Why Your Campaign Needs More Rumours

The word on the street is that they're good for your campaign...

Rumours are a bit like wandering monsters. In the Good Old Days every adventure had both a rumour table and a wandering monster table. Now, they both seem to be few and far between.

Bree-yark, Baby!

Bree Yark, Baby!

 

It won’t surprise you to know, this is a bad thing. Rumours are an essential component of any decent adventure that features anything more than a series of related combats. (And actually, adventures that are nothing more than a series of combat encounters could still do with rumours!)

Some might think rumours are merely an obstacle to fun; after all they slow down the PCs’ quest to “find the fun”. Essentially, that’s not the case. Rumours do several things at the table:

  • Reward Good (or Thoughtful) Play: Players taking the time to learn rumours can often find useful pieces of information that may help their adventure. For example, if the party learn rumours of a hidden or forgotten entrance to a dungeon they could gain a tactical advantage when they assault the place. They could also learn of a monster’s fatal weakness or of the location of a lost treasure.
  • Changes the Pace: Learning rumours not only requires a different skill set to whacking things with a sword, but also suits a different play style and players more in interested in role-playing. Bards—obviously—are particularly suited to learning rumours, but any charismatic PC can be skilled in this area. Remember, it’s important for the GM to provide opportunities and campaigns designed for players of all ilks.
  • Build Verisimilitude: The party’s adventures don’t happen in a vacuum. The world is a living, breathing place. Even the smallest settlements have minor events that have no affect on the party, but are important—or at least interesting—to local inhabitants. Births, marriages, deaths, thefts and affairs all happen, and are often the subject of rumour, gossip and innuendo. Having such rumours come to the party’s ear build a sense of a real community.
  • Provide Depth: Related to verisimilitude, rumours allow the GM to build depth to his campaign world. They help build a sense that the world doesn’t revolve around the party’s adventures and that other things do actually happen.
  • Enable Foreshadowing: Great events don’t just happen (most of the time). Using rumours to foreshadow upcoming events allows the GM to give a sense of the developing campaign instead of just dumping news of the orc invasion (or whatever) in the party’s lap. In this way, events seem more organic and—of course—the party may even decide to act before the major event comes to pass. This works best in sandbox style games and enables the party to affect or direct the course of events (and their adventures).

Types of Rumours

All rumours are not created equal. There are several types of rumour:

  • Adventure-Critical: These rumours are rooted in the PCs’ adventure. They are of particular use to the party and the GM can use them to warn of particularly dangerous monsters, hint at hidden locations, a monster’s weakness and so on.
  • Red Herrings/Local Interest: These rumours are rooted in the local community, but essentially have no real impact on the adventure. That might not be immediately obvious, though, to the party which could “force” them to interact with NPCs to discern the truth. They can also lead to interesting and fun (impromptu) side quests.
  • False: Not all rumours are true. Sometimes, a person unknowingly spreads a false rumour while other times they lie. Wise and clever PCs don’t believe everything they are told. In particular, while an adventure-critical rumour can give the party an edge, they would do well to check its veracity before basing their tactics on it.

Where to Get Rumours?

A PC can learn rumours pretty much wherever people gather together. Particularly good places to do so include:

  • Taverns & inns
  • Docks
  • Marketplaces
  • City gates
  • Temples

Often the PCs can learn rumours by buying folk drinks (in a tavern or inn), feigning interest in a merchant’s goods (at a market), talking with priests (at a temple), overhearing the gossip of other travellers (while waiting to enter a city) or by loitering on the docks to hear the sailors talking. These are just a few examples of how a PC could learn rumours; inventive players should be able to learn them pretty much anywhere.

Some settlements—particularly larger settlements—may even have people who make their living learning what is going on and selling this information. Such rumourmongers may ply their trade in any of the above locales and will doubtless charge the obviously wealthy adventurers extra to learn what he knows!

What Do You Think?

What do you think? Are rumours a waste of time? Conversely, are they a valuable, and now under-used tool in many GMs’ arsenals? Let me know, in the comments below.

Creighton is the publisher at Raging Swan Press and the designer of the award winning adventure Madness at Gardmore Abbey. He has designed many critically acclaimed modules such as Retribution and Shadowed Keep on the Borderlands and worked with Wizards of the Coast, Paizo, Expeditious Retreat Press, Rite Publishing and Kobold Press.

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18 thoughts on “Why Your Campaign Needs More Rumours

  1. Another useful facet of rumormongering is passing on monster knowledge. If a particularly dangerous monster has been operating in the area for a while, several of the town gossips probably like to talk about it. They may have heard where it is (roughly) from passing adventurers, or a caravan lost something particularly valuable to it. Someone may have heard about a certain vulnerability or immunity the creature might have, and pass that along to anyone who looks like an adventurer or mercenary.

    This can be a useful tool to give the players some monster lore without requiring Knowledge checks, or possibly feed them a red herring. If they hear about a dragon terrorizing the nearby forest, they might assume it’s green and be surprised to encounter a black.

  2. Great article!
    As a GM, sometimes it’s use rumours to slow my PCs down or divert them from focusing too much on any individual plot elements. It gives the villains time to accomplish nefarious deeds!

  3. Sometimes, when you personally started gaming in the ’70s, and have mostly played with fellow graybeards – or conversely with total neophytes – you can overlook changes to basic gaming assumptions.
    I discovered a couple of years back that random encounters had fallen out in favour in the recent editions, but I hadn’t realized until reading your articles this week that both hirelings/henchmen and rumours were also endangered species.
    I liked this article on rumours, especially the idea of having different types of rumours.
    I think in for my next campaign that I’ll think about information gathering in general and how to fit rumours into that overall context.

    • Absolutely. I think basic gaming assumptions have changed just as our society has changed and what we want out of our leisure game. I suspect this could be the subject of a very long article as its something I’ve been pondering/thinking about for a long while.

  4. Absolutely agree. We don’t live in a vacuum of social contact and neither do our PCs. Whilst MERP lacks the D&D tables for rumours, I’ve always liberally dropped information into my campaigns that can lead onto adventures or false trails. There is a story to be told and it is not linear in its enjoyment.

  5. I agree with many of your point but not with rumour tables. I find as a group of adult gamers we no longer have endless days to pour into our campaigns. I often piece together a few useful facts and idle chit chat for the characters to overhear or gather information. I also introduced a town news paper of sorts which provided a useful view of how the towns folk viewed the characters exploits. However I don’t like to waste the players time on too much inconsequential ‘filler’. A random table feels like the information is not relevant enough to care about.

    • Yup–the downside of rumour tables, wandering monsters and so on is that it can slow the game down from the point of view of progress toward completing a quest (or whatever). Your pacing preferences will determine exactly what works or doesn’t work for you in that regard. In general, I only view something as a waste of time if the players don’t enjoy it. If they enjoy roleplaying a night in the tavern or wandering about town seeing the sights I view that as a good session!

  6. Love these articles. Haven’t DMed is years and now working on my first homewbrew. I love the idea of rumours and plan to add them. Some will be red herrings and some will be the jumping off point for future campaigns. Anything that adds flavor to the story is fine with me. I think there will be a learning curve for some who expect any conversation with an NPC to be mission critical but I’m the end it will add depth to the day. Thanks again for another great article!

  7. I like that you bring this up. I use rumors in any campaign I run regardless of the setting. As you point out, they provide cultural depth as well as have the ability to keep things moving.

    Along these lines, I treat folklore very similarly. It could just be a tale to bring tourists, it could be a tale to reinforce moral imparitives, and it can simultaneously have vary degrees of truth to it. How the tale evolved is often culturally influenced and provides the players another way to interact with the world.