Rumors are stealth infodump delivery tools. They use concision and diegesis (that is, presence in the fiction of the game world) to disguise their load-bearing capacity. They are a wonderful way to present setting detail and hooks without overburdening either the referee or the players. I don’t use them nearly enough. However, as traditionally presented, they also have a potential problem: false or incomplete rumors are hazards, and like any game hazard, should come with clues to support fair play. Personally, I prefer incomplete rumors to false rumors. Incomplete rumors preserve the sense of a living world while maintaining player trust.
Here are some methods to build false or incomplete rumors that add to the play experience.
- Provide contradictory rumors together. As all of them can’t be true, this signals to observant players that more investigation is required to actually ascertain risk. This has the added benefit of promoting further information gathering.
- Make it clear to the player that the rumor is false, but make that falsity interesting (why is the NPC lying, is she being manipulated by some other creature or force?). This is much like making a trap obvious, but still dangerous.
- Have the false rumor contradict some previously established setting detail. This is a more subtle form of option 1. Be careful with this approach though, as it is likely to be missed by all but the most engaged players (and consider the three clue rule).
- Provide a rumor about concrete conditions but don’t include motivations (or the inverse, provide a rumor about motivations but don’t include any concrete conditions). Example: a wizard is trying to find a cure for a wasting disease, and is abducting villagers to experiment on. Rumor one is info about the wasting disease, rumor two is info about lost villagers returning as ghouls.
This post was prompted by Wayne’s recent Bree-Yark Factor article. Additionally, I would suggest taking a look at FrDave’s concerns about false rumors (with which I mostly agree), and Telecanter’s post about rumors.