t forget that you can always flip the tables, too! Sure, we’re used to player characters being invited in to visit with others, but what if the players are the hosts? Consider how your players can be put in the position to invite others in. Will they be the ones refusing hospitality or using it as a trap? Or will they welcome their guests warmly…only to find out that the guests are the ones to be afraid of?

In general, working in a sacred hospitality plot can also help you easily avoid the “Alright, it’s a tavern, we stop for the night” routine and get your players more up close and personal with the townsfolk of the region.

Dealing With the Consequences

Whether your players are coping with being betrayed, a host that won’t offer a meal, or guests of their own, you’ll need to establish what the consequences are for breaking the laws of hospitality. Are those that go against it punished by the law? Is it a real and actual guideline for the region that is enforced with imprisonment or other punishment? Or just a word of mouth thing, resulting in social exile? No matter what, you need to have clear guidelines for what will happen if things don’t go entirely as planned.

It’s also important to keep in mind a goal with working in these aspects of meals and hospitality into your game. Sure, it can just be something to add a little flavor, but why choose it? Is it a way to start off the adventure or to trick the players into false security? Should they have to endure many meals, or just one? In figuring out a goal, you can more easily figure out what the consequences for breaking the rules are.

 

Have you ever used anything like sacred hospitality in your own games? How did it go over? Feel free to let me know in the comments! I’d love to hear your stories!

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