An Inn is a public house which offers accomodation and food to its customers as well as alcohol.
Arguably the accomodation is key, since an ordinary tavern can serve food, but an inn will generally offer all three services (and may also serve as a brothel in less reputable cases).
Generally inns will start to appear once there is a significant amount of travel in a region and where there is either no tradition of hospitality, or where the volume of travellers is so great as to provide an unreasonable burden on the hospitality of the local community - an intermediate step would probably be the semi-professional host who would keep an open house on behalf of the community in return for the guest-gifts of travellers (and possibly some help from other locals relieved of the burden of entertaining).
Inns are most likely to be found along trade routes and in urban areas, both of which have significant transient populations under normal circumstances. Ownership may be private or public1 and there may or may not be legal standards governing price, opening hours and the quality of food and drink provided.
Accomodation will also vary by era and location - in some times and places 'accomodation' may just mean letting drinkers unroll a mat on the floor after closing time or it may mean a rented straw mattress in a communal loft. In later eras and better surroundings private rooms become available, although for a long time travellers run the risk of sharing a bed with a complete stranger2 … and, of course, fleas and other vermin. Where private rooms are to be had, the management may let them long term, even to customers who will leave them unoccupied - some more intinerant types may have an inn as a semi-permanent address3.
Security may or may not be good - it will probably be non-existant in the communal room type of inn unless they provide chests for customers possessions and private rooms may or may not be lockable. Depending on the location an inn could potentially resemble a small fortress, particularly if it is located in a desolate and lawless area. Of course the inn itself may be desolate and lawless - particularly bad accomodation may be operated by thieves, murders or kidnappers, or at least provide them with a hunting ground and very little resistance.
Other services commonly include stabling for horses and parking for carts and wagons - and as a consequence access to local farriers and wheelwrights. Most inns should also have a list (mental or actual) of local trades that travellers are likely to want, even if they don't supply those services in house (cobbling, laundry, tailoring etc.) and know a great deal of local information and gossip from both nearby and wherever their custom comes from.
It was not unknown for inns, like coffee houses, to be popular meeting houses for merchants or professionals - the Inns of Court in London were originally ordinary inns where the city's barristers met and lodged and other inns were the predecessors of the city's Gentlemen's Clubs. Given the nature of the place, an inn is also fairly likely to be commandeered by the military for billletting troops4 and/or as a headquarters … innkeepers may be glad of the business, especially if war has put a crimp in trade, but the military are often poor payers.
In some times and places, non-residents of a given city were obliged by law to reside in a designated inn (or one of a number of inns) so that the local authorities could keep track of them - unless they could find hospitality with a citizen or other resident group (such as a religious order) prepared to vouch for them.
Inn Floor Plans (External Links)
Game and Story Use
- All but the most tight fisted PCs are likely to see enough inns to write a hotel guide. Try making them vary a bit - and occasionally be a source of encounters and side quests in their own right.
- An inn is also a pretty good base for an intelligence agency or organised crime5 … ironically being run by the local thieve's guild may make an inn the best place in town for not being robbed whilst you sleep.
- These (along with taverns) are traditional - even cliched - places for an adventuring party to meet. Of course, given that they may be the only freely accessible public building that isn't a church (or equivalent) and that non-residents may be required to live there, this isn't entirely unrealistic - in the traditional fRPG pseudo-medieval Europe world it probably is the best place to recruit unemployed freebooters.