Starting a Business in D&D 5e: From Taverns to Insidious Cults

Last Updated on January 22, 2023

Starting and running a business in Dungeons & Dragons 5e can be a great way to generate some additional revenue, give your party a home base, and get your players more deeply invested in a campaign. 

Whether your players want a self-sustaining hideout, a place where everyone knows their name, a veneer of legitimacy for their legally (don’t even get me started on morally) questionable antics, a retirement plan, a way to spread their political influence, an extra revenue stream, or just a big old money pit in which to throw all their hard earned loot, a business is a great place to start – at least, until they have enough money to build their own castle, that is. 

In addition to the obvious financial benefits, having a successful business can have all sorts of narrative boons (and strings) attached as your players become more and more entangled in the local economy and social strata.

Similarly, a business (much like a treasured NPC, a unique magic item or a pet) gives your players something to be invested in beyond the scope of their own character. 

In this guide, we’re going to be covering the rules for setting up and running a business in D&D 5e.

Then, because the rules as written kind of blow, we’re going to suggest some improvements. Lastly, we’re going to explore some more unconventional business models compared to just opening up another tavern.

How To Start a Business in DnD 5e

Details on how your players can go about starting and running businesses are scattered throughout Chapter 6 of the Dungeon Master’s Guide. Let’s take a look at how it works, step by step. 

Step 1: Choose Your Business 

The first step is figuring out what kind of business you want to run. While the most common choice is probably a tavern, there are virtually unlimited options as long as you have the necessary location, resources, and skills. 

You could start a business that’s tied to your character’s own skills.

For example, a wizard might open a shop selling spellbooks, scrolls, potions, and components.

A ranger might open a stable, or a guild offering safe passage through nearby areas of wilderness, or perhaps even a courier service.

A fighter might train and hire out security to local nobles or even run expensive “boot camps” for the children of the local bourgeoisie whose children “need toughening up.”

Businesses don’t have to be totally out in the open or even have to be directly geared toward commerce.

Clerics can open temples, paladins can found their own order of questing knights, and rogues can start clandestine smuggling operations.  

Think about what your characters are good at and interested in doing, and then figure out how to make it pay. After all, adventuring is still going to be your day job; this is undeniably a side hustle. 

Alternately, you could look around the local area for opportunities that have nothing to do with your adventuring career.

Maybe you’re the only group of people in town with enough money to restore the local mill. Do any of you know the first thing about milling? Nope. Can you hire someone who does? You bet. 

Sometimes, the decision over what kind of business you want to run gets decided for you.

Maybe your town is already overburdened with taverns, or it’s illegal to sell magic items, or there just aren’t premises available that are big enough for what you want to do.

Other times, the DM might present you with a specific opportunity in the form of a contract or type of building. 

Step 2: Setting Up Shop 

Whatever your business does, you’re probably going to have to set up a physical location from which to conduct your affairs.

While this could be as simple as renting a room in the back of the local inn or stretching some canvas over a wagon to create a traveling merchant’s stall, it’s more likely than not that setting up shop also means getting on the property ladder. 

The process of setting up a physical location is covered in more detail in this article about strongholds, but it boils down to acquiring land (whether by purchasing it, having it bequeathed unto you by a local lord, inheriting it, or just wandering inside a monster-infested ruin and shooting fireballs at anything that moves until the survivors agree that this is your house now), building or refurbishing a building, and hiring the necessary staff to keep things ticking over when you’re off adventuring. 

Assuming you have access to building materials and laborers, the table shows the time and total cost of building various types of strongholds, provided that you’re using downtime to oversee construction.

Work can continue while you’re away, but each day you’re absent adds 3 days to the construction time.

(Personally, I don’t like the fact you need to stand over your laborers breathing down their necks in order for them to actually do their jobs. I would cut this aspect of the rule, or just allow the PCs to hire a competent NPC to do the overseeing for them). 

Not all of the options for possible businesses are here, and not all of the options on the table are a good analogue for a business, but the prices and times give us a good frame of reference. 

I think the Abbey, Guildhall, Outpost, Temple, and Trading Post all make pretty good templates for things like taverns, cult hideouts, shops, banks, farms, etc.

Of course, if you’re moving into an existing location, that can seriously cut down on your set-up costs – although if you’re buying a fully functional tavern, for example, the purchase price would obviously be higher than buying a barren plot of land – maybe even more than building the place yourself. 

Refurbishing a ruined business or refitting a place to serve a different function could also be a cheaper way to do things.

Personally, I would rule that a refit or refurbishment would cost 1/3 (in terms of time and money) than building something from scratch. 

