More and Deeper Rumors?

by mshrm

Among the feedback from the last session was one remark that stood out to me. I was told that the rumors the party’s getting are improving. The word “actionable” was used, with an apparent lack of irony.  (At that, I felt the cold hand of the Agile methodology touch me in an uncomfortable spot. If you know what I mean.) That pleased me, because that’s exactly the direction I was wanting to follow.

Rumors provide background, but background should be a side-effect. The main aim with the rumors is to give the players enough information to go on, so they can make their own decisions. To do that, the rumor has to provide a good, meaty clue as to what to do about it. What action to take, in light of that information.

Too often, I think, I’ve assumed the action to take was to research further. I like the scenes where the wizard has three dusty old books open on the desk and puts various passages together into a full-fledged clue.  In the old swords-and-sorcery stories, like the Fafhrd & the Gray Mouser stories, you’d find mention of rogues scouring libraries for pointers towards lost treasure. It just makes sense to me, that the information needed to recover Big Treasure #576 would be scattered about in various obscure locations, not lying right out in the open, in the words to the song that’s the hot request at the inn one night.

At it happens, that’s a mistake.  Expecting that a rumor will lead to research which will lead to a plan, I mean. That might be how it works for the Gray Mouser, but he’s got Fritz Leiber running the universe for him. I’ve got players to entertain.  From what I’ve seen, if they’re going to research a question, that question will be “How do we kill an X?” and it’ll be posed shortly after everybody heals up from being whupped by an X.  That’s reasonable. This is Dungeon Fantasy, not Liches & Libraries.  The party has only ever had one member at a time who has been notably literate. Seems like when one nerd falls, they hire another one, mainly for map-making skill rather than sage work.

I’ve been allowing rumor rolls on Current Affairs and Carousing, as indicated on page 4 of GURPS Dungeon Fantasy 2: Dungeons. I’ll allow a PC a roll for both skills, and I’ll allow rolls against defaults.  (TKotBO only gets rumors from defaults, for example. He often won’t even bother going in to the inn to pick up the Carousing roll, though.) Even though there are two different skills involved, I still have the players roll on a single list of rumors.

What I ought to do, I think, if I were more ambitious, is set up more than one rumor list. The lists should be tailored to the skill.  The one for Carousing would be full of songs and stories and tall tales, with lots of “friend of a friend” anecdotes. The Current Affairs list would be more gossip and announcements by the town crier, and the rumors on it would be more time-sensitive.

Then, I should allow a Research roll to those who want to try it, and give them a clue pulled from the old, dusty scrolls. This would be the place to stick all the mysterious poetry and cryptic puzzles, the old legends and the forgotten myths.

Of course, that still leaves Jed as the total rumormonger among the party members. He’s the only one with points in all three skills. He’ll be the only one with a town life that’s as busy as his dungeon life.

Then, there’s the obvious down side.  I would have to maintain three lists.  At least three, and maybe more:  if I’m going that far, why not throw in a list for Streetwise, full of opportunities for crime, murder contracts, questionable treasure maps, and so forth? I’ve been using a 30 item list, mainly because it’s an excuse to keep a d30 around. If I keep the same size list, I’ll be vastly increasing the number of rumors I need to generate and keep track of.

It might be manageable, if I reduced the sheer number of rumors involved. I could just give up on the d30 and drop back to a d10.  That’s still pretty exotic dice, for a GURPS game, and there’s enough of a list that a couple of people can roll on the same list without too much worry over collisions. With three lists, I would still be handling 30 items at a time.

Another thing I could do is to have multiple rumors pointing towards the same underlying story. Like, maybe the Current Affairs event is that Bruno the Cloth Merchant’s boat was recently robbed, the Carousing event is running in to an off-duty watchman who saw goblins fleeing the area of the docks while carrying a heavy load, a Streetwise roll turns up talk of someone looking for a fence for a lot of cloth, and a Research roll finds a passage explaining how the savage goblinoid tribes prize fine cloth and gaudy jewelry. (More likely, I would leave off the Research version and have something entirely unrelated on that list. No need to force it.) Underneath them all, there’s the same unvarnished fact:  “A bunch of goblins are sitting on a bunch of cloth, and Bruno will pay to get it back.”

Not sure if I’ll actually implement it or not, but it’s something to think about.