Restoring a ruined outpost (15,000 gp and 100 days) would therefore cost 5,000 gp and take just 33 days. 

Once you’ve built, bought, refitted, repurposed, or otherwise got your premises ready, the business can start earning (or losing) money. 

Step 3: Staying in Business

Depending on what sort of business you’re running, the cost of maintaining your business or property can range from as little as 1 gp per day into the hundreds.

The total cost of a business includes everything you need to keep it ticking over, from supplies and building maintenance to paying your own employees and any other fees (to local guilds or the taxman, for example). 

Most businesses incur their total upkeep on a monthly basis (every 30 days, roughly) and, because adventurers spend much of their time, well, adventuring, staffing costs include a steward who can make payments in the party’s absence.

Businesses can usually earn the money they need to cover the cost of upkeep (and even turn a profit), but it’s not a sure thing, and it becomes much more likely if your character spends their downtime and money actively promoting the business or otherwise helping it succeed. 

When your character spends one or more days actively involved in running their business, they get to roll percentile dice (d100) and add the number of days spent on this downtime activity (maximum 30) to the result. 

The result is then compared to the Running a Business table to determine what happens.

The DM can also provide other bonuses or penalties to the d100 roll contextually.

For example, players who run a tavern might get a juicy +10 bonus on the month when there’s a carnival (and therefore more people looking to carouse) in town.

The month when an angry troll rampages through the district or a plague strikes down a large portion of the local populace might incur a potentially serious -10 penalty. 

Waterdeep: Dragon Heist – Trollskull Alley 

Chapter 2 of the excellent city-focused campaign Waterdeep: Dragon Heist, includes the opportunity for the PCs to end up running their own tavern in the northern end of Waterdeep. 

For the most part, running this business works very similarly to the rules laid out in the Dungeon Master’s Guide, but it adds a few really nice additional features. 

First, Waterdeep has a huge network of guilds and tradespeople, many of whom are necessary to the process of getting the tavern refurbished and then to its day-to-day operation, and range from the guild of plasterers to the butchers’ guild.

The book also includes great advice on turning representatives of these guilds into recurring NPCs who will visit the tavern – usually with the goal of somehow extracting some more money out of it, but they also sometimes offer useful services, like a surly archmage who will cast Glyph of Warding on the premises for a flat fee. 

A Better Way To Do Business

To be honest, they’re okay in a pinch, but I don’t really see who they’re for. 

The system for running a business in 5e is pretty light but also ends up feeling rigid and inflexible. It also still requires player time and attention – both in and out of the fiction.

You’d think that would make it perfect for a background activity that ticks over while the party is off fighting dragons and stealing their stuff. However, I can’t really imagine a group of players who would actually enjoy these rules. 

For players who like the idea of running a business in theory and essentially just want somewhere to hang out between quests, it’s too much hassle.

For players who want to really dive into the gritty gritty of building, upgrading, and running their own business, the rules are pretty flimsy and shallow.   

I have three major issues with the 5e rules for businesses ownership: 

1. There’s zero advantage to running a bigger business

All businesses, whether they’re a humble hat shop or a massive brewery, roll on the same table to determine whether they make a profit, but they have wildly different consequences for a low roll. 

Rolling a 21 on the table for a roadside inn (10 gp cost per day, meaning your monthly outgoings are going to be 300 gp), for example, means you have to pay the business’s full maintenance cost for that period.

Rolling a 99 means you cover your costs and make 3d10 x 5 gp (85 gp on average) profit. 

By contrast, rolling poorly for a simple shop (2 gp per day) requires you to pay just 60 gp for the month. Rolling a 99 still nets you 3d10 x 5 gp profit. 

Why on Faerun would you open anything other than a small shop or farm? 

2. Money is boring

In 5e, because money is essentially worthless (it’s not tied to xp, and living costs are cheap), there’s very little that excites players about a laborious business venture that just might net them some cash at the end of the month.

That experience is depressing enough in the real world. 

Businesses should offer perks, access to new things, or social status. At the very least, they should provide a safe place to sleep at night.

While I think that’s how 5e expects you to use businesses, there are no mechanics for it or even really any advice.

Much like traps and puzzles, the whole process is dumped on the specific adventure (this is where Waterdeep: Dragon Heist admittedly does a pretty good job) or the DM in question. 

 3. You have to be a micromanager to be successful 

While, once again, I think it’s assumed that the DM rolls on the business table once a month whether you’re there or not, the rules for running a business only explicitly state that your business can actually turn a profit if you’re there – presumably fretting over the accounts and putting up signs that say nauseating stuff like “TIME TO LEAN. TIME TO CLEAN.” 

The game clearly doesn’t want running a business to be more fun than adventuring, but it’s also not willing to make running your own business into an entirely passive activity.

As a result, the rules for business ownership just end up being… not very fun. 

I think we can do better. 

Introducing… Ventures 

First of all, I think getting rid of the word business is important; it frees us up to consider other types of enterprise than just opening a tavern. 

Now, I’m borrowing the core of this homebrew system from Chris McDowall’s excellent games Into the Odd and Electric Bastionland and then putting some of my own stink on it.

Hopefully, what we end up with is something simpler, more streamlined and robust, but also more versatile than the existing rules. 

First, a Venture can be anything: a tavern, an adventuring guild, a network of spies, a hospital, a mercenary company – let your imagination run wild. 

Ventures are defined by three things: Profit Dice, Loss Dice, and Boons. 

Profit Dice determine how much money the venture produces each month. Profit Dice range in size from a d4 to a d12, depending on the size and health of the business. 

Loss Dice determine how much the venture costs that month. Loss Dice range in size from a d4 to a d12, depending on the size of the business and other contextual matters. 

Boons are additional bonuses granted by the business. Each month, the business owners can spend any profits from their business to buy one or more of the boons attached to it. 

Running a Venture

Each month, roll the Venture’s Profit Dice (multiplying the result by 100 to get your income in gold). Then, roll the Venture’s Loss Dice (again, multiply the result by 100 for the Venture’s outgoings in gold) and subtract the result from your Profit. The result is how much money your Venture made/lost that month.

For Example: The Mangy Minotaur tavern has a d8 Profit Dice and a d6 Loss Dice. The owners roll at the end of the month and get 4 profit and 2 loss.

This means the business generated 400 gp and lost 200 gp, meaning the total profit for the month is 200 gp. 

If the amount of money lost is greater than the amount of money earned, the owners can either pay the difference, or the Venture’s Profit Dice is degraded by a step (a d8 becomes a d6, for example).

If a business loses money (and the owners don’t step in) while its Profit Dice is a d4, the Venture folds and has failed. 

For Example: After a particularly bad year, the Mangy Minotaur’s Profit Dice has degraded to a d4, and its Loss Dice is a d8.

The owners roll at the end of the month and the Venture gets 3 profit and 5 loss, meaning it generated 300 gp and lost 500 gp. If the owners don’t put in 200 gp of their own money to break even, the business folds. 

If a Venture’s Profit exceeds Losses for three months in a row, increase the size of its Profit Dice by one increment. 

Loss Dice are assumed to be a d6 in a vacuum. However, beneficial effects (like the owners taking time or making successful skill checks to promote the business) can decrease the size of a Venture’s Loss Dice that month. 

Likewise, negative contextual effects (like a crime spree, a rival venture taking away business, a monster attack) increase the size of the Loss Dice that month. 

Loss Dice always reset to a d6 at the start of the next month. 

Lastly, Boons are special effects that a Venture can spend its profits on generating.

A tavern might have the option to generate hirelings for the PCs to take out on adventures, an apothecary might generate healing potions, and a spy network might create specific intel the PCs can use to their benefit. 

The DM can then use Boons as a way to insert plot hooks; generate new information, abilities, or allies for the PCs; and generally make their Venture feel useful. 

Example: The Mangy Minotaur (Tavern)

A sprawling, labyrinthine drinking establishment decked in rich vermillion silks and dark wood.  

  • Profit: d8 (large business) 
  • Loss: d6 (owners handing out fliers) 
  • Boons: Hirelings (100 gp, 1d4 + 1 skilled Hirelings become available for the PCs to recruit); Local Celebrities (200 gp, the owners become recognized around town, gaining +2 on all Persuasion checks against locals for the next 2d6 weeks); Renovations (400 gp, an extensive overhaul of the interior means the Venture’s Profit Dice cannot drop lower than d8 for the next 1d6 months). 

Example: The Cult of the Minotaur 

A fanatical death cult with a sprawling lair and temple beneath the Mangy Minotaur

  • Profit: d4 (fledgeling cult) 
  • Loss: d10 (local adventurers poking around)
  • Boons: Friends in High Places (200 gp, a powerful noble falls under the Cult’s sway, increasing its Profit Dice after 1 successful month instead of 3); Lured to Their Doom (300 gp, one or more enemies of the cult are lured into its labyrinth and sacrificed); Laying Low (100 gp, Cult? What cult? The Cult’s Profit Dice requires 6 successful months to be increased, but during this time its Loss Dice cannot rise higher than a d6)

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